Gender portrayal on children's
television – deep-rooted change or stagnation?
Television is a normal part of girls'
and boys' everyday life. Depending on the specific social
context, biography and individual theme, the young people
adopt the media and integrate them into their daily life.
In doing so television becomes the material from which individuals
remove certain parts and include them in their everyday life
as boys or girls. Even though the adoption is highly individual,
all in all the programme does have a power of definition which
takes effect especially in the societal construction of the
category of gender. By the repetitive presentation of figures
which are identified as men or women by their appearance and
integration into the programme, ideas of masculinity or femininity
arise and establish themselves. This does not mean that people
are helpless when faced with these constructions. They can
consciously dissociate themselves from them, although initially
the standards of "typical femininity" and "typical masculinity"
The relevance of this problem, especially
for children's television, is obvious, even if the surprised
question of a responsible female producer "What, that's still
an issue?" is certainly not an isolated case. It is particularly
in the matter of gender stereotypes that television seems
to be in a clear state of deep-rooted change, and the findings
of the relevant study (Weiderer, 1993, 1994), which showed
that women and girls are clearly underrepresented and portrayed
as stereotypes, now appear to be dated. The latest quantitative
study "Who speaks in television?", carried out by six European
stations on their own productions and prime time programme,
does sum up the under-representation of woman that still exists.
Only in the children's programme and in religious transmissions
are there some indications of a quantitative adjustment (Dijck,
So are changes taking place in children's
In an annual random sample1
438 programme hours of nine television channels2
on three days (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday) from 6.00am to 11.00pm
in 1988 were recorded and, incorporating the GfK's use data,
were quantitatively and qualitatively analysed. It is the
aim of "The Stocktaking of Children's Television" to enable
this data corpus to be used to make statements on such areas
as the children's preferences, learning-oriented programmes
, current discussion (eg chat shows), individual use patterns
or the presentation of gender stereotypes.3
Gender-specific tendencies in the
Of the 1,396 recorded transmissions
in the 1998 random sample 474 are in children's areas labelled
as such (tivi, K-RTL, Trick7, Kinderkanal etc). Here the gender
proportions in the main roles aredepicted relatively clearly:
Total of transmissions: 474
|303 male protagonists
||44 female protagonists
|220 male protagonists
||36 female protagonists
|83 male protagonists
||8 female protagonists
In the fiction area 63.9% of the central figures are male.
In 25.8% the main role is shared with a female figure and
in only 10.4% are girls or women the central figures. In the
non-fiction-area the presenters are mainly male, namely 64.3%.
29.5% of these share this task with an actress, and in only
6.2% of the broadcasts do women alone guide viewers through
The positive tendency towards an equal
number of female and male figures in the children's programme,
which seems to be on the way in the ZDF's own productions,
cannot be confirmed for the overall programme. Heroines and
independent female presenters who perform without male accompaniment
are clearly underrepresented.
Men are the heroes of the children's
This is already clearly indicated in
the titles of the series: small or larger men are at the centre
of the plot. They overcome everyday problems, face dangers
and have adventures.
Table: Examples from Stocktaking
Michel aus Lönneberga
(ZDF) with his tricks keeps the whole village on the go.
Grisu, der kleine Drache (Pro
7) has many exceptional gifts, and Sir Cedrik and the father
dragon constantly try to help him understand all kinds of
jobs. But there's only one thing Grisu wants: to become
David der Klabauter (Super
RTL) is a wise judge whose opinion is sought all over the
world. With his friend he travels to all kinds of places
on the globe and settles disputes.
Pinocchio (ARD) experiences
with his father, the woodcarver, adventures in the world
from which he learns valuable lessons with a moral.
James Bond Jr (SAT.1) is the
nephew of the famous spy and solves at least as many tricky
cases as his uncle and regularly saves the world.
Alvin and the Chipmunks (RTL
2) are three brothers who together have to solve the high
school pupils' problems.
in the children's programme are, of course, male
In the minor roles and the extras further
qualities of male dominance become clear, as figures that
do not explicitly belong to a gender have male first names.
Such is the case, for example, with the Mainzelmännchen
(ZDF): non-sexualised creatures are naturally male:
Some "classic" examples:
Bugs Bunny (Pro 7) is a magazine
made up of short animated episodes. The three little pigs,
the wolf, the watchdog or the cockerel, they are all male,
Dagobert Duck, with the help
of his clever nephews, manages to master a host of Ducktales
(Super RTL) and outwit MacMoneysack, Claasen Clever and
Winnie the Pooh (Super RTL)
and his friends Tiger, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga Roo
and Christopher experience adventures narrated with emotion;
naturally, the adventures of little boys in a world in which
there seem to be only male figures.
In many children's programmes with
predominantly male main and minor figures female characters
also appear, for example in the Smurfs (Pro 7). Although
the Smurf is actually male, there are two exceptions: Smurfette,
the beautiful blond, and Sassette, the saucy girl with the
red-brown pigtails. So women here are not symbolised as the
51% of the population that they actually are, but as the rare
deviation from the norm – which is naturally male.4
Femininity as a characteristic
But in the case of the Smurfs there
is even more to learn about gender portrayal. For the basic
principle of the Smurf is that his typical feature or role
is reflected in his name: Grouchy Smurf, Lazy Smurf, Stupid
Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Papa Smurf (the leader) and then Smurfette
and Sassette. The particular characteristic of the last two
is to be feminine, the former as an erotically attractive
woman, and the latter as a smart girl with red hair. Here
masculinity and femininity are no longer contrasted, since
femininity is only another feature to be found in a few appropriate
As far as content is concerned, the
female figures often take over roles that are "not male":
the helpless victim, the coveted woman, the caring mother
or the understanding grandmother. In this sense they serve
to provide "non-male" attributes such as caring, silliness,
moodiness, fright, touchiness or importunity. Male figures
tend to be individuals, while female figures tend to display
Outwardly the deviations from the "male
norm" are fitted out with such special attributes as bows
and skirts. This characteristic often slips into sexism. Thus
the female snowman (among twelve male ones) is given two snowballs
on the chest5. A corresponding parallel, for example
knots between the legs, is not to be found.
Female figures do the reproduction
management of the contents
The contents of most stories cannot
do without female figures completely, as the male heroes have
to save or protect someone and need a framework in which they
can experience their adventures. In this way the female figures
enable the hero to prove himself, to learn or to free himself.
They thus carry out the necessary reproduction management
for the contents in order to make the plot sensible and credible.
Their position is defined mainly by their importance for the
Das tapfere Schneiderlein
(Kinderkanal) saves the princess and falls in love with
her. The father, however, is opposed to a marriage and sets
him problems which are quite impossible to solve.
In the series Tao Tao (ZDF,
Kinderkanal) Tao and his friends encounter everyday social
problems. The understanding mother always has a suitable
story on-hand with male protagonists.
Girls are also involved – girl figures
in mixed-gender groups
A group that cannot be overlooked is
made up of children's programmes with male and female protagonists.
The spectrum of variation that is conceded to the female figures
here is in some cases far greater. The girls are not just
used as a characteristic feature or for work to reproduce
the contents but as individuals acting independently. It is,
however, noticeable that the girls are in the minority in
all the mixed-gender groups.
In the series Abenteuer in der
Karibik (Kinderkanal) five friends solve exciting crime
cases, the two girls in the group often having the decisive
The Power Rangers (RTL) are
also five young people who were chosen to protect the earth
from evil. The female Power Rangers are pink and yellow
and are distinguished in the frame stories by their reserve.
When, however, it is a matter of fighting extraterrestrial
monsters, they can compete with the male members of the
group and even help them in critical situations (but it
is usually the other way round).
In the brightly coloured puppet play
Was ist denn heute bei Wimzie los? (SuperRTL) the
girl Wimzie, her friends and her family develop ways of
solving everyday problems that reveal educational commitment.
In a number of children's series a
boy and a girl are at the centre of the action. In the typical
features and in the hierarchies within the relationship of
the two children, new variants and facets of the image of
the girl seem to be emerging in the children's programme.
Orson and Olivia (Nickelodeon)
are two children in historical London who earn their money
by catching rats. Together with their dog they experience
adventures and prove that it is possible to be happy even
In the mystical adventure series
Kinder der Mondgöttin (RTL 2) based on ancient
Chinese sagas the "twins of fate" are taken abroad to protect
them from plotting and scheming forces.
In Immer im Einsatz mit den Unsichtbaren
(Nickelodeon) Julie and Tom, brother and sister, run an
underground radio station in Paris. They are confronted
by crime cases and try to uncover mysterious events. Their
father and his assistant are inventors. The two youngsters
are good at handling the computer, internet and many other
modern aids, which they use to solve the cases.
Shirley Holmes and Sailor Moon – new girl figures
in the children's programme
Even though they are greatly outnumbered,
it is hard to imagine the programme without certain series
in which female protagonists are at the centre of the action.
These series can often boast enormous success in viewing ratings
and market share. They are examples of girl figures in positively
produced roles, which were once certainly the bastions of
male protagonists such as Sherlock Holmes or Zorro. The roles
by no means yet cover the breadth of variation that is found
in male protagonists. Even so, directions can be seen here
in which the successful children's programme is developing
and in which girl figures also present achievement-oriented,
caring and fighting aspects and prevail in a world in which
women naturally also play leading roles.
In the sitcom Clarissa (Nickelodeon)6
a young girl with intelligence and style tackles everyday
occurrences. Her friend Sam supports her wherever he can,
although the central figure always remains Clarissa.
In the crime series Shirley Holmes
(Nickelodeon) a girl solves complicated cases with extraordinary
scientific skill and detective ability. She is supported
by a male friend, though he tends to carry out reproductive
In the series Sailor Moon
(RTL 2) 14-year-old Bunny Sukino is one of the chosen female
warriors of the moonstone. Together with their (girl) friends
they can change themselves from well-behaved schoolgirls
into warriors for "love and justice".
Mila Superstar (RTL2) is a
young volleyball player who makes her way in sport through
hard work. She acts in an achievement-oriented way, being
helped to become successful by her tactical ability and
empathy for her fellow-players and opponents, as well as
Lady Oscar (RTL 2) is a heroine
who fights for liberty and justice in 19th-century
France. She intervenes in political events and disguises
herself for her deeds with a black coat, a mask and sabre.
Prinzessin Erdbeer (SuperRTL)
lives in a sugar world with her friends Prince Percy and
the butler Malcolm. Where her male friends are unsuccessful,
she has solutions and can thus get her way with Countess
von Zickig and her daughter.
In the six-part family series Nicht
ohne Marie (Kinderkanal), the heroine is the link in
solving the problems which occur in the daily routine of
a large family.
The Ocean Girl (ZDF, Kinderkanal)
Neary comes from another world. She can breathe underwater
and talk to whales. Together with her friends she experiences
adventures and protects the earth.
Sympathetic girl figures are beautiful,
slim and usually have long blond hair
Although girl figures may appear pleasant
and new at first sight, certain aspects remain the same. For
whether it is Sailor Moon, Ocean Girl or Marie,
all sympathetic girl figures on television are absolutely
beautiful, markedly slim and have mostly long blond hair.
Body proportions that do not correspond to the ideal weight
(or a few pounds less) or facial features which deviate from
the uniform ideal of beauty are not to be seen – unless as
a problem and a subject of the plot. Many female figures in
animated films also follow the "baby schema", and
the rounded head is characterised by a little nose and big
wide-set eyes. (Cf Mühlen-Achs, 1995, 31). The sexualised
representation of the body, stressing long slender legs and
exaggeratedly narrow waist, are further features of many female
figures in the children's programme. Here the "beauty myth
" (Wolf, 1991) is repeatedly corroborated.7 In
the very successful series Sailor Moon (RTL 2) this
is taken to the extreme. Sailor Moon's blond pony-tails reach
down to the hollows of the knees of her slender legs, which
account for a good three-quarters of her body. A quarter of
her face, its nose hardly visible, consists of her big wide
blue eyes, which in view of Japan being the country of production
is given special prominence. As is usual in Mangas, Sailor
Moon is extremely sexualised and by far exceeds Barbie in
the unattainable proportions of her body.
Deep-rooted change or stagnation
in gender portrayal?
In many areas, including gender portrayal,
children's television is undergoing deep-rooted change. In
the mainstream, however, men remain the heroes of the programme
in which normally male figures act, and femininity appears
as a characteristic which chiefly serves the purpose of content
reproduction management. Programmes that are extremely successful
with young audiences and in which female figures are at the
centre, but also in the mixed gender groups, promising prospects
are emerging which justify the perception of a potential change.
These programmes, however, are concentrated on a few channels,
of which the principal representative, Nickelodeon, is in
the meantime no longer on the German market. It used to broadcast
almost 40 per cent of the programmes in which girls play the
main role. Further points of emphasis are to be found on RTL
2 (through the Japanese productions) and, to a lesser extent,
the public-service stations.
But even in the case of the "new girl
figures" certain aspects remain, such as their being modelled
on a narrowly-defined stereotyped beauty, continue to exist
or are highly exaggerated. In detail gender portrayal in the
children's programme very largely remains rooted in long established
"patriarchal conditions", even though the latter remain far
behind the real-life diversity of girls and women.
An analysis of the non-fiction area
is all the more blatant. Especially in learning-oriented programmes,
one thing becomes clear: it is men who explain the world to
children. Here there are two stereotypes, firstly, the dynamic
and knowledgeable elder brother in his early
twenties and, secondly, the understanding and self-seeking
father-figure in his mid-forties who also wants to
learn. With the exception of Logo (ZDF, Kinderkanal),
where a man and a woman take it in turn to present the children's
news programme, in the non-fiction area women remain restricted
to announcing, mediating and perhaps explaining social problems.
They are, however, not thought sufficiently competent to explain
To this extent a deep-rooted change
in gender portrayal in many areas of children's television
has still not occurred.
NOTES:1 Carried out at
the University of Kassel (GHK) in cooperation with the Bavarian
Broadcasting Corporation's Internationales Zentralinstitut
für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI) and the Voluntary
Self-censorship of the Television Industry (FSF)
2 Stations selected according to the market share
of the children: ARD, ZDF, RTL, SAT.1, Pro 7, RTL2, SuperRTL,
Nickelodeon, Kinderkanal on these days: 23rd, 24th
& 26th May 1998
3 Bachmair, 1998, Bachmair/Hofmann, 1998
4 A basic principle to which Simone de Beauvoir
drew attention in her much-read book The Second Sex:
"Humanity is male, and the man defines the woman not as such,
but in comparison to himself; she is not regarded as an autonomous
being." (1949/1996, p.12) This can be seen in many products
of children's television.
5 "Die Örks", a new short animated film format
being developed for the Kinderkanal. Presented by Gert K.
Münterfering (WDR, Cologne) in the lecture: "Die Sendung
mit der Maus": Wegweiser zur Kinderkultur (Signposts to Children's
Culture), delivered in Kassel on 11th May 99.
6 In the meantime Shirley Homes also solves
her cases on the Kinderkanal.
7 Naomi Wolf points out in her book how dependent
ideals of beauty are on culture and what significance they
have in each case. In the western industrial societies, in
which women are increasingly proving themselves as independent
and equal personalities, the constant reference to an unachievable
ideal of beauty becomes a "setback" "The beauty myth fights
the new liberty of women, by shifting the social limitations
restricting their life directly to their face and their body.
As a reaction to this we must now ask what our attitude is
to our body in the same way as the generation of women before
us asked what their position was in society." (Wolf, 1991,
Bachmair, Ben: Kinder brauchen Kinderfernsehen.
Ein Blick ins Programmumfeld von Talk-Shows, tv-diskurs,
-/1998/Oct, p. 78-89.
Bachmair, Ben; Hofmann: Ole, Lernen mit dem
Kinderfernsehen: Wunsch oder Wirklichkeit? In: TelevIZIon,
11/1998/2, p. 4-20. *
Beauvoir, Simone de, Das andere Geschlecht
- Sitte und Sexus der Frau, Reinbek: Rohwohlt, 1949/1996.
Mühlen Achs, Gitta: Frauenbilder: Konstruktionen
des anderen Geschlechtp. In: Mühlen Achs, Gitta;
Schorb, Bernd (Ed.): Geschlecht und Medien. München:
KoPäd, 1995, p. 13-38.
van Dijck, Bernadette, Successful International
Co-operation in the Promoting Good Practice in Gender Portrayal
Project. Project: Promoting Good Practice in Gender Portrayal
in Television. Who speaks in television - An international
comparative study on female participation in television
programmep. NRK Research Department (Ed.). Oslo: NRK 1999.
Weiderer, Monika: Das Frauen- und Männerbild
im Deutschen Fernsehen - Eine inhaltsanalytische Untersuchung
der Programme von ARD, ZDF und RTLplup. Regensburg: S.Roeder
Weiderer, Monika; Komorek-Magin, Annegret:
Frau/Mann - Mädchen/Jungen in Kindersendungen des deutschen
Fernsehenp. In: TelevIZIon 7/1994/2, p. 31-36.
Wolf, Naomi: Der Mythos Schönheit, Reinbek:
für das Jugend-
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Fax.: +49 89 - 59 00 23 79
Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI)