Where are the women on children's TV?
Every day, Ben Walsh watches CBeebies with his daughter, yet finds there are precious few female role models for her
Tuesday 29 March 2011
CBeebies' charming ratings-winner Rastamouse, the tale of a cheese-loving rodent and his reggae band, Da Easy Crew, has been causing a slight racism stir since arriving on television this year. The dreadlocked, patois-spouting crime-buster, whose main "ting" is love and respect, rides a skateboard, wears a Rasta Tom (a woolly hat) and habitually maintains he's "irie, irie" (happy, happy). His daily mission is to "make a bad ting good", and Michael De Souza's winning animated stop-motion show is generally "a good ting". A less "good ting", however, is the depiction of females on the majority of CBeebies' (the channel for 0-6 year-olds) schedule; it's time to dismiss the hogwash about racial stereotyping on Rastamouse and address the fact that depictions of females on children's TV are very poor indeed.
Every morning I watch, along with my 19-month-old daughter, May, CBeebies' morning schedule (the pre-school Ritalin for small ones) and the highlight (for female characters and May) is Charlie and Lola, Lauren Child's excellent series about a young boy and his little sister, Lola Sonner, "who is very small and very funny". And she is funny. However, the rest of the line-up is markedly less inspiring. Postman Pat, the staggeringly inept postie, is surrounded by males, with women filling minor roles.
Pat Clifton's boss is Ben Taylor, his best pals are Jess (his male cat), Ted Glen (local handyman, inventor, bachelor) and Arthur Selby (the local bobby), the most prominent schooolteacher is Jeff Pringle, the local vicar is a man, Reverend Timms, and Pat's only child is a boy. Couldn't they have at least made the child, or indeed the cat, female? The main female representations on offer are bit characters such as Doctor Gilbertson who is often, weakly, reduced to asking Rev Timms whether he wants "more tea".
Other CBeebies shows prove just as underwhelming for women. Aardman's Timmy Time, the animated stop-motion adventures of "a little lamb with a lot to learn", seems to be made up of males – Paxton the Piglet, Ruffy the Puppy, Finlay the Fox, Stripey the Badger... The two principal characters in the irksome Big Cook, Little Cook are Big Cook Ben (Stephen Marsh) and Little Cook Small (Dan Wright). The marvellous Something Special is presented by the Bafta-winning Justin Fletcher, who also has his own sketch show, Gigglebiz, where he regularly, Les Dawson-style dresses up as various maddening female stereotypes – Anna Conda, Ann Teak, Gail Force.
CBeebies' recent heavily promoted show is Mr Bloom's Nursery, presented by Ben Faulks. The list of male-dominated show is endless. Big and Small is a sort of children's version of Steptoe & Son (two men living together in a dysfunctional relationship), Kerwhizz is a children's game show presented by Jacob Scipio, Bob the Builder has only one strong female character, Wendy, who is listed below all Bob's vehicles in the show's title song ("... Lofty and Wendy join the crew") and the new animation Octonauts, where the lead characters are Captain Barnacles Bear, Peso Penguin and the patch-sporting Kwazii. The one female character is Dashi Dog, who spends a lot of time opening and shutting the Octopod doors.
Women do, occasionally, get to present shows on CBeebies. Katy Ashworth oversees the rather dismal cooking show I Can Cook, the much missed Balamory was presented by the extraordinarily chipper Miss Hoolie (Julie Wilson Nimmo), the outstanding Pui Fan Lee shares the presenting duties with Chris Jarvis on Show Me Show Me and the jolly Katrina Bryan fronts the science show Nina and the Neurons. But it's not really enough.
Women are, on the whole and especially in the animations, action and puppet shows, criminally underrepresented. It wouldn't have taken much, for instance, to make the lead singer in the ZingZillas' band female (instead of the bolshy Zak) or to have a girl instead of a boy for the James Bolam-starring Grandpa in My Pocket. At least Rastamouse has one strong female character, Scratchy, a whiz on the decks and harbouring an ambition to open a roller-skate disco. It beats the hell out of Doctor Gilbertson enquiring "more tea vicar?"
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