G E N D E R – M E D I A
A huge chunk of my early 2000s childhood was spent amidst the bizarre stunts pulled off by animated superheroes trying to defeat supervillains, the adventures of Scooby-Doo, The Powerpuff Girls, and Ben 10, along with the silly shenanigans of Spongebob Squarepants, and many more. However, rambling on about cartoon character names isn’t why I’m writing this. Frankly, I’m just disheartened that the majority of the readers probably haven’t even noticed yet that most of the shows that have been mentioned are named after their male protagonists.
Don’t scoff, but the very moment I talked of superheroes, you automatically imagined a muscular man wearing ridiculous underpants and a red cape, didn’t you? Well, considering that we grew up with revoltingly stereotypical representation of binary genders and next to no depiction of non-binary characters injected into almost every kids’ show, you’re not one to blame. If that’s what the situation is like in socio-economically developed countries—as all the aforementioned shows are a part of western media, have we even begun to think about the colossal magnitude this issue is of in the context of children’s content produced by the local media in Bangladesh?
In our quotidian lives, televised media content plays a major role in the formation of opinions and mass mentality about fundamental concepts among which introduction to and representation of genders is significantly remarkable. Especially when it comes to children who naturally learn, adapt to, and mentally cement whatever they visualise in terms of behaviour or actions based on social constructs, norms, or values, media content that is specifically targeted towards them largely influences their perspectives of such matters and contributes to the shaping of the adults they become.
According to the Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications,
“At the age of four, kids first develop the ability to distinguish between genders (Halim, Ruble, & Tamis‐LeMonda, 2013) and by the time kids turn seven, the concepts of sex role identity and sex-appropriate behaviours have already been learnt (Powell & Abels, 2002). Given that on an average, a child spends nearly five hours viewing television on a daily basis (India Infoline News Service, 2010); a lot of this learning about gender can be traced back to a child’s early and regular exposition to gendered content on television (Downs & Harrison, 1985).”
In simpler words, by the age of 7, most children have already taken to the perniciously stereotypical gender roles they’re spoonfed in the name of child-friendly content, in both starkly prominent and shockingly subtle ways that, more often than not, cement gender-related social norms into them for good.
Now, regarding the scene in Bangladesh, there are very few original local kids’ cartoons or shows out there to begin with. Most of the content popular with Bangladeshi children nowadays in general is either the original or dubbed versions of Indian animated shows and a handful of Japanese cartoons dubbed in Hindi or sometimes Bangla.
Therefore, in order to discuss the subject in concern, we mostly need to dissect content that didn’t even originate in our own country, which is both comical and disappointing at the same time, and certainly hard to swallow.
However, let’s begin with the one quality children’s content consumed by Bangladeshi kids that has the most amazingly remarkable female protagonist – Meena. Created by UNICEF in the early 1990s, Meena stars a fictional character of the same name who, as an astoundingly progressive minded girl child of 9, educates South-Asian children on issues like gender discrimination, social inequality, health, and sanitisation.
According to UNICEF Bangladesh,
“Meena is used as a tool to impart important messages on gender, child rights, education, protection, and development. The Meena stories present many positive images of a girl succeeding against the odds to gain equal treatment, love, care, and respect.”
For years, Meena has been an advocate for change-making in regards to the social and cultural stigmas prevalent across South-Asian countries, and particularly Bangladesh. Be it combatting the obnoxious notion of holding back young girls from going to school, banishing child marriage, or demolishing the discrimination that’s still practised in many households between children on the basis on their gender — Meena has been an unforgettable figure as one of the very few strong, female role models for children in the subcontinent.
Unfortunately, that is more or less the end of the list of local media content consumed by children that has well-executed gender representation of females. Nevertheless, surprising as it might sound, anyone would fail to name even one remarkable character from the other shows in question that isn’t a male or a female character that’s not sexualised to some degree despite literally being a child; take Doraemon for example. Surprised? Don’t be.
Who hasn’t heard of the robotic cat from the future and his shenanigans with the weird bespectacled guy? Around the end of 2010, when the Hindi-dubbed version of Doraemon aired on Disney Channel India and boomed in popularity all over Bangladesh, parents were too busy worrying about the fact that watching the show was affecting the linguistic development of children to notice how the only relevant female character, Shizuka Minamoto, who was a 10-year-old girl, was grossly sexualised.
Ever thought about how abnormal it was for Nobita, an 11-year-old boy, to frequently ask Doraemon for gadgets that’d allow him to secretly watch Shizuka taking a shower? There have even been hundreds of scenes where he got caught red handed, but wouldn’t stop gaping at her anyway despite Shizuka’s shouts; not to mention how in almost every episode, the viewers got a glance at her wardrobe malfunctions. Yes, that’s how a pre-teen female role was portrayed in a children’s TV show—harassed by a guy as old as herself who later went on to become a romantic interest.
Popular kids’ cartoons and shows in this country are the ones that either completely lack main characters of any gender except for males, and have an extremely disturbing tendency of always putting a male character in a saviour role, while depicting female characters as frail and childish beings tending to the position of the classic damsels in distress. The guys are always the pivotal points of a storyline whereas the women characters are worth nothing but ornamental value, only there to giggle, squeal, and thank them when they save the day. Shocking, really; how children unconsciously either witness stereotypical gendered roles among the very on-screen characters they love so much which later drive them to detest coherently feminine traits, and appreciate the so-called macho picture of masculine traits. According to a Researchgate article by Ruchi Jaggi,
“Lemish (2010) states that the ‘boys’ like ‘adult men’ on media are always shown to possess the characteristics such as action, rationality, forcefulness, aggressiveness, independence, ambitiousness, competitiveness, achievement, higher social status and humour. Similarly ‘girls’ like ‘adult women’ are characterised as passive, emotional, caregiving, childish, sexy, subordinate to males and of lower social status. These portrayals are restrictive impressions of gender roles and underestimate the potential of children in general.”
Oh, and how can we ever overshadow the starkly visible gendered roles distributed among cartoon characters in a domestic, homely environment? Mostly prevalent in the kids’ media materials of South-Asian countries like Bangladesh; in a homely environment, it’s almost always the mother who does the chores, essentially holding the role of a homemaker; whereas the father is never shown to be participating in doing household chores and works in an office.
Has anyone noticed that I haven’t been able to include even a single reference about the representation of people belonging to the non-binary gender spectrum in the context of local children’s media content? Well, that’s because there aren’t any, none at all. Growing up, the majority of children in Bangladesh almost never get access to a medium of knowing that there’s an entire community of people that do not belong to the binary gender spectrum. Intersex or transgender kids in this country never get to see their very identity as a person in a normalised way. Far-fetched as it might sound(though it shouldn’t), this issue plays a significant part in shaping the very adults who either learn to disparage, hate, and treat the transgender and intersex community as an ostracised being, or go through this lifelong trauma as a non- binary person themselves.
It’s a known fact that children’s mentalities and perceptions of the things and concepts around them are moulded by what they visualise and mainly what they’re taught, regardless of whether the teacher is a person, or a few animated characters running around all over a television screen. If almost all the local media contents targeted towards them consist only of superheroes that are always male, physically or emotionally frail characters that are only women, shamelessly hypersexualised characters that portray girls who are barely even teenagers, or absolutely no roles that depict human beings outside the binary gender spectrum—it’s high time we rethought and revise the revoltingly stereotypical gender roles our children are being exposed to.
- Kids’ TV Programming in India: A Comparison of Gender Representation in Imports versus Locally Produced Programmes
- Meena and UNICEF
- Deconstructing Gender in Cartoon Programming on Children’s Television Channels in India–A Textual Analysis
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.