“I don’t want you to be upset with me, but I don’t want to do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done either,” Gonzo tells their friends with newfound confidence. “I want to be me.”
For children whose gender expression may not subscribe to preconceived notions of what a boy or girl should look or act like, it can be hugely significant to see themselves reflected onscreen, even if the characters are puppets or whimsical gem-people who live in a pastel wonderland, said Lindsay Toman, an assistant professor of LGBTQ studies at Colgate University.
Representation alone does not make a story strong. It’s rare for characters to mention the words “nonbinary” or “gender-diverse” on the aforementioned series. But on each of these series, characters whose identities don’t fit neatly within the gender binary are celebrated by their friends on the show and respected by their series’ creators in storylines that are largely positive.
“Everyone can benefit from being validated in their identities,” Toman told CNN. “What is important is that all younger children are seeing positive images so that they can better learn about themselves and other people.”
‘Muppet Babies’ and ‘Steven Universe’ showcase positive nonbinary storylines
In under 15 minutes, Gonzo gets heartbroken, dresses up and has the time of their life at a ball. And though the Muppet moppets are at first surprised to learn Gonzo was their mysterious princess, they support their “Gonzo-rella” wholeheartedly, throwing out the “royal handbook” that once decreed male-presenting Muppets would have to wear knight costumes to a ball.
Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Cartoon Network’s sweet, contemplative series “Steven Universe” and its sequel, had a feeling young viewers would understand her characters without labeling them. The cast is full of characters who are nonbinary, LGBTQ or otherwise challenge the gender binary through their gender expression.
“We knew kids would get it,” Sugar told CNN in an email. “Kids love good stories and funny cartoon characters! It was hard to convince adults that LGBTQIA+ stories and characters could be good and funny, but kids weren’t worried about that. They were too busy watching the show!”
“Steven Universe,” which premiered in 2013, stars a half-human boy and his family of feminine Crystal Gems. While the series is full of humor and hijinx, its soul lies in exploring its characters’ identities and the ways in which they evolve.
“You are not two people, and you are not one person,” says Garnet, a Crystal Gem who themselves is a fusion of two Gems, in a supportive conversation with Stevonnie. “You are an experience! Make sure you’re a good experience.”
“Steven Universe” doesn’t do subtle hints or winks to a character’s identity or sexuality, and it doesn’t deal in crude jokes designed to go over kids’ heads. Characters aren’t always labeled as nonbinary, queer or trans on the show. They simply are who they are — and that was intentional, said Sugar, who uses both “she” and “they” pronouns.
Sugar and many of their close loved ones have “fluid gender and sexual identities,” they said. They badly wanted explicitly queer characters in cartoons — something that may have benefited them when they were younger, when they felt alienated by gendered children’s entertainment.
“I just wanted something for us, by us and about us,” they said.
Animated series have a bit more freedom to tell stories about gender identity and gender expression because their worlds are typically more fantastical than our own. There are fewer rules — why, of course a magical rat can transform a Muppet into a princess — and characters’ appearances aren’t dictated by reality.
On “Steven Universe,” Sugar aimed to “scramble all the gender tropes,” from plot points to color choices. The abstractness of animation leaves viewers room to “project ourselves into the character,” said Sugar.
“Their humanity is our humanity!” they said. “To love a cartoon character is, in a sense, to love the part of yourself you see in that character.”
Children see themselves in these TV series
“Children learn a great deal from what they see represented in the media and they look for characters with whom they can identify,” she said.
Once kids have identified a character on TV they relate to, they “internalize aspects of how that character is perceived and treated by others,” Edwards-Leeper said. And if that treatment is positive, that positivity can rub off on the young viewer, improving their self-confidence and validating their own unique way of expressing their gender.
But perhaps the most important impact occurs not within young audiences, but within their parents, she said.
“These representations can help teach cisgender parents and other adults that rejecting the gender binary and being more accepting of gender diversity in children is more important for their psychological health and quality of life,” Edwards-Leeper said.
Giving children an example of what a gender-diverse character looks like — especially when that character is accepted and loved — can provide them the language with which to express themselves more fully, Edwards-Leeper said.
“Many gender-diverse youth talk about having never known about gender-diverse identities or having the language to describe how they felt until seeing it represented in the media,” she said.
Even Sugar said that creating “Steven Universe” helped them understand themselves better — and introduced them to a community within which to belong.
“I realized that I was saying things with the cartoon about my sexuality and gender that I hadn’t actually admitted to my friends or family or even myself,” they said.
Nonbinary characters are a bigger part of children’s TV
“I think for a long time visibility and the presence of an LGBTQ character felt like such a huge step in the right direction, but it is no longer enough,” Toman said. “We need to reflect on our cultural shifts and create platforms for all different kinds of people.”
“I wondered what it might mean to ask for that empathy and interest from a generation of kids, and if it might be a very small part of creating a safer world,” Sugar said.
Good stories move the people who engage with them and etch out a place for them within the story. When viewers see themselves in a character or in a storyline, they might get to know themselves a bit better, too — even if those stories star effervescent gems and zany toddler Muppets.