This year has heralded the misogyny reckoning: Sexist behaviours and attitudes are coming to light all over the place, and the punishment of perpetrators has been swift. But in certain corners — on children's television, for example — lazy stereotypes persist.
As a feminist and a parent, this makes me so angry. But in the face of astonishing gender-based violence and abuse, how bad is it if my 16-month-old son has a thing for Mickey Mouse? On a scale of one to Donald Trump on Twitter late at night, how riled up do we need to be about annoying disparities in the products and entertainment aimed at our kids? I'd say pretty riled.
A recent Common Sense Media report on gender in children’s media noted that “even television and videos targeting infants and toddlers are replete with gender stereotypes.” Male characters are depicted as strong, emotionally restrained, risk-taking leaders (who also get to be funny), while females are agreeable, virtuous, demure, and primarily concerned with their physical appearance (and much more likely to be shown crying), the report says.
What makes this dangerous? Well, strict belief in traditional gender roles is associated with committing intimate partner violence. And frequent TV viewing is associated with holding more traditional attitudes about gender roles. Without fear-mongering that Mickey is a gateway drug to spousal abuse, this is an A plus B could, in some cases, lead to C kind of situation.
“Stronger endorsement of traditional masculinity is linked with attitudes that are more supportive of dating and sexual violence, and with greater perpetration of sexual aggression,” researchers noted in the Common Sense Media report. “In addition, men’s objectification of women is associated with greater acceptance and perpetration of sexual violence.” In short: Sexism is a risk factor for violence. And stereotype-filled kids’ shows are a risk factor for developing sexist attitudes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36% of women and 31% of men in the US will report experiencing sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by a current or former partner during their lifetime. While no parent wants to think they're raising a child who'll later cause harm to a partner or loved one, those stats (and the news) say plenty are.
In general, we allow or accept anger more in boys.
Rebecca Martin, PhD, Developmental Psychologist
It's impossible to pinpoint one reason that a person may grow up to be abusive. The sheer magnitude of sexual harassment and assault coming to light right now shows that violence frequently arises from men holding positions of power over women. Some people who've witnessed or experienced abuse themselves grow up to perpetuate the cycle from there. It's reductive to point to their TV habits.
So, yes, first of all, parents need to teach their kids about bodily consent. But they also need to be doing more to call out sexism, wherever their children might see it. Like on their beloved TV shows and movies. Indeed, academics have been referencing "the Smurfette Principle" for more than 25 years. What our children see is formative, for better and for worse.
“Children are developing stereotypes by age 2. By 3 or 4 they have a lot, and begin to start expressing them,” said Rebecca Martin, PhD, a developmental psychologist and interim head of the psychology department at South Dakota State University. Dr. Martin's recent paper on the prevalence of gendered emotional stereotypes in children’s media found that boy characters displayed a wider range of emotions than girls.
And so it's a bit of a paradox that children are learning stereotypes just as adults are trying to dismantle them. Or maybe cartoons haven't felt like the most pressing place for us to tamp down the patriarchy. "You can’t prevent gender stereotypes in preschoolers because, essentially, they are a shortcut in thinking," Dr. Martin says, but it's at least worth a look. “The earlier the better."
Representation is another problem. On TV shows and movies specifically aimed at children, boy characters outnumber girls by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1. Don’t even get me started on the latest Smurfs movie, the premise of which is essentially “there’s only one girl in our society, and she doesn’t have a ‘calling’ like all of the boys do, so like, what are girls even for?” There's a reason the whole concept of dangerous gender stereotypes for kids is named after her.
One of Common Sense Media’s key findings was that children’s media consistently reinforce the idea that traits and behaviours considered masculine are more highly valued than stereotypically feminine ones, and that boys who absorb media messages of masculine superiority are more likely to adopt stereotypically masculine behaviours. In fact, the more TV preschoolers watch, the more likely they are to believe that society considers boys to be better than girls. Better. Let that sink in.
Just look at the wildly popular show Paw Patrol, about a group of rescue dogs (a police dog, a fire dog, construction dog, etc.) and their 10-year-old leader, Ryder, who act as the town’s first responders. Of the six dogs, only one is a girl. The town’s mayor is a woman (score one for the popular vote), but like the rest of the adults around, she comes off as bumbling and inept.
One of the most problematic stereotypes is that “men are expected to be a certain amount of aggressive,” Dr. Martin says. “In general, we allow or accept anger more in boys.” When violence or aggression is portrayed as typical male behaviour, boys and girls alike will come to see it as acceptable, even expected.
Unfortunately, when kids act out the roles they've seen, “most of the time, parents don’t correct their stereotyped comments,” Dr. Martin says, as she recalls once observing a 4-year-old boy playing Legos with his mum. The mother put a girl Lego character on a bicycle (which the little boy was calling a motorcycle). “But mum,” the boy protested, “girls can’t ride motorcycles!” Dr. Martin says this “would have been a perfect opportunity for the mother to say ‘actually, girls can ride motorcycles, too.’” But the mum simply apologised, removed the girl from the bike, and replaced it with a boy.
In Mickey Mouse and the Roadster Racers, the franchise's latest instalment, every character gets to drive a race car, but off the track things go downhill. Daisy and Minnie frequently find themselves in caregiver roles too often associated with women: They are petsitters, birthday cake bakers; they help someone pick out a last-minute gift, cook and clean at a bed and breakfast. They are called the "Happy Helpers." Sure, everyone's happy in Disney, but one can't help but raise an eyebrow at who's helping whom.
And so it's not that stereotypes always beget violence; most of the time they are just limiting: Stereotypes influence children’s future hobby and career choices and affect how they think and feel about themselves and others. Kids notice when the boy characters are the police officers and firefighters leading the way, and the girls are their Happy Helpers. And since children age 8 and under typically spend about 2.5 hours a day on screen time, it’s no wonder these falsehoods have such an impact.
“If little boys are told not to show sadness or fear, they have a harder time being empathetic and may engage in more risk-taking behaviour. Girls are expected to cry more and be less assertive, which may play a part in the higher rates of depression seen in women,” Dr. Martin says. And isn't this what it's all about? How this affects our girls, our future women, and sets them up to keep buying into an unfair power balance that ought to have already been toppled?
Research links watching more TV, especially stereotype-rich content, with more interest in traditionally female jobs, such as secretary, dancer, or model, and less appearance satisfaction among girls, as well as holding stricter ideas about chores (e.g. women should set the table; men should mow the grass). On the other hand, watching counter-stereotyped TV is linked to more interest in traditionally "male" careers among girls and more flexibility about housework.
People frequently tout the importance of young girls seeing strong, independent girl characters interested in science or sports, but it’s just as important for boys to see these. And all kids need to see boy characters who express empathy, act as caregivers, resolve conflicts peacefully, and collaborate with girls as equals. We can think of a few grown men who could use a refresher.
The best thing you can do as a parent is to point out stereotypes and counter-stereotypes when you see them in real life and on TV.
Dr. Rebecca Martin
“The best thing you can do as a parent is to point out stereotypes and counter-stereotypes when you see them in real life and on TV: Discuss examples of why stereotypes are often an exaggeration,” Dr. Martin says. “As [your child's] cognitive skills advance, they will begin to understand and be more amenable to these ideas.”
Children whose parents discuss stereotypes like this are found to express greater acceptance of nontraditional gender roles. Reinforcing equality in your home will only serve your children well as they age — especially if they one day have kids of their own. And TV can help, too. There's currently a great slate of stereotype-busting shows aimed at toddlers and preschoolers.
The go-to developmental favourites are Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (available on Amazon!) and Sesame Street (now on HBO). For mixed-gender-yet-equal friend groups, try Super WHY!, The Backyardigans, Little Einsteins, Sid the Science Kid, and Nature Cat.
See strong, inquisitive, and adventurous lead girl characters who rarely worry about their looks on Sarah and Duck, Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, and Ni Hao, Kai Lan. Meanwhile, Disney’s Doc McStuffins ticks all the boxes: It’s about a Black girl who plays doctor to her toys and has a stay-at-home dad, a doctor mum, and an adopted sibling. Not a negative stereotype in sight.
Will watching the occasional episode of Mickey and the Roadster Racers turn my kids into violent abusers as adults? Of course not. But a childhood full of stereotype-laden media that I let go unchallenged may very well set them down that path. So while they’re little, and I still have a say in what they’re exposed to, I’d much rather have them singing along with Daniel Tiger: “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same.”