Sexism appears like a natural norm that dominates all our cultures. From a very very early age, it seems to be fed into our system so that the process of unlearning, later on becomes all the more difficult. Seriously, what is it about most shows to compulsively conform to the male female binary, the masculine feminine stereotype?
I myself have been one of the biggest fans of Cartoon Network and now, looking back, am almost horrified to realise how very sexist most of their shows were. I am speaking of characters like Johnny Bravo or the depiction of Olive Oil in Popeye, for instance. Johnny Bravo is your typical muscular man, failing miserably to impress the ladies, and a self-proclaimed mama’s boy. He is narcissistic and often reminds one of the “beauty without brains” blond girl stereotype.
Then there is Popeye and his girlfriend Olive Oyl and the stout villain Bluto. Olive is often kidnapped by Bluto and Popeye has to save her. Spinach gives him muscles, which is essential for him to display his masculinity and rescue his woman from Bluto. Olive seems to be always in trouble, and she is portrayed as the meek lean woman who can never protect herself. There was one episode, I remember in particular where she was a policewoman, ticking off Popeye off for breaking the law. However, the outcome of the episode was inevitable- she was again overpowered by Bluto, and Popeye had to save her. The whole point of the show was this.
The paucity of girl characters in most of the cartoons is almost shocking. The main actions are always given to the males, while the females stay either in the background, or are mere catalysts to the main actions. Dexter is the boy genius with an entire hidden laboratory on his house while his sister, Didi is a prankster and essentially dumb- “what does this button do?” Almost all the Looney Tunes characters are males, a fact that is revealed when occasionally a female counterpart is brought on screen. Granny, that is Tweety’s owner is a rare female face, but then again, she does not participate in the chief action. Muriel in Courage the Cowardly Dog plays more or less the same role- the benevolent mother figure who remains indifferent to and ignorant of much of the action, and occasionally when attacked, she is saved by Courage.
Finally we had the Powerpuff Girls. At first glance it seems a perfect story about girl power, doesn’t it? But the very names of the girls is odd. Blossoms, Bubbles and Buttercup. They all revert to the stereotype of the girl as a soft, flowery, dainty creature. Secondly the girls are made from “everything nice”. Thirdly, why couldn’t it be powerpuff girls and boys, with a balanced gender equation?
Even Tom and Jerry, which happened to be my favourite show by the way, uses certain stereotypes that one tends to miss at first glance. The female cats in the show are all sexualized- they exist to fuel a conflict between Tom and other cats, or Tom and Jerry. The only other female character in the show is the housekeeper- the black buxom woman whose head is never shown. She is the de-sexed Mammy of the house, who judging by her apron is responsible only to keep the house clean. Her domesticity is never called into question.
Okay, now I am going to talk about the Disney princesses- the world of Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel fostering the dream of the Prince Charming and continuing the model of the damsel in distress. The young, lovely heroines are meek, good, obedient, submissive, and naturally weaker and inferior to their heroes. Women typically have two roles- the helpless princess and the evil witch. I remember the illustrations in my fairy tale book specifically used colour to denote the good and evil binary. So the princess was always white and the witch black- which brings racism into the picture as well. Beauty happens to be their sole weapons, something that reflects the Victorian Age sentiments about women and marriage. Cinderella needs a fairy godmother to get rid of her rags and become gracious so s to be noticed by her prince. Ariel, the feisty little rebel, compromises her voice to get legs in order to be with her man. Snow White is blatantly about the story of two women fighting to be the “fairest of them all”. Then there is Mulan, the Chinese girl. She fights, saves the man she loves, kills the Huns, and gets to shoot cannons. Of course, her story is set back in sexist Imperial China, where, as a woman, she is expected to serve her husband. The only way Mulan gets ahead in life and makes friends is by disguising herself as a man. When the truth finally comes out, Mulan’s friends shun her. This fairy tale clearly supports the idea that being born female is a bad thing.
Children’s culture is a problematic area, if one sits to analyse it for its gender bias. I am not saying all of it is sexist. However, some of them did carry a very demeaning image of women and I believe it is extremely detrimental for the general opinion of gender in our society in the long run.