Female Demographics Neglected By Animation

Daria Morgendorfer
This character should be a hint.

When we think of animation, or indeed any form of entertainment, there is a propensity to think of it only in terms of how it already exists. What I mean is that animation, for a staggeringly long time, was considered as belonging in the kids’ realm (I’m afraid I can’t source the famous “we’re the babysitter” quote that I thought was attributed to Wollie Reitherman.) and it’s only very recently that we’ve started to see it slowly away from that perception. What I’m curious about though, is are there female demographics neglected by animation at the moment, and if so, why?

Who IS Covered

First though, it’s important to look at who is currently covered:

  • Boys aged 0-12
  • Girls aged 0-12
  • Boys aged 16-29

Now before you get out the pitchforks, bear in mind that I’m talking specifically about animation that is aimed at a particular demo. Yes, The Simpsons can be, and is enjoyed by everyone; the same goes for Pixar films, but if you were to collar someone from the responsible marketing department and ask them nicely (or maybe rough them up) they will tell you that either animation is marketed with one demographic in mind.

Which demographic that is will depend heavily not only on who is expected to watch the show, but also who is expected to support it. Examples are pre-school and pre-teen shows. Neither has an audience with any meaningful disposable income but both possess parents who do!

So even though the pre-school show will appeal to kids, you find that it is specifically tailored to what parents desire in their kid’s entertainment. In the case of pre-school that is partly the reason why almost all of them contain a heavy emphasis on education over pure entertainment.

Moving up the age scale, kids aged 6-12 do get more of an emphasis on entertainment because their ability to sell their parents on supporting merchandise is much stronger and by the time they make it to the top, they are practically mini consumers; a.k.a. tweens.

Boys and young males aged 16 and above are adequately catered for through the likes of [adult swim], anime (if they are so inclined) and whatever other kinds of animated entertainment they can dig up for themselves.

Who is NOT Covered

Where things tend to fall apart is once the teenage years kick in. Based on what is currently out there, there is a glut for both genders around the 13-15 mark. That’s pretty natural though as kids get caught between a rock and a hard place in regards to content; too old for the younger stuff, too young for the older stuff. I don’t foresee this gap being narrowed substantially any time soon.

What is noticeable though is that while boys have options once they hit their mid-late teens, girls do not. In other words, boys are brought back into the animation fold through the likes of [adult swim] and anime (plenty of guns, violence and giant robots), girls don’t have anything (or very little) comparable to that at all.

Seriously. Close your eyes and think of a current, animated TV program (or animated film) that’s aimed specifically at mid-late teenage girls or those in their early 20s. I can easily name a dozen live-action shows but nothing animated even comes close to mind.

Again, this is not to say that girls in that age range can’t enjoy animated programming or films; a heck of a lot of them do, but a glance around the TV schedules and cinema listings reveals a glaring gap in animated programming tailored to them.

Oh, and as for Brave, well again, you’ll have to corner our marketing friend, but I would be greatly shocked if that was being tailored for anyone over the age of 13.

So could it be that girls are ‘dropping out’ of the animation scene in their teenage years because there is nothing to pick them up at the other side of the lull around 13-15? The signs currently point to yes, and there are many, many reasons behind it.

Standard arguments that get trotted out for this kind of thing is that there is no market for it, that girls genuinely have no interest in animated programming once they near adulthood and (most egregiously) that they simply enjoy the same content as guys. All are false. Audiences can only watch what they are given, so saying they don’t want to watch something that doesn’t exist is a load of hogwash.

What About Daria?

Ah yes, what about Daria. The MTV animated show could be said to aim precisely at the very audiences discussed in this post. It had a female lead(s) and tended to adhere to the social and moral quandaries that many teenagers face. The show also achieved all this while bridging the gender divide and appealing to all teenagers.

However, the show has long since departed from the airwaves and nary a replacement has been seen since. As of 2013, it regretfully resides in the nostalgia zone, where only those who originally watched it will seek it out in any meaningful numbers.

What Can Be Done

It’s a topic that’s been covered here on the blog before, but the bottom line is that there simply is not enough animated content being made for girls at all ages, prepubescent or otherwise. Even the comics industry has seen an increase in this kind of content with plenty of female comic artists and writers getting works out that is more likely to appeal to that kind of audience.

Animation retains a kind of stigma when it comes to this, and my guess is that no-one of the powers that be are willing to make the right move to get the shows that are needed, made and broadcast.

The simple answer is to make the content and make it well.


UPDATED: The Wall Street Journal On Gender And The Legend Of Korra

Updated at the bottom.

Via: The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal is the straight man of American journalism. It’s supposedly “above the fray” of other news organizations that would rather concern themselves with celebrity gossip than real news. Of course all that is less true now that the Journal is owned by the same person whose made a killing muckracking others, but that’s beside the point.

What IS the point is that they currently have a very nice write-up of the new Nickelodeon series Legend of Korra. (The direct link to the WSJ is here, but for the proles among us, I recommend going to Google News and searching for “The Next ‘Airbender’ Gets Older, Wiser and Adds a Feminine Touch” in order to get the full text).

While the article provides a good overview of the new series and its origins in Avatar: The Last Airbender, what makes it stand out is the deceleration that while this series is more girl-friendly than the original, male viewer numbers won’t be affected:

According to Nickelodeon, the median age of “Avatar” viewers is 12.8 years old, and the audience is roughly 65% male and 35% female. Mr. Konietzko said Nickelodeon tested the new series and young boys readily accepted the show’s female hero. “You can’t say it’s gonna fail when there aren’t that many things to point to in animation like this,” Mr. Konietzko said. “Luckily, Nick was brave enough to let us do it.”

Now in fairness to Nickelodeon, they’ve been a bit more progressive than others when it comes to the whole matter of female-led shows with the likes of My Life as a Teenage Robot being a great example. The paragraph above flies in the face of conventional traditional “wisdom” which states that boys won’t watch a show with a female lead. While I think  that is pure bunk, it nonetheless was on Disney’s mind when they altered their film from Rapunzel to Tangled.

Perhaps the best indicator of things to come though, is in this quote, which sums up very nicely the current trend in movies:

“Korra” has been in the works for years, but Mr. DiMartino said that with the success of “The Hunger Games” movie and the coming Pixar film “Brave,” which both feature strong female leads, “The time is right in the cultural zeitgeist for all these female heroes to come out.”

I can’t wait to see them when they do  🙂

Update: Megan over at Forever Young Adult has written a very enthusiastic post about the series that did a good job of confirming that I should catch this show. On top of that, she had this to say about Korra herself.

Guys, Korra is a kick-ass heroine to be reckoned with. She’s strong, brash, and stubborn. But she’s also kind-hearted, fun and brave. You will love her almost instantly. Plus, when was the last time you saw a show that had a non-white 17 year old girl (albeit, animated girl) as its lead? And when was the last time you had a YA girl as a lead in something that wasn’t (at least originally) exclusively marketed toward YA girls?? It sounds so pathetic, but THIS IS THE SHOW I’VE BEEN DREAMING OF. This is the kind of show you should watch with your daughters AND sons because it’s important for them to have an awesome young woman to look up to and emulate and/or admire. And it’s great for us olds, because I know I always want to read about/watch cool ladies, 24/7/365! Also, look at those guns! You should watch the show for her guns alone.

While it comes close to going over the top, it is nonetheless a great description of the main protagonist and why there is so much to like about her. I certainly hope we see more series like this one promises to be.

Violet Parr Does NOT Grow Up Within A Single Scene

Caution: This post deals with mature themes (but in a mature way).

On Sunday, while searching for a suitable picture of Mr Potato Head for that day’s post (yes, really), I managed to stumble across the rather intriguing blog that is ANIMadams, which focuses exclusively on women and females in general and how they’re portrayed in animation (and a few related markets).

Sadly in hibernation since this past June (2011), the blog would take what many would consider to be a feminist view/approach and while I’m no masculine feminist (Jerry Springer can keep that title), I’ve come to appreciate what the three contributors have to say (to a certain extent).

Which leads to today’s post concerning The Incredibles, a film that remains firmly within my top 3 all time favourites. The post from ANIMadams deals with Violet in particular. Now Violet is certainly my favourite characters in that film for many reasons. Chief among them is that I see a lot of myself in her and how she struggles with her shyness.

Entitled “Let’s Talk About Sex-ualization” the post discusses how the writer views the transformation of Violet during the course of the film from an insecure teenager to an assertive super hero:

It’s not until Helen can be honest with herself and the family, being the superhero she loves to be, that she can properly model for her children. She has a heart-to-heart with her daughter after which Violet strikes a stronger pose than the audience has become acclimated to. It is after this that she begins to be much more active, coming out from behind the veil of her own hair.

It’s safe to say that yes, Violet is portrayed in a different light after this talk with her mother, she’s more assertive, she no longer hides away from real life and she can see clearly with both her eyes the challenges she faces. It’s partly why the film is so fantastic; it exhibits the power of individuals to change themselves for the better.

Then, we get to this line:

Violet is then inadvertently sexualized and objectified. While suggesting to her parents – taking charge like an adult would – a way for them to escape, Violet’s rear is placed directly in the foreground of the camera as her parents bicker in the background. Her entire rear and only her rear.

Here is the offending shot:


And here is the argument:

Let me emphasize: I do not believe this is intentional. But I do find it to be a very odd coincidence that once Violet has decided to step up and into adolescence, she is immediately sexualized, even for a few seconds.

No, it is intentional, just not in the way youbelieve. Brad Bird is one of the best animation directors out there at the moment and he’s the kind of guy who knows exactly the kind of shot he wants. This one in particular is meant to be seen from a low angle because the rocket has to be shown in the background. It is where the family are ultimately heading. Placing the Incredibles above the level of the viewer also suggests that they have regained/attained their status as superheroes, they’re not superior, but we do look up to them.

The nature of the scene dictates that Violet propose the solution to the family’s problem. Now you could say that having her voice her opinion could easily have been conducted off-screen, however that would result in some jerky direction of the kind that Brad Bird isn’t known for. Having Violet appear in the scene reminds the audience that she’s present before she makes a suggestion. Based on the alignment of the shot mentioned above, it would seem natural that we would not see her head but the lower part of her figure instead.

What the ANIMadams point alludes to is the rapid maturing that Violet’s character leads to her “sexualisation” in this scene. This I disagree with on the grounds that while she does a lot of growing-up in the course of the film, she isn’t sexualised in the slightest during any of it. She is interested in Tony Rydinger before and after the events of the film. The only difference is that she gains the courage to actually talk to him.

Having her butt on-screen for a few seconds does not constitute turning Violet into an object. If anything, the viewer’s attention is focused on Bob and Helen and is only vaguely aware of Violet’s intrusion until both parents turn around, at which point we immediately cut to Violet’s face. Besides, we’re more concerned at this point in the film with how the family is going to stop Syndrome anyway, right?

The ANIMadam’s post over-simplifies the rather complex developments that teenagers undergo in course of a number of years down into a single shot, and not even  a long one at that. While it’s completely fair to say that Violet does begin her path to womanhood during the film, it is completely unfair to say that she was thrust down that path without her consent by the director.

Do you have any thoughts comments? Feel free to leave them below. 🙂

What Makes A Strong Female Character?

It’s no secret (or maybe it is) that I find much to celebrate in female characters, especially lead female protagonists who are also strong female characters. There is much to commend a show with a female lead, especially one that does not pander to traditional ‘girly’ notions.

Which is important to note because there is a certain belief that boys are not attracted to content with a female slant. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no reasons why a boy can’t also watch the same shows as girls, there is just a very strong societal pressure when it comes to these kinds of things. Boys do ‘boys’ things and girls do ‘girls’ things. There is no or very little middle ground around the crucial ages.

What are the crucial ages you ask? They are the ages of 6-10, where children are most ripe for commercialisation. They are of course, subject to and receptive of more advertising than any other age group, and advertisers are in no mood to alter the status quo. That’s why you get girls toys and boys toys with unisex toys limited to board games and the like.

There are a few female protagonists out there that can serve as role models, the one above is one, below is another one.

What makes these characters strong? How about some of these traits:

  • Decisiveness
  • Independence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Leadership
  • Companionship (with boys too!)
  • Intelligence
  • Understanding
  • Vulnerability
  • Thoughtfulness

Do Jenny and Kim share a few of these? You bet! You’ll notice that I did not mention looks nor did I mention interests. As much an emphasis as our society places on looks, they are not the be all and the end all when it comes to characters. Look at Bessie Higgenbottom from the Mighty B (below). Being attractive ain’t her strong point but her character as a whole is.

What interests the character isn’t important either. Female characters can be quite capable of enjoying or not enjoying girly things. There is also the other extreme to consider where the character is a tomboy. Nothing wrong with that (it worked for Helga in Hey Arnold) although pulling off takes care. Sam from Danny Phantom is a good example, she hangs out with the boys but also enjoys her own, more girly  things in private.

The point of this post, I suppose, is to challenge the notion that female characters and protagonists must conform to certain boundaries when portrayed on TV or in films. That is not to say we need to ban all girly shows, far from it, they have their place too. Just that we should be able to see more of a balance when it comes to content. Boys and girls do enjoy different things, but they also enjoy a lot of the same things too. Something for you, and the networks, to think about.