Queer characters on children's television can help kids learn a great deal about their own identities and those of their peers.
Earlier this summer, the Disney Junior show Muppet Babies introduced a new character: Gonzo-rella. They have become the latest gender-diverse character on a children's show. Gonzo-rella represents a new age of characters in children's television, one wherein young kids are taught to be comfortable with who they are and expressing their gender in any way they would like to. Muppet Babies is only one of a host of children's shows that have made strides toward being more gender-inclusive; Blue's Clues & You, for instance, shared an animated Pride Parade earlier this year, and older kids' shows like Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power have featured LGBTQIA+ characters, CNN reports.
According to Lindsay Toman, an assistant professor of LGBTQ studies at Colgate University, representation in children's shows can be incredibly meaningful to young kids when growing up, particularly for those whose gender expression may not conform to preconceived notions of what a boy or girl "should" look or act like. However, there is one caveat: representation alone is not meaningful enough. Children resonate more with non-binary or gender-diverse characters when they are celebrated by their friends on the show and respected by their series' creators in storylines that are mostly positive.
Toman shared in an interview, "Everyone can benefit from being validated in their identities. What is important is that all younger children are seeing positive images so that they can better learn about themselves and other people." Therefore, when Gonzo-rella was introduced to young viewers this year, it ushered in a new world of possibilities for what children's television could look like. The protagonist shirks labels and gender norms but is also well-rounded and has depth: Gonzo-rella, in their premier episode, gets heartbroken, dresses up, and has the time of their life at a ball. Their friends support Gonzo-rella wholeheartedly. Notably, the character does not officially come out as non-binary, which is oftentimes an expectation from queer characters on TV.
Just another reason to love the muppets! https://t.co/GnD1D6TzBZ— susan_abbott (@susan_abbott) September 25, 2021
Children's show creators believe that children are able to process seemingly complicated topics like gender easily. For instance, Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar stated, "We knew kids would get it. 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!" The series features Steven, a "half-human boy" and his family of feminine Crystal Gems. It revolves around the characters' identities and the ways in which they evolve.
Ultimately, shows like these can benefit both cisgender as well as gender-diverse children and parents. "Children learn a great deal from what they see represented in the media and they look for characters with whom they can identify," said Laura Edwards-Leeper. "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. 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."