Bigotry, it’s been said, is a failure of imagination.
Could the antidote be a daredevil girl and a nervous egg named Phillip?
DD Danger and her ovular friend spend their days in Chickenpaw Park, tumbling through adventures faster than DD’s daredevil dad—slung up in traction and muffled by a too-big neck brace—can squeak out an objection.
Mostly, DD leads the charge, while Phillip, wearing knee and elbow pads and yellow rubber gloves, tries to stave off catastrophe. They travel down the “Tube of Pain” waterslide and encounter a boy who’s been missing for 25 years; they outwit a rogue satellite that wants to trap and keep them as friends; they evade the drooling office zombies of the “Parks and Paperwork Department.”
They find ridiculous and hilarious ways of getting in and out of trouble. They also tackle topics of gender and identity better than any cartoon characters, and maybe any television characters, period.
Danger & Eggs , the Emmy Award-winning cartoon conceived and mostly produced in the Twin Cities, sends forth unbridled creativity to counter narrow-minded prejudice. In this universe, colorful characters defy categorization and dodge labels like so many mutant plants in the underworld beneath Chickenpaw Park.
Among the queer-friendly cameos are non-binary Milo, who uses they/them pronouns and is voiced by agender model Tyler Ford; corporate raider Jim, who has two dads; and a transgender girl named Zadie, voiced by teen trans activist Jazz Jennings.
Each is presented without comment or fanfare. You’ll find nary a whiff of morality play sanctimony.
“I think a lot of the time, the after-school-special version comes off as really educational because the straight, cisgender creators who made that episode just got an education,” says Shadi Petosky, co-creator of the show. “So they’re translating. They’re trying to take that education and then put it into a story.”
Danger & Eggs , which won a Daytime Emmy this year for outstanding directing in an animated program, was created, directed, voiced, and produced by a remarkably diverse, inclusive team of LGBTQ artists. For Petosky, herself a transgender writer, the show isn’t a translation; it’s a faithful reflection.
“We were just expressing our feeling and showing the lived experience.”
Petosky’s studio, Puny, started in Minneapolis in 2007, contributing animation bits to the wildly popular show Yo Gabba Gabba! With Puny on the radar of larger production companies, Petosky and Danger & Eggs co-creator Mike Owens had the chance to pitch other shows.
Owens brought in the idea of an adult cartoon called Phillip the Safety Egg, and Puny partnered with local improv group Splendid Things to turn it into a short, five-minute pilot. In the film, the FDA approves an experimental growth hormone for livestock to help fight hunger. The result is a giant chicken who wreaks havoc on its city, and whose son, Phillip, dashes around to fix the damage.
The concept as a show for mature audiences never got traction with networks. So Puny reimagined Phillip as the star of a kids’ show.
“We pitched that around to networks for about five years, constantly revamping it and trying to make it better,” says Petosky. They added a sidekick and best friend for Phillip. They developed a story that would also convey the perspective of queer youth. After several failed developments with other networks, Amazon agreed to option it in 2014.
It was a bold concept: a show with queer themes and LGBTQ characters geared toward kids in the 6-11 age range.
“It’s still really taboo to show queer people in children’s media,” says Leigh Luna, a graduate of Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a bisexual, Latinx colorist for Danger & Eggs. Amazon was already cutting a new path with Transparent, its show about a parent who transitions later in life. “It was easier to slide Danger in there and have it fit comfortably,” says Luna, but that would not have been as easy to do with more mainstream channels.
Luna remembers how her favorite cartoon, Sailor Moon, was censored for North American audiences: A lesbian couple was re-written as a pair of cousins. (The prudishness backfired when some of the couple’s flirtation slipped past the censors, creating a vaguely incestuous rapport.) LGBTQ representation on TV has expanded since then, but gender and sexuality are still largely cordoned off as grown-up concepts.
“It was something we really wanted to show in Danger & Eggs,” says Petosky. “These friendships and relationships that didn’t have anything to do with sex. But sexuality manifests at such a young age. Gender identity manifests at such a young age. We wanted to show the hallmarks of queer youth before sex really enters the picture.”
When Petosky was young, she watched Jem & the Holograms and Thundercats.
“I liked bright, colorful, relationship-based shows,” she says. “You see that reflected in Danger & Eggs and Yo Gabba Gabba! and a lot of the work that Puny has done: very bright, some would say even psychedelic sometimes, and it’s so much about relationships and feelings and anxiety—all things that I think a lot of queer people are really in touch with.”
Perhaps the most colorful episode centers on the Pride festival in Chickenpaw Park. It is the last episode of the season—maybe ever, if the show isn’t renewed—and it’s called “Chosen Family.” Zadie, a transgender girl, explains what that term means: “You just have a really close friend who loves and supports you as much as family would,” Zadie says. “Sometimes more than some families would.”
The designers modeled the Chickenpaw Pride Festival in that episode after the Twin Cities Pride Festival in Loring Park, largely because it’s such a family-friendly event.
“I think Minneapolis is the only city, Pride-wise, of the 10 or so I’ve been to, that is so family-inclusive,” says Luna. “L.A. Pride is a great party, but it’s not something you necessarily want to bring your kid to.”
Petosky, who now lives in Los Angeles, says she always brings her family back for Twin Cities Pride and this year will be no exception.
“I march with my kids every year,” she says. “Families and playgrounds and drag queens in the sun. I always feel like a drag queen who can keep it together in the sun is the most powerful person on Earth.”
Each episode of Danger & Eggs includes a few overtly teachable moments, but there are dozens of subtler ways it challenges viewers.
In the first episode, DD sits on a park bench next to Phillip. Phillip has just spent the episode trying to sort out if his appreciation for broccoli means he’s a grown-up. His introspection hasn’t led him to any firm conclusions, so he decides not to care.
“Don’t you wanna know what you are?” asks DD, voiced by Aidy Bryant of SNL fame.
“I’m a curious expert with changing taste,” Phillip replies.
“Great!” says DD. “You do you.”
Just like that, Danger & Eggs gives its stamp of approval to limbo—between being a kid and an adult, between labels of all kinds. It doesn’t call on you to dismantle social structures built on harmful binary thinking. It shows you an egg with spindly arms and legs, struggling with the uncertainty of who he is.
“That is a deeply queer theme, the idea of identity and labels,” says Petosky. “It’s so put upon us all the time. With trans folks, it’s like, are you trans enough? If you really look like a cis woman, you’re considered to be trying too hard and desperate. If you don’t follow those beauty standards, then you’re seen as not trying hard enough. It’s really a lose-lose.
“It’s been great for me in my life and for some of my friends to not feel like they have to label themselves,” Petosky continues. “To allow them to have fluidity and to have lived experiences that allow them to change and grow and explore possibilities. That’s an important thing for growth—to understand that how we identify ourselves as children and teens doesn’t have to be it for us. Queer people really have to think about that a lot, but it’s a pretty universal experience.”
Since winning the Emmy, Petosky (who described the award as “like a suit of armor, it feels like things can’t hurt me”) and the rest of the crew have been in a holding pattern about the future of Danger & Eggs. Some have moved on to other projects; Petosky is working on a show called Twelve Forever, coming to Netflix in 2019. It’s about a girl named Reggie who doesn’t want to grow up. She creates a fantasy world for herself where she can stay in limbo.
But the legacy of Danger & Eggs lives on—as a show that includes LGBTQ characters in an unprecedented way, as a show that embraces yet transcends the “queer cartoon” label. Petosky says they weren’t trying to create a show for “this gender or this age.” Danger and Eggs is for everyone, young and old, queer and straight—anyone ready to open up to a new way of thinking about who we are.
“Who is the real you?” DD asks BL1P, the wayward satellite in the second episode.
“I—I don’t know,” BL1P replies.
Phillip holds up a knowing finger and smiles: “I always say, identity takes time.”