I watch a lot of cartoons with the kids I babysit, and I notice that cartoons portrayals of the female body haven’t improved in the past twenty years. Not surprisingly, Disney heroines look like they’re on the Dukan Diet, and females featured in cartoons geared towards boys, like Ben 10: Ultimate Alien and Young Justice, tend to look either model-thin or Wonder Woman-thin (meaning the only “bulk” on her comes from lean muscle and boobs).
Of course, plenty of anthropomorphic characters and caricatural humans populate children’s cartoons, but some of them recently got makeovers for marketing purposes. Dora the Explorer now looks like a watered-down Bratz doll, Tinkerbell has an entourage of svelte fairies, and even Strawberry Shortcake looks like a teen fashionista. All three characters are geared towards 2-5 year-olds. Before they open their first magazine, cartoons such as these bombard young girls with characters that affect body image. TV presents an overwhelming number of fun or admirable characters as little Kate Mosses in training to preschoolers, and female characters that deviate from that look are almost never the heroines or love interests.
The replacement of childlike and fanciful cartoon characters with sexualized and waifish ones is especially alarming in conjunction with how average-looking women are characterized. Rarely do we do see ordinary-looking females in cartoons, and when we do it’s generally in a negative context. For instance, Meg Griffin and Velma have “average” figures, especially in light of how one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese. Despite their normalcy, they serve as sexually repulsive foils to Lois and Daphne.
However, for those who complain about how cruel the media is to girls today, the message sent to young girls that “thin is good” is an old one. In 19th century Western Europe and the United States, it was fashionable to look delicate, particularly among upper-class women and girls. Also, having an appetite was seen as a sign of moral weakness. If you pick up any popular book from that century, you’ll almost always find that the author emphasizes a heroine or a secondary “angel in the house” character’s birdlike build.
Certainly, the specter of the Victorian “fasting girl” has morphed over the past two centuries, but the core message she evokes (thin is good) is still the same. The relationship between body image and pop culture is an issue the media hasn’t shied away from in the past three decades, but it hasn’t improved much, if at all. It’s going to take the efforts of many proactive people from different facets of life: advertisers, producers, directors, teachers, mothers, etc. to make a noticeable dent in our culture’s altar to thinness.
–By Jenna Cooper