Queering Captain Planet and HIV/AIDS

Curator's Note

Early discourses surrounding the outbreak of “gay cancer” [HIV/AIDS] placated the public with the assurance that it was relegated to the gay community, coining it GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). That meant it was easy to politically-activate, helping corral fundamentalist conservatives around a central issue of morality, key in electing another conservative president post-Reagan. On television, primetime news, “special issues” episodes, and made-for-TV movies slowly covered HIV/AIDS-related issues, particularly in response to its spread in non-gay communities, often to gays’ detriment. While “think of the children!” was an oft-used expression, few shows took it literally to the production level, except Captain Planet and the Planeteers, which did it first.

Writers of Ted Turner’s syndicated-cartoon series, Captain Planet, drafted an episode (“A Formula for Hate”) slightly off-brand for a series about a mulleted-environmentalist superhero. Geared toward children and their parents, it attracted a lot of controversy. Stars lending their voices included Elizabeth Taylor (already an ardent AIDS activist), Neil Patrick Harris, The Wonder Years’ Danica McKellar, Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Begley, Jr., Kate Mulgrew, and Vanna White. Because the Saturday, 21 November 1992, episode aired in first-run syndication, young viewers across the country saw it at different times during the day: some as early as 6 a.m. and some as late as 8 p.m.

In this episode, recurring rat-humanoid villain Verminous Skumm brainwashes a community into becoming a torch and pitchfork mob against local basketball star Todd Andrews (Harris) by suggesting HIV/AIDS could be spread by casual contact with him. The mob destroys his mother’s (Taylor) business, beats up his little brother, and sends Andrews into exile. He is eventually rescued by Captain Planet who lectures a jam-packed auditorium full of scared citizens on the misinformation spread about the disease (likely through the media). 

While most viewers may have breezed past the conversation Andrews has with his doctor (suggesting he contracted the virus through a blood transfusion), it’s important to note that the episode never confirms this and still allows for an explicitly-queer reading. It alludes several times to an unusually-close friendship between Andrews and his friend Jeff, and a potential physical relationship between them in a way, I would argue, enables the show to show male-male casual contact (returned to again in the epilogue) without enforcing an anti-gay stance, to thus be aware of and sensitive to its gay viewers, and to avoid alienating any of its potentially proto-gay fans, myself included.


A couple of notes here: 1. I have obviously heavily edited this episode to focus on what I consider its most interesting and/or queerest elements. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube. 2. I'm constantly struck by the way Captain Planet so consistently eroticizes the bodies of its male characters with hyper-masculinized musculatures. There's also some hyper-heterosexualization in this episode in particular that makes it lend itself so well to a queer reading because the display of heterosexuality is so heavily performed. For example, the make out scenes, and the pinup-model posters in Todd's bedroom. 3. I will say more about his episode and the importance of it as a syndicated text in my dissertation. Until then, I think it's useful that this episode was programmed without the specter of dayparting hanging over the producers' heads. Broadcasters decided what hour they thought this cartoon was especially well suited to which means it was watched by the Saturday morning kids audience and just as reasonably, the gay clubbers audiences watching it on syndication that Saturday evening. 4. I have no idea what kind of regional vocal affectation Elizabeth Taylor was going for, but you can be sure it was shared by none of the rest of the cast.

Thanks for this really interesting post, Taylor! I never knew about this Captain Planet episode and am curious to watch it in its entirety. As you allude to in the post, it's fascinating to juxtapose this episode with the "think of the children!" conservative rhetoric that framed so much public discourse about HIV/AIDS during this period. This episode may very well be thinking of "the children," but in a way that's entirely different from the way moral majority pundits were framing the issue. Also interesting to think of this episode in the context of the "Knowing is half the battle" PSAs that made animated cartoons like G.I. Joe so famous.

I had never heard of Captain Planet before, so thank you for focusing on this series in your post. I'm impressed that this episode exists and aired across the country. Even though the episode carefully sidesteps any overt LGBT themes, I agree that there is plenty of queer (sub)text. Do you know any other children's shows that had episodes on HIV/AIDS?

Thanks for your post. Like Melanie and Andrew, I had never heard of this episode. I find the context of sports to be especially interesting here. Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status in 1991 and, perhaps not coincidentally, the player on the court in this clip is referred to as "Johnson." Arthur Ashe went public with his status in April 1992. This is a really rich text and I hope you can do more with it in the future!

Like Jeff, I couldn't help thinking of Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe. The discourse surrounding Johnson, in particular, was marked by a strong pedagogical air as basketball was considered a "contact" sport. What I think is interesting here is that the two "issue" films of the week all end up in some way creating clear lines between acceptable/unacceptable, moral/immoral, etc. But in this case, the "issue/disease" of the week texts - the one off episode of an established series, or the made for TV move - end up far more equivocal in their "messages" about AIDS.

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