The missing youth: how rigid gender roles in children's media leave many kids out of the picture

When you grow up in a place where everyone and everything around you seems to be one way and you are another, being yourself can feel impossible. Specifically for me, growing up in suburban Illinois where people tend to dress and look a certain way, my boy's camouflage shorts and frizzy, unkempt hair put a target on my back from a very early age. In middle school, far before I knew I was gay, I started getting bullied by two girls because I "looked like a lesbian." The bullying continued for years as I tried all of the supposed ways to get them to stop (ignoring them, laughing it off, etc.) and failed miserably. Eventually I found the only way I could stop the bullying was to fake looking and acting like them. My efforts to look "normal" made me feel inauthentic, like something was wrong with me - a harsh reality that kids like me continue to face.

I strongly believe that had I seen some LGBT or gender non-conforming characters in my favorite movies and books, I wouldn't have felt like such an outcast. In the late 90s when I was growing up, there were virtually no gay characters in children's media. Fortunately, the tide seems to be slowly turning. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about LGBT characters in children's movies, television shows, and books. The progress that has been made is small but still significant when it comes to diversity in children's media.

In 2012, the film ParaNorman became the first major animated film geared toward a PG audience to feature a gay lead character, albeit one who came out right before the credits rolled. More recently, the film How to Train Your Dragon 2 quietly revealed one of its Viking characters is gay, while a trailer for the upcoming animated film Boxtrolls (from the creators of ParaNorman) briefly depicted different kinds of families, including one with same-sex parents. In early 2014, an episode of Disney's Good Luck Charlie featured a pair of lesbian parents, making them the network's first out characters. And though bans in schools and libraries have kept kids' access to books like Heather Has Two Mommies very limited, we are also seeing more and more children's books, like The Princes and the Treasure, that depict LGBT characters in a positive light. Today, LGBT youth are certainly more likely to find characters they can relate to than when I was younger.

However, characters and families that are LGBT are only part of what kids like me needed. Very rarely do we see examples of gender non-conforming characters; ones who dress or behave in ways that aren't typically associated with their sex at birth. There are certainly a lot of gay people who knew from a very early age that they were gay. But for me and others like me, this was not the case; I didn't understand anything about my sexual orientation yet. All I knew is that I was that I liked to dress differently from the other girls and I liked to spend my summers playing in the mud with the boys - not playing with Barbies. Unfortunately, when I turned on the TV or read books at school, I didn't see anyone like me. I couldn't find my place anywhere I looked.

Even now, as I think back to some of my favorite childhood characters, I can think of very few that I could see pieces of myself in and usually, even if they had some gender non-conforming characteristics, they still wore girl's clothes or swooned over a boy. I remember Mulan, who dressed up in armor, fought alongside the men and rejected her society's idea of beauty. But then I remember that she did this only to save her father from going to war, not necessarily because it was who she ultimately was. I remember Ashley Spinelli from Recess, who was a die-hard wrestling fan and had a characteristic "tough-guy" mentality throughout the show but still had long hair and wore a dress in every episode to maintain her femininity. Although I remember these characters inspiring me because of their strength and defiance, they didn't help me to feel any more normal when I was getting taunted at school. I needed to see characters like me, who challenged stereotypical expectations about gender and still lived normal, happy lives.

For the thousands of other kids like me out there, we need more gender-nonconforming characters in children's media. And as with LGBT classics like Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three, some of the best and only examples currently out there are in children's books, such as the recent Jacob's New Dress and I Am Jazz (set to be released September 4.) Jacob's New Dress follows a young boy who likes to wear dresses to school and is supported by his parents and teachers who explain to the other students that Jacob just wears what he is comfortable in. I Am Jazz tells a story of Jazz who knew from an early age that she was meant to be a girl, making it more of a trans story than an issue of gender non-conformity.

Of course, one of the main barriers to getting content like this in children's media is the concern of social conservatives about the "effect" it will have on children. The arguments range from, "I don't want my kids exposed to these unnatural behaviors" to "seeing content like this will make my kid gay." However American kids live in a diverse world today, and they are often much more understanding and accepting than their parents. Seeing characters with diverse gender expressions isn't going to make them gay, just as the media I consumed didn't make me straight, only alienated and afraid. Children's media that is more diverse and inclusive has the potential to help all children better understand and feel comfortable with themselves and their peers.

Perhaps if I had seen examples of young gender non-conforming characters like me in some of my favorite movies or books growing up, I wouldn't have felt so "other" and had such a hard time for so long. And perhaps if my bullies would have seen better examples of inclusive and accepting characters in their favorite stories, they wouldn't have treated me like I was so different. Just like it is important for kids with LGBT parents to see examples of families like theirs or gay teens to see examples of themselves in their media, it is crucial for gender non-conforming kids to have characters, and even heroes, to look up to as well. No child should be left feeling like they're "the only one."

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