Sunday, June 4, 2023
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Go Girl!

Kids’ producers and distributors are defying stereotypes with a new wave of children’s shows featuring powerful female characters.

By Joanna Padovano Tong

Male characters outnumber females three-to-one on television, per the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It’s a ratio that has remained fairly unchanged for the past several decades. And it’s not just a lack of representation that is of concern. “Gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys,” the organization says on its website.

But the times they are a-changing, slowly. “In today’s world, there’s been such a shift in awareness and recalibrating values and trends, and I think the way that girls are looked at and want to be looked at is strong, empowered, aspirational and intelligent,” says Andy Heyward, the chairman and CEO of Genius Brands International.

According to Dominic Gardiner, the CEO of Jetpack Distribution, it’s important for creators to make sure that female characters are “smart, strong and in the lead, while avoiding any clichés—victims, princesses, falling down, twisting their ankles, etc. I know this sounds like something from the ’70s, but it does [still] happen.”

And there’s more than just the shallow princess stereotype being perpetuated in kids’ programming. “I’ve been working with broadcasters that go, Please, let’s not have the girl being the sensible voice of reason [or] the nagging older sister because it’s boring and we’ve seen that too many times already,” says Tom van Waveren, the CEO and creative director of CAKE. “Let’s have the same kind of diversity in female characters that we have in male characters.”

David Michel, the managing director of Federation Kids & Family and president of Cottonwood Media, mentions some other clichés: “There’s a kind of caricature of the valley girl, the bitchy girl, the nerdy girl with glasses…. That’s the negative that should be avoided, but it’s very much still there.” Among the female-led series repped by Federation Kids & Family is The Ollie & Moon Show. “That’s about two buddies, a girl and a boy, but the girl is really the lead in the show and the boy is kind of the follower,” says Michel. There is also Find Me in Paris, centered on a time-traveling ballerina, and Love, Divina, a soap opera for teen girls.

“Society doesn’t need more shows with girls pictured as either vanilla princesses or tomboys,” adds Claus Tømming, the managing partner at INK Group. “We need to introduce a new type of female character, and it doesn’t even take imagination to do that. It’s a great pain to come up with another young duchess or an overachiever because it’s been done so many times before. How about creating a girl as she is in real life: observant, passionate, strong, aspiring—why keep reinventing stereotypes? Just stop and look around!”

Move over, damsel in distress; there’s a new breed of girl characters in kids’ television. Take, for instance, Genius Brands’ Rainbow Rangers, which focuses on seven female heroes with the very important jobs of serving as Earth’s first responders. “It’s about empowerment of young girls,” says Heyward. “Of course there are all the tools of good storytelling that you would expect—crisis, conflict, humor, jeopardy—that make these episodes come alive.”

“This business is evolving along with the real world, and girls are [being] given different kinds of leading female characters so they can choose which one they feel closer to,” says Luana Perrero, the head of TV sales at Rainbow. In 2004, the company launched Winx Club, which Perrero says encourages female viewers to “embrace the positive values conveyed by the content.” Now a global hit, the fantasy series follows the adventures of six fairies living in a magical land.

Among other things, Winx Club teaches girls about empowerment, friendship and how to empathize with other girls “who share dreams and must work hard to achieve them—exactly as the heroines do on screen,” notes Perrero. The show is one of several examples of children’s series that portray the power of female camaraderie—girls working together and building each other up instead of tearing one another down as a result of feeling competitive or jealous.

Due to concerns about low ratings, broadcasters did not always welcome kids’ series with strong female characters. According to Pierre Sissmann, the chairman and CEO of Cyber Group Studios, while there has not necessarily been that much more of a demand for girl-led programming as of late, there is significantly less of an aversion to it when compared with attitudes just ten years ago. “The big difference between today and yesterday is that people are not reacting negatively when we present a girl-driven show,” he says. “Before, a number of networks would say, Uh-uh, if it’s girl-driven, don’t even present that to us. That doesn’t happen anymore and that’s a good thing.”

Cyber Group houses such girl-empowering series as Mirette Investigates, Sadie Sparks and Mademoiselle Zazie. “When we produced Mademoiselle Zazie, no one was looking for a female-led show,” says Sissmann. “It was not that successful until 2014-15, when people turned around and said, We need female-led character shows. And they started buying massively all over the world.”

“My generation—people who have children that are going to college right now—grew up in a world where the male perspective was always put front and center, and I think we have evolved into something that is much more balanced,” says CAKE’s van Waveren. “We have about 12 shows in different stages of development and I would say that we’re exactly at a fifty-fifty split when it comes to girl-led or boy-led. And that’s across different demographics and genres.”

That balance is not specifically planned, he notes, since the company simply chooses whatever projects it connects with the most. “We’re being offered more shows that are putting female characters at the center of them not because [creators] feel there is a fashion for it or the market is requiring it, but just because that is the story they want to be telling—and that makes it all the more powerful.”

Among CAKE’s most successful series featuring strong female characters are My Knight and Me, the Total Drama franchise and So Awkward. The company is also developing a new show, Mama K’s Super 4, about four Zambian girls who work together to save the day.

Jetpack’s Gardiner has noticed a slight uptick in appetite for shows that place girls front and center, but says it’s not “a dramatic, overwhelming demand,” just more “recognition of having more balance than before.” He adds: “We’ve seen a lot of younger female characters coming through. In the older-kids area, I still think that most broadcasters are either pretty balanced, gender-neutral or they have a slight boy bias.” The company’s portfolio boasts the girl-led animated comedy The Sisters.

Other series on offer from Jetpack, such as Talking Tom and Friends and Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed!, also contain powerful girl characters. In Talking Tom, “Angela is a very strong, aspirational, sparky female character that kind of balances out Tom and his slightly egocentric point of view,” says Gardiner, while in Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed!, the show’s brand-new female characters have been so successful that they’ve actually been added to the comic strip. “There was a lot of love for them, so they’ve now become little breakout stars of their own. They’ve created a very balanced series. Whereas I think, historically, it’s been very much a boy-led franchise, it’s now got strong aspirational [female] characters, so girls can love it too.”

Back in 2000, when he was at Marathon Media, Federation Kids & Family’s Michel co-created Totally Spies!, which is perhaps one of the first noteworthy girl-empowering kids’ series. “At the time, it was almost impossible to pitch a show with a girl lead,” he says. “The answer that we got every single time we would pitch the show was, Boys [have] the most control in the TV room and they will never watch a show with a female hero. And they were proven wrong not only with this show but with a lot of other shows. But I think it’s still something that’s hovering over channel programmers’ heads.”

Another series that has helped lead the way for female-driven children’s content is INK’s Masha and the Bear. “Masha launched the whole trend when the character was first introduced to the market a decade ago,” says Tømming. “Cele­brated series with female protagonists like Doc McStuffins or Sofia the First arrived years later.” The company also has a new show called Maouia Princess of Cordoba, which will feature a “highly nuanced female lead” who overcomes many challenges, including her own self-doubt, to achieve personal growth. “We like to think the audience is hungry for role models made of flesh and blood rather than glitter and pixels,” he adds.

“Female characters have always been front and center in the My Little Pony franchise and in the long-running animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” notes Nina Scales, the VP of international sales distribution at Hasbro Studios. “They have become so popular that we grew the Pony franchise in 2013 with the launch of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. Dealing with the ups and downs of life in high school, our female characters handle any crisis that is thrown at them.” Hasbro Studios’ catalog also includes Hanazuki: Full of Treasures, the company’s newest girl-led animated series.

Mondo TV Group also houses a number of series with female leads, among them Sissi The Young Empress, the Heidi Bienvenida franchise and Angel’s Friends. “Today, the girls’ empowerment topic is important and a message that we need to start teaching girls—and boys—from a very young age,” says Micheline Azoury, the company’s head of acquisitions and TV sales. “In some previous shows dedicated to girls, we used to see a big focus on beauty. The trend today is geared more towards a different direction, [including] inner beauty rather than outside…but also being smart and contributing equally to boys in any situation.”

Kiva Can Do!, in Lacey Entertainment’s portfolio, is another example of a children’s show telling young girls that they are capable of accomplishing whatever they set their minds to. The titular character is “caring, nurturing and follows her heart, but she also can do anything that a boy can do,” says Brian Lacey, the company’s president. “Kiva Can Do! represents a significant departure from other girls’ content in that Kiva does not conform to a male stereotype to be empowered. Kiva tips these gender stereotypes on their heads and gently reminds children that anything they can dream, they can do.”

While it is, of course, important for there to be gender-balanced kids’ programming—after all, there are just as many little girls in the world as boys—storytelling must still be the main priority for a show to cut through in the crowded children’s television marketplace.

“It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a girls’ show or a boys’ show; it has to be a good series,” says Cyber Group’s Sissmann. “One of our biggest developments today is our first superhero show featuring two girls as the heroes; it’s a  good story and that’s why we picked it up. I think that ten years ago, we would have said, Well, nobody’s going to buy this. That’s not even a thought today. So we’re looking at boys’ and girls’ series irrespective of the gender.”

“I look for things that are enriching to kids and that still have very strong characters and strong stories,” notes Genius Brands’ Heyward. “It’s not girls per se or boys per se—I’m just looking to find good characters and good stories and see wherever they take us.”

A good way to achieve rich storytelling that avoids repetition and stereotypes is having more of a gender balance in the writers’ room, adds CAKE’s van Waveren. “It doesn’t mean that you need to be a woman to write about girls or a man to write about boys, but if you’re going to have a series with characters of mixed genders, it makes total sense to have a writers’ team that has mixed genders as well.”

In line with the demand for greater representation for women across the media industry, it’s likely that there will be more girl-led kids’ shows in the future. “It’s the right thing to do,” says INK’s Tømming. “It’s about time to not just ‘respond to demand’ but to redress the balance. Wake up, people!”

In a perfect world, there would be fifty-fifty balance, says Jetpack’s Gardiner. “The equilibrium is what we’re aiming for. Sometimes the way the market works is we have these swings from one extreme to another, and so if somebody identifies a gap, then you’ll suddenly see a rush of series. Ultimately, the audiences are deciding what’s going to stick around, but I do think there are certainly plenty of people trying to create not just token female characters.”

“Previously girls tended to be portrayed as playing second fiddle to the male lead, whereas now we have [more] series featuring females that are fearless, smart and strong,” says Hasbro’s Scales. “This generation of kids will grow up with positive female role models and an understanding that girls can do anything and be anything.”

As long as there is enough of a gender balance, children don’t mind if a show’s star is male or female. “I don’t think kids care about the gender of the characters; I think they care about the type of storytelling,” Federation’s Michel says. “You can have 100-percent female storytelling that’s very emotion-based [or] you can have very male storytelling with more action, etc., but if you have a little bit of both, they don’t care that the hero is a boy or a girl.”

Overall, it seems that compelling storytelling is a sure-fire way to make a successful kids’ show that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of gender—except, perhaps, when young boys are going through their infamous “girls have cooties” phase, which, although there’s no cure for it, is almost always temporary.