The Gender Box


From the time I was a little girl, my parents told me I was a princess. Birthdays and Christmases were celebrations of femininity, with massive amounts of pink and tulle in tow. This is the case for many girls, but it does beg the question of what came first, being a girl or the girly performance? Postmodern Feminism asserts that gender is just that, a performance. Women especially are given their specific rules for the female gender performance basically at birth and expected to adhere to the role for the rest of their lives. The gender performance permeates every aspect of a woman’s life, whether it be the extreme lengths she must go to for her appearance, or the submissive attitude she’s expected to embody. Men, too, are affected by this gender performance. They are told not to display emotion and adopt a “tough guy persona” that can be detrimental to themselves and those around them. Children are reminded of their gender role by their parents, peers, and, maybe even more so, by the media they consume. Contributor to Journal of Adolescent Health Care, Nancy Signorielli points to the lasting impression images of women and men in traditional gender roles has on children. According to Signorielli, children internalize images of women in the kitchen and men in the workplace as the norm and feel they must enforce these roles for themselves and those around them. Though many gender portrayals are problematic, some children’s television shows have been striving to create a more inclusive environment. 

Somewhere Between The Land of Oo and Beach City


Cartoon Network’s hit animated series Adventure Time and Steven Universe are very similar. They’re both coming of age tales of a young hero, they both explore world’s with a dark and twisted history, and they both stray far from normalized institutions of gender. The similarities between the two come as no surprise, seeing as the creator of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar, once worked on Adventure Time with the show’s creator, Pendleton Ward. Sugar, I would argue, takes a more holistic approach to subverting gender norms than Ward. Ward’s focus seems to be much more on the philosophical than the subversion of gendered identities. Writer for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum, points to the philosophical nature of Adventure Time in her article “Castles In The Air: The Gorgeous Existential Funk of Adventure Time.” Nussbaum seems to see the main function of Adventure Time as a philosophically risky show, and not necessarily as much of a challenge to traditional gender roles. That being said, both shows have managed to normalize gender bending characters that fluctuate along an ambiguous spectrum. The Atlantic writer David Sims brings this perspective forward in his article “‘Adventure Time’ Just Finished One of the Most Ambitious Seasons of Television Ever.” In the article, he discusses how female characters like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen subvert traditional aspects of femininity in Adventure Time. Aspects of femininity are certainly reinforced by the media, but this is true of masculinity as well.

To Be Masculine, To Be Feminine

How often have you heard someone say the phrase “act like a man”? Do you ever stop to wonder what that means? Well, filmmaker Thomas Keith took on the notion of “acting like a man” in his documentary on gender called The Empathy Gap. In the film, Keith chronicles what he describes as a gap in experiencing empathy among men and women. According to Keith and many of the men featured in the documentary, we are currently experiencing a crisis in masculine culture. Men are expected to be tough, uncaring creatures utterly incapable of displaying love. Men are to live for violence, and the receivers of said violence tend to be none other than the gender left behind, women. This idea of manhood is continually enforced by masculine and feminine portrayals in television and movies.

Breaking Down the Binary


Queer Theorists often highlight the importance of breaking down the gender binary. Notable transgender Queer Theorist Kate Bornstein points to her own experience of having to “pass” as female. She says “most passing is undertaken in response to the cultural imperative to be one gender or the other. In this case, passing becomes the outward manifestation of shame and capitulation. Passing becomes silence. Passing becomes invisibility. Passing becomes lies. Passing becomes self-denial”. By forcing Bornstein to fit into one category or another, society shames her both for passing as a specific gender and for failing to pass. Enforcing the gender binary eliminates the experiences of those who do not fit into a strict, two-pronged categorical system.

In Adventure Time, the land of Ooo is ruled by various principalities with princesses at their head. In the Candy Kingdom specifically, the princess is an analytical scientist named Princess Bubblegum. In one episode titled “Princess Cookie”, Princess Bubblegum’s crown is challenged by one of her constituents, Cookie. Cookie is a masculine presenting candy person who desperately wants to be a princess. He regales a sad backstory of being a “depressed orphan” who’s one solace in life was being read to by Princess Bubblegum. When the young Cookie conveyed his desire to be a princess to Bubblegum, however, she laughed in his face. Cookie embodies the fear of passing pointed out by Borenstein. As he’s being chased by Bubblegum’s soldiers, Cookie contemplates taking his own life and says to his confidant Jake, “I’ll never be a princess. At least for a moment, you made me feel like a princess.” Cookie is one of many queer characters in Adventure Time, but perhaps even more embracing of the gender binary breakdown is the show Steven Universe.

In Steven Universe, the world has been infiltrated by an alien, all female, militarized race of Gems. The Gems themselves embody the destruction of the gender binary. By nature they have no gender, often citing that their physical bodies are merely manipulated reflections of light. In some ways, the Gems are confirming a point made by Queer Theorist Judith Halberstam. Halberstam would, I think, embrace the Gem’s interpretation of fluid gender. She is quoted asking why, in a seemingly progressive society, “do we not have multiple gender options, multiple gender categories, and real-life non-male and non-female options for embodiment and identification?”. Feminist Queer writer Anne Fausto-Sterling would also, I beleive, be pleased with Steven Universe and, maybe to a slightly lesser extent, Adventure Time’s portrayal of gender. Fausto Sterling argued in 2000 that “the debate over our cultural conceptions of gender has escalated, and the boundaries separating masculine and feminine seem harder than ever to define”. I think she would be happy to see a representation of gender fluidity and a refusal to accept the traditional gender binary in children’s television programs.

Normalizing The Queer Experience

Another aspect of Queer Theory embraced by both Adventure Time and Steven Universe is the idea of normalizing queerness. Halberstam points to the tendency in our society to classify queer behavior as different or other. “Ambiguous gender,” says Halberstam, “when and where it does appear, is inevitably transformed into deviance, thirdness, or a blurred version of either male or female”. Gender ambiguity is at the very heart of Steven Universe. Steven himself, a young Gem-human hybrid, embraces aspects of both the masculine and feminine. He is sweet, sensitive, even motherly to the female Gems he lives with. In one episode titled “Sadie’s Song”, he dresses as a female popstar and sings a song on stage. The audience doesn’t bat an eye, and neither do we. The beauty of Rebecca Sugar’s universe is that these experiences are normalized. They are not portrayed as strange, other, or something that needs to be explained. They just exist.

In Adventure Time, the queer experience is normalized, but at a slightly lesser extent. Finn and Jake’s robot baby, BMO, is one example of a gender-bending character in Adventure Time. BMO’s pronouns shift subtly throughout the series, sometimes he, sometimes she. In one episode titled “BMO Lost”, BMO is portrayed as a sort of young boy wannabe hero on a quest for greatness and in love with a bubble, in the next episode BMO is pregnant with an egg. BMO is unpredictable and utterly fluid, but BMO’s experience is never questioned or seen as needing an explanation, it just is. Bornstein would certainly appreciate the transitional approach to gender taken by Adventure Time and Steven Universe, particularly because they are shows for children. Normalizing the queer and transgender experience is essential to finally allowing transgender identifying individuals to embrace their histories. By forcing transgendered people into one gendered box or the other and classifying their experience as wholly other, Bornstein argues that, “denied the opportunity to speak our stories, transexuals are denied the joy of our histories. Discouraged from examining our past, transgendered people are discouraged from growth”. The normalization of the queer experience at the childhood level is something I suspect most proponents of Queer Theory would see as a move in the right direction.