We’re still swimming in sexism
Here’s a quick exercise for you: grab a pen and paper, or open a document on a device.
Briefly note down the ten or so kids’ television shows that you see or hear most of when you are around kids. You could include kids’ movies as well if you like. What shows or films come to mind?
Now write down the names of the three main characters or people in those shows – or a couple of descriptors if you don’t know the names (eg: “Thomas, the Fat Conductor, and several other really annoying trains“).
If you’re with me so far, scan down your list. Out of about thirty characters, how many are male and how many female? For the human characters, how many are caucasian? Out of two or three dozen characters, on your list, are any disabled in any way? What kind of family structures are showing up? Are there any other trends you notice? Is there anything concerning about how the male and female characters are portrayed?
So for instance, take Thomas the Tank Engine/Thomas & Friends, one of the most popular kids’ television shows ever. Who are the main characters? There’s an adult male narrator (originally Ringo Starr!), the main train called Thomas, the (male) ‘Fat Controller’ who rules the engines, and a bunch of other vehicles. The main supporting trains are called Percy, Gordon, James, Edward, Henry and a recent addition, Emily. Spotting a theme here?
In contrast, one of my kids’ favourites at the moment is the delightful Puffin Rock. It is also narrated by a man (Chris O’Dowd, and goodness, he’s wonderful!). It centres around a little puffin called Oona, and her baby brother, Baba. Her Mum and Dad appear too, and so do various little animal friends: Mossy, a hungry pygmy shrew; May, an energetic rabbit; Silkie, a seal; Otto the owl; Bernie the elderly hermit crab; and the aloof fox, Flynne. So that’s an even split of genders, a range of ages, and the key character is a girl/puffin.
I can kind of tolerate having the odd awful show like Thomas in the rotation for my kids, as long as the dodgy messages are drowned out by positive stuff like Puffin Rock. We can critique sexist stuff together, too. The problem is that the vast majority of contemporary kids’ programming is still sexist and unhealthy in a variety of ways, many of them subtle and insidious. For most kids, that stuff is the dominant influence, rather than an occasional oddity that can be fodder for critical media reflection.
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.]
Now, more than ever, we can create our own viewing libraries, rather than turn on the one children’s TV channel and watch whatever is served up. On the flipside, it can be hard to discover the good stuff if you have to search for it by name before you have, you know, discovered it.
I can help!
If you are keen to know about more kids’ shows like Puffin Rock, so your kids’ default viewing can be positive, inclusive programmes, here’s a list!
Today’s list is almost all animated stories, aimed at pre-schoolers and up. Children’s TV producers are much better at providing diverse casts when it comes to live action shows, and non-fiction/variety shows like Playschool, Mister Maker, Nina and the Neurons and so on, so I’m mostly sticking to cartoons for this post.
In terms of the age range, I’m being guided partly by review sites like Common Sense Media (super handy resource!) and partly by red flags like scariness and the presence of conflict, poor behaviour or ‘bad guys’. In my impressionistic assessment, two- and three-year-olds don’t need any of those things, and most four- and five-year-olds do better without them. So while those things aren’t completely absent from all the shows on this list, they’re a guide for how suitable I consider them for younger kids.
You may have a favourite, socially progressive show that isn’t here because I would put it above that age threshold. The Magic Schoolbus, for instance, is set in a school, among kids who are about eight or ten, and there’s a fair amount of sarcasm and sneering, so that’s not on this list.
It’s just a starting point, and I’d love more recommendations – for any age group – in the comments.
But only if they pass the Maisy Test, okay?
The Maisy Test for Sexism in Children’s Media
I was inspired by the Bechdel Test to come up with a version more appropriate for kids’ viewing. You can read all about it here.
The Maisy Test has four questions to ask of all kids’ media to expose the dross and praise progressive shows like Puffin Rock:
The Four Questions of the Maisy Test
- Gender Representation:
Are male and female characters present in roughly equal numbers and status?
Look extra closely: are the two or three most prominent characters of different genders?
- 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 or feel scared?
- 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?
- 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?
Because some people asked for a poster of The Maisy Test to print out and put on the wall, here is a PDF copy of the infographic version of the Maisy Test that you can download:
To see the test at work, let’s run the shows I’m recommending through each part of the test.
I’ve grouped the shows into two lists: the first is for shows I wholeheartedly recommend for kids in the 3-7(ish) age range, with no major reservations. The second is shows I recommend for most of those kids, but they may not be suitable for everyone, or they only narrowly pass The Maisy Test, or there’s some other reservation I’ve got.
Confession: I actually try not to pay much attention to these shows once I’ve decided they’re okay (my brain is overloaded already, right?) so do feel free to point out problems I have missed, or things that delight or bug you about any of them. I’m not purporting to be an expert on any of them and I’d love your input.
One last note, before the list. We are living in a golden age of superb ‘educational’ cartoons. I don’t think everything kids watch has to be trying to teach them something specific, but when the very best shows on TV happen to be presenting top-notch science or geography education as well as being great fun to watch, I find it hard to prefer a show that’s not doing that. So my first group of super-duper recommended shows almost all have great credentials in terms of what kids learn about the world and themselves while they’re enjoying the stories.
The Best on Offer: 13 Superb Children’s Television Shows that Pass the Maisy Test
1. Puffin Rock: Adorable and Gentle [Female Lead]
Puffin Rock is just adorable!
It wins the prize for the show most enjoyable to overhear while the kids watch.
There are lovely Irish accents (sorry for all the swooning over them, but oh, you must listen!); everyone is kind to each other; it’s a gentle introduction to biology, geography and ecology (caterpillars metamorphosing; watching a supermoon; helping a whale find its family); and I honestly don’t have a bad word to say about it. The theme tune is gorgeous, too!
And it passes the Maisy Test with flying colours (just like a puffin’s beak!):
Gender Balance: An even split of male and female characters, with a female lead and male narrator.
Gender Freedom: there’s no gender-based restriction on the discoveries and adventures the little animals get to make. I haven’t noticed any gender-based differences in the mum and dad characters, but I mostly let the beautiful Irish accents wash over me in the background, so if you pay more attention, let me know!
Gender Safety: No problems. The characters are animals and you can’t tell their gender from looking at them. No weird mascara eyes or anthropomorphised bosoms.
Social Justice and Equality: As with many animal-based shows, ethnicity isn’t an obvious part of characters’ composition. But it is very pleasing to have such an Irish show in the canon – I can’t think of any others that have made it as far as me and my kids.
Educational, delightful, and socially progressive. It couldn’t get any better. And those accents!
2. Maisy: Gentle and Comfortingly Ordinary [Female Lead]
We’d better mention Maisy, who the test is named after, early on.
Maisy is a mouse representing an ordinary three-year-old (ish) who does very ordinary three-year-old kind of things: going to the library; having a bus ride; breaking a leg and having a first stay in hospital.
It’s a very gentle first TV show, with nothing remotely scary or worrying. Her friends are all other animals: Charley the crocodile, Tallulah the chicken, and so on. Parents don’t appear, though there are sometimes other adults, like a swimming teacher or a nurse.
Gender Balance: The lead character is a female mouse and her friends are evenly split between male and female animal characters. None of them speak, except in squeaks and burbles. The action is narrated by a man.So it’s perfectly even.
Gender Freedom: Maisy generally wears trousers, and her friend Tallulah wears dresses. Everyone does every activity, with no differences based on gender. Incidental adult characters like teachers or doctors appear with no bias towards traditionally gendered occupations.
Gender Safety: No problems at all.
Social Justice and Equality: A diverse range of animal characters, but nothing more to say here.
3. Dinosaur Train: Super-engaging Science [Male and Female Leads]
This is a hardcore science programme, dressed up in Jim Henson animation adventures. A family of prehistoric creatures (because of this show, I know that they are not actually all ‘dinosaurs’) explore different periods and places in the prehistoric world by riding the Dinosaur Train.
The particularly excellent thing about the ‘educational’ aspect of this show is that it’s not just about facts – though there are certainly plenty of those, and your four-year-old will soon be able to reel off the defining features of a therapod, for sure – but it’s fundamentally about the scientific method. The characters form and test hypotheses, observe the features and behaviour of animals, and find their place in the ecosystem and in prehistory. It’s stunningly good.
One more thing I really like about this: at the end of each episode, a real life palaeontologist, Dr Scott, comes on for a brief chat with real children about some of the science in the show. Not only does this work well to pull out the ‘lessons’ of the adventures but he also finishes each segment with this rousing exhortation, “So remember: get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”
Gender Balance: The action centres on the Pteranodon family: Mom, Dad and four siblings – two boys, two girls. The lead characters are one sister and one brother, and they both lead the action equally. It’s evenly split.
Gender Freedom: There’s no restriction based on gender. The parents are portrayed and participate without gender stereotyping. The show does really well on this front.
Gender Safety: My one quibble is a storyline (it might only crop up once or twice – it’s hard to know, with the number of repetitions in our house!) of the lead girl having ‘a crush’ on a boy who is incidental character. It’s dealt with sensitively and realistically, but I just don’t think it’s necessary at all. She’s only about nine years old!
Social Justice and Equality: One of the lead characters, Buddy, is actually a Tyrannosaurus, not a Pteranodon. He hatched with the others, and was warmly adopted by the family. It’s a down-to-earth, happy adoption story that is talked about every so often. It’s good as a storyline that normalises adoption. If you have a child who is adopted, you may want to preview the show (and chat online with other adoptive parents who know the show) to see how it will compare to your child’s adoption story.
4. Doc McStuffins: Imagination and Healing [Female Lead]
You can hardly go wrong with a show starring an African-American girl who is a doctor for toys, whose parents are a stay-at-home Dad and a doctor Mom.
Doc and her stuffed toy assistants solve problems for neighbourhood toys, and teach health lessons along the way.
Gender Balance: There’s an even split, among humans and toys.
Gender Freedom: The thing to celebrate here is that Doc and her mother (and grandmother, too!) are doctors – and African-American – which makes the show a very welcome contribution to our viewing portfolio. Doc is into pink things, and (other viewers tell me) her four-year-old brother Donnie is into toys and games that are traditionally ‘boy’ things.
Gender Safety: Prominent eyelashes to signify gender in stuffed toys (sigh) but otherwise pretty fine. I like that the women have very wide hips!
Social Justice and Equality: Having a Black family at the centre of the show is just fabulous. The family also adopts a baby in later seasons. Doc’s best friend Emmie is white.
5. Charlie and Lola: Kind and Kooky Siblings [Male and Female Leads]
Charlie starts every book and episode with these words: “I have this little sister Lola. She is small and very funny.”
These two very engaging siblings are great fun. Lola is an imaginative livewire, never held back by convention or tradition. Charlie is a kind, steady older brother. They have a lovely way with words.
Gender Balance: The cast is evenly split, with Charlie each having a main friend of the same gender, but having lots of adventures with just the two of them.
Gender Freedom: All the characters do a range of things. The girls are younger than the boys in this show, so that does determine some of the things they get up to, but gender is not a factor.
Gender Safety: No problems.
Social Justice and Equality: Lola’s best friend Lotta is Black and Charlie’s best friend is of Asian origin.
6. Miles from Tomorrowland [Male Lead]
We only discovered this when I asked around for recommendations for this article, so I’ve only seen a wee bit of this show.
It’s an astronomy-based adventure story, introducing basic science like gravity.
Gender Balance: Miles is the lead, but the stories involve the whole family: mother, father and sister, too. Stella the sister is older, which helps even things out.
Gender Freedom: No problems. Their mother is the captain and a scientist.
Gender Safety: No problems noted so far.
Social Justice and Equality: The family is mixed-race, with a caucasian father and Asian mother.
Here’s Common Sense Media’s report on Miles from Tomorrowland (also known as Miles from Tomorrow in the UK).
7. Sesame Street: Educational Muppets
Well, this children’s media institution hardly needs an introduction from me.
One of the first shows to be designed in collaboration with educational psychologists – to the extent that each of the Muppets represents a child at a specific developmental stage – Sesame Street also makes a clear effort to present a range of children, adults, and family configurations.
There’s also a broad selection of grown-up musicians who come and do wonderful songs, some written just for the show. The show is a mix of music, live action conversations between human characters and Muppets, skits and educational animations.
Gender Balance: The Street still struggles a bit because of the legacy of Muppets created in the 1970s, mostly male, who are mainstays. But there are now a bunch of great female Muppets, and live action characters, and I suspect contemporary viewers would find it fairly balanced.
Gender Freedom: Anyone can do anything.
Gender Safety: Fine. There’s no adultification of kids.
Social Justice and Equality: It’s entirely normal on Sesame Street to see people using wheelchairs or sign language. People of colour are well represented, and the American version has regular use of Spanish. Health and social educational messages are so common that you could find a relevant clip on just about anything. Here’s a great compilation of Sesame Street clips where someone is breastfeeding, for instance!
8. Bubble Guppies: Cheerful Social Learning at an Underwater Preschool [Male and Female Ensemble]
I don’t know this well at all, and I kind of don’t warm to it personally, so here’s what Commonsense Media says:
Parents need to know that this cheerful preschool series encourages active involvement from young viewers and has wonderful social messages about friendship, responsibility, and solving problems. The Guppies are curious about their world and excited to team up and explore it, and their enthusiasm for learning can inspire kids’ own interest in making discoveries. Catchy music, imaginative play, and relatable stories with positive messages make this a worthwhile show for preschoolers.
I asked my son about it today, knowing he’d seen it a bit a while ago. He said it was a bit scary (he’s four and a half, and on the sensitive side for such things).
Gender Balance: The cast is evenly split.
Gender Freedom: Everyone gets to do everything.
Gender Safety: It’s just a personal peeve, but I do wish animation artists could be more creative than always drawing little girl characters with long eyelashes and long hair. Especially when they’re not human!
Social Justice and Equality: The characters are drawn to represent a range of ethnic backgrounds.
9. Peg + Cat: Quirky, Witty, Operatic Maths [Female Lead]
Peg + Cat is a supersmart show with clever animation and memorable characters. Peg is an enthusiastic, happy go-getter. Cat is a cat, in every way.
The adventures are all solved by exploring foundational maths concepts, with a bit of opera thrown in along the way. It’s pretty hilarious.
If you’re interested in proper research on how effective Peg + Cat is as an educational tool, here’s a PDF of a cool study.
Gender Balance: Peg is a girl, and Cat has a male adult voice. They hang out with a bunch of other animals, who mostly don’t speak, and encounter different adults and children.
Gender Freedom: It’s great to see a girl solving problems with maths.
Gender Safety: No problems.
Social Justice and Equality: Peg is white. Her friend Ramone is African-American. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity in the guest and recurring characters.
10. Dora the Explorer: Problem-solving Latina Adventurer [Female Lead]
This slow-paced, almost old-fashioned (in a good way) show must have been one of the first mainstream American TV cartoons to star someone who wasn’t white. Dora teaches basic problem-solving, Spanish language, and positive, can-do attitudes to very young viewers (it can seem slow and repetitive to older kids).
Gender Balance: Dora is the star of the original series, with her male monkey companion. There’s a spin-off, Go, Diego, Go, starring her male cousin and his sister, having adventures in the rainforest.
Gender Freedom: No problems.
Gender Safety: No problems in the original series. Dora and Friends is a spin-off for older kids, and the body shapes of the children (who are still young) are a little more adultified than I’d prefer for a kids’ show. I haven’t watched it, though.
Social Justice and Equality: It’s great to see a Latina hero in the limelight. Dora and Friends has an ethnically diverse cast, though all female.
Dora is another show it’s impossible to find short clips of to show you (everything on YouTube is a game, not a show). But it’s on every children’s channel in the world, right?
11. Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood: Healthy Earworms for Littlies [Male Lead]
Okay, this is a pretty annoying show to hear in the background. Sorry.
But oh my goodness, do you know how many children have tried new foods at dinner time because Daniel Tiger said so? Or rather, sang so?
Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood is a gentle (boring) show about little pre-school aged animals and humans having very gentle (boring) days together. They encounter very small problems and solve them slowly and carefully, with plentiful reminders of the Lesson of the Day, introduced in a song, and then reprised as a short, annoying musical phrase throughout the show.
Kids love it.
Gender Balance: A male lead with female and male friends and assorted adults. I honestly try never to watch it, but the cast list looks pretty even.
Gender Freedom: No restrictions that I’ve noticed
Gender Safety: It’s all pitched really young, with no problems here.
Social Justice and Equality: The cast is a mix of animals and humans. The humans have different ethnic backgrounds. The show aims to teach social and emotional lessons and seems to be very effective, judging by my son and his friends and how the earworms have influenced them!
For American viewers, this is a spin-off from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, so that might hold extra appeal for adults.
12. The Wonder Pets: Operatic Animals [Female and Male Ensemble]
Three classroom pets have adventures after the schoolkids go home. And break into operatic recitative as they save baby animals from peril. Of course they do!
Lots of programmes for little kids have good messages about ‘teamwork’ but this show goes one further, with a recurring song fragment that was a catchphrase among my son’s friends before he’d ever watched an episode:
‘What’s gonna work? TEAMWORK!’
Gender Balance: The core cast of three is led by female guinea pig Linny. She teams up with the empathetic male turtle, Tuck, and Ming-Ming, a female duck.
Gender Freedom: It’s good to see the male character being the most ‘in touch with his feelings’ and a female leader. No restrictions.
Gender Safety: No problems.
Social Justice and Equality: The voice cast is ethnically diverse.
I couldn’t find a single clip to embed here that wasn’t geo-locked, but head to the site if you’re in the US.
13. Sarah and Duck: Charming and Imaginative [Female Lead]
Sarah and Duck is a charming, slightly surreal, gentle show for littlies, with simple adventures and problem-solving.
Gender Balance: Sarah is the lead, Duck is a non-speaking male mallard, and there is a male narrator who interacts with the story and characters.
Gender Freedom: No problems.
Gender Safety: No problems.
Social Justice and Equality: Sarah has pale skin and black hair. The other characters are a mix of human, animal and things like a talking bag. The human characters have a variety of skin colours.
Honourable mentions: These shows also pass the Maisy Test (or almost do) but I have other reservations
1. Bo on the Go [Female Lead]
A girl and her sidekick overcome obstacles by doing various physical activities that viewing kids are invited to join in with. That’s it, really. I find it super boring, but kids find it fun to be invited into the action.
Bo on the Go passes the Maisy Test but adds nothing else to the world of television – except an attempt at getting viewers off the sofa.
One more warning is needed for this show: the central gimmick is that our kids can contribute to Bo’s success by doing their own running or jumping at home. This means the show actively sends the message that the TV world is real and fictional characters can communicate with kids. In our house we’ve been quite keen on helping out little ones distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘pretend’ in all parts of life, so we had to choose between undermining that distinction and undermining the show. We chose the latter, which meant he was much less interested in doing the prescribed exercise!
Gender Balance: Bo is a girl and her dragon friend is a younger boy. There’s also a male wizard who gives advice and sets challenges.
Gender Freedom: No problems.
Gender Safety: No problems.
Social Justice and Equality: Nothing to note. Bo has blue hair, pale skin and blue eyes. The dragon is green and I don’t feel confident identifying Wizard’s ethnicity, but he has a sort of American-trying-to-sound-slightly-posh-and-English accent.
2. Mouk: Touring the World [Male Leads]
Mouk’s a slightly odd mix of a show, originating in France, based on books. Mouk and his friend Chavapa travel the world having adventures in different lands, in a way that expands kids’ understanding of world geography, customs and culture, and zoological diversity.
Its two leads are both male, so it doesn’t pass the Maisy Test, but as part of an otherwise balanced library, it makes a good contribution.
Gender Balance: The two leads are both boys – though it is, frankly, hard to tell.
Gender Freedom: They meet a range of male and female characters in their travels.
Gender Safety: They’re animated animals with no obvious gender markers.
Social Justice and Equality: Exploring the world is a great thing for progressive values! Common Sense Media rates it very highly for positive messages, educational value and role models, as Mouk and Chavapa are curious and kind, and have respectful, joyful interactions with characters from all kinds of places.
3. Wild Kratts: Biology and Adventure [Male Leads]
If my son could watch only one show for the rest of his life, he would probably choose Wild Kratts. For three reasons it doesn’t quite make it into my category of unqualified recommendations: 1) It only narrowly passes The Maisy Test; 2) the characters are all adults, which (in this case at least) makes it less suitable for younger kids; 3) there are ‘bad guys’ who our heroes have to thwart – they’re usually trying to kill endangered animals and use them for fashion or gourmanderie, so again, this pitches the show a bit older; and 4) the sibling banter and other teasing between characters is just on the edge of what I find acceptable in a kids’ show. We have had to do a lot of unpacking of this stuff with our little guy.
So why bother at all? This show has had such a big impact on my little guy’s understanding of biology and ecology that it deserves a mention, and plenty of families will find it appropriate for their kids.
Gender Balance: Wild Kratts only narrowly squeaks in on this front. The two central characters are Chris and Martin Kratt, based on real-life scientist brothers who have made a range of kids’ science shows. In this one they’ve turned themselves into cartoon characters, and it can’t be ignored that they are both white males.
The characters Chris and Martin are the core of the show, but they are part of a group of five, who all get their own fleshed-out characterisation. Aviva, a super-smart woman of colour, is the inventor/engineer who makes all the amazing devices the team use to save animals. Koki, another woman of colour – she’s African American – is the computer expert of the team. Another white male is the slightly anxious pilot.
One very good thing, though, that gives Wild Kratts just enough points to pass, is that the animals – there’s a different species featured each episode – are female as often as they are male, which is decidedly not true in most kids’ media, where unnamed animals are usually assumed to be male.
Gender Freedom: Anyone can do anything. The techies are women, and both male and female characters are a mix of able and flawed.
Gender Safety: The characters are all adults, with adult figures and adult attitudes. I wouldn’t recommend this show for young children, for that reason – and there aren’t usually any children in it.
Social Justice and Equality: There’s racial diversity, and a central concern for ecological conservation and learning. The characters also travel all around the world, exploring different environments and ecosystems.
4. Beat Bugs: Animated Beatles Musicals, Of Course [Male and Female Ensemble]
This is a pretty new show on Netflix, created by an Australian Beatles fan.
Its gimmick is that there are Beatles songs woven into the stories. So far they seem to be wedged in with a crowbar and the storylines aren’t very interesting, but it’s pleasant to have on in the background if you like the Beatles! I’m not including this in the ‘highly recommended’ section simply because the story content isn’t that great. Just kind of bland.
Gender Balance: The core cast of five insects includes a female leader, a male scientist, a male adventurer, an enthusiastic female toddler and a male comic (watch the featurette below for an introduction to the characters), though I had a hard time telling the genders of the characters just by watching.
Gender Freedom: I haven’t spotted gender restrictions so far but it’s early days. Let me know if you’ve watched more! I find the characters quite clichéd in other ways though, like the ‘brainy one’ who stutters timidly while using big words. It kind of feels like it’s not just the music that was written in the 1960s.
Gender Safety: No eyelashes or adults waists for the female leads – hurrah! The guest characters might be a bit more gendered.
Social Justice and Equality: Ethnicity isn’t obvious in the insect-based characters. Commonsense media rates it highly for positive messages.
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And some related posts you might be interested in:
13 TV shows with strong female leads (for adults)
My feminist parenting humiliation (for laughs)