Where are all the cartoon women?
When I was six years old I had some serious beef with TV. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Every weekday I watched cartoons after school and I would get a funny sinking feeling in my stomach. Eventually I worked out what was wrong: almost all the cartoons were about boys. If there were girls in the cartoons they were either: annoying, jealous, bossy antagonists; a sister or sidekick who constantly needed saving; or someone’s mum. The male characters were funny, heroic and smart. Everyone liked them. They were the hero. I still enjoyed watching those shows but eventually the sinking feeling got so bad I started watching reruns of MASH instead – yeah, times were tough – but at least Major Margaret Houlihan had serious attitude and sass, she was a total Miss Piggy.
Almost twenty years later I started writing for kid’s TV and quickly found almost nothing had changed. Only around 30% of speaking characters in kid’s TV shows are female and that number drops to around 16% for shows aimed at ages seven and up (basically all the most popular cartoons and most of the shows I work on fall into that category). Over the past two years I’ve written for ten kid’s shows, none of them had female protagonists. The main characters were always a boy. To be fair though, on a couple of occasions I worked on buddy-comedies… in which case both the main characters were male. Much better.
I also found out that sinking feeling I used to get has now been well documented. A recent study found that watching TV can lower children’s self esteem. The good news is that viewing TV increases the self confidence of caucasian boys. The bad news is that girls, as well as boys of colour, tend to feel worse about themselves after viewing television (read more here). Thanks TV. PS. don’t even get me started on the lack of racial diversity on TV, that needs a whole column to itself. So, as it turns out, that sinking feeling I used to get watching after school cartoons was most likely my self-confidence taking a swift nose-dive. No wonder, according to the shows I was watching, the most I could hope to be was: annoying, jealous and bossy; a sidekick; or a mum. Big whoop! Time out. Let’s just pause to take a kodak-moment high-five’n Kim Possible, Eliza Thornberry and all the Power Puff Girls… *High-fives*.
Thankfully, I know many people who are constantly pushing to get more female characters into kid’s TV shows. But it can be hard, the pushback is equally consistent. One time I was in a development meeting for a new show where one of the producers was pushing for the main character to be female. The other producer flatly refused, no way, it had to be a guy because: “girls are more willing to watch male characters than boys are willing to watch girls.” A faux-fact everyone quotes but that no one knows the origin of. The producer continued: “Even if a show with female characters manages to get good ratings, like The Power Puff Girls, boys don’t want to buy the merchandise.” Uhhh, yeah because that show is entirely pink and boys are constantly reminded that wearing pink will burn away their skin like a feminine acid, leaving only a womanly sheen of glitter to protect them from harsh winds. Duh.
Nowadays I do what I can to help and there are plenty of others who do likewise. I always push for more female characters where I can and if I’m writing a script I’ll try and make as many guest characters female as possible to even things out. In my spare time I write and illustrate a web comic called, Super Lonely Mutant Girl. I created it because I was desperate to see a badass but equally funny female super hero. I also wanted to see a super hero who was just as flawed as they were heroic, thus her being: super lonely.
I hope one day kid’s television will boast a diverse range of characters and I’m confident we’ll get there soon. To wrap up, How to become a Children’s Television Writer in 601 easy steps, I’d like to leave you with one final step:
Steps 15 through to 601 (Hey, I’m a writer not a counter)
Remember who you’re writing for. Every kid deserves to be the hero of their own show. If they can see it, they can be it.
Follow Charlotte (just not into dark alleys please):
To find out more: http://seejane.org
Cover photo: William Suen
Launch photo: Nic Smith