Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!