Superpower PlayA New Generation of Children’s Cartoons Struggles to Smash Gender Norms

Illustration by Molly McIntyre

This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!

“Into the night to save the day!” cheer the main characters in PJ Masks, a Disney Junior show about three 6-year-old friends who own pajamas that turn them into superheroes. My youngest son, who’s two years old, loves PJ Masks.

Kids’ relationships to pop culture create tricky dynamics for parents: I want him to watch tv and films that help open his mind, not ones that reiterate archaic gender norms and glamorize violence. And yet those more simplistic narratives are often the ones that attract our children.

Several current shows aimed at preschool kids, including PJ Masks and Captain Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which both air on Disney Junior (a channel geared to kids under 8), center on boys and girls who look and act differently than the cartoon protagonists of my youth. Instead of being gender-segregated, boys and girls are shown as equals, and they engage in friendly adventures together. Boys fly by way of pixie dust, and girls can be sheriffs running entire towns. These shows soften their heroes, which is a marked change from the macho, hypermasculine heroes I grew up watching in the ’70s and ’80s on shows such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Super Friends.

But are the present-day heroes of Pre-K shows actually substantively different from those I watched a generation ago? Is Disney modeling a version of masculinity that’s any more open for young boys today? The archetypes of pirates and superheroes remain, but the stakes feel higher for me as a parent. These are shows geared toward kids who are at critical stages for learning gender roles and privilege. This is the age when boys first start to absorb the rules that lead to toxic masculinity, which itself leads them to grow into men who shut down and teaches them to express emotions through moments of violence.

In 1977, Dr. Albert Bandura described the concept of social learning theory in his book of the same name. This fundamental idea posits that young children learn not only from their own experiences but also from modeling what they see in the world around them. This style of learning relies on continuous interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. In the space of my living room, for example, my sons see a television show, pay attention to its content and characters, then reenact what they watched through their play with each other and their friends. As a girl I chafed when my male friends told me I wasn’t allowed to fight with them, and I didn’t really identify with Wonder Woman, who had a lot of autonomy as a female character. I never figured out how to lasso anything. Children encounter models for identity from several sources, including their family’s religious traditions, school or daycare, popular culture, and their friends. In this mix of learning and play, they enact ideas about gender identity—and in the process shift their attitudes about gender.

In recent years, feminists have expanded on Bandura’s theory. Influential transgender sociologist Raewyn Connell has pointed out that pop culture narratives don’t merely describe gender—they frame it in decidedly narrow, prescriptive ways. And because these narratives come from popular culture, they have the weight of society—hegemony—behind them. According to Connell, when these ideas are presented in popular culture, they carry a kind of societal approval, which affects young people to a great degree.

Complete with a retro-kitsch drum soundtrack and a flight through the air reminiscent of Mad Men’s opening credits, the opening sequence to PJ Masks tells us all we need to know about the show’s premise: Three classmates—Amaya, Connor, and Greg—fight evildoers after moonrise by way of their magical pajamas that grant them superpowers. The show is based on a series of French books for children, and the characters are entry-level superheroes; each episode teaches a lesson to young viewers, like the value of working together or being patient. In PJ Masks, malevolent plans are foiled and nobody ever dies.

Debuting on Disney Junior (and France 5 in France) in 2015, PJ Masks is similar to other newer children’s shows in its attempts to be more racially inclusive. While Greg is pale and blond, Connor has brown skin, and Amaya has dark hair. The show is crafted to appeal to a very young, diverse viewership—the friendly heroes aren’t all sugar and spice, they have bossy and anxious sides, too—and their superhero identities are based on animals. Even with his 2-year-old vocabulary, my son can demand “PJ Mask!” when he wants to watch the show.

I vetted this retrofuturistic show for only a few minutes the first time I saw it. I think it was the drums that hooked us, but we were all quickly pulled in. By the third episode, though, I’d begun to wonder what lay underneath the narrative about working together. In every episode, the cooperation message doesn’t come until the end of the storyline, and it’s often delivered with a star graphic exploding behind one of the PJ Masks as she or he shouts, “It’s time to be a hero!” Up until that point, we are still watching Greg refuse to communicate about his fear of reading to the class, Amaya ignore her common sense in favor of looking at her new tablet, and Connor insist that his ideas are the best. Plus, there is a gendered component to the characters’ superpowers: While the boys’ powers relate to speed and strength, Amaya’s are more passive.

While neither Connor nor Greg show physical signs of muscularity to mark their masculinity, they are supremely fit, their bodies capable of extreme quickness, strength, and agility. “Super cat speed!” says Connor, who turns into Catboy. “Super gekko muscles!” shouts Greg, who, you guessed it, turns into Gekko. Amaya, on the other hand, turns into Owlette, who has super owl eyes, can fly, and can create a strong wind (similar to Storm’s weather-controlling abilities in the X-Men universe). It’s not that Amaya doesn’t have cool powers, but it’s worth noting that her abilities don’t embody physical strength or agility. Unlike Connor and Greg who can can fall back on their body’s physical powers, Amaya, always relies on her wits, her compassion, and her vision.

This is a dichotomy that is present across pop culture as a whole as well as across Disney Junior programming: Male heroes have powers that help them battle evil aggressively while female heroes’ powers are more passive, focused on communication or healing. Doc McStuffins, another Disney Junior show popular with Pre-K kids, revolves around a smart, caring African American girl named Dottie, known as “Doc.” Doc fixes broken toys, but she can also communicate with them. Her superhuman ability is enabled by a magical stethoscope, and she uses this power only to help others—perhaps the most feminine portrayal of a magical ability seen in an American narrative for children. On Sofia the First, yet another Disney offering, the titular character, Sofia, wears a pendant that could control the entire universe, but she uses it primarily to communicate with animals like her pegasus and a bunny rabbit. In the hands of girls, magic is an extension of the feminine-coded quality of communication, even when the overt message is that girls have power and autonomy. For example, when Doc and her toys use the stethoscope to travel through time (what?! why is this not a part of every episode?), they do so only to meet famous nurse Florence Nightingale. If the masculinized narrative of men and time travel devices these days is killing Adolf Hitler before his rise to power, the feminine narrative is supporting Nightingale in creating an industry of nurses.

Even in modern, progressive-minded shows, male and female characters use magic in different ways. Take, for example, Captain Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a show that debuted in 2011 and is marketed much more broadly than either Sofia the First or Doc McStuffins. (Jake is on my son’s pull-up diapers—he loves the show.) Jake seeks magical power (and treasure, of course) and uses it to further his own abilities and defeat villains—a plot point that highlights one big difference in the depictions of superpowered boys and girls. Doc and Sofia use magic to solve problems, but those problems aren’t typically evildoers. Bad guys on Captain Jake, by contrast, are loud and obvious: They’re malevolent mermen, or lumbering mounds of lava, or disgraced pirates out for revenge. This might explain why boys’ superpowers become extensions of masculinity—because the stories create critical stakes for that power. It’s a trope as old as Captain America; magical and paranormal power serve as both the motivation for evil—“I must have the power!”—and the means by which ordinary men can defeat evil. Masculinity in this context relies on an appeal to greater power to assert strength and control. Superpowers thus represent that masculinity alone is not enough to resolve conflict.

In the episode “The Great Never Sea Conquest,” the entirety of Never Land is saved only because Jake’s sword suddenly becomes more powerful and raises the long-missing ship the Mighty Colossus—I am not kidding—out of the Never Sea to take on Lord Fathom, an evil merman, and the Strake, a three-headed sea snake. Right before the final battle, King Neptune tells Jake that all he needs is to believe in himself, even though we’ve already seen that it’s really the sword he needs to defeat this evil. Whether evil is conquered with Jake’s confidence or his glittering sword, he has realized something about his masculinity. He’s learned—and, presumably, so have my boys—that he has the agency he needs to fight against what look like insurmountable odds. He’s learned, in other words, not to heed the flight response and instead to take on the fight. Every time my son reenacts this episode, I wonder which pieces of it resonate with him.

Tech-focused feminist futurist Donna Haraway theorized in the mid-’90s that future cyborgs would more often be depicted as villains, not superheroes, because culture would not support the “good” (biological body) and the “evil” (cybernetic parts) within the same person as a hero. Ontologically, we do not want to see a combining of good and evil, and so we tend to craft superheroes as “second-order observers,” write Johannes Schlegel and Frank Habermann in a piece in 2011’s The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre, and Globalization in Film. While superpowers may be an improvement, extension, or enhancement of humanness, these characteristics also remove or distance superheroes from humanity. The tension between superabilities and human ones is rectified by showing that superheroes are different from the rest of us.

But while watching these narratives, I see another aspect of masculinity at play. Superpowers come in where masculinity fails. Jake cannot stop Lord Fathom’s reign without his magical sword. Catboy cannot prevent train theft without his speed and incredible jumping abilities. Gekko cannot save the town’s museum without his camouflage. Were these boys without extra assistance, they would need to identify completely new strategies for resolving conflict. On the other hand, Sofia, Doc, and Owlette would be pretty much the same people without their extrahuman abilities—Sofia would still be friends with the animals in the kingdom, Doc would still know how to fix toys, and Owlette would perhaps buy a hang glider. In this way, superhuman abilities function as a kind of insurance against the limits of masculinity. If being a boy or a man isn’t enough, boys can dream of powers that would avenge themselves and punish their competitors and antagonists. These narratives are perhaps gateways to the construction of fragile masculinity—the same masculinity that, in the hands of young men, takes offense at rejected offers of dates, or dismisses female coworkers’ ideas, and so on.

Psychologists in childhood development have found that as young children progress through increasingly complex understandings of gender, they become “gender stable” around age 3. What does it mean if this sense of gender stability is predicated on an autonomous, self-directed femininity and a sensitive but fragile masculinity? Are parents who have been asking for more fluid and complex representations of gender pushing content producers far enough? My older son loves to wear cowboy boots along with a tutu; will these shows push his sense of self toward the center line? My younger son is obsessed with anything on wheels and has had zero interest in dolls or his brother’s tutus; will these shows reinforce only the most mainstream aspects of his emerging sense of gender identity?

Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine found in a 2015 study that watching Sesame Street helped small children—in particular, both Black and white males—prepare for school in a significant way. If television is that powerful of a teacher, then the narratives our youngest children see may have direct effects on the ways they understand their power. Sadly, it would seem that we have a long way to go to change the stories they’re absorbing.

Fortunately for me and my kids, parents remain the strongest influencer when it comes to children’s understandings of themselves and their gender identities. My son may brandish a foam sword, but he does it while wearing an orange tutu, and the sword is a tool for finding roly poly bugs, not for defeating enemies in battle. It gives me hope that hugs are a lot more common between my boys than angry words. For now, they haven’t been totally subsumed into fragile masculinity. But I admit it—I’m holding my breath.

This article was published in Kids These Days Issue #72 | Fall 2016
by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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