Where Are The Gay Classics? The past, present and future of kid books and TV where not everyone is straight. By Brett Berk for Babble.com.Brett Berk
When I was a little boy growing up in the Midwest, the closest thing I had to a queer media role model – besides Bert and Ernie – was Ferdinand, the flower-sniffing, cork-tree-shade-sitting, hoop-earring-wearing, Spanish bull who refused to participate in the bullfights. Ferdy wasn’t overtly gay in any way – in fact, many people thought he wasn’t even a bull, but simply a pacifist metaphor, drafted in opposition to Franco’s ascendance – but I distinctly remember sitting on the floor of my room, reading the story, and feeling a connection with his bovine alienation.
My parents were remarkably accepting. They encouraged my love of cooking and hatred of team sports, and allowed me to dress as a girl for Halloween. And so while I’m not sure that I (or my folks) would have identified with a kids’ book that was intentionally meant to delineate my difference, some of the other boys and girls at my elementary school certainly could have used a lesson in tolerating those of us who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles, something a bit stronger than Rosie Greer singing “It’s Alright to Cry” on Free to Be You and Me.
This need was further enunciated when I started teaching preschool in the early ’90s. I found such a paucity of gay characters in children’s literature then – my choice was between the hammer-headed polemicism of Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Wonderland, 1989) and the outmoded showtune clich’s of Daddy’s Roomate (Alyson Wonderland, 1991) – that when I read stories to the kids at the school I ran in Manhattan’s East Village, I often used to change the genders of one of the protagonists so the book was about two male elephants or two female crows flirting or falling in with one another.
I didn’t do this to be cute, or even to reflect the realities of my staff (about two-thirds of whom were queer), but because I noticed just how boringly hetero-normative so many of the books we read were – ending with opposite gender pairings and weddings as their solutions – and wanted the kids to have an incidental alternative to all of this, one that didn’t make a “problem” or “issue” out of our human range of sexuality, but simply embraced it as a normal part of life. Sometimes, I even skipped the ending altogether.
However, with the recent bigoted efforts to restrict who can participate in matrimonial bliss, if I were still in the classroom today, I might be prone to leave these gender-morphed endings in. Better yet, I might just read some of the recently published picture books that cover this very topic.
My favorite among these is probably Uncle Bobby’s Wedding (Putnam, 2008), the story of a little girl guinea pig who becomes jealous when her favorite guinea pig uncle decides to marry his gay guinea pig boyfriend. I liked the book’s incidental treatment of the uncles’ sexuality – the fact that the two rodents are homosexual is not mentioned or problematized, but simply accepted as the premise.
Though I don’t have any plans to marry my boyfriend of eighteen years – and though all of my nieces actually like him better than me – I connected with the storyline on some personal level. And as the author of The Gay Uncle’s Guide to Parenting (Crown, 2008) I support the primacy of Guncles in contemporary literature. But mostly I loved the book for its fashion. The gay Guinea Pigs have a sort of College Professor meets French Navy vibe to their daily style. Their longhaired male relatives rock a Walt Whitman look. And if my b.f. and I ever do decide to tie the knot, I’d want to don the exact nuptial outfits worn by Uncles Bobby and Jamie: tuxedo shirts, bow ties, tailed jackets, and no pants.
I also enjoyed the Dutch fable King & King (Tricycle, 2000), which follows a reigning Queen’s confusion and disappointment when her son fails to show interest in the princesses she sets him up with – and her eventual acceptance when he falls for one of his suitoresses’ brothers. The weird collage-y drawings are compelling, the tale of gay throne ascension is a nice way of underscoring the rights traditionally associated with marriage (inheritance, taxation, health insurance), and the story was simple and easy to follow. I’d want to don the same nuptial outfits: tuxedo shirts, bow ties, tailed jackets, and no pants.
The same cannot be said for the sequel King and King and Family (Tricycle, 2004) which mysteriously revolves around the royal gents going to Africa on their honeymoon and returning with a stolen native girl in their suitcase. For a much kinder and clearer exploration of gay adoption, I would recommend the adorable And Tango Makes Three (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a true story about a pair of male penguins (Roy and Silo) who – like many gay men – meet in Central Park, fall in love, build a nest, and try their damnedest to make a baby, before they’re given a real egg of their own to sit on. The book highlights difference by underscoring similarity, it has a profound sense of love behind it, and it mentions – but does not go out of its way to explain – why a gay guy would fall in love with a dude named Silo. Plus, all the characters dress like Uncles Bobby and Jamie – in tuxes, with no pants – all the time.
Final on the marriage list is the lesbian wedding story Mom and Mum are Getting Married (Second Story, 2004) in which – like Canada, the country from which it originates – there is no drama or conflict, but simply frank acceptance. The book is notable for three things: the moms’ hot ’80s-inspired butch/femme wedding outfits, the T-shirt silkscreened with an ersatz suit that their young son wears to the ceremony, and the fact that the book was published with the financial support of the Canadian government. We have much to learn from our neighbors to the north.
Another subset of the new Queer Lit for Kids mimics the Ferdinand mold, revolving around characters who are confronted with difficulties for not conforming to traditional gender roles. Two of these stories – The Boy Who Cried Fabulous (Tricycle, 2004) and Harvey Fierstein’s The Sissy Duckling (Aladdin, 2005) – are about young males whose inflexible and macho fathers deride them for being, well, fabulous sissies: wonderfully nelly fellas who are no good at sports, love to cook, and run about exclaiming how simply dazzling things like stilettos and cheerleading pom-poms are.
Unlike many real-life tales of femmy gay boys growing up in provincial locales – which entail relentless torture at the hands of family and peers, a need to hide one’s true self, and eventual escape to an accepting community – both of these stories end upliftingly, with the locals learning a valuable lesson from the little queens. But where Sissy is radical in its unrelenting truth to itself – it ends with its protagonist proclaiming, James Brown-like, “I’m a BIG SISSY and PROUD!” – I found Fabulous‘ similar message diluted by its bland metered verse, fussily stylized illustrations, and incredibly cloying protagonist. I couldn’t wait for that loud-mouthed, brown-nosing kid to be ostracized out of the book, or at least told to turn it down below volume eleven for a sec.
The Different Dragon (Two Lives, 2006) tells much the same tale, but adds a clever narrative twist. In it, a little boy is told a bedtime story about a Dragon who, like our famous bull, doesn’t want to act tough, and who is relieved when he’s instructed that there are “lots of different ways to be a dragon.” But the twist comes in who is telling this story: one of the little boy’s two lesbian moms. So it becomes a fable about embracing difference told as an open-ended plea for tolerance. I liked the book’s casual acceptance of the boy’s family unit, and desire not to make an issue out of it. But I felt like the “fictional” bedtime story could have been more powerful if it was related directly to some sort of conflict in the boy’s life: bullying, the moms’ horror at their son’s terrifying butchness, a manufactured peanut allergy. It felt a little abstract to me.
Our final category is a sort of odd catchall that I call Sapphic Delusion. The first example is the illustrated book Flying Free (Booksurge, 2004) a story narrated from the perspective of a firefly (?!!!??) who is caught in a jar in order to be used as a nightlight by the daughter of a lesbian couple. The bug hides, tries to escape, and is – at the mothers’ behest – eventually released. The story was slight and inane, and seemed to contain a misplaced slavery metaphor. Not to mention the fact that the characters looked like they were drawn by a third grader and modeled on her collection of Bratz figurines. But I did like the book’s casual lesbianism. We’re just two women with a kid, the story seemed to be saying, and we just happen to look like slutty dolls.
Finally, we have Dottie’s Magic Pockets, a truly extraordinary DVD that proclaims itself “The First Children’s Program for Kids in Gay & Lesbian Households.” I was under the impression that kids of Gay & Lesbian parents could watch whatever they wanted, but I dutifully screened the disc’s two episodes, and while I applaud the creators for attempting to make a kids’ program concerning a lesbian couple with a child, I’m totally puzzled by the show’s premise.
As far as I can tell, it concerns a stay-at-home-mom whose partner goes to work and whose kid goes to school and who – instead of taking care of things around the house like she’s expected to – has some sort of psychotic episode and starts talking to the furniture, the walls, the fireplace, and a pat of butter, all of whom answer back in cheap “ethnic” accents. There are also some droll songs, pleas for collective understanding, and a dose of nonsensical instruction about homophones. It’s like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on a handful of Dilaudid. As someone who has advised the creators of some of the most successful kids’ television programs, I would like to offer this advice to the show’s producers: reevaluate.
But it feels a bit niggling to complain at all, given the limited supply of gay goods out there for kids. If I were still running my school, I’m sure I’d have all of these properties on my shelf, which makes me feel a little . . . depressed. I recently completed a consulting project for a major toy manufacturer, part of which entailed talking to groups of Latino moms about the characters they cherish for their kids. Some familiar ones came up – Disney, Elmo – but it wasn’t until the end that someone mentioned the Big D. “I hate Dora,” one of the moms finally stated, to guffaws of agreement from her cohorts. “Just because we’re Spanish, people think we like Dora. We don’t. She’s dorky looking, she’s annoying, and they often get the language wrong. I like Maya and Miguel. I like Handy Manny.” High School Musical is the gayest thing to hit popular culture since Liberace.
Though the gays are gaining ground on Bravo, we haven’t quite achieved our Dora moment yet: we don’t have enough representation with young kids to allow us to be selective. Things are changing with our youth. Witness the way that young people see gay rights as a civil rights issue, and vote accordingly; to say nothing of the High School Musical franchise, which is probably the gayest thing to hit popular culture since Liberace. But we have a long way to go before we see a recurring, overtly gay character on a mainstream kids’ show.
I had someone tell me recently that one of the reasons that Californians opposed gay marriage was because they didn’t want to have to introduce the topic to their kids. Well, I told them (and I’ll tell you) that introducing kids to homosexuality is no different from introducing them to heterosexuality – something we do all the time. There are appropriate ways to handle the topic. And some of the media I’ve reviewed here does so: clearly, compassionately, and humorously, but most of all with the acceptance of its normality. Be it sexuality, bedtime, or broccoli, kids don’t see things as problems until we problematize them. My nieces have grown up with their gay uncles, and see us as normal (or as normal as my boyfriend and I can be). Maybe by the time they’re of parenting age, I’ll be able to do another, bigger Queer Media review. Perhaps by then, we’ll be able to look back on this time laughingly as the era in which Ernie and Bert still slept in separate beds.