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Five-Minute Time Out: Word Girl. The story behind TV's smartest superhero (and her hilarious villains) in the Babble.com interview.

The first time we saw Word Girl we were hooked. How could you not love a fifth-grade superhero with a monkey sidekick named Captain Huggy Face? A superhero who fights villains like The Butcher, who butchers the English language, hurls meat at his enemies by saying things like “Sausage Cyclone!”, tries to steal the priceless Hoboken Diamond and can be rendered powerless by tofu?

The PBS show, which enters its second season this fall, won a daytime Emmy in 2008 for outstanding writing in animation. It’s filled with quirky extras like an unseen narrator who banters with Word Girl. At the end of each show there is a James Bond “Q”-style peek at “Word Girl gadgetry.” The animation has a cool retro comic book feel. Did I mention the monkey? He break-dances at the end of each show. Can you tell I’m a little obsessed?

When it came time to chat with Word Girl creator Dorthea Gillim, I was like one of those Trekkie dorks who accost William Shatner at the airport Marriott. She talked about why she made Word Girl “ethnically ambiguous,” the importance of a good vocabulary, and what she took from The Simpsons. – Jennifer V. Hughes

I have to admit something. We are totally obsessed with Word Girl in my house. And by “we” I mean my five-year-old daughter, but also me and my husband. He actually watches it when she’s not home. We tape it every day.

[Laughs] Like tape, as in VHS?

Yeah, we’re pretty lame. Do you get a lot of response from grown-ups? Or are we just weird?

You’re in very good company. I must say that I’m not at all surprised and I’m very happy to see that my hunch worked out – build it and they will come. This was always, in my mind, a family show. It’s a kids’ show, but it’s one that I would want to watch.

How did you come up with the idea for Word Girl?

I trace the origins back to my love of language, which started when I was in ninth grade and asked for a dictionary for Christmas. Not just any dictionary; it had to be the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. I was the kid who marked all the words I looked up. I’ve always aspired to be eloquent and articulate, because I come from a family of great orators and I never felt like I measured up. I thought it would be cool if eloquence was a super power. I knew I wanted to create a new character for kids. I wanted it to be a girl and I wanted her to be ethnically ambiguous so all kids could identify with her. She has all the powers of Superman, but then she’s got eloquence too.

You have the best villains. I mean, Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy who has a sandwich-shaped head, shoots mustard at people, lives in his mom’s basement and plots to crush City Hall with a Panini press? How do you guys come up with this stuff?

Smoke crack.

Uh . . .

I’m kidding. We work with really super talented writers. Most of our writers don’t come from the world of kids’ television, they come from The Onion, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, Family Guy. They are brilliantly funny.

I also love the fact that the show is smart without being smart-assed. I hate it when my kid watches some show with snotty kids and the next day she’s saying some snotty catch phase. How do you walk that line?

I think it comes down to comic sensibilities. I get put off by mean-spirited humor or cheesy humor or stupid humor. Anyone with half a brain can come up with a catch phrase. To me, it’s also about the sweetness quotient. The Simpsons is a perfect example. It’s full of irreverence, and yet at the end of the day you know that Marge loves Homer. It’s got good values.

I also love how well-rounded the characters are. I love the fact that Becky can kick major robot ass and has an awesome vocabulary but gets all girly over ponies and sucks at art. It seems like so many cartoon characters – especially girls – wind up being flat and one-dimensional, the girly princess or the jock girl or the snob. Do you think that’s true?

Ooooh, yes. I was really tired of the way that girls are represented in cartoons. Part of the reason why that is that cartoons tend to be created by men. 2.jpg “I was really tired of the way that girls are represented in cartoons.” I was very aware of that and I wanted to create more believable characters, like [Word Girl’s mother] Mrs. Botsford. She’s the district attorney. Mr. Botsford is the stay-at-home dad.

Conventional wisdom is that girls will watch shows or read books with boy leads but boys won’t watch if the girl is the hero. Has that been the case for Word Girl?

That certainly was a question will boys watch a show called Word Girl? We’ve done some focus group testing and the answer is that boys like the show equally. The boys say their favorite character is Captain Huggy Face or one of the evil villains. We think what hooks boys in is that it’s action-packed.

I like that it’s kind of subversively feminist, like little boys will watch it and think, “Hmm . . . maybe girls aren’t so bad after all.”

Thank you! That’s the goal!

What shows did you like watching when you were a kid?

The ones that informed Word Girl were Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny and The Electric Company. They didn’t distinguish between adult humor and kid humor it was just funny. There has been a trend recently to strip away adult humor and in my opinion that has dumbed down television and underestimated what kids are capable of.

You said you wanted the characters to be ethnically ambiguous. Why?

Because minorities are underrepresented on television and because in terms of vocabulary, there is a huge gap between high-income and low-income kids, and many low-income kids come from minority families. I really wanted to create as universal a role model as possible. I’ve heard a lot of people assume different ethnicities for her: white, black, Hispanic, Indian. But we also pride ourselves on making the extras in the cartoon diverse too. We wanted to present a world as diverse as the world we live in.

So why vocabulary?

Vocabulary is a hot topic now in education because vocabulary is the bedrock of literacy. If you don’t know a word and you encounter it in a text book, math book or science book, your comprehension is compromised. 3.jpg “I’ve heard a lot of people assume different ethnicities for her: white, black, Hispanic, Indian.” If your comprehension is not strong, your learning success is not strong. It has a huge impact down the line.

Well, the show did prompt my five-year-old to use the words “dazzling”and “sweltering” in a sentence.

Oh, fantastic! I love to hear those examples. She did it on her own, put it in context?

We got into the car one day and she said, “Mommy, it’s sweltering in here.”

Oh, that’s so great! A lot of people were questioning whether the words were too big for kids, but we’ve been hearing anecdotes about two-, three-, and four-year-olds using big words. I have a friend whose four-year-old pooped in the potty and apparently it was quite big. Mom commented on that and the daughter says, “I know, I’m flabbergasted!” Her mom said, “Where did you learn that?” and the kid said “Word Girl!”

Article Posted 7 years Ago
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