Singer Songwriter & Vocal Coach, Lizanne Hennessey - Voice Coach


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Where are the female role models in children's TV?

I am currently working on a concept for a children's TV show, which has a female lead role. During my research, I have discovered that there is a serious lack of female role models for in children's television.

Where are the female role models in children's TV these days?

How are women being portrayed in children's television?

Would 'Bob the Builder' be as popular if it had been 'Beth the Builder', or 'Tara the Tank Engine'?

Here are some related links:

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:

I am curious what you think!

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    May 5 2013: children's programming is generally thinly disguised advertising for junk they don't need. i don't think anybody making a lot of children's TV care about role-models.

    in fact, the media is really the last place anybody should be looking for role models. i find the concept of constructed (or premeditated) role models somewhat suspect.

    ps. big bird's a girl, isn't she..?
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      May 6 2013: By coincidence, I also wondered when I read this question and never having watched Sesame Street what the gender was of Big Bird. He is a boy.

      I wonder how aware small kids are of the intended gender of animal characters in things when their names leave it ambiguous.
    • May 6 2013: If that's true, Scott, then things seriously need to change.

      With a sinking heart, I agree that the media is not the best place to find good role models.

      Fritzie, your comment has me thinking: maybe we're putting too much emphasis on the gender, when we should be paying more attention to the message that figure is trying to get across.
      I will do some observing the next time my kids watch TV, and see if they pay any attention at all to gender.
      Thanks for this!

      In the Dutch version of Sesame Street, Big Bird is called 'Pino', is blue, and is much more effeminate... don't now if that means anything.
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        May 6 2013: i think we just need to keep perspective when considering mainstream media.

        it's really nothing more than entertainment (soaps, comedy, news) and advertising (the vast majority of programming). It does not deserve any more status than the game tiddly winks.

        same goes for the internet but we seem to still be in the throes of infatuation as a consumer society.
        • May 7 2013: Good point, Scott - at the end of the day, parents set an example for their kids by how much emphasis they put on media.
          I've been thinking about my kids - for a long time, my son dressed up in princess gowns and heels, just like his big sister. SHE was his role model, his incentive to learn how to talk, walk, play. When he started school, suddenly the dress was banned and he was all about pirates and cars. Says something about peer influence, which is arguably much stronger than the media.
  • May 7 2013: Interesting.
  • May 5 2013: One of my girlfriends raves about Doc McStufffins as a good female role model for her young daughter
    • May 6 2013: Hi Melissa,
      I've come across Doc in my research on this topic! I have never seen the show (it might get here eventually, if Dutch TV thinks it's worth synchronizing), and am glad to know it's a good one. Thanks for this!
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    May 5 2013: Where are the male role model or father figures in prime time TV?
    • May 5 2013: Theodore, I don't watch prime time TV and am focused on children's programming in particular for this topic... but gather from your comment that you feel there is a lack in that area too? Maybe we need to expand this conversation - any thoughts on this one, TED friends?
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        May 6 2013: I think Theodore has a very valid point. He is examining the question at it's core, I suppose. That is, what and how are these role models after all.
        My observation on this may sound a bit radical. I think the whole concept of masculinity/femininity that our literature, arts, social customs and therefore attitudes espouse is flawed fundamentally. This view came under interesting scrutiny in my past conversation 'He, she or s/he?'
        I find no reason why there cannot be a 'Beth the builder' in today's world. Such differences have yielded interesting social movements like those of 'lactivists' where lactating mothers breastfed in public in front of a restaurant that disallowed a mother feeding a baby in the pretext of common etiquette.
        Except defined biological roles ascribed by nature on men and women with some difference everything else is a delusion, IMO. So role models should be as non-gender specific as possible.
        • May 6 2013: Seems you and Fritzie are on the same wave length, Pabitra!
          If the media places too much emphasis on a female playing a masculine role (ala 'Beth the Builder'), we get into role reversal and feminism, resulting in a competitive 'anything you can do, I can do better' scenario. Not good, not healthy, not educational.

          This is all extremely good to take into consideration, thank you!
  • May 5 2013: The female rolemodels seem to be hanging around emotionally abusive and self centered males, making them look funny and cute. As if they had no choice in the company the keep.
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    May 5 2013: I am not familiar with popular television shows for any age group, but I do have a reference for you as you create your own concept. Kathleen Odean is a children's librarian best known for her books Great Books for Girls and Great Books for Boys. What she does in these books is walk through hundreds of children's books that offer interesting, positive role models for the gender.
  • May 4 2013: I don't know. But if you watch some of Studio Gibli's movies ...
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    R H

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    May 4 2013: I think your problem will be how to transition from the 'childs' female role model (which I'm sure you'd want worthy of self-respect, self-reliance, self-nurturing, and good citizenship) to the 'adult female' model currently displayed on prime-time, rock video's, or other 'internet' sites. I've never seen women so debased in my entire life as they are in media today.
    • May 5 2013: Indeed, R H, that's a tricky one...
      Is it me, or are girls getting older, younger? It's not surprising, I guess, when you look at the media.

      Who were your role-models growing up?

      Mine were:
      Punky Brewster
      The ZOOM kids
      Velma (from Scooby Doo)
      Pippi Longstockings!
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        R H

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        May 5 2013: Sherlock Holmes, David Innes (a character from Edgar Rice Burroughs), Gomez Addams, and Rocky and Bullwinkle. And I still eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches with honey once in a while...
        • May 5 2013: Who doesn't?! I still dip my apple slices in peanut butter...!
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          May 6 2013: RH and Lizanne, do you think little girls today look only to the females they see portrayed on screen and in literature as potential role models or also the males?

          Further, does a role model need to be a positive exemplar in every way to be a role model, or can different characters model different positive attributes while also having weaknesses the viewer might not want to emulate/ Like real people do?
        • May 7 2013: Fritzie,

          We were watching TV this morning and I conducted a little experiment.
          Any time I saw a 'genderless' figure, I asked my kids what they thought, if it was a boy or a girl. Every single time, my daughter answered that it was a girl, and my son answered that it was a boy. I thought that was interesting.
          Yesterday, both kids made a 'monster' out of a plastic egg. My son's had to be a boy, and my daughter's had to be a girl.
          I believe a role-model should have weaknesses and strengths, just like 'real people' do. Superman with a weakness for Kryptonite, for example. We all have limitations and can be vulnerable, it is how some reacts to circumstances and uses their strength that makes them good role models.

          You ask about role-models portrayed "on screen and in literature", which makes me wonder if there is a difference between role-models portrayed on both mediums. A book (without pictures) stimulates your imagination - that role-model can look any way you want it to. On screen, there is no room left for imagination. The way that role-model looks is 'force fed'. Something to think about...
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        R H

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        May 6 2013: Oh yes, Fritzie. I would agree that little girls look to both female and males for role representations, as I did when I was a child. And I would also agree that cardboard ideal perfect cut-out models are poor reps too. But commercially viable childlike representations of sarcastic glossy doll-like subliminally seductive pseudo-adults posing as innocent wit would be the other side of the coin for me.
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          May 6 2013: I don't know who is on TV, but I agree that there are some images of "coolness" that are not at all what anyone should want their kids to accept.

          My thinking is only that little girls can relate to male role models rather than only to female ones and also that people with flaws- even striking ones- can still be role models for their strengths.
        • May 6 2013: I can name at least five shows in Holland right now that fit that bill, R H!
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        May 7 2013: That is interesting, Lizanne, that your children automatically identified "genderless" TV characters as being of their own gender. The reason I thought young children might not be making the hard and fast gender distinctions adults do an therefore may be particularly open to role models not of their gender is that I seem to remember my son's sometimes being confused when he was very small about the gender of actual people.