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After Decades In The Background, Queer Characters Step To The Front In Kids' Media

Ruby and Sapphire get married on <em>Steven Universe.</em>
Cartoon Network
Ruby and Sapphire get married on Steven Universe.

As a kid, Rebecca Sugar felt like they only liked the wrong things.

"I remember I was really interested in shows for boys," she says, "and I knew at a very young age that was incorrect. I have found little diary entries from my five-year-old self guiltily admitting that I loved SWAT Kats, and I had no interest in shows for little girls."

But once they started working in animation, Sugar realized there wasn't anything wrong with them at all and was determined to make the shows she wanted to see as a kid, too.

"The first thing I wanted to do was make it so that nobody felt that feeling of 'Oh, I shouldn't be watching this,'" Sugar says. "I wanted little boys to experience girl show things. I wanted little girls to experience boy show things that they felt like they weren't supposed to like. And later, I really understand that I wanted nonbinary, gender-expansive kids to have a show."

This became the Peabody award-winning series Steven Universe, which broke barriers in queer representation by airing the first LBGTQ wedding in a kid's series when Ruby and Sapphire (who are actually living rocks, yes, but feminine-coded rocks who use she/her pronouns and present as female) got married.

Rebecca Sugar is one of the many animators who've been pushing — successfully — for more overt queer representation in cartoons.

A new database from Insider confirms more than 250 LGBTQ+ characters in children's cartoons dating back to 1983. And if you look at the data from 2010 through 2020 — especially in the latter five years — the representation of overtly queer characters skyrockets.

"Kids media is the last battleground for LGBTQ representation," says freelance journalist Abbey White, one of the reporters for the Insider database. "If you can get it here, there is no excuse for anywhere else in media for it not to be visible."

They say what makes shows during this decade so special is that it's not just a handful of tokenized, possibly gay characters living in a straight world. The baseline narratives of these shows have LGBTQ lives at the center of them.

I think about 'Danger & Eggs,' I think about 'She-Ra,' 'Steven Universe' [and] just how overtly queer these cartoons are. That is drastically different from the way characters have been allowed to singularly exist.

"I think about Danger & Eggs, I think about She-Ra, Steven Universe [and] just how overtly queer these cartoons are," White says. "That is drastically different from the way characters have been allowed to singularly exist. That's really exciting to see people queering their entire narratives in ways that I think reach not just children but a broader audience."

And that broader audience includes LGBTQ youth and their parents. Morgan McFarland and her child Tommy are big Steven Universe fans. They've been watching the show as a family along with Tommy's other siblings.

"I think it's given us something to really bond over," Morgan says, "because my experience as a queer person in their 40s and Tommy's experience as somebody who is 12, it's two very, very different worlds. But I can get excited about two characters kissing in a cartoon and Tommy seeing it. And Tommy can be excited about that, too. And it's nice to have that.

And as more young people come out publically as LGBTQ+, it's important that the media they consume reflect the reality they live in. For Tommy, the reason these shows are important is very simple.

"Because it's normalizing it," they say. "It's less 'This character might be gay,' gay people exist. Gay people exist in the world."

And after decades of activism, animators get to show a much bigger piece of that reality.

Check out Abbey White and Kalai Chik's reporting on LGBTQ+ representation, along with their database of 259 verified queer characters here.

Petra Mayer edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Victoria Whitley-Berry is a director and producer for Morning Edition. They also briefly helped to produce NPR's history podcast Throughline. They joined NPR in 2016 as an intern for All Things Considered on the weekend. Born and raised in Tallahassee, Fla., Whitley-Berry has a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from Texas Christian University.

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