(Go and brush your shoulders off).
I was very aware of the sexism in children’s content as a kid. This wasn’t because I was so social aware, it was because my mom would explain the kids books I read with commentary about why it held strong gender stereotypes.
This was for everything from the Berenstain Bears (goofy dad, not fun mom bear) to books about a hospital (“you know Margot, women are doctors too”), to changing animal characters from “he” to “she” in a world where 99% of all animal characters in children’s books were male (rabbits can be female too!).
I know I benefited heavily from her lessons, even if I found it a bit heavy handed at the time (“mom, can we just read the book?!?”). I was also believed that, as a child of the 80s and early 90s, that social norms of the world were rapidly changing and believed that by the time I was an adult, clearly all these problems would be solved. We’d finally gotten it as a society.
Fast forward to 2017 and I’m a professional that works to market children’s products. Our marketing of products has changed.
Commercials and ads for products feature kids that are far diverse than those from 30 years ago – at least from newer franchises. Yes, marketing is still heavily gendered in that some products feature only girls, and some only boys, but at least kids see themselves represented in ads and with their favorite YouTubers.
However, representation of women as characters / IP still is stuck in the past century.
I don’t know if this is because product and character creation are huge bets and we feel uncomfortable blowing up stereotypes over a large investment, or we just don’t notice half of the time due to the stereotypes hidden deep inside our brains. Also, to be frank, leaders in product and character creation seldom reflect the diversity of our world.
That said, I don’t want to blame all the men of the world for creating sexist content. I personally struggle with the stereotypes I hold in my brain daily, and also wonder whether being too “modern” will hurt sales of a product. It’s a hard truth to admit.
Let’s take Paw Patrol for example. If you’re a parent to young kids, you know exactly what Paw Patrol is – it’s like crack for 3 year olds. It’s a pretty gender neutral show when it comes to content – a bunch of dogs go on rescue missions to a catchy theme song. And it’s modern – even one of the “Mayors” of the town is an African American female! However, when we break apart the characters of the show, it shows a very similar pattern that we see throughout kids content: A bunch of dudes, one token girl wearing pink, and now that we’re in 2017, a couple minor characters for diversity.
We’ve got Everest, Tracker, Chase, Zuma, Marshall, Rocky, and Ryder. All male dogs and one white male boy. And…Skye. The pink dog.
Yeah, Skye the pink dog is essentially living like she works as a computer scientist in the tech industry.
Ok so that’s one show, what about others?
Ok cool. Let’s take another show that is popular with anthropomorphic beings that kids love called the “Octonauts”. Here’s the main character list for this show:
Ok so once again, we have seven characters including the “Captain” who is a dude (we need a man in charge, y’all, it’s just normal) and 2/7 female characters that are gender defined. What’s sad here, is that I’m sure the creators of Octonauts believe they are being very open minded by creating two engineer female Octonauts.
What really sucks is that these are modern shows targeted at pre-school age kids. About as impressionable as it gets.
PBS and Disney
Even super educational high quality programming like PBS kids isn’t safe here. A quick look at their top shows features almost all male protagonists:
And don’t get me started on the Disney Franchise. Granted many of Disney’s Masterpieces are from the 80s and 90s but I challenge you to come up with an example of when a main female character was talking to another female character about something that wasn’t a man.
Ursula –> Arial? Nope. She sold her soul because of a dude.
Cinderella and Fairy Godmother? Nope. She wanted to go to the ball and meet some dudes.
To their credit, my understanding is that Moana did a great job at having a strong female protagonist that didn’t live to get a man.
*Caveat. I slept through most of Moana. It was boring. Sorry not sorry.*
But….what about Doc McStuffins?
You are correct. There is some excellent content out there that *gasp* shows women doing things beyond token roles.
The problem here is that it’s the exception, not the rule. Doc McStuffins is notable because it features a smart female protagonist. We need to get to a place where this is not notable. Enrollment in medical schools was 49% female in 2016 according to a quick Google search. A female doctor IS the norm now.
I don’t want to be the minority.
I should wrap it up. But until we make our product and character development match the attempted diversity of our marketing of products (oh look, an asian girl in a commercial!), we will continue to be screwing over our kids and our culture for decades to come.
I understand that products need a point of view. I’m not proposing that everything needs to be gender neutral or be for “EVERYONE!”. I’m proposing that we start treated our female characters as humans first, and as the half of the population that they are.
Female characters whether they are animals, humans, or whatever, are more than just tokens that were added along at the end to wear pink. They are more than 25% of the cast of characters added along because “shit, we need some girls”.
Until we do this, we are teaching our kids to be sexist. We are teaching our girls that they are a minority in the world before they even know how to add. Let’s be better than this.