Smart, Kind Characters in Children’s Media: What Gender Equality Needs

Smart Kind Characters in children's media
We need smart, kind characters in children’s media to help build smart, kind kids.

Whether we like it or not, our kids look to television to see themselves, which underlies the importance representation and intelligent, kind characters for kids. Television, movies, and books should all matter equally, but, truthfully, the one thing kids have in common is television. Well, television or YouTube. When popular culture ignores the multi-faceted aspects of our experiences, it promotes choices that can be dangerous and damaging.

What Is Hegemonic Culture

Gramsci’s definition of hegemonic culture is defined by Wikipedia as:

the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefsexplanationsperceptionsvalues, and mores—so that their imposed, ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm; the universally valid dominant ideology, which justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll give the shortened version of the importance to the current discussion.

In academic circles, cultural studies approaches popular culture and other phenomena from the perspective of the interplay between social norms and social reflection. When something is accepted by media (all media, in Gramsci’s case), it means that the society accepts and promotes it as a social norm.

Hegemonic Culture Is the Reason That Representation Matters

Whether we like it or not, as multiple articles discuss, representation matters. Representation matters to the trans community for Doctor Who. Representation matters to older women when it comes to Leia in Star Wars. Representation matters to people of color in cosplay.

Representation matters.

What we forget is that there are other types of representation that are about the internal qualities we want to value in all people.

Because representation matters there as well.

Looking around society, we see an ongoing war against intellectualism. Modern society views an education as important, but somehow valuing education doesn’t translate to valuing intelligence.

When we use these popular media to accept new truths, we change the truths. If we’re going to focus on the social meaning of popular culture, the first thing we need to do is understand why that popular culture matters.

How Hegemonic Culture Separates Intelligence and Kindness

If the ruling class, in this case the people who make media, offer us nothing but status quo representations, those become the culturally accepted ways to act. In addition, if we see changes in the presentation of the media, that means that there’s a shift happening that implies a change of power and status quo.

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When we look at the way in which popular media positions intelligence and kindness as being nearly mutually exclusive, we see that the greater social powers want us to equate intelligence with cruelty or kindness with stupidity. By making people choose between these two, we see that there is a forced tension created in how people, and in this particular instance children, will choose to identify.

Moreover, this dynamic not only allows for the manipulation of identities but also the overall manipulation of society. We often hear that certain intellectual groups look down on those who are not as educated or intelligent. This continues the position that intellectuality is smug and cruel. In addition, although we theoretically posit that kindness matters, we rarely focus on it in our places of learning.

Kindness and intellectual intelligence, in other words informational processing, continually end up in tension with one another in our media.

How Hegemonic Culture Influences Kids

Popular culture not only molds social beliefs, it also reflects the social beliefs that reinforce norms and ideals. When popular culture denies kids characters who are both smart and kind, it promotes the feeling that they have to choose one or the other instead of being both.

Gifted kids can be treated as sociopaths by those who don’t understand them. Smart kids, equally important but with different issues, are seen as nothing more than brown-nosing kiss-ups. Neither of these are positive.

Popular culture reinforces these beliefs. Moreover, popular culture continues to place these children as outsiders because their intelligence is something society deems unimportant.

Meanwhile, while we’d like to think that kindness is something we should value, children’s media does not. Look at most television shows on Disney XD or Cartoon Network, and you will see a plethora of annoying, cloying, obnoxiously sarcastic children who treat adults like they’re stupid.

Again, popular culture is not only setting a social norm, or agreed upon behavior, but it is reflecting society’s acceptance of these traits. Children are forced, implicitly, to choose between their true selves and what they see society accepting.

Why Popular Culture as a Social Touchstone Impacts Social Beliefs Among Children

Despite our best work as parents, the cultural beliefs that come from popular media are often stronger forces because they impact peers over whom we have no control. Research proves that as children age, peer conformity outweighs parental conformity. In fact, as kids age, the two are negatively correlated. In other words, as kids get older they choose to act as their friends act instead of how their parents wish they would. That is totally a non-shocker said every parent ever.

Yet, it means that we, as a society, should choose more carefully the representations of behavior that we want for our children.

Think about all the YouTube videos out there with obnoxious videogamers (yes, PewDiePie, I’m looking right at your smug mug). When those people become icons that our children all discuss, then they become a norm of behavior. Those attitudes permeate our children’s peer networks and, eventually, those peer networks become more important than we are as parents.

We should all want better representations of intelligence and kindness to become the social norm for all of our kids to create a better society.

How Female Intelligence Is Othered

In television show after television show and movie after movie, the intelligent characters are presented as outsiders. As much as I love both Hermione Granger and Rory Gilmore, the earliest iterations of both characters are problematic. Their intelligence is seen as something that others them.

Hermione is presented in the earliest iteration as a grade-grubbing, annoying, condescending know-it-all. Rory is presented as the shy outsider who hides in a book and has no friends. Neither of these are people that kids would want to be. Both of these are terrible tropes that continue in terms of intelligent characters. Adding the gender into the mix only makes it worse.

Even in the recent Wonder Woman movie, Diana’s intelligence was considered only a small part of her strength. Twice, the movie alludes to her intelligence: once when she talks about reading about sex and once when she translates science. Unlike the Wonder Woman television show, which focuses on Diana’s intelligence as a guiding principle of her character, this is minimal. Despite the otherwise positive aspects of the Wonder Woman movie, the representation of a strong woman relies on physicality instead of intelligence.

How Male Intelligence Is Othered

When it comes to male characters, we see very few in our modern popular culture rotation. In discussing 13th Doctor’s regeneration as female presenting, I complained that boys had lost their last vestige of modern non-toxic male representation. In the hubbub surrounding that discussion, the responses continuously looked to characters from the past to fill the gap, not the present. Modern society values the toxic representation of physicality over intellectuality in its mainstream iterations of males, especially for our young boys.

Male superheroes continuously include a sense of emotional distance, arrogance, outsiderness, or some combination thereunto appertaining.

Having to look to the past reinforces the ideal that intelligence is currently something that places men outside the modern social ideals. Moreover, the number of youth-appropriate male characters who exhibited non-toxic, intelligent masculinities was still far below what I would consider an average number.

Intelligence on its own is often accompanied by some “othering” aspect. Whether that is shyness or arrogance, it sets these characters as separate from those around them.

A Host of Stupidity Flooding Cartoon Network as Hegemonic Cultural Representation

I decided to do some analysis of television shows. I took one for the team here, y’all. Really. I spent most of the morning today reviewing Cartoon Network’s programming. I had to stop after four or five shows to which I hadn’t previously been exposed.

I’ve walked in on my kid watching Uncle Grandpa. Guess what? They’re all… kinda dumb. Then, I started going through some of the other more popular shows. First, I tried The Amazing World of Gumball. First, Gumball is just a sarcastic little snot. Then the dad is, well, not just kind of dumb but extremely dumb.

I moved on to eWe Bare Bears. Generally unobjectionable, the majority of the humor seems to revolve around them being neither kind nor unkind but vaguely vacuous. Panda doesn’t seem to be too bright. Ice Bear is sort of a monosyllabic dudebro who talks about himself in the third person. The Brown Bear guy is just there.

Finally, I hit up Clarence. Truthfully, this one is actually worse than all the others combined. Not only is the titular character stupid, the show also uses his weight and unhealthy overeating as a touchstone for humor.

I’m tellin’ y’all. Our kids deserve better.

How Kindness Is Often Correlated with Mental and/or Physical Weakness

Throughout media for kids, there’s an ongoing trope that kind people are stupid. It’s unfortunate and harmful. It creates a dichotomy within our social norms that leads to problems when children want to emulate characters in their play. When we separate out kindness from intelligence, we continue a toxic inculcation of our children.

Taking a look at Cartoon Network, which is the easiest to stroll through because they have only current shows on their website (yes, I’m looking at YOU Disney Channel and your continued Girl Meets World tease).

One of the best shows on television right now is clearly Steven Universe. Honestly, there are so many reasons to love this show that I could expound for hours. And I’ve only been binging it for two days. With that in mind, as much as I love the main character Steven, let’s throw this out there: he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. He’s sweet. He’s kind. He’s certainly gentle. He represents a wonderful alternative to traditional toxic masculinity. I love all those things about him.

But he’s kinda dumb.

I love Teen Titans Go!. Honestly, I really adore Starfire because she’s just sweet. She’s the one who’s most genuinely kind to everyone.

But her naïveté is played off as… well… kinda dumb.

The more I looked through kids’ programming, the more I realized: there are very few kind protagonists and there are even fewer kind protagonists who are also smart.

Seeking Out Smart, Kind Characters in Current Children’s Programming

I started scrolling through various network websites because we need smart, kind characters for our kids. I spent several hours on a quest through the lands of Disney XD, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and the current spate of Netflix originals.

Thinking about protagonists for children, I was hard pressed to find many that met my standards. In addition, I chose to focus on humanoid presenting characters to avoid the “alien/robot/not a person so doesn’t count” responses. So, with that in mind, I found:

Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon

Eep from Dawn of the Croods

Batgirl from DC Superhero Girls

Blossom from Powerpuff Girls

Inspector Gadget from Inspector Gadget (Holy Cowpies! How did I have to find this by looking through Netflix shows?!?!)

Alya Césaire in Miraculous Tales of Lady Bug and Cat Noir

Tip from Home: Adventures With Tip and Oh

Raven from Teen Titans Go! (Although, it’s possible that she doesn’t actually count as a human…)

Sabine and Kanaan from Star Wars Rebels (see above re: human vs alien)

Spider-Man from Ultimate Spider-Man

K.C from K.C. Undercover (although, I’d like to note that several of the other characters fall under the “good grief UGGGH DISNEY” category)

Connie on Steven Universe

Rey, Jyn Erso, Sabine, Leia, Ahsoka in Star Wars Forces of Destiny

Schroeder on Peanuts (not typically academically smart… this one feels like a stretch for me)

As of this writing, I’m guessing that several characters from Milo Murphy’s Law qualify because, well, Phineas and Ferb creatorsyo.

These are the shows currently running that I had the time, energy, and attention span to try to watch. Some of these shows I know. Some I watched enough to (hopefully) make a value judgment about.

Now, for the most part, I really tried to get a grasp on all of the shows I could. Truthfully. However, I have a limit to stupidity and, well, you can blame the majority of Cartoon Network’s and Disney’s lineups on my inability to review every single show.

No, really. Try sitting down with those for a few hours. You’ll never want your kid to turn on a television again. (Yes, Bunk’d, I’m looking directly at YOU.)

For me, the biggest surprise was K.C. from K.C. Undercover. After Disney canceled Girl Meets World, which was, to my mind, the most perfect kids’ show on television, I held out little hope. Most of the Disney characters are, frankly, obnoxious little snots, and the males come across as poster children for rape culture. K.C. is a smart, physically powerful super spy who seemed pretty much polite to her parents. Cheers to the creators.

I came up with a total of 19 decent characters who promote the idea of both intelligence and kindness. Five of those were male. Of those, only three characters could be identified as children of color–Connie, K.C., and Tip. All of those are girls.

This means that there are zero boys of color in the plethora of media I looked through who can be considered smart and kind simultaneously. Truthfully, that’s the most toxic aspect of this entire discussion.

How This Relates to Gender Norm Identification

I implored in my last article the need to ask better for both our sons and daughters. I started with my own premise about The Doctor. As I’ve said privately and will say again publicly, I still stand by it.

Over the last seven years, I’ve spent time researching the nerd stereotype as it applies to both men and women. As a first year writing instructor, the two groups that least enjoy being forced to take my courses are boys and engineers. My research has taken me to reviewing two works that inform a lot of the ways gender, STEM, writing, and intelligence overlap in unfortunate ways.

One of the most influential pieces, to me, was the work by Andrew Smiler, which I’ve quoted here on GeekMom in the past. Smiler’s research noted the following,

Male nerds also did not conform to male norms and were the only image that reported lower levels of instrumental traits. This is consistent with descriptions of nerds as both unmasculine and complicit.

What does this mean? Well, to understand that, we need to look at those pieces. The norms were things like “dominance over women,” “promiscuity,” “risk taking,” and “violence,” among others. The “instrumental traits” are defined as “assessing norm conformity in the affective, behavioral, and cognitive domains (e.g., “I should be in charge,” “I like fighting”).” In a nutshell, male nerds have been looked down upon for not being masculine.

Women, in the same way, identified high on “expressiveness” (the opposite of the instrumental behaviors of being in charge and fighting stuff). For women, the identifications with Smiler’s listed masculinities (of which there were 11) indicated the following:

Among women, greater endorsement of the average type was related to lower levels of endorsement of expressive traits. Greater endorsement of the business type was associated with increased conformity to the playboy and risk taking norms. Endorsement of the effeminate type was associated with greater conformity to the pursuit of status norm. Family identified women reported less conformity to the playboy norm and greater levels of expressive traits. Women who offered greater endorsement of the sensitive image reported less conformity to the norms of dominance, disdain for homosexuals, power over women, and winning, and reported more expressive traits.

What does this all mean? It means exactly what we all surmise in our hearts.

Women feel they can’t identify with certain male traits. Men feel it difficult to identify with certain feminine traits. Women who identified as businesswomen in the study more closely aligned with the playboy/promiscuous identity and the risk-taking personality trait. This makes sense in many ways. Taking risks (either in business or relationships) leads to being successful because innovation itself is a risk.

Meanwhile, those who identified as nerds (really smart in science basically), felt it was harder to fit within traditional masculinities. Many of the activities associated with toxic masculinities that we see in popular culture were unaligned with their sense of self.

This Is Why We Need Smart, Kind Characters in Children’s Media Across the Gender Spectrum

As a parent, this has informed my approach to popular culture and media.

All of our children deserve better than 19 characters who are capable of showing both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits. Our children need to see these in their common culture.

When society continues to perpetuate unequal gender stereotypes by separating characteristics deemed masculine or feminine, the hegemonic beliefs do not change.

When girls are given the opportunity to see smart, kind characters on television, they see that society recognizes their ability to live in both spheres. They can be the nurturing, kind girls that society expects (and you know, nurturing and kind aren’t really bad things), but they can do it while also being smart.

When boys see smart, kind boys on television, they realize that they can inhabit both spaces. Two of the main values attributed to masculinity in Smiler’s study were “dominance over women” and “violence.” These are two of the traits strongly associated with toxic masculinity. They were also two of the traits on which nerds scored lower. Creating male characters who can win using kindness and intelligence, we offer boys an alternative to physical reactions.

We Need Smart, Kind Characters in Children’s Media to Achieve Gender Equality

We need to change hegemonic culture. If we change hegemonic culture, we change societal views. Television and movies may seem pointless. “Give children books” or “watch these old shows” only work when the parents care to take the time with their children.

Let me tell you a secret: not all parents care.

Perhaps they have bigger issues to worry about, like whether there will be food on the table or a roof over their head. Maybe they are uneducated. I mean, it’s totally possible that some parents are just, well, there’s a whole string of GeekMom-inappropriate language I’d be using if we weren’t on GeekMom.

For those of us who do care? We need to make it better for all kids. We need to take up the mantle. Gender equality means empowered girls, but it also means boys able to express themselves outside of the toxic masculinity so pervasive in our culture.

We need to ask for female characters who step outside the traditional shy, meek, subservient ones so prominent in our own childhoods. We need to ask for male characters who can be intelligent without being physically weak.

We need to have multifaceted characters living in the same worlds where males and females equally represent kindness and intelligence. We need to ask our fiction to be better than our current reality.

When our fiction is better than our current reality on a regular basis, it will no longer be better than the reality in which it lives. Because when our fiction routinely matches these lofty goals, our reality will have already accepted them as social norms.

Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. When Karen isn't teaching, she is a freelance writer who works for a variety of marketing clients focusing on a variety of topics, including InfoSec and parenting. She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT. She can be reached on Twitter: @kvonhard and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GeekyKaren/