Chelsea Regan hears from leading producers and distributors about the best approaches to delivering gender-neutral shows.
In 2019, it may seem surprising that developing truly gender-inclusive content—engaging shows that appeal to and excite girls as much as boys—continues to be a goal rather than a given. Programs geared primarily toward boys are still often passed off as gender-neutral, with mostly one-dimensional and secondary girl characters that serve as hooks to pull girls into the audience. According to a recent Hopster report into preschool programming, titled “Is TV Making Your Child Prejudiced?” over a third of the episodes in the 50 preschool shows examined perpetuated stereotypes. Boys fight. Girls are image-oriented. Boys are the protectors and the bearers of knowledge. Girls clean. Boys are powerful protagonists. Girls are undermined and objectified.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and shows like Guru Studio’s True and the Rainbow Kingdom are helping to pave the way forward. In the animated series, which is now in production on its fourth season, a girl is the protagonist, and a boy character, a cat named Bartleby, serves as that hook to reach across the gender divide. And even better, he’s not one-dimensional. In addition to teaming up with True on her often-sidetracked missions to save the titular kingdom, he takes some time out to train with the Kittynati ninjas.
“Boys find an immediate entry point with [Bartleby] and even though the show isn’t strictly about him, he provides a lot of humor and a foil to True,” says Frank Falcone, Guru Studio’s president and executive creative director, who describes the character as one with a lot of energy and ambition in a series that’s about taking care of other people—a nice change from shows about waging destruction that conventional wisdom dictates are more appealing to boys.
During a focus group session, Falcone and the Guru team were ready and waiting for some unequivocally negative reviews from the “rough-and-tumble little boys” they’d lined up to watch a sample of True and the Rainbow Kingdom. And initially, it seemed as though their assumptions were bearing out; the first episode they screened received a lukewarm reaction. But, it did enough to get the assembled kids to agree to stay put for a second episode, which happened to center on Bartleby training to be a Kittynati. It proved to be the real litmus test for Guru.
“When that was over, we were like, Do you like the show? They were like, Yeah, this is a great show; we love this show,” says Falcone of the welcome surprise that became a teachable moment for Guru. “If you queue up the right show, it can change your perception of whether you want to watch the rest of the series. Strategically programming episodes for gender can make a difference in whether they engage in the rest of the series because they won’t be biased by one particular story.”
Tatiana Kober, president of Bejuba! Entertainment, says, “It used to be that the girl would be a more of a sidekick character for [a show] to be considered gender-neutral, and the boy had to be the lead. The research in the past was always backing up that gender-neutral series still had to have a boy lead and probably a boy best friend, and then a secondary girl.” The tides did eventually start turning—with a little push from like-minded execs. “We started sneaking more girls into [shows] because we got stronger as women and there’s a lot of women in the industry, and the guys saw it, too.”
At GO-N Productions, which counts gender-neutral shows such as Simon and Zip Zip among the titles in its library, having women involved in the creation of a program is part of how the company ensures that girls feel represented and portrayed authentically on-screen. GO-N has had just as many women as men working on its productions at its Paris-based studio for the last few years. “We try to have parity among the characters, strong characters that are equally boys and girls,” says Eric Garnet, co-founder and producer at GO-N. “The parity is very important to make sure you have gender-neutral shows. You should also have parity within your studios. I think that’s one of the ways that the industry changes.” Garnet adds that women animators are also key to more accurately drawing female characters and how they move.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Would a character like True and the Rainbow Kingdom’s Bartleby have been enough to get your average boy to watch a girl-led series ten or even five years ago? Would Bejuba!’s Wishfart pass muster for the average 5- or 6-year-old? Or GO-N’s Zip Zip with preschoolers? Uncertain. But times have changed, kids have changed (or perhaps just the perception of their tastes) and thankfully, so has the kids’ TV industry. Diversity is winning out.
Allen Bohbot, the founder and managing director of 41 Entertainment, has found that a program’s cross-gender appeal comes down to treating boys and girls as equals, whether it’s fronted by a boy or girl character. “Girls aren’t just going to watch because you put a girl in front of them; they’re not going to buy that,” says Bohbot, who believes that the industry is catching up to its young audience. “I think now people have said, OK, it doesn’t need to be all boys—because we were archaic in our thinking—it doesn’t have to just be a girl lead. It has to be a show that tries to appeal to both boys and girls and treat them the same instead of what we were doing before, which was to treat them very differently. And that was us, the industry. That wasn’t the kids.”
A common thread among those making and selling kids’ content is the sense that the children are perhaps a more open-minded audience than they have been given credit for.
“Stereotypes of any gender-specific stories or characters are no longer expected nor embraced by kids, if they ever were,” says Claudia Scott-Hansen, senior VP of global distribution at The Jim Henson Company. “I think that’s more of an adult perception.” What is expected and embraced by kids these days, according to Scott-Hansen, is a bit of reality. “You have the best chance with all audience demos if you have well-developed, appealing—but I like to say ‘imperfect’—characters. If you have a strong, story-driven narrative, that’s always a must. And ideally, you’d have elements within the show that have surprises or elements to engage or inspire.”
Gender-neutral shows and the strategies used to hone them are products of an industry changing with the times. “I think we’ve all grown up,” says Bohbot. “I think all of us have just caught up with the reality of the world. Kids reflect, more than anybody else—and people don’t always recognize this—society as it is. They’re in front of it; they see it before we see it, as it may take older people more time to adjust.”
Bejuba!’s Kober—who says she was raised to believe that she could do anything, a belief she carried through to starting her own company—thinks that a show’s appeal to both boys and girls has to do not only with how characters are presented, but also with the positive external factor of an evolving culture. “You can have stronger girl characters and even lead [girl characters] if you position them properly. The boys will be [attracted] to it and they won’t be thinking, Oh, this is a girls’ show. They’ll embrace it,” says Kober, adding, “I think people have changed; society has shifted.”
While some execs in the kids’ content business maintain that comedy is the genre that most appeals to both boys and girls, others are less certain. Why wouldn’t action and adventure series also reach across gender lines? What about those that dive into science and nature, music or learning?
Dinosaur Train, an educational children’s series from Henson that has paleontology and natural science at its core and is popular with both boys and girls, manages to do so because “it’s a bit of the unexpected,” says Scott-Hansen. “It’s a portrayal of this adoptive family, with all different kinds of kid characters and personalities and also physical abilities.”
Testing out the musical adventure series Do, Re & Mi, Gaumont learned that while boys believed the character of Mi was a boy, girls thought the character was a girl. Taking a cue from the intended audience, the studio decided to commit to leaving Mi a gender-neutral character in the truest sense. “We don’t have the other characters saying he or she,” says Terry Kalagian, senior VP of creative development for animation and family at Gaumont. “The other characters, when they refer to Mi, they say Mi. We’ve kept that. We’ll see how it goes once it gets out there and launches, but all of the testing was very, very interesting to see that kids are looking for mirrors when they’re watching a show. Here they have this character whose actual name is Mi and they saw themselves in that character.”
41 Entertainment has S.M.A.S.H!, following superhero kids and their super-powered pets. “There’s some science in there because there’s technology and there’s action and there’s a lot of humor because, How does a 5-year-old become a superhero? They make a lot of mistakes along the way, and those mistakes are usually funny,” says Bohbot of the series.
Coming soon to Bejuba!’s slate is a preschool show centered on a girl whom Kober calls “a cross between an Indiana Jones and a Jane Goodall.” Explaining the series’ potential appeal to both boys and girls, she adds, “We might have her in purple, but we don’t want to clothe the series in pink.”
PRETTY IN PINK
With all the talk about shows with broad appeal across genders, the enduring place for shows that play to an audience that craves content with a bit more sparkles than forest-dwelling creepy crawlers could be lost in the conversation. That audience still exists and so should still be catered to. “I think there’s room for all of it and there should be. That’s what inclusivity is all about,” says Kober. “Some girls like to be princesses; some girls like to play with trains. You want to connect to them all.”
As GO-N’s Garnet puts it, “Girls have the right to like pink and princesses. As producers or creators or even broadcasters, we don’t have the right to impose on that.”
Gaumont’s Kalagian credits the rise of tough female characters hitting the big screen in such films as The Hunger Games and Divergent as part of the reason why kids are more open to seeing such characters take the lead on the small screen. She also believes there’s still plenty of room for princesses. “I would never bet against Sofia the First or Elena of Avalor. [These shows] have taken that kind of concept and put a contemporary point of view on it. They’ve been able to take that fantasy of being a princess and then actually put it into a modern-day context,” says Kalagian, adding, “It’s more about redefining what pink means so that it’s more like real life.”
As broadcasters are focused on engaging the largest swath of eyeballs with top-tier gender-neutral content, “pink” programs might be increasingly more likely to find a home on a streaming service. “It is easier for a girls’ show to find a home on an SVOD platform rather than on a network,” says Cristiana Buzzelli, senior VP of content and licensing at Rainbow, the company behind 44 Cats. “Broadcasters are more attentive to stay away from stereotypes and are looking for more balanced characters who can represent a wider audience. A show can be girls-oriented, this is fine, but it would be important to represent girls with a more ‘inclusive’ approach.”
With streaming platforms, a show’s ability to capture a broad audience isn’t as much of a requirement. The programs don’t need to pull in both boys and girls, they don’t need to attract both younger and older kids and they don’t need to be particularly tolerable to parents, as watching via such platforms is more often than not an individual experience that can be tailored to tots’ particular tastes.
“When you’re looking at personalized viewing services like VODs and YouTube, you don’t need to [appeal to everyone] because people don’t sit around to watch YouTube; they tend to watch YouTube on personal devices,” says Guru’s Falcone, who thinks that VODs can change the game in terms of all genders finding and engaging with all kinds of shows. “I don’t think that anyone would shy away from having a super sparkly pink show for personalized viewing. As we see personal viewing propagating around the world, you’re going to get the opportunity to expose kids to shows they might feel embarrassed about watching and then talking about on the playground,” Falcone explains. “But if they’re watching it on their own, no one knows what they’re watching. You’re able to make choices that aren’t as peer-influenced.”
Creating kids’ shows that bridge genders—to stand alongside those geared more toward girls or boys—is difficult. Creating shows that will keep their attention as they age is even harder. When asked about what age boys specifically turn towards gaming, the majority of the kids’ content execs surveyed for this article observed it was around 8, and that trying to bring them back to TV made for children would be a lost cause.
“Every year it changes; by the time you publish this, it will be younger and younger,” says Falcone, who deadpanned that the age kids are lost for good is 6, before settling on 8. “I think that everyone is feeling the pinch of TV moving into preschool, because kids’ TV seems to have lost the appeal to older kids.”
Henson’s Scott-Hansen—a mother of four who often uses her kids and their friends as a sample group to study in her own living room—sees evidence of this firsthand. “I’ve been noticing the shift earlier, and I think my youngest ones started going on YouTube and Minecraft much more readily when they were about 6,” she says. “[Gaming] is addictive in a way that TV isn’t, or at least it’s not yet. It seems to be appealing to boys earlier than girls, but I think that by 8 or 9, they all seem to be mesmerized by it.”
GO-N’s Garnet also sees boys moving to gaming, though he sees girls moving away from kids’ TV even younger, favoring outdoor activities and reading.
Kids, like their older adult peers, just want quality content, whether an adventure series led by a determined girl or a comedy centered on a boy with a robust sense of humor, targeting preschoolers or those in the bridge demo. They want to be entertained. They want a good story. They want to see themselves reflected on the screen.
“It comes down to telling interesting stories and telling stories that relate to their lives,” says 41 Entertainment’s Bohbot. “I think you’ll see animation not only be gender-neutral and ethnicity-neutral but even physically neutral, whether they have an ailment or a disability, that’s OK. They can still contribute and perform and be cool. That whole trend line is where the industry is going. And it’s just a reflection of society and us catching up with it.”