Are we teaching sexism to preschoolers?
In 2004, the ABC was blasted for airing an episode of Play School which showed a lesbian couple and their child. Tony Abbott, the then-Federal Health Minister, said that he would have been ‘a bit shocked’ if he had been watching the show, while the then-shadow family and community services spokesperson Wayne Swan in a fit of bipartisan support labelled two women caring for and raising a child ‘inappropriate’.
Of course, that was then. Now the ABC has banished those pesky lesbians with children and reinstated traditional family and gender roles to boot.
Watch ABC 4 Kids — as I do regularly with my three year old — and you’ll discover a worm hole into the 1950s suburban nightmare of June Cleaver’s living room.
On ABC 4 Kids, girls dance and dress up and need constant lessons on how to be nice and accommodating to others. Boys, meanwhile, are off having adventures.
Take for example, Mike the Knight. Mike’s dad is away doing knightly things while his mother is stuck at home in the castle arranging parties and doing laundry. Mike spends his days with his two male dragon buddies being heroic, courageous and playful while his sister Evie devotes her time to making herself scarce.
When she does show some ability to act as a complete human being, it’s to ask Mike for help, or else act as his moral guide.
In one episode I watched, Evie's frog (yes, while Mike hangs around with dragons, Evie makes do with a frog) needed rescuing from a well by Mike and the dragons. While Mike’s efforts to rescue said frog were mostly spectacular failures, the larger lesson to young viewers is that women fumble the most basic practical tasks and need a male to step in to save the day.
Moral lessons are also provided to a boy from his people-pleasing sister inBuzzbee — a show that revolves around a male bee called, you guessed it, Buzzbee. Even in the world of insects, 20th century gender roles reign supreme. Buzzbee’s dad schlepps off to work each day while his mum hasn’t worked out how to get out of the kitchen unless she’s popping out for some groceries.
I’m not suggesting women shouldn’t perform, or derive pleasure from domestic duties. But showing women doing nothing but, and men doing none at all, sends a worrying message to our daughters and our sons.
Even some of the shows that do feature female protagonists have me reaching for the volume control so I can teach my pre-schooler some feminist theory.
Angelina Ballerina, for example, which features a mouse in a tutu, is the worst example of the good-girl syndrome. When she’s not trying to perfect some dance step, she’s riddled with anxiety over whether she’s caused a fellow student some offence. The girl is a neurotic over-achieving furball of perfectionism dressed in pink satin.
Admittedly Little Princess and Charlie and Lola present an alternative to rodent-shaped doormats who like to dance, but unfortunately they’re annoying little brats who screech and manipulate those around them.
Of the programs currently available on the ABC 4 Kids web site, 25 out of 39 shows have a male character in the lead. Only 7 shows have female protagonists. The remainder of the shows has a mix of male and female characters.
Play School and Sesame Street, for example, have both male and female presenters and toys engaging in non-traditional gender roles and, aside from lesbians, celebrate diversity. And some episodes in a few other shows such as Peppa Pig and Olivia make some attempt to break away from the stereotypes. But they’re the exception that proves the rule.
Even ABC-produced content portrays gender roles in a way that makes Mad Men look progressive. For example, Jimmy Giggle and Hoot the Owl, the ABC 4 Kids presenters throughout the day, are both male. In 2012, this was rectified to a degree with the inclusion of a female owl character Hootabelle.
But Hootabelle’s appearances are intermittent and many of the gags revolve around Hoot talking over her or Hoot goofing off while Hootabelle is being compliant and conscientious.
Nevertheless, the decision makers at ABC 4 Kids are faithfully following the national broadcaster’s editorial policy for children’s programing. As the policy makes clear, ‘In providing enjoyable, enriching and culturally relevant content for children, the ABC does not wish to conceal the real world from them.'
As a mother who hopes for a more equal world for her daughter, perhaps concealing the real world of entrenched gender stereotypes would make for a nice change.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com