Rocko's Modern Life has returned after two decades off the air. The Netflix special has offered fans a chance to rejoin all the characters you grew up with in one nostalgia-fueled perspective on how modern life has changed from the '90s. With the characters spending 20 years in space, they return to find the world a very different place than when they left.
But while most people don't mind the commentary on the changing business scene, television revivals or smart phones, one major plot point of Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling that has upset members of the audience involves a transgender character. The anger directed at Nickelodeon, Netflix and the show's creators over Rocko's trans story is profoundly disturbing for a number of reasons.
In Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling, Rocko and friends return after being in orbit for 20 years. Rocko, disturbed by how he can no longer connect to the world, seeks to bring back his favorite show, The Fatheads, after years of it being off the air. This requires finding the show's creator, Ralph Bighead, and getting him to reboot the series in an animated special.
However, Bighead left on a journey of self-discovery years ago, and, along the way, came to realize their gender identity as a trans woman. Rachel Bighead agrees to make the special, which leads to her father, Ed, struggling to accept her daughter's identity. But the special ends with an important message about how things change, and that people need to accept that things can't stay the same. Not only that, but sometimes change can actually be a really, really good thing.
The trans plot ties into the special's bigger themes of adjusting to change by embracing it. It's amazing how many people can't seem to understand that. Or how many people are angry about it.
It is important to say that the backlash to Rachel Bighead coming out as trans is minimal. Most people either don't seem to mind, or actually find the plot heartfelt and validating. But the backlash exists and it needs to be addressed, because in many ways it's easy to overlook how the reaction is incredibly disturbing.
This tweet in particular seems to perfectly embody the backlash in a nutshell.
Oh my god. These bastards did it. They revived my favorite childhood cartoon just to turn Ralph transgender. SJW Netflix takes another victim. Then they wonder why they're losing money. That Invader Zim special is doomed. pic.twitter.com/oqYMFnvDA9— Biscuit (@BiscuitBasher) August 10, 2019
"Oh my god. These bastards did it. They revived my favorite childhood cartoon just to turn Ralph transgender. SJW Netflix takes another victim. Then they wonder why they're losing money. That Invader Zim special is doomed."
This tweet has over 4,000 likes, showing that a disturbing amount of people seem to agree with this sentiment. "Netflix is ruining '90s cartoons. Invader Zim will be next. How dare the social-justice warriors make me watch a show featuring a trans character?"
Many people agree with this disturbing, wrong statement.
The special, long before Netflix signed a deal to debut it, was going to feature Rachel Bighead coming out as trans. The show's creator and Rachel's voice actor, Joe Murray, took extra care to write Rachel in a way that was accurate and representative of the trans experience.
On Nickelodeon's suggestion, Murray consulted the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to ensure that the script avoided any transphobic jokes or scenes. By all accounts, they succeeded.
Netflix had nothing to do with any creative decisions behind Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling, just as they have no creative influence behind the upcoming Invader Zim special. The specials were finished long before Netflix purchased streaming rights. In fact, the special was finished back in 2017, but Nickelodeon hesitated to release the special for as-of-now unconfirmed reasons. Reasons that probably had a lot to do with the trans storyline.
The decision for Rachel to come out came from the people who made the original Rocko's Modern Life. Not only that, but this creative decision possibly resulted in the special being shelved for years.
The Themes of the Special
It seems bewildering that fans would be offended by a character changing and coming to understand themselves in a more intimate way over time. Especially with Rocko's Modern Life. The '90s cartoon often satirized then-modern society, from the cold reality of business to the suffocating nature of creative pursuits.
As the LGBTQ+ community and their concerns become increasingly discussed in mainstream society, many people who once identified as cis and straight have come to realize that, no, they aren't. They have always felt different from everyone else, but until they actually addressed those other issues, they didn't understand or know how to process their feelings.
There are many people like Rachel who identified as cisgender for years only to realize, maybe late into their lives, that they are trans and have always been trans. Cisgender, for those unaware, is the term referring to someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth, as opposed to transgender people, who identify as a different gender than the one assigned from birth.
This is an increasingly valid part of our modern lives. Why should Rocko's Modern Life ignore this and pretend this isn't a real and valid thing?
But this leads to the most disturbing aspect of the backlash...
"The Show is Ruined"
The sentiment that a character coming out as trans "ruins a show" is incredibly disturbing. The people angry about Rachel coming out are angry that a show is forcing them to say that trans people exist. The comment made in that original tweet complained that they "made a character trans."
This very specific sentiment implies three things: that trans characters can ruin a show, that they don't want to see trans characters, and/or that someone they believed to be cisgender can be nothing but cisgender.
If they are this angry about a cartoon, imagine how they might feel about actual trans people? Would they shame the trans people in their lives, or, like Ed Bighead, be forced to admit that things change and that this change can be good for the people undergoing it?
Or will they remain unbending, unable to adjust to modern life?
Transphobia is a very real thing that threatens the emotional and physical health of every trans individual. The refusal of some people to accept and embrace trans individuals living their true selves will cause real pain to vulnerable individuals. This backlash is indicative of a far larger problem.