Even though women make up over 50% of the population, all studies show they are still massively under-represented in film and television. And I would sometimes find myself questioning the roles assigned to the female characters who do actually make it to screen. In many areas of media, I think we can do better.
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.
So you can offer the choice but, in a world that clearly pushes boys and girls into narrow gender roles with girls having fewer role models to choose from, is it really a choice?
As for me, I find myself very consciously making sure I have female characters in my shows. And this was not just a reaction to having two girls of my own. Even well before they were born, I developed Fluffy Gardens to have an equal amount of male and female characters. That was a very active choice because I wanted it to speak to children, not just boys or just girls. Children. With PLANET COSMO, the main character became a girl very early on in development because I wanted to introduce both boys and girls to all the cool stuff in space. Again, an active choice.
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.
So what does this tell me?
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.
How could it when we ourselves are so influenced by the media around us?
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.
And maybe kids making art will make real choices and deliver more than just princesses from the girls and knights from the boys.
To produce something truly special, I find you have to embrace creativity and allow freedom to experiment, encouraging individuals to deliver even better than expected and to break boundaries. That comes with a built-in risk factor.
Not every risk pays off. Not every part of a production goes smoothly.
There are times when you have to recognise that some things are just not working. You have to recognise it fast and tackle it, because the truth is things almost never get better on their own. Problems within a system will result in a downward spiral that can cripple a production. Before long, you’re just firefighting.
In this situation, blind optimism is your enemy. The only way to prevent this is to accept you have a problem and actively deal with it. For me, there are three main steps to take as you build a new strategy…
1 – Stop
You will not fix things while scrambling for the next deadline. You are going to need time to evaluate, to repair and reboot to get things going properly. So stop. Create a space in the schedule. It may delay things now but it will pay off in the long run and may indeed be the only way of delivering excellence in the end.
2 – Look
Evaluate your entire process. Not just the individual problem, because there may be many more factors than are initially apparent. Look at each step and recognise what works, what could be improved and what is plain broken. Look especially for those areas eating up more time than they should – on any production, time is incredibly valuable. Make sure you know where time is being improperly spent.
3 – Listen
Listen to your team, listen to advice. Most of all, listen to yourself – your gut. If you find yourself unhappy or even just vaguely unsettled with something (or indeed someone) you have seen in your evaluation, listen to that. Those are the things you need to change. And as you build your strategy, if you find yourself uncomfortable with any part of the new plan, listen to that too.
Seeing it written down, it is clear that it is not unlike crossing a road ‘ stop, look and listen. And like crossing a road, all this is to stop you running ahead and getting crushed by oncoming traffic, in the form of your own deadlines. Once you have done all this, you have one last step. The most important. You have to cross. All the plans in the world won’t matter unless you take action and implement them fully. Commit and cross that road. Then continue on your journey towards excellence.
Problems almost never take care of themselves. Deal with them directly.
On Cosmo, the show has managed to exceed all our early predictions. It is easily the best show we have ever produced. But the rise in quality brought greater challenges and it has not always been an easy production. Some time ago, we had to go through these very steps and now we continue on our journey with new systems and strategies, delivering the excellence we expect with far fewer headaches.
Remember the days when all television shows reset at the end? It was a rule that someone had to push the reset button to get everything exactly as it was. So the premise never changed. Characters never died (unless, of course, an actor left the show, in which case they’d vanish between seasons with a one-line explanation). Kirk, Spock and McCoy would always end up the same – laughing at Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise. Oh, that Mr. Spock…
It’s not like that now. In most shows aimed at adults, people grow. Their lives change. There is a continuing story. Without that reset button, it makes television much more interesting knowing that a major change may actually be a major change.
In most children’s television and possibly all preschool children’s shows, on the other hand, the reset button is alive and well.
Broadcasters like to be able to put on shows in any order. Children’s shows are so short and are often aired in fairly large blocks, you can get through a whole series in a week (Cartoonito wiped out a year and a half’s worth of Fluffy Gardens work in five days). If the episodes had to be aired in a specific order, it would make life very difficult for them. Certainly not impossible, but it would require extra thought in scheduling.
I wrote a story a little while back about a daddy tiger who leaves his office job and becomes a mechanic. A pleasant little story. Might make a nice book some day.
But it could never be a television episode.
A change that large in a main character’s life just couldn’t happen. Because what if the next episode aired was an earlier one where he still had his old job? Even if they all aired in order, what if they got through the series really quickly so the next episode a child happened to catch was an earlier one? It could really confuse.
This got me thinking.
Children’s lives move so fast. Their lives are not without major changes. One day, they’re crawling. The next, they’re running around or cycling a bike. One day, they’re playing blocks with mummy on the sitting room floor. The next, they’re in school with a whole bunch of other children. And change is a big deal for children. We knocked down a wall in the kitchen and didn’t hear the end of it for months from little Daisy.
More than that, I see change as a really good thing. Don’t like your situation? Do something and make a change. Do what you really want to do. Unhappy with the state of the world? Work to make a difference. If something is broken, we can fix it. The world we are born into is a world shaped by people. We don’t just have to accept it as is. We can change it. Make it better.
Progress requires change. Change can be a great thing.
And I thought, shouldn’t we be telling this to children? Is it a good thing that we are presenting them with a completely stagnant view of life, where nothing important ever changes? Nobody makes real leaps, discovers something that completely changes their life?
With the reset button in place, the characters we show to children are exactly where so many of us complain about being – stuck in a rut.
While I stumbled through the beginnings of Fluffy Gardens with a very limited amount of knowledge, it became clear early on that I could only benefit from studying all aspects of creating content for children and, since then, I have made it my business to find out everything I can about other shows, what has worked and not worked and why, and I have sought out the research – and there is a LOT of research out there. This is a well worn road and so, even for those of us determined to find our own path, it makes sense to see what we can learn from others. Not just the odd line we pick up browsing through an industry website. Real research and understanding. Would Fluffy Gardens have been a better show had I done my homework? Absolutely. And Cosmo is going to be a far, far better show for all the experience I have gained and research I have done since diving into Fluffy Gardens for the first time.
With that in mind, I thought I would recommend a few books that I think could really help those creating, producing or directing shows, or hoping to one day make a show. To start with, here are three books I think will help you -
Animation Development From Pitch To Production by David B. Levy
As the name suggests, this book covers animation development from the idea stage all the way to the screen. It uses industry stories to illustrate each part of the process and offers a huge amount of practical advice. Like so much of the most useful advice, much of it is stuff common sense would tell us and yet, in the midst of a busy life, we need to hear again and again. Within industry quotations are many different points of view – you don’t have to agree with all of them but there is plenty to consider and thoughts that may lead to you producing better work.
It should be pointed out that this book is based around the US system of getting shows off the ground. Things work very differently over this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of value in knowing why things work that way in the US.
Mind In The Making by Ellen Galinsky
This is not a book on moulding shows. It is a book on moulding better people. Recommended by David Kleeman on Josh Selig’s Kidscreen blog, I found this book to be incredibly valuable. As I have said on this site before, a show needs something special to justify its existence. What can your show give children that will be of real value to them? This book will provides many suggestions. It takes you through seven essential life skills and shows how we can better nurture those skills in children. It is a reminder of the importance of we do, of what we can offer children that will contribute positively in their lives. This book is for the people who are serious about giving children something good.
I recommend building a show with your contribution at its very core, not shoehorned in at the end. This book can help suggest ways to do that. Not the easiest read in the world – I find academics seem to write like, well, academics. But informative and valuable.
Children And Television Fifty Years Of Research by Norma Pecora, John P. Murray and Ellen Ann Wartella
There is over fifty years of research into children and television. You might think you will do fine without knowing any of the results but why would you want to? This book is a gold mine of information. What works, what doesn’t work, what content affects children in what ways, how educational television affects children as they grow older, the effects of violence on your audience, how children process ads and so much more. This book summarises all of the results and, in doing so, provides a guiding voice for what to do, and what not to do, if you have the well being of your audience in mind and want to engage them positively.
This book is like the anatomy of what we do. With drawing, for example, you can copy a drawing of a person and it might look okay, but not great. But if you have a working knowledge of human anatomy and structure, your drawing will be so much more solid because you aren’t just copying lines – you have a real understanding of what you are doing. Many people making shows just copy the surface of what they see on TV (I was guilty of this myself at one point). But the great shows often had years of research to get where they were at. You won’t get the same results copying the surface. You need to know how they reached all their decisions.
This book is the starting point. From here, you can look up the studies and dig deeper and deeper and I guarantee you that it will make your work better.
So there you have it, three books to start with. If they sound interesting to you, seek them out. Read, take notes and make your work excellent.