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Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

British MP Calls Attention to the Scourge of “Pink and Princessy” Girls on TV

British MP Jo Swinson has spoken on the floor of Parliament to shed light on the dearth of strong female characters who are not outwardly girly, frilly, flowery, etc. all that ooey-gooey sugar stuff that makes us long for shows like Beetlejuice and Animaniacs. It is her belief — and we share it — that these shallow characters do nothing to help the self-esteem of young girls. Not only that, but as much as two thirds of all the characters in children’s programming are male characters. There isn’t much Parliament can do about it, but the point has been made: someone in a relatively high position is looking out for the next generation of girls.

Says Swinson about what the lack of “action girls” on TV really means to kids:

“It gives them the message that boys and men are in charge and women are in a supporting role. Many parents have told me this is not helping them show their little girls that life is not about being pink and princessy.’


“It can start the socialisation of inequality … It can restrict girls’ views of themselves and boys’ perceptions of girls too.”

She specifically cites Nick Jr.‘s Dora the Explorer as a positive example of a regular girl who is all about teaching, discovering, and, of course, exploring. Not only that, but she is a lead character and not a supporting character, such as Wendy on Bob the Builder. (Though even Dora is not immune to a case of “princess pox.”)

But Dora is not like most characters. Among the kids’ shows airing on British TV are Everything’s Rosie, in which the eponymous character “skips around learning the meaning of friendship,” and Upsy Daisy on In the Night Garden, who “spends most of her time skipping around and blowing kisses” and whose skirt inflates and turns into a ballerina’s tutu when she’s happy. Granted there is also Nina, a neuroscientist on Nina and the Neurons, but generally speaking, these girly characters are not exactly showing little girls anything substantial. If you take a show like Nick Jr.’s The Backyardigans, which not only shows a group that is pretty evenly divided by gender (there are five characters), but have characteristics of other ethnic groups. And the two female characters, Uniqua and Tasha, certainly don’t take any kind of back seat to the male characters when they go on their adventures. But they also aren’t human, which makes it a little easier to get away with a set of characters that could be kind of androgynous.

There’s also more to raising children than TV, we would hope. But yes, they do watch a lot of it, and there should be some better characters on there for girls to look up to.

Swinson — who is the first MP to have been born in the 1980s — has a strong record of standing up for gender equality and led a strong campaign against airbrushing in advertisements, especially those aimed at children. And while Parliament is powerless to control what goes on television, people have already called Swinson a communist for wanting to change content that might be having a negative effect on children. We aren’t experts, but we had no idea that not liking pink made someone a pinko.

(The Independent, Daily Mail via Jezebel)

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  • Arielle Sorkinator

    I think an unexplored criticism against “princess” stereotypes in programming for children is the effect on tomboys towards girls. While girls may become more self-critical, and boys may think less of their feminine compatriots, think of tomboys reactions to these images. Girls that identify more with “boys” programming may seem like they’re defying gender barriers, but I’ve seen more than one case where it really hurts them. One scenario is that such girls actually grow to hate other girls. They think that any “girly” girl is the vapid caricature shown on TV. As a result, not only can they not identify with their own gender, but they can actually become full-blown misogynists. (Which is a very sad thing indeed.) On the other hand, television never shows a girl reconciling her adventurous side with her feminine side. From personal experience, a girl interested in boyish things may feel that she CANNOT like ANYTHING girlish, or she’ll BECOME a vapid girly girl. It’s another form of misogynistic stereotyping FROM girls. It involves a lot more personal pain though. Girls like that spend a lot of time lying to themselves and feeling conflicted about their masculine and feminine interests.
    TV needs more diversity in female characters. The strong female character that can keep up with the boys is necessary. The girly female character that revels in her girlishness is necessary. But the strong female character that can keep up with the boys AND revel in her girlishness is ALSO necessary. (Rarity from My Little Pony comes to mind.)

    While I don’t think that children’s personalities and interests are based on those they see on TV, I do think that a little emotional back-up from a television character can give kids courage and validation to be who they are without worry.

  • JoAnna Luffman

    Why not just offer multiple options and lets kids decide for themselves? I loved GI Joe and Strawberry Shorcake, My Little Pony and Thundercats growing up. I was also known for wandering the woods behind the house, so my dad started using his whistle from Soccer to call me, since it would carry far enough that I would hear it. 

    I was never a vapid little princess, even though I enjoyed some of the vapid cartoons. My daughter loves princesses, but she’s just as at home in the dirt digging up bugs as wearing a pink dress. Sometimes while wearing a pink dress…. *facepalm*

  • Frodo Baggins

    “If you take a show like Nick Jr.’s The Backyardigans, which not only shows a group that is pretty evenly divided by gender (there are five characters), but have characteristics of other ethnic groups.”

    Perhaps it would be better if you said “various ethnic groups,” rather than “other.” The implication is obviously, “other than white,” but such phrasing connotes the idea of people of color as an alternative to the default, “normal” white person.

    Backyardigans animation… *shudder*

  • Shard Aerliss

    The only British kid’s TV shows I watch on a regular basis right now are Horrible Histories and The Sarah Jane Adventures. While SJA has now ended due to Elisabeth’s passing, it had not one but two very strong and excellent female characters; Sarah Jane herself and Rani (not THE Rani, just Rani… stupid RTD). Hopefully, more kid’s TV producers will take note.

    Honestly; we’ve never been very good at making fictional kid’s shows. I always preferred American, Canadian, French and Japanese cartoons and Australian and New Zealand made live action shows.

    Really though; Jo needs to discuss things in Parliament that a) she can do something about and b) are a bit more pressing, like the economy, the destruction of our welfare system (which is hurting more women than men), privatisation of the NHS, closing of schools and libraries…

    I’m not sure we’re fighting the right thing here. People want better role models for girls, but why can’t girls have male role models? Why is there this assumption that a girl with no strong female role models will grow up believing she is inferior, rather than picking up on strong character traits from male role models, not realising that society sees a difference?

  • Robert Vary

    “People want better role models for girls, but why can’t girls have male
    role models? Why is there this assumption that a girl with no strong
    female role models will grow up believing she is inferior, rather than
    picking up on strong character traits from male role models, not
    realising that society sees a difference?”

    Because it’s been shown over and over and over again that when girls are continuously shown and told that boys/men are the leaders, the athletes, the ones good at math, the doers, the thinkers, the heroes to the exclusion of girls/women, then somehow (and I can’t IMAGINE how) they manage to get the impression that men are good at those things and women, and by extension, they themselves, aren’t. For instance, high school girls on average are much more likely to agree with the statement “I am not good at math” than boys, even though there is little to no disparity between the test scores of the two groups.

    And also, when you get right down to it, why WOULDN’T we want there to be strong female role models? Do we really need to explain why we shouldn’t treat half of the human race is just the supporting act to the other half?

  • Shard Aerliss

    *points at the reply button* Makes it easier for me to spot someone has replied XD I might have completely missed this reply had I not gotten bored and thought I’d check to see if there had been new comments.

    It just seems to me that we are basically saying to girls; “this is a man, he is not like you, you must not take him as a role model because you are different.”

    Shouldn’t we instead be saying “this is a man, there are minor physical differences between you and him, but he has excellent and commendable characteristics that you are more than welcome to admire and try to incorporate into your own personality because really, under the bonnet, we are very similar.”

    It’s as if we’re sticking an extra hurdle in the way of true equality of opportunity rather than trying to tear one down. In pointing out that girls should be taking their leads from the female characters we are merely pointing out glaring but mostly unimportant differences in physical appearance. It’s even saying to boys that they should not look at the female characters for role models because those characters are inferior.

    Yes, of course I understand why we want more strong female leads, just as I understand we should want more leads that are not Caucasian, are not completely able bodied and have a vast array of personality types (because even shy, retiring types can be strong and courageous); we want variety, we want inclusion, we want to show lives other than those that are lived by the audience (because by gods soap operas are boring).

    I do not believe we should not have variation in our heroes. I do, however, believe that we can take our role models and in fact SHOULD take our role models from outside our own “type” and not be restricted, and telling people they are restricted, to taking our leads from those characters that are just like us.

    It should be a two pronged attack and I, personally, think we should be making more of an effort to explain our similarities than marking out our differences.

    As I’ve said before, in other similar threads, my upbringing was completely void of “you are a girl, that is a boy, you are not like him and must not try to be like him” and only through my reading of feminist blogs am I starting to see just how different it was to those of other women in Britain and especially America. So I accept that my… idea of gender education might very well be skewed.

  • Anonymous

    Mothers buy the pink clothes and sparkly hair ribbons for their daughters. Mothers are demonstrating subservient gender roles. It’s not the state. It’s not commercialism. It’s women themselves that are tainting the hopes of young women by being poor role models.

  • Cathy Creswell

    You just LIT UP my brain!! I have been guilty of what you describe. A self loathing female. I never saw it as misogyny before. I can see now the parallels to homophobia in men, and a general disdain in men for ‘feminine’ males.

    As a kid in the 60′s I decried the lack of good female roles on tv. Females were there as love interest for the male protagonist, woman in peril so the hero can save her, good wife and mother, secretary and teacher but never a leader. There weren’t any real life examples either. Post WW2 women had clearly defined roles and I hated it. I wanted to be a boy.

    You’re right, I was conflicted, self loathing even. Just as men have been told and shown they can be both tough and tender, maybe it’s time for women to give THEMSELVES the same message.

  • Robert Vary

     Funny, I thought I HAD used the reply button. I guess it didn’t take, or something.

    Anyway, I see what you’re saying, and it’s almost to the point where we seem to be disagreeing about how we agree. I think you’re missing the point, though. I’m not saying that girls can’t have male role models, absolutely not. Girls certainly can identify with male characters, can learn from them, can take their good characteristics and emulate them, of course they can. I don’t think anyone is saying that they shouldn’t. No one’s saying “Girls shouldn’t watch shows with strong male characters!” We’re saying “There should be strong female characters, too!” We’re just saying that we want them to have more options. People identify, not exclusively, but best with characters that are like them.

    You’re right, maybe a two-pronged approach is good, and yes we should be celebrating our similarities instead of our differences. It’s tough to do that, though, when the characters don’t HAVE those differences in the first place. Having males be the ONLY ones to lead, do science, be the hero, whatever, just highlights those differences and negates the similarities you want to encourage. Kids (less when they’re little, but very much so when they’re adolescents) notice the differences, even if only subconsciously. Yes, sure, many girls can see (for example) scientists in movies and
    TV, who are much more often than not male, and think “Hey, that looks
    cool. I want to be a scientist like him,” but many others will see the
    same thing and get think “Women don’t become scientists,” which can be
    a very discouraging thought. Speaking strictly anecdotally, I work and converse with a lot of scientists, both in real life and online, and many of them always thought science was cool and interesting, and loved science fiction shows with mostly male scientists. What really sparked them, though, was seeing strong female characters on shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 and others actually doing science stuff as well. Many of them claim those characters as shifting them from “Science is cool and interesting” over to “I can be a scientist.” Not exclusively, no. Many were influenced by male character, or men in their own lives. But the ones who felt that it just wasn’t something women did until they saw a woman doing it should absolutely not be discounted.

    I guess I’m saying that both prongs are good: providing strong female role models and utilizing existing male role models, but the former is what will actually lead to equality.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not an issue of role models but of gender stereotypes. 

    There are also, it should be noted, damaging male stereotypes in media – the clueless, sport-loving, loutish brute, for instance.

  • Casey T

    Am not going to make a judgment on this one. Just a question, if pink and princessy is not acceptable, would they give a list of what is? I think it would be much more convincing if they give a good list on what would be deemed to be appropriate.

  • Amy Scott

    Wow, you pretty much described me growing up and I didn’t even realize I was that way. I had two brothers and felt I I identified more with things like ninja turtles and voltron than barbie…because honestly what girl identifies with being a princess or flawless girl? I had grown to hate pretty girls and the things made to target them. I think the only thing I ever watched as a kid aimed at girls was My Little Pony and the Little Mermaid, everything else was male because that was what was cool. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized you CAN have both like you say, embracing my girlish and tomboyish side, and it is pretty liberating to be completely honest with myself about things like, I CAN like pink and play Diablo at the same time. lol

    I have two little girls of my own now and it bothers me so much to see television and games still greatly male dominated and those false representations of females that girls cannot relate to. Luckily there is Dora, but can we get more than one choice? Even Dora is subject to being surrounded by male characters: Boots, Swiper, Benny, Tico, Map, Backpack, Troll….etc. Its like they had to over compsate the male side characters to make up for a female lead. They also had to make a spin off show, Diego, for the boys because obviously they can’t watch Dora.

    They love Team Umizoomi as well, it was nice to see a female in there too, even if she is the only one again. Although it still bothers me, her male partner gets to make things like a rocket ship with his shapes and what does she get? A pattern dress and can measure things with her hair. Yay.

    Yo gabba gabba is another big one for them. Its nice to have TWO female characters among the mostly male cast this time. Getting a little better I suppose. But atleast this time they have included a girly girl and a tomboyish girl, although you can’t be both I guess.

    I could go on forever. lol