Shaping a Childhood: Gender Inequality in Children’s TV

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It seems that the makers of children’s television programs have a lot to answer for. As one of the main sources of education for impressionable youngsters, it saddens me to see that there is such a one-sided representation of gender. A vast majority of the main roles in programs for children are dominated by male characters with many of the female characters playing submissive or ‘traditional roles’. We are facing quite a significant problem with the way gender roles and tropes are portrayed to the next generation, giving them a very narrow and potentially endangering view of the way in which the world works.

How children learn about, or acquire gender roles has become an increasingly popular area of discourse. Indeed, with the increasing amount of television that children are watching, one might be concerned as to whether or not television plays any part in the concepts that children grow up with so far as gender roles are concerned. If television is found to influence children’s concepts of gender, then not only does it reflect upon the influence that television might have in other areas, but it may also have implications for the children in so far as what they come to expect as the norm, and the types of behaviour and attitudes they exhibit and expect others to.

I thought back to the shows that I used to watch as a child – Pokemon, The Powerpuff Girls, Sailor Moon – the latter of the two were the most disconcerting of all to unpack, but I’ll begin with Pokemon.

The show tells the story of a young boy from Pallet Town named Ash who inextricably lives in a world filled with Pokemon just waiting to be captured (‘to catch them is my real test’), trained (‘to train them is my cause’) and sent in to battle until one is the victor (yes, I can recite the entire intro). What’s interesting to go back and look at, however, is the way in which female characters are represented in the show. The main female role belongs to Misty. Sure she’s a domineering character that battles like the rest of them but her entire existence on the show revolves around submissively following Ash on his seemingly never-ending goal towards obtaining every gym badge this “pokeverse” has to offer. Other characters like Nurse Joy and Office Jenny, who never age or wear anything other than their uniforms, simply play the unattainable love interest for the dopey Brock character. Here’s a quick example of how the episodes generally portray this. The show sexualises and objectifies women, as well as suggesting that the natural role for girls is to succumb to the needs of their male counterparts and traverse the world until he’s finally become master of the universe (or something like that).

Next up we have The Powerpuff Girls. The premise of this animated show was that three, crime-fighting sisters went about their daily lives doing normal kid things until suddenly a call came through from the Mayor requiring their urgent help in defeating yet another bad guy terrorising Townsville. There are so many things to discuss with this one, but I’ll focus on the images presented by the three girls themselves. There is the glaringly obvious fact that all three of these characters are Caucasian girls. Furthermore two of the characters (Blossom and Bubbles) are a stark contract to the third (Buttercup). The former two represent the Aryan ideal of fair hair, big eyes and extremely well behaved. The latter has black hair and is stubborn and rude. Being the butch tomboy of the three makes her the black sheep of the family, and the show usually goes out of it’s way to make this apparent – she is the first to jump to action but invariably ends up following the rule of either Blossom or Bubbles. Two issues here, the first being that again we’re giving girls a submissive view of themselves – the girls are still ruled by their “father” The Professor and are constantly required to be at the call of the inept Mayor – the second is that there seems to be a commentary on societal ideals of what is perfect or desirable in girls – the fair skin, hair and big eyes… These views are not at all accurate and are warping the perceptions of youth on what should be socially acceptable.

Finally I’ll move to Sailor Moon. My favourite show of the three. In fact I can still admit to being a massive fan girl of the series, so it came as a big surprise to me that the girls that I idolised as a child still portrayed the huge gender inequalities in kids programming. But isn’t Sailor Moon herself supposed to represent female empowerment? She’s the lead of a television show, she can fight like the best of them and she’s the leader of an all-girl “crime-fighting” group, so how can that be linked to gender issues? We discussed in class today that there is this tendency to presume that shows centred on female leads must be indications of female empowerment and control, however this is generally illusory and after unpacking the show further we find that each of the leads tends to come back to her ‘stereotypical’ quest for the perfect man/love. In this case, our focus is always brought back to the enigmatic Tuxedo Mask. Is this who we envision as the “champion of justice“?

I’m sure there are many who will argue that I’m reading too much in to this and that the minds of the children consuming these programs are not yet developed enough to see the underlying subtext they hold. However children use these shows as one of their sources of information about the world around them. Even if the gender stereotyping is subliminal, although in the above cases we can see it’s much more pertinent, it is still there and is still being absorbed by the viewers – children. If we are to continue to inaccurately portray the genders in children’s television then we must deal with the consequences that may arise – a misogynistic and unrealistic worldview.

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