Can girls be scary pirates? The problem with lazy role models in our media

Simon Booth-Lucking

Simon Booth-Lucking on Aug 14, 2013

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Mary Read and Anne Bonney, famous women pirates and very scary Mary Read and Anne Bonney, famous women pirates and very scary

“Girls can’t be scary pirates, only nice pirates”

“Only boys can do Tree Fu Tom’s spells.”

“Pink stickers are for girls and blue stickers are for boys”

Three things said by my three-year-old daughter in recent weeks. It pains my feminist wife to hear them and surprises me how easily these beliefs sneak in. Especially when I’ve so closely monitored the household pink quota!

The problem is role models. Becoming a parent changes the way you see the world in countless ways, but among the most eye-opening has been how rigid children’s media still is about what boys do and what girls do. Once you notice it you start to see it everywhere.

  • Toy Story – all the protagonists are male
  • Thomas the Tank Engine – one of the few female characters is “a bit bossy” and the other “wants to be like Thomas”
  • Octonauts – otherwise brilliant (I secretly enjoy watching it, as do others) but the three main characters are male
  • Mike the Knight – Mike wears blue armour and gets to ride around on a horse being daring; his sister Evie wears pink (obvs), pootles behind on a scooter, and her magic always go wrong

Of course it’s not all bleak. Peppa Pig, Sarah and Duck, and Abney and Teal are all great. But, there’s not much derring-do to inspire a young girl pirate!

For that we turned to Brave, Disney’s tale of Merida, a horse-riding, arrow-firing, arranged marriage-rejecting Scottish princess. Brilliant. Oh but hang on, now Disney have re-styled Merida into a “sexualised” version for toys (curves, hair blowing in the wind, lipstick). No wonder over 250,000 people (including me) have signed a petition to keep their hero Brave.

Does any of this matter? According to Girl Guides UK it does as a lack of female role models is damaging the future prospects of girls and young women. They linked the narrow range of role models to limited future aspirations.

And what is all this doing to boys? The Everyday Sexism project and recent Twitter misogyny shows some men still struggle to accept women as equals. Is it too great a leap to imagine that the seeds of this are sown in early role models?

So, the hunt for better role models continues in our household. And in our work. The people who produce and commission children’s media aren’t bad, but I suspect they are a bit lazy at times. In a rush and faced with a creative problem it’s easy to reach for the familiar rather than what’s right or true. We can and should do better.

As for my daughter and pirates. Well, it turns out there are a number of very scary women pirates in history. Perhaps the most famous are Anne Bonney and Mary Read who, under attack from the British Navy, fired upon their cowardly shipmates for hiding below decks. Fine role models for women dealing with anonymous internet abuse I’d say.