As a parent of young girls, I watch a wide variety of colorful, educational, silly, and sometimes painful children’s television shows. I will admit, I have my favorites and I often voice my opinion when we select what to watch from the long list of Netflix options – my youngest is convinced my favorite tv show is The Magic School Bus. However, as a parent watching children’s shows, I have noticed something disturbing - and that's the way many shows portray boys vs. girls.
In many shows designed for girls with female heroes, boys are handled in one of two ways: 1) the show doesn’t have any male characters of relevance or 2) the boys are portrayed as stupid and clueless or as the weak brainy kid that can only work behind the scenes.
Biases start at a very young age, with gender opinions starting as young as six. So as I watch a bunch of female ponies prancing around solving problems without any male characters, or a girl successfully keeping genies a secret from her best friend because he is unbelievably clueless, or characters based on dolls saving the world with a goofball male as the ‘damsel in distress’, I can’t help but ask myself - how are these shows biasing my children?
Are our children learning that in order for women to be strong – men need to be weak, stupid, or non-existent? Are they teaching my girls that men ARE weak, stupid, or non-existent? What about shows designed for boys that are doing the same thing with female characters – casting them as the love interest, or the damsel in distress, or the weak brainy kid that helps behind the scenes?
What I find most frustrating, as I watch the clueless boy once again miss the obvious, is that these cartoons are only the beginning of the biasing influences our kids will be experiencing.
However, I believe that rather than attempting to shelter our children from these biased shows or accepting that it is an inevitable part of our culture, there is an opportunity to equip our children with ways to minimize or counter the impact. For example, encouraging our children to also watch shows that demonstrate equality between the genders – like my ‘favorite’ tv show The Magic School Bus (which is also a great show for teaching scientific concepts). Or, when they do watch bias-ridden shows, point out the bias so they know that the characters in the story are not proof that all boys are clueless or all girls are damsels in distress.
All of you with children in your lives - how do you counter the bias in popular cartoons and what do you do to combat bias in general?
For any who are interested, I am happy to share my list of favorite (and least favorite) children shows, I would also love to hear yours. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.