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JoJo Siwa’s Exclusion From the Kids’ Choice Award Exposes Nickelodeon’s Homophobia and Our Obsession With Perpetual Youth

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Multitalented 18-year-old celebrity JoJo Siwa was nominated for an award at the 2022 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award but did not attend. On April 9, Siwa revealed through TikTok that she did not receive a ticket to the show. 

While she expressed uncertainty regarding Nickelodeon’s decision, fans speculated that Siwa was barred from taking part in the ceremony because she strayed from her former “family-friendly” image by coming out as pansexual and chopping off her signature ponytail in favor of a pixie cut. Many have called Nickelodeon’s decision “homophobic,” and Siwa — who reshared such posts — seems to agree with the accusations. Nickelodeon claims that Siwa was not invited because of “because of a much reduced audience size due to COVID protocols”

However, I suspect that they are ingratiating themselves with conservative viewers because Siwa would be difficult to overlook, with over 11 million followers on Instagram. Nickelodeon garnered controversy in 2021 when it refused to allow Siwa to perform new music. In doing so, Nickelodeon has not only chosen ratings over queer visibility, but sent out the message that children are not allowed to grow and explore themselves. 

The Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards (KCAs) airs on a Saturday night in late March or early April. Viewers can vote for their favorite musician, actor and athlete through the official Nickelodeon website or via text. Siwa’s involvement with Nickelodeon dates back to 2017, which is another reason why her exclusion from the awards show has enraged fans. On the channel, she has appeared in programs such as “Blurt!” and “Lip Sync Battle Shorties.” Siwa also appeared as a playable character in the 2020 video game “Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix.” Nickelodeon is choosing to underscore Siwa’s significance to its brand and her impact on its viewers. If an outsider decided to include Siwa in a game about Nickelodeon, then she is clearly a vital part of the channel.

Yet, despite being a key component of the network and being nominated for an award, Nickelodeon decided not to invite Siwa to the 2022 Kids’ Choice Awards. When one compares Siwa with her former self a couple of years ago, one might notice two primary changes: she came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community before dating her best friend for several months and she cut her signature long hair, sharing a picture of the new hairdo on Instagram on April 7. It is clear that her absence from the ceremony is not because of a sudden decline in talent, but Nickelodeon’s homophobia and obsession with youth. 

This is not the first time that the children’s channel has censored the portrayal of LGBTQ+ media. Co-creator of the animated series “The Legend of Korra” Bryan Konietzko confessed that he received pushback from Nickelodeon when he suggested depicting an unambiguous, full-fledged romance between main characters Korra and Asami in the series’ final episode. While the network claimed to be supportive, they stated that they had “a limit to how far” they could go with a queer love story. 

It seems that Nickelodeon’s “support” was merely abstract, imaginary and hypothetical — grounded in zero interest in actually using their platform to positively influence LGBTQ+ kids, who would feel seen and heard if they saw their experiences reflected on the screen. However, what is puzzling is that in later years, Nickelodeon has given the green light to airing LGBTQ+ representation on their network. “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling,” the 2019 sequel to the 1993 series “Rocko’s Modern Life,” features a transgender character and in 2020  the show “Danger Force” portrayed a child with two fathers.

Did the network take a major step backwards by excluding Siwa from attending the ceremony? A sudden outburst of homophobia after an improving track record sounds unlikely. There has to be something else at play here. The same channel that alluded to Spongebob being gay would not exclude one of their most popular actresses on the basis of sexuality alone. 

I still remember the uproar that Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” music video caused. People all over the media wondered how the doe-eyed child actress who played Hannah Montana could turn into a woman so unabashed about her sexuality, so much so that Cyrus gave a public response declaring Hannah Montana “dead.” Parents were especially guilty of this, expressing fear that Cyrus would corrupt their daughters. Side-by-side photos of the singer in her teens and at present were widely circulated — often with the intent of criticizing Cyrus’s life choices.

The public response that Siwa received after coming out is heavily reminiscent of that period. Parents shared comments claiming that they will boycott all TV shows that Siwa appears in; others claimed that Siwa would corrupt children who are too young to learn about gay people. Both Cyrus and Siwa underwent two major similarities that prompted such a strong reaction: they both cut their hair and explored their sexuality. 

As a society, we seem to give ourselves the luxury of growth, while restricting former child-actors to a state of statis, a sentiment confirmed by “Matilda” actress Mara Wilson herself. We expect young adults — Cyrus was 20 at the time of her controversy and Siwa is 18 — to continue satisfying the desires of children and adolescents, even after they have clearly outgrown these roles. This obsession with perpetual youth can also manifest in harmless ways. For example, I have come across several people who admit that they cannot see Daniel Radcliffe as anyone but Harry Potter. However, when it crosses dangerous territories like criticizing someone’s autonomy, self-development and self-exploration, it becomes creepy because that signifies that we believe actors owe us a false presentation of themselves. 

Nickelodeon may support Siwa privately and may have no moral problem with queerness. However, by pandering to viewers who are either homophobic or expect adult actresses to maintain an image that was established when they were minors, Nickelodeon is being actively homophobic. It is easier to broadcast fictional queer characters because those characters are controlled to the viewers’ liking. Not only is the channel teaching its child audience that there is something immoral about same-sex love, it is sending a message that growing up on one’s own terms is looked down upon.

If the network really wants to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, they should support an  actual queer human being who has done so much for their channel. Otherwise, their supportcomes across as hypothetical and conditional. Right now, their message seems to be “I accept you if you are gay, but please be gay in a PG way that does not disturb viewers.” 

Mariam Jawhar is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at mjawhar@uci.edu