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December 2, 2010

Gender Disparity in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Did anyone else watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade? Did you watch it with your kids? Did you happen to notice the lack of female character balloons? Yeah, you're not the only one. I noticed. Lil' Lilith noticed. And apparently Hardy Girls Healthy Women also noticed.
Check out this action alert from them on change.org:
Tell Macy’s you want more girl and women character balloons in their Thanksgiving Day parade!

Did you know that over the 84-year history of the Macy's Day Parade only TEN of their giant helium balloons have depicted GIRLS or WOMEN? 2010 continues in the same fashion with the addition of character balloons from the popular book "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and movie "Kung Fu Panda." Two more cool and exciting boy balloons.

Check out this Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE) blog that highlights the problem: http://equalvisibilityeverywhere.org/blog/the-macys-thanksgiving-day-parade/

The paltry selection of female characters includes, this year, Virginia (Based on the true story of Virginia O'Hanlon of "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" fame). In years past we've seen: Hello Kitty, Abby Cadabby (2007), Dora the Explorer, JoJo (2005), Cassie from Dragon Tales (2000), Blue's Clues (1999), Betty Boop (1985), Raggedy Ann (1984), and Olive Oyl (1982).

But 10 in 84 years? Ten out of 129 total? Under 8%?!

Children need to see entertainment where females are visible and valued as much as males. In popular movies and on TV boys greatly outnumber girls. We know from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media http://www.seejane.org/, for example, that 28%, fewer than 1/3, of speaking characters (real and animated) in 101 top G-rated films from 1990 to 2005 were female. Such disparity conveys a message to all children about who is important and who isn't. We also know that when girls and women do exist in the media, they tend to be hypersexualized and valued for their appearance over their strength of character and capabilities.

The official Macy's Parade site tells us: "Every year, Macy's exciting holiday tradition is seen by more than 3.5 million people who line the streets in New York and another 50 million who tune into NBC to watch the giant balloons, one-of-a-kind floats, the nations best marching bands, hundreds of cheering clowns and a host of celebrities." Don't little girls, like little boys, deserve to see themselves reflected in the holidays? Shouldn't little boys see those girls too? Why aren't we all kicking off the holiday season with a celebration that includes a rich array of cool and exciting female as well as male characters?

More female characters do not mean more sexy characters. We know Macy's can find fantastic girls and women whose actions and accomplishments celebrate the power of girls in the 21st century!
Note: Of those 10 female characters that they've had over the past 84 years... only Hello Kitty and Virginia remain now.

Go HERE to sign the petition to tell Macy's you want half of all their parade balloons to be heroines for girls to look up to and cartoon characters that reflect their gender. And PASS IT ON!

A small selection of options (chosen by girls in their Powered By Girl campaign):
Amelia Earhart
Pippi Longstocking
Word Girl
Hermione Granger
The Paperbag Princess
Olivia the Pig
Pinky Dinky Doo
The new Wonder Woman
Lisa Simpson
Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

Lil' Lilith and I thought of a few others that we like (some are a little old, but so are some of the current balloons they still have in the parade):
  • Kim Possible
  • The Powerpuff Girls
  • Velma from Scooby Doo (or Daphne, but we like Velma better)
  • Princess Fiona from Shrek 
  • Minnie Mouse
  • Smurfette
  • Strawberry Shortcake
  • Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender 
  • Wednesday from The Addams Family (now on Broadway)
  • Mary Poppins (also now on Broadway)
  • Candace or Isabella from Phineas and Ferb 
  • Bea Goldfishberg from Fish Hooks 
  • Jane or Judy Jetson
  • Wilma or Betty or Pebbles from The Flintstones 
  • Eloise from Eloise at the Plaza 
  • Lucy from Peanuts 
  • Madeline
  • Sailor Moon
  • Jessie from Toy Story 
  • Ramona and Beezus
  • Freckleface Strawberry
  • Ginormica from Monsters vs Aliens 
  • Tinkerbell
  • Any of the female Power Rangers
  • Emily Elizabeth from Clifford 
  • Alice from Alice in Wonderland
And even though we're not exactly fans of most of the Disney princesses, some aren't as bad as others... and there are quite a few of them that have never been featured in the parade, especially not as balloons. (Also, Tangled, the re-worked retelling of the classic Rapunzel story, is in theaters right now.) 

Who else is missing? Who would you like to see in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?

I shared the above link and petition with some friends on Facebook (sigh, that was my first mistake!) and got met with a lot of criticism and opposition. I got super frustrated so I just deleted the whole thing and started again with a new link (no negative comments yet!) I don't expect people to think that parade balloons is the most important issue in the world (nor do I think it is) but I was surprised by how dismissive some of my friends - all women, no less - were about the topic. We feel like this is a topic that, however trivial it may seem, does matter. So here are some of the main arguments I received against 'the cause' and our responses...

  • They're cartoons, they're not real people. And some of them aren't even human!

Not sure what the 'they're not real people' argument is about... because obviously they're mostly cartoon and other fictional characters. So? Are little girls only allowed to see their gender represented as actual real life people? Little kids watch cartoons all the time... But the 'they aren't human' point is an interesting one. Personally I don't think that Hello Kitty or Blue's Clues is a good substitute for having actual visible human female characters... but I'd rather there be non-human females than no females at all. The problem, is that there isn't enough of either!

Of the mere 10 female characters that Macy's has included in the parade over the last 84 years, only six were people (less if you don't consider a fairy and a doll to be exactly human beings). Now, I personally don't count certain cartoon animals or balloons as being gendered in the sense that we're talking about here, unless they are also somewhat anthropomorphic. So Kung-fu Panda and Mickey Mouse... they count as male because they have human-like characteristics. Snoopy? He may not speak like a human being but he can type on a typewriter and fly an airplane, so he counts as male. Blue from Blue's Clues... I'd say she's borderline anthropomorphic, but definitely still female for these purposes.  Frieda the Dachshund... who is... a dachshund? No. Doesn't count.

There have been plenty of male balloon characters - both human and non-human. The fact there are so few female balloons is a problem; the fact that they're not all  human is another problem... it doesn't negate the original problem.

  • It's just parade. It's for kids!
Just a parade, maybe... but a parade that every year attracts an estimated 2 million live viewers and 50 million television viewers. And yes it's for kids... that's exactly why this is so important. If a hugely popular and televised event or experience excludes half of our children, that's a problem. Adults might be able to understand "okay, it's just a parade" but for kids it means so much more. When little girls don't see themselves represented, they're sent a very clear message that they are not important. When little boys don't see girls represented, they're sent that same message. Both girls and boys need to see strong, positive females from a very young age (girls, so they can grow into strong women; boys, so they can grow up to respect and support strong women).

  • It's all about money.  We can't rely on a corporate sponsored parade to produce role models for our children.
Yes, obviously it's all about money. That's why some of the most recognizably 'corporate' balloons over the years have been of the Pillsbury Doughboy, Ronald McDonald, the Energizer Bunny, the Nestlé Nesquik Bunny, M&Ms, and the Kool-Aid Man. No one can claim that these are popular characters that children care about... and they're certainly not role models. (In fact, with the exception of the Energizer Bunny all are junk food spokes-characters! Ugh. It's disgusting the way these companies market to children, but that's a whole other blog.)

So no, we can't rely on these companies to produce positive role models... at least not on their own. But we can demand that they feature positive role models and characters of both genders equally. How? By reminding them - and their many sponsors - that we know it's all about money and if they want to continue getting our money (as shoppers, viewers, etc.) they need to step it up and do the right thing.

  • Blame the cartoon makers and TV networks. Tell them to make more female cartoon characters.
This isn't completely off-base. There should be more female cartoon characters and literary characters, etc. We've been arguing this point for a long time. But saying that this gives Macy's a free pass on the parade isn't fair. It implies that there are no female characters to choose from and poor Macy's can't help it. They can. We already gave our list above, but maybe it would help to look at some of the male characters they have introduced in the past few years... and realize how easy it would've been to include comparable female characters as well.

In 2009 there was yet another new version of Mickey Mouse (Sailor Mickey). Hm. They've had four Mickey Mouse balloons (1934, 1972, 2000, 2009) but never Minnie Mouse. Why not? In 2008 they introduced Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear... Why not Jessie? Or even Bo Peep or Mrs. Potato Head or ugh, even Barbie? (In 2005 there was also a Mr. Potato Head balloon.)

There was a Smurf introduced in 2008 but no Smurfette. Shrek (2007) but no Fiona. Two separate versions of Kermit the Frog (1997 and 2002) but never Miss Piggy. Charlie Brown was introduced in 2002 and there have been six separate Snoopy balloons over the years (1968, 1972, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2006), but never Lucy or Sally or Marcie or Peppermint Patty. In 1997, there was a Rugrats balloon... but it only consisted of two male characters, Tommy and Chuckie, and a dog. Where was Angelica? (Or Lil, Susie, or Kimi?) In 1990 both Clifford the Big Red Dog and Bart Simpson were introduced... but no Emily Elizabeth or Lisa Simpson?

There is definitely a scarcity of strong female role models on TV and in film, especially when it comes to cartoon characters... we won't deny that. So yes, we should blame the TV networks as well. But the idea that Macy's did not include more female balloons because they couldn't is just incredibly naive.

  • It's based on popularity. It's not Macy's fault that the most popular characters are male and America doesn't like more female cartoons. They have to use characters that everyone will know.
Okay, so there are three separate, but related, points here: 1. It's based on popularity. 2. They have to use characters everyone will know. 3. America doesn't like female cartoon characters. Okay, well I think we can absolutely just disregard that last one without even addressing it. I mean, come on. (If you really don't get it, then just re-read the one above this.) But the other ones are interesting...

Some of the balloons are based on what is most popular - and recognizable - and some of the balloons are old favorites. But mostly, it's about promotion and as we said before money. The new female character this year was Virginia from Yes, Virginia. One of the most famous Christmas stories of all time, but not necessarily recognizable as a balloon float. She was chosen not for her popularity, but because CBS wanted to promote the fact that the animated special will be airing again this December. We're not complaining because without her, there would have been only nine female balloons in the past 84 years, but the truth is it's not just about popularity.

Look at another recent addition:   Artie the Pirate was reintroduced again in 2007 (on the 60th anniversary of his first appearance). Hm. Might be an old favorite, but we'd hardly describe him as popular or recognizable with today's children. Definitely not a character that everyone knows. (I did a quick informal polling of my friends and none of them knew who he was supposed to be other than 'some pirate guy?' But maybe we're not the right age demographic for old Artie. Or maybe I'm just out of the loop. Is this a popular character that everyone knows? I'm sincerely asking.)

If we, as viewers and consumers, told Macy's that instead of just what's (allegedly) most popular, we wanted more female characters they might just try to make us happy in order to keep getting our money.

  • We grew up on all male cartoons and we turned out fine! 

Anytime there's an attempt at social change, someone makes the claim that we turned out fine. Maybe we (who?) turned okay 'fine' but I think about how much better we all could be than the 'fine' that we're allegedly at right now. And I think about how many women and girls who didn't turn out so great - eating disorders, low self esteem, abusive boyfriends, sexual dysfunction, unplanned pregnancy, poor education, shitty jobs. I think about the fact that we've still never had a female president or vice president (and the sad fact that the closest we've come so far was Sarah Palin). Only 17% of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are women. In 2008, more than 15 million women were living below the poverty level. The rates of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence against women are staggering.

It would be stretching it a lot to claim that one parade plays a huge role, but this kind of thing is just one small piece of the bigger picture and every little bit helps ensure a better future for our children.

  • Cartoons today are not what we grew up with. There aren't a lot of good female role models now. Even Barbie is a slut.
Um. What? This one goes directly against the earlier claim that we grew up on all male cartoons and turned out 'fine'. No, cartoons today are not what we grew up with. They're better and worse. There are more strong female characters, there are more characters from various races and ethic backgrounds (without resorting to racist stereotypes), there is more diversity all around. But there is also more sexualization of female characters (not that this didn't exist back in the day too, although it's definitely worse now).

But as for Barbie? Yeah, total slut.What this has to do with the Thanksgiving parade... I'll never know.

  • I blame the parents. If they didn't let the kids watch this stuff, it wouldn't be on TV.
This is half true. Yes, parents shouldn't let the TV raise their children (we say this a lot) but that's letting the networks off too easy. The networks don't make it easy to not let your kids watch. The way they market to children and shove these characters down our throats and over-saturate every form of media with these shows is disgusting. They create such a hype over some of these shows that in some sad cases, kids are picked on for being different or if they're not 'in the loop'. (We all know how bad bullying can be, but even the subtle stuff can hurt.) It really makes it hard to say no to it and even harder to keep your kids from being exposed to it in other ways, even if you do say no. 

And what about the effects that it has on kids whose parents don't say no, because they don't care or don't believe it matters? (You know, the type who say things like "oh it's just a parade" or "it's just a TV show".) Hasn't it ever occurred to anyone that no matter how much we shelter, protect, teach, and empower our own children... if the other kids in the schoolyard are learning lessons opposite from what we're teaching, then they're still at risk?

And the idea that if the kids (and parents) didn't want these kinds of shows/characters/role models then they wouldn't be made is just a shallow justification for what networks want to put on the air. Parents need to do more than just turn off the TV. What parents need to do is tell the networks "we're not going to watch your shows, support your station, buy your merchandise unless you __________". Maybe then there would be better stuff on TV. It's pretty obvious that the networks aren't going to make the first move... so we need to do that.

It is all related. The networks create these characters, the corporations pay to sponsor the parade, it's all one big interconnected cycle of sexism and non-inclusion and it all needs to be addressed. The only question is what do we tackle first? Which brings us to the next one:

  • Changes can start somewhere else. Why not take it up with the people who design costumes for little girls? Or Lady Gaga - she famously dressed up as a literal piece of meat.
Hm. Okay. Well like we said, change can start somewhere else... but why? It's unrealistic to think that we're gonna change the whole big bad corporate sexist world in one swoop. It takes little steps on all fronts in order to make real change... So why not start with something that we can maybe actually accomplish, like one parade? Just because we're choosing to focus on parade balloons right now doesn't mean we don't care about other issues or that we aren't simultaneously trying to tackle more than one area at a time. We did just write about the odd over-sexualization of Halloween costumes this October.

The sad truth is that our children - especially our little girls - are bombarded with negative images and messages ALL THE TIME. Everywhere they look. Is the parade the most important element to their development? No, of course not. But when they're getting the message that they are not important from every direction, something like this is just one more step we can take that says 'yes, you are'.

Recommended Reading: FAQ: Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?

But as for Lady Gaga and her meat dress. I won't pretend that she doesn't dress provocatively or have some questionable attributes, but... she's not exactly meant to be a role model for little girls. And she also isn't a fictional character that someone created specifically for little girls (okay, she may be somewhat of a fictional character, but there is a serious distinction here.) Truthfully I think Lady Gaga is a much better role model for our daughters than certain other celebrities (doesn't mean she's a great one per se, but I can name plenty of worse ones). She's a strong, independent, highly successful, highly motivated, talented confident, kinda-feminist woman. And her explanation of the meat dress goes completely against the alleged meaning that the commenter above implied:
"if we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights pretty soon, we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” -- Lady Gaga [JustJared, emphasis mine]
Of course, this has nothing to do with what we're talking about here... but we'll take any excuse to talk about Lady Gaga.

  • Do the Jewish people get pissy because Santa is in the parade?
I don't know, do the Jewish people get pissy because Santa is in the parade? I bet some of them do. As an entire people... well, it's hard to say. My personal opinion is that they have a right to. This is not a Christian state and it's not a Christian parade, so having a symbol of Christmas at the end of the parade for Thanksgiving (which is a non-religious, universally-celebrated national holiday) is a little messed up. Does that mean people actually care? Depends on the person. Would it be nice to see some Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Solstice, Yule (I could go on all day here) etc. symbols in the parade too? Sure. But we're not playing the Oppression Olympics here. How Jewish people allegedly do or do not feel about Santa has nothing to do with the fact that the parade has had less than 8% female balloons in 84 years or our right to get 'pissy' about it.

  • It's a neverending battle. Someone or some group will always be offended.
Oh it's neverending, so we should just give up! We can't please everyone so we might as well do nothing! Just accept the shitty hand we've been dealt. We're just soooo lucky to be watching a parade who cares if we're not represented in it. Look, like we said, we're not playing the Oppression Olympics. It doesn't matter who else is offended... we're talking about this now. But really, it's NOT about being offended. I never quite understood the people who think that fighting sexism is about being offended. It's about equality. It's about rights. It's about representation. It's about wanting what's best for our daughters (and sons). I'm sure these little girls aren't offended by the lack of female representation in the parade - and everywhere else - but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

  • There were plenty of girls in the parade - all those Nickelodeon and Disney girls like iCarly and Hannah Montana and the cheerleaders! Jessica Simpson was there and Miss USA and the Build-a-Bears!

Are the Build-a-Bears female? Let's look at the others. iCarly, Hannah Montana, Jessica Simpson, Miss USA, cheerleaders. First of all, I don't know that any of these girls or women listed are necessarily the absolute best role models, but okay, let's say that they are... It still doesn't change anything. These are people, not balloons. We're talking about balloons here. There were a lot of live, human celebrities and non-celebrities in the parade of both genders... but that doesn't take away from the fact that there have still only been 10 female balloon characters in 84 years. Two totally separate issues and one does not cancel out the other.

  • These girls would rather look at the Jonas Brothers than a damn balloon anyway.
So then let's just get rid of the whole parade and just televise a big Jonas Brothers concert in the streets of Manhattan on Thanksgiving! Ugh, does anyone really want to look at the Jonas Brothers? I think that statement alone is kind of sexist (and heterosexist). Not every girl loves the Jonas Brothers. It also underestimates the actual size of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade audience and the age and diversity of the audience members. Performances and appearances by teen sensations and other celebrities are for the older kids... the balloons are for every age. What your average fourteen year old might want to look at varies from what your average four year old might want to look at and what we as parents want them to look at.

  • It's not the WOMEN'S RIGHTS NATION!
That might be my favorite one, so I had to include it here. I still don't exactly get what that means... where is the women's rights nation? Because I'd like to move there... if only such a place actually existed. I guess since we're apparently stuck in the United States of White Straight Manhood then we might as well just suck it up and give up on that whole pesky women's rights bullshit. And while we're at it, forget fighting against racism and homophobia and all that fun stuff. Why waste our time? It's not the women's rights nation so we better just accept our current state and deal with it.

Apparently the only place where a parade can have equal (or even just slightly less grossly unequal) representation of males and females is one that takes places in this fictional land of the women's rights nation. Pack your bags!

To wrap it up, here's a link that anyone who thinks this doesn't matter should read: 
Equal Visibility Everywhere: Why It Matters
Even if you don't think that having equal number of male and female balloon characters in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade is an important issue, it only takes a few seconds to sign the petition and send it on to Macy's. Feel free to disagree with anything we've said here (and we love your comments, even negative ones) but please sign the petition too. Thank you.


FilthyGrandeur said...

awesome post. i also didn't recognize the pirate guy, so the argument based on recognizability does fail here.

i would like to add another suggestion for female character balloons: Sandy from Spongebob. she is badass and is constantly saving spongebob from various dangers. she's also super intelligent. and given that spongebob is still popular and has been around for more than a decade, i'm guessing sandy would be a good candidate. and i second Katara. she's so awesome.

Naila Moon of the Grey Wolf said...

Although long blog, I liked what you had to say and really did not think about it at all.

I signed the petition. Women need to be seen as intelligent and hard working human beings. Our little girls need to see themselves as value in society and not just an object...even if that is simple as something as the Macy's Parade.

Well done!
~Naila Moon

Batocchio said...

I'm surprised by those stats on the parade. Thanks for a thorough post.

LS said...

I've always thought the Macy's parade was just stupid, and that watching it was a pointless waste of time. So I have a difficult time caring.

But you make your point well. I will sign it! =D