Cartoon Network & Feminism
Madeleine Slade,Syracuse University
I have identified as a feminist for many, many years. I can recall elementary school friends joking about my “rants,” and I’m always pointing out double standards in people’s thinking. Yet, for the longest time, I could not pinpoint what exactly had made me a feminist. Then I realized, and I kid you not, it was because of the commercials on Cartoon Network.
When I was a kid, I watched Cartoon Network religiously. I loved “Dexter’s Lab”, “Courage the Cowardly Dog”, “Powerpuff Girls”, “Kids Next Door”, etc. Each show had something special about it. “Courage the Cowardly Dog” had its amazingly terrifying art shifts, where it would abruptly switch from traditional animation to CGI that was bad in all the right ways. “Powerpuff Girls” was delightfully campy and had three completely different but equally important female protagonists. I could go on and on but I won’t. I loved this animated world, and every day after I came home from my elementary school, the TV went on. And while the shows themselves certainly did have differing issues with representation, that wasn’t what got my attention. The commercials, however, were another story.
As I watched these shows, I was bombarded with commercials aimed for kids my age. Well, none of them were really aimed for “kids” my age. It was very clear that each commercial that passed was specifically targeting either male or female audiences. One commercial would be all pink with a patronizing feminine voice telling you about baking happy cupcakes using the pastel-colored toy kitchen or using the no-boys-allowed electronic diary or taking care of the baby doll that really poops! The next minute, there would be a commercial in all blue with a loud male voice shouting about LEGO EXPLOSIONS and BOYS SHOOTING EACH OTHER WITH NERF GUNS TO PROVE WHO’S THE MOST MANLY ARGHHHHHHHH. These commercials, while often advertising toys that looked kind of cool to me, just plain freaked me out. The more I watched them, the more I started realizing that these were not just advertisements of toys. They were advertisements of gender roles. They were trying to persuade boys to be aggressive and to have interests in building and war. And they were trying to persuade girls to be soft and passive and to want to cook and care for babies. And most importantly, there were never any commercials blurring these lines. None of the “feminine” commercials had boys in them unless they were referred to as the “other,” and the same was true of the “masculine” commercials. They were completely segregated in terms of the people depicted on the screen, as well as by color choice (pink vs. blue) and by audio (soft female announcer vs. loud male announcer). It was very creepy to me—creepier than “Courage the Cowardly Dog”—that almost every single commercial I was watching followed this exact trend. I realized that gender was inherent in the format of these commercials, and as someone who had interest in both the “boys’ toys” and the “girls’ toys,” I felt really alienated! The commercials made one seem off-limits to me and made the other seem disgusting to me. I felt like I had to suppress any interest in the “girly” toys because otherwise I would be buying into the propaganda, and I resented how much they were ramming this commodified femininity down my throat. Because of this, it would take YEARS for me to finally realize that femininity itself isn’t inherently tied to marketing.
I would continue to turn on Cartoon Network because of the TV shows I loved, but I became extremely resentful of the commercials, and I always made fun of them when I had friends over. Some of them also noticed this trend and laughed with me. Others didn’t see the problem. But it was there, through those commercials, that I, still a kid in elementary school, came to realize there was a big problem. Children are told at extremely early ages that there are only two “types” of people in the world—boys with penises who like blue and drive trucks and shoot each other, and girls with vaginas who like pink and glitter and babies and kitchens—and that each person has to be one of these, or else there is no room for them. And worse, they are told that these two “types” are so different that they are the exact opposite in every way. And how can people work together and see each other as human while thinking this way? By the time I started fifth gradeI knew I wanted to change this way of thinking.
These types of commercials are still very real. For as long as gender sells, the channels of children’s shows will be pink and blue. They certainly were when I was enjoying my childhood. But maybe some day a kid can turn on the TV and see images of kids of all genders working together and having fun. Won’t that be the day?
Madeleine Slade is a soon-to-be junior Illustration major at Syracuse University. She is a total geek and loves comics, animation, video games, and basically anything with a good story.