Like many lesbian kids of the Nineties, I felt a strange kinship with Mel C and had a huge crush on Miss Honey from the film version of Matilda. But when it came to TV shows, I was pretty much bereft of representation. Fast forward to 2019, and the makers of My Little Pony – the cartoon, not the toys – have just introduced a lesbian couple to the programme.
The emergence of LGBTQ characters in children’s TV has been slow and more fraught with controversy than is really fair in a world where there are literal beauty pageants for toddlers. But if you looked hard enough in the Nineties, the queers were there, sort of.
We had the likes of The Ren & Stimpy Show that – aside from being one of the grossest things on television even by adult standards – was pretty gay. The two male titular characters, a Chihuahua and a cat, even shared a bed. But with all the horrendously detailed renderings of bogeys, and whatnot, I was too busy feeling simultaneously compelled and repelled by the animation itself to pay any attention to Ren and Stimpy’s relationship – one that, by the way, was incredibly volatile and abusive. It’s possible that Ren and Stimpy’s was the first representation of a fictional same-sex relationship I ever saw. And although I’m not going to blame it for years and years of therapy on my part, I’m not exactly going to credit it for any semblance of well-adjustedness I may have formed.
Then there was Hey Arnold!. This was one of the forerunners in the 90s trend for smart, socially conscious and thoughtful cartoons. Characters were three-dimensional and ethnically and diverse; many were working class. One was, implicitly at least, gay – Arnold’s teacher, the kind and ultra-sensitive Mr Simmons.
Hey Arnold! premiered in 1996, when I was seven, so as someone who was a big fan of the show from then until about the age of ten, I can say that Mr Simmons always struck me as different. Even if it wasn’t obvious to me that he was gay, it was almost quite revolutionary to see a male character whose femininity wasn’t a source of ridicule. This year, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett wished the character “happy Pride month” in an Instagram post. Which is to say, Mr Ratburn from Arthur isn’t the only member of the niche but well-publicised “Gay 90s Cartoon Teachers” club.
Arnold’s classmate Eugene also had definite queer vibes. Although he was mostly defined by the running slapstick gag of his terrible luck, musical theatre loving Eugene, like the booted baby dyke that was Spinelli from Recess, is one of those characters you can look back on as an adult and say, “Oh yeah…”
Then there were the evil gays. The cackling and fabulous, the camp and cunning. Disney was full of them: Captain Hook, Jafar, Scar, Ursula (who was literally based on the drag queen Divine). Depending on where you fall within the debate, these characters are to be celebrated for their overt queerness, their evilness just being part of the anti-heteronormative counterculture; or they are to be berated as a part of a vile old trope in which gays, gay men in particular, are inherently bad.
Either way, where 90s cartoons are concerned, the most prominent Evil Gay was Powerpuff Girls villain, Him. Him was a camper-than-life devil-like creature, who wore thigh high black stiletto boots. He was basically a drag queen. And as much of a bad bitch as he was retrospectively, he was ultimately there to terrify children. Which he did.
It’s not until recent years that explicit, non-evil LGBTQ characters in children’s TV have become a thing. And with the likes of Steven Universe and Adventure Time, it actually seems to be in its Golden Age. The former, which features several queer characters, is the first ever animated series to win a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids & Family Program.
And now, with its lesbian couple, My Little Pony enters the ranks of woke kids’ shows, sure to be set upon by petition-spewing religious fundamentalists. Which is a little surprising for anyone who, like me, grew up thinking My Little Ponies were “straight girl” toys. Who knew?