It’s not just the Netflix account that has parental controls. Life itself comes riddled with rules about what’s appropriate for children. Considering how important childhood is to the person they will grow up to be, it’s understandable that we want to shield them from any negative influences. It’s unfortunate then that this well-meaning idea of childhood censorship also includes queerness as being among topics that are ‘too adult’ for children to know about. This censorship of queerness hurts more than it helps, leading to lots of confused teens and twenty-somethings who are still figuring out their identities thanks to childhoods where the only kind of relationships they were exposed to were heterosexual ones.
With parents buying into childhood censorship (some to a really quite extreme extent), it’s up to other influences to give children the queer education that they are being denied. There are more queer characters and couples on television than ever before, to the point where GLAAD is retiring their Network Responsibility Index (an annual report quantifying queer representation on television) in favour of a new model that instead focuses on the quality of this representation.
Acknowledging media is important, because media provides a point of reference
Acknowledging media is important, because media provides a point of reference – characters to look to and see yourself in – and that is worth a lot when a queer education is still absent from our schools, which is where queer youth will be spending forty weeks of every year. With just the time at home to use to help our queer youth, it’s important to join GLAAD in examining the quality of queer representation – especially with regards to children’s media.
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Adventure Time’s Marceline and Princess Bubblegum are painfully familiar to any queer couple out there with younger relatives. Despite having confirmed romantic history, the bond between the two is reduced to a game of implications. They’re ‘friends’, they have a ‘bond’ – but nothing explicitly confirming their past relationship can be said onscreen where children might see it. Even when queer couples are allowed to exist in children’s media, as in Steven Universe, they are constantly under threat from the local networks. In the episode We Need to Talk, a more explicitly queer moment (where Rose dips Pearl while dancing) was censored by British distributor Cartoon Network UK due to UK legislation meaning that all programming must be ‘suitable for kids of any age at any time.’ This language reinforces the idea of queerness as an ‘adult’ topic.
I pose this question: who is all this censorship actually protecting? It certainly doesn’t do anything for our queer youth, and completely fails to recognise the value in providing a queer-friendly framework through which heterosexual children can also learn about queerness.
With all of these varying pressures trying to keep queerness vague and othered, it’s hard to learn about your own identity. It took me two years to understand my own sexuality, and in that time I went from calling myself heterosexual to asexual to bisexual and then finally to demisexual. It would have taken me much longer if it wasn’t for a friend I made in my very first seminar at university. She jokingly called herself the ‘Elf of Sexual Discovery’, and was so refreshingly open and knowledgeable that it made me take that step and admit to my own queerness.
I am aware, however, that not all of us are lucky enough to know an ‘Elf of Sexual Discovery’ who can help us on our way to an identity that fits. For me, that friend provided an education where every other traditional source had failed. It shouldn’t have been on her to deliver that service, though. It’s not fair to place the responsibility of care solely on the queer community, especially as it is all too easy to find yourself the only queer person in a circle of heterosexual friends, as was my experience during high school. Spending every school day in classes that ignored queer issues and identities with a group of heterosexual teenage boys and then going home to my heterosexual parents wasn’t exactly the best environment in which to examine my own identity, and that’s why I think a queer-friendly academic environment is so important.
I am aware, however, that not all of us are lucky enough to know an ‘Elf of Sexual Discovery’ who can help us on our way to an identity that fits.
It should be the duty of society to care for queer youth just as it cares for the needs of heterosexual youth, and by introducing queerness to school curriculums we can take a real step towards taking on that duty. In a time when ‘gay’ is a common insult in British schools – reflected by charity Stonewall’s 2013 study, which found that 99% of queer teenagers regularly hear homophobic language – it’s more important than ever to shift the responsibility from any individual ‘Elf’ that we might come across to society as a whole.