In May of this year, PBS Kids premiered the 22nd season of Arthur and effectively painted a picture of where LGBTQ visibility currently stands in entertainment, specifically G-rated entertainment.
The episode, titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” revealed the elementary school teacher to be gay in a joyous marriage ceremony with his husband. Many viewers praised the episode, but on the other end of the reactionary spectrum, Alabama Public Television refused to air the premiere on stations within the state, claiming it would be “a violation of trust to broadcast the episode.” It was a major milestone for LGBTQ viewers, but there are still obstacles for this kind of visibility.
“In my personal opinion, it is very close minded,” Shabnam Rezaei, a producer from Canadian production company Big Bad Boo, tells EW over the phone of APTV’s decision. “The flip side of that is that people now have access to all kinds of content. They don’t have to watch traditional broadcasts anymore.”
She’s referring, at least in part, to her own show, The Bravest Knight.
Clearly strides have been made towards welcoming LGBTQ representation on kids programming on major networks — Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, and Nickelodeon’s The Loud House, to name a few — but streaming television is able to go where traditional cable often times won’t. “PBS Kids, I want them to be really forward thinking and I want them to be really innovative,” Rezaei mentions, “but they are bound down by big government and a bunch of people [that] they have to worry about what they think, whereas the newer digital platforms don’t have that kind of anchor holding them back.”
The Bravest Knight, which is gearing to debut the back half of its first season on Hulu this Oct. 11, is a product of that freedom on the digital space.
Based on a children’s e-book by author Daniel Errico, The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived, the series tells the story of Sir Cedric (voiced by Grey’s Anatomy alum T.R. Knight), his husband Prince Andrew (Star Trek: Discovery‘s Wilson Cruz), and their 10-year-old daughter Nia (A Wrinkle in Time‘s Storm Reid). Nia wants nothing more than to become a brave knight just like her dad, so she listens to Cedric’s tales of how he was once a young pumpkin farmer who became a fierce warrior.
“We’re teaching life lessons,” Rezaei says. “In The Bravest Knight, it’s an adventure about how to be a great knight, which translates into how to be a good human.” It just so happens the show ranks among the first kids’ programs to feature an openly gay lead character. It also happens that the big bad wolf of this story likes to wear women’s clothes and is voiced by RuPaul. “How great is that?” Rezaei exclaims. “Those are the things I want to talk about it.”
The Bravest Knight was first made as an animated short on Hulu before Errico crafted an entire season arc for a potential show. “Making the short into a series was a way for me to tell a more complete story, following Cedric on his journey from young farmer to knight, father, and husband,” he wrote in an email to EW. “It was a chance to expand his world to include his family and friends, and share more lessons along the way. I couldn’t be more grateful that The Bravest Knight is now a Hulu Original series, allowing Cedric and his family to reach so many more kids.”
A few years ago, a show like this wouldn’t be possible, especially not on a cable platform. Creatives, like Alex Hirsch of Gravity Falls and Rebecca Sugar of Steven Universe, don’t shy away from discussing the roadblocks they routinely hit trying to make their network programs more welcoming of different characters. The world has since changed, but even now, Rezaei talks about trying to get The Bravest Knight to air on television in different parts of the world, and those discussions are still on-going.
“There is a whole part of the world where I don’t even pitch,” she says, noting specifically how LGBTQ people can be arrested in Iran. Another territory she mentions is Asia, where Rezaei had pitched one of her previous shows, 16 Hudson, for international distribution. One episode in particular was a difficult sell: when one of his friends is upset that he father couldn’t be with her for a Father’s Day gather, Luke, a boy with two same-sex parents, lends her one of dads so she can participate. “They said, ‘One of them is an uncle,’ which I think is ridiculous,” Rezaei recalls, but admits she doesn’t have the ability from preventing censors from doing that.
She’s confident in getting The Bravest Knight on the air in Canada, parts of Western Europe, Australia, and the U.K., but she’s still in talks. Hulu, on the other hand, was the first to step up during the pitching stage. “They’re incredible in that way,” Rezaei says, “because they also know that they’re going into new ground and new territory and there could be backlash, but they’re like, ‘Screw it,’ which is kind of our attitude. We know we’re not going to please everybody and know we’re not going to sell the show internationally, so financially it might not make sense, but it’s something we have to do. We have to do this.”
Streaming platforms also opened its doors to Danger & Eggs (Amazon), an animated series that spotlighted the work of trans writer-producer Shadi Petosky. The show regularly featured LGBTQ characters and topics, though Amazon never renewed it for a second season. Petosky since moved to Netflix’s Twelve Forever, which she promises is assuredly “queer.” That series features an openly gay lead, a girl named Reggie with a crush on her classmate, as well as multiple other queer characters, like Mack and Beefhouse, two of Reggie’s toys who come to life in her fantasy world of Endless Island. (EW has learned the producers on Twelve Forever parted ways with series creator Julia Vickerman. While a reason wasn’t given, various claims shared over Twitter allege a hostile work environment. A rep for Netflix declined to comment.) This year also saw the return of Rocko’s Modern Life on Netflix with a prominent story arc for a trans character.
Big Bad Boo’s mission has always been to bring a wider breadth of storytelling to kids. Their first project told of a young Iranian boy celebrating Persian New Year. Then came Mixed Nuts, a show about four kids from underrepresented countries. 1,001 Nights, based on the literary classic, featured a prominent female role. For the portrayal of Luke and his dads on 16 Hudson, Rezaei wanted to make something for her then-3-year-old nephew, who also has two dads. The Bravest Knight is the next progression of their efforts onto a more mainstream platform.
“With the onset of digital platforms, we’re going to be able to tell more stories like this that are the cross-section of real life and that really excites me,” Rezaei says. “That’s where it’s going.”
GLAAD’s latest TV report card showed continuing strides for LGBTQ narratives in family programming, as well as streaming. (Movies are still a different story.) In the 2018-2019 season, the organization logged 75 series regular LGBTQ characters on scripted original series for streaming, and 112 characters in total for streaming. Hulu came in second, though it remained the only streaming platform in the study to have not featured trans characters.
For primetime cable programs, 120 total LGBTQ series regular characters were counted with 208 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. For broadcast programs, GLAAD counted 75 series regular LGBTQ characters with 113 total regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. However, it should be noted the streaming data in this study comes only from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, compared to the multitude of broadcast and cable channels.
“The Bravest Knight brings important lessons about diversity and acceptance to young audiences and finally provides children who have gay parents with an animated family that they can relate to and applaud,” Rich Ferraro, GLAAD’s chief communications officer, said in a statement to EW. “The uptick of LGBTQ characters and stories across kids television shows has been met with praise from families of all kinds, and simply reflects the real world that young people grow up in today. With The Bravest Knight, Hulu created an entertaining and heartwarming show that also goes the extra mile by including LGBTQ icons like Wilson Cruz and T.R. Knight as actors.”
Rezaei isn’t necessarily motivated by the successes in storytelling, even though there have been many. She is more motivated by “the television station banning the content,” in the case of Arthur, or “the Christian family network coming on and saying ‘homosexual deviants,'” which she says happened when news came out about The Bravest Knight.
“It’s starting a dialogue, it’s starting a conversation, and that’s what we want,” she explains. “If that’s the least we’ve done, then I think we’ve done something to spark it… You have to break ground somewhere, and if we’re the unique names who just preach to the choir but then scratch the surface of that conversation with people who don’t want to hear about it, then we’ve taken a step forward.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article described Shadi Petosky as an animator. She is a writer-producer.