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.
I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the muck-flinging going on in gaming over the last few weeks. I’d forgive you for steering clear of it. The short version is that a small group of gamers jumped on an opportunity for sexism and harassment and a large group of gamers enabled it. I wasn’t remotely surprised by the small group but I must admit to being pretty taken aback by the larger group – the enablers. I have been aware of these issues of course and have written many times on gender role models but this seemed worse than even I was expecting.
I couldn’t help but think of Scott Benson’s short film ‘But I’m A Nice Guy’ (watch here).
It made me sad.
And then, like any stimulus to the creators among us, it motivated me. I asked myself “how can I make things better?” This is one of the wonderful things I see in other creators and there are so many of us. Instead of just tearing things down or criticising or arguing, we get constructive. We learn. We make. We contribute.
So what can we do?
Well in preschool media we start early and this, in my opinion, is the best place to start. In preschool, things are actually pretty good. Some of the biggest hitters (Dora, Peppa, Doc McStuffins) work across genders and don’t rely on gender stereotyping that might widen the divide or build perception that men and women are entirely different beings. Female role models are in a much better place in preschool than they were some years ago and this is working well for everyone. And many broadcasters and producers are working even harder and actively looking for varied, interesting and positive characters with a better gender balance. This all has a positive effect among both girls and boys.
So let’s keep that up. Watch your male/female character ratio, make sure characters of both genders are actual characters rather than their personalities being their gender and watch for lazy gender signifiers (this happens so often without even realising it and I’ve been guilty of it in the past).
One problem is that, for all the great work we’re doing and improvements we’re getting in actual preschool content, we seem to be seeing an equal and opposite effect in marketing. I see more gender divides than ever in commercials and products. What can we do about that? Well as parents we can try to reject it and as creators we can aim to make our content as gender-inclusive as possible. How can that help? Well what I’m finding in preschool is that the better the actual content, the more it exposes the worst of the commercials around it as archaic and wrong. I’m sensing a much greater awareness of these issues among parents and the better things get, the more the anomalies will stand out. There have been great campaigns to make children’s books more gender-inclusive, for example. And now those big ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ titles begin to look weird in that landscape.
So let’s keep improving the content landscape.
Can we do more? Sure. We can always do more. For me, creating content for children that would enrich and contribute is part of our core mission statement at Mooshku and these recent events have pushed gender issues right up to the top of our list. So some things that were simmering in the background will be shifted to the foreground as soon as we can. If we get it right, we can help children, boys and girls, come out of their preschool years as confident as possible, as well-rounded as possible and as open and accepting as possible.
And then after the preschool years? Well that’s where I’ll challenge those making content for older children to do better. There is a problem. So let’s see what difference you can make.
I am pleased to announce a newGirls Will Be Girls t-shirt in partnership with the awesome Pigtail Pals! A fun, colourful, playful t-shirt with happy little girls being anything they want to be.
Limiting gender role models are everywhere and what I have found having two girls of my own is that it is much harder for girls to aspire to something if they don’t actually see it.
I wrote an article on this subject some years ago after I realised that my girls just weren’t getting the role models they needed or deserved. Sure, many girls will grow up to do amazing things but they have to take on a battle of gender perception on top of all the other challenges we face when we want to achieve.
The first hurdle is simply the idea that we can actually have these aspirations.
That is why I created this image. Girls will be girls. They can be anything they want to be and I wanted to show that in a fun, loving way that kids will really enjoy. Teaming up with Pigtail Pals to make this available as a t-shirt made perfect sense. Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies specialises in providing better role models for children, girls and boys, and is very active in this area, working towards creating a better reality for our children. A reality in which gender is not a challenge. I have been a big fan of the Pigtail Pals mission and I am so happy to have partnered with Melissa on this t-shirt.
You can purchase the shirt here on thePigtail Pals site. I particularly recommend it on the Baby Blue, Sea Blue, Baby Pink, Lilac, Sherbet, White, Lemon or Lime colours. And you should hook up with Pigtail Pals on Facebook here.
Really hope you all like the shirt! And yes, there is a boy’s version on the way!
Imagine a child in a hallway full of vending machines.
Each vending machine has a big colourful picture of a topic ‘ Pirates, Planets, Dinosaurs, Reading, Geography, Princesses, Building and so on. A child gets briefly curious about a topic, let’s say Pirates, and runs to the Pirate vending machine and presses the button. Out pops an exciting Pirate adventure story.
Now the child may love that story and press the button again, hoping to get another Pirate adventure. Or they may decide they want to see what this whole Geography thing is all about. Either way, their interest was nurtured, rewarded, and given a chance to grow.
But what if, when they press that Pirate button, nothing happens?
They press it again. Nothing.
What do they do? They move on. They’re clearly wasting their time and there are many more vending machines to try. The chances of them bothering to try that particular vending machine again are slim to none. If a child has an interest and that interest is not fed very quickly, they will move on.
One problem we face right now is that not all of those vending machines work for all children. A girl might try the Building vending machine and get nothing. But if she even walks passed the Princess vending machine, it unloads sparkles and unicorns all over the place. That’s an interest that is fed instantly, one that is constantly rewarded. So of course lots of girls are going to be into Princesses. We don’t need to push them in that direction. We simply reward that interest while not rewarding others.
It’s not just Princesses of course, I use that as an example because it is one many of us are familiar with. Boys have their own limited vending machines to deal with too.
During the week, Harrods took a beating on Twitter for having two books side by side in their reading room. One was a book clearly for girls on how to look gorgeous. The other was a book for boys on how to be smart. Neither of these books were forcing anyone down a particular path. They don’t have to. Just as we don’t have to force a plant to grow or not grow. Water one plant and not the other and the result is obvious.
Just as if there is only one working vending machine in that hallway – that’s the one the kids will come back to.
So to give children a genuine chance to explore their interests, we need to fill all our vending machines with goodies. We need to make sure they work and are well maintained. And we need to make sure they are attractive to both boys and girls without limiting either gender.
For me, I have spent the last few years filling a little space/science vending machine called Planet Cosmo. And originally, I set out to do that because my girls had an interest in space and I wanted to feed that interest. I saw so many children too who had an interest in space but their parents didn’t always know enough about the subject to feed that interest quickly, just as I imagine there have been many brief moments of interest in a particular subject that passed by my girls because I didn’t know enough to feed that initial curiosity.
So if you are creating, developing, producing content for children, be it television, books, apps, anything, how about picking a vending machine and filling it? Let’s spread those interests, give each one a chance and try to restore some balance for both boys and girls. Perhaps pay special attention to those interests that may one day make our children into better adults, with all the opportunities they deserve, not one single child excluded. Let’s get those machines working for everyone.
Nurture. Inspire. All while entertaining.
My vending machine, Planet Cosmo, starts on RTE2 here in Ireland on Monday, the 18th of February, with other countries to follow. And just wait until you see the goodies we packed into it!
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.
I remember many years ago catching a bit of some show with designers discussing fashion trends for the next seasons. You know, the what would be the new black kind of thing.
And it hit me – these aren’t really trends. Because they are being dictated by the people selling the products. Designers basically tell people what the next new look is, put it everywhere, slap it on a celebrity and then, sure enough, it is the next new look.
What was also fascinating for a season that hadn’t happened yet was the amount of top designers selling the same new looks. I don’t know enough about the fashion industry to know how that works but, to the layman, it almost looks like they get together in a room, decide what they’re going to push and then they all go away and push those looks independently. Then it goes down the chain and the designers who weren’t invited to that meeting see which way the wind is blowing and push those same looks too.
And we have a new fashion next season.
Someone getting in on the action at that point would just say, well I’m giving the people what they want. In fact, ask the public and many will say that’s just what they want too, won’t they? It gets reinforced and reinforced between designers and the public. When the whole industry is pushing the same look, when that look is all over magazines, on every rack, it’s going to sell but is it what people really would have wanted? At that point, who knows. Who even cares? It’s very difficult to pull it apart.
Really though, it’s suppliers dictating demand. They’re designer trends, not people trends.
Great for the industry I’m sure but, when it comes to something like fashion, it struck me as somewhat ass-backwards.
And now we have Lego Friends. Lego for girls. A topic of much discussion.
I haven’t weighed in on this yet. Why not? Well, to be honest, I have been conflicted. I can see some merit. Lego is a great toy and having a more obvious open invite to girls is something I’d support. They’re good looking sets that go some way towards restoring the balance in a product line that has gone quite dark. And the characters aren’t all bad. One is an inventor. One has a catchphrase about getting to work. We’ve all seen a lot worse when it comes to role models for our girls.
But then… am I to take it now that the airport sets, the police sets, town sets, Harry Potter sets and everything else with blocks of all colours, action and play possibilities, they’re just for boys? It is the way Lego have been marketing them.
Well, someone in Lego (and maybe even people reading) will have thought, but this pink girly stuff is what girls want, right?
But when almost the entire toy industry is selling the same limiting narrow view of what girls should be, it’s like the fashion industry – you can’t pull it apart. And yet, really, it’s suppliers dictating demand. How can anyone say it’s what girls want when they’re being sold little else? So Lego are just that last straggler playing ‘me too’ in the girl’s toy aisle. Is it hard to blame them? I guess the thing with Lego is that I’ve never seen them playing catch-up before.
One of the things that has really stood out in children’s shows over the last ten years is the industry’s search for the elusive next Dora, the next Spongebob. I’ve mentioned this here before. For me, well, neither Dora nor Spongebob were the next anything. That’s a big part of what made them special.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a really interesting discussion with some people more in the licensing end of things. They were telling me about how buyers choose products, how they end up on the shelves and the boy/girl rules that go with all that – buyers who, by all accounts, file shows and characters into very simple categories that mean they will either work or not work in the marketplace. There are years of market research so it’s a pretty exact science. All very interesting stuff and reminiscent of discussions I had with the distributors of Fluffy Gardens.
In this conversation, Peppa Pig came up as an exception.
It’s a show that, apparently, licensees would not have bought. This is something I’ve heard before too. They wouldn’t have seen the success coming. Girl main character, even coloured pink (well, she is a pig) and it broke out well beyond the limited perception of what a girl’s property is. It was a surprise. At least, for the licensing experts. And now it’s a massive success.
And I couldn’t help but think, yet again, of the failed search for the next Dora.
So is it really that Peppa Pig is an exception? An anomaly? A mistake in the market?
Or is it more likely that the show is excellent, funny, speaks to children in a way they totally understand regardless of gender and children want more of that, be it in toy form, book form or whatever? Is it more likely that the science is flawed?
I honestly don’t know. Being perfectly truthful, the licensing end of things is not somewhere I go. So I’m no expert. I’d have to bow to the experience of those in that area.
But here’s something I think is relevant to all areas of business, creativity, even just everyday life:
There are exceptions to rules. But when following the rules leads to few results of value and the big successes seem to be the exceptions, I’d guess it’s more likely just that the rules are wrong. ‘Try, try again’ only works if you’re doing it right.