Non-binary characters like “Gonzo-rella” light up children’s television and encourage self-acceptance


“I don’t want you to be mad at me, but I don’t want to do things because that’s how they’ve always been done either,” Gonzo told their friends with newfound confidence. “I want to be me.”

For children whose gender expression may not subscribe to preconceived notions of what a boy or girl should look or act like, it can be extremely important to see yourself reflected on screen, even if the characters are puppets or whimsical gems that live in a pastel wonderland, said Lindsay Toman, assistant professor of LGBTQ studies at Colgate University.

Representation alone does not make a story strong. It is rare for characters to mention the words “non-binary” or “genre-miscellaneous” on the aforementioned series. But on each of these series, the characters whose identities do not perfectly match the binary of the genres are celebrated by their friends of the series and respected by the creators of their series in largely positive scenarios.

“Anyone can benefit from validating their identity,” Toman told CNN. “What is important is that all young children see positive images so that they can get to know themselves and others better.”

“Muppet Babies” and “Steven Universe” Present Positive Non-Binary Scenarios

When “Gonzo-rella” aired this summer, it seemed to cement what some Muppets fans believed about Gonzo – that the Muppet who loves chickens is not binary. But for very young viewers – “Muppet Babies” is for kids ages 4 and up, according to Common Sense Media – it featured a protagonist who shies away from gender labels and norms.

In less than 15 minutes Gonzo is heartbroken, gets dressed and has the time of his life at a ball. And although the Muppet Moppets are at first surprised to learn that Gonzo was their mysterious princess, they wholeheartedly support their “Gonzo-rella”, discarding the “royal manual” that once decreed that Muppets featuring men should wear knight costumes at a ball. .

Gonzo does not officially appear in the episode as non-binary. But Gonzo’s dream of putting on a nice dress isn’t played for laughs – their desire is genuine, as is their fear that their friends will not accept them. Miss Piggy even uses the pronouns “they” and “them” to refer to “Gonzo-rella”. The critical response to the episode was largely positive, with the exception of a few vocal exceptions.
“Gonzo-rella” is just one episode in a long tradition of children’s television covering complex topics in terms young viewers can understand. “Sesame Street” taught children about death, racism and drug addiction through puppets. In “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” everyone’s favorite neighbor opened up about gun violence after a series of high-profile shootings. Children’s series can cover topics that parents may not know how to discuss when they meet children where they are.

Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Cartoon Network’s sweet and contemplative series “Steven Universe” and its sequel, felt young viewers would understand her characters without labeling them. The cast is full of non-binary, LGBTQ, or otherwise binary gender-defying characters through their gender expression.

“We knew the kids would understand,” Sugar told CNN in an email. “Kids love good stories and funny cartoon characters! It was difficult to convince the adults that LGBTQIA + stories and characters could be good and funny, but kids didn’t care. They were too busy watching the show! ”

“Steven Universe,” premiered in 2013, stars a half-human boy and his family of female Crystal Gems. While the series is full of humor and hijinx, its soul lies in exploring who its characters are and how they evolve.

Take one of the first episodes, in which Steven and his friend / sweetheart Connie “merge”, meaning the two bond physically and mentally and form a great role model who enchants both men and women. Becoming “Stevonnie” inspires both Steven and Connie to access a trust they never knew they had, even as the two later return to their lives as separate people.

“You are not two people, and you are not one person,” said Garnet, a crystal gem who is itself a fusion of two gems, in a supportive conversation with Stevonnie. “You are an experience! Make sure you are a Well to live.”

Another beloved episode sees Garnet’s two halves, Gems Ruby and Sapphire, get engaged after a long relationship (Crystal Gems are all non-binary women, as Sugar has said in previous interviews). And an episode of the epilogue series, “Steven Universe Future,” features the non-binary character Shep, voiced by actor Indya Moore, who is transgender and non-binary, as a new partner for Steven Sadie’s friend.

“Steven Universe” doesn’t make subtle hints or nods to a character’s identity or sexuality, and it doesn’t deal with crude jokes designed to get over children’s heads. Characters aren’t always labeled as non-binary, queer, or trans on the show. They are just who they are – and that was intentional, said Sugar, who uses both the pronouns “she” and “they.”

"She-Ra and the Princesses of Power"  is the rarest of televised exploits

Sugar and many of their loved ones have “fluid gender and sexual identities,” they said. They absolutely wanted explicitly queer characters in the cartoons – something that maybe benefited them when they were younger, when they felt alienated from gendered children’s entertainment.

“I just wanted something for us, through us and about us,” they said.

Animated series have a little more freedom to tell stories about gender identity and gender expression, as their worlds are generally more fantastic than ours. There are fewer rules – why, sure a magical rat can turn a Muppet into a princess – and the appearances of the characters are not dictated by reality.

On “Steven Universe,” Sugar aimed to “blur all genre tropes,” from plot points to color choices. The abstraction of animation gives viewers the ability to “project into character,” Sugar said.

“Their humanity is our humanity! ” they said. “Loving a cartoon character is, in a sense, loving the part of yourself that you see in that character.”

Children see themselves in these TV series

It benefits both the diverse and non-binary genre and for cisgender youth to see positive stories about gender diversity, said Laura Edwards-Leeper, a clinical child psychologist who works with children and adolescents of diverse genders.

“Children learn a lot from what they see portrayed in the media and they look for characters they can relate to,” she said.

Once kids identify a TV character to relate to, they “internalize aspects of how that character is viewed and treated by others,” Edwards-Leeper said. And if this treatment is positive, that positivity can rub off on the young viewer, improving their self-confidence and validating their own unique way of expressing their gender.

But perhaps the biggest impact is not in young audiences, but in their parents, she said.

Away from school pressures, children who challenge gender norms thrive at home

“These representations can help teach cisgender parents and other adults that rejecting the gender binary and more accepting gender diversity in children is more important to their psychological health and quality of life,” said Edwards-Leeper.

Garnet, a main character of "Steven universe"  is a non-binary woman.

Giving children an example of what a heterosexual character looks like – especially when that character is accepted and loved – can provide them with the language with which to express themselves more fully, Edwards-Leeper said.

“Many young people of various genders say they never knew gender identities or had the language to describe how they felt until it was portrayed in the media,” she said.

Even Sugar said that making “Steven Universe” helped them understand each other better – and introduced them to a community to belong to.

“I realized that I was saying things with the cartoon about my sexuality and my gender that I hadn’t actually admitted to my friends or family or even to myself,” they said.

Non-binary characters are a bigger part of children’s television

The past 10 years have seen a marked improvement in the portrayal of queer and non-binary characters on children’s television – Insider has recorded at least 259 LGBTQ characters on children’s shows, 38 of which were non-binary (a good chunk of those – these were from “Steven Universe”).
But portrayal alone doesn’t necessarily move the needle when it comes to broader societal acceptance, said Toman who has studied the impact of negative portrayals of LGBTQ characters in children’s media. In a 2014 study of children’s books, Toman found that most of the LGBTQ characters in those books were white boys, and most of their stories focused on the harassment they faced.

“I think for a long time the visibility and presence of an LGBTQ character has been a huge step in the right direction, but it’s not enough anymore,” Toman said. “We need to reflect on our cultural changes and create platforms for all types of people.”

Gonzo's longtime friends accept them when they reveal they were dressed like a princess at Muppet Babies.  Ball.
Sugar did not include non-binary characters in his series for the purpose of making history or populating a database or Wikipedia entry. They wanted to reflect the world as they had experienced it – and make every child feel welcome in “Steven Universe” whether or not they identify as non-binary or gender diverse. It’s a message with special resonance this year, as at least 33 states have introduced bills that would target transgender minors.

“I wondered what it might mean to seek this empathy and concern from a generation of children, and if that might be a very small part of creating a safer world,” Sugar said.

Good stories move the people who engage with them and make a place for them in history. When viewers see themselves in a character or script, they can also get to know each other a little better, although these stories feature effervescent gems and wacky toddler Muppets.


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