Over the years, I have spent a long time trawling through whatever research I could find. Mainly so that I would be informed when I create, so that I might learn from those who have gone before and in the hope that I mind find the odd little gem or two (I did).
One quote that stayed with me is from T. Berry Brazelton, a member of the AAP Committee on Public Information. Following studies into children and media in the early ’70s, he wrote that “a child comes away from a television set believing that physical violence is a perfectly acceptable form of self-expression”. He wasn’t damning television, instead calling it a “valuable experience” but he recognised that television, like anything else around us, contributes to our world view.
I thought about that a lot, and not just about violence. Through stories (because I don’t believe this is limited to television), we can show children many ways of self-expression. In a sense, showing them: here is how you can be that person that you are, how you might present yourself to the world. And I thought, variety. Every child is different. We can show the best of everyone if we choose but not always in the same way, recognising that we’re all different and what feels right for one child might not feel right for another.
In our characters, we can embody different feelings, desires, fears and joys and we acknowledge those as real things, giving them the weight they deserve. And through the actions of those characters, we can show the many forms of self-expression. We can choose to make it a positive thing and show children that, yes, there is a place in the world for them. We might do this in an aspirational way, hoping for a better world, but I feel it is also done best while acknowledging the realities of who we all are right now.
For me, this gives us the best of preschool entertainment. But perhaps not just that. Maybe this has a place across all our entertainment.
We can deconstruct a script, point out the plot holes, wonder if the structure is really hitting the beats in the right place, explore the character dynamics, question the motivations, tut-tut at the typos, throw out the designs, play with the composition, alter the pacing, pull out the examples of what worked and what didn’t and suggest changes throughout hoping those examples apply in this case (they often don’t) and we can, bit by bit, torture over every element, large or small, in what we’re making. And we should. All those elements will help you as part of the process.
BUT the proof is in the reactions of your audience. The smiles, the laughter, the gasps, the cheers and the tears. When everything is finished, that is what counts.
At the weekend, I was at the premiere of the live-action children’s feature GRÅTASS GIR GASS in Stavanger, Norway. I wrote other films in the series but I didn’t write this one so I had a little more objectivity while watching the audience, taking in what hit and what really grabbed the children. The kids had been playing around the Gråtassland theme park all day and so I wondered if the energy would really be there. It was. And towards the end, there was (SPOILER) a chase sequence that revealed one of those crucial audience feedback moments we look for. The loud laughter and cheering from the kids was all the proof anyone would need on whether this movie hit or not.
They were invested. They were entertained. And yes, they laughed. The proof was in the laughter.
I’m sure many of you have seen articles attempting to knock Frozen through theory – how the villain comes out of nowhere, why story parts don’t work as they should and so on. All it takes is going to just ONE screening of that movie with a cinema full of kids to understand why that movie is a hit.
Sure, by all means question the details and try to learn from them. All those elements at the top of this post are important. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the audience reaction that counts. Arguing theory to a room full of cheering kids is a total, utter waste of your time. Listen to your audience. Learn from them. Know your audience and learn how to entertain them. That is paradoxically much more simple and far more complex than what you’ll generally read in a book about writing.
Listen to the laughter and aim to entertain.
Gråtass Gir Gass opens across Norway this Friday the 9th of September. If you’re there, bring your kids and listen for that laughter. Well done to all involved!
Every moment is precious. We only get a certain number of them. In childhood, I think they are even more precious because they become part of who you grow up to be. Everything can influence us one way or another and it can be so hard to predict what experiences will impact us in what ways.
So imagine you can sit a kid down for eleven minutes of their life. Or seven minutes. Or maybe even just five. And you can tell them anything you want. They might not remember it but, at that moment, you have an opportunity to tell them something. You could make them laugh, tell jokes and brighten up their day. You could tell them something you wish you had known at that age, something that might make being a kid that much easier. A trick to tying shoelaces, perhaps. Or you could tell them something that might help them grow up to be a better adult. Something that, if they take it to heart, might help other kids.
When you make a show or write an episode or make an app, you get to do just that. You get to communicate with children. You have their attention and you can tell them something. It doesn’t have to be something important but it can be.
You get to a little moment of their life. Use it well.
I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.
Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.
The Children’s Media Conference last week was interesting as always. Lots of positive ideas and people making great things with great missions behind them (the mission is important!). A lot of talk of YouTube which, of course, most of us are very aware of both in terms of opportunities but also challenges. We know a lot of children are going there for their entertainment. My own girls, for example, adore Stampy and his seal-like laugh and gaming fun.
What is a concern for me as a parent are the ads that play before these, which are in no way age appropriate. The last Stampy marathon I watched with my girls was interrupted with ads for Orange Is The New Black, for example. There is a YouTube Kids app in the U.S. It has come under fire but I at least find it encouraging that it is an acknowledgement that kids can and do access content there. Hopefully that will get better and, when right, will go global.
Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
So it was a little disappointing when one speaker who makes excellent YouTube videos was hit with the question: who should be watching your videos? The speaker had already talked about how much kids get from the videos, even using a slide of a toddler watching one of the videos. The answer to who should be watching: well, as per YouTube terms of service so… I guess that’s 13 and over. It was just a little moment where someone was put on the spot and was hit with a question they weren’t quite expecting (though certainly should have been) but it was an abdication of responsibility. That’s always a problem. Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
On the other end, there was a great panel on the 4-6 age group and age appropriateness presented by Mellie Buse and it was fantastic to hear Dave Ingham (Boj, Clangers) and Lucy Murphy (Bing) talk about how they want to tackle subjects relevant to the lives of kids, challenge them, reflect their lives and their world with honesty in a way that is right for the age group. They really think about who is watching what they make. I love that.
So let’s side with Dave and Lucy on this one and remember that kids exist and they watch what we make. And isn’t that fantastic?
NOTE: This piece was written for Irish parenting site Dad.ie when my two daughters were very young. It gained a lot of attention and struck a chord with many parents, fathers and mothers alike. Unfortunately the site is no longer around so, for International Women’s Day, I thought I’d repost it here.
I was waiting in a shop queue a couple of weeks ago. Beside me was a card rack with personalised birthday cards, each one with a child’s name. Of course I looked for the names of my own girls.
Daisy. Ooh, a princess. Alice. Another princess.
And then I looked at the others.
Every card with a girl’s name featured a princess, mermaid or ballerina. Well that’s pretty, I thought. Beautifully pretty and pink. But I couldn’t help notice that there seemed to be much more variety in the cards with boy’s names. Those cards featured pilots, firemen, policemen, mechanics and more. Real jobs. Active jobs.
That got me thinking about role models.
I have two young girls, princesses of my very own. Giving them every chance at being anything they want, doing anything they want, is a priority for me. But I don’t think the pretty pink princesses are doing my girls any favours.
Is there a problem with the princesses? Girls love princesses, right?
Yes. They do.
But what are princesses? What do they do? Mostly nothing. They wear pretty dresses. Being beautiful is a priority. But really, what is important about a princess is how they become a princess. Unless you’re a king reading this right now, the unfortunate truth is that your daughter isn’t actually a princess. So how does she become one?
Well that’s simple. She marries a prince.
And that’s the glorious end to the story. She find a man, he falls in love with her (her love is optional) and he asks her to marry him. They have a big wedding, she gets to wear a beautiful dress and they live happily ever after. That is how your daughter or my daughter becomes a princess. Just like the lovely Kate Middleton. She needs a man to make her a princess. Without finding a prince, she can never realise her dream. Will never have that lovely wedding. Will never live happily ever after. So on top of not really doing anything, it seems a princess is defined by her man.
What kind of message is that to our girls? How does that affect the power in their relationships? Their priorities in life? Their self-confidence?
So what about mermaids? They just sit on rocks and are total fantasy. Ballerinas, well, at least they’re real and girls can put the work in to becoming one. That’s got to be a good thing. But then… they’re performing for the adoration of their audience. They might need the validation. I’m really not so sure about that one either.
But look at the role models for boys: pilots, firemen, policemen, mechanics and so on.
They’re not just sitting around like mermaids or princesses. They’re active. They’re real. They’re getting stuck in and really contributing to society. Unlike the princess, these role models say to boys – there is a place for you in the real world. You can make a difference. Get active. Get involved.
Where are those real life role models for girls?
I wonder how many little princesses on their pink tricycles know they can actually be a pilot? A fireman? Or even an astronaut? Some girls do become these things of course. But they have to fight a world of gender stereotyping to do it. They have to break away from their own perceptions of themselves that have been formed from what they see around them. That’s a whole other battle for our little princesses that they don’t need on top of everything it takes to do those jobs.
Now I know the ‘market’ will tell me that girls love pink. Love princesses. Sure they do.
But I have to smile when I realise that the biggest preschool hit of the last ten years has been Dora the Explorer. An active role. Dora is not about pretty dresses. She’s about getting stuff done. The market went for Dora in a big way. It turns out that going against an outdated passive princess gender stereotype can be a winner. Well that’s good news!
So I find myself wondering why a rack of cards still only presents the view that girls are just princesses, mermaids and ballerinas?
This difference between female and male role models is something that, once you see, you’ll see it everywhere. Toy aisles, ads, posters. I even found myself taking steps to de-pink the bedtime stories. And, to be honest, my kids get so much more fun from ‘Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus’.
As the men in our girl’s lives, perhaps fathers like us can really think about the pink, the princesses and the messages they give our girls, and we can filter some of it out. Mix in some better role models. Make clear to our girls that they can be whatever or whoever they want be it mechanic, scientist, astronaut, anything. And they can lead happy and fulfilled lives doing so, prince or no prince.
Recent figures in Ireland have revealed that women still earn less than men doing the same job. To an extent, it is still a man’s world.
Hopefully we and our lovely, bright, funny, hard-working, curious daughters can change that.