Gender in Children’s Television (non-nail polish post)

J and I were talking about the Bechdel test the other day and I decided I wanted to blog a bit about it.  It fits the blog’s theme because scrutinizing the role that gender plays in American culture is another thing I like.  What a cop out, I can shoehorn anything in and claim it’s relevant.

Anyway, the Bechdel test is a way create awareness of gender disparity in movies. To pass the test a movie has to meet three criteria:

  1. There are two female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

Also, it should be said that the test isn’t about what makes a good movie good, because many of the movies that fail are excellent. And many of the movies that pass are terrible. It’s more about realizing how few of the movies that are produced pass the test.  My favorite movies consist of many failures:

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Inception
  • The Prestige
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • The Piano
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Sunshine
  • etc…

Plenty of the above movies would make no sense if they passed the test.  Given its setting, would it make sense to have female characters in The Hunt for Red October?  And Brokeback Mountain saw not a single word exchanged between female characters, aside from, “finish your dinner” from mother to daughter.  That said, consider Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  There are two female characters, and both exist as love objects for male characters.  It passes the first rule, but it fails the second.  The Piano also surprisingly fails.  With the mother/daughter dynamic you’d think it would be a winner for sure.  But Ada and Flora’s interactions are by and large about Alisdair and Baines.

The Piano

That’s right, I’m criticizing the dialog of a mute character.

I first read about the test a few months ago and it came up again this weekend when J ran across a reference to it.  It got me thinking about another gender issue that I wanted to air out, and this is as good a place as any.  There’s a trend in children’s television that has become startlingly clear as I’ve experienced it through my childrens’ eyes.  Most kids shows fail the Bechdel test straight out of the gate, because the cast of characters typically only includes one female.  But my observation is less about that and more about how the female characters are portrayed.

Here’s the meat of it:  Girls are, by and large, depicted as the smartest one of the group.  The way it typically plays out is that there’s a group of average boys with one female friend, and she just happens to be a scientist or a math whiz.  You’d think this would make women happy, right?  I mean, how flattering!  But I think there are two concerning messages being conveyed.

  1. Girls: If beauty is not in the offering, intelligence is your price of admission.
  2. Boys: You don’t get to be the super smart ones.  Boys take care of action, girls take care of thinking.

Regarding #1, Let’s take a few examples:

  • Spongebob Squarepants: The most intelligent character is Sandy Cheeks.  I’m also hard pressed to think of an episode where Sandy has any reason to talk to the other female characters (Mrs. Puff and Pearl).
  • Scooby Doo: the most intelligent character is Velma.  Daphne’s price of admission is beauty.
  • Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: The most intelligent character in the extended cast is Professor von Drake.  The most intelligent core character is Daisy Duck.  Cuteness is Minnie’s price of admission.
  • Adventure Time: Princess Bubblegum is a scientist, yo.  Finn?  He’s terrible at math.
  • Thomas the Train: This is the one that really got me thinking about this issue.  The theme song names all of the core train characters, only one of which is female.  Thomas is the cheeky one, James is vain but lots of fun, Percy pulls the mail on time, Gordon thunders down the line.  And Emily?  Emily really knows her stuff.  It should be said that Emily appears in just a couple of episodes, and as written she grapples with issues with similar personality to the male characters.  I watched one yesterday where she needed to chug up a hill and aside from the voice it could have been any other train.  But there she is, with a callout in the theme song, as the smart one.
  • The Wiggles: Now the primary female character, Dorothy the Dinosaur, isn’t particularly intelligent.  But after countless hours watching this show (in great agony, I might add) I realized there’s really only particularly intelligent character.  The doctors.  A doctor showed up when Greg lost his sense of humor and when Anthony lost his appetite.  Both times portrayed by a woman.  Two doctors, two women.  CONSPIRACY?  Okay this one might be a stretch.
The Wiggles' Dr Verygood

The Wiggles’ Dr Verygood

Now take a look at the above list of shows and consider the male protagonists.  If you were to describe them, the words would likely be neither gender-specific, nor intelligence-based.  The male characters aren’t justified by their characteristics, they tend to be pretty average in intelligence and silly/happy/funny/exciting.  And the characters are uniquely identifiable.  Spongebob and Shaggy and Mickey Mouse are individuals.  The science-minded, math whiz girls are in many ways weirdly similar across the range of programs.

You know which show doesn’t do this?  Yo Gabba Gabba.  Yo Gabba Gabba has two female characters, Toodee and Foofa.  And as much as the meta-hipster in me wants to reject this ultimate hipster show, i have to admit I’m impressed.  Foofa is a girly girl character, but realistically so.  She’s no less intelligent or vocal than the others, she just happens to like pretty things.  And that’s great!  Lots of girls like pretty things.  The goal isn’t for girls to not be girly.  It’s for girls not to be obligated to fulfill a standard set of behavioral expectations.

The balance comes from Toodee, who frequently has scenes with Foofa that have nothing to do with being girls or liking boys.  Toodee is an active, energetic girl, without any of the cliche “tom boy” trappings.  And the best part?  She’s no smarter than the others.  There’s no price of admission for her character.  She’s not lessened by not being girly and cutesy-poo.  And by the same token, Foofa isn’t less respectable because she is cutesy-poo.  They reside at different points on the behavioral spectrum and are equally valued.  Better still, the boy characters don’t exist in contrast with the girl characters.  They coexist on a similar spectrum.  It’s marvelous, and strangely unique in its ability to portray gender so fairly.  The most fanciful show on TV has the most realistic portrayal of the spectrum of gender behavior?  WEIRD.  For the record, most Henson properties like Sesame Street and The Muppets also do very well.

Yo Gabba Gabba

Foofa in pink, Toodie in blue.

Regarding concern #2 above, why can’t boys be the smart ones?  Sure, there are smart boys all over children’s shows.  It should be noted that the smart boys are rarely the protagonists.  When they do exist, they’re most frequently depicted as socially awkward nerds, complete with glasses and whining, whinging voice.  Even better, If the smart character isn’t a nerd, he’s usually an ethnic stereotype or minority.  Intelligence can be the price of admission for non-white males, too. Who is the super-intelligent one on Fairly Oddparents?  A.J.  But in ensemble casts with both male and female characters, the smart one will almost always be the girl.  My favorite example is Adventure Time, because I think they do it consciously.  The savvy writing makes it clear that this dynamic is understood and lampoonable (that’s a perfectly cromulent word).  Finn is barely literate, and he’d rather charge into danger with sword waving than think through a solution.  Princess Bubblegum attends symposiums.

The best example is the episode Five Short Graybles.  In one storyline, Finn and Jake slingshot themselves across the landscape to land the ultimate bro high-five.  In another storyline, Princess Bubblegum splits atoms and invents a transporter, all in an effort to make the ultimate sandwich (the fact that she’s making a sandwich further emphasizes the conscious parody of gender depictions).  While as an adult I appreciate the not-so-subtle play on gender stereotypes, kids aren’t nearly savvy enough to grasp the satire.  And the message to kids, who see the world more literally, is that boys are not inherently smart.  They don’t have to be, they don’t want to be.  It’s not a desirable, default characteristic.  It’s a characteristic that belongs to other, less-identifiable characters like socially stunted nerds or girls.  Let’s look at the Science Dance episode:

I’m sure this all sounds like I’m saying everything is terrible and we should all write our congressmen in protest.  That’s not what I’m saying.  This isn’t an alarmist thing, it’s like another Bechdel Test.  It’s something to be aware of when watching TV, especially children’s TV.  If I had to come up with a children’s entertainment parallel to the Bechdel Test, it would have the following criteria:

A Children’s TV Show passes the Smapte Test if:

  1. It has more than 1 female character.
  2. The female characters don’t occupy opposite sides of the “pretty vs. intelligent” dichotomy
  3. There is an intelligent male character who is not a “geek” or minority.

I’m sure this is a well-documented phenomenon and I’m not the only one who has observed it.  It’s something I’ve been nominally aware of, but never really scrutinized until I had two boys on the receiving end of the message.  The next time you’re watching TV, pause on Nickelodeon or Disney or Sprout and find the female characters.  Do they pass the Smapte Test?  In my experience, the majority don’t.

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About Smapte

I crochet. I crochet a lot. My speciality is amigurumi dolls based on pop culture entertainment, such as LOST, Star Trek, Mad Men and Firefly. I also crochet beanie hats with food items on them such as pancakes, sushi, burgers, spaghetti, or whatever sounds hat-worthy. Visit me at ThatThingILike.wordpress.com or Xanadoodle.wordpress.com.

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Misc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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