In a kingdom far, far away, in bustling cities, or in mystical realms where reality is bent, there are always characters in kids’ media that aim to inspire children all over the world. This is especially true for empowering, local female-led narratives—from the folklore parables of Wansapanataym stories to local adaptations of the Japanese anime Princess Sara. But as these stories reuse formulas to shape female story arcs, it risks reducing its characters to mere tropes and stereotypes that shape the way girls see themselves and their roles in this world.
Most children take entertainment shows as they are. “My daughter is not particular about gender issues,” stay-at-home mom Donna Canoy observes about her seven-year-old daughter, Corinne. Although issues like gender inequality and discrimination are simplified in children’s broadcast media to make their messages more understandable, withholding risks of portraying bold and dignified female characters undermines the children’s capability to shape their identity after these examples. As radical tides of the West erode the pillars of traditionally feminine tropes, local children’s media stays adamantly stale without a ripple of change.
A girl like you
Foreign children’s media has a multitude of films and TV series that center on women’s empowerment through progressive representation. Disney’s Moana, Brave, and Encanto star young heroines whose determination and strength make their stories worth following, even in the absence of male love interests. These tropes inspire young girls to become spirited in their decisions and practice their agency.
It’s no surprise Corinne finds it easier to connect to characters in Western shows, particularly My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. “It makes me happy to know that I can be sport-acular like Rainbow Dash and…be like Twilight Sparkle who loves science,” she shares, inspiring her to excel in her taekwondo classes and to fulfill her dream of becoming a scientist.
As her daughter watches these shows, Canoy observes, “[She learns] by examining, scrutinizing, or imitating [them]. That’s why [she] can be easily influenced by the [characters].” Overall, these portrayals have done wonders for her child’s development, with Canoy noting how her daughter became more inquisitive and confident after watching shows like The Inbestigators. This is similar to Susan Witt’s findings in her research, The influence of television on children’s gender role socialization, where she claims that television programs contribute to children’s attitudes toward societal roles.
However, the mother and daughter are unsure if there are local shows that may produce the same effect. “We [had] Princess Sara…then, that’s it,” she muses. It seems that foreign children’s media have already answered the demands of having varied roles for women to play in those narratives; local ones, in contrast, seem to be ignoring the call. “We still continue to see women as weak, unaccomplished, naive, and all those other roles that don’t fully reflect women’s role in society,” Canoy furthers.
‘Ilaw ng tahanan’
Since the advent of television in the 1950s, the media has glorified women as simply being domestic homemakers. Julia Wood’s Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender explains that while women are sometimes portrayed as career-oriented in those shows at the time, “their career lives typically receive little to no attention…They are shown predominantly in their roles as homemakers, mothers, and wives.” Although there is nothing wrong with this trope, continued stereotyping may result in children perpetuating these biases in their own worldviews.
In the Philippines, one would associate it with the “ilaw ng tahanan” motif, mostly seen in local media aimed for children with mothers, grandmothers, and even siblings perpetuating the stereotype. However, Department of Sociology and Behavioral Sciences Asst. Prof. Lecturer Yellowbelle Duaqui clarifies that this isn’t necessarily the same as the homemaker trope. “The ilaw ng tahanan is the one who directs the family and gives guidance so that the family stays on the right path,” she emphasizes. This role is inherently ingrained within the structure of a Filipino family, echoing the role of women during precolonial times as spiritual leaders—something we shouldn’t ultimately see as negative.
(Light of the home.)
Outside of those nurturing tropes, University of the Philippines Diliman Department of Broadcast Communication Chairperson Daphne Canlas believes that this kind of representation is not enough, “There [should be representations of] peer relationships between girls at very impressionable and critical moments of growing up.” She notes this ideal can be enforced if it passes the Bechdel Test, which aims to measure the genuine representation of women in fiction by identifying two women having a conversation that doesn’t involve men.
In doing so, Canlas imagines that having more of these relationships on local children’s media can help girls find community and agency in other girls. Films such as Matilda and TV shows like Sofia the First and Doc McStuffins inspire young girls to have the capability to act without relying on a man. Through these, the idea of how girls can feel and be powerful when they realize their capacity to make their own decisions can be reinforced. “They’re stronger [together] that way because we live in a man’s world,” she emphasizes.
That compassion among women is something sincere, which must be made more explorable and understandable through storytelling with the Filipino context in mind.
Beyond the foundations
Philippine children’s media still has a long way to go to improve representation. While books like Si Amina y El Cuidad De Maga Flores, Pan De Sal Saves the Day, and Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin aim for progressive women in local portrayals, “[books are] still quite intimate,” Canlas furthers. “But [when] a TV show [is broadcasted, you can’t stop it from entering] millions of households.” Indeed, the big and small screens have undeniable influence, which is why empowering representation in it is all the more necessary.
Instead of just focusing on introducing complex gender issues to children, it’s imperative that children can have a wide array of characters to look up to. Canoy suggests, “I believe the call for equal and appropriate representation of women in all forms of media has to be consistent, aggressive, and [fitting] in the Philippine context.” For her, this move can help children have a worldview where gender issues may not even exist because they are brought up to believe that anything is possible. Duaqui agrees, highlighting, “When they’re young, laying the right foundation is very important because it’s easier to build the correct foundation rather than to correct it when the child is already an adult.”
By having more portrayals of women being capable, empowered, and strong-willed—as well as having diversified characterizations—mothers like Canoy are assured that their daughters can be taught well by these forms of media. “Media plays a critical role in [introducing] gender equality and getting the message across [of it being essential and innately good] even to young kids,” she maintains.
In taking these careful yet measured steps, Filipina children can be made to feel more emboldened and seen, no matter how young they are. Although forgotten over time, the media we consume as children will always leave an impact on us one way or another.