Real girls fly helicopters: why gender really matters on children’s TV

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Kids have horrific taste in TV, but you don’t hold it against them. Back in the tender early days of their development, when they watched three carefully vetted programmes occasionally and on rotation, I thought this TV thing would be a doddle. Har. They just didn’t have trashy opinions yet, and trashy opinions always come. Twenty years ago we spent many hours watching Power Rangers and the Chuckle Brothers, so I try to remember that things made for five-year-olds are not necessarily made for me.

But there’s one thing I can’t get over. It’s in more of their programmes than I expected, and it’s like noticing the disturbingly cavorting fruit on Maoam wrappers: once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee. Let me take you through a brief summary.

Paw Patrol – a pre-teen boy miraculously owns six dogs that can use human language, operate machinery and have mastered individual trades. Rather than hot-dialling The Sun to make his fortune, he runs a rescue service, mostly saving cats and chickens from their own stupidity. Five of the six dogs are boys. One is a girl. She wears pink. She flies the helicopter. Her name is Skye.

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Dinotrux – in a strange, post-apocalyptic world, a race of dinosaur-machines have arisen: large, aggressive Dinotrux, and tiny, timid Reptools. It has occurred to no one that the Reptools might usefully run their economy by fixing the Dinotrux, until a group of Dinotrux and Reptools agree to live in bro-harmony in a clubcave. Four of the Dinotrux are male. One is female. She’s a long-necked dinosaur, and does the intricate high-up jobs. Her name is Skya.

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Transformers Rescue Bots – Four Transformers are sent to earth with a mission: impersonate rescue vehicles and integrate themselves with a police chief and his rescue-service family. I don’t know why. Reasons. All four of the Transformers are male. Of the five humans, four are male. One is female.  She flies the helicopter. She wears a skin-tight jumpsuit, and her head is bigger than her waist. Her name is Dani.

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Good luck if you can find her.

I know, I know it would be easy to say ‘so what?’. It’s a children’s programme. It doesn’t matter. Killjoy feminists, reading too much into everything. I would probably have said the same a few years ago.

Before I had sons. Before it was my job to raise them into men who truly respect women as their equals, and expect them to be so. The stories we hear turn into our expectations. They show us what looks normal, how things should be. Last time I checked, the male population didn’t outnumber the female by at least four to one, and we’re allowed to wear whatever colour we like (though you’d never know it, in your average children’s clothing aisle).

I want sons who enter a scientific field and aren’t surprised to find girls there too. I want sons who participate in group discussions and don’t feel, subconsciously, that their opinion counts for more because they can shout louder. I want sons who expect and encourage their partners to take whatever career path excites them. I want sons who can have a female superior at work and never resort to calling her ‘mouthy’ or ’emotional’ or ‘bitchy’. I want sons who know a woman’s body (and the way she dresses it) has absolutely nothing to do with her capabilities or her culpability.

I want all of this to feel like it’s not too much to ask.

How can they make space for the women around them, if their stories don’t? It’s not like it will get better by itself as they get older. Boys who don’t think women have a place in their stories become the men raising hell about a female remake of a janky eighties film. Or the men making Star Wars merchandise and excluding the main character because she’s a girl. Or the powers-that-be behind comedy panel shows, who exert themselves to book one female comic per six shouty males. Or the men covering the Olympics and writing headlines like this.

Photo 15-08-2016, 4 12 33 pm

We have conversations about Paw Patrol or Dinotrux at least once a day. They like to choose favourites, discuss their favourites, ask what mine are. They always assume my favourite will be the girl, and of course I only ever have one to choose from. Tough luck if I don’t like helicopters. Tough luck if she doesn’t appeal to me. There’s only one of her, and that’s an awful lot of representation to carry. I tend to choose another character and give different reasons, but there’s only one of me, too, and a lot of this.

It matters. It really matters. I can handle the terrible jokes and background music (it even becomes endearing after a while, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way). But oh, please, please: do this mother of sons a favour, and give me some real girls.

5 Thoughts on “Real girls fly helicopters: why gender really matters on children’s TV

  1. We’ve been getting into Bubble Guppies on Amazon, which at least has the virtue of equal ratios of boys and girls (though an awful lot of other weirdness). It also has an Aztec-style monster called Pretzelcoatl 🙂

  2. Ugh, yes, all of this. I’m parent to a daughter so I’m experiencing it from the other side (*cough* http://www.sarahrooftops.co.uk/2016/06/the-daddies-on-bus-say-nothing-of-sort.html *cough*) but it’s so disheartening how limited female roles are, even on the supposedly more enlightened, educational CBeebies – I’m already cringing about the sparkly nonsense she might want to watch in a few more years’ times.

  3. Chris Longhurst on 24 August 2016 at 10:58 pm said:

    See also books. My daughter’s 19 months and loves her books — and all the leading characters are male. Spot the dog? Boy. Hairy Maclairy and friends? Boys. The Gruffalo? Zog the dragon? The only woman in a leading role I can think of off the top of my head is the witch from Room On The Broom.

    I’ve turned to Kickstarter for stuff like the A-Z Book of Jobs For Girls (flawed but better than nothing) and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, but it’s thin pickings for good female role models for the under-twos.

  4. Kathryn on 7 September 2016 at 9:18 pm said:

    Not a TV cartoon but my current fav from the kids viewing is Wreck It Ralph in part due to the wicked cool female leads 🙂

  5. Paw Patrol seems to have heard you, at least: a new pup has joined the team, called Everest. I’m pretty sure she is female, but she doesn’t wear pink or fly a helicopter.

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