As a kid, I absolutely hated the “Dennis the Menace” portrait of childhood. I’m sorry to single out Dennis here since he’s not the only one, but that comic symbolized for me the story of childhood that didn’t reflect my experience and that I didn’t want to have imposed on me: the boy is fun and adventurous, and the girl is no fun, wanting to play only boring things like tea-parties.
I liked stories with girls who went on great adventures! I liked Petronella. This is a story that starts by explaining that in a certain land the king and queen always have a son and name him Peter and he goes off to rescue a princess. When one time it happens that the king and queen have a girl, they don’t know what to do besides name her “Petronella” and have her go off and rescue a prince.
Now that I’m a grown-up, I think there are two dimensions to what is wrong with the “Dennis the Menace” model. The problem isn’t just that girls do girl things and boys do boy things. The other part of the problem is that doing “girl things” is portrayed as bad.
I still like Petronella of course as part of a larger spectrum of possible girls’ stories. But today, I’m even more demanding. I’d like to also see the gender markers more blurred for both genders, and not have to place a girl in an explicitly male role in order for her story to be an interesting one.
With this in mind, I’m intrigued by the cartoon Angelina Ballerina (which got a good review here). I have not actually seen a whole episode of Angelina Ballerina; I’ve only seen the trailer. (My kids have learned to work the menus on the DVD player, and they love to watch all of the trailers advertising other kids’ videos…).
Angelina is a mouse, but she’s a kid doing ordinary kids’ stuff, and what’s more she’s doing ordinary girls’ stuff like taking ballet lessons with other girls. And they’ve actually done a story about it! For kids! I know I shouldn’t be amazed by this, but I am.
How do some of the other female characters my kids are exposed to measure up?
Well, there’s “Dorothy the Dinosaur” from The Wiggles. Dorothy is pretty cool. She’s independent. She has some feminine interests (especially growing roses in her garden) yet doesn’t display conventional feminine beauty. She’s friends with the male characters on a peer level without being someone’s mother or love-interest. The main drawback is that of the eight named characters in this show, she’s the only female. It looks like more than half of the (unnamed) dancers in the back-up dance troupe are women, including some pirates and the people wearing costumes to play male characters. I guess that’s sort of good and sort of bad…
Then there’s Dora the Explorer. I haven’t actually seen the show — we just have one book about her — so others probably have a more accurate idea of how her show works. From what I’ve seen, she seems cool since she’s a girl off having exciting adventures. She has some girl-markers that would be typical of real girls, like a bracelet with a heart-shaped bead on it. However, she’s clearly dressed to be the subject of her own adventure, not to attract someone to rescue her.
Next up would be Todd World. Todd World is cool because there are two boys and two girls who play together, and the two girls illustrate different possibilities. There’s one girl (who is perhaps more adventurous?) who can fly by waving her ponytails and another who is more interested in fashion and glamor. My kids really like the one episode they’ve seen where one girl makes friends with a (girl) worm by going shopping with her. I think they mostly like it because the girl is friends with a worm. The one thing that I will criticize about this series is that — as with practically every story about kids — the central title character is male. Now I know I’m being awfully picky here because this series is progressive overall. But it’s because this show is explicitly designed to celebrate a rainbow of diversity that I’m holding it up to a higher standard.
All in all, I’d say we’re starting to see some good, positive portraits of girlhood for kids where girls can do a combination of “girls’ stuff,” “boys’ stuff,” and gender-neutral stuff, and this fact may help push more (traditionally gendered) activities into the gender-neutral range. And more importantly — through all of these activities — at the end of the day they’re just regular kids.