One assumption that's often made about television is that the more adult its content is, the more progressive its politics will be, too. But these progressive children's shows prove that you don't need to have an over 18 target audience to create work that challenges assumptions about gender, race, and politics. And these series don't just contradict lazy thinking about what's appropriate for kids and adults to watch; they also introduce a convincing argument that a show doesn't have to be serious to cover serious topics in a nuanced way.
And, honestly, that's the beauty of these shows. More often than not, this is education via stealth. The best of the examples listed below don't make a big deal about taking a liberal stance on issues of identity or try and bully kids into thinking a certain way. Instead, they act as imaginative spaces where it goes without question that you can love anyone you want, no matter their gender. Where you can teach kids about communication with totally off-the-bat, newly invented grammar. Where children can be exposed to issues surrounding mental health without triggering anxiety.
Basically, they get the balance between education and entertainment exactly right, and that's what makes them progressive.
1'Star vs. the Forces of Evil'
Because we got to see a same-sex couple (or maybe even two, it's a pretty fast shot) smooching in the background at a concert scene from the show, something which constituted the Disney Channel's first same-sex kiss. Because in the episode "Sleepover," while playing a game of Truth or Punishment, StarFan13 gets asked who her crush is, and, without mincing her words, she confesses to crushing hard on Star. Because Star's best earth friend Marco gets to say he feels pretty while wearing a dress without fear or shame. Basically, everyone gets to be themselves on this show without it being a big deal if they don't fit into heteronormative ideas of what it means to be a boy or girl.
This one's hardly surprising. After all, much like Star vs. the Forces of Evil, the show's central ethos is about being happy with yourself, whatever that self may be. As such, there's BMO, a fluidly gendered living game console who likes to switch up their pronouns, characters like Jake who occasionally wears makeup to feel pretty, plus the former couple Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum (at least according to Marceline's voice actor). But it isn't so much the diversity of the characters so much as it being OK for the characters to do whatever feels right at the time — thus Finn smooching a male frog (who then turns into a prince) being no big deal in the Season 4 episode "The Hard Easy."
Long before being woke was even a thing, the world had Miss Grotke, a teacher who was constantly drawing her class' attention to the weaknesses of traditional perceptions of Thanksgiving and the Founding Fathers. Beyond all that, we got a rejection of gender norms in Vince enjoying wearing high heels and TJ renaming himself Ashley, and an emphasis on the importance of political protest. Basically, it was the coolest show on television.
If you're all about alternative family structures, then you'll love this show, which centers on Steven a half-human, half-Gem boy, who is brought up by three female-presenting Gems and in which the bulk of characters except Steven and Greg are female. And this isn't a coincidence. Creator Rebecca Sugar told Entertainment Weekly that the strong female presence in the show is:
And the show does the trick. In episodes like “Alone Together,” Steven and his friend Connie question ideas of gender when they accidentally turn into Stevonnie, a character who uses they/them pronouns and who attracts both male and female characters.
5'Clarissa Explains It All'
As Nickolodeon's first series to feature a female lead, the show was already pushing boundaries when it aired back in the '90s. But what a female lead: Clarissa flouted stereotypes about women on television. She had a male best friend who didn't become her boyfriend, she was obsessed with computer game programming, and she was indifferent about popularity and dating.
Doc is a 6-year-old (who later turns seven) who's aspiring to be a doctor and her home set up is fascinating: her dad is a stay-at-home parent while her mom is a physician. While a show focusing on a little girl dealing with her stuffed animals' medical complaints may not sound boundary pushing, the series has dealt with issues from anxiety to disabilities in a child-friendly tone.
Because the show tackled heavy, difficult issues with a light touch. In the Season 3 episode "Dances with Ignorance" Pepper Ann discovers she's 1/16th Navajo, gets totally overexcited, and embarks upon a voyage of intense cultural appropriation: she beats "war drums" and tries to war whoop. It's not great, to be honest. But after offending a real Navajo family who she invites over for dinner, she realizes the error of her ways and sees how harmful her behavior is. And this is just one example: Pepper Ann touched upon issues like having a female president and equal pay for equal work, while her mom was a single working mother.
Don't let the bright colors fool you: this show is wonderfully comprehensive for a series that feels like it's aimed at pre-teens. Episodes like "The Worst First Date Ever. Period." were progressive about even a worst-case period scenario, with Sharon getting her period on her first date with Alden and him comforting her by telling her how his sisters cope when they have their time of the month. Dion boosted LGBTQ+ representation on kids' TV as an openly gay character. The episode "Grey Matters," in which Sharon's grandfather comes to visit and makes prejudiced remarks about her friend Maria's new boyfriend Cloud was smart and on-the-money about racism.
LGBTQ+ visibility is clearly a priority on this kids show in which Jeff Randell has two moms, and the episode “Neighborhood Grill" showcased Cartoon Network's first gay kiss. It's not perfect, though. The network decided to downgrade the encounter from the two men kissing on the mouth and one bringing flowers to the pair kissing on the cheeks, not the mouth, which makes it a little more ambiguous for child viewers.
According to The Independent, Teletubbies has been accused of damaging children's speech development. But the same article reports that co-creator and writer Andy Davenport wanted the show to stimulate kids into learning how to communicate. As such, the show's emphasis on repetition and its own internal grammar rules is all kinds of out-there — in a good way. Davenport argues the repetition helps train cognitive functions like deduction and that it works "to give [children] enough space to develop their thinking processes." So don't think of this show as dumb; it's progressive in terms of how much it demands from its kid audience.
Long before the show I Love Dick, we already had a poignant examination of female desire on the small screen thanks to Helga Pataki. And that's before we get to the show's emphasis on diversity (both in terms of class, age, and ethnicity, with a prominent African-American character, Gerald, and a Japanese-American character, Phoebe) and the show was almost as cosmopolitan as its city setting. This series was everything.
12'The Legend Of Korra'
A compelling heroine who isn't Caucasian? Check. A cast that doesn't just boast one strong female character, but a whole bunch of all different ages? Check. A show where the romantic end (sorry, spoiler) confirms that Korra and Asami, her female friend, are in love? One big fat check.
13'The Proud Family'
Because the show didn't just center on an African-American family, but stressed the importance of understanding the heritage of Black culture, delving into African-American history.
If you're in the market to get hooked on a new TV show that's smart and nuanced about the world, don't turn your nose up at any of the above just because it doesn't feel targeted at your age range. As the list suggests, there's a whole new world of television to explore with right-on politics.