We’ve been clamouring for them for years, but now that we’ve finally got we wanted, it may actually be necessary to kill the strong female character off.
Gender is a topic in animation circles that is gaining more traction lately mainly thanks to a growing realisation that for all the talk of an industry that has less sever gender segregation and under representation than live-action, it’s still a heavily male-dominated industry. That translates into the programming and associated merchandise so easily that it’s long been simply taken for granted. In recent years, the problem has attracted more attention as viewers, consumer groups and activists look to balance the equation for women and females in animation. For an example of a possible fix, we turn to the east, and the hit anime show Attack on Titan.
Female characters often have a tough time with variety. While there is plenty of debate and discussion surrounding the prevalence of stereotypes that send poor messages to viewers, there is something else that is completely overlooked. Dave Pressler ponders the interesting question of why female characters are often forced too look feminine by executives.
Adventure Time; a show famous for it’s awesome lead characters and bros for life, Finn and Jake but also for it’s great supporting cast of diverse female characters. Princess Bubblegum (Peebles), Marceline the Vampire Queen, and countless other princesses from the magical Land of Ooo. Yet McDonalds thinks that only boys deserve the show’s toys in their Happy Meals. What gives?
Sprung upon the (non-Japanese) world last week was a series of lingerie based on the Disney Princess brand. Yet here in the west, a bit of a burhaha unfolded as people discussed the merits and demerits of such merchandise. In the midst of it all, people forgot that they might not be so weird, or so bad after all.
This post was, in fact, written on Thursday the result of a full day of travelling today. The week link list is no shorter however as this week has already produced a decent variety of interesting articles on the topic of animation. Enjoy!
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.
Unusually enough for a blog about animation, you don’t see that many videos posted here. That is let slide today because PBS and their Idea Channel on YouTube have released a rather excellent video:
The topics of animation, gender and the issues surrounding the two are a familiar site on the blog and in Is BMO Expressive of Feminism? host Mike Rugnetta does a great job of analysing both BMO’s character and it’s gender (or lack thereof) and how it relates to the so-called third wave of feminism.
Now this isn’t a feminist blog per se but many of the goals of the movement can be related to and discussed within, the boundaries of socially mandated gender norms and expectations.
BMO, as Rugnetta contends, ignores many of those established norms and, in effect, makes gender a non-issue simply by not having the character defined as one. BMO is both male and female and yet is also neither, being an electronic box of parts that cannot comprehend self-definition of a gender because it simply isn’t possible.
Rugnetta is right that BMO serves to break down the social norms we are used to but not at the expense of the character themselves. BMO is universally loved by all fans of adventure time and serves as one of the few such unifying characters in animation today.
Is BMO representative of third wave feminist ideals and goals? It’s a bit of a stretch to entirely attribute BMO’s character to the notions of biological and social gender identifications. But having said that, the character does illustrate how the concept of gender identification does not need to be something that is forced on individual viewers.
It is ironic that Adventure Time is, overall, heavily geared towards boys and that despite some fantastic, strong female characters, it remains that way. The fact that it includes and is proud of, a character that defies such gender logic is just another aspect to an already super show.
Does BMO represent the future? Rugnetta argues as representative of the third wave of feminism, he/she is. I, on the other hand, would contend that BMO is more of a prototype of sorts as to how such characters could work if and when they become more mainstream and how existing gender norms could be applied in equal measure to a character.
The important lesson to impart from the video and this post is that gender continues to be something that is incredibly dependent on our social upbringing and environment. While it is perfectly fine to self-identify as a particular gender, society continues to impress certain norms and expectations on individuals that are not entirely, well, compatible with the ideal of a free and open society.
While BMO is but one character in an animated TV show, he/she is groundbreaking from the standpoint that such societal pressures are just that and the character’s ignorance of the expectations associated with it, display a positive message for kids that will hopefully take root.
The Powerpuff Girls continues to exude an influence over American animation and beyond. Such a success was the original show, Cartoon Network brought it back for a one-off 10th anniversary special. Not being able to leave well enough alone, they’re dipping into the pot again with another, CGI special coming out in 2014. Undoubtedly popular and influential, the show also made pariahs out of certain fans.
I suppose we were the Bronies of our generation. After a few minutes you either got it or you didn’t – that alternately beneath or above the surface of innocuous kids’ fare there was something a lot more clever, sharp and self-aware going on. Little tells such as the passive-aggressive asides the show’s narrator (Tom Kenny) would make, or the blink-and-miss-them double entendres and obscene sleight-of-hand sight gags all cultivated a general sense that the folks behind what you were watching were up to something not nearly as innocent as the squeaky voices and bright colours would have you initially believe.
All these are qualities that the show has become famous for. However, fans of the show (when it was being broadcast) were expected to follow certain, well, expectations:
Such was the lament of all Powerpuff Girls fans who didn’t happen to be preadolescent and female. The world just didn’t understand, nor could they without giving it the hours of semi-drunken attention I’d had by that point.
Which in essence is the very issue the show has had to struggle with since it first began. Yes, it featured three female protagonists and was overly sugary, but it wasn’t overly girly. Not to use that term as a perjorative, rather I mean it didn’t conform to the usual notion that shows with girls and heavy dose of pink needed to be aimed at, or exclusively enjoyed by, girls.
The show garnered a large fanbase spread among all sectors of society, but ran into the problem that shows before (and since) have had to come to terms with: the show appears to be better suited to girls, therefore it is only suited to girls.
Fans of the show know the truth, but impressing that on others is a tough sell. Is ignorance to blame? Certainly in a partial capacity it is. Plenty of people form opinions on things they haven’t seen and form subconscious policies on them as a result. That means that if they think or believe that the Powerpuff Girls is a girly show, then they are much less likely to conclude that it isn’t, even if they’ve watched it. It’s not impossible, but the odds are high that they won’t.
The issue extends to fans themselves as well. Become known as a male fan of a supposedly female-oriented show, and opinions and biases are immediately applied to you.
It’s an unfortunate human nature, and it’s one that is hopefully starting to change in terms of animated content. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the subsequent Brony phenomenon (coincidentally another show that Lauren Faust worked on) has shown that there is the potential for fans to be more open about which shows they enjoy without having to justify it to a higher standard than previously.
Can you name any other examples of shows where fans could be unfairly stigmatised?
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.
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:
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:
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!
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?
If you’re not familiar with Winx Club, just imagine My Little Pony x Barbie x 10 or just look at the picture above to start tripping. It’s an Italian animated TV show that centres around a group of female faeries and their magical adventures that’s been shown on Nickelodeon here in the States. The animation is average and the plots leave a bit to be desired, but on the whole, it’s a fun show in the same vein as DiC’s finest output.
Anyway, what brought the show a bit further to the top of my attention is a post over on the Escher Girls tumblelog that discusses a series of miniature figurines of the stars of the show that are being rolled out by Kinder, the brand of chocolate owned by Italian company Ferraro. The figurines themselves are below (you can click to get the full size):
Via: Escher Girls
The Escher Girls’ post discusses their poses in the context of supposed sexyness. However, there is something else that bothers me, and that is the fact that for the first time, the Kinder eggs are being genderised. That is to say, they are being classified through the oh-so-original use of pink on the packaging.
Well that’s subtle, isn’t it? Anway, the real insult is in the reason found at this site [in German]. It says:
Der Grund für diese Maßnahme? Erkenntnisse der Markforschung inspirierten kinder Überraschung dazu. Die besagen, dass sich Mädchen heutzutage nicht mehr in nur eine Schublade stecken lassen. Pink und Ponyhof ist ihnen genau so wichtig, wie Fußball und Frauenpower. Eigene Erhebungen haben diesen Trend bestätigt.
Or as a poor Google translation:
The reason for this action? Knowledge of market research inspired kids to surprise. Which state that girls today can no longer be stuck in only one drawer. Pink and ponies [for] them [are] just as important as football and girl power. [Our] own surveys have confirmed this trend.
Hmm, so basically the survey says girls like this stuff so it must be true, right? Well, things get even more blatant in the following paragraph:
Ob Blumen-Ringe oder bunte Armbänder mit Tiermotiven – das Basissortiment des Mädchen-Eies hält genauso klassische „Mädchensachen“ bereit, wie auch aktivierende Spielzeuge zum Werfen, Spielen und Malen, Puzzeln und Basteln. Genau die Vielfalt also, die sich die Mädchen von heute wünschen. Und genau die Bandbreite, die Mädchen mädchengerecht anspricht und deren Individualität fördert.
And an even poorer Gooogle translation:
Whether flower rings or bracelets with colorful animal designs – keeps the basic range of the girl-egg just classic “girl stuff”, as were activated for throwing toys, games and painting, puzzles and crafts. Exactly the variety that the girls of today want. And just the range, [the] responsive girl needs [to] promote their individuality.
Riiiiiight, so giving them girly things that will encourage them to promote their individuality. Hmmm.
So what’s the real issue here? Is it the fact that Kinder have decided to split their audience? Is it the likely decision to accept a co-pro deal in order to do so? Or is it the fact that toys from saccharine shows like Winx Club couldn’t possibly be seen as as desirable to anyone except little girls?
The answer is really a combination of all of them. Kinder, as long established as it is, should know better, especially given the backlash against Lego and their attempt to market a line of girl-oriented sets. And animation studios, like Winx’s producer, Rainbow, should be less inclined to create shows that are so restricted in their possible appeal.
The Hub was all too lucky with My Little Pony and it would be sad if that was a fluke. There are plenty of common themes that can be explored in kids shows and there is little reason for a show like Winx to be so heavily biased. Kinder has no excuses whatsoever though.