The ‘super-competent female’ trope is undermining feminism
“I know that for a fact!”
Fellow UK-based parents may well recognise this irritating catchphrase from the popular CBeebies show, ‘Peter Rabbit’.
It’s the line uttered each episode by Peter’s token female pal, Lily, when she inevitably gets adventurous Peter and bumbling Benjamin out of their latest brush with the oven thanks to her quick-thinking and superior knowledge. Constantly retrieving useful items from her (pink…) “just in case pocket”, Lily’s ability to plan and problem solve is often the key to the bunnies’ success — and survival.
However, unlike Peter and Benjamin, Lily wasn’t an original character in Beatrix Potter’s original children’s books. Instead, the progressively-minded production team chose to introduce her in order to strike a better gender balance in their interpretation of the author’s classic stories.
And what better way to prove their feminist credentials than by making her super smart, super competent and super unflappable? After all, isn’t that the kind of role model that young girls need to see on television these days?
Not always. And here’s why.
Because practically every single female sidekick in kids’ adventure TV shows is super smart, super competent and super unflappable.
Why does this matter? Well, firstly because the competent female is very rarely the character who takes the credit for the team’s success. Indeed, this fantastic article highlights the countless superior female sidekicks who deserved to be the hero across a whole range of films and TV shows aimed at kids and adults alike.
But although we definitely need to see more females in the limelight, and seeing aspirational female characters is undoubtedly positive, I’d also argue that we need to see more well-meaning females getting it wrong, too. Because here’s the catch: more often than not, alongside the competent female in the same ‘gang’, there’s always a less smart, less competent and less unflappable character who, despite their flaws, is just as successful. And, 99% of the time, that character is male.
Let’s take a brief look at what seems to be a common formula followed by a number of kids’ adventure-based TV shows that are broadcast in the UK:
So what message could this undeniable pattern be sending to children? That in order to be female and successful you must be utterly perfect. Even then, you probably still won’t get the credit for your flawless work . Yet if you’re male you can be just as successful as the most talented member of the team, even if you make frequent, potentially-catastrophic mistakes.
And this is why kids need to see more flawed female characters on TV.
Girls need to see and know that it’s OK for them to make mistakes, too. That they shouldn’t have to work ten times harder than their male counterparts, only to receive the same — or less — credit.
And boys need to know that flawed females can still bring many strengths and fresh perspectives to the table, just like the flawed males do.
There are a few shows that buck the trend. ‘Trolls: The Beat Goes On’ (a spin-off from the successful films) features male AND female characters who get themselves into various tight spots and work together to resolve them. In fact, the entire show has deep underlying allegorical undertones (and the latest film from the Trolls universe — ‘Trolls World Tour’ — appears to be inspired by the themes of oppression and cultural appropriation).
‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ has been widely applauded for its varied range of active female characters who possess weaknesses, yet are unwavering in their support of each other. In fact, there’s only one male character in the whole show, and even then he’s peripheral to the main storylines.
Shows like Netflix’s ‘Hilda’, which centres around a young female protagonist who grows and matures as she encounters new emotions and experiences, fill me with hope that the tide is turning. And, of course, the film ‘Inside Out’ is truly exceptional in terms of exploring the importance of emotional vulnerability in girls. But the truth is that these limited examples remain exceptions to the rule.
Every day, children are being fed the notion that girls must be smart, capable and highly-skilled if they’re to be successful, and that making mistakes is only something that boys are able to do.
It’s time for kids to see males AND females showing vulnerabilities and gaps in their knowledge, supporting each other through them, learning from their experiences and developing, together.
Do you know of any other kids’ TV shows that fit or subvert the ‘competent female’ trope? Comment here or send them to me via Instagram — @HayleyJDunlop.