Gender in children’s television shows and film

This is a piece I have wanted to write for a while, due to an  incredible article in the Dublin Enquirer written by Elske Rahill about her children’s addiction to Peppa Pig.  As an Auntie who has had to hear and watch a lot of Peppa Pig, I was instantly curious. The piece outlines something I was aware of but hadn’t thought about deeply: the blatant sexism apparent in children’s TV shows.

The piece explains how the roles of Daddy Pig and Mammy Pig follow normative gender roles of men thinking they know everything and women being self-deprecating in an amusing but somewhat harmless way. Although a slight inversion of normative roles, Rahill successfully points out that any gender stereotype binds both men and women to a certain prefabricated ideal of what they should be based on gender.

Crucially the piece links to a now famous article written in the 1990s called ‘Television Cartoons: Do Children Notice It’s a Boy’s World?’. This article was based on a empirical study of 89 children aged 4 to 9, in which children perceived boys as aggressive and boisterous whereas girls were seen as domestic, vain and interested in boys. What is extremely noteworthy about the piece is that there was a significant correlation between recognising these stereotypical behaviours and reporting traditional job expectations for the self and others. Children have been proven to be affected by television and as this article reports: there are less women on television programs and those that are, are usually in lower paid with lower skilled jobs or unemployed, and are often portrayed as less knowledgeable than male characters. Those children who did notice non-stereotypical behaviours in female characters also held non traditional expectations for female jobs. Key to all of this is that children do notice gender, whether we are aware of the extent of it or not, and this does have an impact on their perceptions of gender roles. All that being said, in the patriarchal world we live in it is no wonder that these stereotypes seep into every part of our lives, including children’s TV.

A more recent survey done in 2009 found that girls represent only 33% of the lead characters on shows and nearly half (43%) of children’s programs reviewed feature 0 female lead characters. While 94% of preschool shows feature confident girl characters, only 42% of the school-age shows feature confident girls. A worldwide study done in 2008 is even more shocking. Completed in 24 countries around the globe (Ireland is not included- unfortunately), it shows that there are more than twice as many male characters than female characters. Most shockingly given the inclusion of countries as diverse as Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, South Africa and Syria, 72 % of all main characters are Caucasian and overall the real ethnic diversity of the specific country is not accurately represented. Also overweight girls or elderly women are virtually absent.

All of the above studies show that television can have a massive effect on stereotypical gender perceptions of children. If children are only shown white, low-paid, thin women, then what hope have they of thinking that women could be anything else?

However there are some positives out there. Geena Davis the famous American actress and producer founded the Institute on Gender in Media in 2007. She began it after noticing the gender imbalances while watching TV with her daughter. The institute aims to increase female characters’ presence in an attempt to reduce the stereotyping that TV normally causes. The main tagline of the campaign, called SeeJane, is “if she can see it, she can be it”. This video is quite powerful if you think of the impact it could have to a young boy or girl. The Institute has accomplished a lot since 2007: over 65% of entertainments industry executives who are aware of the institute changed 2 or more projects for example, Pixar’s Monster’s University was one of the films affected by the changes.

Another huge success story in my opinion is Frozen (again you can see the Auntie bias here!). It is the number one animated film of all time. This film is heart-warming and funny but the main difference to most other Disney princess films is that the usual trope of girl-meets-boy, with a happy ending, is not there. Usually, there is a problem with them being together, this problem is solved and there is a happy ending, often after the main female character has been saved by the male hero. This is known as the marriage plot in English literature, and we can all think of numerous examples of it, especially in modern day romantic comedies. Frozen centres on the relationship between two sisters, and inverts the marriage plot so that (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen frozen!) not only does Anna not end up married to Hans, the film ends with her not married to anyone, not even the loveable Kristoff. In the end you think that Kristoff will save her life and you wait for the familiar ending but Anna saves Elsa, and through this act, Elsa saves Anna. The happy ending is the sisters together and although Kristoff is there, this love plot isn’t the focus. Frozen passes the Bechdel test, which is a test on works of fiction to test if the piece features at least two women talking together about a topic other than men, and many popular TV shows and films fail this test. It is recognized as breaking new ground, there are numerous other admirable characteristics of Frozen, (such as Elsa dealing with her identity, Hans as an evil prince who is a normal person) but I think the fundamental difference here is the strong female characters. Disney critiques its’ own misogyny by questioning the marriage plot, i.e. Elsa to Anna “You can’t marry a man you just met”. It creates powerful female characters who are realistic and crucially are happy at the end not married, with Elsa on her own ruling a kingdom; a conclusion which cements the progressive film.

I better stop before I start writing about other great Disney films (for now- Inside Out is amazing!). The main point of the post was to think about what female characters I want my niece to identify with, and what idea of women I want my nephews to have. Without a doubt I would rather them and other children perceive women and girls to be like Anna and Elsa rather than Mammy Pig, and I think that a broader problem of misogyny rooted in media, with such a vulnerable audience, is problematic beyond belief.




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