Is It Really True That Boys Won’t Watch Girly Shows?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 5 2014 5:30 AM

Korra’s a Girl?

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Sofia the First, guest starring the voice of Wayne Brady as Clover the Bunny.
Boys make up more than 40 percent of thye audience for Sofia the First.

Image courtesy Disney Junior

It is 2013, not 1985, but it’s still considerably harder for my preschool-age daughter to find representations of herself onscreen then it will be for our soon-to-be-born son, once he starts watching TV.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Katha Pollitt coined the term “Smurfette Principle” to describe children’s fare that offered just one, wholly stereotyped female in a vast sea of male characters, but still, studies have found that, on average, children’s television and family films offer about one female with a speaking part for every two males. While it’s tempting to think that strong girl characters like Brave’s Merida are changing things, the data shows that in family films, at least, the unbalanced gender ratio has been stagnant for more than 20 years, according to Stacy Smith, a USC communications professor.          

Why? Supposedly, girls will watch so-called boy’s content, with male leads and action-packed adventures, but boys won’t watch girls’ shows, starring girl protagonists and girl-friendly storylines. And research suggests that this assumption still influences the choices of those making children’s fare. Smith, who’s done tons of number-crunching into gender portrayals in media, surveyed the folks who make G, PG, and PG-13 movies, and found the belief that “girls will watch stories about boys, but boys won’t watch stories about girls” was “almost axiomatic” among interviewees. Dafna Lemish, a children’s media expert at Southern Illinois University, said most of the 135 American and international children’s TV creators she surveyed engaged in a kind of cultural buck-passing, claiming they themselves didn’t themselves believe the conventional wisdom, but everyone else did.

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But is it true? If boys won’t watch girls on-screen, you could make a pragmatic, if not necessarily moral, argument for market forces dictating children’s content. Yet there are many exceptions to the rule. In 1991, the same year that Pollitt introduced us to the Smurfette Principle, Nickelodeon launched Clarissa Explains It All, about a smart, quirky teenager played by Melissa Joan Hart, which drew equal numbers of male and female viewers. Since then, Nickelodeon in particular has hit audience gender parity with one female lead after another. Most recently, it launched The Legend of Korra, an animated action series starring a fighting heroine, which gets even more boy viewers than girls. When Disney’s Doc McStuffins, about a little girl who heals her broken toys, overtakes Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer to become the top-rated cable show for preschoolers, you have to wonder at what point the exceptions “are not exceptions anymore,” as Lemish puts it.

Instead, we need to start looking for guidelines: What makes boys watch girls’ shows? I asked several children’s TV executives what their own research has shown, and they pointed to a few common themes:                                                                                                                                 

Active heroines: From Dora to Korra to PBS’s WordGirl, there are plenty of shows that have hit gender parity by featuring strong female leads and action-packed storylines. “We have sort of a framework for the development of female characters,” says Lesli Rotenberg, PBS’s general manager of children’s programming, explaining WordGirl, the language-loving, crime-fighting action heroine. “We want to make sure that they are three-dimensional, that they’re inquisitive, that they’re funny, that they’re proactive, that they drive the plot.”

Indeed, the recently launched Disney Junior network has managed to draw in more boys than it expected with a show about, of all things, a princess. The 2- to 5-year-olds who watch Sofia the First are 42 percent boys, possibly because the storyline is “not about just tea parties and ballgowns,” in the words of Disney Junior exec Nancy Kanter, but about Sofia’s adventures racing flying horses and learning Harry Potter-like spells. Her creator, Craig Gerber, who has two sons, envisions her as different from the passive princesses of yore, describing Sofia as a “bold, curious, smart young girl.” (Though for my taste she’s still entirely too earnest and treacly.)

In other words, girly trappings in and of themselves need not be a deal-breaker for boys so long as the main character and narrative are strong enough. At least, not until our culture beats it out of them. (Not long ago, a Facebook posting gained viral fame when a father wrote about his son requesting a Sofia the First DVD at a Wal-Mart, and getting hassled by a man behind them in line: “You don’t think that will make him funny?”)

Humor: Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Group, told me a major reason why many of its girl-starring shows, including Clarissa, The Amanda Show and iCarly, have appealed to both boys and girls is because the network considers its “core competency” to be comedy.

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