(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)
Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast is a prime example of how not to please anyone when it comes to LGBTQ representation in children’s media. After enormous hoopla over the first gay character in a Disney film—who would have, director Bill Condon said, an “exclusively gay moment”—the moment was too brief and inconclusive for me as a queer person to celebrate. At the same time, the mere announcement of a gay character inflamed many conservatives.
The vagueness of the moment, when villain LeFou dances with a man for a couple of seconds near the end of the film, was especially frustrating coming after far too many brief, last-minute, or after-the-fact queer moments in children’s media. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling didn’t tell us wizard Dumbledore was gay until after the final book and five movies in the series. The Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time characters Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum always gave off a queer vibe—but it took Marceline’s voice actor answering a fan question at a book signing in 2011 to confirm it.
Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra protagonists Korra and Asami held hands and gazed at each other as they walked off into the sunset—in the last moment of the last episode. And with nothing as clear as a kiss, the show’s creators had to issue statements to confirm that yes, they had intended them to be a couple.
Likewise, Disney XD cartoon Gravity Falls revealed that characters Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durand were a couple—in the last episode. On a similar note, the Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie guest starred a two-mom family in January 2014—three weeks before its last episode. More recently, Disney XD cartoon Star vs. The Forces of Evil in February showed a scene with same-sex male and female couples kissing, although they were part of a background crowd.
In 2012, the feature film ParaNorman gave us the first gay character in an animated film—but again, we don’t learn he’s gay until right before the end. The point may have been that his gayness didn’t matter as much as the rest of his character, and that’s valid—but why not show the gayness first and then show it’s irrelevant, rather than playing it for the surprise factor?
Some children’s shows have done better. The Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe has several regular female characters with clearly romantic feelings for each other. Protagonist Steven can also “fuse” with his friend Connie to become a being who uses gender-neutral pronouns. In the network’s show Clarence, too, one of the main characters has two moms, shown since the first season in 2014.
And Disney certainly seems willing to be out and proud in programming for tweens and up. It also owns Freeform, which airs The Fosters, about a two-mom household with five children, including one gay son and a daughter who is dating a transgender boy. For younger children, though, Disney remains cautious.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the bastion of children’s television, Sesame Street, still has not shown any clearly LGBTQ characters. They’ve been a pioneer of diversity in other ways, however, with characters of various races, ethnicities, languages, and physical abilities. They had a multi-episode storyline with an adoptive single mother in 2006, and last week introduced their first autistic character.
A 1982 segment, “We All Sing the Same Song,” included the line, “I’ve got one daddy; I’ve got two.” Given the era, however, it remains unclear whether they were referring to gay dads or a straight dad and a stepdad. Either way, it’s no excuse for the lack of representation since then.
Perhaps Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, is thinking of the reaction to LGBTQ inclusion in another PBS Kids show. When a 2005 episode of Postcards from Buster showed a two-mom family, George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, denounced it and asked the producers to return all federal funding. Producer Jeanne Jordan told the New York Times that the controversy made it difficult to find funds for a second season.
Sesame Workshop, however, has been struggling financially for other reasons but last year struck a deal with HBO, which will fund five new seasons to air on the cable network nine months before they air on PBS. With newfound financial stability, might Sesame Workshop be willing to take a risk on LGBTQ inclusion? And as Amazon and Netflix move into original children’s programming, might Sesame Street need to emphasize that they remain contemporary and relevant? LGBTQ characters and our “modern families” (which in fact have a long history) might just help with that. Amazon and Netflix, of course, might try the same. The concern with all of this is that the programming would be most readily available only to those who can afford cable, streaming services, and movies—at a time when children of LGBTQ parents are twice as likely as their peers to live in poverty.
LGBTQ characters in children’s media need more than a vague “moment.” They should be more than last-minute reveals. Their storylines don’t always have to focus on them being LGBTQ, but nor should those aspects of identity always be coyly ambiguous or fleeting.
LGBTQ children and children of LGBTQ parents need to see ongoing, positive LGBTQ characters in kids’ media to help boost their self-confidence and give them role models. All children need to see them as preparation for being good friends, neighbors, and citizens. Then instead of just a moment, we’d have something momentous.