Lead Female Protagonists in Mainstream US Animation


Animated TV programmes with female lead characters. Are they a rare occurrence? Certainly when compared to the numbers with male lead characters. Now, I’m not saying that females are underrepresented in animation, there are plenty of female characters, however, more often than not, they are not the main protagonist or are part of a group. How come this is so?

There is a general notion that girls like cartoons at a young age but lose that interest once they get older. That’s not to say that there are no programmes out there that specifically cater to girls (Horseland springs to mind). but it would seem that girls (more so than boys) try to imitate their older peers at an earlier age. One fact that is known about animated shows is that they are seen as ‘childish’ or beyond the intellectual capabilities of a certain age bracket. Thus girls are seemingly pressured to drop animation from their TV viewing at a younger age than boys.

Take Japan for example (an obvious choice, but a good one to study), animation is accepted in society as a suitable medium for programming to both males and females. There are a vast array of shows that are designed to appeal to girls and women in general because they don’t see animation as something that should be confined to younger age groups. They are also interested in many of the same genres as males, albeit with more female-centric plots. This implies that age is not the only type of peer pressure at work in discouraging girls and females from watching animation.

The types of shows that interest boys tend to be of adventure, fantasy and science-fiction, as well as comedy. Girls tend to show less interest in these genres, preferring instead to concentrate on character-driven shows (Chowder is perhaps a good, current example). The interests of boys (and males in general) are better served by animation as it is a cost effective method for delivering the product. Girls interests can often be catered for with live-action (Hanna Montana, etc.) which is cost effective, whereas the same show would be prohibitively expensive if animated with no real additional benefits to be gained (side note: Lizzy Maguire used live-action with animated sequences acting as a plot device). There have been some animated shows that could have been live action, such as Pepper Ann and As Told By Ginger, but I guess these are the exception to the rule.

The interesting thing is that it is possible to have cartoons with strong animated leads that can appeals to girls and be so successful that it attracts boys too. Examples include Kim Possible and the PowerPuff Girls; both shows with strong female leads yet are equally enjoyed by both sexes. They have a great mix of action (for the boys) and also have a decent dose of character development to satisfy the girls. However, they are not always successful. Take My Life as a Teenage Robot. This show about a teenage robot girl who routinely saves the earth is rather underrated but failed to attract much of either a girl or boy audience, despite having a female lead and the requisite types of plots for both audiences. It would appear that the line between a successful show and an unsuccessful show is a fine one.

Overall, I believe that the reason we see relatively few shows with female leads is a wider cultural belief that extends back to when television became widespread. In Japan, shows were designed to appeal to everyone, and the populous became comfortable with animation as a medium. In the US, animation was pushed more and more into the children’s corner, and although animation was still produced for slightly older audiences (it took thirty years for The Simpsons to arrive as save the rest of us), we have to remember that the world was a different place and that the opinion of females was a very different as well. Today we have many talented women within the animation industry, but I want to say they are trapped by a culture that neither allows nor encourages girls to seek role models or even entertainment in animation because of certain outdated expectations. Changing these expectations is very much an uphill task if we are to see more female-orientated programming on TV.

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