Sientific Project

Maya Götz

Gender portrayal on children's television deep-rooted change or stagnation?

Television is a normal part of girls' and boys' everyday life. Depending on the specific social context, biography and individual theme, the young people adopt the media and integrate them into their daily life. In doing so television becomes the material from which individuals remove certain parts and include them in their everyday life as boys or girls. Even though the adoption is highly individual, all in all the programme does have a power of definition which takes effect especially in the societal construction of the category of gender. By the repetitive presentation of figures which are identified as men or women by their appearance and integration into the programme, ideas of masculinity or femininity arise and establish themselves. This does not mean that people are helpless when faced with these constructions. They can consciously dissociate themselves from them, although initially the standards of "typical femininity" and "typical masculinity" are established.

The relevance of this problem, especially for children's television, is obvious, even if the surprised question of a responsible female producer "What, that's still an issue?" is certainly not an isolated case. It is particularly in the matter of gender stereotypes that television seems to be in a clear state of deep-rooted change, and the findings of the relevant study (Weiderer, 1993, 1994), which showed that women and girls are clearly underrepresented and portrayed as stereotypes, now appear to be dated. The latest quantitative study "Who speaks in television?", carried out by six European stations on their own productions and prime time programme, does sum up the under-representation of woman that still exists. Only in the children's programme and in religious transmissions are there some indications of a quantitative adjustment (Dijck, 1999).

So are changes taking place in children's television, too?

In an annual random sample1 438 programme hours of nine television channels2 on three days (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday) from 6.00am to 11.00pm in 1988 were recorded and, incorporating the GfK's use data, were quantitatively and qualitatively analysed. It is the aim of "The Stocktaking of Children's Television" to enable this data corpus to be used to make statements on such areas as the children's preferences, learning-oriented programmes , current discussion (eg chat shows), individual use patterns or the presentation of gender stereotypes.3

Gender-specific tendencies in the children's programme

Of the 1,396 recorded transmissions in the 1998 random sample 474 are in children's areas labelled as such (tivi, K-RTL, Trick7, Kinderkanal etc). Here the gender proportions in the main roles aredepicted relatively clearly:

Total of transmissions: 474

303 male protagonists 44 female protagonists 127 mixed
Fiction: 345
220 male protagonists 36 female protagonists 89 mixed
Non-Fiction: 129
83 male protagonists 8 female protagonists 38 mixed

In the fiction area 63.9% of the central figures are male. In 25.8% the main role is shared with a female figure and in only 10.4% are girls or women the central figures. In the non-fiction-area the presenters are mainly male, namely 64.3%. 29.5% of these share this task with an actress, and in only 6.2% of the broadcasts do women alone guide viewers through the programme.

The positive tendency towards an equal number of female and male figures in the children's programme, which seems to be on the way in the ZDF's own productions, cannot be confirmed for the overall programme. Heroines and independent female presenters who perform without male accompaniment are clearly underrepresented.

Men are the heroes of the children's programme

This is already clearly indicated in the titles of the series: small or larger men are at the centre of the plot. They overcome everyday problems, face dangers and have adventures.

Table: Examples from Stocktaking in 1998:

Michel aus Lönneberga (ZDF) with his tricks keeps the whole village on the go.

Grisu, der kleine Drache (Pro 7) has many exceptional gifts, and Sir Cedrik and the father dragon constantly try to help him understand all kinds of jobs. But there's only one thing Grisu wants: to become a fireman.

David der Klabauter (Super RTL) is a wise judge whose opinion is sought all over the world. With his friend he travels to all kinds of places on the globe and settles disputes.

Pinocchio (ARD) experiences with his father, the woodcarver, adventures in the world from which he learns valuable lessons with a moral.

James Bond Jr (SAT.1) is the nephew of the famous spy and solves at least as many tricky cases as his uncle and regularly saves the world.

Alvin and the Chipmunks (RTL 2) are three brothers who together have to solve the high school pupils' problems.

Figures in the children's programme are, of course, male

In the minor roles and the extras further qualities of male dominance become clear, as figures that do not explicitly belong to a gender have male first names. Such is the case, for example, with the Mainzelmännchen (ZDF): non-sexualised creatures are naturally male:

Some "classic" examples:

Bugs Bunny (Pro 7) is a magazine made up of short animated episodes. The three little pigs, the wolf, the watchdog or the cockerel, they are all male, of course.

Dagobert Duck, with the help of his clever nephews, manages to master a host of Ducktales (Super RTL) and outwit MacMoneysack, Claasen Clever and the safe-breakers.

Winnie the Pooh (Super RTL) and his friends Tiger, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga Roo and Christopher experience adventures narrated with emotion; naturally, the adventures of little boys in a world in which there seem to be only male figures.

In many children's programmes with predominantly male main and minor figures female characters also appear, for example in the Smurfs (Pro 7). Although the Smurf is actually male, there are two exceptions: Smurfette, the beautiful blond, and Sassette, the saucy girl with the red-brown pigtails. So women here are not symbolised as the 51% of the population that they actually are, but as the rare deviation from the norm which is naturally male.4

Femininity as a characteristic

But in the case of the Smurfs there is even more to learn about gender portrayal. For the basic principle of the Smurf is that his typical feature or role is reflected in his name: Grouchy Smurf, Lazy Smurf, Stupid Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Papa Smurf (the leader) and then Smurfette and Sassette. The particular characteristic of the last two is to be feminine, the former as an erotically attractive woman, and the latter as a smart girl with red hair. Here masculinity and femininity are no longer contrasted, since femininity is only another feature to be found in a few appropriate stereotypes.

As far as content is concerned, the female figures often take over roles that are "not male": the helpless victim, the coveted woman, the caring mother or the understanding grandmother. In this sense they serve to provide "non-male" attributes such as caring, silliness, moodiness, fright, touchiness or importunity. Male figures tend to be individuals, while female figures tend to display "non-male characteristics".

Outwardly the deviations from the "male norm" are fitted out with such special attributes as bows and skirts. This characteristic often slips into sexism. Thus the female snowman (among twelve male ones) is given two snowballs on the chest5. A corresponding parallel, for example knots between the legs, is not to be found.

Female figures do the reproduction management of the contents

The contents of most stories cannot do without female figures completely, as the male heroes have to save or protect someone and need a framework in which they can experience their adventures. In this way the female figures enable the hero to prove himself, to learn or to free himself. They thus carry out the necessary reproduction management for the contents in order to make the plot sensible and credible. Their position is defined mainly by their importance for the male heroes.


Das tapfere Schneiderlein (Kinderkanal) saves the princess and falls in love with her. The father, however, is opposed to a marriage and sets him problems which are quite impossible to solve.

In the series Tao Tao (ZDF, Kinderkanal) Tao and his friends encounter everyday social problems. The understanding mother always has a suitable story on-hand with male protagonists.

Girls are also involved girl figures in mixed-gender groups

A group that cannot be overlooked is made up of children's programmes with male and female protagonists. The spectrum of variation that is conceded to the female figures here is in some cases far greater. The girls are not just used as a characteristic feature or for work to reproduce the contents but as individuals acting independently. It is, however, noticeable that the girls are in the minority in all the mixed-gender groups.


In the series Abenteuer in der Karibik (Kinderkanal) five friends solve exciting crime cases, the two girls in the group often having the decisive ideas.

The Power Rangers (RTL) are also five young people who were chosen to protect the earth from evil. The female Power Rangers are pink and yellow and are distinguished in the frame stories by their reserve. When, however, it is a matter of fighting extraterrestrial monsters, they can compete with the male members of the group and even help them in critical situations (but it is usually the other way round).

In the brightly coloured puppet play Was ist denn heute bei Wimzie los? (SuperRTL) the girl Wimzie, her friends and her family develop ways of solving everyday problems that reveal educational commitment.

In a number of children's series a boy and a girl are at the centre of the action. In the typical features and in the hierarchies within the relationship of the two children, new variants and facets of the image of the girl seem to be emerging in the children's programme.


Orson and Olivia (Nickelodeon) are two children in historical London who earn their money by catching rats. Together with their dog they experience adventures and prove that it is possible to be happy even without money.

In the mystical adventure series Kinder der Mondgöttin (RTL 2) based on ancient Chinese sagas the "twins of fate" are taken abroad to protect them from plotting and scheming forces.

In Immer im Einsatz mit den Unsichtbaren (Nickelodeon) Julie and Tom, brother and sister, run an underground radio station in Paris. They are confronted by crime cases and try to uncover mysterious events. Their father and his assistant are inventors. The two youngsters are good at handling the computer, internet and many other modern aids, which they use to solve the cases.

Ocean Girl, Shirley Holmes and Sailor Moon new girl figures in the children's programme

Even though they are greatly outnumbered, it is hard to imagine the programme without certain series in which female protagonists are at the centre of the action. These series can often boast enormous success in viewing ratings and market share. They are examples of girl figures in positively produced roles, which were once certainly the bastions of male protagonists such as Sherlock Holmes or Zorro. The roles by no means yet cover the breadth of variation that is found in male protagonists. Even so, directions can be seen here in which the successful children's programme is developing and in which girl figures also present achievement-oriented, caring and fighting aspects and prevail in a world in which women naturally also play leading roles.


In the sitcom Clarissa (Nickelodeon)6 a young girl with intelligence and style tackles everyday occurrences. Her friend Sam supports her wherever he can, although the central figure always remains Clarissa.

In the crime series Shirley Holmes (Nickelodeon) a girl solves complicated cases with extraordinary scientific skill and detective ability. She is supported by a male friend, though he tends to carry out reproductive tasks.

In the series Sailor Moon (RTL 2) 14-year-old Bunny Sukino is one of the chosen female warriors of the moonstone. Together with their (girl) friends they can change themselves from well-behaved schoolgirls into warriors for "love and justice".

Mila Superstar (RTL2) is a young volleyball player who makes her way in sport through hard work. She acts in an achievement-oriented way, being helped to become successful by her tactical ability and empathy for her fellow-players and opponents, as well as her ambition.

Lady Oscar (RTL 2) is a heroine who fights for liberty and justice in 19th-century France. She intervenes in political events and disguises herself for her deeds with a black coat, a mask and sabre.

Prinzessin Erdbeer (SuperRTL) lives in a sugar world with her friends Prince Percy and the butler Malcolm. Where her male friends are unsuccessful, she has solutions and can thus get her way with Countess von Zickig and her daughter.

In the six-part family series Nicht ohne Marie (Kinderkanal), the heroine is the link in solving the problems which occur in the daily routine of a large family.

The Ocean Girl (ZDF, Kinderkanal) Neary comes from another world. She can breathe underwater and talk to whales. Together with her friends she experiences adventures and protects the earth.

Sympathetic girl figures are beautiful, slim and usually have long blond hair

Although girl figures may appear pleasant and new at first sight, certain aspects remain the same. For whether it is Sailor Moon, Ocean Girl or Marie, all sympathetic girl figures on television are absolutely beautiful, markedly slim and have mostly long blond hair. Body proportions that do not correspond to the ideal weight (or a few pounds less) or facial features which deviate from the uniform ideal of beauty are not to be seen unless as a problem and a subject of the plot. Many female figures in animated films also follow the "baby schema", and the rounded head is characterised by a little nose and big wide-set eyes. (Cf Mühlen-Achs, 1995, 31). The sexualised representation of the body, stressing long slender legs and exaggeratedly narrow waist, are further features of many female figures in the children's programme. Here the "beauty myth " (Wolf, 1991) is repeatedly corroborated.7 In the very successful series Sailor Moon (RTL 2) this is taken to the extreme. Sailor Moon's blond pony-tails reach down to the hollows of the knees of her slender legs, which account for a good three-quarters of her body. A quarter of her face, its nose hardly visible, consists of her big wide blue eyes, which in view of Japan being the country of production is given special prominence. As is usual in Mangas, Sailor Moon is extremely sexualised and by far exceeds Barbie in the unattainable proportions of her body.

Deep-rooted change or stagnation in gender portrayal?

In many areas, including gender portrayal, children's television is undergoing deep-rooted change. In the mainstream, however, men remain the heroes of the programme in which normally male figures act, and femininity appears as a characteristic which chiefly serves the purpose of content reproduction management. Programmes that are extremely successful with young audiences and in which female figures are at the centre, but also in the mixed gender groups, promising prospects are emerging which justify the perception of a potential change. These programmes, however, are concentrated on a few channels, of which the principal representative, Nickelodeon, is in the meantime no longer on the German market. It used to broadcast almost 40 per cent of the programmes in which girls play the main role. Further points of emphasis are to be found on RTL 2 (through the Japanese productions) and, to a lesser extent, the public-service stations.

But even in the case of the "new girl figures" certain aspects remain, such as their being modelled on a narrowly-defined stereotyped beauty, continue to exist or are highly exaggerated. In detail gender portrayal in the children's programme very largely remains rooted in long established "patriarchal conditions", even though the latter remain far behind the real-life diversity of girls and women.

An analysis of the non-fiction area is all the more blatant. Especially in learning-oriented programmes, one thing becomes clear: it is men who explain the world to children. Here there are two stereotypes, firstly, the dynamic and knowledgeable elder brother in his early twenties and, secondly, the understanding and self-seeking father-figure in his mid-forties who also wants to learn. With the exception of Logo (ZDF, Kinderkanal), where a man and a woman take it in turn to present the children's news programme, in the non-fiction area women remain restricted to announcing, mediating and perhaps explaining social problems. They are, however, not thought sufficiently competent to explain the world.

To this extent a deep-rooted change in gender portrayal in many areas of children's television has still not occurred.



1 Carried out at the University of Kassel (GHK) in cooperation with the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation's Internationales Zentralinstitut für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI) and the Voluntary Self-censorship of the Television Industry (FSF)
2 Stations selected according to the market share of the children: ARD, ZDF, RTL, SAT.1, Pro 7, RTL2, SuperRTL, Nickelodeon, Kinderkanal on these days: 23rd, 24th & 26th May 1998
3 Bachmair, 1998, Bachmair/Hofmann, 1998
4 A basic principle to which Simone de Beauvoir drew attention in her much-read book The Second Sex: "Humanity is male, and the man defines the woman not as such, but in comparison to himself; she is not regarded as an autonomous being." (1949/1996, p.12) This can be seen in many products of children's television.
5 "Die Örks", a new short animated film format being developed for the Kinderkanal. Presented by Gert K. Münterfering (WDR, Cologne) in the lecture: "Die Sendung mit der Maus": Wegweiser zur Kinderkultur (Signposts to Children's Culture), delivered in Kassel on 11th May 99.
6 In the meantime Shirley Homes also solves her cases on the Kinderkanal.
7 Naomi Wolf points out in her book how dependent ideals of beauty are on culture and what significance they have in each case. In the western industrial societies, in which women are increasingly proving themselves as independent and equal personalities, the constant reference to an unachievable ideal of beauty becomes a "setback" "The beauty myth fights the new liberty of women, by shifting the social limitations restricting their life directly to their face and their body. As a reaction to this we must now ask what our attitude is to our body in the same way as the generation of women before us asked what their position was in society." (Wolf, 1991, p.384)


Bachmair, Ben: Kinder brauchen Kinderfernsehen. Ein Blick ins Programmumfeld von Talk-Shows, tv-diskurs, -/1998/Oct, p. 78-89.

Bachmair, Ben; Hofmann: Ole, Lernen mit dem Kinderfernsehen: Wunsch oder Wirklichkeit? In: TelevIZIon, 11/1998/2, p. 4-20. *

Beauvoir, Simone de, Das andere Geschlecht - Sitte und Sexus der Frau, Reinbek: Rohwohlt, 1949/1996.

Mühlen Achs, Gitta: Frauenbilder: Konstruktionen des anderen Geschlechtp. In: Mühlen Achs, Gitta; Schorb, Bernd (Ed.): Geschlecht und Medien. München: KoPäd, 1995, p. 13-38.

van Dijck, Bernadette, Successful International Co-operation in the Promoting Good Practice in Gender Portrayal Project. Project: Promoting Good Practice in Gender Portrayal in Television. Who speaks in television - An international comparative study on female participation in television programmep. NRK Research Department (Ed.). Oslo: NRK 1999.

Weiderer, Monika: Das Frauen- und Männerbild im Deutschen Fernsehen - Eine inhaltsanalytische Untersuchung der Programme von ARD, ZDF und RTLplup. Regensburg: S.Roeder Verlag.1993

Weiderer, Monika; Komorek-Magin, Annegret: Frau/Mann - Mädchen/Jungen in Kindersendungen des deutschen Fernsehenp. In: TelevIZIon 7/1994/2, p. 31-36.

Wolf, Naomi: Der Mythos Schönheit, Reinbek: Rohwohlt, 1991.


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