A new show has started on CBeebies, Tree Fu Tom. Yes, yes, dyspraxia, all very worthy, but look at it from the point of view of a regular viewer. Another cheap-looking CGI show (I’m sure it’s not that cheap, but I expect it’s not expensive), another male lead.
This prompted me to ask Twitter to name CBeebies shows where the lead was female. Dirtgirlworld and Everything’s Rosie came up very quickly, and 64 Zoo Lane. All solidly girl-centred. Charlie and Lola. Well, I’m not so sure about that – yes, it’s mostly about Lola, but they share equal billing and Charlie is the narrator. Then the suggestions moved to Nina and the Neurons, Same Smile, Come Outside, I Can Cook (oh, you can see where that’s going) and Balamory. Notice anything about those? Not girls, women, and generally quite mumsy women, helping you to learn.
It’s easier to name shows with male leads, so I’m going to. Tree Fu Tom. Tommy Zoom. Mike the Knight. Charley Bear. Raa Raa the Noisy Lion. Space Pirates. Bob the Builder. Postman Pat. Guess With Jess. Octonauts. Rastamouse. Driver Dan’s Story Train. Grandpa in my Pocket. Big and Small. Pingu. Mr Maker. Something Special. Dip Dap. Justin’s House. Mr Bloom’s Nursery. Misters Bloom and Maker arguably fill the same role as Nina, Katy and the rest as teacher/parent roles, but still. Discounting those, and discounting the grown-women-led shows, it’s still quite an imbalance – and this is depressingly consistent across TV. Studies have shown that men outnumber women as lead characters by a ratio of 7:3 . OK, those studies were a while ago, but this quick assessment shows little has changed. But, ok, fine, that’s how the lead roles break down, but how are the sexes portrayed in these shows? Do they at least behave as equals? Well… no. Not really. Rosie is a twee busybody – nobody’s idea of a pushover, but not exactly a feminist role model. Lucy in 64 Zoo Lane is passive in the extreme, just having stories told to her. Dirtgirl is much better; pro-active, unafraid of a bit of muck and hard work, a problem solver. In another show, she’d be the boy.
[possible straw man alert] I remember reading, but can’t now find (and I don’t need to because this is a blog post so fuck you, research!), some report or other saying that ah, yes, but the thing is that boys need a person, another boy, to relate to in a TV show, whereas girls can just, I don’t know, be all empathetic and identify with either gender. Which might make you think ‘oh, hurrah for girls, then, they’re getting all the role modelling they need from the boy characters, and so are the boys!’, if you were a bit hard of thinking. Because, oh, call me crazy, but isn’t it a good idea to give girls female role models anyway? Wouldn’t that be better for them? We’re always so worried about them imitating media figures when they’re older, so I mean, what? The need to identify with their own gender only kicks in during puberty? Why don’t we start them young? Show them positive female characters right from the off. Why does Upsy Daisy – the only identifiable girl in In The Night Garden* – have to be obsessed with singing, dancing and flowers? Why is Evie in Mike the Knight the source of so much unintended calamity? Why are the Waybuloo girls so ghastly? Why are the female ZingZillas so drippy? To be fair, why are the male ZingZillas so drippy? Why does ZingZillas exist?
Of course, sometimes it’s just right. Teal in the Adventures of Abney and Teal is bold, inquisitive and fun. She drives the adventures, dragging reluctant fusspot Abney in her enthusiastic wake. And she’s not stupid, crucially – she’s fearless like a toddler is fearless, with an awareness that grows principally through experimentation. Tweak in Octonauts is self-reliant and practical, even if she can’t get herself included in the theme song. Little Monster in Justin’s House is a force of nature, and her mischief is never passive or accidental. Cheeky, strong, bold – these are characteristics I dearly hope my daughter will grow up to possess in spades. I just hope she can find enough inspiration to draw from in the world around her.
*Don’t give me that about the Pontipines or Tombliboo Eee.