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.

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The Faulty Queer Representation in Gotham

So I’ve been watching Gotham lately.

Let’s get one thing straight (tee hee) before I begin – I am not watching this show because of its promises to represent a wide range of people and sexual orientations. I am watching this show because I am a huge Batman geek, and I’m just so sadly amused by the prospect of seeing tiny baby Brucie when he was still all shy and awkward around girls.

Because if I was watching this show specifically for its representation of sexual orientations, I don’t think I’d be enjoying it as much as I am.

The first two seasons were somewhat limited in their definition of ‘sexual representation’, because they only ever featured bisexual women. Not bisexual men. Not young bisexual girls (despite the fact that they totally could explore young Selina Kyle’s bisexuality – but, no, it never gets a mention in the show). Just over-eighteen, totally hot girls who make out with each other without ever really speaking, and then run off to their more serious relationships with men. Even as a bisexual woman myself, I am disappointed by their definition of ‘representation’.

But then season three rolled around, and they did something that promised change.

Drum roll please.

Season three of Gotham introduced a bisexual male character!

I think.

You see, it’s never really really been made clear what Oswald Cobblepot’s sexual orientation is. I’m assuming that he’s supposed to be bisexual only because his character is based on the Penguin from the Batman comic books, TV shows, movies, and video games, and previous incarnations of his character has shown an interest in women before. As far as I know, this is the first time that Oswald has been revealed to have an interest in men as well. So I think he’s bisexual.

But, really, who the hell knows?

Because, yes, Oswald’s non-heterosexual orientation has only just been revealed in the show, but even still, they haven’t had him or anyone around him actually say that he isn’t heterosexual. The only reason that we know he isn’t is because he has confessed to having romantic feelings for another man. He never told anyone that he’s gay or bisexual, nobody around him expressed any surprise at discovering that he has feelings for another man (despite the fact that this is the first time that he’s expressed romantic feelings for anyone at all), and even weirder, the conflict between these two men seems to be that Edward (the one who Oswald has feelings for) is straight, and yet nobody is outright saying that this is the conflict. Which is weird, because there have been many opportunities for him or the people around him to state as much.

For example, when Edward learned that Oswald has feelings for him, he could have taken the opportunity to say something along the lines of, “but I’m not into men”, but he didn’t. Instead, he just seemed completely unaware that this was even a possibility at first, and then vaguely disturbed when it finally sunk in, and all of this without ever actually giving a reason for him to feel this way besides what the audience can fill in for themselves.

The writers of Gotham seem to be trying to treat the relationship between Oswald and Edward the same way that they would any relationship between a straight couple, which is a nice idea. I understand where it’s coming from, I do – it’s the same argument that many people take toward the fact that J.K. Rowling never textually stated that Dumbledore is gay. “It was never necessary to mention,” some people say, “because gay people aren’t special or different from straight people. They’re just people.”

Which is true. Gay people are just people. And writing queer characters who seem to be in denial about the fact that their relationships are at all different from heterosexual relationships is most certainly better than writing queer characters who only represent stereotypes around queer people. But at the same time, real life queer people are aware that they’re queer.

When I, as a bisexual woman, start to have feelings for a heterosexual woman, I’m totally aware that that’s the conflict between us. I don’t think that simply getting rid of her boyfriend will suddenly earn her a spot in my arms. If I decide to confess my feelings to her (which, honestly, I rarely would if I knew that she was straight), I would do so entirely within the context that she naturally does not feel attraction toward people of my gender. I might even use words like ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’.

And even outside of that context, as much as being bisexual is not something that defines me, it isn’t something that I just completely ignore either. Sometimes I or my friends will make jokes about it, or play around with the stereotypes around it, or, hell, even just mention it! While I don’t know if there are many opportunities for the writers of Gotham to have Oswald play around with the stereotypes around being a bisexual or gay man, the fact that they absolutely refuse to have him even just say the word does strike me as a little odd and not truly reflective of the true queer experience.

Because as much as I know that Gotham does not exist in our reality, the reality in which is does exist does not seem to harbour a society all too different from our own. I would assume that the same prejudices and difficulties that queer people face in our world exist there as well, and the fact that Edward, Barbara, Butch, Tabatha, and Oswald’s bitter maid all receive the news of his crush just the same as they would if he was expressing attraction to a woman just doesn’t seem likely. It seems like the writers’ attempts to represent queer characters without actually having to discuss any of the issues that queer people face.

Which, don’t get me wrong – not every story featuring queer characters has to be an in-depth exploration of how difficult it can be to be a queer person, but the least that the writers can do is faithfully represent how this person would go through the world.

At the end of the day, I’m still going to watch Gotham. Like I said, I’m not watching it for the queer representation – I’m watching it because baby Ozzy and baby Eddie are just so adorable! All that I hope is that the writers learn and improve with time.