A comparison of representation between genders and how different genders are portrayed in children’s media
I have chosen this EPQ topic because I wanted to address possible issues in the world we live in today. It’s no secret that in society sexism, under representation and/or bad representation of both genders run wild and the issues greatly affect males and females. Representation is the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way, whether that be good or bad. This essay will explore the differences and similarities of the way males and females are portrayed in children’s media, and even dig deeper into the intersectional theory which is the view that people experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity, for example, that be the fact they are a member of the LGBT community or a POC (Person of colour).
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For this essay, I define children’s media as: Television Shows (Animation and Sitcoms) and Films. Originally, I included children’s literature as one of the areas I would analyse but I decided against this idea as I felt I was working with too much and I wouldn’t be able to complete my project on time. I knew that focusing on too many things wouldn’t allow me to work to my full ability and on the other hand, it’s a lot easier to watch something than it is to read something and fully comprehend it. I have many films and shows that I have used to base my research, for example I have taken a selection of the most popular shows (based on opinions from online critics and some factual evidence also) from the Networks dedicated to the ages of 8-16 so CN (Cartoon Network) and its sister channels affiliated with it and Disney, along with their related channels. Some of these programs include the popular programs like Steven Universe, Gravity Falls and Spongebob Squarepants.
It’s no use just watching these shows of course, I aim to make detailed notes showing the percentages of male and female character appearances in episodes, how certain genders and minorities are portrayed and to debate the question of which gender really receives the best and most realistic representation. For example, some questions I have asked myself during my research include, are there any obvious stereotypes that stand out to you and how do they make you feel? By doing this I believe I can form a solid opinion on the shows I have watched. However, it’s important that my opinions are not one sided so I aim to really argue with myself over the issues and weigh up the positives and the negatives in my conclusion.
Furthermore, I wanted to discover how other people felt about gender representation in children’s media also. It would allow me to see if people really thought there was an issue and to try and understand those who believed that what their children were watching on television was okay. I have used questionnaires to gather opinions from both parents and children in hope that they will allow me to generalise the opinions further.
Television: Cartoon Network
Starting with Turner’s ‘Cartoon Network’ I have chosen two programs from the channel, Johnny Bravo and Steven Universe.
- Johnny Bravo
Starting with Johnny Bravo; it premiered on July 14, 1997, making it the earliest show on the Cartoon Network list, and the first season completed production in December of that year. The series stars a muscular young man named Johnny Bravo who dons a pompadour hairstyle and an Elvis Presley-like voice. He has a forward, woman-chasing personality and the plots typically revolve around him trying to get a woman that he has targeted throughout the episode to fall in love with him. He is often beaten up or stunned by his target or companions, or is ditched by them in the end. Almost immediately I believe this sort of program to contain very sexist messages towards both men and women. For men, it shows that it’s normal to lust after young beautiful women and treat them as nothing but sexual objects that you can try and win over. Then, there’s also the problem that the main character is promoting unrealistic standards for young boys. Adults or older viewers may see this as a joke made by the creators however I believe young children may comprehend this differently, they may believe this is the proper way to act.
- Steven Universe
Finally, we have Steven Universe. it premiered on November 4, 2013 as Cartoon Network’s first animated series to be solely created by a woman, Rebecca Sugar. I think the fact Rebecca Sugar is the first woman to create an animated series says a lot about the show because we can see that a woman is writing women which will lead to more accurate women characters. It is the coming-of-age story of a young boy named Steven Universe, who lives in the fictional town of Beach City with the “Crystal Gems” – Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, three magical humanoid aliens. Steven, who is half-Gem, goes on adventures with his friends and helps the Gems protect the world from their own kind(Wikipedia, 2017).
I decided to watch Steven Universe instead of other popular CN television shows, for example Adventure Time or We Bare Bears because it’s very different from your usual cartoon. What I mean by that is we have four main characters, three of them are women who sport different body shapes which shows great body representation for women and there’s even one character who is coded black, which means that outside of the show’s context, she is seen is a black woman.
When watching some of the episodes for the show, I expected to see a lot of good representation for both genders and minorities too. I didn’t expect to see any themes or characters that were LGBT, but if there were, I’d expect them to be secondary characters or not that important at all. However, I was proved wrong and the show surpassed what I expected.
We’ll start with the very first episode of Steven Universe, ‘Laser Light Canon’. Not even a minute into the episode and 3 out of the 6 characters we’ve seen are plus size which is very surprising as you don’t normally have that many characters that aren’t just slim or curvy in children’s television shows. Two minutes in and we meet the crystal gems; Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl. We see these characters fighting against corrupted beings, not even breaking a sweat. The first impression we have of these women is that they are powerful and that they don’t conform to the norm.
Amethyst is very relaxed, she lassos the monster and calmly says, “S’up Steven?” while doing a peace sign. From this we can see that she’s the laid back one of the group, she doesn’t take things too seriously and she likes to have fun with what she does. One thing to note is that Amethyst is plus sized, a very deliberate characteristic the story boarders have given her. In media, overweight characters (mostly girls) are virtually absent. In the Prix Jeunesse study for children’s television in the UK, 431 (63.7%) of the sample were of average weight, 192 (27.4%) of the characters were very thin, and 55 (8.9%) very overweight. 63.7% of all characters represented in British children’s TV are of a normal body range. Females are more often thin, males more often overweight. Out of the female characters 159 (55.2%) are in the normal range, 112 (38.9%) are very thin and 17 (5.9%) are very overweight. 272 male characters (69.9%) are in the normal range, 79 (20.3%) are very thin and 38 (9.8%) are very overweight.  This shows that the cartoon is obviously aiming for representation of larger characters and so far, this is good representation.
The next character Pearl is then seen, she moves carefully and her strikes are precise as a melodic tune from a piano plays in the background. From this small part we can see that Pearl lives up to her gemstone symbolism; she’s pure and innocent.
Disney Movies: Disney and Pixar
For this part of my report, I would like to refer to the studios Disney and Pixar both as ‘Disney’. It is my understanding that they are different but fundamentally they stem from the same studio.
The first film we have from Disney is the 1998 classic, ‘Mulan’. This film is heavily praised and noted for being a ‘feminist’ film but why is that? What makes ‘Mulan’ feminist? The basic plot of the film is that Mulan takes the place of her father in the war as she is concerned about her health. ‘Mulan’ tackles the idea of how gender roles are worthless and that anybody can do anything as long as you have the right attitude however some may argue against this. After her male disguise fails and she is banished, Mulan doesn’t give up and instead saves the whole of China and winning the heart of her once captain, Shang.
One of the problems that have arisen already is the use of gender identity and what makes you a man or a woman. Mulan plays with the idea that to be a man you must “â€¦be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon” which are lyrics from the song, “I’ll make a man out of you.” This is a problem as it reinforces the idea that you should be a ‘man’ but what does it mean to be a man? This is giving young children, young boys in particular, a very obscured impression of what men are; that they should be powerful and forceful. This also links to the idea that men are praised for taking charge and women are brandished as bossy (see figure 1) and commanding. In addition, the opening song, “honour to us all” includes the lyrics, “men want girls with good taste, (who are) calm (and) obedient” and “who work fast-paced, with good breeding and a tiny waist”. This is obviously sexist and demonstrates that in the past women were seen as nothing more than objects for men to admire.
A further problem with gender identity in the film ‘Mulan’ is that it could be regarded as transphobic as its ideas of what it means to be a man or woman only reference the physical aspects, for example the way we look or the way we talk which can be seen when Mulan cuts off her hair and uses a deep tone when pretending to be ‘Ping’ who is her male alter ego. The film does not reference the mental aspects of gender and could possibly offend a minority of people.
However, some argue that Mulan isn’t transphobic in the slightest, it’s just all about gender performance, much like drag in real life. In the “Feminist and Queer Analysis of Disney’s Mulan” by Juliane Fung they suggest that using the queer theory’s idea of gender performativity, it can instead be argued that Mulan is a film about gender performance and not gender itself. The film is supported by Butler’s idea that gender is not an inherent set of traits, but rather it is performed (Ott and Mack 2009).
Furthermore, the film explores the pressure that is put on young women and how the anxieties can affect the. In the song, “Reflection” Mulan considers about her roles she has. She claims that “she will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter” which shows the unrealistic demands that she was asked of. Mulan also hopes that she can “free (herself) from their expectations” which also demonstrates that women are
In conclusion, many would argue that Mulan executes feminism ideals very well and that the theme of women empowerment is the most prominent in the whole film while others would disagree and claim that the film portrays the belief that men are in fact superior to women and that feminine traits will always be subordinate to those of the superior male class, as explained in Juliane Fung’s analysis. “Throughout the whole movie, the emphasis is on gender roles, not Mulan’s aim to save China or her father’s life. Moreover, I believe that no gender here is represented in a more positive way than negative. It’s very obvious that Mulan reinforces gender stereotypes with males being strong leaders and females serving no other purpose than looking after their husbands and being beautiful. Something I felt was completely unnecessary was giving Mulan the love interest too, this film was supposed to show Mulan being strong and independent and break free of the stereotype that women should be wives and dedicate their life to domestic life so I felt having Mulan and Shang share a romantic relationship completely went against the film’s intended message.
The Princess and the Frog
The second film we have from Disney is ‘The Princess and The Frog’ which is the modernised version of the Brothers Grimm‘s ‘The frog king’. This film excited many people as it was the first Disney film to have an African American lead role who was female. It also strays away from the typical ‘damsel in distress’ trope that Disney have frequently used in the past. Tiana is a hardworking woman from New Orleans from 1930’s America. She works two jobs to try and fund her dreams of owning a restaurant but due to discrimination she is left without the chance to buy an empty property. Her friend Charlotte is the daughter of the mayor, she’s rich and beautiful yet her and Tiana have a very honest and open relationship. This is really refreshing to see as you would expect Charlotte and Tiana to have a very unfortunate relationship however they work really well together. One problem however is that there are the stereotypes of the ‘smart brunette’ and the ‘dumb/helpless blonde’. (Götz, 2006).
Tiana is a headstrong character while Charlotte is constantly obsessed with marrying princess and being a princess herself, many would argue that she is a very one-dimensional character as she has no other tropes other than the one previously mentioned.
As I previously mentioned, Tiana was the first female African American lead of a Disney movie so a lot of people would be excited to see what role she would take on and how she would be represented. A positive of Tiana’s character is that she shows that it’s important to work hard for what you want and that you should always follow your head. Her happily ever after isn’t that she is married to a prince, although that does happen, it is more about the fact she finally has her restaurant after working hard for so many years. It’s very inspiring to see that Tiana finally reaches her goal after all of the hardships she faced but there are many problems attached to this as well.
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One problem that I have found is the fact that Disney likes to include love interests when they’re clearly not needed. By showcasing male-female romantic love as something ‘out of the ordinary, special and magical’ children’s films further the notion of heterosexuality normative. (Kazyak and Martin, 2009) Furthermore, it seems at the end of the film that Tiana was only able to purchase the restaurant she wanted because of Naveen’s money and his status as a prince. It’s understandable that this is more realistic as his privilege would have helped Tiana in the 30s but what sort of message does it promote to young women? That you have to rely on a man to reach your goals? In my opinion this is bad representation as it is showing that women cannot be independent in the long run.
Another problem that could be argued is that even though Disney made a huge breakthrough with their first African American lead, Tiana spends the majority of the film as an amphibian. Obviously, she has to be so the film can be progressed but what does it say if we hardly have any moments with a humanised Tiana? It could be claimed that because of the way Disney gave human Tiana hardly any screen time they didn’t want a woman of colour to be the main lead and that is understandable. However, on many pieces of merchandise Tiana is very much always presented as a human and not as the frog character we know so this could dispute that claim.
On the other hand, Prince Naveen also has troubles with representation in the film. Disney have come under fire from many fans and black man who accuse Disney of erasing their identities. Stroman (1984) states that black characters on television shows are more likely to be unemployed and impoverished so by making Naveen racially ambiguous, Disney have offended many people. From a blog online people have argued that this was a ‘slap in the face of black men’ who are only portrayed as ‘criminals and sidekicks’ and not ‘heroes and romantic love interests’.
In conclusion, I feel like Disney did try to represent both genders and minorities in this case well yet it didn’t work. There are many problems such as the fact that the two main people of colour spend the majority of the film as amphibians and not portrayed as humans, that the female character has to rely on the male character for her dreams to come true and the ‘forced’ hetero-romance between the main characters. On the other hand, there are many positives too. Tiana is overall a very inspiring character for young girls and especially little black girls. It’s important for children to not only be encouraged by a character but that they can relate with them also. Tiana teaches them not to give up on your dreams even if the world is against you and that’s an important life lesson for anyone. Prince Naveen is also a good role model for young boys, but mostly towards the end of the film when he has come to the end of his character arc. He goes from a penniless prince to a man who is loving and caring of his friends and family. He is concerned about his own ego at the start but changes to become more compassionate. What’s more is that Naveen loves his music and encourages others to play, something which is considered quite feminine.
- Figure 1
http://articles.bplans.com/gender-equality-white-paper/?_ga=1.15604406.1436524096.1490723092 (Accessed Feb, 17)
- (Ott and Mack 2009)
Ott, Brian, and Robert Mack. Critical Media Studies. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. (Accessed Jan, 17)
- (Götz, 2006).
Götz, M. (2006). Die Hauptfiguren im deutschen Kinderfernsehen (The main characters of German children’s TV). In: TelevIZIon, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 4-7. (Accessed October, 16)
- (Kazyak and Martin, 2009)
Martin, K. A., & Kazyak, E. (2009). Hetero-romantic love and heterosexiness in children’s g-rated films. Gender and Society, 23(3), 315-336.
(Accessed October, 16)
- (Stroman, 1984)
Stroman, C.A. (1984). The socialization influence of television on black children [Electronic Version]. Journal of Black Studies, 15(1), 79-100.
(Accessed January, 17)
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Bravo#cite_note-8, 2017
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Universe, 2017
 https://www.reddit.com/r/stevenuniverse/comments/3j7r23/does_garnet_count_as_black/cun2a4f/, 2016
 The Portrayals of Minority Characters in Entertaining Animated Children’s Programs, http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-05282004-130909/unrestricted/Smith_thesis.pdf
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