By Debbie Bray
“I think if everyone was the same it would be boring, as there would be nothing new to experience”
That’s from Amiee, a 7-year-old girl in London. She’s part of a bubbly group of close friends who are – for such a young age – all surprisingly interested in challenging gender stereotypes: one is a massive fan of Boy George (a role model from the last series of the BBC’s The Voice) because he wears makeup and “just doesn’t care”, another takes issue with the traditional uses of blue and pink in the toy sections of some big stores. Across the river, in the south of the city, a group of 11 year old boys were similarly concerned that female tennis players weren’t getting paid the same as their male equivalents.
Why are kids suddenly so interested in gender and sexual identities?
At Hook Research we spent our summer traveling up and down the United Kingdom, speaking to groups of children about their lives and a range of topics: what we kept finding was that kids were eager to speak to us about difference. Not to make fun of it or to worry about it – but to celebrate it.
Gender and sexuality were two points of which children seemed particularly aware. But where are kids developing these ideas about difference? While discussing these issues in the school environment certainly has a major role, we think that there is another factor at play as well: children’s TV. Shows like Adventure Time, We Bare Bears, The Dumping Ground, and Steven Universe were all discussed by our participants as programmes that illustrate and celebrate difference. Youth programming is reshaping itself around an exploration of identity, and these strong, positive, and varied portrayals of characters on screen are helping children come to terms with difference, and ultimately giving them confidence in how they perceive themselves.
Steven Universe has already received much critical attention. The show – the first Cartoon Network programme created solely by a woman – is well recognized among writers in the blogosphere as an animation celebrating strong, female characters. Although “The Gems”, surrogate parents of the titular Steven, are technically genderless, they do mainly present as female and use the she pronoun. The main Gems are all strong figures in their own rights and each presents a different type of femininity: from the elegant Pearl, to the fun-loving Amethyst, and the aggressive Garnet. It only takes a few episodes to see just how much starry-eyed Steven loves and looks up to these women as role models – there’s even a song in the first season in which the Steven expresses his desire to be a “giant woman” just like them. While The Loud House and Clarence have both made history recently with their portrayal of same-sex characters on screen, Steven Universe has been presenting a homosexual subtext for much longer. Steven is a young boy happily raised by three woman, one of whom – Garnet – is actually a “fusion” of two other feminine Gems, Ruby and Sapphire. Garnet literally embodies the romantic relationship between these two women.
Steven Universe isn’t the only show exploring themes of gender and sexuality: Adventure Time also explores same-sex relationships, particularly within the characters of vampire-like Marceline and Princess Bubblegum. In “What was Missing” a past dating history is hinted at between the two young women, a relationship confirmed by Marceline voice actress Olivia Olsen. The gender-bending “Fiona and Cake” episode in season 3 further explores this issue, unceremoniously swapping out the two main characters Finn and Jake for female equivalents. The episode is devoted to an exploration of romantic relationships, concluding with the powerful comment from Fiona about her desire to find a partner: “I don’t need to feel like I’m waiting to be noticed – I know who I am, and I’ll know what I want if and when it ever comes along”. As well as making a strong case for sexual independence, the comment notably avoids speaking of relationships in a heterosexual manner – Fiona will find happiness with whomever she chooses, regardless of that person’s gender.
In each of these children’s shows we see emphasised again and again a focus on identity – and children are certainly taking this message to heart. When we asked a young group of girls aged 8-9 about how they might define a “normal” family, they were quick to point out that there was no such thing: “Some people think having a mum and dad is normal,” pointed out one girl with a shake of the head, “but that is definitely not the case”. Animations’ repeated portrayals of positive, strong characters in all kinds of non-traditional relationships are definitely connecting with young viewers and their message is helping to reinforce children’s acceptance of all types of identities.
Importantly, running beneath all of this, is recognition of everyone’s basic humanity: as one boy told us at the end of our session, “you really shouldn’t judge people. We are all the same after all, aren’t we?” There’s a great moment in We Bare Bears that really captures this sentiment. The main ursine characters are standing on the conference table of a megacorporation stripping down to their furry coats – just go with it – and Panda, the more caring and emotional of the three bear brothers, says: “This is who I really am, this is my true form”. Stripping away (here, quite literally) their fashionable clothes, high-flying jobs, and high-maintenance relationships the bears revel only in their strong personalities and shared brotherhood.
At this year’s Children’s Media Conference we were reminded repeatedly of how children’s media is leading the industry, and Hook’s research into this area has revealed just how important youth programming can be in shaping children. Not only have animations like the ones discussed above helped create a culture of acceptance among young viewers, but they have also provided strong, positive role models for youths, no matter their gender or orientation.
By Debbie Bray, Co-founder, Hook Research
Hook Research (www.hookresearch.co.uk) is a London based content development specialist and market research agency. We are proud to provide consumer insights and brand strategy to some of the biggest organisations across media, youth, and entertainment. If you would like a free copy of our 2016 Show & Tell report into UK youth culture, please visit bit.ly/ShowNTell2016 or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org