Content Warning: Contains spoilers for “Bojack Horseman”, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “She-Ra: Princesses of Power”, and “Night in the Woods”.
With The Last of Us 2 finally out and a large portion of the gaming community fighting about whether representation matters—again–it’s probably worth talking about Jackie from Night in the Woods. Remember Jackie? Probably not. Even those who’ve played the game might have completely missed this character. And those who played the game when it first came out and haven’t touched it since have likely completely forgotten about this character. For those who are totally blanking on Jackie, she’s a friend of Bea. The two of them are seen talking during the infamous party and she clearly has a problem with Mae. During the final Bea hangout, Mae and Bea attend Jackie’s party and Jackie makes it very clear that she dislikes Mae. Other than those brief interactions, we don’t really learn a lot about Jackie. However, one thing that is barely even mentioned in the game is the fact that Jackie is trans. And by “barely even mentioned”, I mean it’s literally never directly stated. There was originally going to be a line addressing it, but it got cut. It gets alluded to pretty directly in a line from Bea that was added in the Weird Autumn update as a kind of side note. But like a lot of the stuff in this game, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type line that requires you to get a particular scene, so I’m sure a lot of players just missed it. As far as trans rep goes, it’s the most subtle and Jackie is very much a side character who primarily exists outside of the main story. Most of the characters exist outside of the main story, so it’s not like Jackie was intentionally shuffled to the side. However, that does bring up a very interesting and completely unique part of Night in the Woods that a lot of people don’t seem to realize: this game was absolutely packed with queer representation. And Beatrice Santello is the only straight cisgender person in her group of friends.
Angus is gay, Gregg is gay, and Mae seems to be pansexual based on what she says in the graveyard scene. So where does Bea fall? Given that she only demonstrates attraction to the opposite gender—this is also brought up in the graveyard scene—it’s pretty safe to assume that she is intended to be straight. Which makes Bea the only straight person among the four of them. Why is this in any way worth talking about? Well, this isn’t something you often see in fiction. In fact, it’s never seen in fiction that doesn’t feature being queer as its central storyline—i.e. Kit from The L Word—and that makes sense. The “token gay character” has become such a staple of fiction that people don’t even really notice it anymore. Rosa and Captain Holt from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, David from Schitt’s Creek, etc. There’s usually only allowed to be one queer character (or sometimes two like in the case of B99) per main cast. There can be a countless number of queer secondary or minor characters, although there’s usually only one or two. And in some rare cases—such as The Good Place—the main character themselves is queer and it’s not a focal point of the series. Yes, I’m talking about Eleanor Shellstrop. Even Bojack Horseman does this, with Todd being asexual and there being a minor reoccurring character who is a lesbian and a dead but often mentioned character who is a gay man.She-Ra: Princesses of Power and Steven Universe are notable exceptions to this rule, with a cast of mostly queer characters and very few “token” straight characters by comparison. Although She-Ra doesn’t exactly break the rule, as it is technically an overtly queer story that focuses heavily on Catra and Adora’s love story. Steven Universe does have three queer main characters and one non-queer main character, but the show also deals heavily with queerness as a topic in several ways and is widely considered a very queer-focused show.Night in the Woods is so far the only piece of fiction that does the absolute reverse of the “token gay” rule in a story that is not about being gay.
Are “token gay” characters a problem? Intrinsically, no. Brooklyn Nine-Nine handles Rosa’s bisexuality with incredible care, giving her an entire coming out arc that involves getting up the courage to tell her parents. Captain Holt’s sexuality is just another aspect of his character, but it’s never ignored or brushed under the rug. David from Schitt’s Creek openly talks about being pansexual and he ends up getting married at the end of the series. In fact, the term “token gay” doesn’t even really apply to these instances. Because “token gay” characters are a lot less common these days. “Token” implies that these characters are just there for woke points. But that would undermine the fact that these characters are multifaceted and very well-written.