Putting the “Bow” back in Rainbow
The Impact of JoJo Siwa’s Coming Out
As a triple-threat performer and YouTube personality, JoJo Siwa has long been in the public eye. However, she’s making recent headlines simply for being herself. The 17-year-old superstar came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community to her millions of followers in January—a largely unprecedented act for such a young celebrity with an even younger target audience.
Despite her over-the-top public persona, Siwa’s coming out was relatively simple and casual. She posted a TikTok of herself lip-syncing to Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way,” which featured colorful lights and her wearing one of her iconic rainbow bows. Siwa later confirmed the video’s implied message by tweeting a picture of her new shirt that read: “Best. Gay. Cousin. Ever.” The response from Siwa’s fanbase and other celebrities has been overwhelmingly positive, and her social media accounts have been flooded with support for her and her newly revealed girlfriend. “It was the most love I think I’ve ever received, and the coolest thing about it is that it was just by me showing the world the last little piece of me they haven’t seen yet,” Siwa told Jimmy Fallon in an interview on The Tonight Show.
Named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2020, Siwa is certainly a visible and powerful role model. Junior Abby Kaplan is excited that young children are able to look up to Siwa and see her living authentically. She said, “This will show it’s okay to be who you are and show who you are, and I think that’s a really great message, especially because she has so many really, really young fans.” Siwa is also showing the world that strict labels are not necessary. Regarding Siwa’s decision to not label her sexuality, Kaplan said, “I think that’s really important, especially for younger people, because some may be like…‘Oh I can’t come out until I know I identify as a certain term,’ and so this shows that you can be LGBT[Q+] and not exactly know where you stand, but still be able to come out.”
Even still, Siwa’s massive fame exposes her to a broad audience, and her public coming-out has been met with some homophobic backlash. Unfortunately, it is common for queer celebrities to face damaging consequences from the industry and negative reactions from the public. Siwa’s decision to come out could have been a risk for her career, especially because her audience is primarily young, elementary-aged children. It is no secret that there are parents who will be up in arms at even the most subtle inclusions of LGBTQ+ characters—as is evidenced by online controversies and boycotts such as those over the brief inclusion of a minor queer character in Disney/Pixar’s Onward and the quick moment in the live-action Beauty and The Beast where LeFou dances with another man. Some parents have threatened online to prohibit their children from watching Siwa’s content or buying her products. However, this ignorance and homophobia don’t seem to be a primary concern for Siwa. She told Fallon during her interview, “If I lost everything that I’ve created because of being myself and because of loving who I want to love, I don’t want it.”
Queerness is often branded as not being “family-friendly.” Junior Anna Cornish said, “[Queerness is] so oversexualized and straight people just make it into an inherently sexual thing. So, unfortunately, people look at that and they say, well, that’s not appropriate for children’s media because that’s the stereotypes that they have in their head[s].” But Siwa defies and subverts these stereotypes in many ways—with her family-friendly reputation, avoidance of “adult themes,” and sparkly, childlike aesthetic. She is a way for children and parents alike to see a complex and real person representing the LGBTQ+ community. Speaking about celebrities like Siwa coming out, senior Claire Liu said, “Through these people, [children who identify as LGBTQ+] can learn how to navigate their way through the world, because there is someone to look up to and someone there who has paved the way for them in media.”
LGBTQ+ characters in fictional content can also provide positive representation. However, film and television—particularly content aimed at children—are severely lacking in queer representation. In 2019, only 18.6 percent of the 118 films tracked by GLAAD included LGBTQ+ characters. Representation can help normalize LGBTQ+ identities from a young age and give children the language and understanding to explain their own identities. Liu, who is majoring in Child Development and studies representation in media, said, “How you see yourself in media and how you see identities of yourself being represented in media [have] a big impact on how you see yourself.” Cornish echoed a similar sentiment: “I think it’s just a good way for people to see what their future could be.”
There has been extensive research about the relationship between children and media. Two major theories on the topic are cultivation theory and social learning theory, which exemplify the benefits of positive representation. Liu explained, “Cultivation theory is talking about how what you see onscreen influences how you see the world and how you perceive other people, and then social learning theory talks about how you…model what you see on screen.” Department of Child Study and Human Development professor Julie Dobrow is a principal investigator for the Children’s Television Project and has studied how a lack of representation, or stereotypical representations, affect children. She said, “We…know that for many children, television is the primary way that they find out about people who are different from themselves, so it’s incredibly important to have thoughtful, authentic, [and] accurate portrayals of people.”
Progress has been made in some arenas toward including more—and more complex—representations of queer characters. Children’s shows such as She-Ra and The Princesses of Power and The Owl House have been praised for their inclusion of explicitly LGBTQ+ characters. Even still, not all representation is created equal. GLAAD saw an 8 percent decrease in the racial diversity of LGBTQ+ characters in 2019. Cornish noted that authenticity is key to having positive representations of the queer community. “I think it’s really important that we see queer creators being able to tell their stories,” she said. This is especially important when it comes to queer BIPOC creators. As Liu explained, “I think in general, white people are shown more often…just by virtue of the dominance of white people in media.”
Dobrow mentioned that openly queer celebrities may contribute to shifting mainstream views and improving the representation children are able to see onscreen. She said, “The more that we see and hear about people who are diverse by a lot of different metrics, the more we are going to see that represented in media.” But this shift is not going to be instant. “We are seeing more representation, and I think a lot of executive producers and producers are starting to trend towards having more queer people represented in media which is definitely a good thing, but it kind of…depends on the medium,” Liu said. She explained that it is more common to see queer representation in live-action content or user-generated content, rather than animated children’s media.
Having celebrities like Siwa be publicly open about their identities exposes children to authentic, positive LGBTQ+ representation, even as the broader industry takes its time to catch up. “It’s not something that Disney or any big media conglomerates can censor because it is that person’s actual life,” Cornish said. “When it’s an actual person, they get to define their narrative, and they get to tell their complete story how they want to tell it…And it’s fantastic that JoJo Siwa now gets to be a role model to a whole new generation of people.”