What Are Little Girls Made Of – Report
- Girls are 50% of the population, but if you look at the media representation, they are outnumbered 3 to 1. Even when shown, they tend to appear as “eye candy” and not as true characters with developed story lines.
- Parents are the first programmers for children and the ones shaping their gender roles – both by being their role models and by choosing their media. Pre-school media teams market to them but often, the parents are more fixed in opinions of what children will watch than the children are themselves. (e.g. “a boy wouldn’t watch this”)
- It’s often said we need more strong female characters in children’s media, and whilst that is true, we do also just need more. Some can be strong and some needn’t be, there is a within gender diversity that needs to championed.
This expert panel discussed how preschool programming is influencing cultural attitudes towards gender, with a focus on how we can create positive change.
Brittany Sommer-Katzin, an Educational & Creative Consultant, set the scene by sharing insights around children’s development. Around their first year, children start recognising gender, whereas a year later they will start describing themselves and their family in its terms: “I am a girl, my brother is a boy.” At around 4-6 years old, they already have gender-scripts in place, for example: if you put make up on, you are a girl or if you lift weights, you are a boy.
Niamh Sharkey shared her experience of working on Henry Hugglemonster. The series has developed characters that could be targeted at either boys or girls, and are neutral in their traits and appearance. Gender-neutrality, in this sense, was an interesting approach to shifting the paradigm, thought the panel. Scott and Julie Stewart, the creators of Kate and Mim-Mim, told us of their approach: their characters are based on their family and whilst gendered, challenge the norms of how genders “should behave”.
The discussion moved to look at the toy industry and how they can hinder or help gender perceptions. Jess Day of Let Toys Be Toys believes we are so used to seeing male characters that we don’t question it enough. She shared a few stories of female characters going missing in merchandise, when they were very present in the original film/book/series and is urging the industry to keep challenging the norms, and to keep fighting for a fairer balance.
Jess also reflected on perceptions around boys’ media consumption and the belief that they wouldn’t be interested and couldn’t relate to girls’ characters but also said that the “point of stories is to walk in somebody else’s shoes”. There is a lack of true evidence that boys cannot relate to girls’ characters, but even that is the case, Jess argues – why can’t we challenge this?
Linda Simensky of PBS told us an interesting anecdote, in which she asked a set of eight boys how many of them watch Power Puff Girls. Originally, only one boy raised his hand. A bit later on, the question was asked again, but this time they couldn’t see one another as they answered – and seven out of the eight said that they did watch the programme. That in itself tells us something around these boys’ media preferences and what they felt was ok to say and to like.
“If you could change one thing to improve the representation of girls in pre-school media, what would it be?”, asked Julie Kane-Ritsch, who moderated the session, and the panel suggested that:
- Whilst there is a point about having strong female characters, we do just need more – and they don’t all need to be strong.
- We need more female creators, directors, producers – introducing diversity at the very root of programme creation.
- Perceptions should be challenged so that relating to girls becomes cool for boys.
- Diversity should exist within both genders.
We sadly didn’t have time for many questions from the audience, so I do wish there was more time for discussion, but we would have probably been insatiable no matter how much time was given!
The full speakers list is available Session Guide.
And this is the video that was shown as the introduction – it’s a great discussion starter and will leave you thinking, so make sure to have a watch.
The Gotham Group LLC
Head of Animation and Family Entertainment
Move on Up
Let Toys Be Toys
Author, Illustrator and Executive Producer
Vice President, Children’s Programming
Brittany Sommer Katzin
Educational & Creative Consultant
Scott and Julie Stewart