Film Forward

The Erasure Of LGBTQ Characters In Children's Media Goes Beyond Bert And Ernie

But some shows are getting things right.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

Last month, Sesame Street unexpectedly became the talk of the internet after former show writer Mark Saltzman seemed to confirm that the famous Muppet duo Bert and Ernie were gay, saying he wrote them as "a loving couple" and was inspired by his own relationship with his partner. 

Many celebrated the news, until Sesame Workshop released a statement clarifying that the characters were instead "best friends." An earlier, now-deleted statement also argued that Muppets do not have sexual orientations — which many pointed out was false, as proven by the existence of straight Muppet couples such as Kermit and Miss Piggy.

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Frank Oz, who created and voiced Bert, also weighed in, tweeting of Saltzman's interview, "It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness."

Saltzman himself later told the New York Times that his comments were misinterpreted, saying he merely brought aspects of his own life into the writing. "Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay," he added. "There is a difference."

Many were disappointed that one of the most popular and long-running children's programs of all time had passed up an opportunity for positive representation. And sadly, this is far from the first time children's media has rejected or erased the LGBTQ identities of its characters. 

When parents and conservative groups regularly express outrage and call for boycotts over children's books with LGBTQ themes and Disney movies with "exclusively gay moments," it's not surprising that some networks may shy away from depicting LGBTQ people in their programs.

Such was the case in 2007, when PBS opted not to air an episode of the Arthur spin-off Postcards From Buster, which featured a lesbian couple, with programming co-chief John Wilson reportedly saying the topic was "too sensitive to raise in a children's program." At the time, the network claimed the decision hadn't been influenced by a letter from then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who objected to the episode.

Another problem often arises when foreign animation — specifically, Japanese — is shown in the United States. In multiple instances over the years, the canonically LGBTQ identities of anime characters have been ignored or covered up in their American versions. An early example is the anime Gatchaman, which was brought to the U.S. as Battle of the Planets in the late 1970s. This version reportedly ignored the transgender identity of villain Berg Katse (or Zoltar in the states).

A more recent example is the transgender villain Magne in the anime My Hero Academia, who uses female pronouns despite her masculine appearance. In the English dub of the show, male pronouns are used to describe her in the narration. Similarly, the original Japanese version of Sailor Moon depicted female characters Uranus and Neptune as lovers, while the American version made them cousins. This was corrected in a later reboot called Sailor Moon Crystal.

Implicit (or, frequently, explicit) to many of these content decisions is the idea that LGBTQ representation is too inappropriate or mature for children — even if no sexual content is depicted, and even though the American Psychological Organization (via The Daily Beast) reports that sexual orientation "typically emerge[s] between middle childhood and early adolescence," and some transgender people "can trace their transgender identities and feelings back to their earliest memories."

"It all goes back to the idea that queer relationships, feelings, and identities are somehow more 'adult' than those that align with the heteronormative status quo," Elizabeth Simins wrote for The Verge in response to the Bert and Ernie debacle. "This is a false but pervasive assumption that queer people of all ages and identities encounter in their daily lives, so it's no surprise that it's echoed in society's typical approach to children's media."

Indeed, just last year, the announcement of a gay storyline on the live-action Disney Channel show Andi Mack prompted a petition from the group One Million Moms, which read, "I do not agree with the adult content you are pushing on families and children in programs such as Andi Mack." It called for a boycott of Disney until the network returned to producing "family-friendly" programming.

The hypocrisy of these arguments is that a myriad of children's shows depict heterosexual couples with no issue. As Simins explained, "Heterosexuality is seen as neutral and harmless, while queerness of all varieties is considered obscene — and not just by people who are openly bigoted. Even many who purport to be allies find it difficult to separate queerness from sex."

Of course, this erasure isn't exclusive to children's content. A number of superhero films have recently been criticized for ignoring characters' canon sexualities, while some filmmakers choose to talk about characters' LGBTQ identities off screen but leave the onscreen representation up to interpretation.

Often, the best representation LGBTQ viewers can hope for is subtext. Some characters may be coded as gay without explicit confirmation, ultimately leaving the possibility of straightness open. However, on children's shows, these clues may go over young viewers' heads.

One example is the Nickelodeon show Hey Arnold! There was speculation that the teacher Mr. Simmons was in a relationship with his friend Peter, thanks to subtle hints in the episode "Arnold's Thanksgiving." Nearly two decades after the episode's original airing, creator Craig Bartlett confirmed that the two were a couple, and included a moment between them in Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie

Earlier this year, the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender was accused of queerbaiting after showrunners teased a same-sex relationship in the show's upcoming season. Ultimately, the relationship was only implied in a brief flashback, and one of the characters was killed off before the romance could be explored further, leading to accusations of the "bury your gays" trope. Showrunner Joaquim Dos Santos later apologized to disappointed fans, pointing to the limitations many shows face in depicting LGBTQ characters.

"I'd like to say that we created this version of Voltron with the intent of being as inclusive as possible within the boundaries given," Dos Santos wrote on Twitter. "Are there still boundaries? Well, for this type of 'action adventure/product driven/traditionally boys toys' show the answer is unfortunately yes."

These kinds of ambiguous or short-lived depictions of same-sex romance are especially disappointing when you consider that there are young LGBTQ viewers who could be reassured or inspired by seeing someone like them in their favorite series.

"LGBTQ representation in all-ages programming is incredibly important," GLAAD said in a statement responding to news that the character of LeFou in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast is gay. "These portrayals both help real LGBTQ youth to recognize they aren't alone, and know their identity is valid when they see someone they can recognize themselves in on screen, creating a safer environment for LGBTQ young people to be authentically themselves."

Fortunately, there are a number of current shows which honestly and openly depict LGBTQ characters for a young audience. Despite the aforementioned One Million Moms petition, the Disney Channel series Andi Mack has the network's first openly gay main character in 13-year-old Cyrus Goodman, even focusing an episode on his coming-out. Over on Nickelodeon, the series Loud House made headlines in 2016 for depicting a gay married couple who are parents to one of the main characters' friends.

One of the best examples of LGBTQ representation in kids' media comes from the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe. The show depicts multiple characters in same-sex relationships, including the lesbian couple Ruby and Sapphire, who fuse into Garnet. The show openly depicts their affection for each other (including kissing) and even showed their wedding.

Hopefully, the future of children's television (and all media) will look a little more like these shows, and LGBTQ viewers of all ages won't have to grasp at subtle hints or fleeting flashbacks to feel represented.

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