Does anyone else remember watching Captain Planet and the Planeteers as a kid?
Lots of you? Okay, great!
Now does anyone else remember the time Captain Planet taught us not to be afraid of people with HIV?
If you didn’t actually see the episode when it aired on TV in the 90s, chances are you’ve probably at least heard about the rather famous episode, A Formula for Hate, somewhere on the Internet. The episode centres around a teenage basketball player who has HIV, and one of the show’s recurring bad guys spreads rumours about him and about HIV, driving up fear and aggression in the community so that the basketball player and his family are persecuted, abused, discriminated against with open hostility. But along comes Captain Planet to tell us that hey, HIV isn’t something that deserves this treatment, you don’t have to be afraid of getting it just because you bump into an HIV-positive person on the street, so maybe simmer the hell down and stop being such asswaffles about it, okay?
…I may have spiced that last bit up a little bit, but the message is the same. The villain of this piece wasn’t so much the recurring character, but the attitude of the community, “led astray by lies” and causing harm to someone who was a victim of circumstance and had done nothing to deserve ostracization and fear.
When I first watched this episode, the message was clear. Don’t be afraid of people with HIV or AIDS. Don’t be a jerk to them either. It seemed pretty obvious, but hey, I was also a kid, and watching a TV show that often had similarly obvious messages, like, “Don’t litter,” and, “Don’t take pills from that guy in the alley.” The whole point of the show was to drive home messages like this. It seemed a little odd to have an episode about HIV when most of the show was about pollution, but even then I knew I was living in the era of Very Special Episodes, so A Formula for Hate was just another one of those.
Why have I spent all this time talking about an episode of Captain Planet? Because it occurred to me recently that I missed some context when I was young. It was context I missed by design, I think, and I doubt it ever would have occurred to me at all had I not been so involved with people dedicated to increasing diversity and positive representation in media.
You see, when I watched this episode, I took the message at face value, and in the same manner that I took every episode’s message. The message here was just another message that kids everywhere had to hear, one more lesson we had to learn in order to navigate life. Everyone had to learn it at some point.
Only recently did it occur to me that no, this was not a typical life lesson that every kid learned. It was not a message akin to, “Don’t litter.” The message in this episode was not something my parents had heard. It wasn’t something my grandparents had heard. This was a message targeted to my generation, an emerging generation. The message was relatively new.
The message was being aimed at kids my age so that we would grow up to be the kind of adults who wouldn’t do the things that people in the show did. It was aimed at us so that we would better understand things. It was a message designed to tell us how to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us.
Because those mistakes were made. And real people suffered due to fear and ignorance.
But as a child, I never even thought that I would be getting a life lesson that my parents hadn’t gotten. That’s not to say that my parents would have bullied someone with HIV, mind you. But it is to say that when they were so young, there was no helpful TV show to sit them in front of that would tell them a story about what happens when fear gets out of hand like that. Not where HIV was concerned, anyway.
That episode was memorable for how out of place it was in the show’s lineup. I, and lots of other people my age, remember it pretty clearly. We remember it. Not everyone took the message to heart, mind you, but I sure did.
Where am I going with this? Right back around to every other diversity and inclusivity measure I’ve seen, especially in youth media.
When adults complain that too big a deal is being made over having more people of colour in media, more people with disabilities, more people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual, they’re complaining because to them, the message seems like it’s everywhere. Everywhere wants to hop on the diversity bandwagon, it’s a cool thing to do, blah blah blah.
I wonder how many adults in the 90s thought that having an episode of Captain Planet talk to kids about HIV was over the top, out of place, a conversation that didn’t need to be had because ugh, we know not to be jerks to people with HIV, okay, we’re all adults here, we know better!
(Okay, yes, some of them are ranting about it because they just plain don’t like any media that doesn’t feature straight white able-bodied people. I have to be fair and admit that some people are just bigots.)
But the message isn’t for those adults. The message is for the kids who might not have had the chance to encounter anything, positive or negative, about other people before. It’s a chance to teach them that other people are okay, before anyone else has the chance to teach them otherwise.
When I first watched that Captain Planet episode, I was vaguely aware that HIV was a thing, that you can get it through blood or needles or sex, and that it made you sick. And to be honest, I might even be giving myself a little too much credit at that point. I was a nerdy kid when it came to medical stuff (when I was 9, I told people I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when I grew up, and I knew exactly what I meant when I said that), but there was still plenty I didn’t know. But even assuming I was aware that much, I know for a fact that I knew nothing at all about the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I knew nothing about the fear that grew out of ignorance over HIV, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, and the social hell that people went through at the time. Not a single bit of that was in my mind. The first exposure I got to how people can be cruel to those who are sick was through Captain Planet.
And that exposure laid some of the foundation that taught me not to be the same way. Not to make the mistakes that people before me made.
When a kid reads a book that has a character with two mothers, they’re not going to come home and demand a detailed explanation of low lesbian sex works. Chances are they’re not going to say a thing about it… unless they’ve already been taught that such things are wrong. Otherwise, they’re likely going to accept the message that having two mothers is fine, that two women can be in love and be married and have a kid together, and move on with their lives with that message subtly laying the groundwork for the day when they meet a girl who likes another girl.
When they watch a TV show where somebody comments that a character named Derrick used to be called Natalie, they’re not going to go to their parents and suddenly declare that they’re transgender (unless they are) or start demanding random hormone injections. They’re just going to have a little more experience to draw on if their friend John tells people that he wants to be called Kelly and be referred to be female pronouns.
The more we have positive representation and positive messages about inclusivity, the fewer mistakes the next generation will make, compared to the mistakes that we made. The point of making a point over inclusion isn’t to beat the message into the heads of adults (though that would be nice), but the help prepare the next generation for the world around them. And to prepare them better than we were prepared.
A friend of mine, who is a generation older than me, once told a story from his childhood about seeing the neighbour’s kid for the first time. The kid had epilepsy, and was essentially confined to the house or made to wear a helmet when in the backyard. He wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers. Even talking to my friend through a fence was discouraged, because then other people might know his awful shameful secret.
My generation got the message that kids with epilepsy don’t need to be hidden from the world. My generation got Teddy Bear Fairs at the hospital, where we could take in a stuffed animal and have them diagnosed and treated, and where we could learn about things like epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, and other things that might come up in playground conversation.
(We also got YA novels where characters with serious illnesses or disabilities overcame obstacles or else died beautiful tragic deaths. I’m looking at you, Lurlene McDaniel…)
Generations after mine? They’re getting characters with epilepsy in books, where the whole story isn’t about them coping with epilepsy or being scared their classmates will find out and torment them for it.
And yes, these are absolutely messages that we can still stand to learn as adults. I freely admit that when I was young, my awareness and sensitivity to issues involving race were… cringe-worthy. And that’s putting it kindly. I was an ignorant piece of crap about a lot of things. Funny enough, shows having a Token Black Character didn’t actually do much to help educate me. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits as an adult, and am still learning better habits now. Childhood isn’t the only time to learn these things.
But learning those lessons as a kid makes it so much easier as an adult. Conveying those messages now, normalizing these issues now, is essential to creating a future filled with better adults than we were. Better adults than our parents and grandparents.
People crying out that having transgender characters in video games or black women in wheelchairs on TV shows is just pushing some political agenda have missed the point utterly. The point isn’t to tick off boxes on a diversity checklist. The point isn’t to shove minorities in your face until straight white people are crowded out. The point is that these people exist in the real world, and deserve as much positive representation as the straight white guy, the able-bodied white woman. And the next generation deserves to be prepared for the variety of people they will meet when they go out into the real world, and more importantly, deserves to be told that these people are as valid as themselves, deserve as much respect, and are not to be hated or feared.
Everybody deserve to know that the next generation will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Especially those in that generation.
The messages being pushed aren’t always for now. They’re for later. They’re so that the bad parts of now stop happening, and don’t happen again. They’re so we don’t need to revert to after school specials to tell kids that Indian people don’t smell bad.
(Yes, I actually watched an educational video as a kid, where that was the message. Mostly what it taught me is that there are a lot of people who think people from India smell bad.)
These messages aren’t new. I pretty much proved that when I pointed out that Captain Planet was doing it in the early 90s. The only difference is the topic, but the messages are generally the same. Tolerance. Acceptance. Normalization. Respect.
So maybe simmer the hell down and stop being such asswaffles about it, okay?