Kids look at the television or the computer or the toy aisle and see fun and excitement. But parents often see an ocean of questionable influences and messages assailing their children. Will watching this cartoon encourage violent behavior? Does a Barbie doll send the wrong beauty message? Parental concern occurs everywhere, but becomes particularly apparent in the girls market.
While there are the occasional epic fails, most companies in the kids’ space strive to create positive products and content for children. There have been many initiatives over the years to deliver empowering messages to little girls, some more successful than others. For my next few posts, I’ll look at some interesting examples of how different companies have addressed the unique issues inherent in marketing to girls.
*insert photo of pink explosion*
Creating Female Role Models: How pink is too pink (or how not-pink is too not-pink)?
Sesame Street has always placed an emphasis on portraying diversity in the cast (both human and Muppet). Over the years, they have introduced a number of female characters on the show.
The show’s producers recognize the required sensitivity that comes along with writing female characters. As Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of the show, explains: “If Cookie Monster was a female character, she’d be accused of being anorexic or bulimic. There are a lot of things that come attached to female characters.”
Many of the show’s characters were written with the intention of breaking stereotypes. (Remember back in the ‘70s when Susan started a career and Gordon helped out with the household chores?) Monsters Zoe and Rosita were introduced in the ‘90s. They are both identifiable as girls, but they aren’t girly girls.
Two other girl characters, Lulu and Elizabeth, were introduced to the show, but didn’t last that long.
Both Muppets were designed not to be stereotypes, but ultimately didn’t connect with little girls. Characters like Zoe and Rosita remained popular side characters, but the Sesame team saw that the cast was missing an important demographic.
In 2006, Sesame Street introduced a new girl character, Abby Cadabby. As is typical at Sesame, a ton of research went into creating the new Muppet. (These people do not half-ass anything.) Abby was designed to be a strong, positive character, but also a girly girl. She’s enthusiastic and curious, but also pink and sparkly.
The show had tried so hard to create non-stereotypical female characters in the past, but many of these characters just didn’t connect with little girls. As Liz Nealon, the former executive vice president and creative director of Sesame Workshop, said at the time:
“Political correctness hampers creativity. Abby Cadabby owns her own point of view, but she’s also comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress, and as we’d tried to model strong female models, we neglected that piece of being a girl . . . . If you think about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, some girls relate to Rhoda, who’s our Zoe, and some girls really relate to Mary, who’s a girly girl. And we didn’t have that girl.”
The introduction of Abby was all about creating a strong, positive role model to connect with and inspire little girls. As Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame explains:
"Sesame Street is all about countering stereotypes and letting girls and boys know that they can do anything that they want to do. So we're really careful about messages like that. But we also want to let girls know that it's okay to do girl-type things. Some girls really like pink and lavender. The world is still a great place for them to be, and they can become scientists, they can become veterinarians, they can become physicists. But they may like pink, and that's okay.”
Disney took a similar approach in creating the cultural juggernaut that is Frozen.
The Disney Princess line is the #1 licensed property in the world. Ahead of Star Wars. And that was even before the release of Frozen. Little girls LOVE the Disney Princess line, but parents often get concerned about some of the outdated gender messages in the movies. Frozen succeeded in appealing both to little girls who love sparkly princesses and moms who love the strong female characters and feminist message.
Spoiler alert: They don’t need no man! Sisters forever!
Frozen has all the classic Disney magic. Anna and Elsa even look like the standard Disney princesses. They are beautiful, ridiculously skinny, blonde, big-eyed, and sparkly. The movie didn’t tone down the glitz at all. Little girls love them. Most of the little girls I know dressed up as Elsa for Halloween this year. I mean, they just won’t LET IT GO. (Haha! Nailed it!) And parents are happy (relieved?) for their daughters to be devoted to such empowering role models.
It’s hard to blame Disney for wanting to make beautiful princess characters with giant eyes that will sell a gazillion toys. But by also giving them a strong story, Disney helped turned Anna and Elsa into superstars.
Girl Toys Vs. Boy Toys?: Should girls have separate products?
(Get excited. It’s going to be about Legos.)