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!):
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?
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!
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 freedom: a 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 safety: a 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 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 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 and 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?
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:
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:
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)