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"Mum, why isn't Wonder Woman wearing any clothes?"

Louise Phillips looks at the role models for young women and finds them lacking.

LAST WEEK MY four-year granddaughter asked her mother, “why isn’t Wonder Woman wearing any clothes?”

It was a valid question from a mind oblivious to the fact that female superheroes wearing the equivalent of underwear is normal, while their male counterparts are usually covered from their ankles up.

Establishing illogical gender norms in young minds may not bother everyone, but as a parent and a grandparent, it irks the hell out of me.

Humans are like other species in the animal kingdom – they’re designed to find ways to survive. They observe by taking in the world around them, adopting social norms. Why? Because if they don’t, they risk being ostracised. And by extension, survival – staying within the pack is safer.

If the things children observe are so important, and part of how they grasp the world, you’d like to see some impressive role models.

Lack of female characters

Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, and Max and Ruby are all popular children’s cartoons. Along with characters from Frozen, they fill the aisles of toy stores.

For those of you unfamiliar with Paw Patrol, it has six puppies; five males and one female. The female pup doesn’t feature a lot. There is a boy who is the human boss/leader, but Chase is the top pup. He is male and he wears blue.

My granddaughter is particularly fond of him, seeing herself naturally as a leader. In her imaginary world, coincidently, she’s usually male, she saves the day and her favourite colour is blue.

Dream Toys 2015 Paw Patrol Paw Patroller Toy PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Despite hearing a second female pup is being added, I worry that with a personality described as hyperactive, playful and very fond of Jake, who she hugs and licks a lot, this character might not be a natural leader.

Women moan, men lead

Peppa Pig does have a lead female role. Unfortunately, she’s also moany and annoying.

Mammy Pig is clever, but she is never in charge of anything. She stands back while Daddy Pig, an idiot, is in charge. Everyone marches behind Daddy even though he’ll get them lost in the woods, or worse.

Cartoon translation: it’s okay to marry a fool and have them in charge of your world. It’s ridiculous, yet we buy Peppa Pig lunchboxes and a lot more besides.

Peppa Pig and George Pig EMPICS Sport / Press Association EMPICS Sport / Press Association / Press Association

Another favourite is Max and Ruby – note the male name first. Ruby is the older sister, Max is the younger brother. He gets up to all kinds of mischief, doing the fun stuff. Ruby is sensible. She says things like, “don’t do that”.

Cartoons tell us female boss equals whiney bitch; male boss equals leader.

Males in charge

If you want superheroes, there’s PJ Masks with Catboy, the blue-eyed boy who leads the group. Usually he’s not the best person for the job, but he leads anyway. Translation – he’s in charge because he talks the talk, and he’s male.

So in this world our children frequent, the place where they learn the rules by observing and applying imitating behaviour, the males are in charge.

If in Paw Patrol, the random blonde female is only featured when she wants to make the dogs look pretty, or Daddy in Peppa Pig is always followed by the other pigs, and Catboy, in PJ Masks, despite being an idiot, is running the show, what are these cartoons selling? Because there is selling going on.

Follow the money

Which brings me back to Frozen, Disney’s biggest grossing animated movie of all time.

There’s good and bad here. Good, because the movie broke the Disney Princess movies predominantly aimed at girls. In Frozen, we got a movie with female leads which boys and girls flocked to.

Disney On Ice Frozen launch - London Dominic Lipinski / Press Association Dominic Lipinski / Press Association / Press Association

It’s bad because the character receiving the most attention is not the heroine.

Elsa has the power to freeze things and is hidden away because she’s ashamed of her powers. But the real heroine is Anna, the other sister, who wants to save everyone and is prepared to die for the cause. Most of the merchandising is around Elsa, the taller, blonder sister rather than Anna, the short redhead.

There have been similar scandals surrounding the Avengers and Star Wars. Both the strong female heroines didn’t get their own action figures while all the male characters did. The reason? Toy companies assumed only boys play with action figures, and they wouldn’t buy them if they were women.

Eventually, after a large outcry, Rey and Black Widow figures were added to the merchandise lines.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise launch Star Wars' Daisy Ridley and John Boyega holding up their characters action figures PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Part of the reason that shows aimed at children have so many male characters is the belief that they can make more money from selling merchandise.

When my granddaughter asked why Wonder Woman wasn’t wearing any clothes, her mother didn’t launch into a rant about how too often the validation of woman is portrayed through their sexuality and as objects for men.

Instead, my daughter complimented her on asking a great question. In her four-year-old world she thought it odd that a female superhero wore only underwear, and long may she think it.

Louise Phillips is a best-selling crime novelist. Her latest novel, The Game Changer, is available nationwide.

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