- “Mysticons'” creator told Insider he was forced to scrap a kiss between two female characters.
- Experts say it’s due to studios and networks living “in fear” of conservative pushback over inclusion.
- Despite industry fears and red tape, change is happening thanks to fans and “brave creators.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Mysticons” creator Sean Jara didn’t set out to tell a story about an archer and pirate who fell in love.
But when the show’s studio, Nelvana, pivoted the Nickelodeon series to center four teenage girls who become heroes known as Mysticons, instead of boys, Jara swapped his nearly all-male team for more women and LGBTQ writers to ensure the story onscreen was more accurately told.
Those queer writers were responsible for building out an arc between lesbian characters Zarya Moonwolf and Kitty Boon, whom fans loved so much they even gave them a ship name – MoonBoon.
By the second season, the two were a burgeoning couple with a planned episodic kiss.
The “Mysticons” showrunner then sent the script, as is customary, to the show’s studios, Nelvana and YTV, the network Nickelodeon, and his producing partners.
“We sent in the first draft and thought, ‘How are they going to react?'” Jara told Insider. “And they weren’t fighting it. We got no notes on it.”
But the moment never aired.
Although Nickelodeon supported the creative decision, Jara noted, another partner expressed concerns about the storyline and its age-appropriateness for the show’s young demographic. So the creative team was forced to scrap it.
Jara said he tried to convince the concerned partner “but there was no convincing. And, as a result, we were told we have to take the kiss out.”
“We almost had to unravel the whole love story, but I fought for that like, ‘Listen, it’s too late.'””Mysticons” studio Nelvana told Insider in a statement that they “regrettably” confirm “that this decision was made during production” of season two.
“We acknowledge that broadcast television has long been confined by conservative parameters for storytellers and it is our responsibility, as producers and broadcasters, to ensure we foster an inclusive ecosystem for creative storytelling with diversity and inclusion at the forefront,” the statement continued.
“Nelvana’s commitment to ensure those parameters remain in the past, and create a more diverse and inclusive future has been put into action by implementing a DEI initiative to increase racial diversity in the studio and industry, with diversity mandates in place for casting, writing and music, not only with BIPOC representation, but also the 2SLGBTQ+ communities,” it concluded.
Insider also reached out to reps for Nickelodeon.
For decades, a web of red tape – from network’s Standards and Practices departments to parental guidelines and conservative-led campaigns – have stymied efforts to make kids animation more inclusive.
And while many network and studio executives blame this red tape on why their shows aren’t more inclusive, those in the industry – from showrunners to storyboard artists – told Insider that the decision-makers at the top actually have the power to make the change.
Animation’s inclusion push has been complicated by TV Parental Guidelines and the industry’s self-regulation
Show creators, directors, and writers in kids animation told Insider they often felt pressure from studios or networks to be less overt with LGBTQ characters or avoid depicting elements of LGBTQ culture altogether.
The TV Parental Guidelines ratings system is partly how this pressure has been exerted, as a means of controlling or sometimes even censoring content in the US and abroad.
A means for networks to flag parents about the maturity of a show’s content, TV ratings are voluntary, assigned by the networks themselves, have no guidelines on LGBTQ representation, and offer no legal penalties, with only the potential for a reassigned rating in the face of complaints.
Still, studios and networks independently interpret the ratings guidelines (alongside FCC’s broad definitions on obscenity, indecency, and profanity) through their own Standards and Practices departments which often results in series showcasing varying degrees and types of inclusion while targeting the same age groups.
Former Cartoon Network executive Katie Krentz told Insider that Standards and Practices departments at larger networks keep wide-ranging content guidelines in “a huge binder.” They regulate everything from characters’ technology use to their diet – whether they are seen eating processed foods versus a “well-balanced meal.”
At times, these departments alongside studio executives also determine if LGBTQ-specific words, such as “Pride” or “gay,” can be said by a character or depicted onscreen.
A storyboard artist and writer, who has not been named over a fear of retaliation, told Insider that while working on a Cartoon Network series in the mid-2010s, it was a known restriction that the creative team couldn’t have any character refer to same-gender parents featured in the show as “moms.” Instead, writers were forced to refer to them singularly, with characters simply saying “mom.”
Insider reached out to Cartoon Network, but didn’t immediately hear back.
Kevin Sullivan, a story editor for “The Loud House,” which centers Lincoln Loud, the only boy in a family of 11 children, told Insider that he wasn’t barred from using the word “lesbian” in dialogue when writing a storyline for the third-oldest Loud sibling, Luna, and her bandmate crush Sam.
“We just can’t say those words because of how young our audience can skew. It’s still kind of the forbidden zone,” he said. “But the joy of the episode, that I was proud of, was that it wasn’t a ‘coming out’ episode. The entire family accepted her, there was no having to come out.”
That lack of a more explicit identification resulted in some fans reading Luna as bisexual following the events of an earlier episode when she appeared to have a crush on a boy.
Sullivan clarified to Insider in a separate interview that it wasn’t due to pressure from Nickelodeon, adding that saying a word like lesbian in dialogue “never came up.”
“I don’t know if I would push it,” he added. “We never challenged that and I’m actually glad we didn’t because she becomes representative of so many more young people struggling with their identity.”
Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, told Insider that young viewers generally aren’t assigning sexuality labels to themselves before 12 anyways, but that they also aren’t associating those labels with “what people do to one another.”
Instead, their understanding of LGBTQ identity is “couple-centric,” with little recognition of visual or verbal innuendos and a better understanding of the romantic symbolism they see in marketing.
“Kids are much more oriented around what’s part of their daily life, and what’s a part of their daily life is people in relationships and family forms,” Diamond said.
But more explicit inclusion of LGBTQ identities wasn’t – and isn’t – impossible.
“Role Reversal,” a 2010 episode of the TV-G-rated Canadian series “6Teen,” featured a guest character asking a co-worker if she was “trying to find out” if she was “gay.”
Jennifer Pertsch, who co-created “6Teen,” which follows six 16-year-olds as they navigate their first part-time jobs at the mall, told Insider that when it came to their representation, they did “what we could get away with.”
For shows on cable and broadcast networks, approval of such decisions can involve up to eight levels of bureaucracy, with gatekeepers spanning showrunners, S&P executives, IP owners, and studio presidents.
Streaming companies that don’t have Standards and Practices departments, however, help reveal how such varying degrees of inclusivity is possible.
Krentz said because there’s a “gray area” of who’s in charge of making decisions on LGBTQ representation amid the animated streaming boom, it often results in a single person’s “belief system and background” being the deciding factor.
“It’s putting that pressure on the creative executive to make the decision of what should or should not stay in,” she added.
Conservative parent groups created a historical fear for TV studios, but it’s outdated, experts say
While Standards and Practices departments can have significant sway, broadcasters and streamers alike have faced conservative pushback.
Former Disney executive David Levine, who oversaw kids programming internationally for 16 years, told Insider that “a lot of conservative opinion” was driving what was depicted on screen at networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel, especially with the regional and religious restrictions that come with international distribution.
“You had a conservatism there that was pretty much in sync with the overall country,” Levine said. “You were never going to see [LGBTQ inclusion]. Even still to this day, I have those conversations.”
“Gargoyles” creator Greg Weisman said he would “never” be allowed “to be explicit” in episodes for his syndicated “Disney Afternoon” series about the nocturnal creatures, which aired from 1994 to 1997, due to fear of backlash.
“If they got two letters, they would freak out and talk about [how] we’ve got to re-edit the show,” Weisman said of working during that time. “They were scared of parental response.”
Instead of shows focusing only on what is educationally valuable and developmentally appropriate for children, based on science, networks prioritized parent’s reactions – allowing those fears to determine what’s left on the cutting room floor.
Although this fear of outrage from conservatives and parents has historically overshadowed efforts for LGBTQ inclusion, it’s grip on the industry is fading, pointing to a major shift in whose voices are centered now.
Social media is among several things helping TV studios shift away from prioritizing dissenting voices
Despite industry fears and discriminatory red tape, change is happening thanks to an evolving society, fans, social media, and streamers.
GLAAD director of entertainment media Jeremy Blacklow told Insider that the 2017 “Doc McStuffins” episode “The Emergency Plan,” which featured Wanda Sykes and Portia de Rossi voicing two moms, was a turning point for executives who have “lived in fear” of conservative groups threatening boycotts.
“After that moment, I think a lot of the power was taken away,” from organizations such as One Million Moms and The Family Research Council, he said, who have helped drive these creative decisions for decades.
The episode signaled a major win for both Disney and preschool series, underscoring that LGBTQ characters could appear in shows aimed at little viewers without major crisis or retaliation.
Culture shifts in kids and parents have helped executives realize “enough people can handle” inclusion, Polly Conway, TV editor for Common Sense Media – a source of entertainment recommendations based on child development guidelines – said.
“Kids in this generation … are pretty much seeing the world in a different way. They don’t care if a character is gay or they don’t see it as a negative,” Conway told Insider. “And the younger the parents get, the more relaxed they are about this because the world is changing.”
An analysis of available data from Common Sense Media, which rates TV shows, movies, and books for kids based on age appropriateness, found that for over half of the eligible series in Insider’s database, parents rated shows featuring LGBTQ-inclusive content appropriate for kids aged 7 years old or below.
In fact, parents weren’t only mostly aligned with their children on how old they should be to watch these shows, but more frequently suggested lower age minimums when it came to viewing LGBTQ-inclusive shows than kids themselves.
Krentz said another part of this shift may be due to conventions, where she saw Comic-Con rooms fill up for “Steven Universe,” a show targeted to young boys, with “20-, 30- and 40- somethings.” That gave creators and executives immediate feedback on who is watching, who will buy merchandise, and, ultimately, what is “good” representation.
Kristi Reed, a voice and casting director for several children’s animated projects, credits social media response, positive media coverage, and media honors for inclusive children’s programming from organizations like GLAAD, as they “allow you to have a true sounding board.”
“When the collective audience responds back and you hear a more positive number over the negative number, you know with certainty that more people want it than the people who don’t,” Reed added.
Where networks and studios were once reluctant of LGBTQ inclusion, a new precedent has been set, Levine said, that sees inclusion as more of a win than a loss thanks to “brave creators and … brave executives that try to push the envelope.”
Kalai Chik contributed to the reporting for this story.