When a friend had her second child, she told me she was glad it was a daughter, because it meant she could watch Sofia the First, which her son stopped being willing to watch ever since his father told him the show was for girls. At the time, I was just annoyed because it bothered me that anyone would limit a three-year-old’s viewing based on gender. Since then, my own three-year-old has actually watched Sofia the First, and I’m irritated by the show itself on a whole different level.
At first glance, it’s a harmless enough show. Unusually, it’s a kids’ show where the mixed-gender group has more girls than boys. Specifically Sofia (Ariel Winter) and her stepsiblings, Princess Amber (Darcy Rose Byrnes) and Prince James (Zach Callison or Nicolas Cantu, depending on the season). Sofia was a normal village girl until her mother (Sara Ramirez) married King Roland II (Travis Willingham). I guess to bond with his new stepdaughter, Roland gave Sofia a magic amulet that, among other things, lets her talk to animals.
So far, so good. But what struck me as I watched more and more of it was that pretty much all the characters are locked into a series of gender roles. There’s an episode where Sofia wants to do [thing], which only princes do. And it becomes okay, for reasons, that Sofia does it. But the implication is that no princess ever has wanted to do the thing. What’s more, it doesn’t seem that any prince doesn’t want to do the thing. Sofia crosses over basically because she was a peasant and doesn’t know any better. And the other princesses, who are almost universally vain, shallow, petty, and snobbish, shame her for it.
But even without Sofia’s class issues, which are a whole other thing, it just feels as though Disney’s animated programming is regressive in a way that it wasn’t when I was a kid—in a way that, really, the movies aren’t. When I was a kid, you had a single parent bear running an air freight company. A technical genius mouse. And also a homebody nurturing bear, because it was okay to nurture if that was what you wanted to do and also because there was more than one show with bears from Disney when I was a kid. And even the show with the nurturing bear featured an adventurous one. With the stuff my son watches, you seem to get at most one tomboy, and even she can’t tomboy too much; remember that Sofia wears voluminous skirts most of the time no matter what she’s doing.
And it isn’t just Sofia, either. I’ll admit that Minnie Mouse has never been all that interesting to me, but if anything her “just an offshoot of Mickey” designation is worse on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and its spinoff Minnie’s Bow-Toons. There’s very much a hint of “the boys go have adventures while the girls stay home and make tea” in both. In the latter, Minnie is allowed to have her own business, but it’s making bows. Not fashion in general—just bows. And somehow, every crisis that comes up over the course of an episode can be solved with bows. Why not? I mean, aside from the fact that it’s horribly limiting, of course.
On Jake and the Never Land Pirates, each of the three children has a special Thing that they use to help on their adventures. Jake (there have been four Jakes) has his sword. Cubby (Jonathan Morgan Heit or Jadon Sand) has a map, which he’s made himself. And Izzy (Madison Pettis or Megan Richie) has . . . pixie dust she’s been given by the fairies and which she reminds us in every episode is only for emergencies. And my goodness but it takes work to shoehorn a flying solution into certain episodes. Sometimes, they give up and have her need to use the pixie dust for reasons having nothing to do with the main plot at all.
What’s more, Izzy essentially asks Jake’s permission before using the pixie dust. Bad enough that the girl has the item associated with fairies—indeed, that there’s one girl and two boys. Worse that she’s the one whose gift doesn’t really require her own skill. Cubby turns out to be a gifted cartographer even when he’s not working with an enchanted map, and of course a sword is going to require skill unless it’s got some heavy enchantment. But we know that literally anyone can make pixie dust work; that’s kind of a plot point. But worst of all, she can’t even decide on her own to use it.
I am usually a pretty staunch Disney defender. As is obvious from the fact that I write a whole column on the subject. And goodness knows they aren’t the only offender in this field. Shimmer and Shine is from Nickelodeon, and it’s the subject of yet another rant. (Actually, it and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are both, along with PJ Masks, in my “sometimes only one person is actually in the wrong” rant.) It just feels as though, in recent years, the majority of their shows are trying to shoehorn girls into a pattern that they might not fit.
In a way, it’s at least as bad for boys, too. At least Sofia and Izzy get to do “boy stuff,” more or less. The boys basically aren’t allowed to do “girl stuff” at all. Minnie’s Bow-Toons suggests initially that bows aren’t just for girls, but after a single penguin in a bow tie, the idea of bows for boys is pretty quickly dropped. In Enchancia, Sofia’s kingdom, it quickly becomes clear that boys have a wider range of expected activities but a narrower range of permissible ones, as they aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t expected. That’s why I’m hoping my son grows out of these quickly; I think they’re limiting to everyone.