Media informs, and is informed by, life; but if media presents itself as afraid of something, often, so too will society.
This is why the presentation of LGBTQ+ characters in pop culture is so important. The world perspective is shifting, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same sex marriage and the increase of queer (and to a lesser extent, trans) characters in prime time television, yet there’s one facet of pop media that seems hesitant to present gay characters at all, let alone in a positive view: kid’s content.
Personal opinions aside, it is so important for kid’s shows and books to include “non-normative” characters, because the landscape of the world is changing. From race to gender to sexuality, presenting diverse characters in all-ages, kid-friendly, and young adult content offers new perspectives and world views to children who may be cloistered in an area that is overwhelmingly homogeneous.
Some argue that gay characters in kid’s media will brainwash children into “becoming gay;” others insist that animation and comics have had a “gay agenda” since the introduction of Spongebob and the Teletubbies in the 90s and early 00s. One pastor even created a “study” in which he insisted that Pokemon cartoons and video games cause a number of individuals born between 1985 and 1999 to become gay (due to the phallic and yonic shapes of the pocket monsters, among other reasons).
In this atmosphere of hysteria and misinformed fear, some comics and cartoons intended for children continue to test the boundaries of what is “acceptable” for children to consume, and do so with grace and aplomb.
Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless introduced one of the first gay characters the really caught my attention. Raven, the eponymous Pirate Princess, likes girls. Raven’s moments in Princeless with Adrien, the main protagonist, are quiet, but significant. Raven dances around the subject, and there’s never a moment where it is stated that she’s a lesbian, but a clear attraction is shown between her and Adrien, with it potentially being mutual. These moments, however quiet, represented a huge shift to me, not only for the comics industry, but for all-ages content in general.
And with Raven now starring in her own comic, the presentation of gay characters is advancing. The Pirate Princess builds on this core of Raven’s character; not just that she’s gay, but also that she’s strong, smart, caring, brash, and obstinate. Raven is a fully realized character, not just some caricature. Young gay women can relate to her both as an adventurous pirate and as a romantic character, who, though confident, is ultimately unable to say the things she wants to to the people she loves. Each issues, Raven grows and matures a little more, and I suspect there will be a time where Raven openly comes out, whether it be to her all-female pirate crew or her pirate king father.
Around the same time Raven was introduced, it was revealed on the fifteen minute Cartoon Network show, Steven Universe, that fan favorite Crystal Gem Garnet was actually a fusion of two Gems who were deeply in love. Much like Marvel’s mutants in the 90’s could be read as an interpretation of the plight of gay individuals (with the Legacy virus seen as analogous to AIDS), Steven Universe uses fusion, the combination of two or more Gems, as a way to comment on the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in today’s society. Fusion represents a deep physical and emotional relationship, and the show handles the gay interpretation of this very literally: “Can you please unfuse?” One character, a reformed villain, asks of Garnet, “you’re making me incredibly uncomfortable.”
(An interesting aside: Gems are also non-binary, meaning they are neither female, nor males, although female pronouns are used almost exclusively to refer to them, something which is essentially addressed within the show itself.)
In the Jem comic, Jerrica’s younger sister, Kimber, is now gay. Everything that was established about her character in the original show, her fun loving attitude, her annoying, little sister personality, and her boy craziness, are there, the only thing that’s changed is that Kimber likes girls, not guys. Kimber’s relationship with Stormer, of the Misfits, is one of the biggest aspects of the comic’s first arc, and promise to continue to be a large part of the story.
Other kid’s content are pushing to be more inclusive: the Shezow cartoon revolves around a boy who becomes a superhero by turning into a girl; Adventure Time has a (not-established-in-the-show) prior romantic relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, the Vampire Queen, which is being toed at in the popular tie-in comics, as well as confirmed in an interview with actor Olivia Olson (and purportedly the show’s creator, Pendleton Ward); but some shows struggle, like Gravity Falls and Clarence, both of which fought to feature romantic, same-sex background characters (and sometime lose that fight).
When I spoke with M. Alice LeGrow, author and artist for a number of all-ages titles released through Action Lab, at New York Comic Con this year, she mentioned that while working on her upcoming series, Toyetica, she had an initial struggle with two male characters who ultimately presented themselves to her as gay. When she brought this up to her editor, looking for advice or guidelines on using gay characters in the comic (which, not even released yet, has already been optioned for dolls, cartoons, and a possible film), their response was “Steven Universe is a thing now. Make them gay. No one cares.”
This sort of positive support, the idea that gay characters are no longer a taboo, is huge.
Comics historically have been afraid of labeling characters, often opting to leave it up to the readers’ discretion to see between the lines (see trans character Sera and her “paramour” relationship with Angela over at Marvel Comics; neither of them has been directly labeled as gay–or, in Sera’s case, trans even–and in interviews, editorial staff remains cagey, at best, when asked up front about the sexuality of characters). Even in the modern landscape, where presenting non-cis, non-hereronormative characters is becoming more and more accepted, only a few characters are actually labeled (Batgirl’s former roommate openly stated she was trans; Iceman is one of the few characters officially labeled as “gay” in the pages of the current Marvel Universe).
When you speak to many members of the queer community, they often emphasize the importance of labels, especially the importance of labels in canon text. It’s wonderful that Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner acknowledge in an interview that Harley Quinn is bisexual (or, at least with Poison Ivy), but the weight of that information is lost on people who don’t read comics interviews. However, if Harley’s sexuality were openly stated within the pages of the comics, that would be entirely different. It effects a much larger (though still small) audience, and opens up the possibility of coverage from bigger news outlets.
The increase of queer characters, especially in kid-friendly media, is amazing, but the next step is to no longer mince words about the sexuality of these characters. One day soon, they’ll be here, queer, kid-friendly, and open about it.