Saturday, August 06, 2011

Feminist Friday XIII: Television, Kids and Sexism

I'm writing this as part of Transatlantic Blonde's Feminist Friday series. I know it's Saturday but punctuality has never been my strong point.

This week's theme is television - how male and female characters are portrayed in the shows our children watch. 

A couple of weeks ago, East Dunbartonshire Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson asked tv executives to take action on gender stereotyping.

Jo is so right about the way in which programme makers make girl characters all pink and precious while the boys get to do the action stuff. The Disney princesses are starting to improve, slowly - in Tangled, Rapunzel does a lot of the action herself, although she does seem to think she needs a bloke to show her the sights of the outside world when she's more than capable herself.

I think the first images kids get are particularly important in forming their expectations of what life has to offer them. If kids see that the norm is for boys to have the leadership roles and all the fun, as they do in 2/3 of tv aimed at them, then that doesn't help anyone. Boys grow up thinking girls naturally take a subordinate role and they have a sense of entitlement to power and girls' confidence and expectations are limited.

Jo cites Dora the Explorer as a good example of kids' tv - although I think the programme used to be better. I wasn't particularly impressed when they brought her cousin Diego in and now I see they have a rather sickly tutu clad Dora ballet iPhone application. Why can't we just go back to the good old days, when Anna was week when it was just Dora, Isa, Backpack and Boots against the cunning of Swiper the fox? Dora was just becoming popular when Anna was a toddler and there was literally no merchandise available here - I spent a fortune buying games and stuff on eBay for her. Anna grew up with Dora - and she certainly picked up a fair smattering of Spanish from her.

I hope that tv executives take note of what Jo is saying but I won't be holding my breath. They won't listen to her alone, so they should actually hear from other people who feel strongly about this, each and every time we think there's an example of this sort of stereotyping.

We often have news and current affairs shows on in the background in this house. It's long been a concern of mine that Anna sees shows like Question Time with only one woman on the panel to discuss the issues of the day.

Anna is a huge fan of Doctor Who which has much improved since the seventies when Louise Jamieson played companion Leela in a costume that left little to the imagination. This was apparently a ploy to get more dads to watch the show. These days the companions are much more involved in finding the solutions and interacting on a more equal basis with the Doctor and other male characters. The best role model in the Who universe is Sarah Jane Smith, the first companion I ever knew in the 70s, reintroduced in 2006 and subsequently given her own spin off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. This intrepid journalist now saves the planet from alien invasion and rescues aliens from the ignorance of humans. there's a bit of gender stereotyping in that she has a sonic lipstick rather than a screwdriver but I can forgive that. A middle aged female action hero is definitely to be welcomed. The actress who played Sarah-Jane, Elisabeth Sladen sadly died earlier this year. It's been really great to share a love of the character with my daughter. There's a reason her middle name is Elisabeth.

It worries me, though, that the women who appear in tv programmes have more constraints on their appearance and age than men. Will Tess Daly be presenting Saturday night entertainment shows into her 80s like her colleague Bruce Forsyth? I'd like to think so, but my daughter is growing up in a world where that doesn't happen.

Even if the television programmes themselves are ok, the adverts in between them are often Sexism Central. I was furious to hear James Nesbitt's dulcet tones promoting action toys for boys and dollies for girls as recently as last Christmas.

I tend to take the view that it would just be counter-productive to even attempt to isolate Anna from gender stereotyping on tv. I just try to encourage her to recognise it when it occurs and that it's wrong.

There's lots of excellent tv out there and, like it or not, it'll be a huge influence on our kids' lives. Our job as mums is to equip them with the skills to recognise when things they see are unfair and just plain wrong.


Ellen Arnison said...

I hope Jo has some effect, but I fear it's a big mountain to climb. As my Feminist Friday contribution shows, sexism (or at least unsatisfactory stereotypes) are rife in sit-coms. And we all know they're all over adverts. It would be great to see some improvements, wouldn't it?

Oolon said...

Thanks: good article!

On a related note, trying to buy presents for my 2yo neice has been a nightmare. Too many toys are deliberately and unnecessarily gendered. She also has decided she lives pink, to her mother's disgust...

Missing the point a little Kim Possible has a strong female lead, but she is still a stereotype. Spongebob has Sandy, the only competent regular character as female, but she is on her own.

As for Tess, if she us still presenting in her 80s, she won't be like Brucie.

She'll be much better.

Melaina25 said...

Randomly Oolon I know the actress who is the voice of Kim Possible; I used to live with her sister in DC.

Gender stereotypes and sexism is alive and well on television and it's little wonder it persists in real life as well when so many people try to emulate what they see on tv.

Right now Blondie Boy only watches shows on Disney Jr. so there are no commercials but I think our fwding through commercials on Sky+ will take on deeper meaning as he gets older, too.


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