Kid TV: A Guide
for the Perplexed
By Steve Sailer
posted August 1996
While watching childrens television shows, adults often find themselves
mulling over time-honored mysteries like:
(1.) If Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, why is Mickey Mouse Goofys
friend but Plutos owner?
(2.) Whats 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?
Lets 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
Pockets 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
At this point, you may well be protesting, Hold it! Girl shows? Boy
commercials? Havent we outgrown these stereotypical gender roles?
Well, I hope you have, but, remember, youre a grown-up. The small
children of my acquaintance arent 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 Kids 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
Yet, in this particular case the feminist media critics appear to be right:
Saturday mornings damsel deficiency does stem from sex discrimination.
The unsettling truth, however, is that the bigots who keep girl shows
off the air arent 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.
Thats just the way our culture socializes them, you may be interjecting.
That may or may not be, but I suspect that if you havent 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. Thats a Girl Flashlight, shed explain.
Theyre all out of Boy Flashlights. Do you still want it? Believe
me, dear readers, contrary to what weve been told so often in recent
decades, socialization isnt what differentiates the sexes, its
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. Weve 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 havent yet bought each child his or her
own TV (although Im 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 cant reliably change channels,
so they tend to watch a single networks 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 wont. 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 mediums leading
artists. A relatively large chunk of childrens 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 childrens 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.
Thats appalling, you may be saying. So, how do you try to explain
this alleged surplus of male geniuses? Personally, Im not brave
enough, so Ill 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 dont feminine stories fit TVs 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 dont mature,
dont assume long-term obligations, dont even learn to think
twice before strapping on the latest rocket-powered contraption from the
Acme Corporation. Drop a refrigerator on a toons head and hell
just shake it off. He is immortal, immutable, and, typically, infertile.
In contrast, women arent 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
Andersens 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 didnt 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 Disneys
comic relief, from the Seven Dwarfs down to Pocohontas raccoon and hummingbird),
Disney was free in the 1980s 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 wouldnt 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
dont TV cartoon characters marry their girlfriends? -- is also explained
in part by the sexes differing biological clocks: Popeye cant wed
his sweetheart because Olive Oyl can be Extra Virgin only once. The feminine
realities of marriage and babies would undermine the TV cartoons
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
(2.) For similar reasons, kids shows are overrun by nephews and wards
(e.g., Batmans 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 Pans 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 Ive heard came from a four year old girl who pointed
out recently: Because only Goofy wears clothes.
Steve Sailer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Chicago businessman, writer and father of male chauvinists, ages
7 and 3.
Main | 1996
- ESR's blog