I’ve written here before about some of the children’s animation which my son consumes and, as he gets older (he’s almost 5), we all become exposed to more sophisticated shows aimed at older children. Thankfully, many of these shows are fully self-reflexive with the almost required ‘adult’ element of different reading opportunities for the parents who watch along. His current favorite (and mine to be honest) is Transformers: Rescue Bots (2012- ), made under the auspices of Hasbro studios. Like the more grown up version of the show, it is essentially a sales pitch for the toys; but unlike the older versions (and certainly the 1980s version I remember) it is very well written[i]. The focus of the series is on team-work, understanding and helping but with a great level of social commentary, snark and pretty positive representation of diversity. That larger discussion will come later[ii], but here I want to focus on the representation of queer in the show.
The show features four different robots in disguise, each one taking a different rescue vehicle form, working with a family of rescue workers. Bot leader, Heatwave, is a fire truck paired with Cade Burns, a hyper masculine oaf/buffoon but still heroic and fully committed to saving the continuously inept townsfolk of island Griffin Rock (apparently off the coast of Maine); Chase, a police car is teamed with police Chief Charlie Burns, the patriarch of the ‘family of heroes’ and all round brilliant guy (and excellent single father, sensitive but firm, with an awesomely camp mustache); Boulder is a bulldozer in his vehicle mode and works with slightly nerdy (but never criticised for his intelligence) Graham Burns, both with a keen interest in engineering; finally, and of most interest to me, is Blades, a helicopter (who is afraid of heights), paired with the only Burns female, Charlie’s daughter, Dani.
Blades is opposite to Heatwave in terms of masculinity; both care about the mission but where Heatwave is gruff, serious and ‘masculine’, Blades is often perceived as cowardly, silly and, for want of a better term, effeminate. There is something interesting in his pairing with a female as his ‘gal pal’ with whom he gossips and consumes all forms of pop culture, especially musicals[iii]. All of these camp stereotypes are heightened in an early episode when he asks “do this make my hips look big?” after the addition of a new scoop claw attachment to aid in a rescue. It was this episode which made me wonder: was Blades meant to be a gay robot? If so, then this is a great addition to the already fairly diverse show (most races are represented), but could equally be considered as potentially problematic if you consider his lack of courage, which makes him less traditionally masculine[iv] and thus less worthy a bot (and we could read this as lesser if he were gay instead of more obviously heterosexual like the human Cade).
Alternatively we could read this as an opportunity for the kids watching to understand that there are different ways to be, especially as ultimately the bots all form a great team (and Blades is often heroic).[v]
Much humour is made from Blades and his lack of courage in dealing with the more dangerous rescues as he questions with incredulity the danger and absurdity of some of the missions. Yet, over the course of 4 seasons, thanks to the encouragement from Dani, he is shown to have a great heart despite an occasional fear of flying. He also gets some of the funniest dialogue and best overall use of intertextuality as the bot that has most closely observed humanity. In his ‘Meet Blades’ video it even suggests he’s ‘coming out of his shell’ and mentions his fashion sense:
Am I reading into this?
Glyn Davis (2009) observed that the ‘humour’ of the gay stereotype is often located in the voice, and its difference from the heterosexual male’s voice. His overall discussion on sound and queer in television is located in much of what is (or isn’t) said in terms of pronouncing sexuality but he also addresses the use of the voice pitch as stereotype and arguably of particular speech patterns and content (as mentioned, Blades’ discussion of pop culture). It may be significant that Blades is voiced by Parvesh Cheena, an openly gay actor, and my interest here (and an area to be developed) is whether the production of the show takes his sexuality into account and thus writes Blades as gay, for Cheena to enhance or if this is something indeed in his performance. I aim to investigate this further with cast and crew interviews, but for now wanted to raise this as a point of interest. Seeing Cheena interviewed elsewhere, it is clear that he is ‘performing’ Blades (his voice pitch is different) but I am interested in the extent to which we can think of Blades as queer and if that is informed by my knowing about the performer. I enjoy his character more now and feel like many of his lines are delivered with a nod and a wink to the audience.
There is a suggestion on one of the many Transformers wikis that Blades is a ‘young’ robot and as such we could surmise that his fear and curiosity of the human condition, as well as his love of pop culture is a childish naivety, or represents the curious voice of the audience. However, when combined with Cheena’s, to my ear, queer performance and the stereotypical camp references, I certainly read Blades as queer. As I said above, on one hand this is brilliant and reinforces what seems to be a diverse show in characters, and crew, but the hyper-masculinity on display as counter to Blades is still problematic (perhaps this is endemic of this type of show/franchise in general, in which case it is far more complicated than we can deal with here!). Perhaps this complexity is what makes the show so successful to a mixed audience; it is smart, doesn’t talk down to kids and engages adults well too. It’s also less of an obvious toy commercial than other shows.
So, lots to consider and develop – if anyone has any good references on camp on TV please let me know either via comment or email. I think the discussion of performance and representation has begun to be touched on elsewhere (and will be the largest part of my book project) but I am interested to hear what others make of this type of diversity, or my assumption of contemporary kids TV.
Please feel free to comment.
Davis, G & Needham ,G (2009), Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, Routledge, London.
Dr Nichola Dobson is based in Edinburgh, lecturing part time at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Founding editor of Animation Studies from 2006 until 2011 and founding editor of Animation Studies 2.0 since its inception in March 2013. She has published on both animation studies and television, including The A to Z of Animation and Cartoons (2010) and Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons (2009) for Scarecrow Press. She has published in anthologies on Crime Scene Investigation and Life on Mars as well as shorter works for the online journal FLOW. She is currently working on a book on TV animation with Paul Ward for Edinburgh University Press and a book on Scottish animator Norman McLaren. She began a new role as President of the Society for Animation Studies in autumn 2014.
[i] The show has its share of spoofs from Fantastic Voyage to Groundhog Day.
[ii] This post is a work in progress of two larger projects, one as part of a paper and one even larger in book form. I wanted to start with this shorter form as I think it is useful to give readers a sense of my ongoing work and to potentially get feedback which may help inform my larger project. With that in mind, there may be links or references missing from this post which will appear later (and if anyone has any other reading suggestions they will be gratefully received!).
[v] There is also the whole issue of ‘trans’formers and the bots revealing their true ‘alien’ selves in series 4 which needs to be unpacked, but again at a later time.