By now, you’ve probably heard that, after years and years of speculation, beloved Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie finally came out… as genderless—or more specifically, male puppets without any sexual orientation. Yup, sorry for breaking your hearts. Now that we’re past that question (or trying to, at least), another remains: What’s all the fuss really about? As puppeteer and creator of Bert, Frank Oz, said, “Why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay?” Well, I think though it’s true what he said that “There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness,” the heart of the matter here was media representation, especially in a show for kids.
For the longest time, the subject of gender and sexuality has remained taboo in mainstream media. It’s only now that we’ve become open to wider discussions on this issue. When it comes to cartoons and youth shows, there have been an even greater censorship as they are targeted on the young who are impressionable. But that is also why they are crucial now, as tools to defeat gender stereotypes and create a future generation that’s more educated and sensitive when it comes to matters on gender and sexuality. So whether they like it or not, creators take on a big responsibility.
Bert and Ernie weren’t the first and only characters whose gender became a large question mark. Viewers get confused about a lot of other characters’ gender too, mostly because they go against gender stereotypes. Sometimes the creators do it deliberately, sometimes not. Here are some examples.
For the longest time, we all thought Tweety bird was female. This has not been helped by Warner Bros. largely marketing the character for girls, including launching clothing lines that depict him wearing bows and flowers in his head feathers. Some people were also misled by his high-pitched voice and long eyelashes. His creator, Bob Clampett, said, however, that his eyelashes and high-pitched voice was simply because he is supposed to be a baby bird.
Piglet is literally pink from head to toe, has a squeaky, high voice, and a timid personality, so naturally, people see him and they think: girl. Well, it turns out the smallest and most sensitive of the bunch is actually a guy. Incidentally, his best friend Winnie the Pooh’s gender has also become a topic of speculation, so let’s set the record straight on that too: He’s male, but based on a real, female bear. In fact, Kanga is the only female character in the books.
Blue is traditionally associated with boys so it comes as no surprise that most people thought of the titular character in Blue’s Clues as male. Actually, the confusion could have easily been avoided if people only paid more attention to the show, where she was often referred to in the female pronoun. Oh, and if the other characters’ gender confuse you, too. we’ll go ahead clear that up: Magenta is female, Green Puppy is female, and Periwinkle, the purple cat, is male. Also, Shovel is male and Pail is female. Got that?
Adventure Time can’t exactly be called a children’s show exclusively, as its theme appeals to even the older generation, including a progressive view on gender issues. For instance, Princess Bubblegum was implicated as having a romantic relationship with Marceline the vampire queen. BMO is also another character whose gender fascinated viewers. Well, just like Bert and Ernie are genderless because they are puppets, BMO is actually genderless because they are a robot. Unlike the puppets though, it doesn’t seem like they’re straight, as BMO has been portrayed as both male and female depending on different episodes.
Another progressive cartoon show of this generation is Steven Universe as it openly includes LGBT characters, like Ruby, whom we can confirm as a butch lesbian, despite many assuming she is a boy because of her appearance and because she is in a romantic relationship with the feminine Sapphire. This came as a shock to some people. Props to the show for not only including LGBT characters, but also for normalizing same-sex relationships.
Art by Marian Hukom
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