Monday, March 7, 2011

Beauty is the Beast...

More than a third of Canadian households own at least three television sets. Canadian kids watch an average of 16.8 hours of television a week on them and studies suggest that preschoolers inparticular watch an average of 2.6 hours a day.
Combine that with the fact that young children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, and you're left with young children exposed to hours of cartoons depicting exaggerated stereotyped behaviour, who recognize both the story and the characters as reality.

I have a 4 year old boy, so we have a Superhero thing in my house. My kid pretends to have superhuman powers everyday. He pretends he has super fighting skills, or super rescue abilities or super flying powers. This is great fun, but I can't help but wonder which Superhero games we'd be playing if my 4 year old was a girl instead. After all, two thirds (65 %) of all animated superheroes are male and for the few female superheroes that do exist, their storylines overwhelmingly consist of a mentor character that they refer to for advice and guidance. Female superheroes are usually part of a team; rarely acting alone or as leaders, and of course they're usually represented physically with distorted and unrealistic body shapes and revealing clothing. Female superhero characters seem to be scripted as more emotional, excitable and concerned with appearance, and female cartoon characters who display extraordinary power and strength appear to compensate for the ‘atypical and boyish’ behaviour with over-emphasized stereotypical female traits such as eyelashes and excitability.

It's hyper-feminization, and it's everywhere. The Disney conglomerate and their numerous animated princesses have a lot to answer for in this regard. The ultra-feminine appearance of the princesses and their incessant quests to attain the attention and love of their respective ‘Prince Charmings’ is teaching nothing short of sex appeal to young viewers. Princesses are generally shown in sexually suggestive ways, and in fact some research has shown that females in animated contexts are more likely to be shown in more sexually revealing attire than live action females.

Jasmine from the Disney ‘Aladdin’ movie dresses in seductive ‘harem’ attire, while Ariel, from ‘A Little Mermaid’ sports a scant bikini throughout the film and the protagonist in ‘Pocahontas’ displays unwarranted cleavage throughout the cartoon film. This unhealthy emphasis on clothing, appearance and body, encourages young girls to view themselves through a lens of physical and sexual attractiveness; a trend that leads to a miserable and unhealthy relationship with our bodies. Aside from blatantly sexualizing young girls through the focus on beauty and heterosexual relationships, it also sends the wrong message to our little boys.

The hugely popular animated series ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ sends further subtle messages to many young boys and girls. Consider that female characters account for less than 10% of the recurring characters in Thomas the Tank Engine shows. The Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends Website, describes one female train, ‘Mavis’, as a “feisty young diesel engine”, and informs viewers that a male character ‘Toby’ frequently has to keep her in line and help her to be better-behaved. Another female character, ‘Henrietta’ rarely carries a full load of passengers; and is described on the website as “quite content with her life on the Island”. ‘Elizabeth’ is described as “a beautifully restored vintage steam wagon”, while ‘Emily’ is a “beautiful engine with shiny paintwork and gleaming brass fittings”. ‘Daisy’, along with most of the other female characters in the show feature excessive eye- make up and lipstick as part of their animated face... they're trains for Christ's it really necessary? Anyway, the female characters are consistently described in terms of their appearance, and portrayed as passive, unimportant or incompetent around the rail-yard.

As harmless and innocent as they may seem to an uncritical eye, both short cartoons and feature length animated movies both send powerful, compelling messages to their young viewers about socially acceptable roles for males and females. I have a critical eye. I carefully control what my kid watches and when...and most importantly we talk about the stories and characters on the screen. So when he came home from nursery school the other day and told me that they watched "Beauty and the Beast", we had a chat about what that story was about.

He told me about the part where Belle and her horse come across some wolves and the Beast comes to save her. When I asked him why the Beast had to come and save Belle, my son said 5 words. "Because she is a girl."

I'm not a neurotic feminist, blasting Disney and other kid's programming for no reason. Those 5 words are a pretty damn good reason. I can't control everything my kid watches, or everything he is taught, but we'll keep talking...I'll keep encouraging him to question what he sees and hears...and I can only hope that eventually some of it rubs off.


  1. I hope for the sake of the world there are more parents out there like you!!! "Because she is a girl" has become such a dirty collage of words, if only the other side of girl/womanhood could be expressed alongside the physical limitations of our muscle to fat ratio it wouldn't be so demeaning...the negative burden which seems to weigh heavy in the mouth of either sex when uttered might be lifted and the expectations we place on women might move beyond their physical appeal :( Like I said if more parents are like you, then we have hope ;)

  2. The saddest thing about all of this is that as a society we take this portrayal to be normal. Hopefully, more of us are noticing how "un" normal it is.