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LGBT Characters and Themes in Children-Oriented Media

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The year is 2013. We have gays in the military, homosexuals getting married, and famous celebrities coming out of the closet to both supportive and volatile audiences. Our president is proudly supportive of equal rights for LGBT people, and our media certainly shows this. Gay movies, gay books, gay television shows, gay music. However, it is interesting to know that although LGBT themes pervade most aspects of the media openly and proudly, they seem to very much shy away from media oriented to children. The reason for this is because parents find gay, bisexual, and transgender themes to be “too confusing” for children to understand, and that Is solely an “adult issue” that should not be puzzling or frightening the children. Others have gone on to say that LGBT themes are “inappropriate” for children’s-oriented media, despite the fact that heterosexual romance is a very frequent theme in both children’s literature and children’s television. Despite all of this controversy, there are several surprising LGBT characters and themes in media oriented to children, many of which are considered “iconic” in gay culture. The LGBT status of a character in a work written for a child falls into one of three categories: 1), undertones, defined as more subtle subtext, 2), overtones, defined as blatantly obvious yet never confirmed subtext, or 3), the most recent and most rare- actual, full-blown text, in which the actual author of the work specifically claims that the character or theme in question is specifically LGBT.

“Undertones, defined as sneaky subtext,” is the first, and most common, category in which LGBT characters in children’s literature or television fall. This is the most common because it is the easiest for writers to “get away with” in prejudiced times, and the easiest to dismiss as a joke or “slip under the radar,” so to speak. Some of the earliest examples of gay characters or themes existing in a work geared towards children originate in classic works of animation ridden with “adult humor” such as Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry. Looney Tunes lasted from the years 1930 to 1969, and Tom and Jerry spanned the years of 1940 and 1957. Frequent examples of gay humor used in these cartoons are male characters cross-dressing due to a certain comedic situation, and unable or unallowed to break character, they are forced to kiss another male character, and are the constant object of desire for a humorously butch male. The joke is taken even further when the cross-dressing male is forced to marry the manly man, and the cartoon often ends with the crossdresser having a mildly exasperated, but never truly horrified, look on his face. Although cross-dressing and flirting of this nature has been present in comedy for centuries, it is notable to see such instances occur in a cartoon that is watched by children. Although initially “played for laughs” and actually somewhat offensive by today’s standards, these frequent gay jokes in Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry helped pave the way for more LGBT themes in media geared towards a young audience. Humor makes difficult themes easier to digest. It is perhaps because of the constant mockery and stereotypes of LGBT people that stronger and more obvious subtext was able to be written, and later digested and analyzed but not quite objected to, by an audience consisting of adults and children. Extremely famous examples of gay undertones played very seriously in works that are frequently viewed and read by children (which were never completely confirmed or denied by the writers) include the doting relationship between Frodo and Sam in J. R. R. Tokien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and the love, platonic or not, between Kirk and Spock in Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek: The Original Series.” To quote from Roddenberry on the nature of Kirk and Spock’s loving and demonstrative relationship, which was brought to television in the year 1966: “Yes, there's certainly some of that -- certainly with love overtones. Deep love. The only difference being, the Greek ideal-- we never suggested in the series-- physical love between the two. But it's the-- we certainly had the feeling that the affection was sufficient for that, if that were the particular style of the 23rd century.” And to quote a passage from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, publishe d in the year 1954, there is this: “At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Sam came in. He ran to Frodo and took his left hand, awkwardly and shyly. He stroked it gently and then blushed and turned hastily away. “Hullo Sam!” said Frodo. “It’s warm!” said Sam. “Meaning your hand, Mr. Frodo. It has felt so cold through the long nights.” This single quote is just the tip of the iceberg in Frodo and Sam’s ambiguously gay relationship. The relationships between Kirk and Spock, and Frodo and Sam, are so famously loving and ambiguous that scholars still debate over their meaning.

LGBT themes falling under the category of “overtones and blatantly obvious but never entirely confirmed subtext” is a relatively newer form of exposing children to these themes, but it still leaves something to be desired. Again, this is subtext, even though the undertones are more like overtones, and there’s no direct confirmation or specific denial of the character’s orientation or gender identity. In fact, many examples of this category are actually negative, even though they are still worth mentioning. However, a famous example from Sesame Street, which first aired in 1969, is quite positive. Bert and Ernie are two of the most famous children’s show characters as well as full-blown gay icons. They live together. They share a bedroom and sleep close together. They obviously love each other. They somehow manage to adore and tolerate each other despite their bickering. Jim Henson, the creator of Sesame Street, was an out and proud homosexual, but he never specifically confirmed or denied that Bert and Ernie were gay, despite frequent interrogation from both adoring, supportive fans and accusatory protestors. He took the secret of Bert and Ernie’s real love to his grave, where it will remain until some miraculous record is unearthed from the depths of some file or secret archive. More gay subtext originates in children’s media thanks to Howard Ashman, another famously homosexual. Ashman was famous for being the lyricist for the Disney films “The Little Mermaid” (1989,) and “Beauty and the Beast,” (1991), and it isn’t surprising that several of his songs are ridden with gay overtones. Ursula the Sea Witch is frequently seen as being a lesbian because of her overt habit of flirting with the mermaid Ariel, touching Ariel’s chest and calling her pet names like “my child,” “angelfish,” “my deer sweet child,” “sweet cakes,” “poor little princess,” and “my sweet.” There’s also the fact that Ursula overtly stated that if Ariel failed to kiss Prince Eric in time, she would “be mine” or “belong to me.” Ashman also wrote the lyrics for “Beauty and the Beast,” a film that has humorously famous gay subtext between the characters LeFou, the toady, and Gaston, the town’s manly-man hero. LeFou openly fawns over Gaston, calling him, in song, “the best” and “everyone’s favorite guy.” The song “Gaston” is filled with innuendos and suggestions that the men of the village would switch teams for Gaston for those bulging muscles and that hairy chest of his. LeFou is Gaston’s footstool, and is blatantly in love with him. In another example of a negative portrayal, the character “Him” from the popular cartoon “The Powerpuff Girls,” which first aired in 1995, is a blatant stereotype of a flamingly gay man, intentionally. Although he is The City of Townsville’s literal version of Satan himself, he straddles the line between nightmarishly horrifying and side-splittingly funny. His voice rapidly changes from a sweet, sing-songey coo to a deep, guttural, growling yell. Him wears a pink fluffy dress, fishnets, and hooker boots. He also has a hobby of baking, and seems to occasionally flirt with the other villains on the show. An extremely famous example of an ambiguously gay or bisexual character who is just as stereotypical, but actually positive and endearing, is perhaps the king of modern children’s gay icons: Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob, who first appeared on television in 1999, has never been explicitly confirmed or denied by the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, to be anything but “asexual,” as the character “is a sponge, and therefore has no sexual orientation.” This tongue-in-cheek response to frequent questioning does nothing to diminish the sexual ambiguity of the lovable sea-sponge. Spongebob has a high-pitched voice, more than occasionally acts effeminate, and has a long-lasting “bromance” with his best friend, Patrick Star. Spongebob often overtly flirts with his neighbor, Squidward Tentacles, as well, constantly hugging him and even declaring his undying love and devotion to him. While Patrick and Spongebob get along fine, Squidward is appalled by Spongebob’s clinginess, and his only goal in life is to escape from his loud, overly-affectionate neighbor. In the year 2010, a groundbreaking television show aired on Cartoon Network that would change the way LGBT characters are presented to children. In 2011, two gay icons would emerge in the episode “What Was Missing.” Two of the main characters, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, have a famously ambiguous relationship which has never been confirmed or denied by the writers. A recent controversy surrounding a recap of the video by the animation studio, which actually declared the subtext to be text, was criticized by the writers as well as conservatives, but highly praised by fans. After the recap video of the episode “What Was Missing,” which contained much lesbian subtext, became famous on YouTube, the series of recap videos was canceled, the producer, Dan Rickmers, responsible was fired, and all of the recap videos were taken down. To this day, the writers refuse to comment. However, one of the reasons the controversy came about in the first place was because of Natasha Allegri, a character designer and occasional writer on the show. Allegri runs a Tumblr, called “Natazilla,” in which she frequently draws Princess Bubblegum and Marceline embracing, kissing, licking, and even engaged in sexual behavior. When questioned by an anonymous protestor about the risqué, homoerotic art of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, Allegri responded with a bitter, “Oh you say it like you know what you’re talking about! That’s cool.” This is just the tip of the iceberg for this show. The second-most popular gay characters in the show are Lemongrab and his clone, Lemongrab 2, both anthropomorphic lemon candy men who were created through scientific methods by Princess Bubblegum. Lemongrab 2 was made for the original Lemongrab “to be with,” (the princess’s exact words,) and the two are basically a modern version of Bert and Ernie. They hug and cuddle while naked (because they have no visual genitilia, they can get away with this on-screen,) live together, and eventually create, through the miracle of science, several children for themselves to raise and love, and they even bicker about what to name their little ones, just as a real couple would. A recap article of one episode featuring the Lemongrabs constantly refers to Lemongrab 2 as “Lemongrab’s partner.” The Lemongrabs are, almost literally, a gay version of Adam and Eve, the only difference being that they are two men, and they were created by a scientist rather than a god. Adventure Time also includes a gay variation of “The Frog Prince” in which it is a male/male kiss that breaks the frog curse, and the hero responsible claims that “he has no problem kissing a dude because he’s comfortable with himself like that.” The episode “Princess Cookie” is about an anthropomorphic cookie who wishes to be a princess but is laughed at for his dream, and he tries to commit suicide, believing that his dream is unachievable. He later survives the suicide attempt, and in a mental hospital, he is given “the crown of the Grass Kingdom,” a makeshift crown made of flowers and woven grass, and the ends with Princess Cookie grinning with utter joy as the other patients bow to him. All of these episodes aired either in 2011, 2012, or 2013.

The year is 2013, and openly gay, bisexual, and transgender characters exist in media created for children, and have done so for a few decades. Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter has been confirmed by J. K. Rowling to be a homosexual. Considering that Dumbledore is one of the most iconic and beloved characters in all of children’s literature, this is really something. Ren and Stimpy, cartoons which aired in a self-titled television show in the year 1991, have been confirmed by the show’s creator, John Kricfalusi, to be a homosexual couple. Ren and Stimpy’s relationship ranges from laughably stereotypical to genuinely sweet and doting, even tender at times. In 1996, a television show aired called “Hey Arnold,” which featured a gay teacher named Robert Simmons, confirmed to be gay by the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett. In the world of comic books as well as television, the superhero Static Shock has a gay friend named Rick. The comic series “Archie” now has an openly gay character named Kevin Keller, who is happily married to a man. The characters Haruka and Michiru, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in the famous Japanese comic and cartoon series “Sailor Moon,” are out lesbians. (Although the English translations tried to write them off as “cousins,” it’s very obvious.) In “Adventure Time,” all of the gladiator ghosts in the episode “Morituri te Salutamus” have officially been confirmed to be gay by the show’s lead character designer, Andy Ristaino. The gladiator ghosts were tragically forced to fight to the death by a sadistic king, and repeatedly shouted, “No, my love!” as they killed each other. In the end, the ghosts held hands and ascended to a higher plane of existence. The 2012 feature length film “Paranorman” features a character who is perhaps the first openly gay character in an animated children’s movie: Mitch, who surprisingly is a jock and not stereotypically gay at all. The audience doesn’t even know Mitch is gay until he mentions that he has a boyfriend. “Degrassi,” a wildly popular Canadian teen soap opera/after school special which has always had a massive American fanbase, is groundbreaking in having some of the first openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in a show intended for children. The character “Adam,”  who is a female-to-male transgender, is actually the very first transgendered character in a children’s show. Aside from television, film, and comics, there exists a small but still generous genre of LGBT children’s literature, which ranges from fairy tale fantasy to modern day and frank stories. These include titles such as “King & King” by Linda de Haan and Stern Niijland, “Molly’s Family” by Nancy Garden, “Daddy, Papa, and Me” by Leslea Newman, “The White Swan Express” by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki, and “Mom and Mum are Getting Married!” by Ken Setterington. While none of these books are extremely famous, they are still important, and serve to enrich the lives of children.

LGBT characters in works written for children are either ambiguously LGBT, strongly implied but never quite confirmed to be LGBT, or openly confirmed to be LGBT. Throughout the decades, there has been a plethora of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered characters in television shows, comic books, novels, stories, and film made for children. Most of them started off as jokes or very subtle and sneaky examples. As the years passed, writers were able to convey LGBT themes through strong overtones rather than subtle undertones, and made the subtext very obvious. And now, after a new civil rights movement has begun demanding equal rights for all, we have actually seen, in our lifetime, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered characters in children’s stories. Although the pool of representation is, as of yet, shallow, society is marching forward in the representation of LGBT characters in kid-friendly media. Perhaps someday, if society keeps marching on, we will see something incredible and beautiful, like a lesbian Disney princess.

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