The Maisy Test for Sexism in Kids’ TV Shows and Movies: What to look for and what to do about it

This is something of an experimental post, so please be kind in your comments! I’d love your help to hone it. I’ve been working on it for months, so it’s time to let it out into the world and get your help. Thanks!

Sexism in kids’ TV and movies

I’m thoroughly, wretchedly ambivalent about children’s television and other media. As I wrote a while ago:

So here’s my dilemma. I love pop culture and I have no regrets about the amount I have consumed. I did plenty of other stuff as a kid as well as watch television: crafts, projects, baking, music, sport, drama, roaming the gully with neighbours, and devouring most of the public library.

And yet. I haven’t had a TV in the house for years, and I don’t really want one back. We watch DVDs and online video stuff on the computer, but not regularly. When I see the amount of merchandising aimed at kids through screen-based entertainment, it horrifies me.

[Read more here.]

I wrote that post ages ago, when my son was a toddler, in the days when watching Youtube clips of Maymo the rascally beagle was the extent of his media experience. Now he’s three and the other day asked me cheerfully to ‘pop off, old chap!’, which it turned out was a quote from Fireman Sam. Some days he watches nothing. Some days he watches heaps.

There’s a huge list of things parents worry about when it comes to kids and media. Today I want to zero in on one big one: sexism – and other related social nasties – and the way it is perpetuated by what kids watch. I’ve been working on a test for evaluating whether a programme is supporting healthy gender ideas and social justice aims generally. I need your help to see if it’s useful enough yet.

Gender bias in kids’ TV shows and movies: there’s still so much!

When we were in the United Kingdom last year, and both sick and home alone one day, my son and I discovered CBeebies, the BBC channel devoted to commissioning and broadcasting local programmes for young children (there’s another whole channel, CBBC, for older children).

We watched show after show, all afternoon, and I was horrified at the gender imbalance in the casts of these programmes – all produced in the last few years for an independent public service broadcaster that carries no advertising.

Here are the quick notes I made that afternoon on gender representation on CBeebies, on one afternoon’s schedule:

Peter Rabbit: Peter plus one boy and one girl

Bob the Builder: even the generically named machines are mostly male

Octonauts: big gender imbalance (three main characters are all male), though it’s good that the techies are women

Pirate programme: key presenters are female (the losers in the show are men)

Thomas the Tank Engine/Thomas and Friends: core cast all male

Chuggington: a bit hard to tell but seems like a gender imbalance

Mister Maker: a man doing crafts – cool

Some cool science show fronted by a woman: yay!

Justin’s House: all male (but great otherwise, with sign language and other cool stuff)

Rasta Mouse: cool to have a show starring entirely Afro-Carribean characters, but still a big gender imbalance

In the Night Garden: completely unnecessary gender imbalance and stereotyping – even though it’s super simple with practically no dialogue or storyline.

It doesn’t seem like things have changed radically since I was outraged as a child that Smurfette was the only female Smurf. What message do kids get about the place of women and girls in the world if this is their viewing diet?

Kids’ television, especially programmes made without commercial imperatives, like those for the BBC, should surely be at the cutting edge of social responsibility, but I don’t see that playing out on CBeebies.

That’s my anecdata from the United Kingdom (and Kasey Edwards has a similar impression of Australian kids’ television). Want some more? Here are some shocking research findings from the United States, reported in an article by Nikki Gloudeman:

According to the True Child Institute, as of a few years ago, 15% of the characters on Saturday morning cartoon shows were female. Of those, the institute pointed out, almost all were stereotypes, often portrayed as romantic, frail and concerned about their appearance. A similar study in Media Psychology revealed that cartoon-dominated children’s TV programming portrayed male characters who were “more likely than female characters to answer questions, boss or order others, show ingenuity, achieve a goal” – and get this! – “eat.”

[Read more at Ravishly.com.]

And some more sad facts on gender bias from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (it’s a screenshot because it wouldn’t copy and I was too lazy to type it up!):

The Maisy Test: how to spot sexism in kids' media | Sacraparental.com

A screenshot of disturbing research findings on gender bias in American media from the Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media.

In a media environment where women and girls are still drastically underrepresented, and those making programmes grew up in the Girls Can Do Anything era, how is it possible that so few programmes support the message that the stories of girls and women matter? I’m genuinely astonished that this gender bias hasn’t yet been corrected. It’s not like we’re analysing Enid Blyton and Looney Tunes. These are programmes made in the last five or ten years, decades after third wave feminism. I find this bizarre.

How about a new Bechdel Test to expose sexism in kids’ TV shows and movies?

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel, who drew this cartoon in Dykes to Watch Out For:

Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel, origin of the Bechdel Test

Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel. This edition is the origin of the Bechdel Test.

I’ve been wondering for a while about a Bechdel Test for kids’ movies and television, focusing on the kinds of gender messages a programme, movie or game sends.

The original Bechdel Test is a deliberately low bar – a movie can be very male-dominated and still pass (and yet, most don’t even meet this embarrassingly low test – that’s the point). For kids, and for a serious test, not just one making a satirical point, we need to aim higher. Otherwise we keep saying to each other, ‘oh, well, at least there’s a female firefighter in Fireman Sam’ or ‘at least Bob the Builder has Wendy doing the accounts.’ Token female characters aren’t nearly enough – we can do better than that for our kids in the 21st century, surely!

the-maisy-test-4-questions-to-expose-sexism-in-kids-shows

 

We’ve just had a brief but intense period of obsession with Happy Feet 2 in our household (don’t ask). It passes the Bechdel Test because of a single, short conversation between kick-ass mother and daughter penguins. But it’s a huge failure for gender balance.

In a movie about penguins – not even humans – and where the writer seems to have been conscious of including some females, all the main characters are still male: Mumble the daddy penguin and his son Eric are the stars. Eric has two cousin side-kicks, one male, one female, whose names and genders my son never picked up on until we talked about it together. Eric’s mother has a good supporting role, but all of the other supporting characters are male. The baddies are male, the wise old sage is male, the human sailors are mostly male, the comic relief krill duo is male. Even the unnamed children of a (male) elephant seal are male – why?

Why? Because there still exists an enormous cultural bias towards telling stories from a male point of view, even when there’s no artistic reason to do so. It’s so strong, that I still have to stop myself from assuming every animal in a storybook is male: ‘Look at that cat. What’s he doing? I mean, he or she, we don’t really know…’ (Of course, male characters dominate children’s books, too, but that’s a rant for another post.)

Eric in Happy Feet 2 could have been a girl penguin. The krill could have been female with no difference to the storyline. The cute elephant seal cubs could have been a boy and a girl – they only have a couple of lines that have nothing to do with gender – but it didn’t occur to anyone to write them that way.

My son and I had some good media-critique conversations about this, so it wasn’t an irredeemable experience. But why is it just so hard to give him the impression that girls and boys populate the arts – and the earth – equally? It shouldn’t be.

If TV is to have any place in our lives, I want him and his sister to watch – mostly – shows with gender balance in the cast, shows that subvert sexist stereotypes, shows that portray the world we’re aiming for, not, perhaps, the world that has been.

A Bechdel Test for kids: four questions for evaluating kids’ TV and movies

I think for a kids’ media sexism test, programmes (and games and movies) need to promote healthy gender messages in three key ways: gender representation, gender freedom and gender safety. And then it needs to go further to be any use to careful parents. It can’t promote or perpetuate oppression in other ways. A gender-balanced cast with, say, no ethnic diversity can’t get a big tick if we want to aim high, and recommend a show to other parents.

When it comes to gender representation, I want my kids to mostly watch shows that feature male and female characters in roughly equal numbers and status, especially in the core cast.

I want their media to support gender freedom, and show them that no one needs to be limited by their gender in what they enjoy. Boys can love cooking and girls can love climbing.

And I definitely want their media consumption to meet basic standards of gender safety. it should be free from unrealistic body image standards, objectification, sexualisation of children and downright misogyny or sexism.

Happy Feet 2, for example, fails in two out of three of these categories:

gender representation: its cast is hugely imbalanced, so that’s a big thumbs down

gender freedoma weak pass, because Bo and her mum are go-get-em types who are physically confident and adventurous. The rest of the characters pretty much meet stereotypes, though, and the fact that Eric is shy and quiet is presented as a problem.

gender safetya fail, for having a male guru who is fawned over by female fans who want to marry him; and Mumble’s male sidekick who spends most of his time chasing the ladeez. The über-macho culture of the elephant seals is also problematic since the movie satirises it far too subtly for young kids to take other than at face value.

There’s one more sort of catch-all question I want to ask too. You may have heard of ‘intersectional feminism‘, the movement within feminism that acknowledges that all kinds of oppression intersect.

A disabled woman living in the developing world has a bunch of different forces acting against her, and sexism is just one. Intersectional feminists argue, in the words of Flavia Dzodan, that ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!

When it comes to creating a new test, a show with good gender messages but an all-white cast may be no use at all to a Māori kid, who still isn’t seeing someone like her on screen.

So my fourth question is: does this show support social justice and equality in other ways? Are people of colour represented or is the cast all-white? Is there any representation of other marginalised groups: disabled people, LGBTQ+ folks, different class backgrounds? Extra points if children are encouraged by the plots and characters to critique power structures, consumerism, environmental and social exploitation.

So here’s my test for media for kids. I’m calling it the Maisy Test, after one of the few examples from my son’s favourites that came to mind that gets a gold star.

The Maisy Test- 4 Questions to expose sexism in kids' shows | Sacraparental.com

The Four Questions of the Maisy Test

  1. Gender Representation:
    Are male and female characters present in roughly equal numbers and status?
    Look extra closely: are the two most prominent characters of different genders?
  2. Gender Freedom:
    Do male and female characters subvert traditional gender roles and have the freedom to enjoy a whole range of experiences, unlimited by their gender?
    Look extra closely: is there at least one female and one male character who subvert gender stereotypes? Are girls allowed to wear trousers and fix cars? Are boys allowed to enjoy cooking and feel scared?
  3. Gender Safety:
    Is the show free from sexualisation of children, objectification, unrealistic body standards and misogyny?
    Look extra closely: are girl characters free from mascara and hourglass figures? Are male and female characters given equal respect?
  4. Social Justice and Equality:
    Does the show support equality and social justice in other ways?
    Look extra closely: can all kids see someone like them and their families?

You can download a PDF copy of the infographic version of the Maisy Test here: The Maisy Test- 4 Questions to expose sexism in kids’ shows.

For more ideas on how to evaluate the fourth question, check out The Representation Test, developed for general (not kids’) media:

How to spot sexism in movies - and kids tv | Sacraparental.com

So, how does all this play out? What shows pass this kind of test? I’d really love to hear your examples, so do leave a comment at the end.

Applying the Maisy Test: which shows fail?

Octonauts has a female engineer, but the three main characters – and more than half of the supporting cast and guest stars – are all male, so it fails.

Peppa Pig stars a girl pig who loves jumping in muddy puddles: tick. But the female characters all seem to wear dresses and the parents and other adults mostly follow traditional gender roles and would look at home in the 1950s, so I’m torn on this one when it comes to gender balance and gender freedom. What do you think? Pass or fail? But there’s another strike against this, which is the frequent body-shaming of Daddy Pig, so Peppa fails.

Postman Pat (the modern reboot): Pat and his son Julian are the key characters, both male (and Jess the cat is male, too). The large regular cast has a lot of girls and women, and also shows ethnic diversity. The doctor and vet are women, so gender freedom is portrayed, but the gender ratio is still around 2:1, so it fails for underrepresentation.

Applying the Maisy Test: which shows pass?

[UPDATE: I’ve now written a full post on 13 fabulous shows for little kids that pass the Maisy Test, if you want to get some new leads. Also see the comments on this post and that one for other people’s suggestions.]

Maisy: the star is a girl mouse who generally wears trousers. Her friends are an equal mix of apparently boy and girl animals, and they all join in all activities, with no gender limitations. The narrator is male.

Charlie and Lola: co-stars a brother and sister, each with a best friend of the same gender. All the characters do a range of things. Lola’s best friend is Black and Charlie’s best friend is of Asian origin. My only reservation is that the older sibling, and therefore the senior or more knowledgeable one is Charlie. I think that’s mitigated by Lola being more charismatic and usually the leader of the action.

Sesame Street: It’s playing catch-up a bit, after starting in the seventies with mostly male muppets, and gradually introducing more prominent female ones, but they’ve always been good at representing the spectrum of American society and possibility when it comes to humans.

My examples are limited to shows I have seen a fair bit of recently, so I’m not pretending they’re a representative or global sample. They’re mostly for the under-5s, for starters. Tell me about the media in the life of your kids – what fails, what passes (just) and what gets a Maisy Gold Star?

And how should we adjust the test? Anything else you look for that needs to be included? I think this will need to evolve and I’m keen for your help!

Ok, so most kids’ media fails. Now what?

It’s all very well carefully analysing the children’s media on offer near you, but what do you do if you find that there’s hardly anything that passes the Maisy Test? (Spoiler: there is hardly anything that passes on all four counts :( )

I have a few ideas, many of which came up on a thread on a Feminist Mothers Facebook group I belong to. Lots of wise advice there!

1. Use the data to challenge providers of sexist content

It’s one thing to complain that children’s programming is sexist or unrepresentative. It’s another to present a TV network, production house or funding agency with data like this.

Get your kids involved if they’re keen. Ask them to watch every programme between 3pm and 6pm for a week, keeping score on all these questions. Fun experiment, right?

Then write some letters to the companies that have power to change things. Share your letter here in the comments so we can all join in.

If you need a bit of motivation for this, here’s what Gloudeman writes about who’s at fault here (and do follow the links for more outrageous behind-the-scenes sexism):

It would seem that this is the result of a pervasive culture of misogyny dribbling its muck from the very top of the media ranks. It’s been revealed, for instance, that the head honchos at Cartoon Network told a children’s show creator that female characters need to be “one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.”

While sexism seems to permeate every facet of the media—you can’t run or hide!—these portrayals feel particularly damaging when targeted at a young, and by definition, highly impressionable audience. Can we really foster confident women when, from an early age, their favorite programs are telling them boys are simply smarter and more interesting than girls?

[Read more at Ravishly.com.]

So please, write to the local programmers, write to producers, and let’s stop letting these bozos get away with such misogyny. And I bet your kids will never forget this project.

2. Choose appropriate non-fiction shows

In fiction, anything can have a gender: mice, diggers, plasticine toys.

But forget fiction for a moment. Remember you can find anything online, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Is your kid wild about meerkats or roadworks or gymnastics or planets? There will be entire YouTube channels devoted to their current love, so who needs Peppa Pig?

At last year’s Go Green Expo I picked up the Ours DVD and it’s a hit with my 3-year-old. It’s small bites of New Zealand nature stuff, arranged by alphabet, narrated with a Kiwi accent, and with lots of the action happening in a kindergarten.

You might want to be a little careful about nature docos if they aren’t explicitly aimed at children, depending on how much, well, nature, you want your toddlers to see… But accidentally seeing a giraffe birth a baby (the drop to the ground severs the umbilical cord!!) in a nature clip turned out to be a positive experience for mine!

3. Binge on the good stuff

Most kids are more than happy to have a pretty unvaried diet when it comes to media, eternally re-watching their favourites, so if there are only three shows you’re happy with, that’s probably plenty. Create an artificially gender balanced sample of stuff you can all like (or tolerate) and keep most of their viewing within that pool.

4. Critique the bad stuff

Of course our kids will routinely experience misogyny, racism, exclusion, violence and general unkindness throughout their media-consuming lives. And that’s just The News.

Exposure to the bad stuff, accompanied by age-appropriate critique, can be a brilliant and valuable part of developing a social conscience and consciousness. It’s when the background, subtle exclusion of media goes uncritiqued that it’s at its most harmful, I reckon.

Some basic things you can say and ask with little ones to get the ball rolling, if this is a new idea:

  • Hm, that doesn’t seem very kind. What do you think?
  • I’m surprised he said girls can’t climb trees. We know lots of girls who are great climbers, don’t we.
  • Isn’t it weird how all the boys get to have better adventures in this show? If I made a show like this I think I’d give some good times to the girls too – what about you?
  • Did you notice that no one listened to her say no. How do you think she would have felt?
  • It’s good to watch a variety of things, isn’t it. This show has lots of boy characters. What’s something awesome that has lots of girl characters? Let’s watch that next!

For more sophisticated discussion on how to connect with kids and their media experiences, especially with older children, check out Commonsense Media, which has heaps of great resources.

5. Turn off the screens

And of course, there’s always the off switch. Here are some screen-free ideas if you could do with some inspiration:

Six tips for unplugged play

75 screen-free activity ideas

Among my Pinterest boards: Easy, Special Play Ideas and Easy Toddler Fun

The Unplug and Plug In Lent project I helped create in New Plymouth when I was a Baptist minister there.

What do you think, team?

How do you evaluate the appropriateness of kids’ shows?

What would you change if you could? Can you?

What shows/games/movies do you recommend, and do they pass the Maisy Test?

Let’s talk! Please (please?!) leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Please consider this a warm invitation to follow me on Facebook for daily links, resources and Sacraparentalish tidbits, on Pinterest for link-plantations (including these Gender Politics and Change the World boards) and on Twitter for a range of ranting.

And some related posts you might be interested in:

13 TV shows with strong female leads (for adults)

My feminist parenting humiliation (for laughs)

When words fail (for a guest rant against pinkification)


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36 comments on “The Maisy Test for Sexism in Kids’ TV Shows and Movies: What to look for and what to do about it”

  1. Writing in Water Reply

    LOVE this post! (Personally, I like the wonderfully and unashamedly matriarchal world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It might not pass the Maisy test, but I’m OK with that. 😉 )

  2. Lulastic Reply

    Holy Macaroni what a comprehensive post! Amazing! In my ideal world we wouldn’t watch anything at all – I am a bit of a dinosaur and in my heart I’d rather have no tv at all – it is so, so prescriptive. however, I know that isn’t just or fair! We do limit (but have an open discussion about the limits) and tend to go for big – on- analysing them. I am very hesitant though to stomp on anything that my girls love- I don’t want to undermine the process of them discovering and trusting the things they value.
    Lulastic recently posted…10 habits that infringe on Rights of Children (and how to change them)My Profile

  3. Frank Reply

    One of my 4 year old’s favourite shows at the moment is Dinosaur Train. Surprisingly, it passes the Maisy test!
    Gender representation – Of the 4 main kid characters. 2 are girls and 2 are boys. Secondary characters are pretty evenly mixed.
    Gender freedom – All 4 are pretty similar in their adventurousness and all carry out scientific experiments. I haven’t seen much gender stereotyping, they go on heaps of adventures with their mum so even the adults don’t seem stereotyped.
    Gender safety – the only differentiation between the male and female characters of the same species is the females have eyelashes. Kind of annoying, but harmless.
    Social justice and equality – One of the kids, Buddy, was adopted so looks different to the others and can’t fly like they can. Much is made of the fact that these differences don’t matter and he gets carried by the mum if they need to fly somewhere.

  4. Thomas Beagle Reply

    I often despair of the attitudes I see in children’s media so I’m happy to read some clear thinking on how to analyse the issues of sexism. (And thanks for the Maisy and Dinosaur Train recommendations.)

    One other issue that I’m also quite sensitive to is the use of casual violence, both physical and emotional. A lot of media (and video games) use violence and conflict as an easy way to drive the plot. But that’s for another test…

    Another recommendation for TV watching for the young is Something Special. “It is presented by Justin Fletcher and features various other characters (also played by Fletcher) and clips of children with disabilities. Justin speaks as well as signing, and a spoken narrative is provided over the clips of children.” I find it annoying but my daughter loves it and enjoys using her new sign language skills (which are apparently compatible with NZSL). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Something_Special_(TV_series)

    Ultimately I wish more material aspired to be as good as My Neighbour Totoro. :)
    Thomas Beagle recently posted…My advice for new parentsMy Profile

    • thaliakr Reply

      Great, thanks for this, Thomas.

      Ah, I see from the link that this is Justin as in Justin’s House and Mr Tumble. Great. If only he would turn his mind to gender! His show Justin’s House had not a single female on it when my boy and I watched in the UK!

      The Wikipedia article says the sign language he uses is Makaton, which is especially developed for kids with developmental delays – we have friends who use it. Compatible with mainstream Babysign as well as NZSL so that’s a winner.
      thaliakr recently posted…Sexism in Kids’ TV Shows and Movies: What to look for and what to do about itMy Profile

  5. Amiria Reply

    Great article! I love Peppa Pig. I find it so clever and hilarious and SAFE for my little ones. It’s the only show I let mine watch at the moment, because I trust 100% that there’s not going to be anything on there (violence / innapropriate topics etc) that I don’t want them to see. Also I love the graphics. So many kids shows are so over the top in terms of visual stimulation. In terms of gender equality, at first glance it does seem quite old school – but I think it does a superb job of reflecting the real world. ie episodes where they question whether a stay at home mother ‘works’ etc. But the best thing about it is that – in my view – they model really awesome adult/child interactions…and show the kids doing real world things (planting gardens / building tree houses etc). My kids don’t watch much – often nothing, but a 5 minute youtube episode makes for fantastic bribery material when necessary!

    • Hannah Reply

      I’m a rabid feminist and Social Justice Warrior(TM), but I also love Peppa – it’s one of the few children’s series that just tells simple, funny, silly stories without any point, moral, Special Message or educational aspect to them, which I find extremely refreshing. There are a few episodes that show the children’s toy preferences as unnecessarily (and explicitly) gendered, which is a pity, and there’s tiny but slightly irritating details like Daddy Pig’s preferred reading being a newspaper and Mummy’s a glossy magazine, but as far as I’m concerned that’s outweighed by the positive, including but not limited to:
      – the gentle, silly, completely non-authoritarian family dynamic
      – the willingness of the characters to laugh at themselves, acknowledge mistakes, and apologise to each other (as a matter of course; it’s never made into a Message)
      – Peppa’s characterisation (brave, playful, loud, confident – she’s a girl completely unafraid to take up space, lead her peers and demand people’s attention, and I love it)
      – the fact that Mummy and Daddy Pig have an equal presence in their children’s lives and are both shown in caretaker roles
      – the many badass adult female characters (Ms Rabbit, Ms Gazelle, Mummy Pig), as well as the non-traditional masculinity of Daddy Pig (he’s extremely gentle, seems to treat his job as secondary to his family, is shown to be afraid of heights, and has been a ballet dancer and a show diver – and while his being fat is often joked about, most of all by Daddy Pig himself, its also never implied that it’s wrong or needs to be fixed)
      – the simple animation style
      – the fact that I can watch it along with my daughter without wanting to tear out my hair in frustration after 5 minutes, because its silly British humour is fun for grown-ups as well

  6. Caroline Reply

    Great post! As a minor defence of Justin’s house though (which I hate and never thought I’d be defending! ), I believe Little Monster is supposed to be female! Some of the other programmes have an excuse too – it would have been tricky to add too many female characters to Beatrix Potter’s original cast or to Thomas the Tank. Octonauts it’s was also taken from a Japanese network with the characters already in place. Ironically, although there are still problems, Disney has been doing pretty well in recent years on the gender balance stuff – Tangled, Brave and Frozen all have pretty strong female characters. There’s still a long way to go though – I have a friend who wears glasses and her children do to and her bugbear is how few characters there are on children’s TV who wear glasses.

    • thaliakr Reply

      I’m happy to accept your defence of Justin – especially since his use of sign language is just brilliant :)

      I’m going to push back on the question of all the sexist adaptations: they don’t HAVE to remake them! And if they do, they’re all pretty loose adaptations of the source material, so they COULD balance them up if they cared about doing so. Postman Pat rebooted with expanded ethnic and gender diversity – they even gave Pat a whole family! Unfortunately they gave him a son, not a daughter, who became the co-star, so 3 out of 3 of the core cast are still male: thumbs down from Maisy!

      Great point about the glasses. Sesame Street is the only show I can think of that routinely features people with a range of body types and abilities. Any others?
      thaliakr recently posted…The Maisy Test [Quick Guide]: 4 Questions to Expose Sexism in Kids’ TV Shows and MoviesMy Profile

  7. Andrew Manning Reply

    Good blog.

    Things I can think of our kids have watched are Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, Little Einsteins and Doc McStuffins. From memory I think these all might pass the Maisy test although I ‘d have to go back and watch them more carefully (there could be something glaringly bad there that I’m not thinking of)

  8. Kellie Reply

    We like Daniel Tiger which although it has a male main character his group of friends are made up of 2 boys and 2 girls and there is a good balance of male and female adult characters. In season 2 Daniel gets a baby sister Margaret who plays a large part in most of the episode.
    Gender freedom – Yes, the girls play with cars and the boys play house amongst many other things often the four of them are doing things together. Also the adult doctor is female and the baker is male.
    Gender safety – yes
    Social justice and equality – Yes, there are a (odd) range of characters who are animals and people of different ethnicities as well a child with a disability, a mixed race family, a boy being raised by his uncle etc.
    I also like that it has simple messages for helping children learn and feel safe and secure in it that fit with my values. From learning to use the toilet, to using words to express our feelings, friends just want to play together, grown ups come back etc.

  9. Emma Reply

    Love the test and think there is a real need for it. Considering the scale of the problem though (and you did ask for feedback!), it might be sensible to do a marks out of 4 or star system or something for the Maisy Test, rather than a pass/fail. This would also allow the extent of the problem in the programme to be expressed, and allow the “score” of the programme to change as it improves or regresses; you could even then break down a series by episode to avoid the really bad ones. And of course still highlight those that currently “pass” by giving them top marks.

    From experience of the Minion’s debate currently taking place, I think the test will be more palatable if (beloved) programmes are marked with a low score rather than a “fail”, for psychological reasons if nothing else.

    Looking to examples of programmes that pass, I put forward the BBC programme “Let’s play”. Two actors, one male and one female and one of them steps into a machine that dresses them up in a costume and tells them two key facts they will need when they play in that costume. Whilst they are playing, the other actor then takes on _every_ other role in the play scene. The one chosen to dress up each episode is presented as being at random, and gender roles don’t seem to guide the costumes they are “given”. For examples, the female actor is a footballer (soccer player?) in one episode I keep seeing, scoring the winning goal in a big match, and on the Let’s Play BBC site they have a picture of the female actor being a knight whilst the male actor is a princess (with no sign of embarrassment). Also, the female actor is white and the male is black, so there is some gender diversity too.

  10. Emma Reply

    Love the test and think there is a real need for it. Considering the scale of the problem though (and you did ask for feedback!), it might be sensible to do a marks out of 4 or star system or something for the Maisy Test, rather than a pass/fail. This would also allow the extent of the problem in the programme to be expressed, and allow the “score” of the programme to change as it improves or regresses; you could even then break down a series by episode to avoid the really bad ones. And of course still highlight those that currently “pass” by giving them top marks.

    Looking to examples of programmes that pass, I put forward the BBC programme “Let’s play”. Two actors, one male and one female and one of them dresses up in a costume whilst the other actor takes on _every_ other role in the play scene. The one chosen to dress up each episode is presented as being at random, and gender roles don’t seem to guide the costumes they are “given”. For examples, the female actor is a footballer (soccer player?) in one episode I keep seeing, scoring the winning goal in a big match, and on the Let’s Play BBC site they have a picture of the female actor being a knight whilst the male actor is a princess (with no sign of embarrassment). Also, the female actor is white and the male is black, so there is some gender diversity too.

    • thaliakr Reply

      I’ve been thinking about this all day. Thanks, Emma. Definitely great to get your feedback!

      In my initial draft I did have a scale with a ‘bare pass’ and a ‘gold star’, but I found I was just trying to justify why some shows I liked for other reasons shouldn’t be called out on their gender imbalance.

      So after mulling it over again today after your comments, my inclination is to stick with a pass/fail, for a couple of reasons.

      I do take your point about kids getting discouraged about their favourite shows. I think, however, that kids old enough to do this analysis will be more likely to be ok with that.

      I also think that this enormous imbalance has been going on so so long that I don’t want to water it down at all. If a show, 40 years after third wave feminism, can’t manage to include meaningful male AND female characters, I don’t want to give them any concessions.

      That’s not to say that My Child Shall Watch Nothing that Fails – he went to see the Minions movie this week! So there will be shows that on balance, we decide are not so bad, or have other good points and we’re happy to include them. But we need to be conscious if there is an imbalance, or harmful gender messages in kids’ viewing.

      But those are just my thoughts so far, and I’m happy to have you or others push back! What do people think?
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  11. Lisa Reply

    All good, and I agree with the principles expressed here, but we don’t want homogeneity either. I mean, does that mean we can never have a show set in an all-girls school? or a convent? Cos that would most likely be a big gender imbalance. Similarly a boys school, or a seminary.

    • thaliakr Reply

      I’m with you, Lisa, I think there’s definitely a place for stuff that doesn’t pass this test. Ballpark guess: I reckon if half of kids’ media passed, and a quarter was male-dominated and a quarter female-dominated, that would be a good mix. But at the moment, it’s more like three-quarters male-dominated, an eighth female-dominated and an eighth passing the Maisy Test.

    • ObjectiveReality Reply

      I think the important thing to remember is that the original Bechdel test was a joke. The point wasn’t that you should watch only Bechdel-approved movies, it was that it was sadly funny how few movies passed such a limited and basic test. I think the idea of the Maisie test is similar – the idea’s not to be 100% prescriptive, just to highlight some problems and stuff to look for.

      I think with your examples about inherently single-sex settings, you’d want to take into account things like:
      * Is there any commentary on the single-sex nature of the setting and how that interacts with the rest of the world?
      * How diverse is the cast within the single-sex environment?
      * When there are characters outside the dominant mould (for example, female teachers in a show set at an all-boys’ school) how are they presented?
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  12. ObjectiveReality Reply

    I think Adventure Time and Steven Universe deserve honourable mentions here. They skew a bit older maybe, but not much older than My Little Pony.

    Adventure Time centers around two male characters, but the supporting cast is hugely diverse and includes characters of ambiguous or trans gender as well as lots of female characters. The female characters are often “princesses”, but that’s a setting detail rather than a character note and princesses span a spectrum from spoiled party girls, to magicians,fighters, to mad scientists.

    Steven Universe has a male central character, but has a lot of cultural and gender diversity. Characters don’t really sit inside gender norms either. More than Adventure Time, Steven Universe uses its plot (Steven’s adoptive parents/sisters are alien warriors who protect the earth from interplanetary monsters and can fuse together to become more powerful) to talk about issues of gender, unconventional families, relationships (both romantic and otherwise) and so on. It’s really really good stuff.
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  13. Karen Reply

    I’ve really enjoyed this post (first time I’ve read your blog, and linked here from your rant about the ODT sexism). I have to say, I’m surprised no-one mentioned my daughter’s favourite Dora the Explorer. Although I personally can’t stand it, it passes the Maisy test with flying colours – protagonist female, check, not limited by traditional gender roles, check, safe, check, representational – check (also educational which is even better in my book).

    Another one which (I think) would pass, is Tayo the little bus where two of the four main characters are female, and the mechanic is female.

    My personal pet peeve is Max and Ruby. Although there are more female characters than male, they are very 1950’s stereotypical and fit very confined gender roles.

  14. Frank Reply

    Oh, I remembered another one that passes with flying colours! Peg + Cat. Personally I find it boring, it’s a bit too educational for my tastes, but it’s 1a bout a girl who solves maths problems

  15. thaliakr Reply
  16. morri Reply

    peppas mom works on the pc at home and virtually all the shops are owned by mrs rabbit, she also drives lots of vehicles, bus, helicopter, etc.so thats a plus. she even gets a price from the queen for it. and the women are the volunary fire department I do agree that the kids are a bit stereotyped mostly into girls stuff and boys stuff but at least peppas fav colour is red. and the kids like being active.

  17. J Scott Reply

    Great stuff! I have been thinking along similar lines in doing a test that takes us beyond the Bechdel test – my focus has been on my interest of girls’ comics from the 70s and 80s but there is a lot of overlap with the Maisy Test. I call mine the “Rounded Representation” test: it only looks at one group of people at at time rather than being able to think about the wider issues of social justice at the same time (but you could always run the Rounded Representation test more than once looking at different groups each time).

    My initial explanatory post is here; I also did a post specifically comparing My Little Pony, the Barbie animated series, and the Disney film Tangled. It was an interesting way to think about what it is that MLP does that is smarter and better done than the Barbie series.

    FWIW I think female-dominated stories are great to see, in the context of most stories being so male-dominated; but seeing women and men, boys and girls, interacting with each other and taking on non-stereotypical roles in that shared context is *even better*.

  18. Amanda Reply

    I love Masha and the Bear, which I discovered when my (then three year old) son discovered it on youtube. She gets into all sorts of trouble and adventures, gets dirty, does physically active things, is the ringleader, and isn’t restricted to “pretty” facial expressions or tones of voice. I’m not sure of the genders of the different animals besides Bear and his female friend, but the show is adorable.

  19. Francesca Reply

    Thalia, I know some awesome ones – but they aren’t in English. We didn’t expect it but one of our favourite things in Denmark is its children’s TV. It is mostly live-action, so not easy to dub for overseas. Heaps of positive female role models. My sons current favourite is Motor Mille, she is an overall-wearing motor racer who arrives to help groups of children who have had their toys stolen by an angry old man. The kids aren’t actors, they just ‘play themselves’ which means a real variety of personality shown by both the boys and girls. Just awesome. I’ve been meaning to write something about the TV here, and I think you have reminded me I need to.
    We love Maisy, and I can never make up my mind about Peppa either. He also loves Winnie the Pooh, and it always makes me so sad how sexist it still is.
    Of course, my son will also sit down and watch hours of Fireman Sam if I let him!

  20. Marielle Reply

    Happy Feet is probably not a great example of this, because emperor penguins have an extensive paternal role; the father keeps the egg warm while the mother goes out to the ice shelf to fish for two months. It would be normal for a colony to have very few adult female penguins in it, depending on the time of year.

    A better example of this is Bee Movie. The main character is a male “worker bee,” but all actual worker bees are female, including the guard bees. But in the movie, there are male worker bees wearing little construction hats, and male guard bees wearing riot gear, which is a pretty blatant application of human gender roles onto bees.

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  22. Hannah Reply

    Thanks for this article, I love it and am sure it (and the comments and follow-up posts) will come in handy! I have a 2.5-year-old daughter and finding good shows for her to watch is sometimes a bit of a minefield. There’s a lot of good stuff on Netflix and CBeebies, but also a lot of bad (that’s hard to get rid of because it keeps popping up as suggested watching). Right now the little one LOVES Paw Patrol, which performs OK on gender freedom (the helicopter pilot, farmer/martial arts teacher and city mayor are female, there are male pups who love bubble baths and cry at weddings, as well as one who’s scared of water and one who’s extremely shy and clumsy) but rather terribly on representation (the 6 main pups include just a single female one, and her colour is pink; most of the prominent non-pup characters are male as well). And the merchandise is the worst: the ‘boy stuff’ systematically excludes the female pup while the ‘girl stuff’ only has the female pup and is all pink and ruffly, so I had to retract my promise to my daughter to buy her some Paw Patrol pajamas :(. On the other hand, since she became a Paw Patrol fan, she’s been incorporating the most awesome, empowering adventure/rescue scenarios into her own play, as well as all kinds of references to diggers, helicopters and ‘fixing stuff’… so instead of taking it off the menu I just try to complement it with more female-centric shows and books. And I always watch along with her – she doesn’t seem to be aware of gender distinctions yet, using ‘boy/girl’ and ‘he/she’ more or less randomly, but when she does I’ll be able to talk to her about the things she’s watching and (hopefully) teach her to consume any media with a critical eye.

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