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TV Producers Say Boys Won’t Watch Girl Heroines But They Couldn’t Be More Wrong

My son, watching Peppa Pig while wearing his favorite purple Dora nightgown.

My son, watching Peppa Pig while wearing his favorite purple Dora nightgown.

An unexpected part of parenting toddlers so far has been fighting gender stereotypes.

Even though the whole pink vs. blue thing was widespread during my pregnancy and their babyhood – think picking out nursery decorations and baby clothes; pink or blue – it never occurred to me that I would spend so much time either convincing my children that a certain color isn’t a “boy color” or that a certain toy isn’t a “girl toy” or that boys can have long hair if they want and girls can sport short hair.

They aren’t born that way, you know. It comes from movies, TV, toys and people who offer unsolicited advice on what boys and girls should and shouldn’t like.

Maybe I’m doing a good job shielding them but so far my 3-year-old son seems mostly unconcerned about gender when it comes to the TV shows he watches with his 5-year old sister. They’ve loved the same things at the same time. First came Dora The Explorer, Then Diego, after that we had a very brief foray into Jake and the Never Land Pirates territory. They both showed a small interest in Doc McStuffins before latching on to Peppa Pig. Peppa has been a mainstay in our home, with both kids even adopting adorable British intonations (Mummy, it’s a bit cold outside) until recently when they discovered Paw Patrol.

All of this flies directly in the face of what TV producers traditionally believe about our children. As Libby Copeland writes for Slate.com, “Supposedly, girls will watch so-called boy’s content, with male leads and action-packed adventures, but boys won’t watch girls’ shows, starring girl protagonists and girl-friendly storylines. And research suggests that this assumption still influences the choices of those making children’s fare.”

According to Stacy Smith, a USC communications professor who surveyed people who make G, PG, and PG-13 movies, the belief that “girls will watch stories about boys, but boys won’t watch stories about girls was “almost axiomatic” among interviewees. Dafna Lemish, a children’s media expert at Southern Illinois University, said most of the 135 American and international children’s TV creators she surveyed engaged in a kind of cultural buck-passing, claiming they themselves didn’t themselves believe the conventional wisdom, but everyone else did.”

I don’t believe the conventional “wisdom” for a second. Take a look at the photo of my children up there. That’s my daughter, Violet, and my son, Henry, wearing his favorite purple Dora nightgown while watching Peppa the Pig. Doesn’t it follow that the fact that for so long there weren’t any girl heroines to even watch would play a large role in what children watch? So of course girls would watch boy programming. But create solid programming featuring cool, funny girl characters (Dora, Peppa, Sofia, Doc McStuffins) and kids will watch what’s good, regardless of gender nonsense.

When I was growing up Smurfette, Velma, Daphne and Judy Jetson were about the only characters I could relate to. And none of those characters are what I’d call a hero except maybe Velma. And Velma, with her Pepperpmint Patty hair, glasses, and frumpy sweater isn’t exactly inspiring little girls to run out in search of a Velma costume for Halloween. It’s what has been called the “Smurfette Principle,” a term used to describe children’s TV and movies that offer just one, wholly stereotyped female in a vast sea of male characters. Even though it feels like we’ve come a long way, Professor Smith says that the data showing about one female with a speaking part for every two males has been stagnant for more than twenty years.

It’s a vicious circle. Those making the programs our children watch don’t stray from their belief in the formula used to make shows twenty years ago yet studies show that our children – children being raised during a time when parents like me try to do away with gender stereotypes – will watch programming that is good, regardless of whether the hero or heroine matches their gender.

Take the popular Disney cartoon Sofia the First, a program about a princess. Disney Junior exec Nancy Kanter says the 2- to 5-year-olds who watch Sofia the First are 42 percent boys. Half of the kids watching Sofia’s adventures are boys. Maybe that’s because Sofia doesn’t necessarily fall into the typical princess stereotype aimed at girls: it showcases Sofia engaged in various adventures. Go figure. Feature a cool character that doesn’t perpetuate a gender stereotype and all kids tune in.

Doc McStuffins is another Disney example of a program whose fans are almost equally male and female. Even though creators expected the show to skew female because the lead character is a girl, the show’s audience within the 2- to 5-year-old demographic has turned out to be 47 percent boys.

Kanter, who has overseen research with viewers, says that it was Doc’s character that pulled boys in. “Across the board, what boys were relating to, in addition to what girls were relating to, was not the fact that Doc was a girl and that she had pretty polka-dot pants on, it was her character specifically, the fact that she was “kind and nice and she took care of her friends. That was somewhat surprising because I think we sometimes don’t give boys enough credit for having this soft emotional core, especially at this age.”

What a shame. Any mother of a sweet, little boy knows that boys often display more emotional depth than their sisters. My Henry constantly displays a loving, tender side that his sister doesn’t reveal as often. That’s not to say that boys or girls are more emotional, just that each individual has their own personality that usually gets destroyed fairly early by society’s gender expectations. In other words, it’s not the children who have the gender bias, it’s us. Our kids are simply taking their cues from us and the programming we provide for them.

Granted, it’s slowly starting to change. Disney is considering creating a Doc McStuffins medical kit in traditional boys colors in addition to the sparkly purple one currently on shelves – but even that is perpetuating a gender stereotype, is it not? Purple is a “girls’ color.” But why do our 2 and 3-year-old boys think purple is a girl color? That’s the larger question.

We need to turn it all around and it starts with us as parents.  As Copeland notes on Slate, the less content creators make a big deal of gender, the less it seems to matter to the kids themselves.”

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