As it Turns Out, Boys DO Watch Female Characters on TV

It’s oft rumoured that boys have a certain amount of disdain for shows with female leads. The reasons are vague and revolve around concepts of masculinity and accepted social norms. However, such rumours are exactly that: rumours. As it turns out, boys do watch shows with a female lead, and they’re doing it in greater numbers than you would believe.


Korra won out as the one to feature because she's a great contemporary example of a female character

Libby Copeland has written a detailed analysis on the subject of boys watching female-led shows over on Slate. It’s a fascinating read that highlights something that isn’t readily apparent:

Supposedly, girls will watch so-called boy’s content, with male leads and action-packed adventures, but boys won’t watch girls’ shows, starring girl protagonists and girl-friendly storylines. And research suggests that this assumption still influences the choices of those making children’s fare. Smith, who’s done tons of number-crunching into gender portrayals in media, surveyed the folks who make G, PG, and PG-13 movies, and found the belief that “girls will watch stories about boys, but boys won’t watch stories about girls” was “almost axiomatic” among interviewees.

Interesting, eh? It’s almost suffocating to think that the reason that boys “won’t watch” shows with a female lead is because a network executive tends to think along those lines.

Where Copeland’s article excels is when she gets down to brass tacks; namely why boys are watching these shows. The answers are deceptively simple:

  1. Active heroines
  2. Humour
  3. Emotional resonance

Notice that they are, in and of themselves, neutral of gender norms. A heroine is a female hero, but her actions are not defined by her gender. Humour is universal among every human regardless of gender and humans are emotional creatures anyway. The differences between males and females in that respect only come to light as social expectations and influences take hold on a child as they age.

Good character traits should be universal, and distinct from gender. Copeland mentions Korra as a great example of a heroine, and she’s right! Korra is a great heroine, but the audience doesn’t like her because she’s female, they like her because she’s a great character. She’s a teenager! Conflicted! Experiencing growing pains! Her gender doesn’t have a bearing on any of these. Even her romantic calamities are somewhat universal to the sexes.

Isaia Korra audience

There is unfortunately a bit of a vicious cycle in terms of what audiences watch and what executives think they want to watch. It’s particularly marked in kids programming (and by extension, animation) and is exacerbated as the audience matures.

Perhaps the reason that men and women seem to want to watch different things is because they are beaten over the head with the notion that they have to. It begins in childhood and continues from there.

The key is that, at least for kids, utilising certain tropes for a TV show and doing so in a gender-ambiguous way does them no harm at all in the popularity stakes. That said, it was still disappointing to read that Disney feels the need to roll out a separate Doc McStuffin’s doctor’s bag in more ‘boy-friendly’ colours. Proof that despite the advances made at the personal level, social barriers, even at kids’ ages, remain.

What was interesting to learn was that kids take gender cues from more than the characters:

Of course, there’s still that  weird toddler rigidity about gender that causes kids to hone in on subtle (and sometimes imaginary) cues about gender from their TV shows. Lemish says even choppy scene cuts can communicate a more boy-oriented urgency and action, as opposed to soft dissolves, more common on girls’ shows.

Would you ever think about that? Neither would I!

Copeland sums it all up in the simplest, and best way possible:

After all, the less content creators make a big deal of gender, the less it seems to matter to the kids themselves.

Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it true that gender is only a big deal because we think it is?