Kids’ TV is crazy smart now and yet still antiquated

A few weeks ago my son was lifting a stick of some kind so that the car he’d placed on it would roll down and, in theory, knock away whatever it was he’d place in front of it. I’m a little fuzzy remembering this. What I do remember is that his aunt was visiting and he was sitting on her lap at the kitchen table.

The car wasn’t able to knock that thing out of the way, so I asked him what the car needed more of.

“Momentum,” he said.

He’s three.

His aunt was a little stunned. And probably a bit worried, as she’s going to be a mother in a few months and here’s my son setting a bar that probably seemed high, but which really isn’t, not for kids these days.

My son knows what momentum is because he learned about it on Blaze and the Monster Machines, a STEM focused cartoon featuring a bunch of monster trucks. In each episode, Blaze and his friends must win races and solve problems using science, or a reasonable facsimile. And there’s always at least one musical montage in each episode, which is amazing, not just because the songs are kind of catchy, but because they are about the scientific principle featured in the episode. So I’ve heard songs about structural engineering, inertia, angles, light, and so on.

It’s pretty great, really. And the toys are fairly cheap, which is even better.

But for as advanced as the show might be with regards to science, it’s still wallowing with the rest of society with regards to gender.

Blaze is the star and is, of course, a boy monster machine. He has a group of friends, who are also all monster trucks: Zeg, Darrington, Stripes, and Starla. They each have a gimmick: Zeg is a dino truck, Darrington is a daredevil, Stripes is a tiger truck, and Starla is a cowgirl. Starla is also the only girl. And you will never guess what color she is.

The fact that this is a STEM focused show just makes this all the more troubling.

Now there are two human characters on Blaze. One is AJ, who drives Blaze, which is strange in and of itself, as none of the other monster trucks have drivers (but I suppose AJ is the stand in for the audience). The other human is Gabby, the mechanic. She fixes everything. And, yes, she is a girl. But kids don’t watch the show for the humans, they watch it for the monster trucks.

I’ve written before about how the Paw Patrol has token female characters that are generally ostracized when it comes to toys. Even a show like Yo Gabba Gabba, which is praised as being progressive, falls into this trap. Take a look at the main, fictional characters. There’s a red one, a blue one, a green one, and a yellow. That all makes sense, yes? But then, I suppose in an effort to add some gender balance, there’s a fifth character, Foofa, and you’ll never guess what color she is. The fact that Toodee, who is blue, is also female doesn’t offset Foofa, who also looks like a flower.

And it should be noted that Yo Gabba Gabba and Paw Patrol are fantastic shows that, while they’re not STEM based, are focused on teaching children to love music and dancing and encourage kindness and love. Both shows also do an excellent job of including a diversity of human characters.

But the gender inequality is astounding and I don’t understand why it still exists. Even if you assume that these shows are “for boys,” that doesn’t lessen the impact of having just as many female as male characters who are also just as capable and can come in a variety of colors. My son needs to see that in the shows he watches (thankfully, he sees it around him in the real world).

If we’re looking at ingrained sources of inequality, children’s television is probably a solid barometer, and what it’s saying about gender roles is not great.