Netflix adds transgender storyline to Nickelodeon children’s cartoon


The online streaming platform Netflix launched a 45-minute special Friday that serves as a follow-up to the popular 1990s children's cartoon series "Rocko's Modern Life" that features a prominent transgender storyline. 

The series, which lasted four seasons on the children's cable network Nickelodeon and ended in 1996, was known back then to test the limits of adult humor in children's programming. 

The new Netflix special, "Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling," presented by Nickelodeon, starts off with Rocko (a wallaby), his friends Filburt (a turtle) and a Heffer (a cow voiced by the same man who voices SpongeBob Squarepants) being stranded in space for 20 years.

The group of friends lands back home two decades after they were rocketed off.  
Upon return, the characters want to try out everything the future has to offer them, including getting the newest cell phones, getting food from food trucks, and watching 3D movies. 

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"The 21st century is a very dangerous century," Rocko says in the show. 

The plot thickens when Rocko realizes that his favorite cartoon TV show from the past, "The Fatheads," was canceled years ago. 

But Rocko remembered that the creator of the show was Ralph Bighead, the son of his next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Bighead. 

When Rocko asks the Bigheads about their son, the program cuts to a flashback scene where Ralph Bighead tells his mother and father that he needs to go away for a while because he is "just not happy." 

"I need to get away for a while to do some real soul searching. Find the real me," Ralph is shown as saying. 

Mrs. Bighead told Rocko that Ralph left the home years ago to find himself and never returned. 

Rocko and his friends go off on an adventure find to Ralph and bring back "The Fatheads" series.  

After looking all over the world for Ralph, they finally find him as he drives up to them in an ice cream truck in the middle of a desert. After a discussion, Ralph agrees to bring back "The Fatheads" but tells Rocko and his friends that since the last time he saw them, he had changed. 

"I'm not Ralph anymore," the character said, stepping outside the ice cream truck and letting down long hair. "I'm Rachel."

Heffer and Filburt respond by saying "cool" and "that is awesome." 

"Well, what are we waiting for, let's go," Rocko says. 

Rachel finally meets her father for the first time since transitioning, telling him that "I am not your son, I am your daughter." Mr. Bighead responded by saying "this is crazy" and says "No!" 

"I can't do this. I have no daughter!" Mr. Bighead yells. 

"No son, no show!" Mr. Bighead demands. "There will be no fathead special. I quit!" 

Rocko tries to console Rachel, saying that Mr. Bighead didn't mean what he said.
Later, Rocko tells Mr. Bighead that he can't live without a relationship with his child. 
After a change of heart in the aftermath of the falling out with her father, Rachel draws up a new episode of "The Fatheads." A re-release screening and party are held for the series. 

Rocko kidnapped Mr. Bighead so he could attend the showing. In the showing, a baby daughter Fathead character is introduced, which seemingly caused Mr. Bighead to have a change of heart. The screening concludes with a heartfelt moment in which Mr. and Mrs. Bighead embrace Rachel in a hug.  

"Rocko, we can't live in the past. We can be grateful for it. But life isn't permanent and if we don't embrace what's now we miss out on a lot of the important stuff," Mr. Bighead says. 

The show's creator, Joe Murray, commented on the storyline in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. 

“When I started writing ['Static Cling'], I really started latching onto the idea of change and how society has changed and what’s gone on in the last 20 years and the development of our characters and how they would react to change,” Murray, who voiced Rachel, said. “It felt natural, because it was not only about change, about somebody finding who they are and making that courageous choice to go through that change.”  

The Netflix special's inclusion of a transgender character drew the praise of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "This is very important [and] breaking news," a tweet from the organization reads. "One of our favorite characters on Rocko's Moder Life is a trans!" 

"Rocko's Modern Life" is among a number of shows and programming that have introduced LGBT characters and storylines in recent years.

In 2018, the CW introduced the first transgender superhero in its hit series "Supergirl." The CW has also approved a lesbian "Batwoman" series.

Headlines were made earlier this year when the popular PBS Kids show "Arthur" featured an episode with Mr. Ratburn, the show's teacher, getting married to another man. 

As for "Rocko's Modern Life," the cartoon program aired during a time when having LGBT characters in children's programming was less common. However, Murray confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that a 1996 episode that featured Mr. Bighead trying to hide his secret identity as a clown was an allegory for a gay person's coming out experience. 

“We were still playing by the rules, so to speak, and still trying to interject those situations [into the cartoon],” Murray was quoted as saying.

Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at the LGBT activist group GLAAD, consulted on the project. He called the special a story about accepting change. 

“The younger characters accept Rachel immediately; recognizing she’s still their friend," Adams told Entertainment Weekly. "And while Rachel’s father is slow to accept change within his own family, even he realizes that loving your child should be unconditional. This story of inclusion and acceptance is so needed in our current climate.”  

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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