Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Can you tell me how to get...

There's not much viewing of the All Powerful Idiot Box going on the Casa Amos, in large part because we do not subscribe to The Cable. We also aren't one of those families where the television stays on constantly. Of the rooms in our house, only one, the den, has a television that picks up stations. No set in the bedroom or kitchen (nor will there every be if I have my way about it) either. Nonetheless, we are big believers in The TiVo and have quite a few shows in our Seasons Pass list. Currently, we are trying to slog our way through the entire second-half of this past season's Desperate Housewives.

Little A is only allowed to watch one show, Sesame Street. Now I am sure that by exposing him to a few hours of television a week at his tender age (combined with his Mattel-induced exposure to lead paint), I am somehow warping his brain into mush and probably giving him ADHD. Of all the shite on television aimed at kids, Sesame Street has a lot going for it and is probably the best choice with which to distract him for a brief period of time. Namely, by watching the show, Alastair is getting some great early exposure to the concepts of numbers and letters. I think this is part of the reason why he is already counting to ten and can identify when he has two of the same object. (However, he says "two" for any group of things numbering more than one, but hey, it's a start.) Little A also enjoys the Muppets (Big Bird and Cookie monster being his favorites.) and loves to groove to the fun songs.

The new season of the venerable workhorse of kiddie programming started Monday. I've got a few nits to pick with the changes. For example, I hate the new frenetic animated opening sequence. I much preferred the previous, more straightforward one because it prominently featured Big Bird and automatically brought a grin to my son's face. Also, the jazzy version of the opening song that is being used isn't winning any points with me. Why mess with a classic? But there are also a lot of great additions. There's the Word on the Street: a daily focus word to bring cohesion to the episode. Celebrity guests seemed to have also increased. Just today we had a visit from Robert DeNiro who transformed himself into a dog, a cabbage, and Elmo. I was tickled to watch Monday's episode where Tina Fey mugged with Elmo as a "Bookeneer".

Sesame Street gained a new human resident in the form of Chris, nephew to Gordon and Susan. This new cast member got me thinking about the diversity of the Sesame cast. Historically, Sesame Street has been lauded for its inclusive casting. Amongst the human and Muppet characters, various ethnic and age groups are represented, as well as religious affiliations and persons with disabilities. However, after seeing the new cast member yesterday, I couldn't help but notice one disparity; it appears that the female members of Sesame Street are in a noticeable minority.

Here's my informal breakdown of the major character (appearing at least once a week). Muppets in italic text; humans in normal:

Mr. Noodle and his brother, Mr. Noodle
The Count
Baby Bear
Cookie Monster
Big Bird ( I list him here, but Big Bird's gender isn't clearly defined. If anyone can prove to me BB is a female, I will relent BB's position on this list.)

Abby Cadabby

There are numerous secondary female characters that show up from time to time like Gaby, Maria's daughter; Susan, Gordon's wife; The Countess and Grungetta, The Count and Oscar's girlfriends respectively; and Ms. Noodle, the sister of Messrs. Noodle.T

If Sesame Street is such a purposely progressive show, what gives? Now, I am not going to start some passionate e-mail campaign to force a more female presence on Sesame Street. I left that girlie back in my college women's studies class. It's a kid's show for crying out loud, not Congress.

Maybe there is some underlying trend along gender lines in children's television. Off the top of my head, I came up with a list of a few popular programs for the pre-school and elementary school set and most of them had male protagonists: Bob the Builder, Curious George, Barney, The Wiggles, Roly Poly Oly, Jimmy Neutron, SpongeBob SquarePants. There's only one notable exception to my list and that's Dora the Explorer, but her brother Diego has been given his own show. If you then turn to shows geared towards the tween/pre-teen set, a large number of them are helmed by female characters: Kim Possible, Hannah Montana, That's So Raven, The Cheetah Girls, Lizzie McQuire, The Amanda Bynes Show. The ubiquitous High School Musical is clearly aimed at the Limited Too crowd.

Okay, enough of my completely unscientific analysis of children's programming. I am sure there are countless sociological papers floating about dissecting the options available in kid's television shows. My initial response to the completely anecdotal trend I uncovered is this:

As small children, boys are the primary audience for television, or perhaps it's that little girls are more neutral when it comes to identifying with the specific genders of television characters whereas little boys gravitate strongly towards male characters while at the same time have difficulty relating to female characters. Children's shows recognize this and create characters accordingly. Perhaps as these children get older, this tendency flip-flops to girls, hence the increase in female-centric shows for tweens. Again though, maybe in the pre-teen years, girls become the larger consumer of youth-oriented TV while their male counterparts depart the kiddie programming for watching or participating in sports or video games.

Holy cow; is it totally obvious that I need to put my college education to use?

I think I'll go watch So You Think You Can Dance now.


ahamos said...

So you figured out who the Cheetah Girls are?

I think you're onto something there. I will say, though, that in my pre-teen years I watched more sitcoms and cartoons (GI Joe, Transformers, pretty much anything on the Fox or USA afternoon cartoon block) than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Okay, that's it. I'm quitting my job and going to work on Sesame Street. It is the one show I have always wanted to be on. I'd get to act, sing and dance (there is dancing occasionally) - the perfect combination!!!
Watch out BB, here I come!!!
Oh - I think that the first Big Bird movie might clearly make him a male. I'll try to locate it to see.

Anonymous said...

Quote from "Follow That Bird" (1985):
Kermit the Frog: Do you think maybe he didn't like it here or something?

Miss Finch: Impossible!

Kermit the Frog: Well, what are you going to do about it, Miss Finch?

Miss Finch: I'm going to find Big Bird, wherever he is, and bring him back to the Dodos!

em said...

you are awesome. i just graduated with a degreen in women and gender studies..and i constantly pick apart pop culture from a feminist sort of perspective. my mother did raise me on sesame street and mister rogers too (you should let little A watch Mr. Rogers, too!), so maybe that has something to do with how i turned out today. keep up your analysis! its great

Anonymous said...

don't forget Prairie Dawn.

Anonymous said...

My thoroughly unscientific theory on your findings: kids' shows are aimed at working and lower-class kids who tend to watch more TV per day and who also are more likely to be in a single parent home. So, a stable male presence on the TV may be the only male presence in the kid's life and will appeal to both boys and girls under the age of six.

What? Don't look at me like that. I am single, working class mom.

Erin said...

What about Snufolufugas? Is he still on the show? He was always my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Americans using "shite," especially as an adjective, always makes me feel a bit ill.

Anonymous said...

I used to love Electric Company as a child. Such a great show with a good female presence. I don't know if it is still on PBS. They would teach words in English, and in various languages. I remember impressing the hell out of my mother at the age of 4, with "agua".

As a 6-10 year old, I refused to watch MASH with my brother, because there were no "girls" on it (Hoolihan wasn't a big enough presence for me).

Anonymous said...

not to nit-pick, but *technically* Diego is Dora's cousin. I just now realized that apparently I have become a Dora/Diego expert....*sigh* I need to get out more.

Bianca Reagan said...

manda, there is indeed "some underlying trend along gender lines in children's television." I refer you to this study compiled and released by Where the Girls Aren't.

As small children, boys are the primary audience for television, or perhaps it's that little girls are more neutral when it comes to identifying with the specific genders of television characters whereas little boys gravitate strongly towards male characters while at the same time have difficulty relating to female characters. Children's shows recognize this and create characters accordingly.

Having worked in the entertainment industry and spoken with people who have been in charge of television programming, I can tell you that children's shows are less a function of audience demand and more a function of the tastes of the people running the networks. Just like in big people's TV. Children's shows (and movies) are overwhelmingly programmed for little boys because the people running the networks and studios are overwhelmingly male. It has little to do with what girls actually want. Little girls, and big girls, are not neutral in what they want to see. They want to see more girls and women that they can identify with. However, at the executive level, the insane decision has always been made to focus on the boys, no matter what. The excuse made is that girls will watch anything, while boys only watch shows that involve other boys. But the truth is, the majority of entertainment executives just don't care what girls want. If they did, every animated movie that has come out this decade would not feature casts with 5:1, 6:1, even 10:1 male/female ratios.

ahamos said...

Frankly, anonymous cowards who can't tell the difference between a noun and an adjective, but lambaste others for their choice of slang, make me a bit ill.

If you're going to be pedantic, at least be correct!

Baby Tyrone (S) said...

I seem to remember a story about how Abby Cadabby was introduced in order to address the very gender-disparity you note here.

Google reveals this:

Which is less a progressive addressing of the disparity and more along the lines of PC-fetishism, such as making sure you always have at least one black friend so you can be sure you're not racist, but at least they're aware of the issue over there at the Children's Television Workshop, which is a start.

shelley said...

can someone tell me if Miles is longer a cast member? i know of chris, so i am wondering if he is the replacement. i havn't really seen much of the new season yet to figure it out...thanks!

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