Tuned In

Is Kids' TV Sexist?

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Handy Manny: tool of the patriarchy? / Disney Channel

Handy Manny: tool of the patriarchy? / Disney Channel

Is iCarly a good role model for girls? Is JONAS a weapon of male oppression? Will Handy Manny ever learn that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house

These questions and more are addressed by the organization TrueChild, which has posted a set of report cards analyzing how the two genders are represented in TV shows aimed at preschoolers and school-age kids respectively. They found that only a third of lead characters on kids’ shows are girls, and the situation gets worse as the audience gets older. But they also make some subjective judgments about content that are, at least, arguable. 

The findings in full are here. My findings on the findings—including a defense of the gender modeling of The Backyardigans—after the jump. (Warning: I have taken women’s-lit classes and watched an unhealthy amount of Noggin): 

* In general, shows aimed at older kids and tweens score much worse on gender stereotyping. Because of the age of my own kids, I’m more intimately familiar with shows for younger kids, but that rings true. With that age group, TV mostly abandons any pretense of high-minded programming purposes and gives the market what the market rewards—which tends to be girly girls and aggressive boys. (There’s also less of an assumption by programmers that older boys and girls will watch the same shows as each other.)  

* Like such studies often do, the report is stronger on math than on content analysis. That’s understandable: counting boys and girls is simple math; analyzing narratives is subjective and complicated. But it’s the subjective, complicated stuff that matters most. Case in point: The Backyardigans, which gets a C+. It’s undeniable that there are three lead boys and two lead girls. But the character descriptions make me doubt if the analyst has watched the same show as I have. (Again, and again, and…)

For starters: “Uniqua — one of the two female characters — is a pink creature. Pablo, the blue male penguin, is the primary leader on the show and he is the one who is coming up with all of the ideas.” What? Pablo is a doormat! He’s a neurotic, nervous ball of phobias, while Uniqua–who’s almost always the confident, assertive, masterful character–pretty much dominates the fantasies. (On the other hand, the report doesn’t mention a more-legitimate criticism, which is that Tasha is too often the bossy, drama-princess character.) And the show takes more pains than most to make sure the boy and girl characters play a variety of roles. But then I’ve already admitted I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time deconstructing The Backyardigans

* And about that pink and blue thing… OK. Maybe it’s facile stereotyping, maybe it’s the kind of visual shorthand animators rely on. But this kind of focus makes for a pretty shallow analysis, in which any gender distinctions are automatically bad, and which can’t account for using recognizable tropes and subverting them. The study doesn’t rate The Powerpuff Girls, but I can’t imagine it would have scored well: the girls were called Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup and drawn in pastels! But it was also probably the most assertively feminist kids’ show of the past decade. 

* On the other hand, I thought the study went too easy on Maya and Miguel, which I remember as being much worse about casting Maya as a girly girl clotheshorse. So, go figure. Maybe the show’s gotten better. 

* Dora the Explorer gets an A for gender balance. Dora has one lead character. She is a girl, named Dora, an explorer. Though she is abetted by boys, Boots (as far as I can tell, a mentally challenged monkey) and Map (a map), I cannot quite explain this. Nor, from the boy side, the corresponding B- for Go, Diego, Go! (which puzzlingly gets an A overall despite 4 Bs out of 6 composite grades). Now, I think TrueChild is right to say that both shows set good, nonstereotypical examples, but it’s this sort of thing that makes the grading system, and definition of “balance,” puzzling. 

* While we’re on the subject of grades, Sean Gregory—my TIME colleague and father of a three-year-old, who pointed me to the study—notes: “Thank God they didn’t grade the Wiggles. Four male lead characters, female backup dancers . . .automatic F.” On the other hand, Dorothy the Dinosaur is fierce. She eats roses. 

* Finally, I’m probably biased, not just as a male but as the father of two boys. But I wish the study paid more than lip service to the idea that there are negative stereotypes about boys too. I submit to you Wow! Wow!  Wubbzy. The authors, rightly, note that Widget breaks cliches, as a girl who’s a whiz with tools; and that Daizy literally inhabits one, as a girl who lives in a flower-shaped house. But it has no problem with Walden, who is a complete male stereotype as a wimpy, tie-wearing, four-eyed braniac.

Now, obviously it’s easy to pick apart a study like this; in a way I guess that’s part of the point. Trying to quantify something subjective like fictional characterizations inevitably oversimplifies it; but that doesn’t change the fact that stereotypes do matter, or that parents should think about them. If you’re a parent who obsessively analyzes kids’ TV as much as I do, I encourage you to check the study out. (And if you want, log on to the group’s tweetchat tonight at 7:30; login with a Twitter ID at Tweetchat to participate.)

How do you feel your own kids’ TV measures up? And why do you hate women, Chowder?