Children’s TV show Transformers: EarthSpark has sparked controversy by introducing a new non-binary character.
The animation series features a robot called Nightshade who says the word “he or she just doesn’t fit who I am” and asks other characters to use “they/them” instead. The machine adds that the term “non-binary” is a “wonderful word for a wonderful experience.”
The episode comes amid an increasingly bitter social debate about the rights of transgender and non-binary people, particularly relating to their inclusion in women’s sports and women-only spaces. Companies and brands who have advocated for the LGBTQ+ community in recent weeks have been hit by a pushback, such as beer brand Bud Light which was engulfed in a social media firestorm due to a promotion it ran with transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney to celebrate her one-year anniversary as a woman. The company was rocked by a huge backlash, which saw its share price plunge amid reports of a boycott by customers.
It’s in this febrile atmosphere that Transformers aired its own advocacy for non-binary people, who identify as neither men nor women.
A viral clip of the show, which was shared online late last week with the caption, “They’re after your kids,” has now been shared more than 10,000 times. It shows a scene between a robot called Nightshade and a character called Sam. “My pronouns are they/them,’ the robot says to a cowering human character who then relaxes, smiles, and replies: ‘Thanks. I’m she/they[…] I’m sorry for how I reacted. It’s just sometimes the world can be a scary place. It’s hard to know who’s dangerous or not.” The robot says: “Hmm. That’s true, though disappointing.” Nightshade looks sad, and the human tries to comfort the robot by saying: “Hey, it’s ok. I know I’m safe when I’m with my friends or other non-binary people.”
The robot asks, “Non-binary?” And the human replies: “People who aren’t female or male[…]’ The robot seems pleased and says: “I always knew my pronouns felt right, but what a wonderful word for a wonderful experience.’
A different clip, thought to be from an earlier episode, shows another human character telling a robot called Optimus Prime, “Nightshade’s pronouns are they/them.” And Nightshade jumps in to add: “He or she just doesn’t fit who I am.” The other robot says, “My apologies,” apparently for almost misgendering the machine, and then refers to Nightshade as “they.”
The storyline, which is thought to have begun in November but only recently gained widespread public attention, has polarized opinion and sparked fury amongst some commentators.
Newsweek reached out to the show’s original network, Paramount +, by email on Saturday to request a comment on the furor.
On Friday, Fox host Laura Ingraham discussed the cartoon on her show The Ingraham Angle. She said: “Now, as a parent, you often ask yourself what do my kids need? […] But you probably never thought what they really, really need is a non-binary robot. But that’s exactly what Paramount thinks they need because in Transformers: Earth Spark, that’s what they’re giving them. The series is made for kids ages seven and up[…] The show is shoving these inane pronouns down the throats of seven-year-olds[…] These are destructive and corrosive lies. And they’re only gonna end when enough responsible adults say, ‘Cut it out[…]”
And Megyn Kelly retweeted a Transformers clip on Twitter with the caption: “This is disgusting.”
Several internet users were also furious at the development. One person wrote: “Don’t let your children watch this filth.” While another added: “So grateful my son is now grown and not subjected to this.” Meanwhile, others objected to the human character’s assertion she knew she was safe with her “friends or other non-binary people.” One Twitter user pointed out: “Gender identification is not a fool-proof method of determining safety. That’s a dangerous idea.”
However, not everyone was angered by the show’s storyline. Some online commentators suggested it made sense that a metallic robot would have “they/them” pronouns because they are machines. One sarcastically added that now “kids are going to grow up thinking robots aren’t born male and female!!!!” And others said learning about non-binary people was an important lesson for children, with one mocking the angry comments online with the words: “The horror of teaching kids to show consideration of others.”
Other social media users didn’t have an opinion either way and simply seemed to find the episode amusing. Several joked that the clue was in the name, with the show really putting the “trans” into “transformers.” While one Twitter user added: “Pretty soon until the cars aren’t the only thing transforming on this show.”
TV shows and beer companies are not the only ones wading into the fraught “culture war” debate. Several big brands have also nailed their colors to the mast by advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community in recent months.
But, as Bud Light found, they run the risk of their campaigns backfiring.
Target was also hit with a backlash after releasing a new clothing range in support of LGBTQ+ issues, including a T-shirt that bore the slogan “Trans people will always exist.” Whiskey maker Jack Daniel’s sparked anger after teaming up with three drag queens, and chocolate maker Hershey’s faced complaints in Canada over its decision to feature a transgender activist’s face on special promotional wrappers on International Women’s Day.