Let’s all agree on this, the media doesn’t like to portray queer children. We can have lots of wonderful and nuanced gay couples flourishing in front of our eyes accompanied with some transgender characters in our TV shows, but don’t even think about getting a beautiful coming out story of a child with an identity crisis, because kids watching it might “get confused” and ask things we’re not prepared to answer as the grown-ass adults we are.
We don’t like to confront the things we’re not able—or don’t want—to understand. That’s why most of the audiences, especially parents, get usually startled when even a hint of queerness stands out on their children’s TV shows because talking about it will automatically imply we want our children to be themselves and live a full life instead of living within the borders of the idea of life we have for them.
We like to see our children depicted as five-year-old heterosexual boys holding hands with five-year-old heterosexual girls yearning for long-lasting relationships since the first day they were born and dreaming with being home-steady moms and dads who provide for their families. Basically, the perfect family picture.
And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad with wanting to have the family, the house, the children and the dog visualized in the future. The problem here is that the media is not capable to look beyond that stereotype, especially when our reality is really different and far from it. Every day, there are more and more queer children embracing their identities and feeling good about themselves than we can handle, and that scares us.
That’s why most TV shows, especially the ones that have a younger audience, prefer to depict their children as heterosexuals —especially men— from the very beginning. In fact, they would probably establish them as such on the first or second episode of the season to leave no doubts about it.
We can’t have a little boy on television who is sensitive and caring without clarifying upfront his heterosexuality. We also can’t have a child who doesn’t have a romantic interest (or even intentions of having one) without giving them one immediately, because being single would probably mean that they’re indecisive or gay. Sadly, that’s a direct reflection of our reality and the ways we reduce children’s identity.
Nowadays, is really easy to find stories of little boys falling in love with little girls —and not the other way around— from a very young age in TV shows, as opposed on investing in creating meaningful stories that centre on them being alone and discovering themselves; that would leave no space to believe that they are nothing but heterosexuals. People actually prefer to create a love arc between their little heterosexual children before considering the idea of, I don’t know, letting them be children.
There isn’t a better example of this than the characters of Jackson (Michael Campion) and Max (Elias Harger) from Netflix’s Fuller House (2016): a pair of thirteen-year-old and seven-year-old boys respectively, who have been problematically paired up with several girls since episode one of their three-season run, with lots of excuses, narratively-wise, to justify this.
Jackson has been portrayed, from the very beginning, as a teenager experiencing his wonderful blossoming into manhood, and as such, he has been doing it with the help of his manliness. The problem with it is that his character is constantly reduced to his heterosexuality and his “manly appeal”, making it his only recognizable trait. Jackson’s arcs have always been about him trying to make girls like him. If we strip him out of it, there would nothing left of him, leaving behind a blank of a person.
Max’s heterosexuality, on the other hand, is so frustratingly shoehorned, that any story −and believe me, there are lots of them−that develops around him and his love life automatically feels superficial and out of character. Why? Because he is portrayed as a sensitive child that is in touch with his emotions and, as we have learned, emotions and sensitiveness are not usually related to manliness and heterosexuality in boys.
The people behind the show is so invested in proving that Max is heterosexual that they have essentially devoted all of the entirety of his season 2 and season 3 arc into orchestrating a feud between him and his neighbour over the love and attention of a girl, named Rose (Mckenna Grace), —who’s title actress looks always uncomfortable— in order to become her boyfriend. It’s important to mention that none of them has asked her if she would like to date them or even if she’s interested in any of them.
Something similar has been happening on another Netflix show, Stranger Things (2016), where it seems that the love lives of a group of thirteen-year-old boys are more interesting than the mysteries surrounding them. Or at least, that’s what the creators of the show, the Duffer brothers, have been trying to tell us on the two seasons that have been aired.
First, they stripped Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) of all agency by giving her the role of Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) love interest on season 1’s finale, then, they brought a new girl character, called Max (Sadie Sink) to fulfil the role of the Smurfette of their group that Eleven left when she was gone, and with no other reason to exist than becoming Lucas (Caleb Maclaughlin) and Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) love interest and object of desire.
Also, like Fuller House, Stranger Things has their very own Max problem with one of their leads, Will (Noah Schnapp), who is also a sensitive, caring boy who also happens to be in touch of his feelings and the only one who has not being paired with any other girl. But, as he becomes more and more important, I can already see him meeting a love interest for season 3, especially because lots of media outlets and forums devoted to the show have been asking to the creators to have him be a gay character.
What’s really dangerous—and also disingenuous, I might say— about the narrative that the creators of these shows are trying to tell, is first, that girls’ only purpose in this world is to become a symbol of heterosexuality for adults to use as love interests in order to justify the heterosexuality of their boys and, second, that children need to be paired up before they have the chance to even try to think about themselves, their identities and what they really want.
Representation will always matter, especially when it comes to children and their identities, if we want to set a good example, we need to depict them as to how they really are and not by the idea we have of them.