Bechdel revisited – Or, In search of strong female (cartoon) characters

This morning, after some time away from playing with Facebook, I discovered that people are changing their profile pictures to cartoon characters from childhood.  While I’ve never once changed my profile picture since joining FB about a year and a half ago, I thought I would play along this time, too.  But what was on TV when I was a kid?  Given that I had the house to myself, I engaged in a little bit of research on historical Saturday morning cartoon lineups, starting in 1976, forward to about 1983 or so.  Which helped coalesce a lot of old memories (Dr. Shrinker! Wonder Bug! Thundarr!)

It also was a little disturbing, on more than one level – most of those shows were reruns, or repackaging of old shows?  Saturday morning cartoons were a ploy to make an event of television watching for children, in order to more easily market certain items to them?  So many of my well loved shows were only on for one year?  I watched that much TV when I was only 5?  There are that many people out there spending hours upon hours documenting the phenomenon of Saturday morning cartoons?

But what most struck me was the terrifically skewed male to female ratio on these shows.  It was not as easy as I thought it would be to find a character to put on my page.  I decided it was not enough to put up any old favorite character, I wanted an alter ego.  So I began by ruling out male characters.  Then female characters who chiefly functioned as damsels in distress, love interests, and/or personality-free foils for their male counterparts (“Cindy Bear” actually redirects to “Yogi Bear” on Wikipedia  Why give her her own name at all?  Call her “Mrs. Yogi Bear!”)  Then I ruled out characters who mainly functioned to torment their male counterparts, and characters whose intelligence was indicated by being strikingly unattractive compared to the other characters on the show (no Velma.)  Then I ruled out anyone essentially wearing only a leotard or less (no Josie and the Pussycats.)  And finally I ruled out babies.  Pebbles is cute, but she’s not really a role model.

Needless to say, I was hard pressed to find a Dora the Explorer (“she’s a super cool exploradora”) type from my childhood.  Maybe Prairie Dawn.  But since I was looking for cartoon characters… I finally settled on Firestar from Spiderman and his Amazing Friends.  Yes, she is in a body-hugging suit, but all superheroes at the time were – guys, too.  And she did sometimes date Spiderman or IceMan, but that wasn’t her purpose.  She actually had her own qualities aside from dating someone.

It is unreal how few interesting females there were on Saturday morning cartoons – how hard it was to find a woman who was not a shrewish wife or scantily clad dominatrix or – how hard it was to find a woman at all when so many shows had no women or perhaps a token woman amongst 3 or 4 or 5 men.  (Note to TV and movie producers – there are more women than men on the planet – MORE, not less!)

Should I have settled for a character merely on the basis of her having positive qualities aside from her relationship to men?  On the basis of her having strength and superpowers, even though she was clad in a snug body suit?  I wonder.  I certainly would have had more, and maybe better choices if I had allowed myself to pick among male characters (Linus Van Pelt!  Rocky the flying squirrel!)  But I have learned to make due with the likes of Firestar.  And it was a good exercise – an opportunity to give thanks that when my daughter goes looking for famous role models – imaginary and otherwise – she will find more and better choices without having to look to men.  Or squirrels.

3 responses

  1. LOL I found this whilst looking for a good one myself. I had already posted Azula, then thought she’s not from my childhood…next Shirly the Loon..still not old enough..thought about Cheetara 16ish…sorta settled on the last unicorn but she was kinda rather wimpy……may go to Daria just because…but then again…

  2. Haha amazing. Hope you don’t mind if I use this for my school paper as a reference that others have noticed the lack of strong female characters as well? 🙂

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