When I was about twelve years old, I was sitting beside my aunt’s pool. My aunt, an extraordinarily generous and loving woman, is also gay. I, a somewhat generous and loving man, am not. That has a lot of bearing on this story.
So there we sat as my mother and sister were swimming. My aunt and I were enjoying the sun and sipping our drinks when she rather bluntly stated, “Ryan, it’s okay that you’re gay.”
I wasn’t quite the writer at twelve years old that I am now (see my last post), but something struck me about that phrasing. My aunt didn’t say that it would be okay if I was gay, but quite forcefully insisted I was, in fact, a homosexual. “But I’m not gay,” I calmly protested.
“Honey, it’s okay that you are,” she immediately shot back.
I hope I’ve finally settled this dispute with my aunt, seeing as how I’ve had a steady girlfriend for nearly 7 years. But there is a larger point to this story than my own humiliation. Though I’m not gay, if I was I would be incredibly lucky to have such a loving and supportive family. I’ve never had any doubt that my parents, sister, aunts, uncles, or even my grandma would love me no matter what my sexual orientation was. The older I get, the more I realize how blessed I am to have that.
It disgusts me that in the year 2015 there is still so much hatred for people trying to be themselves, to be comfortable with who they are. While I could rattle on for pages about horrible stories of discrimination (the incredibly sad and recent suicide of Leelah Alcorn immediately springs to mind), there is one issue that especially affects me.
As you might suspect from my love of Jimmy Neutron and me working on a children’s TV pilot, I watch a lot of kids’ shows, both for research and pleasure. Yet in over twenty years of following this medium, out of hundreds of different shows watched and thousands of hours of television observed, I have never once seen a definitively gay character on a kids’ program. And this is incredibly disappointing to me.
Like it or not, television is an enormous part of nearly every child’s life. Every year of childhood has its own struggles, from the anxiety of the first day of kindergarten to those incredibly awkward teenage years. Television provides a means of escape and entertainment, but it so often provides more than that. Nearly everyone can related to a character on TV, someone they think mirrors their own personality and they feel a connection to. But imagine if throughout all your years growing up, you never, not once, saw a character on TV who shared your sexual orientation.
I never experienced this, but I imagine it must be awful. I have to assume that after a while, gay children must begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with them (if someone hasn’t made them feel that way already). They must wonder why there is not a single person on TV who feels the way that they do. It must utterly and completely suck to not have a gay role model, a character to look up to or feel connected to.
So why do I bring this up now? Because last month something beautiful happened that nearly broke the internet.
No, not that. Never that.
So Much Better.
In case you missed it, The Legend of Korra ended its amazing four-season run last month. Even more incredible, this children’s series that once aired on Nickelodeon ended with its titular female character embarking on a vacation with another woman, holding both her hands, and staring lovingly into her eyes.
Some people deny that this final scene had any romantic connotation, but let’s be real. This same pose was used multiple times throughout the series by characters in love, the two had growing chemistry over the past couple seasons, and the creators (Michael Dante Dimartino & Bryan Konietzko) have posted multiple links to articles congratulating this romance on their facebook pages. I have no doubt that the creators did everything they could to make this ending as clear as possible.
This was an incredible first step towards solving the problem of lack of gay representation in children’s programming. I couldn’t be less surprised that it was The Legend of Korra that ushered in this change. Jimmy Neutron no doubt inspired me to write in general, and it obviously inspired my fanfiction. But nothing has inspired my pilot script more than Avatar: The Last Airbender & The Legend of Korra.
I remember that the first time I ever saw Avatar was when I walked in on my sister viewing it in the parlor. I was fifteen years old, past the age when I watched cartoons. She was watching the episode entitled The Blue Spirit, and the main character Aang was breaking out of prison with the help of a masked ally. I caught a few seconds of the fight scene that ensued and remember sitting down next to her. “Wow,” I muttered in disbelief while following the amazing choreography. “It’s like…they’re actually in danger.” Never before in a kids’ show had I seen such an intense fight; had I felt that the main characters were in serious peril and might not make it to the end of the episode.
“I know,” she shot back. “It’s awesome.”
Unfortunately, teenage arrogance prevented me from pursuing my curiosity. I already felt guilty for having been obsessed with Jimmy Neutron the year before and wasn’t willing to watch another kids’ show when I was even older. I would catch glimpses of the show here and there when she had it on, but I didn’t actually sit down and watch the whole thing until two year ago, when my writing partner Ed and I were starting work on our pilot.
“I want this show to have a very serious tone,” I summed up our weeks of progress. “Something like Avatar did.”
Ed’s face lit up. “Definitely. I didn’t know you watched that.”
Once again, but for a different reason, I felt guilty. “I never actually finished it. Just saw a few episodes here and there.”
Ed, a huge fan of the series, urged me to watch it all as soon as I could. Finally comfortable enough to watch kids’ shows unashamed and eager to get a better feel for the type of show we wanted to create, I eagerly booted up my laptop a few nights later and checked out the pilot.
I think I finished the other 60 episodes in less than a week.
I’d never, not once, seen anything like that show. It was without a doubt the most amazing children’s programming in existence (sorry Jimmy!). It easily competed with some of the best television period. The characters were incredibly fleshed out. The animation was fluid, detailed, and breathtaking. The music tugged at the heartstrings or got your blood racing. And best of all, throughout this entire series that was created for children, I never, not once, felt it talked down to them.
This show never held back any punches. The good guys would get beat sometimes, even losing their lives. Every fight scene seemed like it might be a character’s last. Throughout the series, there was just a sense of pure purpose. This was a show that knew what it wanted to do. It wanted to tell an amazing story with incredible characters. It wanted to teach children beautiful lessons: forgiveness, hope, perseverance, the power of love and friendship. But it didn’t just flatly state those things; it earned them.
Just look at this exchange from one episode. What other children’s show has lines like these, about hunting down and killing the man who murdered your mother?
Katara: Now that I know he’s out there, now that I know we could find him, I feel like I have no choice.
Aang: Katara, you do have a choice. Forgiveness.
Zuko: That’s the same as doing nothing.
Aang: No, it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing. But it’s hard to forgive.
If that doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will.
So, to sum up my rambling, Avatar was everything I imagined a kids’ show could be. Then Korra came along and somehow took it one step further.
Korra smashed every boundary that was left. Despite being an action show for children, its main character was a headstrong woman. Heck, by the fourth season it seemed like nearly the entire cast was female. Death, a present but rarely utilized aspect in Avatar, took a larger focus in Korra. One season ended with a murder-suicide. Another had an assassination by asphyxiation, complete with bloodshot and bulging eyes as the victim gasped for breath. Terrorism, the validity of democracy and anarchism, and PTSD were just some of the topics seen in this series. And, of course, the final episode revealed its major female character was in love with another woman.
I think you can see why these shows inspire me. And they clearly inspire others as well.
In the weeks since Korra’s finale, hundreds of articles and blog posts have been written about what this means for the LGBT community, for acceptance in America, and for the future of childrens’ TV. Things are changing across America. It seems like just yesterday gays could only get married in a few states, and now over 2/3rds of the U.S. allows everyone marry those they love. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re finally getting there. And I couldn’t be more proud of Avatar & Korra for doing all they could do to lead that charge.
Last year, I decided that I wanted one of the major characters in my TV show to be a lesbian to help combat the lack of gay characters in childrens’ programming. I always had serious doubts that this would ever be allowed should my show get picked up. But now? Now I’m starting to believe that it’s possible. I’m starting to believe that if my pilot ever airs, people will say it is following in Korra’s footsteps.
And that’s about the best damned compliment a show could ever get.