It’s an age-old problem: Positive female cartoon characters are rare, and even if they are presented as likeable heroines central to the plot, their bodies are unattainable (She-Ra) or spilling out of seashell cups (Ariel).
Sure, things have changed since the Betty Boop era, and traditional gender stereotypes are somewhat shrouded these days by storylines that contain feisty, headstrong female leads. But according to Jo Swinson, a Member of Parliament in the U.K., the change isn’t quick enough.
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Children’s television is sexist and lacking in strong female role models, Swinson says, adding that the characters that do exist are too “pink and princessy.” This gender imbalance, and the frequent portrayal of females as supporting sidekicks or easy on the eyes, is teaching children the wrong message. The Liberal Democrat MP is not calling for legislation but is speaking out so that broadcasters can restore sexual equality on the screen.
“It’s a pretty unequal state of affairs,” she said. “A lot of children spend many hours watching children’s TV and take many messages from it subconsciously about the way the world works.”
The MP for East Dunbartonshire focused on British programming, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, which have been criticized for gender stereotyping, and cited research showing that most of the lead children’s characters on the British small screen were male.
She also pointed out that American animated series Dora the Explorer is one of the rare shows with a “normal girl” lead, but that Nickelodeon also portrays its bilingual young trekker as a princess.
“It can start the socialization of inequality,” says Swinson, who has also spoken out against airbrushing in advertisements and glossy magazines.