NAMLE/Media Literacy Week: Gender in Children’s Media


Culver opens the event with defining the differences between “sex” and “gender”.

On November 7th, CMA hosted our annual Media Literacy Week event with the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). Sherri Hope Culver, the director for the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University, led an exciting and in-depth discussion on gender in children’s media. The event made for a topical view into how gender roles are portrayed in today’s media. Sharing their perspectives and experiences on our panel were Lewis Freeman (Senior Lecturer in Fordham University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies), Autumn Zitani (Senior Director of Content in Sesame Workshop’s Curriculum and Content Department), and Mary Ellen Holden (Advisor to the Geena Davis Institute).

Left to right: Freeman, Zitani, and Holden.

Culver kicked off the event by defining the differences between “sex” and “gender”. She pointed out that your sex is assigned at birth but your gender is how you see/define yourself to the world. Culver gave the audience a moment to think on this and then played several videos related to how young people see gender. The first video showed children being presented with t-shirts of various colors and designs. As expected, when asked who the shirt was for, children responded with the typical gender bias towards colors and design (boys like blue, green, and dinosaurs, while girls like pink, purple, and glitter). Another video asked kids and teens of both genders to act like a girl in various scenarios. The majority of these responses were stereotyped actions of flailing arms and legs while running, squirming and ducking when fighting, and acting as cartoonish depictions of girl-type behavior. These videos helped to fuel the room’s thinking on how our ideas on gender come to be shaped in such a black and white way.

Mary Ellen Holden shares how The Little Prince showcases a positive representation of gender in the children’s media.

Culver next turned to the panel and asked them to share places where they’ve seen a positive representation of gender in the media. Holden started with her selection, The Little Prince. Holden pointed out that in the film version, a girl tells the story of The Little Prince; she wears an aviation outfit, and takes on STEM-related explorations. Holden explained how the movie showed that girls had the potential to become something other than the standard roles they are told they can play. She added that this speaks to the Geena Davis Institute’s slogan, “If she can see it, she can be it”

Next, Zitani shared a song from Sesame Street, where the cast sings about the fun of dressing up and being themselves, no matter who they are. Freeman then showed a web series called Mc2, which showcases four teen girls who use their STEM skills to solve problems. All three of these examples, Culver pointed out, highlighted girls as the focus. Holden replied that the current landscape of storytelling in the media is now occupied mainly by male characters, so female characters are still a rarity, which is why the selections the panelists shared stood out. Zitani added that Sesame is currently taking action to bring more girls to prominent roles, where males often dominate. In these roles, girls get to be problem solvers, academics and take part in more industrial careers. In doing so, they hope to honor Sesame’s current season’s tagline, “If you can see it, you can play it, you can be it”. Zitani added that this new wave of girl power is exciting but what really will help the imbalance is more real world displays of gender equality. Through research and reflection, Zitani found that girl power means including boys in roles that support girls. This means that we need to replicate more “team” dynamics and equal identity, rather than simply focusing on girl empowerment.

Freeman discusses his thoughts on Adventure Time and other gender fluid series on television today.

Continuing the discussion, Culver next brought up the topic of pronouns. She asked the panel and audience why they think we are not seeing more usage of the pronoun they/them within the dialogue of today’s shows, while it is growing as a movement in the general public’s vernacular. Zitani shared that the movement is slow moving but it’s happening in small ways. On a current Sesame Street game, they’ve decided to use the they/them pronoun, in order to create more equal and inclusive dialogue in that world. An audience member spoke up and shared that they felt that so much of how we learn to speak starts with what we learn from media, and it’s important for us (the media) to start these conversations around the vocabulary we use to describe the world we are trying to represent.

Culver next wanted to discuss stereotyping and generalizations, and how it affects content over time. This thought led to a group discussion block, where attendees were assigned a task. They would need to think about the show Mc2 and create a mini-pitch for a show that wasn’t about four girls taking part in STEM activities, but instead four boys. How would they construct a show like that without the usual stereotypes?

The room buzzed for several minutes while groups challenged themselves with the assignment. When time was up, there were several really interesting ideas that came forth. Several groups suggested a baby sitters club of boys. This idea took on different twists across the groups but all of them put boys in the role of caretakers. Another idea presented was for a boy-run cooking club at a school. Culver found the ideas exciting since they all modeled to boys that males can be acceptable to other males when in roles that are not typically considered traditional for boys.

Audience members discuss their pitches and active ways create gender equality in media.

The panel and audience continued to talk together and keep the conversation flowing around how boys are represented in the media and how their roles are often limiting. To watch video of the full conversation, Click here to log in with your CMA Member Account!