In Netflix's new movie, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, the cast of the hit 90s Nickelodeon cartoon comes back to earth from outer space in 2019. A lot has changed since they left in 1996, like the frenzy over new “O-phone” releases and the advent of hyper-realistic 4D movies. But as series creator Joe Murray explained to Entertainment Weekly, the reboot has moved into the future in other ways, too—it now prominently features a transgender character.
Murray explains that Mr. and Mrs. Bighead's daughter—a character formerly known as Ralph— now goes by Rachel. In the movie, Rachel has disappeared on a journey to find herself, and Rocko’s trio goes looking for her. When they eventually find her working at a food truck, they quickly adjust to and accept her gender transition, opening the doors for her reluctant father to eventually do the same.
Historically, cartoons have often hinted at LGBTQ characters with coded references only parseable by adults. For example, on another Nickelodeon show from the 90s, Rugrats, Phil and Lil’s mother, Betty DeVille, had a stereotypically butch demeanor and sported a female symbol on her sweatshirt, hinting that she might be queer. Disney has also been called out for giving so many of its evil characters a "queeny" gay flair, from Scar ( The Lion King) to Jafar ( Aladdin). This phenomenon has been so widely discussed that it’s inspired podcast and book investigations into where the trope came from.
But until recent years, cartoons had to create allegories and metaphors about queer experiences instead of representing them explicitly. Back in 1996, the original Rocko’s Modern Life series dabbled in this tradition, creating an allegory for coming out in an episode called “Closet Clown.” In the episode, Mr. Bighead hides the fact that he’s a clown from people who dislike clowns. It was an imperfect strategy by today’s standards, considering audiences could easily miss the correlation. But it was what they could get away with at the time. “We were still playing by the rules, so to speak, and still trying to interject those situations [into the cartoon],” Murray told Entertainment Weekly.
But things are changing, albeit slowly. The 2013 Cartoon Network series Steven Universe had a same-sex wedding in 2018, and this year, the PBS kids' series Arthur gave its character Mr. Ratburn a gay wedding, albeit not without controversy. Rachel’s plotline is a big step forward because it addresses her transition openly as a key story arc of a show for kids. And it’s a positive depiction, because she’s quickly accepted by her old friends as they fall back into their usual dynamic.
Overall, openly trans characters still lack representation on TV. (In 2018, GLAAD calculated trans characters were only 6% of all the LGBTQ characters on TV.) But queer stories have been especially difficult to weave into children’s programming as they’ve been treated as inappropriate for young audiences. With Rocko’s Modern Life, Netflix is using its leeway as a streaming platform to make its own rules and push the needle toward more visibility. In doing so, the masterminds behind the reboot are sending a signal to the rest of their industry about what modern life should really look like.