Over the coming months, I’m hoping to write a series of posts for aspiring kids’ content makers tackling some of the common pitfalls of developing and writing children’s television, and hopefully offering some practical advice on how to avoid them! Let’s kick off with a big one…
As writers, we’re told to think outside the box. We strive to look beyond genre conventions, to make interesting connections so our concepts feel ‘fresh’ and ‘unique’. We scout for intriguing ways into our stories, and look to develop characters with traits and motivations that haven’t been dramatically explored before. Writers are forever grappling with the oppositional contrast of their protagonists’ ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, and forever searching for settings, landscapes and conundrums that creatively and surprisingly mirror and magnify these conflicts.
Basically, we bend ourselves into back-breaking pretzels desperately trying to make our concepts and our characters distinctive, memorable and thought-provoking.
Why then do so many of us fail when it comes to representations of gender?
Children’s television is a tricky business. It has a fractured audience and comes with responsibilities and restrictions that other genres do not necessarily have to consider. This doesn’t mean everything needs to be very ‘edu-ma-cational’, nor does it mean we should all wring our hands in guilt, as if we’re treading directly on the fragile minds of our audience with every step.
It does however mean we should look at ways we can be better content makers for our young audience – and part of that means thinking critically and constructively about the imagery and messaging we’re sending out into the world. What types of stories are we telling? How will kids relate to these stories? What do our stories tell kids about themselves and the world they live in? What values are we prioritising, and what moral lessons are we overtly or inadvertently teaching our viewers?
And as any half-decent screenwriter will tell you, all of these considerations, values and themes are embodied directly within the characters we create. Which is why it still amazes me so many of us, writers and producers alike, continue to perpetuate the most basic and thoroughly out-dated ideals of what it means to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’.
When I read through pitches, when I turn on the television, when I speak to frustrated parents about what their kids are watching, when I speak to equally frustrated kids’ producers and writers about the projects getting green lit, tired gender tropes are EVERYWHERE and creep in at all levels on a regular basis – male characters are ‘messy’ and ‘active’ while their female counterparts (if they are there at all) are ‘tidy’ and ‘pretty’. Male characters deal with conflict through sheer force and violence, and their appeal lies in their ability to dominate and ‘win’. Female characters are often sexualised in their appearance as well as in their behaviour as they deal with conflict through submission and a hair flick. Or they’re ‘bossy’ and therefore (apparently) unlikeable because they choose to stand up for themselves in a non-demure fashion.
So many of us should know better than to be okay with these very old-fashioned and frankly BORING caricatures of gender – we should all know better – and yet, here in 2018, we are still having this conversation.
If you’re thinking, ‘What? People still do this?’ – yes, yes they really do. ALL THE TIME. It’s infuriating. As a development consultant, it weirdly keeps me employed, but it’s still infuriating.
If you’re thinking, ‘What’s the big deal about putting a girl character in pink? Lots of girls like pink!’ – it’s actually a really big deal.
What are the effects of gender stereotyping?
There are some clear, important reasons why we should think more critically about gender representation in children’s media.
Simply dressing your girl character in blue will not magically make your show the pinnacle of positive gender representation. It’s about taking both a holistic and balanced approach to how you create and represent your characters AND how you construct the rules of your story world.
Research has shown time and again that gender stereotypes beginning in childhood contribute to long-lasting and harmful attitudes and behaviours in both men and women and our communities in general. They perpetuate unconscious bias and are responsible for the continued gender inequality we see playing out around us everywhere.
And enforced gendered behaviour starts EARLY.
Girls and boys conditioned on hard ideals of how they should view and relate to one another learn that to fit into society, they must adhere to and uphold those rigid beliefs into their adulthood. Sexist beliefs then underpin all our relationships, and warp them in the process. And we all suffer – anyone who dares break the mould of masculinity or femininity is up for unfair scrutiny, judgment and social ostracism.
You don’t have to believe me. Here’s some research and articles that may be of interest:
The role of media makers in gender modelling – The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (numerous research articles listed)
Basically, perpetuating gendered stereotypes at the concept level of your project leads directly to gender inequality for our audience, and then contributes to a limiting of their ability to interact with their fellow humans.
The problem for us as creators then, metaphorically and literally speaking, is not ‘putting the girl character in pink’ per se, it’s the assumptions and ingrained cultural expectations that underpin this and other stereotypically gendered choices in the early creation of our concepts; choices which invariably permeate ALL the character and story choices that come after it. It sets a specific tone, and drives expectations about the actions and choices our characters make and how they get to be involved in stories throughout an entire series.
When you create female characters that prefer to stay neat and tidy, focus on their appearance, and choose to maintain the status quo rather than make their thoughts and feelings known, they will never be characters who do terribly exciting things, they will never push themselves to change.
When you create male characters that are always looking for trouble, deal with conflict through aggression rather than compassion or intellect, and show their ‘strength’ through brute force, they will never be characters who process internal conflicts and they will never be characters who express emotions and needs.
In a media landscape where gender representation is not interrogated, where gender stereotypes continue to flourish, boys learn they can only be brave, strong and aggressive, that they must seek dominance over their peers, and hide their emotions or risk being seen as unworthy of respect. Girls learn they must be docile, obedient, and placating, that they should only be concerned with their appearance and the domestic sphere, and suppress their anger in deference to the male gaze and the male voice.
NONE OF THIS MAKES FOR VERY ADORABLE, ASPIRATIONAL AND INCLUSIVE KIDS TELEVISION, DOES IT?
So, what are the benefits of breaking gender stereotypes in your project?
Critically analysing your project’s gender representation has two major benefits.
Firstly, it helps ensure your project isn’t contributing to the continuation of restrictive and destructive ideas of masculinity and femininity. Instead, your project’s more nuanced and inclusive approach will help break the cycle of traditional stereotypes, modelling for your audience a way of being which broadens their perceptions of who they and their peers are, and who they can be and what they can do in their lives.
Secondly, it helps make your project POP! It is still surprising and refreshing for producers, broadcasters and financiers to see projects that go against the grain, differentiating them in a landscape regimented along blue and pink battle lines.
So, rather than choosing a path which values limitations and exclusions, choose a path which values experimentation and inclusion. Everyone benefits.
Now, on to why you started reading this in the first place…
THINGS YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE GENDER REPRESENTATION IN YOUR KIDS TV CONCEPT
If you’re looking to genuinely interrogate your project’s gender representation, and hopefully improve your project as a whole through it, here’s a checklist you may like to consider:
1. Do some research and educate yourself on gender representation. Don’t skip this part. We all forget how ingrained our ideas are about what gender is and how much of an impact gender representation can have on children, and indeed, on ourselves. I personally found this page, ‘Understanding Gender’ from the US-based organisation Gender Spectrum, incredibly insightful and a good place to start in thinking more critically about our media’s constructions of gender identity. Do your own research and be open to the idea you may be perpetuating limiting ideals yourself without being consciously aware of it.
2. Interrogate your characters’ skills, flaws and unique perspective.* What about your characters’ responsibilities and interests fall along traditional gender roles? Why have you given your characters these traits? How does their role and their interests impact the way we think about them as a character? How does it impact what they do and the choices they make? Are these choices dramatically interesting? What happens if you subvert the traditionally gendered traits you’ve discovered in your characters? Interrogating your characters personality and motivations should be something you do as a matter of course, but it’s always worth doing a specific pass through the lens of gender representation.
3. Ensure your concept does not inadvertently (or overtly) make assumptions about the differences between boys and girls. Does your concept rely on a system where boys and girls, and men and women, fundamentally behave in oppositional ways? Does your concept rely on a system where boys and girls, and men and women, are fundamentally held to differing standards and expectations? For example, have you created a show about a thrill-seeking, rascally boy who lives to play pranks on his obnoxious, fastidious sister? Or does your story world rely on girls fighting for the affections of the boys, while the boys stick to fighting each other on the sports field? With respect, you are not Enid Blyton, and it is not 1944. Move on. If you’ve purposely created a story world where behaviours and expectations are built along gender lines, then I’d suggest the stories need to address and explore this inherent bias head on.
4. What’s the gender ratio in your story world? Are the numbers of male and female characters relatively even? If not, why not? If you find male characters far outweigh female characters, make some of your male characters female. If appropriate to your story world, consider a transgender or non-binary character (with the appropriate level of respectful consultation and research obviously). Basically, how can you even out the playing field so your concept more adequately resembles the truth of your audience’s world (that is, one where women take up just as much physical and visual space as men do)?
5. As an exercise, do a gender swap. Even after all your fixes and tweaks, some things may still have gone unnoticed. So, take all your Peters, Steves and Davids and make them Janes, Lisas and Amandas – and vice versa. Go back through your pitch (and script if you have one) with this gender swap in place. What do you notice? (To clarify, if your character names are as vanilla as Peter, Steve and Jane, you have a serious diversity problem, but we’ll have that conversation another time…) For this purpose, consider how this simple gender swap changes how you feel about the characters and their choices. How do you respond to your characters now that you have made them a different gender? How do your characters’ respond to their story world and other characters as a different gender? This exercise isn’t nearly as long and tedious as you may first think – consider it another tool in your arsenal to ensure your concept is as fresh and worthwhile as it can be…
Hopefully, by going through this process of interrogation, you’ve spotted areas of weakness in your concept and now have the opportunity to improve its gender representation and create more interesting and surprising characters who’ll challenge and invigorate your audience, rather than reinforce bland and ultimately toxic ideals.
The trick is – it’s not that characters can’t have any stereotypical traits. In fact, you may well have a girl character who LOVES pink, BUT – to create full, rounded and engaging characters that feel fresh and relatable, you need to create multi-faceted characters with a balance of skills and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, which don’t rely on cookie-cutter traits pulled from the traditional gender stereotypes which continue to permeate our collective conscious.
Work against lazy gender norms – your project will be so much better for it.
* Pro tip: If you haven’t actually thought extensively about your characters’ skills, flaws and unique perspective, you have not done your job. One-dimensional characters, no matter the genre or audience, are the realm of the unprofessional and the lazy. Be better. Also, if you happen to have used the words bossy, pretty or feisty to describe ANY female character at all, at any point – you have failed. Delete those traits straight away and go rethink your life choices.)