It was a gift of a revelation wrapped in a delivery as mundane as parcel paper. Once Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeast’s plucky titular heroine confessed her burgeoning romantic feelings for fellow wasteland survivor Benson, the teenage boy wasted no time letting his friend down gently. “You’re all kinds of awesome,” Benson, who is voice by Coy Stewart, said. “But you should know something... I’m gay.” In this moment from the season-one episode, “Ratland,” Kipo (Karen Fukuhara) meets Benson’s disclosure with warmth and acceptance before the moment passes entirely. There is no lingering tension, no shared looks of trepidation or embarrassment, just uncomplicated acknowledgment of a simple fact followed by Benson’s serene smile. For a series where quite literally anything can happen—including late-night confessions in an apocalyptic theme park operated by mutant rats—the instance was almost ordinary. And yet, it was one of the most remarkable moments in youth programming to date.
Benson is the joyful culmination of a long battle for intentional queer representation in Westernized youth animation, which has made considerable progress over the past decade. (This is an important distinction to make, as LGBTQ+ characters have been appearing in Japanese mangas and animation since the late ’60s.) For decades, queer and questioning youth have had to settle for tacit subtext and heavily coded figures for any chance at existence within these properties. What’s more, those characters were often positioned as antagonists, like The Powerpuff Girls’ Him or Scar from The Lion King. Now, fans can witness multiple examples of the kind of overt recognition that has been widely celebrated in shows like Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power. Garnet, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, Catadora—each succeeded in challenging heteronormative depictions of love in groundbreaking, unambiguous ways.
The only element that eluded these pivotal moments was the language, or words that explicitly signal specific queer identities. A large part of that, of course, can be attributed to restrictive network politics that, despite significant progress, remain fairly antiquated when it comes to sexual identity and young audiences. She-Ra’s creator Noelle Stevenson spoke at length to The A.V. Club about fighting hard to maintain her original vision of a gay relationship between the titular character and her embattled childhood friend. While Stevenson ultimately got her way, it only came to fruition with a lot of convincing, which was helped greatly by early fan response to the pair. Even Rebecca Sugar had to fight for a wedding scene between two female-coded characters in her acclaimed series Steven Universe, which led to the show being pulled from multiple international territories. In both cases, creators faced immense challenges while dealing with merely the visual component of queerness.
However, their hard-fought victories have opened the door for animated characters like Benson who can proudly claim their identities in such a rare, straightforward way. While witnessing irrefutable portrayals of non-heterosexual existence is an important factor of inclusive art, clear and concise language is just as crucial in building early, healthy attitudes about queer identities. Benson’s composed reveal offers a soothing alternative to the more turbulent, though still important, coming-out stories we’ve seen in past youth programming (think Marco Del Rossi on Degrassi: The Next Generation, whose revelation was both an historic moment for the series and one shrouded in violence and scandal). The reflexively kind way that Kipo responds to that information will forever be linked to to one of many words—“gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender,” just to name a few—that have been kept out of youth entertainment to a great, uniquely damaging extent. Pair that with the significance of this moment centering a Black male lead who is given the space to explore romance (in the throes of the apocalypse, no less) with burrow dweller Troy and you have the makings of a young, healthy, fully realized gay teen. For a demographic that has only grown more visible and vocal with time, there are very few clear-cut depictions of them in the entertainment geared toward their age group.
There is still immense value in the “show, don’t tell” method of queer representation, where it is so normalized that a pair of ghostly dads on Summer Camp Island or She-Ra’s married lesbian couple, Netossa and Spinnerella, are treated as non-miraculous entities of their respective worlds. But when it comes to the early processes of unpacking one’s own sexual identity—whether that begins in one’s youth or much later in adulthood—language is a basic part of that journey. In the same way that characters before him have laid the groundwork for his existence, Benson has the potential to create a real entry point for healthier depictions of queer kids, ones who are equipped with the vernacular necessary to begin figuring out who they are. If the industry stops treating all explicit mentions of queer identity as signals of impropriety, there’s a great chance that the audience absorbing those images will begin to follow suit. We know that it isn’t easy, but thanks to Benson and the young fans who adore him, we now know that it’s entirely doable.