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The Caped-Cowgirl sets herself a Mission

March 18, 2011

As an illustrator, a lot of my artworks are intended for children. And as with all of my pictures, I hope they will brighten somebody’s world. So this article by Suzy Freeman Greene, about the negative impact of “gender coding” of children’s products, from last weekend’s Saturday Age, got me thinking about the role of illustration in perpetuating gender stereotypes.

When I was a little girl I was never a typical girly-girl. Role-playing games I remember playing included being a fairy, a nurse, and even running a soup kitchen for homeless soft-toys, but being a cow-girl, musketeer, adventurer or druid were fantasies in which I indulged with far greater frequency. My favourite roles involved tough boots, weaponry and  usually my dressing gown masquerading as a swooshy cape. I reluctantly played with Barbie dolls only when friends insisted, (I only ever owned one, which was promptly beheaded), and while I could tolerate pink and purple princesses, I’d rather be a swashbuckling pirate any day. And I liked to mix things up,  so my games often involved characters such as a caped cowgirl with a kangaroo side-kick, or an intrepid jungle explorer with magic powers. Perhaps my biggest concession to girliness was that although I liked weapons I detested violence, (a conundrum I solved by imagining that I was so remarkably skilled with my gun or sword that I could harmlessly corner my opponent thereby forcing his/her surrender without anyone incurring injuries. Oh, and beheading Barbie wasn’t violence because she was just a pink plastic monstrosity, not a proper toy with life, thoughts and feelings). Ah, the memories… Anyway, back to the point…

For anyone creating children’s products there is commercial pressure to create products that are almost certain to sell. No manufacturer or publisher wants to shell out the big bucks to put out a worthy product that stagnates on the shelves. Fairies, princesses and ponies are guaranteed hits with the girls, while dinosaurs, diggers and dogs do it for the boys. And so, for the most part these are the kinds of themes that are constantly rehashed in illustrations for children. I do it too, and because they are fun themes to paint, I enjoy it.

But a part of me resents doing it. I think it might be the swashbuckling cowgirl part of me…

So, I’m wondering what I can do to mix things up a little. I don’t think we need to completely abandon painting dinosaurs for boys and fairies for girls, (having worked in a bookshop I’ve seen how strongly children really are drawn to these themes), but I’m sure there are girls who would like a change from ponies and princesses, or who would get a kick out of kick-arse ponies and princesses instead of pretty prissy ones. And I’m sure there would be parents who would appreciate it too. So while I’m not sure quite where I’m going to take this idea, or when I’ll find the time and inspiration, I am sure that I’d like to create some characters and artworks that mix up the girl/boy product divisions. As an illustrator, I think it will be an interesting creative challenge. And I’m also pretty sure that wherever this idea takes me, there’s a little caped cowgirl inside me who is going to be calling the shots, enjoying the ride, and lassoing any pink princesses who threaten the mission…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. confused permalink
    March 23, 2011 9:40 am

    I’m all for mixing things up, and your adventures sound pretty cool. But I don’t get how you can gender-code some things. Dinosaurs, for example, I loved unreservedly as a little girl. I could say all the long names and talk about the amazing finds in the Gobi Desert. I never felt this was a “boy thing” and it would have been more acceptable for me to like them if the dinosaurs had been, for example, wearing pink bows or were pretty Disney colours with big eyes. (Yes, this was before whatever Disney movie did that.) I understand your point about kick-ass princesses riding horses, and to give them credit Disney are doing a bit more of that (although they’re still skinny ones with big eyes). But some things I think would be a mistake to try to gender – the challenge is more with the parents to allow their kids to choose their own interests and expose to them as many as possible. My $0.05.

    • Julia Marshall permalink*
      March 23, 2011 2:13 pm

      I absolutely agree!

      As someone who is involved in creating products aimed at kids and their parents, and other adult buyers, I’ve become very conscious of the fact that almost all toys and children’s products are now targeted at either boys or girls, with only a minority of toys being created with both genders in mind. And I think this is more the case now than it was when you and I were children.

      When there is too strong a delineation between toys intended for boys and those for girls, and when this covers almost all the products on the market, I think it dramatically increases the pressure on children to pick from the “right” side – even with themes, like dinosaurs, which could easily appeal to both boys and girls. These days, dinosaurs products are aimed squarely at boys – and I don’t think they should be.

      Lots of girls love diggers and dinosaurs, and many boys love soft toys, and cute animals, or elves and fairies – the danger is that if the design, packaging, advertising and placement within a shop all emphasize that certain themes are for one gender then they do become gender coded, and it becomes harder for children to choose an item from “the other side”, (particularly children who are not innately individualistic, or don’t have the benefit of open-minded parents who are encouraging individuality).

      I believe there needs to be more emphasis on creating products that are either not gender coded, or which slightly subvert the “standard” gender codes to counter this. But obviously, the actions of parents will be the most influential factor in determining whether children follow their own inclinations and interests.

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