Lately, Hollywood has been making more than a cursory effort to not only include women and girls in movies meant for children but give them leading roles, and producers of children’s television have frequently made the conscious decision to feature girls and minorities instead of white boys or male anthropomorphic animals. Now, we have Dora the Explorer, Ni Hao, Kai Lan, and Frozen. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back.
The amount of attention movies and shows like this get purely for featuring a female lead or two seems to me to say, “Look! We have one or two options for girls! Our work here is done. We have satisfied our diversity requirement.” And what’s crazy is that, in relative terms, one or two kids’ movies or shows featuring a female lead seems like so much to us that we can actually convince ourselves that it’s fair now, and that the studios have satisfied their gender equality requirement. I believed that (in regards to kids programming), until recently. Didn’t you pat yourself on the back just a moment ago? Just a little bit?
Let’s do some quick statistical sampling, just to see what the numbers really look like, starting with shows for our youngest. There are a lot of lists out there–top rated shows for toddlers, best shows for toddlers, most educational shows for toddlers, etc., etc. I am going to choose the first ten entries from Common Sense Media’s “Best Preschool TV” list.
- Harry the Bunny
- Jack’s Big Music Show
- Numbers Around the Globe
- Sesame Street
- Timmy Time
- Angelina Ballerina
- Bubble Guppies
- Busytown Mysteries
- The Busy World of Richard Scarry
So, here we have six of ten shows that focus on a male character. The remainder offer a combination of male and female characters driving the show, and then there’s Angelina Ballerina, a mouse that wants to be a prima ballerina. We’ll leave that there for now, marked with one very raised eyebrow.
Next, let’s look at a list of shows for older kids. Again, this list is from Common Sense Media, not to pick on them but because they do seem thorough, and I’m aiming for some consistency here.
- Danger Mouse
- Horrid Henry
- Inspector Gadget
- Odd Squad
- The Adventures of Puss in Boots
- Bad Hair Day
- Pants on Fire
- Super 4
- Turbo Fast
In this group, we have eight shows (and some TV movies) featuring a male protagonist. The remaining two are The Odd Squad, which has a mix of boys and girls using science to solve problems, and Bad Hair Day, a movie about a girl whose ambition is to…to become prom queen…and…and who wakes up with terrible hair on the day of prom (it hurt me to type that). Don’t worry, though, she’s good with computers, and she learns something about caring what people think, or something.
Clearly, there’s some progress to be made in kids shows. If we ignore quality of programming, the number of secondary characters that are female, and subjective factors, and just focus on the numbers, we have 60% of preschool shows featuring a male lead against 10% featuring a female lead, and 80% of kids shows featuring a male lead against 10% featuring a female lead. This is just from two lists, but I can assure you that it’s similar, no matter what list you’re looking at–I sampled many.
Surely movies are better, though. I mean, we have Frozen, which has TWO female leads, and NEITHER ONE gets married! So, again using statistical sampling, let’s look at Disney movies over the past two decades.
Between 2000 and 2010, Disney and its partners made 35 animated films for kids. Eight of them featured a female protagonist (Lilo & Stitch, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Home on the Range, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, The Princess and the Frog). That is nearly 25%!
Between 2010 and 2015, Disney and its partners made 17 animated films for kids, 4 of which featured a female protagonist (Tangled, Brave, Frozen, Inside Out). Again, nearly 25%!
As with the lists I chose above, this is not to pick on Disney. This is to point out that we are not even close to providing girls with characters with whom they can identify, who have positive traits apart from good looks and housekeeping ability, at the same level that we provide boys with characters like them. The amount of conversation around each new movie or show featuring a female protagonist makes enough noise that it seems like the problem is being addressed, but, statistically speaking, it is not–at least not adequately–and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the female leads still often lack agency, with male secondary characters still controlling plot advancement.
And that’s the real problem. Starting when we’re barely able to make memories–at two years old–we see that boys make things happen. Boys drive the story. All action revolves around boys. We internalize this, so that when we are older and thinking of stories on our own, we think of men as our main characters, even if we are not men. We think of men as the main characters in our own lives.
This is not only the fault of Disney, or PBS, or Nickelodeon. It’s a problem that comes from our earliest experiences and continues throughout our formative and adult years. The stories I read to my daughter before bed? The main characters are male. The shows she likes to watch? The main characters are male. The books on my own bookshelf now? Mostly written by men, about men, or about women in pursuit of men. My first attempt at writing my own story starred a male protagonist (a cat, but still…). I’m going to make a change, following this self-examination, so that my daughter doesn’t have to sit in a cultural studies class in order to realize that she’s been programmed to be a spectator in her own life.
Key to fixing this at a broader level, though, is recognizing that just because we have Frozen, and Brave, and Dora (which, I notice, didn’t make those lists), does not mean that our work is over, or even that we’ve talked this to death. We have not–and we should keep talking about it until that “nearly 25%” reaches 50%, and that 50% features girls making decisions and driving the story, and generally being as awesome as we know all (or at least most) children are. I want to keep talking until a Google search of “girls in movies” returns mostly feminist criticism, instead of a list of the 10 hottest stoner girls in movies.
So, on this women’s equality day, let’s keep the conversation going until it’s no longer remarkable or laudable that there is a female lead; it’s normal and expected.