Paw Patrol: Girl Cartoon but with Fewer Girls
Paw Patrol, a cartoon about a boy and his dogs, is a huge cultural phenomenon. It has a corresponding toy line, live shows, and is broadcast in over 160 countries. The show centers around a boy named Ryder, who lives in Adventure Bay. It seems that 10 is the age of majority in Adventure Bay because Ryder lives alone in a surveillance tower, called The Lookout, with his pack of rescue dogs.
Ryder's dogs represent the future of evolution. Their proximity to humans and some physiological changes have enabled them to learn to speak, drive, operate heavy machinery, and practice etiquette. In every episode, Ryder, with the help of his dogs, solves a problem in his community, such as locating runaway kittens, stopping a runaway mechanized dinosaur, and regaining control of a runaway hot air balloon. Things tend to make a break for it in Adventure Bay.
Women and girls are underrepresented in Ryder's world. The main character of Paw Patrol is a boy and 5 out of Ryder’s 6 dogs are boys. There are some female supporting characters in Paw Patrol, most notably a dog named Everest and the fearful Mayor Goodway who, in a fit of Caligula-inspired madness, appointed as her deputy mayor a chicken named Chickaletta.
Paw Patrol’s underrepresentation of girls and women conforms to a decades-old model of cartoon that you can read about in this essay by Katia Perea. Perea is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kingsborough Community College. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Girl Cartoons, an industry term referring to cartoons that feature, and are marketed toward, girls. If you have the time, I strongly suggest you read her work or watch presentations she has made at, among other places, BronyCon and Comikaze.
Perea writes that, in the 1970s, cartoons generated most of their revenue through ads. Broadcasters felt that cartoons featuring boys were the best money makers because, they assumed, girls would watch cartoons featuring mostly boys but boys would not watch cartoons featuring mostly girls. This feeling was just that - a feeling unsubstantiated by research. Nevertheless, the assumption was self-fulfilling. Believing that Boy Cartoons brought in more viewers, advertisers invested in Boy Cartoons more than Girl Cartoons and so, Boy Cartoons did indeed become more profitable.
In the 1980s, the FCC relaxed its regulations on cartoons. The primary effect of this deregulation was that cartoons could essentially be half-hour commercials for toys. This is the era of Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, He-Man and G.I. Joe - all cartoons that corresponded to an extensive collection of toys for sale. Cartoons became two-fers: broadcasters could sell ads to run during the cartoons which were, themselves, ads for toys. This arrangement was extremely lucrative and enabled cartoon producers to do something they considered to be risky - invest in Girl Cartoons.
Producers conceived of and marketed Boy and Girl Cartoons according to some pretty hokey gender stereotypes. Boy Cartoons perpetuated toxic masculinity by focusing heavily on stories involving warriors who solved problems with violence. The attendant toy lines encouraged boys to emulate toxic masculinity by using their money to buy warriors and weapons to pit against one another.
Girl Cartoons were produced with feminine stereotypes in mind. Perea writes that they “were centered around adventures laden with lessons of friendship and caring, self-doubt overcome with pep talks and challenges resolved with teamwork.” These cartoons suffered from “excessive use of rainbows, ponies and the color pink as well as didactic storylines laden with self-deprecating dialogue.” However, they also gave girls room to lead and problem solve. Moreover, Girl Cartoons often revolved around plots in which girls proved their capability against the explicit doubts of sexist characters.
And here’s where we come to Paw Patrol. In one sense Paw Patrol is great because it rejects toxic masculinity and takes on a format traditionally used in Girl Cartoons. Every single problem in Paw Patrol is solved through teamwork and resourcefulness. The characters consistently validate one another and give credit where credit is due.
Unlike the Boy Cartoons of the 80s, there is no violence, anger, and even very little frustration in Adventure Bay, almost to a fault. For example, a boy who’s taken on the moniker Daring Danny X performs increasingly dangerous stunts that cause property damage and considerable inconvenience to everyone who has to protect him as he jumps, first 10 cars, then a canyon on his motorcycle. Ryder expresses worry and relief that Danny comes out okay but I would be mad if someone kept putting me in the position of having to save their reckless ass. It would be good to show children how to recognize justifiable anger and how to feel and express it productively. Nevertheless, as it stands, Paw Patrol should be congratulated for portraying boys as cooperative and caring.
However, Paw Patrol has some work to do. Although the content is modeled on Girl Cartoons, its underrepresentation of girls and women eschews the feminist potential of the genre. Not only is the show lacking female leads, but so is the cast and crew. The voice actors are mostly men and boys. There are twice as many male writers than women writers. The creator of the show is a man, as are three of the four current executive producers, and there is one (non-executive) producer who is a woman.
Merchandising is also problematic. The main girl dog, Skye, is often omitted from Paw Patrol merchandise where blue is the dominant color, i.e. merchandise we can infer is marketed towards boys. There is also pink merchandise that features Skye and Everest that normally has either one or none of the boy dogs on it. If you are a kid who likes the character Skye and the color blue, or a kid who likes pink and also the boy dog named Zuma, you will have realign your desires and make gendered choices about what you want for your birthday.
Paw Patrol holds some promise for the boys out there. It portrays boys who are cool, gentle, helpful, kind, patient, and who ALL think kittens are crazy cute. But the boys still can't like pink and or even girls too much. They can interact with girls who come across their path and have a token girl in their in-group, but the message Paw Patrol sends is that girls are still Other and should be treated as such. It seems to me, though, that if a Boy Cartoon can successfully incorporate the main features of Girl Cartoons, its creators should be less afraid of bringing actual girls and women into their business, too.