Thoughts on Female Representation in Animation

Korra won out as the character to feature because she’s a great contemporary example of a female protagonist.

I like female characters, that’s no secret at this point, they’re awesome and unfortunately continue to be under-represented in contemporary animation programming. That’s not to say they don’t exist at all, but they do tend to occupy either the sideline characters more so than the lead protagonists.

Jason Tammemägi recently wrote about this in a brilliant post where he also tackles the concept of genderisation in kids programming. Much more than that, as a creator, Jason notes that:

I find myself very consciously making sure I have female characters in my shows….But a few years back, I did a little drawing-a-day project with zombies. Somewhat gruesome and not for the kids, it was just for fun. I realised when I approached the end of it that an overwhelming amount of the zombies were male. Why? Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it. They just were. It’s like even being so aware of female under-representation that, when I stopped thinking about it, I would fall back into the whole ‘default human being male’ thing.

Is that a fair assumption? Do we (as adults) have preconceived notions of the place that gender plays in roles? Absolutely, but as Jason rightly points out, it shouldn’t be that way:

It tells me the only way to change this situation, to improve this, is to be active about it. Is to actively make it part of our thinking as we develop shows, games, anything. Should we force female characters in to a show if natural development has led to mostly males? In my opinion, yes. Yes we should. Because that ‘natural’ situation usually comes about because we are just perpetuating old media habits and conditioning and those are really hard to break without actively pushing against them. Getting female characters, varied, interesting and active should be a clear goal when developing media. Because there is a very good chance it won’t happen on its own.

In conjunction with the above post is one from the soooper talented Brianne Drouhard (a.k.a. Potato Farm Girl) wherein she details a concept she developed herself, Harpy Gee. Check out the awesome art she posted the other day:

The post where the picture came from is a fairly simple one that details the characters:

Harpy: An elf that cannot use magic, considered a grave handicap in her home country, she’s been sheltered all her life.  She lives and works at the Item Shop, but also will take any odd job around town, regardless if it’s teaching, ballet school, or scrubbing the castle floors.  Nothing is too mundane or adventurous.  She’s doing her best to make up for lost time and stay optimistic.

Pumpkin:  Harpy’s goblin cat.  He is indestructible, and will eat anything.  Luckily he is lazy and sleeps most of the time.  He’s also her living suitcase, she keeps her important items, clothing and weapons in his inter-dimensional stomach.

Opal: A witch doctor from a large family of pig ranchers.  She doesn’t like dirt, but since she has to dig up most of her potion ingredients, she wears gloves and a bandana.  She uses her shovel to fly, since she also needs it to dig.  She likes anything that’s cute, and her helpful ingredient smelling pet pig, Truffle.

Ash:  A knight in training.  He thinks highly of himself, and regards the others as children.  He secretly collects playing cards of famous knights.  He tries his best to act like what he knows what he’s doing, but half the time ends up embarrassed.

Humphrey:  The prince of the kingdom, he was sent to live at his uncle’s castle in town.  He doesn’t like being outside or sunlight, and would rather write sad poetry or read about battles that end in failure.  His uncle regularly sends him out to take Peepers, the royal dog out for walks.

They’re all fairly straightforward, right? I mean, there’s nothing in there that could potentially scare away any potential networks or studios, and I sincerely doubt that Brianne would even consider something that would to begin with.

Nope, where the really interesting fact lies is in one of Brianne’s posts from March 2012 that goes into much more detail about the struggles of getting Harpy picked up:

In the end, the shorts program [the aborted Cartoonstitute] went in a different direction, and Harpy was shown around to a few other studios.  I don’t think it’ll ever happen, after being told, “Make Harpy a boy”, “put her in high school on Earth”, “it’s too scary”, “it’s too cute”, “boys won’t watch it”, “make her an animal”…

Aside from the more generic comments, a few of the asinine ones sure stand out. What advantage would it be to make Harpy a boy? What’s wrong with the character being a girl? More to the point, why wouldn’t boys watch it? the concept has male characters, so it isn’t as saccharine as, say, My Little Pony, and it’s not exactly about ‘girly’ things like makeup either. Unfortunately Jason hits the nail on the head:

At the weekend, my eldest Daisy was at a party in a kid’s art place. She made a rather awesome clay model of a princess in a tower. Asking her about it, she explained that the girls all had to make princesses to be rescued while the boys all had to make knights with swords to rescue the princesses. I was not exactly happy with this narrow gender-based project. Seeing this, Daisy went further and told me that they could choose to do either but all the girls chose princesses and all the boys chose knights.

I am not sure what form this choice was presented in or if indeed it was much of a choice at all. But if it was an open choice, I could well believe that most girls would choose princesses and most boys would choose knights. Because those are the gender roles assigned to them in an overwhelming amount of media and, in particular, marketing.

In reality, kids only know what they’re told, and with the average American child (and adult) being bombarded with literally hundreds of commercials every day that purport the gender roles that Jason discusses, it isn’t hard to see how boys could be said to favour male-centric programs over female ones.

It’s truly unfortunate because until there is better parity, awesome shows like The Legend of Korra, where the main protagonist is a female (and a kick-ass one at that) will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. And despite the fact that Korra has almost as many boys watching as girls, it’s tough for just one show to change significant numbers of minds. Kim Possible was a great model and the effect it’s had has yet to be felt. Even Lauren Faust says as much, and she knows the truth:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Fyre_flye/status/273563869383884800″]

A more collaborative effort is needed that sees a better balance between male and female characters in shows but also a sobering realisation that if boys profess a dislike for lead female protagonists it is perhaps because it has been drilled into them that such a character isn’t acceptable to them.

Is a quota of some kind needed? I would hope not, although if I were the head of a studio, I would much rather see my content watched by the largest audience possible rather than trying to narrow it down in the hopes of selling more merchandise and would make damned sure someone else didn’t attempt to push me down that road.

To end on a positive note, both posts discussed here are optimistic about the future:

Brianne:

I’m also curious how the next few years are going to be for female characters in animated tv shows.
“Legend of Korra” just started on Nickelodeon, and is amazing!  Lauren Faust did an excellent job with the current “My Little Pony” and “Super Best Friends Forever” shorts.
I’ve been really happy getting a chance to work on Amethyst too. Sword fighting magical girls is right up my alley!

Jason:

If we do this and do it well (and by the way, I think many of us in preschool are actively tackling this right now), it would take just one generation to make real change. One generation later and maybe the writers won’t have to think about getting strong female characters into their stories. It will just happen as it becomes normal.

What are your thoughts? What do think it will take to see a more balanced approach to televised animation?

2 Comments on “Thoughts on Female Representation in Animation

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