Gender Stereotypes in Children's Television Cartoons

Kelly Eick, May, 1998

 

Abstract

This study is based on an analysis of four popular television cartoons in regard to their portrayals of gender stereotypes. One of the cartoons was created before 1985, and three after. Over a period of five days, five episodes of each show were recorded and coded for the numbers of male vs. female characters, physical characteristics of characters, and male/female roles in dilemma-solving and stereotyped jobs throughout each program. Results indicated notable discrepancies between the portrayals of males and females in all of the cartoons analyzed. Males outnumbered females considerably, and physical appearances as well as the jobs characters were awarded often conformed to traditional stereotypes. Females never played the part of the main hero or problem solver. In general, they were in supporting roles, even when the males seem to be unsuccessful at fulfilling a particular task. The majority of females shown were also dressed and drawn stereotypically, with tiny waists and short skirts. The males seemed even more confined than the females in regards to the roles they were allowed to play and the way they are dressed.

 

Introduction

Former Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said "All television is educational; the only question is: what is it teaching?" (Thompson 1995: 415). Children start watching television from a very early age, about 18 months to two years (Thompson, 1979: 415 )1. Since very young children often have difficulty telling fantasy from reality, they are particularly susceptible to the portrayals of gender types on television, especially cartoons, which make up the majority of children's television viewing between the ages of two and eleven2. Witt found that in addition to the models of behavior provided by parents and peer groups, "a further reinforcement of acceptable and appropriate behavior is shown to children through the media, in particular, television"(Witt 1997: 254). Therefore, it can be assumed that children might use the portrayals of males and females in cartoon format as a model for performance of their own genders, in order to assimilate into the norms of their culture. If children do in fact do this, as many studies have shown, then it is important to study the content of those programs children seem to watch most frequently, namely cartoons. Thompson and Zebrinos (1995) coded and analyzed 175 episodes of 41 different cartoons, showing large discrepancies between prominence and portrayal of male and female characters. They noted that, compared to female characters, males were given much more prominence, appeared more frequently, and talked significantly more.

My study was done in order to test the relevance of the findings of the Thompson and Zebrinos study, as well as to take a closer look at the characters themselves, in terms of physical appearance, physical presence in the cartoons, and gender relations, which was much of the focus of the Thompson and Zebrinos (1995) study. Findings indicate the accuracy of Thompson and Zebrinos (1995, 1997) in regards to a larger male presence in children's television cartoons, but casts some doubt on their conclusions about females being portrayed in easily-defined feminine and matriarchal roles. While males still seem to hold much of the floor in regards to physical appearance, stamina and a more "go-getter" attitude, my study also found that many female characters were involved in jobs once dominated by males and had a noticeable involvement in plot resolution. However, many underlying stereotypes still exist in terms of performing gender identity.

 

Method

Twenty episodes of four different cartoons were recorded over a five day period. The cartoons chosen for analysis were The New Adventures of Captain Planet, Scooby Doo: Where are You, The Jetsons and Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures. The cartoons were chosen at random, with some consideration given to having a selection of shows ranging from very modern to those being rerun in syndication from more than a decade ago. All cartoons chosen are shown at several times during the day, and are very accessible to a young audience. All have human beings as the majority of characters, in comparison with shows in which most of the characters are either animals or speaking objects, such as computers, cars, robots and other such creations.

The Jetsons and Scooby Doo: Where are You were recorded from the TBS station, while Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures is broadcast on the Cartoon Network and The New Adventures of Captain Planet comes from Warner Bros Network.

Each cartoon was analyzed with respect to the ratio of males to females shown, physical characteristics and male/female roles in problem-solving and job acquisition throughout each episode. Animals and speaking inanimate objects were not considered, except in the context of their interactions with the human characters. Each episode was considered a separate entity, so that recurring characters were taken into consideration in every episode in which they were featured when computing male/female ratios. The copyright year and episode title of each episode was also recorded. The year of the episodes will be considered in the discussion, when discussing differences in character portrayals.

 

Results

The cartoons coded came from repeats and were of differing content types. The content types used here were first defined by Streicher (1974), and were again used by Thompson and Zebrinos (1995). The Jetsons episodes, copyright 1987, were "teachy-preachy". Scooby Doo: Where are You, was copyrighted in 1969 and 1970, and falls into both the "teachy-preachy" and "continuing adventure" categories. Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, copyright 1995 and 1996, and The New Adventures of Captain Planet, copyright 1990, 1993 and 1995, both fall into the "continuing adventure" category3. Three of the four cartoons that were included came from producer Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. This was not intentional, although not surprising, considering that Hanna-Barbera has been the largest television cartoon producer by far for many years. The cartoons were not written or drawn by the same people, and in some cases were separated by more than 20 years.

 

Male/Female Ratio

Results indicated a definite discrepancy between the number of males and the number of females portrayed in each of the four cartoons studied. The table below shows the breakdown of males to females for each cartoon.

Numbers of Males and Females

The Jetsons

Scooby Doo: Where are You

The New Adventures of Captain Planet

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures

Males

51

35

65

66

Females

26

12

27

12

The percentages of females featured in each cartoon ranged from 15.3% for Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, to 33.7% for The Jetsons. Scooby Doo: Where are You had a 25.5% female cast, and The New Adventures of Captain Planet had females 29.3% of the time. Overall, females made up 26.1% of all human characters shown. In all four cartoons, there were eight recurring female characters, meaning characters that appeared in every episode. There were nine recurring male characters.

 

Physical Characteristics

The characters in all four cartoons follow one of four different gender types: the masculine male, the inadequate male, the delicate female, and the more modern female. There were no 'butch' females or truly effeminate males seen in any of the cartoons, although some characters had butch or effeminate traits, such as short hair for females. 'Masculine' means the male who fits in with American society's stereotypical 'manly man', or a handsome (according to current American culture) man with definite muscles, and a conservative style of dress and hairdo. The inadequate male lacks many characteristics of the masculine male. He is weak and fearful, lacking both physical stamina and any significant amount of courage. This was demonstrated in the cartoons analyzed not only through actions but also by body type and bone structure, as well as dress and hairstyle. The delicate female was patterned in the cartoons studied as a woman of delicate physical structure, who is thin and dressed in a such a manner as would not allow her to complete tasks traditionally meant for males. The modern female is one who is dressed in a more neutral fashion, such as jeans or pants, and does not have a noticeably tiny waistline. Physical traits of the most prominent characters are described below, to later further discussion when tying these traits in with roles certain characters are allowed to play.

 

 

The Jetsons

All of the females in the Jetsons were drawn with the same body shape and type of clothing. The two main female characters, mother Jane and daughter Judy, are both drawn very thin, with tiny waists, thin legs and medium busts. Both women are always dressed in skirts, except when Judy wears her aerobics outfit, which is a tight, red catsuit cut low on her bust. Jane is seen dressed in a construction uniform once, when she attempts to aid her daughter. Both women are always in high-heeled shoes, and are always wearing earrings. Their hair is always in the same style, and never appears dirty or disheveled in any way. Both women have tiny feet. All of female characters portrayed during the five episodes taped either fit this characterization, or are extremely obese, and all the women, regardless of body shape, are shown in pastel-colored clothing, such as pink or light purple.

Both masculine and inadequate men are portrayed in The Jetsons. George and Elroy Jetson, the two main male characters, are both seen as weak, with no musculature evident around their chests or upper body areas, and somewhat pronounced waists, in what could be termed a slight "beer belly". Both have short haircuts and wear conservative clothing consisting of plain blue pants and white shirt in George's case, and blue overalls and a blue hat on Elroy. George's boss, Mr. Spacely, is extremely short and fat, and also wears conservative clothing. All three characters wear the same outfit in every episode that was analyzed. The character Rocky Retro, who appears in the episode entitled "Nine to Five to Nine" is an extreme example of the masculine character type. He has very well defined muscles on every visible part of his body, as well as a tiny waist. He is blond, tan and has a huge, sparkling, white smile which he shows constantly throughout the episode. He also has a short, conservative haircut. Other masculine characters also appear regularly, although none as recurring regulars. The men's clothing tends to be some shade of blue, beige or white.

 

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet

The two female superheroes portrayed, Linka and Gi, as well as Dr. Blight, all fall into the more-modern female archetype. Dr. Blight wears a pink catsuit, and has shoulder-length blond hair that falls over one eye, but her waistline is not at all pronounced, and her bust is average. Both Linka and Gi wear beige shorts and T-shirts. Gi's T-shirt is pink and Linka's is dark blue. Both girls have bright pink lips, as does Dr. Blight. Gi is tan, in keeping with her Asian heritage, but Linka and Dr. Blight are both pale, and Linka has hair the same blond color as Dr. Blight's.

All the main male heroes in this program are of the very masculine character type. The main hero of the cartoon, Captain Planet himself, is completely covered in muscles and dresses only in red briefs and a red cape. Captain Planet has a very small waist. The other male main characters, particularly Wheeler, fit a somewhat less pronounced version of the same mold. Dressed in pants and T-shirts of some neutral blue, beige or black shade, all three young male heroes are somewhat muscular, with conservative hairstyles. The male villains, on the other hand, are dressed outlandishly, usually in some combination of polka dots or bright colors. One of the two recurring male villains is severely obese, and all three male villains shown in the five episodes analyzed were missing several teeth. All the villains portrayed in the episodes viewed were inadequate in some way, whether it be physically unfit or simply cowardly.

 

 

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures

The only recurring female character in this cartoon, Jessie, is made in the modern mold. She and the male hero, Jonny, have essentially the same build, with the exception of Jessie's bust, which is proportional to her height and build . She does, however, tend to wear a lot of pink and pastel colors, along with shorts and tight stretchpants. She has shoulder-length red hair that she wears unrestrained at all times.

Jonny Quest, Dr. Quest and Race Bennett are all made in the masculine mold. All three have conservative, short haircuts, and sport T-shirts and jeans. Race Bennett has a more muscular build than Jonny or Dr. Quest, but they all have some level of visible musculature. Hadji, their Arabian guide, is neither the masculine type or the inadequate type, but instead a combination of the two. He does not have any visible muscles, but he does have stylish clothing and a conservative haircut. He is not visibly obese in any way, but has an average build.

 

Scooby Doo: Where are You

The two recurring female characters, Daphne and Velma, both wear skirts, but that is where their similarity ends. Daphne is the complete embodiment of the delicate female, with a tiny waist and thin legs and arms. She wears an outfit made of pink and pastel purple fabric, and pastel purple high heels. She has long red hair and is very pale, and stands with her hands on her hips a great deal of the time. Velma, on the other hand, has a much stockier build, with a larger waist and slighter thicker arms and legs. She wears a sweater and skirt made of a plain mustard color, and thick black-rimmed glasses. She also wears knee socks.

Fred and Shaggy, the two main male characters, also portray these opposites. Fred is blond and tall, with a somewhat muscular build and a very conservative style of dress. His pants always look neatly pressed and he wears a clean white shirt with a collar. Shaggy, on the other hand, is very tall and thin. His brown hair appears eternally disheveled, and his pants and shirt are bulky, appearing too big for his thin frame.

 

Character Portrayals

Cartoons were coded for both the jobs characters of different genders play and the input they have in regards to conflict resolution. In all the cartoons studied, the main character in the program was male. Three of the four cartoons had the main male character in a heroic role, and one had an inadequate male as the main character. Females were also portrayed in heroic roles, but their actions were supportive in nature to the males in the programs, and much of their input into verbal discussions of the daily dilemma was less valuable than the males. Males were never seen portraying roles that could be construed as feminine in any way, but females often took jobs that could be traditionally seen as male. In all cases there were exceptions in the data which made exact patterns sometimes difficult to define.

There was a definite correlation between the physical attributes of a character and their job and ability to contribute in a valuable manner to discussions surrounding conflict resolution. The overtly masculine characters - Fred, Captain Planet, Dr. Quest and Race Bennett - were more often the direct cause of conflict resolution, and most likely to be the leaders in discussions and the primary decision-makers. Fred, in Scooby Doo: Where are You, was the most pronounced example of this. In all five episodes viewed, Fred was the one to come up with a plan to catch the villain. Captain Planet was also required on a regular basis to save the rest of the cast from certain death. In Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, Dr. Quest and Race Bennett resolved the main conflict and directed the other characters in all of the four episodes in which they were featured. The title character, Jonny Quest himself, only directly caused conflict resolution in one episode, but was required to save Jessie from danger six times.

In discussions regarding conflict resolution, the masculine males often engaged in silencing and dominance over both the females and the inadequate males. In one episode of The New Adventures of Captain Planet, Linka follows Wheeler around as he attempts to take a photograph of an endangered species of owl. During the course of the episode, Wheeler has to replace the camera four times because he is inept at using it. Each time, Linka attempts to instruct him, but Wheeler keeps control of the camera, despite her superior knowledge as to its use. In another episode, Wheeler tells Linka that "at least I'll get to see how cute you turn out, Blondie."4 Later in the same episode he refers to another woman as a "babester".

Results also indicated without exception that positions of power, such as police officers, security guards and military officers, were always portrayed by men. Fathers were portrayed on three separate occasions, in both masculine and inadequate form. The fathers shown were also the main decision-makers in the family unit.

The two main inadequate males shown, George Jetson and Shaggy, had less input into conflict resolution. Both seemed to stumble upon resolutions to their problems by accident or fate, or were aided in some way by the more masculine characters.

While all of the cartoons' heroes were attractive and masculine, all of the male villains portrayed were also physically deficient in some way, such as being too fat or too thin, and usually being either sloppy or outlandish in dress. In Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, the main villain is a quadriplegic with gray hair and some unknown, unsightly skin condition. In The New Adventures of Captain Planet, all the male villains are missing at least two teeth. In The Jetsons, all villains, as well as George Jetson's boss Mr. Spacely, were extremely overweight, and either much taller or much shorter than the other characters.

Female characters were featured much more often than their male counterparts in jobs that have been traditionally tailored to a certain sex. Women were seen as scientists, superheroes, judges and dog breeders, as well as taking the traditional roles of mothers, wives and housekeepers. However, there were several female characters who seemed to serve no purpose at all, except to follow the other characters around. When they spoke, which was not often, they either restated the statements of other characters, or made random comments such as "Wow! He could still scare me Professor."5 None of the male characters could be classified in this manner. The females that fit this description were also the thinnest and most feminine women portrayed. Women drawn in a more modern fashion and average body shape tended to contribute more in both volume and content to discussions, both in mixed and single sex groups.

 

Discussion

Carter (1991) reported that the audience for children's television cartoons is about 51 percent male, with the number jumping to 53 percent on Saturday mornings, when a majority of cartoons are shown. Jennie Trias, the network vice president of ABC in 1991, also stated that "it is well known that boys will watch a male lead and not a female lead. But girls are willing to watch a male lead."

The implications of this were clearly reflected in the study. As with previous studies in this area, analysis showed a huge gap between the numbers of males and females being portrayed in the cartoon television arena. There were no female leads found, and the females who were prominent were often stereotyped in subtle but significant ways.

Findings indicated that while female cartoon characters are being allowed to take on an increasing number of once all male jobs, the stereotypes are still promoted in the way women play these roles and the amount of power they are given. In one episode of The New Adventures of Captain Planet, where a woman plays a judge, the villains win. At three separate points in the 30-minute show, she makes statements to the effect of "There's nothing I can do."7 In the same episode, another female character, Linka, follows around one of the males, Wheeler, as he attempts to take a picture of an endangered owl. They are supposed to be working together, but Linka is never allowed to use or even hold the camera, despite the fact that Wheeler proves during four separate incidents throughout the program that he is inept at the using it. Linka instead engages in nagging Wheeler, while he silences her by ignoring her attempts at aid. And he degrades her with statements like the "blondie" comment mentioned earlier. Females are allowed to be superheroes, but not the lead superhero. They are permitted to operate machinery, such as flying planes and cars, but are often excluded from important decisions. Frequently, women were conveniently elsewhere during these decisions, usually by being the victim of some type of danger. The character Gi, from The New Adventures of Captain Planet, spends the last half of one episode trapped in an underwater observatory. Instead of attempting to rescue herself, she makes pointless comments to her captor such as "You'll never get away with this". In the episodes studied, no female was ever the sole instigator of plot resolution, but many of the male characters were.

Even more disturbing are the female characters who appear in the cartoon for no particular reason. Neither Daphne (Scooby Doo: Where Are You) nor Judy (The Jetsons) ever participate in conflict resolution. Both are shown standing around or worrying about trivial problems in scenes where intense conflict resolution is taking place. Their gender performance consumes all of the their screen time. At one point, Daphne yells "Oh! My hairdo!" as she, Velma and Fred are trapped in a sinking boat8.

Daphne and Judy are both attractive but useless. Velma and the afore mentioned judge do make contributions, but are drawn quite physically unattractive. The judge has what could be termed a "butch" haircut, and Velma is slightly overweight, with sloppy clothing and large black-rimmed eyeglasses. Strangely enough, the exact opposite is true for the male characters studied. While there were no completely useless males, levels of masculinity directly paralleled amounts of valuable input in verbal discussions and nonverbal action. In fact, many of the unattractive and inadequate males were not responsible for their own contributions. Often they would "accidentally" capture villains by falling on top of them or dropping something that happens to land on their nemesis9.

Male characters were also portrayed in a stereotypical manner. They were routinely placed in positions of power, such as policemen, superheroes, and scientists. They were never shown crying, cleaning, cooking or performing any role that could be seen as feminine. In one episode of Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, Race Bennett discovered that his daughter Jessie had died. He reacted violently and punched his companion. At no point did he cry, or show any sign of grief other than anger. He and the other fathers did hug their children to show affection, but at no point were they portrayed having serious discussions about feelings. In one episode, the female character went to the mother of one of the male characters she had a crush on instead of speaking with her own father10.

A lot of labeling of women by men also takes place in all the cartoons. Despite having proven her value as a problem solver and computer programmer, Jessie is referred to several times by her father as "my little girl"11. As with the "blondie" comment, this undermines everything else the female character has accomplished and places her in the role of a child. It is interesting to note that in the same cartoon, Jonny, who is approximately the same age as Jessie, is never referred to as "boy" by either his father or anyone else in the program. And throughout the program, he and Jessie take on many of the same responsibilities and are often seen as having equal say in decision making.

Overall, I found that stereotypic gender portrayals are very much a reality in children's television cartoons, although over the years they have become more subtle and harder to define. The completely useless Daphne is replaced by the nagging Linka, and males continue to rule the television world.

 

Notes

1. This information came from a study discussed in the Thompson and Zebrinos article entitled "Television cartoons: do children notice its a boy's world"

2. These statistics were reported from the 1991 New York Times article "Children's TV, Where Boys are King"

3. See References for a complete list of copyrights of each episode analyzed. Content types were created by the study done by Streicher, and based upon objective criteria set up by her and her coders.

4. The episode referred to is "Dirty Politics"(1995) from the cartoon The New Adventures of Captain Planet

5. This quote came from Daphne(Scooby Doo: Where are You) in the episode entitled "Scooby Doo, and a Mummy Too"(1969).

6. This expression was borrowed from the title of the Thompson and Zebrinos study(1997) entitled "Television cartoons: Do children notice it's a boy's world."

7. The episode referred to is entitled "Whoo Gives a Hoot"(1995).

8. The episode referred to is entitled "Go Away Ghost Ship"(1969).

9. Examples of these behaviors can be found in: Scooby Doo: Where Are You episode "Scooby Doo, and a Mummy Too"(1969) and The Jetsons episode "Too Many Georges"(1987)

10. The episode referred to is from Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, and is entitled "The Bangalore Falcon"(1996). The characters are Jessie, Hadji's mother and Jessie's father Race.

11. The episode referred to is from Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, and is entitled "The Secret of the Moai"(1996).

 

References

Carter, Bill(1991). Children's TV, Where Boys Are King. The New York Times Section

A, p.1.

 

The Jetsons (1987). Wedding Bells For Rosey. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc: TBS.

 

The Jetsons (1987). Too Many Georges. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc: TBS.

 

The Jetsons (1987). Crime Games. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc: TBS.

 

The Jetsons (1987). Astronomical IQ. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc: TBS.

 

The Jetsons (1987). 9 to 5 to 9. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc: TBS.

 

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures (1996). The Secret of the Moai. Hanna-

Barbera Cartoons, Inc: Cartoon Network.

 

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures (1996). Expedition to Khumbu. Hanna-Barbera

Cartoons Inc: Cartoon Network..

 

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures (1996). Digital Doublecross. Hanna-Barbera

Cartoons Inc: Cartoon Network..

 

Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures (1996). Besieged in Paradise. Hanna-Barbera

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Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures. The Bangalore Falcon. Hanna-Barbera

Cartoons Inc: Cartoon Network..

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1990). 101 Mutations. Warner Bros:

Warner Bros. Network..

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1995). Whoo Gives a Hoot. Warner Bros:

Warner Bros. Network..

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1993). A Good Bomb is Hard to Find.

Warner Bros: Warner Bros. Network.

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1995). Dirty Politics. Warner Bros:

Warner Bros. Network.

 

The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1993). Sea No Evil. Warner Bros: Warner

Bros. Network.

 

Scooby Doo: Where Are You (1969). Scooby Doo, and a Mummy Too. Hanna-

Barbera: TBS.

 

Scooby Doo: Where Are You (1969). Go Away Ghost Ship. Hanna-Barbera: TBS.

 

Scooby Doo: Where Are You (1969). A Night of Fright is No Delight. Hanna-

Barbera: TBS.

 

Scooby Doo: Where Are You (1970). Nowhere To Hyde. Hanna-Barbera: TBS.

 

Scooby Doo: Where Are You (1970). Scooby's Night With a Frozen Fright.

`Hanna-Barbera: TBS.

Streicher, Helen W. (1974) The Girls in the Cartoons. Journal of Communication. 24:

125 - 129.

Thompson, Teresa L. and Zebrinos, Eugenia. (1995). Gender Roles in Animated

Cartoons: Has the Picture Changed In 20 Years? Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 32: 651 - 674.

Thompson, Teresa L. and Zebrinos, Eugenia. (1997). Television Cartoons: Do Children

Notice It's a Boy's World. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 37: 415 - 428.

Witt, Susan D. (1997) Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles.

 

Adolescence 37: 253(7).