LGBTQ Representation in Children’s Television Moves Forward

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(L to R) David Errigo Jr. as Dudley, Ashlyn Madden as Ismat, Iara Nemirovsky as Ridley Jones, Tyler Shamy as Dante, Ezra Menas as Fred, and Laraine Newman as Peaches in episode 102 of Ridley Jones Cr. Courtesy Of Netflix © 2021

Several television shows for young children, including the venerable “Sesame Street,” have recently introduced LGBTQ characters, and a new one launching this month promises even more inclusion.

For the episode “Family Day,” on June 17, “Sesame Street” included a two-dad couple in the main “Full Street Story” segment of the show for the first time. (Same-sex parents had been briefly mentioned or shown in a few smaller segments before.) In “Family Day,” we meet Dave (Chris Costa), his husband Frank (Alex Weisman), and their daughter Mia (Olivia Perez), who are all visiting Dave’s sister, existing cast member Nina (Suki Lopez). They’re introduced just like several other families and no one blinks. Abby’s stepbrother Rudy observes, “Wow, all these families are so different!” and Frank comments, “Yeah, there’s all kinds of different families. But what makes us a family is that we love each other.” It’s a little on the nose, but if there’s one message to convey here, that’s it.

The episode, which can be viewed on HBO Max or free on YouTube, was directed by cast member Alan Muraoka, who has played the proprietor of Hooper’s Store for more than two decades and in real life lives with his husband Herb Perry and their cat. He announced the episode on Facebook, saying, “I am so honored and humbled to have co-directed this important and milestone episode. Love is love, and we are so happy to add this special family to our Sesame family. Happy Pride to all!!!!”

In May, Dreamworks Animation’s “Madagascar: A Little Wild” (Hulu and Peacock), about a group of animals in a rescue habitat in the Central Park Zoo, introduced new character Odee the Okapi, who is nonbinary and voiced by nonbinary actor Ezra Menas. In the episode “Whatever Floats Your Float,” by queer writer Laura Zak, the animals prepare for the annual “Animal Pride Parade” and Marty the Zebra (Amir O’Neil) tries to decide which float Odee should ride, since Odee seems part zebra and part giraffe. Odee tries to oblige and act like each animal in turn, but doesn’t quite fit either role. Ultimately, both Marty and Odee learn to celebrate the things that make Odee unique.

This is a great step forward, although I hope the analogy isn’t lost on kids. The animals do refer to Odee with “they” pronouns, but this is never explained, and Odee’s nonbinary identity is never associated with gender. Still, the message of celebrating people for who they are is always a good one.

The Paramount+ reboot of the children’s TV series “Rugrats” in May also introduced a single queer mom. In the original series, toddler twins Phil and Lil’s mom Betty was married to a man. In the reboot, however, she’s queer and single, voiced by queer actor Natalie Morales. Betty likes to play football, owns a coffee shop, and slings cappuccinos as she keeps an eye on her toddler twins. Although she’s single, she mentions an ex-girlfriend in an offhand comment.

Nick Jr. show “Blue’s Clues & You” released a special video for Pride, featuring a range of queer families and flags, and a song sung by drag queen Nina West. The show also posted a special “Celebrating Pride Month With Blue & Josh! Opening Mail” video, with real kids talking about Pride, LGBTQ equality, and the LGBTQ people in their lives. Both videos were released on YouTube, however, not on the broadcast show.

Finally, “Ridley Jones,” premiering July 13 on Netflix, promises ongoing queer inclusion among core characters. It’s the latest show from the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Chris Nee, creator of Disney Junior’s “Doc McStuffins” and also a lesbian mom. The titular character is basically Indiana Jones as a six-year-old girl, right down to the fedora. Alongside her mother and grandmother, Ridley (Iara Nemirovsky) protects the museum she calls home — no easy task, because when the lights go out, the exhibits come to life. Her friends include a nonbinary bison named Fred (again voiced by Ezra Menas) and a mummy girl (Ashlyn Madden) with two dad mummies.

“Is Fred a he or a she?” Ridley asks astronaut monkey Peaches (Laraine Newman) in Episode 1. “I don’t know, they’re just Fred,” Peaches replies. “Cool,” says Ridley, with unconditional acceptance.

These aren’t the first shows for young kids to include LGBTQ characters, but “Sesame Street” is arguably the one with the highest profile — and certainly the longest tenure. And the nonbinary characters indicate representation is broadening beyond the staple of same-sex parents (or in Betty’s case, a single lesbian or bisexual parent).

Are things changing for the better? In a tweet on June 15, Nee referenced a 2017 episode of “Doc McStuffins” that featured a two-mom family and noted, “Having fought so hard in the past to do a single episode with same sex parents… it was a joy to introduce recurring characters [in “Ridley Jones”] without any pushback at all.” Whether that indicates an industry shift or just her experience with Netflix remains to be seen.

Likewise, it’s unclear if we will see recurring instances of the queer characters on the other shows above. And the only mainstream television series for young children that focused primarily on a family with queer members was Hulu’s “The Bravest Knight,” which ran for one season in 2019; a second has not yet been announced.

Kids of LGBTQ parents, LGBTQ kids, and their peers all need these shows, which reflect their families, their selves, and their world. The progress above is heartening, but we must keep pushing networks and producers for more.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 700+ LGBTQ family books, media, and more.