Film Forward

This Blogger Created A Test To Help Parents Spot Sexism In Kids' Programming

"I want to make life easier for parents who are trying to do the right thing."

It's not uncommon for parents to closely monitor the media their children consume. For most moms and dads, this likely boils down to age-appropriateness — for instance, avoiding movies and TV shows with foul language, violence, or sexual content. They may be less inclined, however, to examine where these programs land in terms of onscreen representation, and, in turn what kind of messages their children are receiving about gender, diversity, and other social issues.

Growing up in the 1980s, parenting blogger Thalia Kehoe Rowden recalls feeling angry that The Smurfs only featured one female character. Thirty years later, as a mother watching children's programs with her young son, she noticed that a similarly disappointing gender imbalance still existed. So she decided to do something about it.

Kehoe Rowden, a former minister who runs the blog Sacraparental, was inspired by the famous Bechdel Test for gender representation in cinema. That test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires that a movie feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. 

"It's a satirical test, and sets a really low bar for representation," Kehoe Rowden told A Plus. "A movie can still be mostly men, full of sexist crap, and it could still pass. The bitter punchline is that even with this low bar, most movies in cinemas still fail, every year."

Thalia Kehoe Rowden
Thalia Kehoe Rowden

"I wanted to do a version for kids' media that was serious and aspirational, asking what would make a socially responsible piece of children's media that parents could be confident in letting their children watch," she explained, adding, "I want to make life easier for parents who are trying to do the right thing. My hope is that parents who are looking for good material for their kids can see at a glance whether a show has good gender messages."

She created the Maisy Test for Sexism in Kids' Shows, a four-part checklist for parents to consult when choosing what their kids watch. It's named after "Maisy," an animated children's program that Kehoe Rowden says gets a "gold star."

The Maisy Test looks at more than just how many female characters are featured in a series. It also asks how those characters are portrayed in comparison to their male counterparts, and makes sure to take other forms of representation into account as well. 

"One of the key principles of the Maisy Test is that all kids should see someone who looks like them, having positive adventures," Kehoe Rowden said. "Kids' media is dominated by male characters, and we need to work hard to get gender balance. But most of the characters are also White, so we have another enormous problem, and focusing only on gender doesn't solve it. Where are the characters that children of color can relate to? What about kids with disabilities?"

The blogger created a helpful infographic to outline the four main themes she believes parents should look for when assessing children's content: gender balance, gender freedom, gender safety, and social justice and equality. The test asks questions such as, "Do girls and boys get to do the same thing?" "Are body shapes healthy and realistic?" and "Can every kid see someone like them?"

Courtesy of Thalia Kehoe Rowden/Sacraparental
Courtesy of Thalia Kehoe Rowden/Sacraparental

In her blog post about the Maisy Test, Kehoe Rowden cites a study from the True Child Institute, which found that only 15 percent of characters on Saturday morning cartoons were female, and were likely to be stereotyped. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, meanwhile, has reported that males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films.

This unbalanced representation can have a negative influence on the children watching these shows and movies, especially, as Kehoe Rowden points out, because kids tend to watch things repeatedly.

"Children are formed by what they watch," she said. "They get language and ideas from shows that they incorporate in their play, and in their relationships and behavior. It's vital that we give them great stuff that is going to help build a better, fairer, and more thriving society as they grow up."

Research has even shown that children's self-worth is impacted by whether characters like them are represented in the media they view. A 2012 study found that television can boost self-esteem among White boys, while decreasing the self-esteem of White girls, Black girls, and Black boys.

However, this doesn't mean parents of White sons shouldn't take the Maisy Test into account when choosing viewing material. On the contrary, it's just as important that they be exposed to diversity, as Kehoe Rowden understands from personal experience.

"I'm really conscious that I'm raising someone who will one day be a White, middle-class man, with every undeserved privilege that comes with that in our current society," she told A Plus. "It's super important that he grow into a man who will fight for gender equity and recognize and call out sexism wherever he sees it — as he does now!"

Maisy, the character after whom the test is named.
Maisy, the character after whom the test is named.

It can take time and close attention to determine which shows pass the test, but they do exist, and to make things easier for parents who are interested in finding socially conscious programming, Kehoe Rowden put together a list on Sacraparental of 13 shows that pass the test, giving details for each of the four components.

Check out three positive examples from her list below:

1. Maisy

This is the show from which the Maisy Test gets its name, so you can be sure it passes. It has a female mouse as the main character, and Kehoe Rowden praises the show's avoidance of gender-based stereotypes.

"Maisy generally wears trousers, and her friend Tallulah [a chicken] wears dresses," she writes. "Everyone does every activity, with no differences based on gender. Incidental adult characters like teachers or doctors appear with no bias towards traditionally gendered occupations."

2. Doc McStuffins

"You can hardly go wrong with a show starring an African-American girl who is a doctor for toys, whose parents are a stay-at-home Dad and a doctor Mom," Kehoe Rowden writes of this Disney Junior show, which also regularly teaches children about being healthy and features an adoption storyline.

3. Sesame Street

While Kehoe Rowden acknowledges that this classic has carried over a mostly male cast from its early days, she adds that the show has made an effort to be more balanced by adding female Muppets and live-action cast members. (That includes Julia, a new character with autism.)

"It's entirely normal on Sesame Street to see people using wheelchairs or sign language," the blogger writes. "People of color are well represented, and the American version has regular use of Spanish."

What should parents do if their kids already love a show that doesn't pass the Maisy Test?

Kehoe Rowden understands that kids' preferences don't always line up perfectly with parents' preferred content, and she told A Plus that there are some things — like "old-fashioned and unbalanced" Winnie-the-Pooh — that even she won't give up. She encourages parents to look for a balance across all the shows their children watch, and also to talk to their kids about shows that don't quite pass:

"Critique shows with your kids. You can say things like, 'Huh. I notice that there are hardly any girls in this show. That's weird. Girls are awesome!' "

It's these kinds of conversations that Kehoe Rowden hopes can lead to real change in the entertainment world, as she aims for the Maisy Test to "equip parents and kids to make their voices heard" and "agitate for production companies and broadcasters to make and distribute shows that pass."

She would also like to see those in the industry take the test into consideration when developing programs, because equal gender representation should really be a no-brainer. 

"I hope that producers can look at the test and evaluate their scripts and pitches," she said. "I could make just a couple of tweaks to several shows that fail and they would pass. Just turn some of your characters into girls, for heaven's sake!"

You can read more of Thalia Kehoe Rowden's thoughts on parenting and social justice on Sacraparental

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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