Saturday Morning Toon Blues


It is a ritual of mine to flip through channels on a typical Saturday morning before I go off to work. While my adventures are less frequent these days than when I was eight years old, cartoons are still of great interest to me. However, in my habits, I've encountered a frightening discovery that has sent a gross feeling to the pit of my stomach.

"Great Scotts!" I announce, mouth gaping like a frog as I stare at the tv. "Where in the lord are all the girl leads?"

Flipping to the CBS KEWLopolis line, I found my answer. For two hours the program block aired Horseland, Carebears: Adventures in Care-A-Lot, and Strawberry Shortcake. Of the three, however, only two were new, whereas Strawberry Shortcake continues to air 2003 reruns. Yes. They are showing episodes from six years back.

Frustrated, I posed my problem to friends and acquaintances.
"Well, at least they are making cartoons for girls!" People would respond.

There is a penny of truth to this, yes, networks are finally airing cartoons for girls. Forty years ago? You'd be lucky if you could find an assertive female character. Geena Davis said it best back in 2005 at the National Conference for Media Reform

Do you remember the kinds of stuff that they made for us, for kids, in the oldie old days? Let's see, the first animation, of course, was Disney's Minnie Mouse and—where is she? I'm pushing the button—Daisy Duck, who didn't really do much at all, except ask to go shopping, I think. There were a lot of Hanna-Barbera cartoons—Magilla Gorilla, Wally Gator, George of the Jungle—virtually no female characters. I had a vague recollection that Yogi Bear had a girlfriend, and I searched and searched, and I finally found her, Cindy Bear, as you all remember.

On the Looney Tunes website, they list twelve characters, and only one of them is female, but it's the great one. It's the one you all love and remember the best: Granny. She's the one who owns Tweety, and she has to leave so that the story can happen.

Right. Back then, you'd be lucky to see a lady for two seconds in a toon. Compared to that, there are more females in cartoons these days. We have done a bang job with leading females in lineups like KEWLopolis, but why do leading females have to be in "GIRL ONLY!" programming blocks? Instead of thinking in terms of pink and blue, why aren't the networks thinking in terms of genre? Last I checked, Power Puff Girls is an excellent blend of leading ladies rocking out like superstars. Girls and boys flocked to it back in 1995, and its popularity is still wild. Dora the Explorer is another good example of preschoolies not giving a darn whether she's a girl or a boy. She did just about anything both genders would do (until Diego was introduced).

totallyspies.jpg ben10.jpg
See this? That is gendertyping. Of course boys don't want to see Totally Spies. I'm pretty sure a lot of girls don't even want to see it. It doesn't look nearly as exciting or interesting as, say, Ben 10. But even then, marketting a show to a specific gender just helps to continue building barriers and stereotypes between the sexes. We need shows that appeal to both genders, and I'd like to see more of those with girls.

So where is the "universal" programs? Where are the boy-girl shows with lady leads, like Power Puff Girls? Why aren't we seeing more cartoons like these, and less gender specific lineups like KEWLopolis or the boy-theme dominated Cartoon Network? Red Diabla's response to Geena Davis via blog comment answers the key question:

I was once told by an executive that having a female lead character for a series pitch is practically a guarantee that other execs won't pick up the show at the particular studio/network that I wanted to pitch to. I asked, "Even with the success of [Power Puff Girls]?" and they replied that PPG was seen as an exception to the rule.

So, do animators who make pitches automatically pitch stuff with male characters because they themselves tend to be male, or do execs shoot down pitches with female leads because they assume that little boys won't watch shows featuring girls, even if those girls aren't Barbie/Bratz/princesses?

It is a very good question. The logic is perplexing and frustrating. Girls will happily watch boy toons, but boys want nothing to do with girl toons. Execs will argue its because girl leads just don't sell to boys. Well, mister executives, I call BS. I don't see enough examples of how cartoons with leading ladies meant to appeal both genders have failed. I haven't seen them. And the few examples that do exist, such as Power Puff Girls and Kim Possible, seemed to do a good job with bringing in the money. Cartoons in Japan (of which we keep emulating stylistically) have had many female leads with no crashing results. Some of the bigger budget Ghibli Studio films racked in the Japanese Box Office no problem, and they are notorious for their starring female characters.

So answer me this, Execs, what exactly is your deal? Give me a better reason and some nicer numbers why you won't try to pitch a universal cartoon with more female characters?

Honestly? The marketing answer seems simple: Just make a cartoon with "big boy" explosions and give the kids a strong leading girl. Someone who is interesting and dynamic.

And please, if that show with the popular leading lady happens to be extremely successful, you don't have to do a spinoff series featuring her boyish cousin so she can do more girly stuff.

diego.jpg dora.jpg
Case. In. Point.

by Alyx Jolivet
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

mostly because the only tv i

mostly because the only tv i get to watch anymore involves cartoons, i can name a few good girl characters on tv right now. the first that comes to mind is candace from phineas and ferb. she started out as a secondary character but quickly became more of a main; she also started out as pretty annoying, but definitely has gotten a little more relaxed and funny as the show has went on. she may be frequently exasperated, a control freak, and apt to underestimate herself, but in the end she deals and ends up proving herself to be pretty capable.

i think candace is best appreciated through multiple episodes, as her character seems to me to be developing a lot, especially recently. i really liked the recent episode where she accidentally did psychotropic substances and, while tripping balls, declared she was "gonna get [her] some beef jerky," out of a rock she mistook for a vending machine. i think that scene summed up her character to me; from a quirky family, quirky herself, wavering between trying to be "cool" and actually *being* cool, interesting, and weird. she's most likable when her surroundings make her drop the dumb teenager interests and actually be herself and show off her talents. when she lets her guard down she rocks out on stage with her favorite band, pwns the monster truck course, busts intergalactic supervillians, and cooks up a mean mother's day breakfast.

another good female on that show is isabella, phineas' best friend aside from ferb. she is shown as usually being a little bit more badass and certainly more sensible than phineas or ferb; she's always game for whatever crazy scheme they have going on and participates pretty equally.

i think this show is in it's third season now, maybe, or the end of the second, so it's really just kind of coming into it's own. the female characters are getting a lot more screen time and getting fleshed out more. all in all i think it's a pretty good gender-universal show. actually, i just think it's a pretty good show, to be honest. sometimes i watch it when my kid's not even around.

another great female lead character is lola from charlie and lola. so cute! and kind of sassy and bossy, but with a good heart. she likes learning, drinking pink milk, and especially dress up (but she *is* an alligator!). she's always wearing these cute little liberty print dresses and tights, but still manages to come off as sort of a tomboy. and her best friend lotta is super cute too.

let's see, there's june and annie on little einsteins, darby on winnie the pooh, and kelly on handy manny. the only one of those i can say i personally care for is kelly, but i will say that darby is alright. june and annie are a little too gender-typed for me, but they're not really shown in a negative light or as not being able to help as much as the boys, so i don't disapprove. oh, and nick has kai lan, who, from what i've seen, is pretty good... dora-ish but with a cuter animation style and she's chinese.

most of these are aimed at the dora crowd, except phineas and ferb, which i think is aiming more for 6-9 year olds (and their parents). i can't really speak to cartoons aimed at older kids... i dread the day when these cartoons aren't cutting it anymore and he begs to watch spongebob.

Those are great comments and

Those are great comments and it is nice to hear someone point out some ladies in toons.

Not to say there aren't positive lady characters in toons, but many programs lay the law down when it comes to Girls playing the active, leading role. I've heard stories of animation graduates going up to network executives with their story pitches of which a girl happens to be the main character.

They are almost always guaranteed to be shot down because the girl plays the main role. "Girls just don't sell".

PPG was a great exception to the rule because Craig McCracken and friends already were doing a wildly successful job at Dexter's Laboratory. Even then, it was probably meant to be a small mini cartoon show, not a season opener. It wasn't until it received some crazy reception that the television executives changed their minds.

Dear TV execs - How the hell can you predetermine whether or not a program does well if you haven't even tried to broadcast it? Better yet, show me a program you actually screened with a leading lady and a universal audience that did poorly? It just sounds like a load of BS to me. They won't risk the money because they are determined their demographic is sexist. Keep in mind that their demographic is 4 - 10 years old, which is a huge insult on children and parenting.


What the hell happened to Dora!?

At least there's Saturday night toons!

If anything, at least take solace in the fact that anime has provided at least one AMAZING female protagonist geared towards older teens/adults who has become quite popular in the states. Her name is Motoko Kusanagi, the lead of the hit series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (there are also three films, to date). I got hooked by the series when it originally aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and I've been addicted ever since. Kusanagi (often referred to as "Major"), is the leader of a special-ops police force called Section 9. Set in 2034, the series largely focuses on issues of politics and identity; in the time period in which the show occurs, a large percentage of the public have artificial, cybernetic bodies that create awareness of a rift between the physical self/appearance and one's own identity, soul or "ghost." As a person who has been in possession of a prosthetic body since childhood, Motoko is often forced to confront her own humanity, and even her sex/gender. If she works with all men and behaves in a masculine way (she is even jokingly referred to as Ms. Macho once or twice by co-workers) what is her true gender? If her body is artificial, completely alterable and easily replaceable, what is her sex? What happens to identity and self-perception when one's physical form is more or less fluid? These are just a few of the excellent questions brought up by the series. And did I mention the action? When she's not philosophically pondering her own existence, Motoko is kicking ass and taking names. Incredibly skilled and gifted with the superhuman strength of a cybernetic body, she seems nearly invincible. If you're interested, here's a short video of clips from the show:

Just be warned, there's a HUGE spoiler at the end of this particular video, so you might want to stop it a few seconds short...

In summary, Ghost in the Shell made up for the lack of strong female leads in my childhood--thank goodness!!! I highly recommend the series!

I do love Ghost in the Shell

I do love Ghost in the Shell like no other, but that program caters to people in high school if not older, whereas the target audience I'm worried about are between the ages of 4 - 10 who don't have an easy way to access the programming they would want to watch. In many ways, their interests lie in Executives hands.

Even the anime American companies are importing for youth (4 - 10 year olds) consumption do not have lady leads, with the rare example of Ghibli Studios. But how can you say no to a mastermind like Miyazaki?

With popular ladies like the Power Puff Girls and Dora, you'd think that they'd finally get the clue that boys don't mind girls, as long as the girls are in shows that appeal to both guys and gals. But execs won't hear it. They think "Girl Leads = Bad Ratings". That sounds like sexism to me.

Totally agree

Hence my for "older teens/adults" comment at the beginning of my post. My point is, at least as we get older some new opportunities open up to compensate for our limited choices as youngsters. Then again, my parents had my brother and I watching ALIENS with Sigourney Weaver at the age of 5, so...

Nonetheless, I do agree that there aren't enough girl-centric toons for younger audiences. When I was little, Sailor Moon was probably the only show featuring young women that I can remember watching consistently. I remember watching Power Puff Girls, but not for very long...I didn't like them as much, and compared to Dragon Ball Z the show wasn't nearly as interesting.

Oh, and speaking of Miyazaki and young female leads, he's coming out with a new film called Ponyo. I don't know much about it, but I hear the protagonist is a goldfish who is turned into a little girl.

female-centric toons?

I am surprised that you did not mention "The Mighty B.", voiced by Amy Poehler and also involving her. The artwork is exciting, taking the best of what has been a high-standard from tv cartoon history, and the stories centered around the all-girl "Honey Bee" group (think girl scouts of course) keep it smartly female-centric. All the characters (and their mothers) are thought out and smart - and this being set in San Fran, fairly diverse (for tv...)

"Totally Spies" is just lame for any gender - a rip-off. That's why one shouldn't watch it. Girls in highly impossible thin waisted elongated figures etc... what good is that really. What age or gender is watching that really?

"Daria" was another great example of how female characters in cartoons, usually first presented as but minor secondary characters (think the route of "Maude" in "All in the Family") can sometimes break out into their own perfect vehicle. But even if they had the power to sustain a following - there is no place to watch them.

I think the alternative lately has been to introduce male characters that are so "twee" (alot of the Cartoon Network philosophy) which should allow the young ones to feel they are safe, rather than shift to a female character. Which is a pity, as one only has to watch "The Mighty B" to see one rock out in the tradition of great characters is possible still.

More Girly Toons

Hey even with all it's flaws, "Totally Spies!" is a great show. Great storylines, animation, and great voice acting.

Back in the early to mid 2000's there was a terrific cartoon called, "As Told by Ginger" which is explained in a article I wrote a long time ago for the Feministing Community

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