Women are vastly under-represented in children’s media. But while we wait for new books and movies to come out with strong female protagonists, what should we do?
There is no question that we are in desperate need of more children’s books that feature female protagonists. The same is true for film and television. The statistics are staggering. Twice as many children’s books feature male protagonists as those that feature female protagonists. Just under 30% of films for children have female protagonists, less than 25% of films have a female lead or co-lead, and the vast majority of speaking roles in films are male.
And the problem is not just about numbers. As Soraya Chemaly has argued, the way the female characters in books and film are portrayed is concerning. These works are filled with stereotyped and one-dimensional female characters, and fail to incorporate racial and ethnic diversity. Female characters are very likely to be skinny and/or wearing sexualizing clothes.
This is also a problem that continues to impact not only how girls view themselves, but also how boys view girls. As I have argued, children learn from the world around them and what they are shown. This is why it is important, for example, that my daughters have a female pediatrician, and see me making them breakfast or giving them a bath.
In turn, boys learn from all the media they ingest that to be female is to be inferior. As Chemaly notes, “Each time a child plays male-dominated games, learns a womanless history, or watches gender-imbalanced movies, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less.” This is why I strongly believe we must diversify our children’s media so that they see females as central actors and not inferiors.
But while we are waiting for these new works and characters, what should we do? I suggest we look to the characters we have, including the oft dreaded Disney princess.
Make no mistake. I am aware that Disney princesses are, as EJ Dickson put it, “pink, sparkly conduits for consumerism, antiquated gender roles, and unrealistic standards of beauty.” I have struggled mightily with my 4-year-old daughter being drawn to princesses like a magnet, or at least a magnet that has been subjected to brilliant marketing. Of course, I realize she is simply looking for female characters to which she can relate. Disney provides them.
But the problem is not that my daughter may be genuinely drawn to dresses and jewelry and nail polish as some people of all genders can be. That will not prevent her from becoming a good person or valuable contributor to society. Rather, it is whether there is more to these characters than beauty or serving as a prize for the male prince.
This summer marked my first trip to Disney World with my two young daughters. If you had asked me a few years ago whether I would ever bring my children to Disney World my shoulders would have tensed and I may have shuddered at the idea. But, after a few years of having children, one begins to place great value on bringing joy to one’s children and respecting their choices. Also, resistance to popular culture is futile. This does not mean all principles are abandoned. It means you allow your children to enjoy popular culture and then you discuss it with them.
The truth is we had a great time and a diverse experience of imagination. We laughed with Goofy and Donald Duck. We flew with Peter Pan and defeated Captain Hook. We dreamed and ate honey with Winnie the Pooh. We explored the jungle with the Lion King. We talked about gardens with Alice. We went under the sea with Nemo.
Yes, the beauty boutique for girls made me cringe. And there were also a lot of princesses—shows, meet-and-greets, and parades filled with princesses. But, my daughters loved it all. And rather than having the experience be simply about pageantry and appearance, I took it upon myself to discuss aspects of the princesses that can empower my daughters.
So I focused on Belle’s heroism in rescuing the Beast, The Little Mermaid’s agency in following her dreams out of the sea, Merida’s skill with a bow and arrow and in riding horses and her rescue of her mother, and the importance of sisterly love exhibited by Anna and Elsa in Frozen. And I came to appreciate that everywhere in Disney World we were surrounded by female protagonists; my daughters could see that women’s stories are important too.
I also signed my 4-year-old daughter up for Jedi training, which, to my delight, was taught by an all-female team of Jedi Knights. My daughter donned a cloak and learned to defend herself with a light saber. Never mind that the she ran away when Darth Vader appeared on stage to duel her. There will be a return of the Jedi in her future.
Another highlight was our meeting with Doc McStuffins, the animated African-American girl who serves as a doctor to her toys and stuffed animals, and who has staying power and cross-over appeal for boys and white children. During our meeting, Doc fixed a stuffed animal we had with us. At home, my daughters are constantly running around with their toy medical kit, checking anyone and anything who is willing to sit for a check-up.
My experience at Disney World and with some of the newer media my children are exposed to gives me hope that we are in store for both new positive characters—like Doc McStuffins—and great retellings of the characters we know.
In fact, just last week, I attended Cinderella on Broadway with my 4-year-old daughter, her first Broadway show. In this version, Cinderella sings “I can be whatever I want to be,” makes a conscious decision to leave her glass slipper on the stairs so that the prince can find her, and convinces the prince to hold a free election. True, she still chooses to be a wife, but there is clearly more to her than that.
The visuals were significant too, and I don’t mean the props or costume design. Cinderella was played by Keke Palmer, the first African-American to play her on Broadway. And, the evil stepmother was played by another African-American actress, Sherri Shepherd. My daughter was unphased by this change. After we had the amazing experience of touring backstage and meeting Keke Palmer (Cinderella to my daughter), my daughter asked “Who are we going to meet next?”
I should have told my daughter that in the future we will meet many different female characters who will inspire us. I should have said that, in the first time in forever, I think we’ve got a chance.
Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife, two daughters, and one cat.