Written and Illustrated by Koriander Bullard
Folks, it’s time I come clean on a secret I’ve been harboring my whole life.
I am and have always been……….. a Care Bears fan.
Born in 1986, my formative years included the Care Bears and the Care Bear Cousins between spots of WWF Superstars, Thundercats and G.I. Joe. While I was very fond of more “boy” related programs, I was just in tune enough with my gender that I could appreciate the cuddly, though sometimes heavy-handed teachings from Care-A-Lot.
But were the Care Bears secretly preparing us for a more transgender friendly world?
A little back story. Originally, ten Care Bears appeared in a line of paintings in a pitch to American Greetings and Kenner by illustrator Elena Kucharik. The characters were created by a group called Those Characters From Cleveland and were an instant hit with the marketing firms. Before you could say “Care Bear Stare” the original ten bears; Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Grumpy Bear, Love-a-lot Bear, Wish Bear and company mascot, Tenderheart Bear, graced greeting cards as far as the eye could see. Over the next six years, four different animation studios would go on to produce television specials, three silver screen movies and two different Saturday morning cartoon shows, featuring the original ten and a small gathering of new bears, not to mention the often overlooked cousins, who cared, but were not bear in origin. Then as the two TV shows went into perpetual reruns after their initial 22 and 49 episode lineups respectively, new books continued to be written and sold to children, as several characters started getting makeovers and a few new bears hit the lineup.
Between 1986 and 1991, a few very large changes to the bears started creeping in under the radar. These changes would become more pronounced when the characters were re-launched in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2015 and recently in 2016.
One of the first to change was Cheer Bear. While most of the Care Bears were drawn 100% alike with only color and symbol changes prior to 2007, Cheer Bear suddenly appeared on television with a slightly spiked ponytail. Alternating Nelvana episodes also featured her with budding bear breasts, though this was likely an animation error, as the 49-episode Care Bear Family series was rife with animation and sound blunders. She would be the second to wear clothes consitantly after Bedtime Bear, though several characters occasionally are seen wearing raincoats and galoshes.
But cosmetic changes wouldn’t stop at fashion.
Champ Bear, Secret Bear, Noble Heart Horse, Take Care Bear, Daydream Bear, Polite Panda, Environmental Cheer Bear, (who is, but is not Cheer Bear) True Heart Bear and Prize Bear have all changed fur colors since their respective debut points between 1985 and 2007, while a growing selection of other Care Bears have had symbol changes, most drastic belonging to Share Bear and Harmony Bear, who are both purple female bears.
But why stop at skin or fur color?
Over the course of the franchise’s existence, Funshine Bear, Secret Bear, Surprise Bear, Lotsa Heart Elephant, Swift Heart Rabbit and Prize Bear have all switched from being male to female, vice versa and back again without any explanation or acknowledgment from the rest of the cast. Lotsa Heart Elephant was the first to switch genders in 1984, with some gender swapping occurring mid-episode two years later in 1986, while Funshine was ambiguous about gender, unless another character directly calls Funshine “he” or “she”. This was the case until 2004, when Funshine was given a directly masculine voice. And Swift Heart Rabbit may be listed currently on Wikipedia as a female, but collectors know the character to be currently without a definitive gender, having only had one assigned sporadically in the 1980’s only to be changed as quick as Swift Heart’s speed.
Most drastic has been Proud Heart Cat. This feline has not only switched gender and fur color several times, Proud Heart also switched species! That’s right! For a brief period in 1991, Proud Heart turned from an orange and brown male cat, to a blue-teal female cat, to a snow-white male bear! Donning the American flag over his heart, his design would later influence America Cares Bear in 2003.
Proud Heart Bear would also star in a line-up of other “re-hash bears” who are but are not, but kind of are previously established bears. These bears, many of whom have also had cosmetic symbol and fur changes, include the aforementioned Environmental Cheer Bear, Environmental Bedtime Bear, Environmental Friend Bear, Environmental Love-A-Lot, Environmental Tenderheart and Environmental Share Bear, each one considered to be an alternate universe “cousin” to the pre-established bears of matching names, and much like the 1986 Cheer Bear, would occasionally sport new hairstyles.
The gender, color and species changes were never announced publicly, and always slipped into the usual television programs and toy bins without fanfare. Not once did Nelvana, DiC or any of the other animation studios ever produce a special “after school” program, directly addressing one of the bears’ sex changes on camera. In fact, most of the voices were kept gender-neutral, except for Brave Heart Lion, Noble Heart Horse, Grumpy Bear and Tenderheart Bear, who were distinctly more masculine when compared to the other either feminine or androgynous sounding characters. It wasn’t until the 2000’s when one at a time, more of the characters were given directly male or female voices.
Not once was there ever fan outcry, a petition or a rally led by a conservative, cartoon-hating parental group, lobbying to define or restore a Care Bear or Cousin’s original gender.
And why? How did we miss what a landmark franchise this has been for children?
One reason why we may have missed this, is because most regular-aged Care Bear and Cousin is treated exactly the same. Grams Bear, Noble Heart Horse and True Heart Bear are treated as parents while Hugs and Tugs are treated as toddlers. Brave Heart Lion and Tenderheart are treated as elder brothers, and Grumpy is treated as his namesake. But think about it, all other characters have similar personalities, similar voices, and nobody is treated as greater or lesser than the plush next to him. The make an equal number of mistakes in each episode and usually come to the same conclusions.
It may be the interchangeable nature of the characters prior to the 2000’s that led both fans and developers of the show to simply… not care. In a very ironic twist, not one single, solitary person behind this show has cared enough to notice such glaring changes in the characters’ genders and colors. Was this done to appeal to more boys or to more girls? Was this done to shake the foundation? It’s very likely that the people behind each re-hash of the loveable 1980’s plushies have never actually cared enough to memorize such important traits about cartoon bears.
Or maybe, this was done on purpose after all.
The Care Bears have been sold to babies, toddlers and to very, very young children since at least 1982 after the successful greeting card run for adults. Very small children often notice very big changes in their favorite characters, such as a gender swap or a palette change. Introducing these changes without acknowledgment tells a child one of two things, either the marketing team thinks you little ankle biters are too stupid to notice these details, or, on a brighter note, they have introduced these concepts to you in a way that normalizes the change, so that if you do encounter someone between genders, you will still treat them the same as anybody else and you won’t freak out over their chosen gender.
Think back to when Swift Heart Rabbit had a drastic pitch in her voice. She appeared with her new voice next to Brave Heart Lion in a random Nelvana episode.
Rather than ask embarrassing or uncomfortable questions as to why Swift Heart Rabbit is a girl this week when she was a boy in the last episode, what do we see?
We see Brave Heart Lion address her as a “she” and move onto the next subject.
That’s it. No discussion. No big PSA. Just she’s a girl now, let’s move on.
Of all the Care Bear characters to change genders, not one was ever asked about their faith, not one was threatened, and nobody threatened to run them over with a cloud car or push them off the Rainbow Bridge if they didn’t stick with their birth gender. And nobody asked if Take Care Bear used her Stare to initiate the operation, what led to the decision to change colors and genders, what other secrets Secret Bear was hiding, or if Surprise Bear needed a “coming out” party. Not one gender joke, snide remark or backhanded compliment uttered.
In an era of television where we had special episodes and PSA’s aimed at children as young as two about sexual abuse, strangers, drugs, drinking, smoking, makeup, AIDS, dieting and arson, from a decade where every major, adult problem had to be scaled down and talked up on Saturday mornings, here we had a gang of transgender teddy bears and stuffed animals, whose sole purpose was to make the world a less scary place. Each adventure was about making children emotionally stronger and the environment a little less messy while also tightening up their own community bonds, and prejudice was not allowed in the land of Care-A-Lot.
How did this happen? The LBGTQ community has been craving a series for their children, promoting transsexual characters in a positive light with sound morals, and not one person either straight, asexual or otherwise has ever realized we already had a perfect series.
While I can’t speak for newer incarnations, the original Care Bears cartoons normalized gender-neutrality before that became a popular thing, and if you’re looking for a gentle way to introduce the concepts of transgender to your children, select reruns of the show are now available on Hulu.
Koriander Bullard is an author, cartoonist and human rights advocate. Keep up with her on Facebook!