Children’s media has been slowly making the shift from recognizing external problems to identifying more personal problems. A program growing up with that was very good about this was Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Letting viewers know that it’s okay to be sad or mad or scared, just reminding them that there’ll be happy feelings too. Mattel, with its Barbie line of products, has recently been releasing personal vlogs from Barbie, talking openly about negative feelings and letting kids know it’s okay to reach out.
A personal conversation that is just starting to come up now in media is talks of gender and sexual identity among children. The front runner is currently Steven Universe (running on Cartoon Network since November 2013), playing host to many (as close as Cartoon Network will let them get to being) openly queer and gender non-conforming characters, including a non-gendered ‘fusion’ of a boy and girl character and many WLW ; they also recently hosted the first same-sex wedding on a children’s program! (The Legend of Korra (running on Nickelodeon from April 2012 through October 2014) was looking like it was going to be the first show to give viewers a canon lesbian couple with major screen time but alas, they missed the ship.)
Adventure Time (currently in its last season, running on Cartoon Network since 2010) is a show that has been slowly pushing the limits of what Cartoon Network will allow as far as feminist and LGBTQ+ content for years. Though network pushback has limited on screen confirmations, voice actors have confirmed that characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen dated at one point. There are also many instances of minor characters having crushes on Finn or Jake (one that I’ll be exploring in a later post).
The character that most openly defies established gender norms in this show is BMO (voiced by Niki Yang). BMO, standing for “Be More” is a sentient gadget, most commonly functioning as a video game. Though the pronouns most associated with BMO are he and his, his pronouns change depending on who talks to him. Some people switch between he and she, where as some just use one or the other.* This switching doesn’t seem to confuse BMO at all. In fact, he often actively encourages it. He will often play make believe, dressing up in different costumes and asking to be called different names, which other characters most often comply with.
When BMO is home alone, though, is when we get to see most into BMO’s mind- er, uh- circuits. In episode “Five Short Graybles“, we first see BMO interacting with Football, what he calls his reflection in the mirror. Football uses she/hers pronouns. Here, BMO tells Football when asked that he is not a robot, he is a ‘little living boy’. He then teaches her about being ‘alive’ by showing her how to brush her teeth, how to wash her face, and even how to use the bathroom!
BMO, throughout the show, is often portrayed as very young spirited. This is a show that is encouraging children to explore their relationship with how they view themselves and the body they have. BMO goes through each step and encourages himself, with Football chiming in. This is something that children often do; talk themselves through tasks and look for approve when the task is complete. A character with differing views on how others see them is crucial to show, as children’s relationships and curiosities in regards to their own bodies change over time.
In “Five More Short Graybles”, BMO takes it upon himself to teach Football manners. She’ll never fit in if she can’t change her behavior. Here we see BMO get very frustrated with Football (a reflection of himself) because she is struggling with something that he can easily do. Their manners lesson is cut short abruptly when Finn and Jake come home.
Season seven, episode five entitled “Football” is when Finn and Jake finally meet Football. BMO and Football are talking in the mirror, sharing confessions of love back and forth when Football confesses she’d like one day out of the reflection. BMO agrees and switches places with her. Football makes friends with geese in a pond and goes to introduce herself to Finn and Jake. Though they assume it is just BMO playing a game, Finn and Jake call Football by her name and re-introduce themselves, like they are meeting a new person. They even correct themselves on using the worng name while Football is around. However, when the time comes to switch back, Football refuses. She has been set free, seen a better life, and no longer wants to be trapped in the scary bathroom mirror. BMO starts haunting Football, appearing in reflections around the house, which causes Football extreme emotional distress; she smashes every glass surface and dents all the pots and pans. Jake simply sits her down and says: “You sure you’re okay, little pal? Listen, B- Football. You seem like you might be feeling, uh- a little donked up in your head or your heart or both. And that’s okay. Everybody feels some type of soul nausea like that sometimes.” She and BMO eventually switch back and Football is left in the reflection of the pond in the yard, where her new friends live. BMO promises to still visit: “-because I love you.”
These episode speaks volumes about gender exploration and the ever evolving and changing aspects of what make us who we are. It can be about loving the parts of yourself that you might not be ready to show the world yet. BMO is clearly proud of what he and Football accomplish together and loves her very much. It can be about who shapes us and how their impacts are left on our lives. Why did BMO hide Football, his friend, from Finn and Jake for so long? Does he know that they spied on him and called it ‘doing weird junk’? It can even be about transitioning. He left Football somewhere safe where he’ll never forget about her. As a reflection of himself, she will always be a part of him.
BMO discusses gender in such a non-radicalized way that people of all different genders can relate to him; he’s a “real baby girl” who’s not afraid to show it.
*In certified Cartoon Network merchandise, BMO is often described as genderless with many preferred pronouns.
Caption: You get a +2 BONUS against monsters Level 10 or below. (BMO ignores all gender-related stuff ’cause I DON’T KNOW!)
Card from USAopoly’s Adventure Time Munchkin
Caption: BMO is awesome. He’s pretty much everything we ever need. He’s a video game console, a camera, a video-editing system, a flashlight and a movie player. Pretty much anything electronic. Sometimes he’s also a she. It depends on what game we’re playing, or what mood BMO is in.
Caption: BMO is a character from Adventure Time.
Throughout the series, BMO is referred to equally as male and female. One participant said: ‘BMO is important because she shows that you can have a character whose gender fluctuates without it being presented as a problem. The other characters all accept BMO’s varying gender without questioning him and without reacting as if she’s in any way unusual.’
Display at the Science Museum, London – Who Am I?