Saturday Morning Toon Blues
It is a ritual of mine to flip through channels on a typical Saturday morning before I go off to work. While my adventures are less frequent these days than when I was eight years old, cartoons are still of great interest to me. However, in my habits, I’ve encountered a frightening discovery that has sent a gross feeling to the pit of my stomach.
“Great Scotts!” I announce, mouth gaping like a frog as I stare at the tv. “Where in the lord are all the girl leads?”
Flipping to the CBS KEWLopolis line, I found my answer. For two hours the program block aired Horseland, Carebears: Adventures in Care-A-Lot, and Strawberry Shortcake. Of the three, however, only two were new, whereas Strawberry Shortcake continues to air 2003 reruns. Yes. They are showing episodes from six years back.
Frustrated, I posed my problem to friends and acquaintances.
“Well, at least they are making cartoons for girls!” People would respond.
There is a penny of truth to this, yes, networks are finally airing cartoons for girls. Forty years ago? You’d be lucky if you could find an assertive female character. Geena Davis said it best back in 2005 at the National Conference for Media Reform
Do you remember the kinds of stuff that they made for us, for kids, in the oldie old days? Let’s see, the first animation, of course, was Disney’s Minnie Mouse and—where is she? I’m pushing the button—Daisy Duck, who didn’t really do much at all, except ask to go shopping, I think. There were a lot of Hanna-Barbera cartoons—Magilla Gorilla, Wally Gator, George of the Jungle—virtually no female characters. I had a vague recollection that Yogi Bear had a girlfriend, and I searched and searched, and I finally found her, Cindy Bear, as you all remember.
On the Looney Tunes website, they list twelve characters, and only one of them is female, but it’s the great one. It’s the one you all love and remember the best: Granny. She’s the one who owns Tweety, and she has to leave so that the story can happen.
Right. Back then, you'd be lucky to see a lady for two seconds in a toon. Compared to that, there are more females in cartoons these days. We have done a bang job with leading females in lineups like KEWLopolis, but why do leading females have to be in “GIRL ONLY!” programming blocks? Instead of thinking in terms of pink and blue, why aren’t the networks thinking in terms of genre? Last I checked, Power Puff Girls is an excellent blend of leading ladies rocking out like superstars. Girls and boys flocked to it back in 1995, and its popularity is still wild. Dora the Explorer is another good example of preschoolies not giving a darn whether she’s a girl or a boy. She did just about anything both genders would do (until Diego was introduced).
See this? That is gendertyping. Of course boys don't want to see Totally Spies. I'm pretty sure a lot of girls don't even want to see it. It doesn't look nearly as exciting or interesting as, say, Ben 10. But even then, marketting a show to a specific gender just helps to continue building barriers and stereotypes between the sexes. We need shows that appeal to both genders, and I'd like to see more of those with girls.
So where is the “universal” programs? Where are the boy-girl shows with lady leads, like Power Puff Girls? Why aren’t we seeing more cartoons like these, and less gender specific lineups like KEWLopolis or the boy-theme dominated Cartoon Network? Red Diabla’s response to Geena Davis via blog comment answers the key question:
I was once told by an executive that having a female lead character for a series pitch is practically a guarantee that other execs won’t pick up the show at the particular studio/network that I wanted to pitch to. I asked, “Even with the success of [Power Puff Girls]?” and they replied that PPG was seen as an exception to the rule.
So, do animators who make pitches automatically pitch stuff with male characters because they themselves tend to be male, or do execs shoot down pitches with female leads because they assume that little boys won’t watch shows featuring girls, even if those girls aren’t Barbie/Bratz/princesses?
It is a very good question. The logic is perplexing and frustrating. Girls will happily watch boy toons, but boys want nothing to do with girl toons. Execs will argue its because girl leads just don't sell to boys. Well, mister executives, I call BS. I don't see enough examples of how cartoons with leading ladies meant to appeal both genders have failed. I haven't seen them. And the few examples that do exist, such as Power Puff Girls and Kim Possible, seemed to do a good job with bringing in the money. Cartoons in Japan (of which we keep emulating stylistically) have had many female leads with no crashing results. Some of the bigger budget Ghibli Studio films racked in the Japanese Box Office no problem, and they are notorious for their starring female characters.
So answer me this, Execs, what exactly is your deal? Give me a better reason and some nicer numbers why you won't try to pitch a universal cartoon with more female characters?
Honestly? The marketing answer seems simple: Just make a cartoon with "big boy" explosions and give the kids a strong leading girl. Someone who is interesting and dynamic.
And please, if that show with the popular leading lady happens to be extremely successful, you don’t have to do a spinoff series featuring her boyish cousin so she can do more girly stuff.
Case. In. Point.
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