Rocko's Modern Life Static Cling
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Credit: Nickelodeon // Netflix

Rocko’s Modern Life, trans acceptance, and adapting to change

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Aug 15, 2019

When I first sat down to watch the new one-off Netflix special for Rocko’s Modern Life, I was more than a little bit skeptical about the show’s ability to remain relevant in, funnily enough, our modern life.

For anyone who was not a fan when it originally aired in the mid-'90s, Rocko’s Modern Life was a Nickelodeon animated comedy angling for the adult humor of shows like Ren and Stimpy. The series focused on a wallaby named Rocko who, along with his friends Heffer and Filburt, was working to get by in a very '90s depiction of America. They were always the underdogs, taken advantage of by nasty bosses, mega-corporations, and people lacking in empathy, with their status as misfit outcasts the reason for us to root for them. 

They were unusual individuals living in a town that valued conformity and was owned by the faceless Conglom-O Corporation. Rocko and his friends just wanted to enjoy what made them special. It was a show with relatable themes, and characters we wanted to see succeed, even if the deck was stacked against them.

At first blush, the basic premise for Netflix’s modern reboot special for the show, Static Cling, seemed to be disappointingly predictable. After 20 years of drifting alone in space, our heroes manage to return to earth, and a lot of the early attempts at comedy are satire around changes to the world in the past two decades. The overarching idea of how hard it is to make a proper revival of a cult classic TV show was cute, but none of the jokes were particularly inspired, just pointing out things like the fact that we now have lots of fast-food restaurants that make weird combination meals, and that Apple makes new phones on a pretty regular basis.

However, what really turned the special around for me, and has had me recommending the show so strongly, is a plotline regarding how one of the characters had changed in the time the series was off the air.

Viewers of the original Rocko series will likely remember the Bigheads, a family of cane toads who had something of a love-hate relationship with our protagonists: There was Bev Bighead, who thought Rocko was a sweetheart who could do no wrong; Ed Bighead, who was convinced Rocko was the cause of every issue in his life; and their child, who worked as a successful cartoonist creating many of Rocko’s favorite TV shows.

After Rocko learns that his favorite TV show, The Fatheads, has gone off the air in the decades he has been away, he decides to try and track down the show’s creator, in the hopes of bringing the show back for at least a one-off special. Mr. and Ms. Bighead know that their kid has been off traveling the world, trying to find themselves, and so Rocko goes off hunting for an old friend.

Upon tracking their friend down, it is revealed that the Bigheads' child now goes by the name Rachel. Yes, in the decades since Rocko’s Modern Life last aired, the youngest Bighead has chosen to transition. She was assigned male at birth, but in the years since leaving home has come out as a trans woman, changing her name and pronouns in the process. 

As a trans woman, I was really pleased with how Rachel as a character and her storyline in Static Cling generally were handled for a number of reasons. Perhaps most notably, there is the fact that she got to appear explicitly trans at all in a Nickelodeon children's show.

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Credit: Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon has a bit of an iffy track record with LGBT representation in their children’s programming, often only implying character attributes or forcing them to be confirmed outside of the core media itself. A great example of this is the romantic relationship between Korra and Asami in The Legend of Korra, where we only saw a handhold into the sunset in the show, with their first kiss relegated to a follow up comic. Getting to see a series I grew up with including a trans character at all was a big deal in making me feel represented in the media I watch.

Another unexpected aspect of Rachel’s storyline was how instantly supportive our main characters were of her identity. Considering they had canonically spent the past 20 years flying around space away from changes in the world, it would have been really easy for the show’s creators to pitch them as transphobic, confused about what it means to be trans or behind the times because they have not experienced modern discussions of trans rights. 

However, by making Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt all instantly understanding, it not only enforces that being happy and accepting of your trans friends is a very natural way to respond, but it also cements them as likable heroes. They’re excited that their friend has found herself, they take her at her word on her name and pronoun changes, and they like her for who she is above anything else. It makes sense — their whole role in the show is wanting to be unique people in a faceless world, I can’t imagine a set of characters more primed to be thrilled that their friend found how to live life unapologetically as herself.

Another positive aspect of Rachael's portrayal in Static Cling is that Joe Murray, the show’s creator who voiced the character pre-transition, didn’t feel the need to try and give Rachel a new high pitched voice post-transition. I’m always an advocate for casting trans people to play trans roles when a character is designed from the start to be trans, but in a situation like this where the character already exists with an established voice actor, I’m just really pleased their voice wasn’t magically changed to an impossibly cis female voice actor. As a somewhat deep-voiced trans woman who went through testosterone-based puberty, my voice will never sound like that of someone who didn’t go through testosterone puberty, and it’s so rare we see deep-voiced trans women presented in media without them being used as a punchline.

Additionally, it really helped that Rachel's trans status was never used as a point of ridicule for humor. When jokes are made which touch on the topic of her transition, they all avoid punching down at her trans status. There’s an early joke for example where someone says “Roger” as a confirmation statement, and Fillburt says “Roger? I thought your name was Rachel.” That kind of joke makes light of the fact Fillburt is trying really hard to make sure he respects her new name and has, if anything, worried a little too much about getting it right, rather than making Rachel the butt of the joke for her actual trans status. It’s a great example of a joke that works because a trans character is in the scene, but doesn’t make fun of them for being trans.

While Rachel’s father does have a little trouble coming to terms with Rachel’s transition, largely the rest of the series characters don’t make a big deal of her trans status in the slightest. The TV execs are ecstatic that she has returned to make the special, her mother tries to show support actively by picking out cute new shoes for her, the fans of the in-universe show are just pleased their show is back, and in the vast majority of cases she gets to just be welcomed as a woman with open arms.

In the end, the resolution to Rachel’s father’s struggles with her transition, as well as Rocko’s struggles with accepting that the world has changed in other ways in his absence, is the fact that you can’t stop change, and things improve for many people when change is allowed to happen. When Ed Bighead sees that his daughter is happy and fulfilled, he realizes he needs to allow his understanding of who his daughter is to change, and that holding on to the past won’t stop the world moving forward.

While Static Cling presents many of the technological advances of the past 20 years as bad and scary, the wider acceptance of trans people and the increased confidence trans people have in coming out is seen as something positive and heartwarming. Not all change is good, but at the end of the day, O-Town ends up all agreeing the fact their resident cartoonist came back comfortable and happily a woman, is a positive.

Things like this are rare in children's cartoons and media in general, so getting to see such a positive portrayal of a trans character who is instantly supported by our heroes and allowed to exist as themselves unapologetically and without justification, is a much needed step forward not only for children's TV, but also for the idea that revivals of classic shows can change with the times.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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