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A Lack Of Strong Girl Characters In Children’s Books And Movies Means A Lack Of Strong Role Models

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Do we really have enough strong girl characters in children’s books and movies that our children, both boys and girls, can emulate?

How balanced is the world of books and movies for the young audience?

Let us start with the movies. If we check out the top five highest grossing movies till date for children, according to CNBC, we end up with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, Lion King and 101 Dalmatians.

We all know that Snow White’s greatest asset is her ‘fairness’, whatever that is supposed to be, and the high point of her life is true love’s kiss ending in a happily ever after. Let us not even touch the intelligence department, since she blindly eats an apple given to her by a stranger, when she knows well that her life is in danger.

Jungle Book has Raksha the female wolf, Ka the seductress, Shanti who bats eyelids at Mowgli but the movie is about Mowgli and Mowgli alone. The other characters are strictly to support Mowgli.

Lion King is a movie in which even the female beasts wait for the male of their kind to come rescue them!

101 Dalmations goes a step further and plays off the traditional good girl versus bad girl type. We have a conservatively dressed, sickly sweet ‘good girl’ and a ‘bad woman’ who is single, dominating and wants to kill puppies. If you ask me none of the traits of Cruella are particularly bad, of course except for the killing puppies part.

Mary Poppins is an exception with extensive talk about women’s rights. But in general how many exceptions do we come across in main stream media?

Now to the books. The golden cup goes to Harry Potter as all the seven books in the series top the sales charts! In spite of overwhelmingly more male characters than female characters, Rowling has managed to portray the women in myriad roles and responsibilities. And in the Potterworld, all young wizards and witches seem to have equal opportunity in terms of schooling and career.

Except for a smattering of popular books like The Paper Bag Princess, Rosie Revere Engineer, Madeline, Olivia, etc, the world of children’s literature is filled with Max-s having wild adventures, Harold-s painting the town red and even the caterpillars, little birds, puppies and steam engines that clearly are ‘he’. The strong girls – they are not so well known.

And the TV… Should we even go there?! What with laddoo stealing Chotta Bheems, compliant side kick Chutkis and the unrealistically real (or is it realistically unreal?!) T.V shows? Not to mention advertisements that are hell bent on making the whole world and it’s underarms the same shade of ‘white’. How many female athletic sporting events get the same coverage as male sporting events in the main stream media? Don’t we all remember the how Marion Bartoli wasn’t celebrated after her Wimbledon win, but was trolled that she wasn’t pretty enough.

How does this bias affect our children? Considering our strong patriarchal society, how do things play out for our future generation?

Some might argue that children are largely resilient and while watching a movie or reading a book, they do not get caught in the unfairness of it like we adults tend to do. But the same thing can work against them. Over a period of time listening to male-centric stories they subconsciously end up believing that only one gender is destined for greater things. And the numbers do point that way!

Recent studies world wide shows that there are 20% or lesser girls entering in to STEM studies. ISRO has only 20% women employees and only 10% of them are engineers. Forget STEM roles, in India despite having 78% of women engaged in agriculture versus only 63% of men in agriculture, on an average men get paid Rs. 103/day where as a women gets paid only Rs. 55/day. The micro-credit programs show that women are unable to get loans as they lack collateral since 70% of the properties throughout India are owned by males. This inspite of having the 1974 Property Rights Act in place. The numbers in terms of schooling, literacy, women pursuing higher studies, entrepreneurship and health are even more depressing.

This is disastrous not just for women, but for the entire world. Because if we leave half the population behind, we have to remember that our progress is only half way!

There is a recent study that links gender gap to a lack of strong female role models for young children. Fortunately the same study says, that this can be offset by publicizing the accomplishment of women in many fields and sharing this information with our children.

It does our  future generation immense good to share not just the real life achievements (how many of us shared the picture of our women scientists hugging and congratulating each other after the Mars mission? or sit with them and watch women’s cricket or for that matter any woman sporting event?) but also providing them with fictional role models. 

Enough with the stories where the woman carries the husband around in a  basket. Let us tell our children about Bhakthi Sharma, the youngest to create a swimming record in the Antartic. About Arunima Sinha who climbed the Everest even though she he has only one leg.

Let us read to them about Moyna the tribal girl who wouldn’t stop asking questions (The Why-Why Girl by Mahashweta Devi), Aditi and her adventures(Aditi series by Suniti Namjoshi), Anita who dreams of going to school (Anita The Beekeeper by Lisa Heydlauff), the feisty Ana (At Least A Fish by Anushka Ravishankar), Aunty Prima the art restoration expert (The Veena Player by Anjali Raghbeer), the amazing patti who discovers the amazing hair oil(The Mystery of The Secret Hair Oil Formula by Asha Nehemiah), feisty Mayil (Mayil Will Not Be Quiet by Nivedita Subramaniam), Vanamala who braved the creature of the sea to rescue her younger sister Pingu (Vanamala and the Cephalopod by Shalini Srinivasan) etc.

And remember – the more we read about strong female role models, the more will be the number of strong women and men who are not threatened by strong women, both in real life and in fiction.

Image source: Flickr

Anitha Ramkumar

Anitha Ramkumar

Anitha Ramkumar is a teacher, librarian, a dreamer and an independent spirit. She used to believe that she is a multi-modal thinker. But off late she is realizing that she only has two modes - the 'reading mode' and the 'what to read next' mode. And she is quite happy with this epiphany!


Author's Blog: http://utbtkids.com

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2 Comments


  1. Very well written…

  2. Aye! Aye! Captain! I agree with you. We so need to hear and read a lot more about these powerful and strong girls and women and their stories. Enough of the age old ridiculously skewed stereotypes! The fairies of the fairy tales and vamp/vixen/item girls, the sati savitris of the legends and saas bahus of the hindi serials all need to be given a quick farewell!! We must write the stories of real women and girl heroes and inspire girls and the world!! I was relieved that the movies ‘Brave’ and ‘Zootopia’ did a fine job in this direction. The recent nike ad I got to see through a womensweb post featuring indian sportswomen also hits the right spot.

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