In this video, sent in by Martha, Lindsay Ellis asks why it is that female characters in general-audience cartoons, if present at all, are always plot points for the male characters. Her point is clearly sound, but damn does she marshal the evidence! She appears to have really done her homework… but I have no doubt that those of you who are experts in My Little Pony, Transformers, Scooby Do, and She-Ra will have something to add.
Here’s another video on the same topic:
For more on the phenomenon in which women are women and men are people, see our analysis of the “Human” Bodies exhibit, girls as an afterthought, dinosaurs are for boys (and girls), traffic lights with female figures, stick figures and stick figures who parent, and default avatars.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
BeefSteak — February 28, 2010
I have actually been a fan of her reviews for some time now. A lot of her other reviews address the way that movies and shows are marketed towards females as well. If you enjoy this one, I highly recommend that you check out some of her other reviews here: http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thedudette/nostalgia-chick
angelica — February 28, 2010
Oh, that was - just, yes. <3
Going back a bit further, I was struck recentlyish by this (1949) from de Beauvoir: "... it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defence is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong."
deemer — February 28, 2010
Her points are valid and we have, as a collective, consistently put forth a port example of female leads that are either a) any good (talent, dialogue, role, etc) or b) not marketed specifically for being female (it's not "The Male Terminator" but it would be "The Female Terminator").
I for one would like to see more development of strong female leads that are simply good characters (animation, film, TV) and not a "female Indiana Jones" or the like.
On a side note, however, I do have to ask if it was accidental or subtle intentional that she's wearing a "paaaank" tank top :)
ptp — February 28, 2010
i was just talking to some friends about how smurfette is a great example of early 'slut shaming'; when she was originally created by gargamel she was a spicy coquettish type and then once she broke out from his spell and became "good" she became wholesome and not so sexy and so on.
really, was smurfette perhaps the worst character ever made? i think so
Tritonetelephone — February 28, 2010
20/20 (or a similar show) did a story on how market researchers have found that young girls respond to male characters, but young boys do not respond to female characters. I saw this 10 or 15 years ago, and I really wish I could find it!! I remember it was in the context of asking why Toucan Sam and other cereal box characters were male. (Seriously, can you think of a single cereal box character that's female??).
The point was that young girls *identify* with either gender, but young boys don't. So it does add some interesting questions about the hyper-feminine socialization of childhood and the gender "neutrality" of male characters.
If you think about it, the hegemonic masculine image is exclusively adult; some might say masculinity can only be achieved in adulthood, as features appearing after puberty are such strong markers. But to epitomize femininity, look no further than the dolls, glitter, unicorns, and frilly dresses that mark female *children*.
Some might argue that the "gender-neutral" children's shows - not the ones designed for boys like Power Rangers, Transformers, and Ninja Turtles - have lead characters that are *feminine males*. Keeping in mind that the markers identifying these characters as male are purely social in the first place (since - I'm guessing - they never show their penises), what's to stop young women *in the process* of their own gender socialization from identifying with them?
Curran R. — February 28, 2010
I'm new to this website so I'm not sure if you have written about it before, but I am greatly reminded of the Alison Bechdel movie test. In an early strip her comic Dykes To Watch Out For, a female character says she doesn't want to go to see a movie because it doesn't fit her rule for movies. She says she only sees movies if they: 1. Have at least 2 female characters. who 2. Talk to each other. 3. about something other than a man.
Heres a link to the strip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zizyphus/34585797/
This comic was written like, 30 years ago and it's shocking how many movies still to this day don't fit the rule.
Rosepixie — February 28, 2010
The "girls relate to girls and boys but boys only relate to boys" rule crosses all mediums. Children's books especially have a problem with it. For decades the industry was routinely criticized (and it still often is) that there were so few female main characters in adventure-heavy books (especially fantasy, sci-fi and stories involving similar journeys). Their response to this criticism was always, and is still always, that boys won't read a book with a girl protagonist. This isn't always true (and several books and series have shown that), but the idea persists.
The result is that we still primarily get movies, videogames and books with boy heroes who often have girl companions/love interests as a compromise. And when a book is made into a movie, the girl's role is always toned down and pushed more into the "love interest" category (Hermione from Harry Potter is a great example, despite brilliant performances from Emma Watson), because Hollywood is even more of this strange belief. If I remember correctly, one studio head even stated a few years back (I think it was WB) that he wouldn't even consider any new scripts with female leads because he didn't think they appealed to a wide enough audience.
Anon — February 28, 2010
I feel compelled to point out that Elmyra Duff is the female version of Elmer Fudd.
Gen — February 28, 2010
This has always bugged me. Actually, just the other day I was trying to think of kids cartoons I could think of that avoided it. Following on from the bit about Transformers in her video, the latest series had the audience identification character as a girl (who wasn't PAAAANK at all to boot!) and still did very well in the young mal demographic, but she was the only female regular (though a few more popped in and out). Ummmm... that's all I got. Oh, maybe Teen Titans, which was ensemble and had two female leads. And if we went to foreign cartoons, Hayao Miyazaki films are pretty famous aversions.
(Wow, I kind of just revealed more kids' cartoons geekery than I meant to. Whoops.)
Tamara — February 28, 2010
X-men! X-men! Ironically enough, the best cartoon I can remember from growing up in the 90's wrt women. X-People! There were *lots* of women, and they had all sorts of roles and arcs and backstories and angsts and relashionships and so on. (I admit there was a centrality to the Jean-Cyclops-Wolverine triangle, but it was more than possible to really watch the show for Rogue, Jubilee, Mystique and Storm and not be particularly frustrated.)
It probably has more to do with the ability of a show that dosen't have a designated main character to have more room to tell more types of stories featuring more people than a concious decision about women (Batman and Spiderman shared the same general aesthetic but were much more male dominated.) but still. Love that show.
/right, um, end nostalgia.
K — February 28, 2010
Several female characters from Tiny Toons and Animaniacs are infamous for being the objects of male sexual obsession. Voice actor Tress MacNeille was actually stalked by someone obsessed with her character Babs the bunny. However, I've never heard of this sort of extreme behavior being aimed at male anthropomorphic cartoon characters. (A lot of people seem to lust after Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails, but I've never heard of any stalking or staged marriage ceremonies.) I wonder if it's because the token female characters are considered more sexual than their male counterparts, simply because they're female.
Amanda — February 28, 2010
I love the Nostalgia Chick! Her review for Mulan is probably my favorite.
In one of her other reviews ("The Top 11 Nostalgic Villainesses"), she notes that evil seems to be an equal-opportunity employer. It seems that it's okay for a villain to be female, but The Hero in works for general audiences is largely male.
Original Will — February 28, 2010
I've been aware of the male = default rule for a while now, but until this, it had never struck me just how common the "male & female clone" characters were in shows of that era. For the sake of completeness it's worth adding that Thundercats also had a set of male/female twins; they were adolescents and provided plot points by getting into trouble, getting kidnapped, etc.
I wonder what happened to Skeeter between the time of Muppet Babies and the Muppet Show? I suppose she left show business, hopefully to pursue a career in a field with somewhat more equality.
Laura — February 28, 2010
Wasn't this the exact plot of the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie? I didn't see it, but that's what I seem to remember from the previews. They might have even been called the "Chipettes" or something.
I wonder if more boys would read books and watch TV shows with female protagonists if they were framed differently (instead of being marketed toward girls, or being covered in pink and glitter, they were marketed like everything else). I also wonder what would have happened if Harry Potter would have been female. Would it have become a worldwide phenomenon? It's impossible to know, but it's interesting to think about it.
JK Rowling has said that he "just came to her" as a boy. I can't help but think that this sort of male=default thinking, especially in fantasy, has something to do with that.
awesome vid — February 28, 2010
Todd — March 1, 2010
As a thought experiment once, for a class on identity and media representation, I had my students (who by now are too young to remember watching these on TV) watch, side by the side, the opening sequences to both He-Man and She-Ra:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yeA7a0uS3A (He-Man intro)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wR65P73X5GI (She-Ra intro)
I then gave them a blank chart they could fill in for a number of categories. The point was to emphasize the fact that both of the intros are virtually identical but that She-Ra, as a gendered spin-off, took the He-Man "formula" and "girled it up" a bit. The idea, of course, is that She-Ra is He-Man's female "shadow;" her origin story series (a 5-episode long chain) is actually more about He-Man than it is about She-Ra.
And while, as she observes in the video, He-Man had a good chunk of female main characters, the show treated them considerably differently than the males.
He-man.org used to have images of a She-Ra series preview document (it's gone now, unfortunately) which had a really great quote that I thankfully had lying around since I'd done some research on this subject previously:
"[n]ow there is another chance to take advtange of Masters' [emphasis in original] overwhelming popularity – and the same elements which helped create that popularity in the first place," for example, or a personal favorite, "She-[r]a and her friends are ready to do battle... in the fantasy world of Etheria and in the real world [emphasis in original] of character licensing!"
Yeah. Fun stuff!
C. V. Reynolds — March 1, 2010
I'm a lifetime Transformers fan. I've loved them since I was three or four (I'm nearly 25 now). Although I've enjoyed all TF continuities from G1 to modern times (even if Revenge of the Fallen's movie sucked), the lack of female characters has always gotten on my nerves. One of the reasons, I realize, is because Hasbro and Takara are afraid that female characters won't sell, and... well, TF fiction exists to sell toys. The original G1 Arcee still doesn't have any toys based directly on her to this day.
Worse than the lack of/low number of female characters, however, is the attitude amongst the writers and fans. It's common to hear some try to spin the crap that TFs don't have gender. If that was so, then why are they overwhelmingly voiced male and with male pronouns? And why are the fans always so incredibly resistant to having any female TFs? Because it's challenging their male privilege? Furman making Arcee a male bot turned female in one recent continuity makes it even worse. I echo Kookaburra's statement here on Furman.
Nevertheless, some attitudes seem to be changing. The excellent Transformers Animated had two female main characters (Sari and Blackarachnia) and they were both written well. If season 4 had happened instead of the show getting canned (an injustice in cartoons for sure), then Arcee, Strika, and Red Alert would all likely have been given bigger parts as well.
Although Michael Bay has attempted to set women in TF back thirty years, Hasbro/Takara have been more interesting. Despite the female TF's poor treatment in RotF, H & T have created six original female molds for the main toyline (seven with non TF Mikaela). Then there are the inevitable redecos, too. This is more female toys than any other TF toyline has ever gotten. Equality is still a good deal away, but I hope the times, they are a-changing.
And I want to say also that this video was very entertaining and I will be looking at some other Nostalgia Chick videos as a result.
Y. Awn — March 1, 2010
Yawn. Despite any truth to the claims made in the video, the person presenting all of these "observations" lacks any credibility, and is so obviously taken with her own genius and cleverness, and oh, cuteness. Random observations and flip remarks do not make for real research. Lack of historical depth (back in the day was the 1980s! omg! Get real) just makes it even stupider.
Craig — March 1, 2010
In point of correction, Tiny Toon Adventures' character "Elmyra" was not made up out of whole cloth--she is an obvious reworking of Elmer Fudd.
Fudd and Yosemite Sam perhaps both harmonize with progressive sensibilities in ways that you don't often see discussed, as broad caricatures of gun-toting lunatics. Balding, aging, pot-bellied, slow-witted Elmer Fudd carries around a massive shotgun that is ofen drawn as taller than he is. You don't have to be Freud to work that one out. Yosemite Sam's only tools for coping with the world are rage and violence--we laugh as Bugs uses Sam's own ferocity to defeat him, taunting him to keep stepping over successive lines drawn in the ground until he falls down a mine shaft.
Kelly — March 2, 2010
This was just great. Ellis nailed it right on.
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Tiffany — March 4, 2010
Very good, except she got one thing wrong. Elmira was a spin off of Elmer Fudd.
Sarah — March 6, 2010
When I was a child in the '80s and '90s, I totally picked up on the fact that there were so few female characters on the cartoons I watched. On the playground, we'd play "Superfriends," and all my guy friends would get a choice of who to play. I always got stuck with Wonderwoman (I guess I could've played Hawkgirl too! lol). On GI Joe, there were three female characters to the dozens of males, but you hardly ever saw them. Robotech had lots of decent female characters (barring Minmei, ugh) and that was one of my favorite shows. As a child, I really longed for more strong female characters that I could identify with. Also, female action figures were always so hard to find, I think the companies made less of them.
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T — March 31, 2010
I think what many of these commentaries are missing is that many females enjoy their femininity. Because women are bashing their feminine side, many men take the position of being turned off by masculine women because of socialization- much of it propogated by women. If femininity weren't put down as weak and instead embraced as a power and choice or expression of its own, maybe more males would adopt it and embrace it. And female masculinity wouldn't be so shamed.
T — March 31, 2010
Rosepixie- are you sure about your below claims? 'There’s a large body of studies on it.' That's a very ambiguous, unsourced claim. Many studies say that gender is determined by prenatal hormone factors. Gender is heavily socialized- we are taught the 'correct' way we should be acting- but it is in no way representational of the individual.
'Actually, even small children understand gender roles. Infants show no preference for specific colors or toys, but even very young toddlers (before pre-school) display an understanding of proper “doing gender” behavior and items – boys will tell you that pink is for girls, girls show a preference for cooking toys and dolls while boys play with trucks and blocks, etc. It’s shockingly early that they understand these concepts. And it’s really no wonder, considering we gender small children almost more than we gender older children. We dress baby girls in frilly pink froth and put footballs in the hands of infant boys too young to even know what they’re holding. There’s a large body of studies on it.'
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LexieDi — May 28, 2010
The Nostalgia Chick is so awesome. I watch her a lot. She's very insightful and funny. Most people on the site where her videos are posted (thatguywiththeglasses.com) are male and she still had the ovaries to post such a video. I pumping my fist in the air through the whole thing. Then, of course, I posted a comment and was bashed something crazy. Hahaha!
ThatGuyWithTheGlasses (TGWTG) has a (somewhat hidden) chat room that you can only access if you know a member who already is in the chat. I'm the only regular female in that chat. Honestly, though the site is filled with younger men from their teens to their 30's, I'm treated rather well. There is the occasional jerk who wants to drop offensive pick-up lines (I know, pick-up lines in a chat room?), but because of how small the community is in the chat room, and because I have a friendship with the 3 most active moderators, they're usually booted quickly. Of course, they all know I'm a feminist and like to snicker and say "oh, you're in for it now" and "you don't know who you're messing with" when a guy says something stupid or sexist.
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