When Nickelodeon debuted “Rocko’s Modern Life” in 1993, the world met an immigrant Australian wallaby who found life in O-Town, a modern American city, overwhelming and confusing. In O-Town, everything is owned by the corporation Conglom-O, whose motto is “We Own You.”
Like some other early 1990s Nickelodeon cartoons like “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Rocko’s Modern Life” was noted for its veiled social commentary, anti-corporate themes, and adult-oriented jokes that sometimes veered into the indecent.
When the 45-minute special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” drops on Netflix on August 9, the show will feature an even more modern storyline — a coming out tale of a transgender character.
The character who in the ’90s show was called Ralph Bighead — child of Rocko’s toad neighbors, Bev and Ed Bighead — is now named Rachel.
Nick Adams, Director of Transgender Media & Representation at the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, consulted on the show and spoke to NBC news about the process. Adams said he first began to work on the show in 2016 when producers reached out about a plan to include a transgender character.
“What I really liked about the story was that the transgender character Rachel, and the storyline about her, was not turning this episode into ‘a very special episode’ about trans equality,” Adams said. “The Rachel storyline was woven very well into the overall message of the special, which is that we all have to accept change, that there’s really nothing constant in the world except change.”
The Rachel storyline was woven very well into the overall message of the special, which is that we all have to accept change, that there’s really nothing constant in the world except change.
Adams, who is transgender, said he offered feedback on the moment in the story when Rocko and his pals find out about Rachel, and worked with the showrunners to make sure Rachel was drawn in a respectful way and “didn’t in any way make a joke about her presenting as a woman.”
Adams said that Hollywood’s record here is not great. “You run the risk of being offensive,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the moment Rocko and his friends find out Rachel is now a woman didn’t play into any of the cliches or stereotypes.”
“It’s just a matter-of-fact moment when the boys learn that she’s now Rachel,” Adams said.
Adams praised the move because, even as Hollywood moves to include ever more lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters, “there’s been less transgender programming, so this decision by ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ to include a trans character is wonderful.”
Similar efforts to include LGBTQ content in children’s and family programming have encountered backlash. In May, Alabama public television refused to air an episode of “Arthur” in which teacher Mr. Ratburn marries a man.
“Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” will premiere on Netflix on Friday, August 9.