Children's Television Part II - The Gender Decision

This is the second part in a series on Children's Television. Read Part I here.

I think back to Connie and I's intentions with television and Joni and remember the idea that she wouldn't watch too much of it. That's still true - we try and limit it. But the issue is that with a second child - Etta, who has decided that sitting around on the floor doing nothing is for chumps, much like Joni did - time to have a break is difficult. Television, then, is something that one needs to use sparingly and correctly. Watching and sharing some of the Disney classics with her is a fun experience, but it's also important to make sure that the shows aren't just on constantly.

There is a second choice all parents have to make - what is the right television shows for your child to watch. One of my colleagues once said that he loved having a Amazon Fire TV Stick as he could pop on a Peppa Pig channel from YouTube that had three hours of the show repeated, and he could forget about it. We've actually not done this - apart from the fact that YouTube is an unknown quantity, I read an incredible article a few months back about procedurally generated children's television spiked amongst real shows, and it greatly worried me.

Joni is a kid that has not really been exposed to adverts in her life. With our use of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, downloads and CBeebies, the BBC's own children's television channel for "pre-School" kids. When we were in Canada Connie was amazed to find Family Jr, a channel free of adverts (kind of, we'll come to that in a different blog post at some point) and one that had a few of our big hitters - Teletubbies, Twirlywoos, etc, amongst new favourites that Joni loves to this day, such as Justin Time.

This means that if we carefully select the channels and shows she watches, she will never see anything we don't already know well. For example, Connie and I were intrigued by My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic at first as we knew it was a "big deal". When we watched it, it seemed to... tween for our liking. But later on, we let Joni watch it and now she's got all six Ponies as toys and it's actually an example of a well done children's television show for many reasons.

I'll explore the concept of curating in an another post. This series is going to become quite big.

The reason My Little Pony was so good in my mind was one simple fact - all the main characters are girls. Yes, ponies of course, but strong independent girls that don't all look like girls. For example, take Joni's early favourite - Rainbow Dash, pictured below - who is coded and coloured to a male style, she's the wildest and most independent of the entire crew. There is of course a pink one, and others that love parties and jewellery and stuff like that, but the other main ones includes a Southern US voiced one who works on apple farms.

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What the show does is presenting being a girl as... normal. The funny thing is just how badly other shows do this, and when you start to look at many of the shows you realise they are coding girls and boys so strongly into their "roles" as defined by either the producers and writers, or society at large.

One of the biggest problems with the Family Jr channel was this issue - shows were mostly "for boys" and "for girls" - what I mean is the boy shows had action and adventure, and the girls shows were... well, Strawberry Shortcake.

It's a pink and fluffy show with a great message I'm sure, but the presentation was utterly at odds with an inclusive idea of what makes a girl a girl. It's also something that is done to others; Sofia the First is another Princess show with some agency to the character, but the presentation isn't very good. Now, the problem with me saying that is that there will always be girly and boyish shows because that's a target market. I am not saying all shows need to be gender fluid or gender neutral - there's markets for all of those shows, obviously, and markets for all the toys as well.

The problem I have is when you've got a show that follows my previous post's Thunderbird Blueprint where a team exists - and you've got a gender imbalanced team. Take Go Jetters, where there are four kids at the "Go Jetter Academy", tutored by a male-voiced Unicorn. There are three boys and one girl. Or Paw Patrol, where out of the six pups, one was a girl (dressed in pink because of course). They added a female pup in the second season, which was good, but since have added another male pup.  Same for Thomas the Tank Engine, who when I was kid had almost zero female characters, save for additions of Mavis and Daisy, and all the carriages who were pulled by male engines - talk about a coded embedded patriarchy.

I don't want to come across as someone who thinks all girls and boys shouldn't be brought up in a way that helps them identify themselves - the issue is that when you have a show that has 25% or less of the main characters as female you end up with an implied subordination of them by it seeming like they aren't as important as the males. That's why My Little Pony is so refreshing as it's about a group of girls and is decidedly not obviously "girly", despite also featuring that as well, as a celebration of sorts.

I've seen it a lot with Disney movies who used to be coded in the same way - Aladdin springs to mind as a movie which has a male lead and a Princess that is used as a damsel in distress. Frozen and Tangled manage to give their Princesses agency and empower them, and the more said about Moana and it's incredible message the better, and they really make the older Disney movies stand out for their issues (which are inherent in their origins, of course). What needs to happen, and is happening, is that the constant reinforcement of "boys and girls" needs to stop - my daughters are pretty and beautiful, but also strong and bold. They are funny and clever and all the words that are more commonly used to describe boys when I was growing up. Joni will be a princess, a pony, a pirate and a doctor, and none of them are coded as boys and girls.

I need to wrap this up so here goes - I am a white cis-gendered man who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and was given all of the privilege that that comes with. I am not an authority on this, and also do not have a unique insight - but was is clear from watching these shows and seeing how they are built is this - it's a choice someone has made. That choice needs to be challenged and reframed.