We want to keep explicit, harmful, and inappropriate content out of children’s media. Nobody would disagree with that. Nobody actively wants to expose children to content that could hurt them, or lead them to to hurt others. Therefore, when someone says “I don’t think that is appropriate for children”, there is often a knee-jerk reaction to let that concern influence our decisions. Better to err on the side of caution.
I fall very much into that cautionary camp. I really and truly believe that you can’t be too careful when it comes to writing for kids. I think that it’s practically impossible to overthink what a child might learn from what they watch or read. Some of a child’s first impressions of society and people different from themself may come from the media they consume, and if that media teaches kids that difference is inherently funny or bad, that’s a lesson the child will have to actively unlearn later in life. Jokes that may seem innocent to an adult can shape the way a child interacts with the world for years to come. For example: a joke centred around a man in a dress may seem harmless, but a child may be left with the impression that people who appear masculine are worthy of ridicule while wearing feminine clothing – an impression that will likely inform their reaction to trans and nonbinary people they meet later in life, or inspire shame over their own gender identity.
However, even though you will not convince me to part with my cautionary approach to children’s media until you pry it from my cold dead hands, this attitude that I value so much unfortunately enables very important representation to be censored or demonized. While I will always contend that it is important to anticipate and listen to concerns about the appropriateness of content for children, critical thinking is equally important to ensure young viewers are not deprived of much-needed representation in their media in an attempt to please everyone.
A recent example of this phenomenon is the UK censorship of a scene from Steven Universe. In January 2016 it came to light that Cartoon Network UK altered a scene of two female characters dancing in an intimate and romantic fashion in the episode “We Need to Talk”.
A comparison between the original scene and the UK edit can be viewed here. Cartoon Network responded to criticism from fans for their decision, stating:
Cartoon Network (in Europe) often shows amended versions of programs from US originals. (…) We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. We have an ongoing dialogue with our audiences and our shows reflect their preferences. Research shows that UK kids often watch with younger siblings without parental supervision.
A number of problems have been pointed out regarding this statement, as well as the decision to censor this scene in the first place. As the article points out, this statement is “entirely inconsistent with the British ratings system – which explicitly allows kissing and cuddling in ‘U’ rated content”. Additionally, while a Cartoon Network spokesperson has stated that the network also censored a heterosexual kiss in a separate episode, there is a clear example of heteromantic dancing and kissing in “We Need to Talk” that Cartoon Network UK apparently did not deem sufficiently inappropriate to be censored.
The central issue is this: a scene depicting two characters sharing a homoromantic moment was censored. Even if the scene HAD been more romantically intimate than what is normal for the show, this would still be problematic. And even though the scene is not especially positive representation of a lesbian relationship (the dancing is initiated by Pearl, with the intention of making Greg jealous by displaying her closeness to Rose Quartz), it is still problematic. Because everything else aside, this scene is still representation of an underrepresented group. And children need to be able to see themselves in the media they consume, so that they don’t grow up believing that their experience is abnormal or wrong. By deeming this particular scene inappropriate for children, it sends the clear message that romantic intimacy between a man and woman is acceptable, but the romantic intimacy between two women is not.
Beneath this double standard is the underlying problem, not just that a television network decided homoromantic content was unsuitable for children, but that it’s clear from their statement that they based their decision on the assumption that parents would deem the scene unsuitable and complain. Because sadly, it’s not an unfounded assumption. There has been significant backlash to even minor gay representation in children’s media in recent years. The Group One Million Moms gained notoriety in part through their protesting of an Archie comic featuring a gay marriage in 2012, and more recently a lesbian couple on Disney Channel’s show Good Luck Charlie. The film ParaNorman (2012) also suffered criticism from parents unhappy with the reveal near the end of the film that one of the minor characters is gay – an online hotspot for this debate was the Common Sense Media review page for this film, with some claiming that the reveal is overly sexual, others arguing that homosexuality is a topic which should be introduced to children through a conversation with their parents. These complaints gained more traction than they should have, and were therefore treated with more seriousness than they deserved, given that these opinions could only be formed through a homophobic view of what makes romantic depictions of characters inappropriate. The logic gives heterosexual relationships in the very same media a free pass.
This is a societal problem that I think it is very important to be aware of, and to think critically about. There is a double standard whereby many people believe that same-sex relationships are somehow inherently more sexual than heterosexual relationships, and are therefore inappropriate for children’s media. And unfortunately, because we are concerned about how the media children consume may negatively impact them, sometimes we hear “I don’t think this is appropriate” and we don’t stop to think about where that concern is coming from. When it is coming from a place of homophobia, even subconscious homophobic beliefs, it is extremely important that these concerns be disregarded. Because by trying to please homophobic parents, we are actively hurting children. Whether that harm comes in the form of denying representation, or instilling homophobic beliefs which may inform the child’s actions and worldview later in life.