My son Gregory (not his real name :-p) is nine years old. He is a nerd, just like his mom. I sing him lullabies taken from Lord of the Rings. I’m quite sure he prays to The Warrior, like, earnestly. Our idea of a good time is going to the museum to look at rocks. He kicks my butt at Go on a daily basis.
Another nerdy thing we love to do together is watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. He really identifies with the shows’ sense of humour and he loves the mythology of bending and the avatar cycle. His favourite characters from Legend of Korra are Meelo, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who knows any eight-year-old boy, and Wu. He likes to pratfall randomly, usually in public, and say “Wu down! Wu down!”
One day, we were hanging out in the kitchen while I was making dinner. Another pratfall prompted me to comment: “You know, some people think Wu and Mako should date.”
Gregory thought about it for a second and then he said, “Well, maybe. I think Wu likes Mako, but Mako thinks he’s annoying.”
So then we started talking about shipping. (You know you’re a nerd when…) Gregory decided that he liked Kataang, and Bopal. He was absolutely nonchalant about the idea of Korrasami. And surprisingly insightful about other relationships. “You can tell that Bolin and Opal are in love because they fight but they make up”, “I think Kuvira loved being emperor more than she loved Junior.” But do you know what he never said? “But Korra and Asami are both girls!”
And why would he say that? Gregory knows that LGBTQ people exist. He sees them in real life all the time. The two nice ladies with the dog who live down the street are in love, just like his parents are. He knows this; he doesn’t think it’s particularly remarkable. For a kid like Gregory, seeing Korra and Asami walking off into the spirit portal hand-in-hand was completely unambiguous, and completely identical to Aang and Katara’s kiss that ended Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many, many children’s stories end on a romantic beat like that. And this one was no different.
When people talk about the importance of representation they usually talk about how important it is kids who are questioning their sexuality, or who crave validation of their identity, but I would argue that it’s just as important for all kids. Maybe especially for kids like Gregory, the middle-class white boys who like sports and ninjas and other “boy” things. In many ways, children’s media is made for them, the same way adult media is made for the coveted “straight male 18-45” demographic. And, for some reason, there’s this idea that groups like that only want to hear stories about themselves, that a boy like Gregory would only be able to connect to Aang, or Meelo in a pinch. But it’s not true because, notwithstanding his love of fart-bending, he adores Korra. He loves how strong she is. He is more than willing to pretend to be her while play-fighting. He likes Asami too, and how smart she is. He wasn’t alienated by the fact that Bolin was in the wrong in that fight with Opal, and wasn’t freaked out by how in charge Suyin was. This story was about Korra, and that was okay by Gregory.
I’m usually fine with the idea that my kid is smarter and more progressive than other children but, in this case, I don’t think so. And maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, maybe if we stop making shows for little boys that act like the world revolves around them, then when they become that golden adult demographic they won’t expect the constant straight white bro heros or male gaze sex scenes either.
When we stop reinforcing privilege by perpetuating this notion that heros must be white boys, then the white boys will accept other kinds of heros. When kids start seeing homosexual relationships as just something that some people have, rather than as a weird fetish or as a punch line, we’ll start to see a really change in the discourse. And that will benefit straight kids just as much as it will benefit gay kids.
They only decide what’s “normal” because we tell them, you know.