The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Role Models, Representation and Gender Skew – Event Report

By Olivia Dickinson (Event Producer for CMF)

CMF Event Gender 27.11.13

At the second CMF evening event, a panel of five came together to try to unpick the effects of gender-skewed media, marketing and products on children. I was inspired to produce the event when I had seen one too many style guides and been in one too many meetings as a children’s producer that consistently separated girls and boys, from the age of 2: Tilly and Friends’ toys and apparel is for girls; Tree Fu Tom is marketed primarily for boys; how can we make this app work for boys aged 4-6; let’s offer customisation of log-in screens for children and use pink hearts and green monsters. Etc. Can a programme, book or toy be for a child, and not for a girl or a boy?  And what are the longer-term repercussions for society? Do children’s media producers and publishers need to be more socially responsible?

Do gender-stereotyped media and products stifle boys’ and girls’ expectations, limit their skills and aspirations and ultimately affect their career choices? Campaign group Let Toys Be Toys probably think so, Professor Carrie Paechter isn’t sure, as most relevant evidence-based research is about children’s responses to stereotypes in picture books, while Beth Cox’s mantra is to create for children, not to create difference by creating for boys and girls.

Julia Posen and Kay Benbow And does it really matter? asked Chair Paul Shuttleworth. Or are we missing opportunities to reach a wider audience by always creating 'boy-skewed' or 'girl-skewed' programmes, books and toys? Kay Benbow, CBeebies Controller, and Julia Posen, Commercial Director at Walker Books Group, explained how commissioning, licensing and funding works in the children’s media industry, and gave different examples of how brands and properties change as they evolve from the original book or television programme to toys and clothes on shelves – and who has control over the brand and the revenue streams.

Introductory remarks and Professor Carrie Peachter's presentation on video...

While there wasn’t necessarily consensus on the panel about how to achieve less gender-skewed media, there was definitely a consensus that change is needed in some way. The discussion could be reprised many times over, with this panel and many others. Indeed, with a panel of all women (Michael Carrington having to bow out) and an audience of predominantly women, it would be good to reprise with a few more men. It is troubling that men seem less bothered about how girls and boys are being represented in children’s media.

Some of the big questions weren’t answered, particularly what the sales figures are like when trying to serve the whole audience with gender-neutral media. The top takeaways for producers are listed near the end of this article. Here is the detail of the discussion.

Prof Carrie Peachter

Children are not passive, reminded Professor Carrie Paechter. They encounter different media at home and through their peer group. If media reinforces stereotypes, then those stereotypes will be multiplied in the peer group. From nine months, babies associate objects with the gender of the household (ie mum drinks coffee, dad drinks tea, so coffee is for women and tea for men). At 3 they need to demonstrate they are a boy or a girl, as they pin down their own identity. Girls particularly can go through the ‘pink frilly dress syndrome’: if I wear my pink dress I’m still a girl, even when climbing trees or playing football. By the age of 7, children are less interested in stereotypes and difference.

What about stereotypical images in media – do they halve or double the audience? From the picture book research, stereotyped images will turn off half the audience, for example if a TV show or book is particularly ‘girly’, boys won’t like it. Older children (from age 7) reject stereotypes as babyish, while some children will just ignore them if they’re not relevant to them. Counter-stereotype images don’t turn children off – that’s one way to engage the whole audience. If a child wants to subvert stereotypes they will spot those counter-images and identify with them, and so it’s worthwhile to intervene and offer those alternatives. . As Anna McQuinn from Alanna Children’s Books then pointed out later, also don’t fret about including those ‘counter-stereotypes’ – often they are images of normal life, like dad cooking and mum driving the car.

Let Toys Be Toys has been campaigning for the past year to get all toy retailers (from large supermarkets and toyshops to independents) to sort toys by theme and function, not gender. Alex Lewis Paul stressed she hopes the current default of girls’ and boys’ aisles and shelves is inadvertent and short-sighted, not intentional. Their campaign isn’t just about signage: often the carpeting in the shop, the toys on the adjacent shelves and the colours of the shelves all give children a message that some toys aren’t for them. Toys are for fun, imagination, creativity: a doll as a blank canvas has much more potential for children to use their imagination and creativity than a branded doll that is put in a particular setting.

Kay Benbow. CBeebies. BBC, May 2010

Kay Benbow admits she inherited a lot of male leads (Mr Tumble, Mister Maker, MrBloom…) when she became Controller of CBeebies in 2010. She actively asks for female leads – anecdotally, she has had a lot of pitches with male leads or male voice overs. The received wisdom that boys wouldn’t watch lead girls has been exploded by CBeebies’ research into three ‘girly’ shows – Fifi and the Flowertots, Dora the Explorer and Everything’s Rosie. The audience was split 50/50 between girls and boys. Kay’s mantra as Controller has been to keep asking questions and demanding more, hence the recent drama commissions and more female leads. As Controller, she has little or no influence once the consumer products (toys, clothes, accessories) get developed, and pointed out that a programme can take two to three years to develop, hence why programmes like Topsy and Tim and Katie Morag are only now on the channel.  As Julia Posen reiterated, the TV industry needs licensing and merchandising to fund programmes – frequently a TV programme won’t get made unless it has licensors and international funding in place.

Julia Posen described what licensors and publishers have control over and what they can’t control. She stressed that creativity is always at the heart of what Walker Books do and when making acquisitions, they look at quality, content and age-appropriateness; they are not driven by gender.

In the publishing world, there are lots of gender-neutral examples: Tilly and Friends, Maisy, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Guess How Much I Love You for young children. Where’s Wally, Hank Zipzer , Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Alex Ryder appeal to girls and boys ages 6-12; the ‘gender-neutral sweet spot’ is for children aged 8 and up, with books by David Walliams, Michael Morpurgo or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Julia made the point that bookshops are ‘racked’ by age, not be gender, unlike toyshops.

Once a book or TV programme is licensed for consumer products and more, the brand owner creates a style guide, working with the licensee. Every style guide includes a gender neutral direction. 80% of licensing revenue comes from toys, DVDs, apparel and gifts, most of which are bought by parents or as gifts for children. Think about who is buying, watching or reading: child (self-purchasing books over the age of 6 or 7) child and parent, gift-buyers (particularly for pre-schoolers and new babies). All of those influence how products and media are positioned. It is often at this point there is more of a gender divide: boys and girls clothes are racked separately. Retailers sometimes ask for gender-specific looks – for example making Guess How Much I Love You baby clothes in blue and pink, not just cream. While Maisy and Tilly and Friends are not girls-only brands in publishing or TV, the creative direction skews towards girls, sometimes subtly using spots on the branding, or having tiny girl-orientated design elements (hearts).

Julia summed up by saying they do try to challenge expectations and while it’s about giving children and adults a choice, authors and illustrators do need to make money to survive.

Beth Cox, co-founder of Inclusive Minds, is keen to say ‘no!’ to ‘choice’ being about pink or blue. She’s concerned about how reading should be a way to expand all children’s interests, not to pigeonhole them or give them anxieties about their body image. She cited particularly the plethora of books about cupcakes and baking versus books that promote make up and pampering to girls from as young as 4. What message are we giving to girls?

Books can challenge presumptions and expectations, but if only one or two manage it, they are but a drop in the ocean. Like Professor Carrie Paechter, she advocated not flagging up the differences, just making counter-stereotypes part of the content. For example, why a ‘female firefighter’, why not just a firefighter? Like Let Toys Be Toys, she advocated showing girls able to do lots of things, and showing boys in caring roles. Think too about the default to male protagonist, particularly in children’s books about animals – how often are the animals ‘she’ and not ‘he? Referring back to Kay Benbow’s commissioned research into the myth about boys not wanting to watch or read about girls, she asked what message that supposedly gives boys. Are girls not worth reading about? Can boys not empathise with girls? What false impressions is this giving to girls and boys?  Beth ended with a plea to create for children: every time we create for boys and girls we create difference.

Top takeaways:

Boys do watch girls and boys, and will watch (and read about) girl leads. The CBeebies commissioned research showed this. Be bold, include boys and girls equally,

There’s often an emphasis on showing girls in empowered and non-stereotyped roles. What about the boys? Try some caring boys.

Use counter-stereotypes to intervene and challenge peer group assumptions. As Carrie Paechter explained: counter-stereotype images don’t turn children off – that’s one way to engage the whole audience.

Keep asking questions and demanding more, including more female leads, is Kay Benbow’s mantra as Controller, hence the recent drama commissions like Katie Morag and Topsy and Tim.

Remember how the industry is funded: TV producers need the revenue streams from licensing and merchandising to get programmes made. Publishing and TV can create books and programmes for children, often targeting both equally through the content and marketing. Once licensing is on board, the style guide is influenced by how clothes, toys and more are ‘racked’ in shops. Books are racked by age, clothes by gender, toys often by gender (unless Let Toys Be Toys have been in!).  80% of revenue is from the ‘consumer products’ that aren’t the book or TV programme. Julia Posen mourned the demise of Woolworths, who always grouped all products by brand, and never by gender.

Think about who is buying, watching or reading: child (self-purchasing books over the age of 6 or 7) child and parent, gift-buyers (particularly for pre-schoolers and new babies). All of those influence how products and media are positioned. Remember the ‘gender-neutral sweet spot’ for children aged 8 and up.

Toys are for fun, imagination, creativity: a doll as a blank canvas has much more potential for children to use their imagination and creativity than a branded doll that is put in a particular setting. Let Toys Be Toys’ campaign isn’t just about ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signage: often the carpeting in the shop, the toys on the adjacent shelves and the colours of the shelves all give children a message that some toys aren’t for them.

‘Every time we create for boys and girls we create difference. Create for children.’ (Beth Cox).

Audience contributions included:

‘TV and publishing are creative industries, there’s nothing creative about limiting children. I’d like the “pink phase” to become just a colour, pink is now associated with looks and passivity and sitting still. You can no longer dismiss that as just a phase.’ Fen Coles, Letterbox Library

‘It is certainly important to consider that going down a totally gendered route can close down choices for our children when ultimately we should be encouraging them to play in lots of different ways. There was a lot of emphasis on the P word...pink! ... and how girls shouldn't be forced to wear/ buy into products solely made up of this colour. This is a fair point but as a kids' and youth researcher I have to say pink is a BIG trend, but with boys as well as girls, oh and not just any pink, it has to be neon!’ Joanna Hunt, Sherbert Research

Audience 27.11.13‘A thoughtful examination of the increasing 'pinkification' of girls' toys at retail, and what to do about it. I was particularly impressed by the campaign Let Toys Be Toys which, although only a year old, has already persuaded a number of retailers to re-think the boys' aisles/ girls' aisles in shops.’  Rachel Murrell, children’s writer

"Most heartening of all was what seemed to be a shared understanding amongst the panel speakers that the tide IS turning. There was a consensus, we think, that gendered marketing is limiting children's choices. And, an agreement that there are far too many assumptions that profitability is somehow dependent on gender-segregated programming, merchandising and marketing".    Fen & Kerry, Letterbox Library

Panel Biographies:

Alex Lewis Paul Let Toys Be Toys - for Girls and Boys is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. The campaign group have had some notable successes this year, including Toys r Us, Debenhams, Boots and The Entertainer. Alex is one of the founding members of Let Toys Be Toys, which has just celebrated its first year of campaigning for a more inclusive and progressive toy industry. She also holds down a job as a civil servant in HR change management and has two children.

Kay Benbow was appointed Controller of CBeebies in May 2010 and is responsible for commissioning content for the under-six demographic across all platforms - TV, online and radio. Kay has more than 20 years of experience in children’s programming, primarily at the BBC, but also in the independent sector.

Carrie Paechter is Professor of Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of 'Being Boys, Being Girls: learning masculinities and femininities'. Her research interests include gender, power and knowledge, how children construct and understand their identities, and online research methodologies. She is particularly interested in young people's embodied identities and how they are perceived by the public and the media.

Beth Cox is co-founder of Inclusive Minds, a collective committed to diversity, inclusion, equality and accessibility in children's books.

Julia Posen is EVP and Commercial Director, Group Rights and Development for Walker Books. She is responsible for the global merchandising revenues and marketing strategy for the Rights and Development division at Walker Books, working on publishing brands including Guess How Much I Love You, Maisy and Tilly and Friends.