Remember in the '80s, how Blair was “the pretty one” on “Facts of Life,” but Jo, Tootie, and Natalie had most of the fun?
Apparently, the tween-girl television shows of today only have room for Blair, Blair, and more Blair.
On the 40 shows from the Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickelodeon, and the Turner Cartoon Network analyzed in a study published in the academic journal Sex Roles this month, Barbie-beautiful girls don’t just rule the roost.
They make up the entire population.
The researchers examined cable channel shows from 2011, including "Hannah Montana," "iCarly," "Fish Hooks," "Wizards of Waverly Place," "Aaron Stone," and "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."
Compared with the boy characters, the teen girls were “more attractive, more concerned about their appearance,” and received a stream of comments about their “looks,” the study found.
The stats are pretty disturbing:
• 11.5 percent of male characters were described by researchers as having “not very attractive” facial features.
• 0 percent of female characters were described by researchers as having “not very attractive” facial features.
Yes. Zero percent.
The study also found that on the tween shows classified as “action/adventure,” girls are underrepresented in comparison with the percentage of girls in the real population.
At least these princesses are keeping busy: “Tween” television shows found female characters doing some of the same adventurous things that boys on these shows do.
The researchers said they explored this topic because this age group (8–12) consumes more TV than any other group and has shows designed expressly for it.
Members of this group also are busy developing their sense of self.
Kids at this stage are “moving toward self-definition or a sense of identity,” says Stephen Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. The shows they watch, he says, are powerful in defining what they see as “normal.”
“Being normal,” as you probably remember, is vitally important in the tween world. There’s the rub: “If what is perceived as 'normal' is what is projected by these shows,” Wallace says, “that's what [kids will] strive to be."
It's also worth noting how technologies not available to earlier generations can affect viewing. Because a huge range of Disney tween-geared shows are available on Netflix, many kids watch "Hannah Montana" now even though it's no longer being made.
Once the child runs out of one Disney show on Netflix, he or she is prompted to also watch a choice of similar shows. So one of these programs of dubious gender stereotyping tends to lead to another and another and another—whether it's currently airing or not—creating endless opportunities to develop insecurities, and boys to develop misperceptions of what a girl or woman should look like.
Eden-Renee Hayes, assistant professor of psychology at Bard College at Simon's Rock, which offers college-level education to academically gifted young teenagers, agrees: “Start asking them questions,” she says, “to lead them to the idea of questioning the things they see."
Banning the shows from the home is pointless because they’ll see them somewhere, on some device, Hayes says. But parents can make a real difference by seeding in to their kids' viewing other TV shows and media that display a more varied depiction of real girls and women.
Armed with critical thinking skills, girls can avoiding falling “into this idea that 'I must be this particular way, and if I’m not, I'm supposed to do something with makeup or hair’,” Hayes says.
This study, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us anything unprecedented: “It is time-honored for Disney to show girls in a very stereotypical way," Hayes says. Despite the suggestion that Disney’s female characters are now more progressive, she says, no girl ever saves a prince.
If one ever does, you can bet she'll be supermodel pretty.
These newer TV characters aren't "sitting there waiting to be saved" in the same way as Snow White or Cinderella, Hayes says, but they're "still fulfilling the same roles."
Take "Mulan," in which a clever girl disguises herself as a male soldier to take her father's place in the Imperial Army. There is still a core, traditional demand on her character.
"Mulan has to get married. She may have saved her entire nation, but she'd better get married,” Hayes says. “We're still seeing the same element of 'You must stay within your role.' "
To counter that message, "we have to help kids sort of find their North Star and be comfortable with who they are and how they look,” Wallace says, so they won’t “buy into the falsehood of what is normal and what is beautiful and what is perfect.”