“It is one of the great unifiers,” Zarghami says. The way she sees it, you almost have to force kids into gender-based behavior by appealing to their different “play patterns”–things like “fighting, karate, adventure and rough-housing” for boys, “hair play, dolls and nurturing” for girls. But if you focus on what the genders have in common, you don’t invite divisions of interest.
Nickelodeon can claim that boys and girls tend to find the same things funny because they’ve actually done some granular research. The network sent me its internal findings, listing the top 10 things boys and girls will laugh at, and they’re fairly similar. “Jokes” and “bloopers” lead both lists, and both genders really like “farts,” though it must be said that boys like them slightly more.
Emotional resonance: When Disney Channel and Disney Junior launched the hit Doc McStuffins last year, Kanter says that many at the company expected the show to skew female simply because it starred a girl. Instead, the show’s audience within the 2- to 5-year-old demographic has turned out to be 47 percent boys.
Kanter, general manager for Disney Junior Worldwide, told me that the network has since conducted research with viewers. In interviews, researchers found boys and girls were both drawn to the show because of the personality of Doc, the 6-year-old African-American girl who emulates her doctor mother by fixing her toys and stuffed animals. (Doc’s dad is a stay-at-home parent who makes dinner and tends the garden.)
“Across the board, what boys were relating to, in addition to what girls were relating to, was not the fact that Doc was a girl and that she had pretty polka-dot pants on,” Kanter says. “It was her character”–specifically, the fact that she was “kind and nice and she took care of her friends. That was somewhat surprising because I think we sometimes don’t give boys enough credit for having this soft emotional core, especially at this age.”
Researchers asked the children they were interviewing to bring in toys they’d like Doc to heal. Again, Kanter says, the boys defied expectations. Instead of toting action figures and toy cars, they brought in stuffed animals just like the girls, and their explanations for why they sought Doc’s help suggested a robust imaginative life and a caretaking impulse that our culture often doesn’t credit boys with having. They said things like, “This is my nap buddy, and he fell off the shelf, and we think he’s got a headache.”
Now, the network is hoping to piggyback on Doc’s popularity with boys in the toy aisle. In addition to the sparkly purple and pink Doc McStuffins medical kit currently available, Disney is considering creating a medical kit in traditional boys’ colors, presumably to avoid the problem encountered by that Sofia-loving boy.
Of course, there’s still that weird toddler rigidity about gender that causes kids to hone in on subtle (and sometimes imaginary) cues about gender from their TV shows. Lemish says even choppy scene cuts can communicate a more boy-oriented urgency and action, as opposed to soft dissolves, more common on girls’ shows. And of course there are still boorish men in checkout lines and a thousand other cultural forces that teach boys they’re not supposed to value things girls like. Kids who can’t relate to the other gender become adults who can’t relate to the other gender, fueling a movie industry that denigrates “chick flicks,” cuts back on female characters (and sexualizes the ones that remain), and makes exceptions out of every Katniss Everdeen who comes along.
But if the successes of the “exceptions” teach us anything, it’s that there may be a window of opportunity among children. After all, the less content creators make a big deal of gender, the less it seems to matter to the kids themselves. A 2001 study looking at kids’ reactions to clips from Beauty and the Beast and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles showed boys who were less likely to label Beauty a “female” film were more likely to enjoy it, and the same for girls labeling Turtles a “male” film. If filmmakers and TV producers don’t get in their own way, kids might just be open to watching whatever happens to interest them, especially once they relax their gender rigidity around age 8.
And the folks in charge of America’s screens might just double their audiences.