Peppa Pig has introduced a pair of lesbian polar bears, but Aussie kids’ TV has been leading the way in queer representation

Peppa Pig’s first same-sex couple, a pair of lesbian polar bears, were recently unveiled after a petition to include a same-sex family garnered nearly 24,000 signatures.

Children’s television has often been a place where the boundaries of various on-screen representations have been pushed. In particular, Australian children’s television leads the world in screen diversity, including gender and queer representation.

Emmy-winning Australian series First Day (2020-22) tells the story of a transgender girl starting high school.

Another Emmy winner, Hardball (2019-21), features gay fathers for one of the main characters.

Even recent updates to The Wiggles’ cast have put a greater emphasis on gender diversity, including the addition of a non-binary unicorn.

Diverse representation

Children’s television is often less risk-averse than programs aimed at adults.

The ABC, because of its publicly funded role, is empowered to take risks with the portrayal of gender and sexuality in children’s programs.

But such progressive depictions can sometimes rub against outdated expectations of children’s television. In 2004, Play School drew controversy for showing lesbian mothers.

As societal acceptance progressed, Australian children’s television was able to achieve more queer portrayals.

Speaking to research project Queering Australian Screens, television professionals often praised the genre for its openness to new ideas, performances and the bringing in of new talent.

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Tony Ayres, creator of Nowhere Boys (2013-18), observed that those who commission children’s television are “generally very open to diverse representation”.

This portrayal also takes place behind the scenes, with Ayres describing how these shows often pay tribute to new talent.

David Hannam, who has written for several children’s TV shows including Dance Academy (2010-13), said children’s television was “pioneering”.

Speaking about his time at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, Hannam noted that the foundation has an “almost descriptive responsibility” to present diversity on screen “with great caution and responsibility”.

Julie Kalceff created “First Day,” which starred a young trans actress, Evie McDonald, as a trans girl in early high school.

As she was developing the show, Kalceff shared that she was initially concerned about what would be allowed on children’s television:

There were no trans people on TV. There were no TV shows starring trans actors. I figured there was no way the ABC would do that. And there’s no way they’re going to do that with children’s television. But to their credit, ABC has been so supportive and behind the project from the start.

what the audience wants

TV producers aren’t the only ones striving to expand their presence on children’s television. Audiences are also looking for more inclusive content.

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Just like Peppa Pig in the UK, there have been calls for more diversity for animated hit Bluey in Australia, with the show adding its first Auslan signature character in June.

One of our research projects, the Australian Children’s Television Cultures 2021 survey found that 90% of Australian parents believe that diversity is an important element of children’s television.

As one father explained:

Diversity on screen helps children meet people who grew up differently from them and expand their empathy and curiosity for other people.

Contrasting with the controversy Play School received almost 20 years ago for including same-sex parents, one mom praised the show for “doing an amazing job” of portraying diversity in relationships.

Not everyone thinks Australian television is doing enough. One survey respondent praised the way shows like Bluey reflect Australian culture, but said he “would like to see more LGBT representatives […] As a child, it would be nice to know that you are valid.”

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uncertain futures

The streaming age has changed the way families and children watch TV. This raises concerns about the future of Australian children’s content.

The recent lifting of quotas for Australian broadcasters to broadcast a minimum number of hours of children’s television, combined with the lack of quotas for streaming services, has led to a reduction in the production of local children’s television.

From Play School to Bluey, children’s television has reflected the richness of Australian cultural life. If Australian children’s audiences have to rely on international content, there is a risk that future generations will not see themselves on screen.

With the loss of local voices, Australian children’s television may also lose its ability to push the boundaries of diversity and inclusion.

Read more: Cheese ‘n’ Crackers! Concerns about the future of Australian children’s television deepen

We are conducting a survey of parents and guardians with children aged 14 and under on how families watch children’s TV in the streaming age. Here you can participate.

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