Kid TV: A Guide for the Perplexed

By Steve Sailer
web posted August 1996

While watching children’s television shows, adults often find themselves mulling over time-honored mysteries like:

(1.) If Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, why is Mickey Mouse Goofy’s friend but Pluto’s owner?

(2.) What’s the story behind all those purported nephews like Huey, Louie, and Dewey?

(3.) And when are Mickey, Donald, and Popeye going to finally make honest women out of Minnie, Daisy, and Olive Oyl?

(4.) Where are the programs about girls? How come females are so secondary or just plain scarce on preschoolers shows?

Let’s consider these questions in reverse order, saving the toughest ones for later.

(4.) Among the more bizarre commonplaces of kid TV are the abrupt segues from alarmingly belligerent programs about colossal robots battling for galactic mastery to unspeakably adorable commercials for toys like Polly Pocket’s Fairy Wishing World. Even more oddly, the opposite transitions from precious girl shows to pugnacious boy commercials are exceedingly rare. There are simply far more commercials than shows aimed at little girls.

At this point, you may well be protesting, Hold it! Girl shows? Boy commercials? Haven’t we outgrown these stereotypical gender roles? Well, I hope you have, but, remember, you’re a grown-up. The small children of my acquaintance aren’t quite up to speed yet.

Is this bias toward boy shows the inevitable result, as numerous social critics have charged, of the male domination of the profit-hungry entertainment industry? Economists, like Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, generally tend to pooh-pooh accusations that all firms in a competitive industry would discriminate against a lucrative market segment out of self-defeating sexism. After all, these same greedy male network executives churn out so many disease-of-the-week movies for the primetime female audience precisely because they are greedy. (And the president of the Fox Kid’s Network, which traditionally features the most testosterone-addled lineup, is a woman.) Capitalism encourages empathy: if the capitalist cultivates sensitivity to the differing needs of diverse peoples, he can, well, sell them more stuff.

Yet, in this particular case the feminist media critics appear to be right: Saturday morning’s damsel deficiency does stem from sex discrimination. The unsettling truth, however, is that the bigots who keep girl shows off the air aren’t the often-denounced Old Boys Network, but a (very) Young Boys Network. While most little girls will tolerate boy shows, many little male chauvinist pigs simply will not watch girl shows.

That’s just the way our culture socializes them, you may be interjecting. That may or may not be, but I suspect that if you haven’t recently wrestled a toddler for the channel-changer, you might not fully grasp how strenuously -- and often successfully -- each child fights to control which facets of the vast American cultural smorgasbord they are most exposed to. For example, at only 16 months old my first son developed an intense disdain for all things girlish, along with a corresponding passion for watching strong men hit balls with sticks. My wife discovered to her exasperated boredom that little Matthew instantaneously began to whine anytime she tried to flip past televised baseball or, God forbid, golf. When Matthew later began throwing store-aisle temper tantrums whenever his mother denied him a flashlight (or toy sword, gun, spear, rocket ship, baseball bat, bow and arrow, screwdriver, slingshot, or whatever other projection device struck his testosterone-warped fancy), Carole learned there was only one way to silence him. That’s a Girl Flashlight, she’d explain. They’re all out of Boy Flashlights. Do you still want it? Believe me, dear readers, contrary to what we’ve been told so often in recent decades, socialization isn’t what differentiates the sexes, it’s the only hope of their ever getting along civilly.

In fact, despite all the politically pious rhetoric, boys and girls in the Nineties may be even more likely to indulge their highly sex-distinct fantasies. Consider games. When families tended to be large, poor and unpermissive, toymakers invented games that brothers and sisters could both stand well enough to play together. Today, though, new games are largely for one sex or the other. We’ve progressed from Monopoly to Mall Madness, from Candyland to Mortal Kombat. Why then, does our capitalist system deliver so few TV shows for little girls? I think because in contrast to games, most families haven’t yet bought each child his or her own TV (although I’m sure that day is rapidly approaching), so the whiniest sexist in the family exercises a veto power over TV shows. Furthermore, when watching alone, many preschoolers can’t reliably change channels, so they tend to watch a single network’s entire Saturday morning slate. To keep the brand loyalty of this captive audience, networks like Fox play it safe and avoid programming even a single show that would offend a 3 tall woman-hater.

Of course, female characters are now fairly common in some crass entertoyment series like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, BattleTech, and X-Men. (Another perennial question parents ask their kids: What do you call those mutant girls on X-Men? X-Women?) Girls are suffered to appear, though, only on four conditions: (A) That the girls are knock-outs; (B) That they not outnumber the boys; (C) That a boy is the leader; and (D) Most tellingly, that mentally the female characters really are ex-women, that they scorn icky girl stuff and like only cool boy stuff, such as those giant fighting robots. At its origin, male chauvinism is a fear not that females will act like males, but that they won’t. Intriguingly, orthodox feminists and kindergarten chauvinists -- those ostensible adversaries -- surreptitiously share two convictions: both want all females socialized to be forceful and aggressive (with the exception of their own personal Moms), while fearing that most girls would really prefer to be gentle and loving. In fact, an appreciation for stereotypical femininity would appear to be a sign of relative maturity in males (and maybe in feminists, too).

After little boys, the next most important source of bias against girl shows comes not from the network suits, but from the medium’s leading artists. A relatively large chunk of children’s programming consists of classics, like Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. To create an enduring character with whom many children will identify, the artist must draw upon something deep within. Yet even creative geniuses have trouble fully comprehending the soul of the opposite sex, especially in its childish, unadulterated state. Although the majority of writers and many illustrators of children’s literature and entertainment appear to have been women, the greats in this field, as in almost all others, have been predominantly men. Thus, most of the timeless characters are male. For instance, despite recurrent criticism, Jim Henson could never dream up a memorable female Muppet, but for the thanks-a-million exception that proves the rule: Miss Piggy.

That’s appalling, you may be saying. So, how do you try to explain this alleged surplus of male geniuses? Personally, I’m not brave enough, so I’ll just volunteer my wife to suggest an answer: There are more extremely smart (and self-absorbed) men for the same reason there are more extremely stupid men. Successfully caring for a baby requires more than a little competence and self-sacrifice, so natural selection can less afford to gamble with women.

Yet, neither the bigotry of little boys nor of great artists prevents girl characters from more than holding their own in full-length cartoon movies: e.g., Pocohontas, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and Snow White, to name just some Disney blockbusters. I suspect that what makes feature-length cartoons a home for heroines is, simply enough, length.

Why don’t feminine stories fit TV’s timeframe? The TV-length cartoon, whether the classic 6 minute Loony Tune or the modern 22 minute toy commercial, is an endless picaresque, each episode cycling too frantically for characters to evolve. Cartoon series luminaries don’t mature, don’t assume long-term obligations, don’t even learn to think twice before strapping on the latest rocket-powered contraption from the Acme Corporation. Drop a refrigerator on a toon’s head and he’ll just shake it off. He is immortal, immutable, and, typically, infertile.

In contrast, women aren’t as laughable as men. They are more than the sum of their eccentricities and obsessions. Their lives are narratives that demand fuller treatment. The favorite story of little girls remains that tale as old as time: a virgin grows up, falls in love, gets married, and lives happily ever after. Her character isn't recyclable because her biological clock can't be set back. (Of course, in our society marriage is often impermanent, but children prefer not to think about that.) When Disney tried to wring some extra bucks out of Little Mermaid by making it into a TV series, they found they had to rewind all of Hans Christian Andersen’s memorable plot back to a presexual Ariel, content to engage in childish underwater escapades. (Disney later discovered a medium for amortizing their investment in Beauty and the Beast that didn’t require new plots: the Broadway musical).

The rare male character who manages to sexually mature also becomes unusable in a sequel. At the end of Jungle Book, adolescent Mowgli sees his first human girl, falls in love, and -- forsaking his pal Ballou the Bear -- follows her into the aptly-named Man-Village. Not a wise career move, Mowgli. Since Ballou was a bachelor (as have been almost all of Disney’s comic relief, from the Seven Dwarfs down to Pocohontas raccoon and hummingbird), Disney was free in the 1980’s to transplant the carefree Indian bear into a popular Caribbean adventure series on TV, Talespin. Poor Mowgli, though, was still chained down in the Man-Villlage by wife, kids, job, and mortgage, wondering why his agent wouldn’t return his calls. (Disney finally figured out how to get some more mileage out of Mowgli in 1994, when they reshot Jungle Book as a live action feature.)

(3.) Continuing to work backwards, our next traditional puzzle -- Why don’t TV cartoon characters marry their girlfriends? -- is also explained in part by the sexes differing biological clocks: Popeye can’t wed his sweetheart because Olive Oyl can be Extra Virgin only once. The feminine realities of marriage and babies would undermine the TV cartoon’s masculine fantasy of a universe without time or consequences. For where there is birth, there is the possibility of death. The most famous nativity scenes in cartoon features -- the delightful openings of Bambi and The Lion King -- are thus followed by the most notoriously traumatizing death scenes.

(2.) For similar reasons, kids shows are overrun by nephews and wards (e.g., Batman’s Robin), with sons and daughters in short supply. Kids like to dream about derring-do, but not starring their parents, whose duty is to be boring and safe. If they insist on featuring parents as the lead characters, filmmakers frequently find they need to follow a certain narrow plot logic. For example, in Hook Stephen Spielberg set himself the unenviable challenge of portraying Peter Pan -- that archetype of the boy immune to feminine blandishments to grow up -- as a grown-up. To then generate some excitement, Peter Panning, work-a-daddy, has to turn back into Peter Pan and fight Captain Hook. Yet, since the thought of their own dads swashbuckling unnerves children, Spielberg had to justify the paternal Pan’s renewed boyishness through the only motivation acceptable to his audience: Peter had to fight Hook to rescue his kids. Likewise, saving their puppies is the inevitable plot engine of 101 Dalmatians, the only Disney classic whose main characters are parents.

(1.) Oh, and finally, why does Pluto act like a dog but not Goofy? Well, the best answer I’ve heard came from a four year old girl who pointed out recently: Because only Goofy wears clothes.

Steve Sailer (steveslr@aol.com) is a Chicago businessman, writer and father of male chauvinists, ages 7 and 3.




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