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Boys Will Be Boys, but Will They Watch Girls on Television?

It’s 2013, not 1985, but it’s still considerably harder for my preschool-age daughter to find representations of herself onscreen than it will be for our newborn son, once he starts watching TV.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Katha Pollitt coined the term “Smurfette Principle” to describe children’s fare that offered just one, wholly stereotyped female in a vast sea of male characters, but still, studies have found that, on average, children’s television and family films offer about one female with a speaking part for every two males. While it’s tempting to think that strong girl characters like Brave’s Merida are changing things, the data shows that in family films, at least, the unbalanced gender ratio has been stagnant for more than 20 years, according to Stacy Smith, a USC communications professor.

Why? Supposedly, girls will watch so-called boy’s content, with male leads and action-packed adventures, but boys won’t watch girls’ shows, starring girl protagonists and girl-friendly storylines. And research suggests that this assumption still influences the choices of those making children’s fare. Smith, who’s done tons of number-crunching into gender portrayals in media, surveyed the folks who make G, PG, and PG-13 movies, and found the belief that “girls will watch stories about boys, but boys won’t watch stories about girls” was “almost axiomatic” among interviewees. Dafna Lemish, a children’s media expert at Southern Illinois University, said most of the 135 American and international children’s TV creators she surveyed engaged in a kind of cultural buck-passing, claiming they themselves didn’t themselves believe the conventional wisdom, but everyone else did.

But is it true? If boys won’t watch girls on-screen, you could make a pragmatic, if not necessarily moral, argument for market forces dictating children’s content. Yet there are many exceptions to the rule. In 1991, the same year that Pollitt introduced us to the Smurfette Principle, Nickelodeon launched Clarissa Explains It All, about a smart, quirky teenager played by Melissa Joan Hart, which drew equal numbers of male and female viewers. Since then, Nickelodeon in particular has hit audience gender parity with one female lead after another. Most recently, it launched The Legend of Korra, an animated action series starring a fighting heroine, which gets even more boy viewers than girls. When Disney’s Doc McStuffins, about a little girl who heals her broken toys, overtakes Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer to become the top-rated cable show for preschoolers, you have to wonder at what point the exceptions “are not exceptions anymore,” as Lemish puts it.

Instead, we need to start looking for guidelines: What makes boys watch girls’ shows? I asked several children’s TV executives what their own research has shown, and they pointed to a few common themes:

Active heroines: From Dora to Korra to PBS’s WordGirl, there are plenty of shows that have hit gender parity by featuring strong female leads and action-packed storylines. “We have sort of a framework for the development of female characters,” says Lesli Rotenberg, PBS’s general manager of children’s programming, explaining WordGirl, the language-loving, crime-fighting action heroine. “We want to make sure that they are three-dimensional, that they’re inquisitive, that they’re funny, that they’re proactive, that they drive the plot.”

Indeed, the recently launched Disney Junior network has managed to draw in more boys than it expected with a show about, of all things, a princess. The 2- to 5-year-olds who watch Sofia the First are 42 percent boys, possibly because the storyline is “not about just tea parties and ballgowns,” in the words of Disney Junior exec Nancy Kanter, but about Sofia’s adventures racing flying horses and learning Harry Potter-like spells. Her creator, Craig Gerber, who has two sons, envisions her as different from the passive princesses of yore, describing Sofia as a “bold, curious, smart young girl.” (Though for my taste she’s still entirely too earnest and treacly.)

In other words, girly trappings in and of themselves need not be a deal-breaker for boys so long as the main character and narrative are strong enough. At least, not until our culture beats it out of them. (Not long ago, a Facebook posting gained viral fame when a father wrote about his son requesting a Sofia the First DVD at a Wal-Mart, and getting hassled by a man behind them in line: “You don’t think that will make him funny?”)

Humor: Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Group, told me a major reason why many of its girl-starring shows, including Clarissa, The Amanda Show and iCarly, have appealed to both boys and girls is because the network considers its “core competency” to be comedy.

“It is one of the great unifiers,” Zarghami says. The way she sees it, you almost have to force kids into gender-based behavior by appealing to their different “play patterns” — things like “fighting, karate, adventure and rough-housing” for boys, “hair play, dolls and nurturing” for girls. But if you focus on what the genders have in common, you don’t invite divisions of interest.

Nickelodeon can claim that boys and girls tend to find the same things funny because they’ve actually done some granular research. The network sent me its internal findings, listing the top 10 things boys and girls will laugh at, and they’re fairly similar. “Jokes” and “bloopers” lead both lists, and both genders really like “farts,” though it must be said that boys like them slightly more.

Emotional resonance: When Disney Channel and Disney Junior launched the hit Doc McStuffins last year, Kanter says that many at the company expected the show to skew female simply because it starred a girl. Instead, the show’s audience within the 2- to 5-year-old demographic has turned out to be 47 percent boys.

Kanter, general manager for Disney Junior Worldwide, told me that the network has since conducted research with viewers. In interviews, researchers found boys and girls were both drawn to the show because of the personality of Doc, the 6-year-old African-American girl who emulates her doctor mother by fixing her toys and stuffed animals. (Doc’s dad is a stay-at-home parent who makes dinner and tends the garden.)

“Across the board, what boys were relating to, in addition to what girls were relating to, was not the fact that Doc was a girl and that she had pretty polka-dot pants on,” Kanter says. “It was her character” — specifically, the fact that she was “kind and nice and she took care of her friends. That was somewhat surprising because I think we sometimes don’t give boys enough credit for having this soft emotional core, especially at this age.”

Researchers asked the children they were interviewing to bring in toys they’d like Doc to heal. Again, Kanter says, the boys defied expectations. Instead of toting action figures and toy cars, they brought in stuffed animals just like the girls, and their explanations for why they sought Doc’s help suggested a robust imaginative life and a caretaking impulse that our culture often doesn’t credit boys with having. They said things like, “This is my nap buddy, and he fell off the shelf, and we think he’s got a headache.”

Now, the network is hoping to piggyback on Doc’s popularity with boys in the toy aisle. In addition to the sparkly purple and pink Doc McStuffins medical kit currently available, Disney is considering creating a medical kit in traditional boys’ colors, presumably to avoid the problem encountered by that Sofia-loving boy.

Of course, there’s still that weird toddler rigidity about gender that causes kids to hone in on subtle (and sometimes imaginary) cues about gender from their TV shows. Lemish says even choppy scene cuts can communicate a more boy-oriented urgency and action, as opposed to soft dissolves, more common on girls’ shows. And of course there are still boorish men in checkout lines and a thousand other cultural forces that teach boys they’re not supposed to value things girls like. Kids who can’t relate to the other gender become adults who can’t relate to the other gender, fueling a movie industry that denigrates “chick flicks,” cuts back on female characters (and sexualizes the ones that remain), and makes exceptions out of every Katniss Everdeen who comes along.

But if the successes of the “exceptions” teach us anything, it’s that there may be a window of opportunity among children. After all, the less content creators make a big deal of gender, the less it seems to matter to the kids themselves. A 2001 study looking at kids’ reactions to clips from Beauty and the Beast and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles showed boys who were less likely to label Beauty a “female” film were more likely to enjoy it, and the same for girls labeling Turtles a “male” film. If filmmakers and TV producers don’t get in their own way, kids might just be open to watching whatever happens to interest them, especially once they relax their gender rigidity around age 8.

And the folks in charge of America’s screens might just double their audiences.

Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was a “Washington Post” reporter and editor for 11 years.