CBeebies celebrates 10 years and a new show, Tree Fu Tom. Why not Tree Fu Tina?

by Rachel Bell on March 16, 2012

Come on CBeebies, where are the positive female role models? Rachel Bell reports on the case of the disappearing girls.

Since having two sons, still both pre-school age, I always notice when CBeebies commission a new programme. The programmes I remember being launched since my first son and I started watching are: Green Balloon ClubLittle Charlie Bear, Mr Bloom’s Nursery, Baby Jake, Raa Raa the Noisy Lion, Rastamouse, Iconicles (fronted by nice man Nat), The Adventures of Abney and Teal, Justin’s House, Gigglebiz (fronted by said Justin), Mike the Knight; Tommy Zoom, Andy’s Wild Adventures and Tree Fu Tom. In case you don’t know, Rastamouse is male. Spot the connection? All but two shows are male-led. In CBeebies, the females appear to be locked indoors. Maybe these unwanted girlchildren were aborted in the womb. Has Islamic Fundamentalism taken a hold? They’re just not there. OK, I’m exaggerating, but they’re not there much at all and if they do make an appearance, they are all too often pink and giddy. Imaginative that. The pink and giddy stereotype is led of course by Oopsy Daisy from In The Night Garden and De-Li from Waybuloo. Then there’s the pink and purple girls in Zingzillas, the ape band headed by frontman Zak, naturally. There’s the token girl, Dashi in Octonauts, who likes to comb her hair in front of a mirror. Oh, silly voiced Sweetie from Driver Dan was making cookies tonight. She’s not pink I suppose. The only girl protagonist amongst recent new commissions is Teal, who is adventurous and imaginative. THANK YOU! Tommy Zoom, Mike the Knight and Tree Fu Tom are as bad as the pink and giddy girls, stereotypes of the superhero, barking orders and being all alpha male. I can’t argue with Mr Bloom, he’s a softie, he’s into plants, is funny and brilliant with kids and he’s different to most men the entertainment industry exposes us to. Same goes for Justin Fletcher aka Mr Tumble. Apart from Teal and Green Balloon Club, none of the new commissions acknowledge girls as humans who lead full lives and lead their own stories. It doesn’t feel like we’ve moved that far forward since the creepy world of The Smurfs. Is the controller on a quest to wipe out the female species from public view?

Look more closely, peek behind the curtains so to speak, and you can find the non pink girls of course, doing something more than caring, cooking and smiling, doing more than playing second fiddle. There’s Charlie and Lola, which is hands-down cool, there’s Come Outside, which is hands-down cool too. Not only is the central character a woman, she’s old by telly standards and she’s a pilot. Brilliant. Balamory has a woman bus driver, then there’s dirtgirlworld, Nina and the Neurons and Everything’s Rosie. The last three all have their own shows named after them. WOW. But everything is not rosie at CBeebies. The girls aren’t centre stage in the way that the boys like Tree Fu Tom are. An older woman pilot and a scientist do not make up for the dearth of positive and diverse and more accurate female role models for girls and, just as importantly, for boys to see too.

With Postman Pat, Bob the Builder, Koala Brothers, Timmy Time, Driver Dan, Chuggington and Octonauts being flagship shows, there’s too much that’s predictable. Males in charge of vehicles, and male vehicles, are overwhelming themes. There’s nothing wrong with lots of vehicles, girls like them too, but guess who’s manning the ship on new show The Rhyme Rocket? If you son or daughter becomes astute enough to ask, ‘Why are there so few women astronauts?’ you can give them Sandi Toksvig’s book, Girls Are Best, which will tell them it’s because when the American space agency ordered new suits in the 1990’s, they only ordered medium and large.

This is all important stuff. It’s about girls and  boys learning about gender roles in the media and wider world for the first time. It’s about arming them with the knowledge that girls CAN DO STUFF. And boys don’t have to be all SUPER. It’s sex education for pre-school, showing boys that they can have healthy relationships with girls and benefit from wonderful friendships with them. Last month CBeebies was ten years old. Since its launch in 2002 it has doubled its audience and is now watched by around half the UK’s 0-6s every week (2.3 million). Clearly it does a good job of making education fun. Clearly it makes an effort to represent black and ethnic minority groups and people with learning difficulties. Why not women? As usual, sexism is not on the agenda. The UK has a duty to fulfill its obligations to the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In 2008 CEDAW strongly called for action by the UK government to enact policies on gender stereotyping and the portrayal of women in the media and popular culture.

But you know what? Boys will watch girls. Cavegirl Igam Ogam on Channel Five was one of the best discoveries my partner made cos my three year old son loves it. It’s brilliant on every level. And thank you to Channel Five for the risk-taking Little Princess, and to Tiny Pop for the charming, innocent and calming cartoons at bedtime headed by best friends Milly and Molly. If we expose boys to the female experience at pre school age, they will accept it as the norm, rather than writing it off as ‘girly’.

With  ‘sexualisation’ – it’s sexism we’re talking about here – hitting the headlines again following a report by the French government (read more here) we need to align all our media to represent females and males in a balanced way. Children’s film and television is the start of it all, and actor and activist Geena Davis has already done the figures. She was so outraged by the lack of female presence, never mind positive presence, in kids’ film that she did the research and found that for every one female, there are three males. In every group scene 17% is female. Nothing has changed since 1946. When she presented her findings to the film industry, they professed to be shocked. As is the case with most people, the male dominated world is ‘the norm’. They simply don’t notice. Ask any man why the The Smurfs was weird.

Geena Davis has set up The Geena Davis Institute to combat the lack of positive role models for girls. Why? Because Paris Hilton, Jordan, Rhianna, Kardashian, model, pole dancer, stripper, whatever you want to call them, they all do the same thing, is not all a girl can be. She can be Commander in Chief!!

Why does pink stink? It’s not much to do with the colour. Like Disney Princess, it’s about where it signposts girls to… Find out about the Pink Stinks campaign.

Read Zooey Deschanel talking about better roles for women in the Guardian here.

4 comments

Hi. Thanks for the great and thought provoking article. Obviously as the creator of dirtgirlworld I’m a big fan of girl lead preschool TV. And you are so right about boys watching girls, even when there is the word ‘girl’ in the title. Our audience is made up of 50% girls and 50% boys. While it may be a bit of a surprise to sum it wasn’t to us. Yay! I say.

by Cate McQuillen on March 17, 2012 at 8:26 am. Reply #

thank you for writing this!! i’ve thought it so many times but it’s only when you list all the programmes they’ve bought out (the only one of which i like is abney and teal), that you realise, it must be a wilful decision because the powers that be cannot possibly be unaware of the glaring bias towards a male take on adventure and everything else. i’ve got two boys too but i still want them to see girls represented in a way that  makes sense but at all would be a start! actually no, at all would not be good enough. extraordinary.

by r. on March 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm. Reply #

yes, yes, yes. Great post. How can we get Cbeebies to fix this frustrating imbalance. The sexism is so glaring and yet few notice. I loathe Tree Fu Tom or this reason, but my 3 yr old son loves it.

by kira on March 29, 2012 at 10:10 pm. Reply #

And yet, more often than not, it is a woman who is employed to voice male cartoon characters anyway… Anyone else see how ridiculous this situation is?!
We now have ‘Everything’s Rosie’, ‘Tilly and Friends’, ’64 Zoo Lane’ and ‘Woolly and Tig’ with female ‘leading’ characters, but all of these are cutesy, soft, sensible little girly things and are as gender stereotyped as Raa Raa and Mike the Knight are. I agree, a range of character types in both sexes is still not explored, gender roles are still well entrenched (yes, there’s wonderful Nina, but ‘I can cook’ is also – disappointingly – fronted by a woman) and any characters that are made to be almost gender neutral lack… well… character, really!

by Zoe on January 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm. Reply #

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