Should LGBT+ Characters Be in Children’s Films?

In 2012, an animated children’s film called ParaNorman featured an openly gay character – a stereotypical jock character named Mitch Downe, who reveals his orientation at the end of the film when he says “You’re gonna love my boyfriend. He’s like a total chick-flick nut!” Also in 2012, an animated children’s television series called The Legend of Korra featured as its titular character and hero, Korra, a bisexual woman who shares a romance with another woman named Asami. And more recently, in 2017, the live action Disney film Beauty and the Beast featured an openly gay character in Lefou, the villain’s sidekick.

Slowly but surely, LGBT+ characters are making their appearance in children’s media, and people are fairly divided on the matter. On the one hand, we have those who support the idea, saying that children need to see LGBT+ people represented in media because LGBT+ people exist. Maybe the child in question will grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, and if they do, then the process of coming to terms with themselves will be that much smoother if they have grown up feeling like they are valid and like they are allowed to exist. As a bisexual woman myself, I grew up seeing bisexual people in the media, but they were always represented as morally inferior, dirty, and incapable of fully loving or being loved, and so these were the ideas of bisexuality that I grew up with, and the ideas that I applied to myself when I began to realize what I was. Perhaps the process would have been a little bit easier for me if I had grown up watching The Legend of Korra. And if a child does not grow up to belong to the LGBT+ community, this type of media continues to be of use to them, because chances are, they are going to meet an LGBT+ person at some point in their lives, and this media normalizes this community for them. A gay boy is not “weird” or “effeminate”; he’s just like Lefou.

But then again, on the other hand, we have the people who are opposed to LGBT+ people appearing in children’s media, and this is the perspective that I want to speak to. For the most part, the argument that I hear to support this perspective is that, if children are surrounded from a young age by LGBT+ people, then this will lead them to become LGBT+ when they grow up.

There are two things that I want to state toward this: first of all, being surrounded by a particular sexual orientation at a young age does not influence your future sexual orientation. Both of my parents identify as straight, most of the couples that I saw in movies and television  were straight, all of my friends’ parents growing up were straight, and I still wound up being bisexual, and I imagine that this is the case for most LGBT+ people. The majority of people identify as heterosexual, and more than that, the heterosexual narrative is the one that is most focused on in our society. So why would a child who would identify as straight have their orientation changed because there was a queer couple in their favourite movie growing up?

But even saying that, I’m going to continue on to make a somewhat contradictory statement here: maybe it will influence them a little bit, and maybe that’s okay. I’m not saying that a child who would have otherwise grown up to be a completely heterosexual, totally masculine cis-gendered manly man will now be a homosexual drag queen because he grew up watching ParaNorman (I mean, if he did, that would be awesome too), but maybe he’ll grow up to be a little bit more open, a bit more fluid with his identity. Maybe he’ll question gender roles a little bit. Maybe, if he does feel even the slightest crush on someone of his own gender, he won’t be ashamed to pursue it, even experiment if he wants to. Or at the very least, maybe he will support LGBT+ people, when he could have hurt and bullied them otherwise. And what’s wrong with any of that?

To say that you don’t want children watching media with LGBT+ characters in it because it might make them grow up to become LGBT+ implies that there is something wrong with that. It makes it sound like growing up to become LGBT+ is a) a choice that people make at some point in their development and b) a wrong choice. It is a mistake that must be avoided, and that just isn’t true. There is nothing wrong with growing up to enter into the LGBT+ community, and there is nothing wrong with learning more about the world around you, and there is nothing wrong with experimenting with and questioning your identity. And although I say this, I know that there are people who are going to disagree with me, and there are going to be people who continue to keep their children at home when the newest animated film comes to theatres featuring an LGBT+ character, but personally, I think that’s a shame, and specifically, it’s a shame for the children in question. Films that are willing to tell the stories of LGBT+ characters are offering children a gift: the gift of understanding and open-mindedness, the gift of questioning and learning about the world around them and the identity within them. This is a gift that should continue to be given, and it is a gift that I wish everyone could experience.

Free Speech Used to Disguise Hate

I believe in free speech. I really do; as a writer, I think that it is one of the most fundamental and important things that our society should uphold.

I believe that any society that stifles and controls speech is limited.

I believe that the only way for new and better ways of thinking to be formed is if they have the chance to be talked about and explored freely.

And considering all of that, I have a very hard time when it comes to people who openly and blatantly make harmful comments and claim that it should be protected under the idea of ‘free speech’.

“I’m just saying,” one person recently said on my Facebook feed, “I don’t think transgender people actually exist. I think they’re all just extremely mentally ill and gender confused.” When someone pointed out to them that their opinion was a hateful one, that same person replied with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!”

But what about the transgender teenager on your Facebook feed that saw that comment? And sure, you can say that you don’t have any transgender teenagers on your Facebook feed, but how do you know that? How do you know that your niece, nephew, cousin, child to a long-lost friend, whoever it might be didn’t stumble upon that status and feel a sudden sinking feeling in their gut, paired soon afterward with a sense of self-loathing? How do you know that your status won’t come to mind later on in their life, when they’re thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t believe that they exist? When they start to wonder if they do exist? How do you know that your comment won’t someday contribute to the reason why they never express themselves for who they are, or the reason why they develop a life-altering, perhaps crippling depression? How do you know that your opinion isn’t the reason why someone someday kills themselves?

And I know, this is a difficult field to enter into altogether. On the one hand, people can’t live their lives constantly monitoring everything they say to ensure that it isn’t offensive, and even the best of us slip up now and then. And we do happen to live in a society where people can internalize harmful ideas, so it isn’t unheard of for good people to believe in bad things. But that isn’t the issue that I have here. The issue that I have is the use of free speech as an attempt to excuse hate.

Think about if someone were to make a harmful comment that wasn’t targeting a specific group of people, but rather one person in particular. Imagine someone walked right up to another person and said, “you’re a stupid, worthless waste of human life.” How would you react? Well, hopefully, you’d point out that that’s a cruel thing to say, and if the bully in this scenario responded with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!” you’d roll your eyes just a little bit, wouldn’t you? Because, yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be harmful and that they do have consequences.

The same thing applies to beliefs that are harmful towards specific groups of people. You can hold onto ideas that are transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever, but at the end of the day, you should understand that these are people who deserve rights and respect. They shouldn’t be invalidated, they have just as much of a right to take up space and be themselves as you do, and if you do make an active attempt to undermine their existence, then you should expect a response, just like you should expect a response if you actively walked up to someone and insulted them. In a society where free speech is allowed, you are free to hate as much as you want, but you should also expect to have it pointed out to you that what you are saying is hate, and you should respect their perspective just as much as you want your own to be.

The Value of Uncomfortable Art

As a writer, one question that I frequently find myself questioning is what, exactly, can and should be put into fiction.

And as consumers of media, I think this is a question that comes up often, as well. For years, people have made the claim that violence in fiction is dangerous, because it teaches impressionable people to act violently, and therefore, it should be avoided at all costs.

I’ve had people – particularly very spiritually-inclined people – tell me that I should avoid violent or negative media, like horror films, because they create negative energy in the consumers, that then turns into negative feelings, uncontrollable anger, bouts of depression – things like that.

And as someone who is very concerned about women’s rights, I’ve been told repeatedly not to watch this movie or that movie or support the interest in this character and their story arch because it’s sexist, or it promotes harmful stereotypes, or it delivers a message that ultimately oppresses women.

And I understand all of that. I totally support you if you personally do not want to partake in this movie or that genre, or if you are offended by the message that you read into this narrative. But does that mean that the story should not have been written in the first place? Just because somebody says that this narrative is (quote-unquote) ‘bad’ – or, hell, just because the majority of people say it’s bad – does that necessarily mean that it is wrong?

This isn’t a question that can necessarily be answered in only one way, because there is no right or wrong answer. There are only opinions. And while one person might say that a story shouldn’t be written if it includes violence or if it demeans a particular group of people or if it supports immoral behaviour, I personally disagree.

Personally, I believe that anything and everything should be used if a story if the author wishes it to be so.

Let’s use the example of violence here (because it’s the example that I think will get me in the least amount of trouble). Violence exists in our world, and it has long before the invention of film or visual media. That is just a simple fact, proven by the very existence of war and history textbooks. And while I don’t want to get into any factual discussions about the correlation between rates of violence and rates of violence in the media, I will say that art reflects life. Violence exists in fiction because violence exists in reality, and it works the same way with everything else that we see as a negative in art.

We tell sexist or racist stories because we are a sexist and racist culture.

Some stories support immorality because some people support immorality.

Whether we like it or not, it’s there, and leaving it completely unexplored and ignored is as good as shutting our eyes and covering our ears and going ‘la-la-la, it’s not happening’. That’s not to say that you need to immerse yourself in it. If you’re uncomfortable watching a horror movie, then good – don’t watch horror movies. But at the same time, you cannot deny that there is some value to what they do.

Because, in my personal opinion, the negative aspects of society need to be confronted and explored if anything is ever going to be done about them, and art is one of our safest (and, let’s face it – more fun) vehicles of being able to do that.

I’m going to use a specific narrative as an example – the storyline of Harley Quinn in DC Comics, and her abusive relationship with the Joker. As a feminist, I have two choices when approaching this storyline – I can either look away because watching a woman being physically and emotionally abused by a man makes me uncomfortable, or I can keep watching and use it as an excuse to better understand this issue without actually going out and putting myself in an abusive situation. I’m not saying that either choice is a bad one, I’m just saying that there is an opportunity to take this narrative – one that reflects a very uncomfortable part of our society – and learn something from it. Something that you can then take into the real world and use to help or better understand someone who is actually dealing with domestic violence.

Uncomfortable art has value. It raises questions, makes you think, forces you to think about things from another perspective. Maybe it doesn’t always do this – there are most certainly some films or books or music that uses violence or sexuality or controversy for the simple sake of being shocking or appealing to a certain crowd. Some horror films hold up the violence against certain people as nothing more than something to take pleasure in. But even that has its place, even if its place is nothing more than simple, barbaric enjoyment, and if we say that that form of uncomfortable art shouldn’t exist, then what’s to stop us from saying that the uncomfortable art that we can learn something from shouldn’t exist either? Where do we draw the line, and how can we say which forms of uncomfortable art can or cannot teach someone a valuable lesson?

So if you are personally offended by a particular piece of art, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to take part in it, then don’t. But don’t deny that it has value. Uncomfortable art exists because life is uncomfortable, and if we’re ever going to learn to deal with that, then we need to open our minds to other perspectives.