Why people flip out when you talk about gender in kids stories


After Aerin brought to my attention the hornet’s nest Peter Sagal had inadvertently stirred up merely by suggesting the filmmakers added some sexist embellishment to Horton Hear a Who, I made a comment on his blog. Later I realized the topic is worthy of a whole post.

To sum up, I told him to hang in there, because nothing seems to anger people as much as pointing out sexism in children’s TV. I mentioned the Ice Age fracas we had here when, after writing some 800 articles about sexism in film and TV, we dared mention that a Disney film which does not show anyone overtly mistreating women can still include some sexist thinking.

Why do people quietly tolerate 800 articles criticize grown-up shows, but flip out when you point out the same issues in a kid’s show?

Because when a young woman watches Battlestar Galactica and realizes she doesn’t have to conform to gender roles, it’s a bit late. She may change and blossom and lead a full life outside the expectations other people put on her the instant she was identified as a baby girl, but what a revolution it would’ve been if she’d figured this out in grade school instead of adulthood.

That’s what people are so afraid of. If we teach adult women they’re people just like men, we make a dent in the system. If we teach five year old girls they’re people, we crash the system and replace it with one that’s not all about white perpetual boys in a state of arrested development. Girls would grow up expecting to be taken seriously, to be respected, but more to the point: they would grow up expecting things of themselves (at least as often as men do).

And they would expect maturity from men, which is exactly what the consumer market doesn’t want: it wants men to remain adolescents forever, so it can sell them shoddy products when they’re 60. Maybe this is the real reason why Hollywood hates women: it’s run by Peter Pans, for Peter Pans. They see women as Wendy, who can tag along if she’s willing to do the motherly duty, but must not be allowed to interfere in this unnatural extended boyhood Hollywood has made the norm.

We no longer even have matinee idols who attempt to represent the rugged American male, self-reliant and strong. Many people blame feminists for that, but they’re wrong: feminists offered a reformed vision of manhood, still strong and self-reliant, but with the addition of an emotional palette and the ability to introspect. The consumer marketplace - an extension of the status quo, not feminism - rejected that being as someone who wouldn’t mindlessly buy horse pucky marketed as gold. They instead sought to create a neurotic, navel-gazing mess and market that as the feminist ideal for men (a false premise truly feminist-produced shows like Cagney & Lacey neatly deconstructed with several male characters). This led to the widespread belief that feminists tried to make men into “sissies”, when in fact what feminists sought was a redefinition of gender roles that allowed both men and women to be strong and self-reliant, without demanding anyone stop having feelings.

Feminists want a world in which both men and women are allowed to have feelings about the world and their lives, and both are allowed to take steps to make themselves happy, and everyone can finally be held responsible for his/her own happiness because no one’s being denied the right to feeling or action. That’s the big feminist agenda, folks. Sorry to disappoint you with a complete lack of Communist involvement or man-hating.

But you might find some Communist plotting and definitely some man-hating if you look at the army of folks who get so angry when someone dares suggest film shouldn’t teach women they’re non-persons that they feel compelled to spew venom on every website that mentions it. Because in teaching girls that they’re only accessories, we’re also denying heterosexual men the ability to have meaningful, adult relationships with women who take full responsibility for their own happiness.

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1 sbg { 04.08.08 at 8:13 am }

This is precisely why I flip out at nearly every horrid tween and kids show an organization like, say, maybe Disney puts out. There’s good among the chaff, but most of it gives alarmingly bad messages to both little girls and boys about “how the world works.”

2 Elayne Riggs { 04.08.08 at 10:15 am }

Well said, Beta.

3 la pobre habladora { 04.08.08 at 11:17 am }

These movies further create problems as they provide fodder for gender-essentialist arguments from parents like - “Isn’t it amazing how naturally different boys and girls are? After watching Aladdin together, my son wanted to play with swords while my daughter wanted to care for a pretend pet tiger.” (This is a real quotation from my brother-in-law). It is amazing that otherwise rational adults don’t see that the more logical explanation is that the kids are acting out the roles they see on the movie, rather than there being some weird sex-linked sword and pet tiger genes.

4 BetaCandy { 04.08.08 at 12:11 pm }

@SBG, I think the messages are the whole point of the genre - I really do.

@Elayne, thank you!

@la pobre habladora, exactly. Sit the same two kids in front of Kim Possible while she’s saving Ron’s butt, and let’s see what they do for playtime.

5 Patrick { 04.08.08 at 12:38 pm }

Because in teaching girls that they’re only accessories, we’re also denying heterosexual men the ability to have meaningful, adult relationships with women who take full responsibility for their own happiness.

This reminds me that I need to write an article for the Books section on the sickening, not just migynistic but actually misanthropic One More Day/Brand New Day story arc in the Spider-Man comics.

6 Kathleen { 04.08.08 at 2:42 pm }

I wonder how much of the reaction is contributed to by people not wanting to think where they don’t have to. “It’s just a story”, “It’s just for children”, “Can’t you just enjoy it?”, “It’s just a fairy tale”. How dare you tell people that they need to think about what stories they are telling to children, that children might listen and learn from that, that anything with the stamp “Disney” on it isn’t automatically safe, mindless fare, that anything rated PG or G doesn’t need to be vetted by parents or that you are being a responsible adult by ruling out wholesale all M rated movies, or all fantasy stories.

That ‘how dare you’ was rhetorical :)

I’m humming songs from Into the Woods now.

7 Anna { 04.08.08 at 3:31 pm }

Children Will Listen, I’m betting?

This is a very strong post, BC. One thing I really respect about you is that you’re willing to not be “nice” and call it as it is.

8 Ide Cyan { 04.08.08 at 3:34 pm }

…why bring up Communism and man-hating as strawmen?

9 Scarlett { 04.08.08 at 4:52 pm }

I’m in the process of writing about the new Australian series of Gladiators, about how all the female gladiators were tall and slim (four had long blond hair) and generally far more gracious towards the contestants (one gave a little spiel about how it was a hard journey and they were winner just for being there). I was having trouble articulating why it bothered me so much, and you’ve hit it on the head; shows targeted towards children and families ingrain a set of social standards at a young age that are far more damaging that the same standards in media targeted towards adolescance and adults, because at that point, the standard is merely being perpetuated. It was childhood where that stanard became acceptable.

It frustrates me when people say ‘it’s meant for children, don’t take it so seriously’, especially when those people can see the validity over what we argue in media aimed towards an older audience. I think BECAUSE it’s meant for children makes it even more important to create a better standard.

10 S. A. Bonasi { 04.08.08 at 4:59 pm }

You know, I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Hollywood is afraid that little girls will learn that they don’t have to conform to gender roles. No one had to teach me that as a child; I knew it. I may not have had the words that feminism gives me, but I knew it and knew that expectations of gender norms were beyond my control, and that, further, to a degree, not conforming to gender roles were beyond my control. Isaac Asimov’s character Dr. Susan Calvin* might have inspired me to go into a male dominated field - I’m a computer engineer major - but I always knew that it was a male dominated field, that it would be difficult, and much of the bull I faced would be beyond my control.

So I don’t think Hollywood is afraid that little girls will learn that they don’t have to conform to gender roles.

No, I think Hollywood is afraid that little boys will learn that girls shouldn’t have to conform to gender roles. What a revolution that would be!

*Sidetopic: I propose that everytime someone brings up “They were a product of their times!”/”That was acceptable back then!” as a defense of a sexist and/or racist author who wrote sometime in the past should be beaten with Asimov’s I, Robot and the complete Foundation series. Hardcover editions.

11 BetaCandy { 04.08.08 at 5:30 pm }

@Patrick, I’m looking forward to reading your review.

@Kathleen, I think laziness and the urge for quick, simple answers is at the base of a whole lot of passive bigotry (the kind where people don’t hate a certain group, but they sure can’t be bothered to buck the bigoted trends that are in place).

@Anna, thank you. :)

@Ide Cyan, there’s a fairly widespread conspiracy theory that the Civil Rights movement was the result of Communists taking over American universities in the 60’s and spreading these socialist ideas about equality and fairness. As for man-hating, that’s just the most common mischaracterizations I hear of feminists.

@Scarlett, that’s very well said.

@Bonasi, that’s a very good point. My thinking stopped just short of it, but you’re right: that IS the ultimate end of any change, and the one that would have the most palpable effect on the marketplace film and TV serve.

12 Mickle { 04.08.08 at 9:21 pm }

I think that there is also a bigger tendency to go to extremes when it comes to kids, no matter what the issue. Which would be part of why the local news can get away with all the idiotic scare stories that involve kids. There’s tons of scare stories period, but a large number of the dumbest ones involve either kids or technology - often both.

When it comes to sexism in kids media, it’s sad but not surprising that the main reaction is usually denial. Not only is that the normal reaction whenever anyone brings sexism up, but parents - daily care givers especially - are often in a special league of their own when it comes to the cognitive dissonance required to keep sexism going. It takes massive amounts of denial and willpower to first giggle when your 1 yo boy goes for all the sparkly stuff in the store, turn around a few minutes later and tell him that he really wants a dinosaur bc all the sparkly stuff is for girls, and then a year later claim that he’s always loved dinosaurs and isn’t it funny how girls never like dinosaurs as much as boys do?

Plus. it’s lots easier to do this with kids that with adults. It’s not like your toddler can point out that his big sister spent all her time putting stuff in the drawers and taking then out when she was his age. So there’s really no one there to point out the flaws in you assessment that your daughter loves playing house, but your son is only appropriating the kitchen set for other play. Nor is there anyone to point out that you are noticing his tendency to line stuff up more than you did your daughter’s not because she didn’t do it, but because he likes to do it in the middle of the floor (bc they are cars, and that’s where cars go) but she tended to do it on tables or windows (bc they were Little People, and Little People need to see).

And, needless to say, they are too dumb to react in any way to the not so subtle gender hints you give them. Listening to Bach, however, makes them smarter.

Add to all that the fact that denial lets you sidestep any feelings of guilt on the matter, and you get lots of people pretending that there is nothing abnormal about kids watching shows made up of entire villages of creatures where only one creature is female, and she’s highly sexualized.

Plus, the current crop of parents all did grow up watching the Smurfs. Which kinda skews what “normal” looks like when it comes to cartoon land.


Personally, I think what scares Hollywood - and everyone else - the most is the fear that anyone might learn that little boys don’t have to conform to gender roles. Once you decide that, everything is blown to bits. I mean, there’s a certain logic to women wanting to be like their betters, as much as we can’t have that. But boys identifying with female characters. My god, the horror! Next thing you know people won’t just be saying that women can do men’s jobs, but that men should value women(’s jobs)! And not in a condescending “as only a mother can” kind of way.

13 Mana G { 04.09.08 at 7:19 am }

I used to feel I grew up without the gender constructs in my mind that children get exposed to through movies, television, and other forms of media. Growing up, my best friend was my brother, and we watched the same shows, played with the same toys, and played the same way. By mutual agreement, we played with Ninja Turtles figures, Legos, dinosaurs, and even stuffed animals, but the play involved complicated storylines and focused mainly on the manners in which our various “characters” related to each other, with occasional fighting and “battles” within. (We were both very fond of “exploding” things made out of Legos, i.e: breaking them down.) There were male and female characters in the “stories,” and they were all of pretty equal strength, and on equal footing with each other. In cartoons, even if there was only one female character, I very rarely identified with her. Generally, I identified/sympathized with whichever character I felt was treated worst within the story. (Do recall that you’re rarely allowed to let truly “bad” things happen to “The Girl.”) I used to think I had grown up without the idea of gener roles, but years later, I learned it was so much more complicated than that. I, much to my current dismay and embarrassment, felt, then, that I was simply beyond those gender roles. My brother felt the same way, for a while. We felt that, yes, other boys and girls behave just that way, but we don’t. The problem was, those gener roles were still there, in our minds, and believing ourselves to be better than that sort of thing didn’t help us as much in the long run. It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that it was not that I was better than those gender constructs, it was that they were inherently false. There are some new television shows* that have kick-butt, strong girls, but I do admit, I must often take issue with the way they portray the other girls in the story. More often than not, all the other female characters in the show follow the exact same gender constructs that the main female character is meant to prove to be false. The message in that seems to me to be, “Sure, other girls can be like that, but you don’t have to. You’re special.” I suppose we can say it’s a start, but it still leaves the “Smurfette Syndrome” out there, and I think it’s part of why I, personally, always had such a hard time relating to other girls when I was younger: I had been led to believe I was in some way “alien” from them.
*One I can think of off the top of my head is Danny Phantom. While Danny had to occasionally face off with a female ghost hunter, Valerie, had a friend Sam who was a goth girl that got to maneuver a little out of “The Chick” territorry, and Danny also had intellegent, independent older sister, Jazz, all the other teenage girls seemed to be vain, bubble-headed, and completely incapable of focusing on something other than teenage boys for two minutes. Plus, they were mean.

14 lizriz { 04.09.08 at 9:50 am }

You have such a good point here. The stories we are told and watch as children have such a long term impact on so many of us.

Today, with my boyfriend, there’s what I know to be right in my mind, and then there’s the messages I internalized as a girl from books and media that I still sometimes find myself acting in ways I consider weird but still find myself doing. Sigh.

And the thought that men might someday not be trained to find female characters and stories to be irrelevant and of no interest - well, it is my fervent dream that all human stories are valued the same. Can you imagine an Oscar ceremony where all the films have primarily female characters instead of the other way around??? And more ideally, where the gender (and race for that matter) is actually balanced???

15 BetaCandy { 04.09.08 at 10:29 am }

@Mickle, some really good thoughts there. I think parenting is challenging, and rather than evolve a culture that helps parents, we’ve evolved a bunch of handy, damaging shortcuts that give them the illusion they’re fully serving each individual child’s needs.

@Mana, I totally relate to what you’re saying here. That’s pretty much my childhood. Also, I found I was idealizing the male gender role as the default for everyone rather than realizing both roles are unnatural for most individuals. People are a mix of traits, and most of it has little to nothing to do with gender.

@Lizriz, childhood programming can be like a timebomb in your head, waiting to go off the minute your conscious mind doesn’t have an immediate response to a situation.

16 Patrick { 04.09.08 at 12:16 pm }

I’m reminded of one of my favorite cartoon during my adolescence, ExoSquad. It was a science fiction war drama focusing on a suqad of mecha pilots, and (in the early 90s) featured a mixed-gender combat squad. Nothing unusual was ever made of this, and gender was simply never brought up.

I’m going to have to write an article on that show.

17 S. A. Bonasi { 04.09.08 at 5:16 pm }

Mana G,

Yeah, exceptionalism + a continued overvaluing of traditionally masculine gender roles (and an undervaluing of traditionally feminine gender roles). Can be wrapped up in feminist trappings but still doesn’t challenge patriarchy in any serious way. (Short sidenote: When I say “traditionally masculine” and “traditionally feminine”, I mean that those roles or traits are ones that patriarchy has declared Innate to Men and Innate to Women. However, I fully believe that essentialist arguments are BS and that no traits or roles are innate to one gender or the other. Just so my terminology is clear.)

I’m currently rereading Isaac Asimov’s “The Mule” (the second story in Foundation and Empire) and one of the things I really love about it is that the hero, Bayta, is the hero because, in general, she’s intelligent and capable, but, relevent here, both able with a blaster and a kind person.

The idea that the hero saves the day with a gun is a traditionally masculine one. Kindness, on the other hand, is a traditionally feminine trait. Patriarchy, then, undervalues kindess, and would never consider it a virtue fit to save the galaxy. (Not just limitted to kindness, of course. Just using it as an example.)

However, not only does Bayta single-handily save the entire galaxy, she does so while simutaneously utilizing traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine tools, where being nice to people proves to be just as important as knowing how to aim a blaster.

18 Mickle { 04.09.08 at 7:56 pm }

S. A. Bonasi,

That’s why, as much as I understand the complaints re: Evil!Willow! I <3 Xander’s role in that arc. Elizabeth Bear’s A Companion to Wolves does a fantastic job with this same idea.

19 MaggieCat { 04.09.08 at 9:41 pm }

There are some new television shows* that have kick-butt, strong girls, but I do admit, I must often take issue with the way they portray the other girls in the story. More often than not, all the other female characters in the show follow the exact same gender constructs that the main female character is meant to prove to be false. The message in that seems to me to be, “Sure, other girls can be like that, but you don’t have to. You’re special.”

I’m going to hug my She-Ra DVDs, because once again I’ve been reminded how wonderful that show was. The vast majority of the cast was female, and while most of them exhibited at least a few of the “traditionally feminine” traits, all of them were strong and capable of kicking ass in their own ways. (Maybe not Perfuma. But that had nothing to do with being a girl and everything to do with being the resident Cloudcuckoolander.) And the show managed to sidestep the issues of having the only regular human male character being just as competent as the women (avoiding that “in order to make the women look good, the men must all be buffoons” trope) without letting him overshadow them.

I know Filmation gets a lot of guff for making some crappy television shows, but it’s becoming hard to ignore the evidence that they may have actually been so far ahead of their time that they looped around and just looked like they were behind the times. (Admittedly, the 6 reused backgrounds didn’t help their case.)

20 From the readers: Hollywood fears boys learning that women are people | the Hathor Legacy { 04.10.08 at 9:57 am }

[…] A couple of days ago I wrote that the reason people react more strongly to criticisms of sexism in kids’ shows and movies than adult shows and movies is that they’re terrified of what will happen if young girls learn they don’t have to buy into their assigned …. […]

21 Designated Sidekick: One Small Case for Steph, One Victory in the ongoing campaign » Designated Sidelinks { 04.12.08 at 1:50 am }

[…] Why people flip out when you talk about gender in kids stories | the Hathor Legacy Money quote for me (amongst a good wrap up of the coverage of another good story) “Because in teaching girls that they’re only accessories, we’re also denying heterosexual men the ability to have meaningful, adult relationships with women who take full responsibility for their own happiness”. […]

22 SunlessNick { 04.12.08 at 6:43 am }

Not only is that the normal reaction whenever anyone brings sexism up, but parents - daily care givers especially - are often in a special league of their own when it comes to the cognitive dissonance required to keep sexism going. - Mickle

I don’t know if these exist in America, but over here we have a toy called Action Man. It’s a posable figure (frequently with hugely, indeed what would be harmfully, exaggerated musculature) - Action Men come with changeable costumes and accessories like guns and tools - all designed around soldiers, rescue heroes, mountaineers and so on. Guess how often they’re referred to as dolls?

23 MaggieCat { 04.12.08 at 6:53 am }

Guess how often they’re referred to as dolls?

Fun fact: In the 1960s, Hasbro banned anyone involved with the development or marketing of the original G.I. Joe toys from using the word “doll”, and even coined the term “action figure” to assure people NOT A DOLL, folks.

Apparently Wikipedia disagrees. Hee.

24 Lavode { 04.15.08 at 8:49 am }

As opposed to the Real Dolls - those are for adults.

25 Australian Gladiators | the Hathor Legacy { 04.15.08 at 12:56 pm }

[…] get a lot on this site about media targeted for children and families, that we should leave it be because it’s meant for children, not meant to be taken seriously. I […]

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