The following is a blog post that has been adapted from an essay that I wrote for my class on Television Criticism. The professor asked us to look at the politics of Nickelodeon and decide whether or not it had a "feminist agenda." It was clear from the lecture that the answer being looked for was yes but I decided to complicate things just a bit!
In order to decide whether or not Nickelodeon has a feminist agenda it is important to, first, decide what a feminist agenda would comprise of. According to Webster’s dictionary, The widely accepted definition of feminism in today’s society is, “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." This is a very simplified definition; most modern feminists acknowledge the wide intersections of oppression and seek to create equality with race, sexual orientation, ability, and other areas as well.
Since feminism is, at its core, about equality then a television station with a feminist agenda could simply be any station that seeks to represent men and women of all ethnicities, ability status, sexualities, and so on proportionality in their programming. A feminist television station could also be one that tries to create equality between these groups with proactive programming. Thus, in order to decide if a television station, Nickelodeon in this case, is a feminist television station we must look at two factors: whether or not its programming equally represents all types of people, and whether or not its programming seeks to further the cause of feminism.
Out of the six animated cartoons that Nickelodeon is currently producing and airing new episodes of, only one (The Mighty B) features a female lead (Nick Toons.) The live-actions shows are more balanced; two out of the four feature female leads (Teen Nick.) While it is true that early ’90s "girl power" shows like Clarissa Explains it All broke new ground, it does not seem as if the success of this show changed the makeup of Nickelodeon programming, at least not for very long. It’s been over ten years since the final episode of Clarissa Explains It All and Nickelodeon’s shows are still highly male dominated.
Representation of differnt ethnic groups and disabilities is harder to grade on the cartoons since most of them revolve around non-human characters; the few that do have human characters, however, are populated by predominantly white and able-bodied characters. For instance the popular show The Fairy Odd Parents follows the life of white Timmy Turner, his white parents, fairy godparents, and babysitter. The only non-white character that is featured regularly on the show is Timmy’s friend A.J. Johnson, there are no disabled characters (Nick Toons.) This is hardly representative of the diverse population that makes up most typical American towns.
Unfortunately Nickelodeon’s live action shows don’t fare much better in these areas, although there are exceptions like the show True Jackson, VP. Generally most shows either have no non-white or disabled characters, or they have one or two characters who act as the token minority sidekick. Non-heterosexual characters are also near impossible to find on any Nickelodeon show.
Clarissa Explains it All is considered a milestone for television because of its female protagonist, Clarissa, who was strong and independent; this portrayal directly flew in the face of the typical portrayals of women at the time. Clarissa Explains it All is a feminist favorite because it depicts a realistic teenage girl with big ambitions; a girl who is not portrayed as overly weak or incompetent. Clarissa was formulated as a relateable role model for young girls and boys – this is why Clarissa Explains it All can be considered a feminist television show.
There is a fairly impressive list of current Nickelodeon shows that meet this criteria, including As Told by Ginger, True Jackson VP, The Wild Thornberries and iCarly, to name just a few. This is refreshing in a world where most TV shows still seem to operate under The Smurfette Principle. This term for a common television trope was first coined in a New York Times article from 1991 which argued, “contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield," or are organized on […] the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.” This is particularly interesting, since this principle is rarely reversed, not even on shows that center on female characters. As Told by Ginger, for instance, often prominently focuses on Ginger’s little brother and his friends, Clarissa Explains it All had Sam and Ferguson, and so on. This indicates more feminist-minded entertainment, as these shows tend to portray a range of male and female characters interacting.
In her now infamous 1991 article Katha Pollitt wrote, “the message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys” Thus, rebelling against the Smurfette Principle is a very important goal for feminist media since the resulting message from this principle, that girls can only exist in relation to boys, can be incredibly harmful to young girl’s psyches. Pollitt drives this point home later on in the same article:
“The sexism in preschool culture deforms both boys and girls. Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess. The more privileged and daring can dream of becoming exceptional women in a man’s world — Smurfettes. The others are being taught to accept the more usual fate, which is to be a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine. Boys, who are rarely confronted with stories in which males play only minor roles, learn a simpler lesson: girls just don’t matter much”
Shows like Clarissa Explains it All, As Told by Ginger, and The Wild Thornberries are important because they defy this trope, and thus refuse to tell the girls who watch them that they are somehow inferior to boys. It is in this sense that Nickelodeon truly earns the title of “feminist” since the network’s choice to represent female characters leads, in some small way, to a feminist change in our culture; a change that says to little girls, ‘you matter too.’
Since the airing of Clarissa Explains it All progress has been made. For example, other channels, like Disney, can be argued as having a feminist agenda as well; Disney has produced over eight major shows with female protagonists including That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, Pepper Ann, Lizzie McGuire, Kim Possible, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Each and every one of these shows features a female lead who has many dimensions to her personality and character. Some especially notable feminist protagonists include Kim Possible, a realistic female superhero; Lizzie McGuire, and incredibly realistically portrayed normal teenage girl; and Raven Simone, one of the few non-white female protagonists out there.
Despite this progress, there is still a lot more that needs to be made; most notably, minority groups deserve more screen time then they are getting. In addition, there has been some regression since Nickelodeon’s feminist heyday. As cited above, Nickelodeon does not currently feature a balanced range of programming; they very clearly favor straight, white, able-bodied, male characters above all else. In order for this, or any, channel to truly be considered feminist this favoritism would have to be subverted.
Nickelodeon definitely made a step in the direction of having a feminist agenda with shows like Clarissa Explains it All before quickly scurrying back to the easy, marketable norm; unfortunately, the results of that step went off the air long ago. Television executives on all networks aimed at children should look back to the overwhelmingly positive feedback that shows like As Told by Ginger and Clarissa Explains it All received and strive for a more equal, some may even say feminist, representation of real and diverse little girls and boys on their shows.
My class seemed to feel that the tiny bit of feminist motives that Nickelodeon seemed to possess was, in large, a bad thing but I really disagree! Writing the paper that this blog post is heavily based on, frustrated me to no end since it forced me to realize how little of our media is truly feminist. Other then a few shows here and there (Like Glee and Ugly Betty!) many shows do not send positive messages about diversity. This leads me to some questions that I want to post to the Amplify community in the hopes of exploring this topic further.
- Do you feel as if the shows you watched as a child adequately represented you and made you feel included? Did your shows give you good role-models?
– How do you think we can go about positively influencing the media that surrounds us, especially media aimed at impressionable kids and teens, to be more feminist?
– What are some awesome feminist-minded TV shows?