TV-Hero(in)es of Boys and Girls

Reception Studies of Favorite Characters

by Maya Götz (Author)
©2014 Monographs IX, 466 Pages


Out of all the media that today’s children encounter, what makes a particular TV character a child’s favorite? Based on 80 case studies, in-depth fan studies and standardized surveys with over 5,000 children between the ages six and twelve in Germany, this book elucidates how girls and boys use TV characters in their everyday lives and their identity work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Theoretical Premise: Media Reception as Active Appropriation
  • 2. Children’s TV Offerings From the Perspective of Media Analysis
  • Gender Constructions and Presence
  • Gender Constructions and the Representation of Character Traits
  • Gender Constructions, Narrative, and Action
  • Gender Constructions and Sexualization
  • Staging Masculinity
  • 3. How Do These Constructions in Children’s Television Come About?
  • Who Makes Children’s Television?
  • 4. The State of Research on How Girls and Boys Deal With Stereotypical Representations of Gender
  • Beyond Male Versus Female
  • The Well-Trodden Paths of Gender Clichés
  • Parenthesis: Do Kids Want Hypersexuality?
  • 5. In Search of Alternative Research Approaches to the Meaning of Television Characters
  • 6. Research Questions and Structure of this Book
  • Research Question 1:
  • Research Question 2:
  • Research Questions 3 & 4:
  • Research Question 5:
  • Research Question 6:
  • Research Questions 7-12:
  • Part I: Case Studies: Tracing the Significance of Favorite Television Characters in Boys’ and Girls’ Everyday Lives
  • “Bibi and Her Mother Are Witches“
  • TV Favorites, Everyday Life and Identity
  • Basics From Humanistic Psychology Used for the Interpretation of the Case Studies
  • Humans act in subjectively meaningful ways, only understood e.g. in the broader context of everyday life
  • The professional attitude: Encountering the individual and their way of living with congruence, acceptance and empathy
  • The self – a complex term for the word “identity”
  • Gestalt: The meaningfulness of perception
  • Self-realization and identity themes as basic triggers for making meaning with media
  • When children avoid to see, think about or deal with things (contact)
  • Methodology for Part I
  • Sample
  • Interview
  • Evaluation
  • Step 1: Reconstruction of Individual Cases
  • Step 2: From the Individual Case to the Type
  • Step 3: Single-Case Reconstruction of Prototypes
  • Results Presented in This Chapter: Action-Guiding Themes
  • Results: Children’s Use of Favorite TV Characters
  • 1. Television Heroes and Heroines as Part of Dealing with Life
  • Challenge “school”: “If you have stupid teachers”
  • Challenge “family life”: “When I’m with Mommy I also miss Daddy”
  • Challenge “family life”: When “holding one’s ground” is the only thing possible
  • 2. TV Heroes and Heroines as Part of Defining Oneself
  • Growing Up
  • Status markers
  • 3. TV Heroes and Heroines to Experience and Discover Oneself
  • Summary: The Typical Action-Guiding Themes of 8- to 11-Year-Olds and Gender Tendencies
  • Background of the Typical Action-Guiding Themes of 8- to 11-Year-Olds
  • Gender Tendencies
  • Significance of Favorite Characters
  • “I Would Like to Be Son Goku“
  • Typical Relationships with Favorite Characters
  • 1. Recognition and Confirmation
  • 2. Imitating the Media Character (Identification)
  • 3. Cognition and Understanding
  • 4. Parasocial Relationships
  • 5. Passionate Experiences
  • Summary: Typical Relationships With Favorite Characters
  • Recognition and confirmation
  • Imitating the character (identification)
  • Cognition and understanding
  • Parasocial relationships
  • Passionate experiences
  • Gender Tendencies
  • “Now I Know That Girls Are Allowed to Do That Too”
  • How Girls Use Media Characters to Construct Their Identities
  • 1. TV Heroines and Girls’ Self-Construction
  • 1.1 Leonie: In Search of Models for Being a Girl “Then the film told me, there is something better in you.”
  • “That was enough for me, now I want to be like a girl again.”
  • Beyond a binary conception of femininities versus masculinities
  • 1.2 Lea: In Search of Responsible Girl Characters
  • 2. Do Female Characters Have to Be Pretty?
  • 3. The Qualities of Male Television Characters for the Self-Construction of Girls
  • 3.1 In Search of Funny Characters
  • 3.2 In Search of Rule-Breaking Characters
  • 3.3 In Search of an Aesthetic Expression of Passion
  • 3.4 In Search of Researcher Characters
  • 3.5 In Search of a Middle Course Between Being Special and Being Integrated
  • 3.6 In Search of Parasocial Helper Characters
  • 3.7 In Search of Characters That Can Change the Course of Events
  • 3.8 In Search of Gender Bending Open Characters
  • 3.9 What Are Girls Looking for in Male Characters?
  • Summary
  • “But Somehow You Always Work Your Way up Again”
  • Boys and Their Heroes
  • 1. TV Heroes and Boys’ Self-Construction
  • 1.1 Frederick: “I have lots of friends, lots and lots.“
  • Boys – not just a problem
  • Reflecting (and not reflecting) on gender
  • “Fighting is Kind of Like the Guiding Principle” – Learning From One’s Favorite Series
  • Prevailing through tactics, not violence
  • Acquiring status by owning, exchanging and playing with cards
  • Strategies for success
  • A counter-reading of Frederick: life as a battle, and denigration as an inevitable part of it
  • 1.2 Al: “I was kicked out.“
  • 2. Does it Always Have to Be Action?
  • 3. What Boys Are Looking for in Media Characters?
  • On the search for insights into adulthood
  • Searching for insights into “Being a Boy”
  • Search for insights into being distinct
  • Search for insights into fantasy, fun and experience
  • Insights into freedom from the burden of expectations
  • 4. Boys and What Is Not Available to Them
  • Dissonance with boys’ own experiences
  • Limited versions of masculinity
  • Conclusion
  • For an expansion of images of masculinities
  • Part II: Representative Studies: Measuring the Utility Value of Favorite Television Characters
  • Who Are Children’s Favorite TV Characters?
  • The Results of Representative Studies Between 2005 and 2013
  • How Many Favorite Characters Are Mentioned?
  • How Many Children Choose Trend Characters?
  • Who Are the Most Popular “Favorite Characters”?
  • Animation or Live-Action?
  • Comparison of 2005-2007 and 2010-2012
  • Girls’ Favorite Characters in 2005-2007: SpongeBob and Kim Possible
  • Girls’ Favorite Characters in 2010-2012: Hannah Montana, Barbie and Kim Possible
  • Boys’ Favorite Characters in 2005-2007: SpongeBob and Bart Simpson
  • Boys’ Favorite Characters in 2010-2012: SpongeBob, Bob the Builder and Bart Simpson
  • Do Girls Choose Girls and Boys Choose Boys?
  • Affinity to the 21 Most Frequently Mentioned Characters (2005-2007) According to Age and Gender
  • Summary
  • What Makes a TV Character a Favorite with Boys and Girls?
  • An Attempt at Quantifying Utility Values
  • 1. Television Characters’ Utility Value
  • Method Used in the Representative Studies
  • Standardized Items Asked to 6- to 12-Year-Olds
  • Evaluation of the Data
  • Utility Value Dimension 1: Connecting Characters
  • Utility Value Dimension 2: Recognizing Oneself
  • Mirroring Subjective Experience
  • Mirroring Emotions
  • Utility Value Dimension 3: Learning Something From the Show
  • Problem Solving
  • How to Form Friendships
  • Utility Value Dimension 4: Self-Development
  • Adopting Ways of Being
  • Adopting Ways of Acting
  • Utility Value Dimension 5: Parasocial Relationships
  • Parasocial Friendships
  • Parasocial Siblings
  • Utility Value Dimension 6: Experiencing Excitement
  • Emotional Excitement
  • Physical Excitement
  • Utility Value Dimension 7: Communicative Value
  • Popular With Friends
  • Peer Pressure
  • Overview of Utility Value Dimensions
  • Age Comparison
  • Gender Comparison
  • Do Female Characters Have a Different Utility Value Than Male Characters?
  • Utility Value According to The Favorite Characters’ Sex
  • 2. Favorite TV Characters’ Utility Value Profile
  • Bibi Blocksberg
  • Yugi
  • Kim Possible
  • Summary: Do Boys and Girls Use Their Favorite Characters in Different Ways?
  • Part III: Program Analyses: Tracing the Fascination With Successful TV Shows
  • “Because He Is the Funniest“
  • The Fascination with SpongeBob SquarePants
  • Developing the Idea
  • Main Characters
  • SpongeBob: An Analysis Sensitive to Gender Issues
  • SpongeBob in IZI Reception Studies
  • The Fascination With SpongeBob SquarePants
  • 1. SpongeBob is Fun
  • 2. SpongeBob as a Symbol of the Child’s Perspective
  • 3. The Structure of Characters and Character Constellation as an Ideal Range of Relationships
  • A. SpongeBob: The Ideal Connecting Character – an Idealized and Elevated Symbol of a Typically Childlike Attitude
  • B. Patrick: The Ideal Parasocial Friend – Funny, Reliable and Subordinate
  • C. Squidward: A Character to Define Oneself Against – The Boring Adult
  • D. Sandy: Experience-Oriented Girl and Distant Female Friend
  • Summary: An Ideal Combination of Characters
  • 4. Funny Stories With a Deeper Meaning – Particularly for Boys
  • 5. Clearly Structured Characters Enable Deeper Insights Into Values and Attitudes
  • Summary: What Makes SpongeBob so Attractive From a Children’s Point of View That is Sensitive to Gender?
  • “Sometimes I Think I Could Be so Quick and Strong”
  • The Fascination With Dragon Ball Z
  • The Dragon Ball Sagas
  • Fan Study of Dragon Ball Z
  • What Fascinates Children About DBZ?
  • 1. Parents are against it, among peers it is “in”
  • 2. Dragon Ball Z is fighting and “smashing heads”
  • 3. Providing the positive side of aggression with an image
  • 4. Symbol for masculinity: “building up energy”
  • 5. Giving violence an image
  • 6. Fighting as self-protection
  • 7. Symbols of superior masculinity
  • 8. Girls and Dragon Ball Z
  • 9. Does DBZ encourage violence?
  • Conclusion: Dragon Ball Z from the perspective of children and preteens
  • “Everyone Can Find His or Her Place in Life“
  • The Fascination with Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • The Basic Storyline
  • The Series Development of Avatar:The Last Airbender
  • The Series Development of Avatar: The Last Airbender From a Gender-Specific Perspective
  • Study on Avatar Fans
  • 1. Stories That “Draw You In” and Are Emotionally Moving
  • 2. The Elements and the Characters’ Bending Powers
  • 3. Action, Fights and Athletics
  • 4. Multi-Layered Characters, who Provide Scope for Identification
  • A. Aang: The Reflective Chosen One, Who Still Has to Learn – a Positive, Multifaceted Character
  • What Can Be Learnt From Aang?
  • B. Katara: Caring and Battlesome
  • What Can Be Learnt From Katara?
  • C. Sokka: The Joker – Funny, but Still Developing
  • What Can Be Learnt From Sokka?
  • D. Zuko: The Divided One
  • What Can Be Learnt From Zuko?
  • The Characters: Growing Together Through Self-Development in Response to Challenge
  • The Four Main Characters: Aspects of the Adolescent Self
  • Self-Motivation
  • A Gender-Specific Perspective: Femininities in Avatar
  • Parenthesis: Do Avatar Fans Have a Different Worldview and Different Gender Images?
  • Study Approach and Research Questions
  • Results
  • 1. Gender Images
  • Can girls be fighters?
  • Do girls try harder than boys?
  • Are boys more honest than girls?
  • 2. Worldview
  • Is it alright to make mistakes?
  • Is it alright if you don’t always do things as well as you could? Is it important in life to have fun and to relax?
  • 3. Attitude Towards Aggression
  • Can being angry make you strong or does it lead you down the wrong track?
  • Is it alright to sometimes run away when attacked?
  • Analysis: Avatar Fans Have a Somewhat More Healthy and Realistic Attitude to Life and a More Modern Gender Image
  • Summary: Narrating Attractive Stories, Character Configurations and New Images of Masculinity Through Depth and Complexity
  • “The Series Is the Way it Could Be in Real Life“
  • The Fascination with Hannah Montana
  • Production
  • The Star
  • A “360 Degree” Strategy
  • Hannah Montana from the Fans’ Point of View
  • Study A: Hannah Montana, a Series With Excellent Utility Value
  • Study B: How Fans Deal With the Series
  • Fascination With Hannah Montana
  • 1. Hannah’s Double Life as a Symbol of a Typical Girls’ Life Today
  • 2. An Ideal Cast of Characters for Girls
  • A. Miley, the Connecting Character
  • B. Hannah Montana: A Desired Ideal
  • C. Tomboy Lilly: The Ideal Best Friend
  • D. Oliver: Miley’s Ideal Best Friend
  • E. Jackson: Connecting Character for Boys, Parasocial Romantic Friend for Girls
  • F. Robby: The Ideal Father
  • Summary: The Character Constellation
  • Miley as the Main Connecting Character
  • 3. The Humor
  • A. Punch Line Frequency: A Gag Every 8 Seconds
  • B. Reflecting Subjective Experience
  • C. Slapstick
  • A Gender-Sensitive Perspective
  • “She’s so Pretty and Pink”
  • The Fascination with Princess Lillifee
  • The Princess Lillifee Media Franchise
  • Method: “The Topic-Centered Walkaround in People’s Homes”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: An Aesthetic Experience for Girls
  • “She’s so pretty and pink.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Product Before Content
  • “The lipstick is also from Lillifee.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Helping, Being in Charge and Being Pretty – in Appreciation of Mother’s Values
  • “Just like mommy.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Adults Buy the Product
  • “When you know they like it, as a mother you gladly bring some of it home.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Licensed Images Alleviate Unpleasant Everyday Experiences
  • “Hair washing only with Lillifee shampoo.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Products for “Living Out” Girlhood and Biographical Healing
  • “Maybe she’s living out something that I was not allowed to.”
  • The Lillifee Phenomenon: Positive All-Around Womanhood
  • “It’s not so much about the idea that a woman’s goal in life is to catch a prince.”
  • The Lillifee Phase May Also Come to an End
  • “It has become a bit too kitschy for me.”
  • Why Girls Love Princess Lillifee and Mothers Allow it
  • “To See How They Progress and Develop“
  • The Fascination With Germany’s Next Top Model
  • Study A: Motives for Watching GNTM
  • Study B: What Makes GNTM Fascinating?
  • I. Girls
  • 1. Not Scripted or Acted, but the Profession’s Reality
  • 2. The “Girls” as Idealized Connecting Characters
  • 3. The Fantasy of Being Special
  • 4. Guessing and Feeling With the Candidates
  • 5. The “Girls” Are Faced With Borderline Challenges
  • 6. Insight Into the Everyday Lives of a Rival Group of Peers
  • 7. Professional Photographs as a Sign of Identity and Recognized Distinctiveness
  • A Note on Appropriation: Watching Talent Shows Regularly Does Not Mean Uncritically
  • How Children and Adolescents Integrate GNTM Into Their Everyday Lives
  • 1. Schoolyard Conversations
  • 2. Reenacting and Showing What One is Capable of
  • The Problem of Idealizing Extremely Thin Bodies
  • Parenthesis: Do Germany’s Next Top Model Viewers Have a Different Ideal of Beauty?
  • Changing Perceptions of What is Beautiful
  • Problematic Appropriation: Comparison With Candidates as an Experience of Deficiency
  • What Girls Take From GNTM: Self-Presentation With Pitfalls
  • II. Boys
  • Appropriating GNTM
  • 1. Reception of GNTM as a Social Event
  • 2. Candidates Are Faced With Significant Challenges and New Experiences
  • 3. Sharing Experiences and Imagining Oneself in the Candidate’s Place – but at a Distance
  • 4. Romantic Feelings and Interest in the Candidates
  • 5. What Boys Criticize About the Show
  • Conclusion: GNTM – Strong Connecting Characters and Perfidious Effects
  • Conclusion: Television Heroes and Heroines: Helping Girls and Boys to Grow up Healthy
  • The Systemic Logic of Gender Representation in Children’s Television: A Summary
  • A. What Makes a Television Character a “Favorite Character”?
  • ... When a Show, its Characters and Stories Appeal to Children
  • ... When Children Recognize Themselves and Their Experiences
  • ... When Children Are Able to See Themselves and Their Experiences in a Meaningful Context
  • … Ensuring Functionality and Health – as far as Possible
  • B. What Role Does the Category of “Gender” Play in the Appropriation Process?
  • ... It is a Binary Construction in Children’s Lives
  • ... Children’s Television Presents the Male and Female Gender Very Differently
  • ... The Media Market Purposely Targets Gender-Specific Audiences
  • The Result: Binary Gender-Specific Orientation
  • ... Why Girls Go Along With the Clichéd Representations
  • A Related Issue: The Current Image of the Strong Woman
  • ... Why Boys Go Along With the Stereotypical Representations
  • C. What Would TV Addressing Gender Equality Look Like?
  • 1. More girl characters with more diverse appearances on all levels
  • 2. Greater variety and complexity in female characters’ structure and style
  • 3. Balancing gender stereotypical notions of femininities and masculinities
  • 4. Fill the “blind spots“
  • 5. Overcome the sex/gender duality
  • D. Why All of This Will not Happen
  • ... Media Productions Are Characterized by Patriarchal Structures
  • ... Because Gender Is Not an Important Category for (Many) Television Executives
  • ... Because Gender Is Always Linked to the Producers Own Constructions of Identity
  • E. What Would Need to Be Done in Order to Effect Change?
  • Production
  • Pedagogy
  • Politics
  • Index of Programs
  • List of Works Cited


“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s a five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.“

– Star Trek

When we set off on our mission, to boldly go where not too many children and media research had gone before, we did not know or expect that it would take 12 years. When we started our research on “The Significance of Boys’ and Girls’ Favorite Television Characters,” our calendar still read 2002. Our scope started relatively small. We were pre-testing case studies focusing on the favorite TV characters of girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 11. During this time, Dragon Ball Z began to receive more and more attention from boys in Germany. They (along with some girls) were really excited about this anime series. Adults though found its violent content and aesthetics difficult to bear. So we decided to study, parallel to the case studies, what the fascination was with various shows among girls and boys, and how they integrated them in their identity- and gender-work.

Over the next ten years, we continued to be driven by our curiosity about trends in children’s and youth media culture, by gender-specific questions, and especially by a fascination with qualitative research on children’s process of meaning making. And in this process, an IZI research focus developed, specifically “gender and children’s television.” Most of our work with this research focus was developed systematically, each study building upon our previous studies and upon our previous theoretical findings and methodological developments. But some studies, like the ones about SpongeBob SquarePants, arose out of the typical feeling at the end of a study: we finally know what the more interesting research question actually is, or now we need to study this trend over time. We started to add quantitative research with samples on representative level for Germany on the question “Who is your favorite TV character?” and developed a method to measure the Utility Value of the TV hero(in)es of girls and boys – and kept on doing this several years. Our smaller, quantitative studies are the product of our very urgent need to answer specific research questions, such as how girls and boys actually interpret a character as being a girl or a boy (as in a study on the German TV show Vicky the Viking) or if fans of a specific show have a different perspective on female fighters ← vii | viii → or ideals of beauty etc. “Gender and children’s television” is certainly not the only research focus at IZI, but probably the one that moved us most. Our media analysis studies were published in 2012 in the book Sexy Girls, Heroes and Funny Losers – Gender Representations in Children’s TV around the World. The book you are holding presents our various reception studies. The children who we interviewed back then are now at least teenagers, if not already adults. So some of these television shows, which might have been the newest hits at the time of these studies, may now be old news. However, the patterns with which children appropriate television shows, the issues they search for, and the ways they integrate symbolic material from television into their own self-image and self-representation (hopefully) do not change as quickly as these television trends. We offer our special thanks to all the children and youths who have confided in us about how they use media and make meaning out of them. We are deeply grateful that you shared your perspectives, your dreams, and also your worries with us.

The cooperation with the boys researchers Reinhard Winter and Gunter Neubauer was an extremely enriching experience. Thank you for the many years of exciting cooperation. The diverse studies we have conducted at IZI would not have been possible without the many researchers who have accompanied me on different legs of this journey over the years. Among the most dedicated and talented of them in the first years were Karin Brunner, Petra Strohmair, Carolina Gollner (previously Ensinger), and Johanna Gather. Also without dedicated and independent researchers such as Christine Bulla or statistics specialists such as Sebastian Scherr and Judith Schwarz, many projects could not have been realized. Without a research company like Iconkids & Youth, Munich, and a wonderful woman like Denise Ullrich samples on a representative level for the whole of Germany would not be possible or affordable.

I am also grateful from the bottom of my heart that I had access to the infrastructure necessary for this research. Without Birgit Kinateder’s organizational talent, language abilities, and unending, critical proofreading, this book would surely not have come to fruition. A big thank you goes to Heike vom Orde, who over the years never complained about the piles of books in my office and always kept on top of the most current research, ensuring that we always had an overview of the field. Dafna Lemish and Rebecca Hains, who proofread the book, gave me valuable advice and helpful suggestions My heart-felt appreciation as well to Anja Löbert (Textworks Translations), ← viii | ix → who dependably organized the translations of these texts, even under time pressure, and to Margaret Hiley, who translated the texts in a knowledgeable, stylistically exact, and intelligible way.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to Meryl Alper, who not only critically and constructively revised the book to polish up the writing, but also used her profound knowledge of media research and the media industry to draw attention to the points that were still unclear or inconsistent.

Sophia Pritscher showed admirable patience and attention to detail over many years of typesetting, supported in the end by Maximilian Lanzinger. Thank you to all of you.

My personal, deeply felt gratitude goes to my husband Dr. Ole Hofmann who as a matter of course not only graciously tolerated that I also wrote during vacations and during my first labor pains. He also supported me with his exceptional knowledge, endless energy, and imperturbable optimism while dealing with all crises and with large databanks – thank you for being there. And now, after all these emotional sentiments, I wish you all a lot of fun reading this book, and I look forward to lots of diverse feedback and cooperation – because you can count on the next study on gender and children’s television coming soon (or at least sooner than a 12-year voyage!). ← ix | x → ← x | xi →


TV is still the leading medium in children’s lives. It is no question that other screens and other electronic media are playing an important role in girls’ and boys’ lives, but in terms of time spent and content that is produced, TV still dominates. Many studies have been conducted and books written on how watching television, especially extensive television watching, can be associated with a range of problems and deficits. It takes time away from other experiences, can be cognitively overstimulating, is over-commercialized and so on. Children can learn content from television, both information and social scripts, which may encourage certain behavioral patterns (and a tendency towards violence). Television, and its everyday significance for children, is certainly not without troublesome issues.

At the same time, television opens up fantasies, widens perspectives, and forms part of children’s work on their identity. Listening to girls and boys talking about their favorite TV characters, explaining what they like especially about them and how they themselves have changed since discovering the character, it also becomes clear that girls and boys use television characters to define themselves. They enjoy the stories and develop with the characters. As adults, we are often astonished and perplexed by the enthusiasm that children develop for TV characters.

Sometimes we regard this enthusiasm benevolently – at other times with disapproval. Even from a perspective with only a minimal awareness of gender, binary worlds become clear. These realms are populated by superheroes and cool losers on the one hand and princesses and models on the other. One universe is characterized by fighting and cool quips, the other by thin, sexy girls in expensive clothes. Knowing that human beings act in an inherently subjectively meaningful way, we quickly arrive at the question: What fascinates girls and boys about these characters? How do they use them in their everyday lives and to construct their identity, and what are the problematic issues, particularly from the point of view of gender equality?

The IZI, the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, is a department of the German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting Company). It has the mandate to promote quality in television for children and young adults by means of research. As head of this unique institution, I had the chance to conduct a number of studies with the assistance of a team of wonderful researchers centering on the question, ← 1 | 2 → “What makes a TV character the favorite TV character of a child?” over a ten-year period. The over 20 reception studies presented here focus mainly on children between the ages of 6 and 12. They use various methods of data gathering and evaluation, mainly qualitative but also quantitative. All of the studies build on the same basic theoretical assumption that media reception is a process of active appropriation within everyday contexts. Accordingly, before providing an account of the interplay of the individual studies and an overview of the book’s structure, this book begins with a short summary of the study’s basic theoretical assumptions, the state of current research on gender representation in children’s television, and insights into how boys and girls construct ideas about gender.

1. Theoretical Premise: Media Reception as Active Appropriation

The theoretical premise of this book is that human beings appropriate media actively and in a way that is subjectively meaningful to them. Media usage forms part of everyday routines and rituals, structuring daily schedules, creating opportunities for shared time, and scaffolding communication within families for example. In terms of content, action-oriented reception studies regard media appropriation as a process of selection. Children select certain things from a broad range of available content and interpret media texts in their own particular way. They make use of some of the things offered by media texts they have chosen and interpret these texts through the lens of their everyday lives. The selected and interpreted content can become part of young people’s self-representation, communication, fantasies, worldview and so on. Many scholars have convincingly formulated this theoretical connection, such as David Buckingham, Sonia Livingstone, and Dafna Lemish, and Ben Bachmair and Lothar Mikos with regard to the German discourse, to mention a few. The studies presented in this book are based on the specific concept of media appropriation as the constitution of meaning:


with the specific themes – both individual and typical for their group and age – which meaningfully guide their actions (‘action-guiding themes‘)

encounter symbolic material from their culture in specific situations,

get their bearings in the particular situational context with the help of this material, ← 2 | 3 →

subjectively appropriate the cultural symbolism of the media, especially in childhood, and process it thematically,

and use it to communicate something to themselves or their social environment.” (Bachmair, 1993, p. 45)

Children use media and constitute meaning with it. By means of open research methods which offer children enough space to articulate their notions and an open-minded evaluation which is able to reconstruct children’s points of view it is possible to capture and understand the process of meaning making.

As active as this appropriation is, it also stands in a kind of interrelationship with the cultural material and its own themes. This idea is explicitly linked to the work of Berger and Luckmann (1967), who see cultural appropriation in the interrelation of appropriation and externalization. Human beings have, according to the basic anthropological assumption, the power of objectivation. They are able to condense and objectify experiences, feelings, desires and themes using symbolic and figurative material. Alfred Schütz calls this process “objectification” (Schütz & Luckmann, 1979, p. 317).

Buildings, language, and media are examples of these kinds of objectifications. Every member of society (including children) appropriates available objectifications through experiencing, comprehending and interpreting them, and uses them to structure their everyday life (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). In line with cultivation theory (Gerbner et al., 2002), it is thus possible to prove tendencies in which ideas and scripts from the media can be traced in the thoughts and actions of human beings. In this sense, television can become significant in terms of cultivation, even though the links are far more complex than mere stimulus-response mechanisms. Children construct meaning from the media available and build this meaning into their identities. So what does this mean from a gender-specific perspective?

Children grow up in a society that from the very beginning subjects them to a binary division into girls or boys. They accept this division very early on and construct their self-image and identity accordingly. The media are suppliers of meaning in this process, and they in turn represent images of girls, women, boys, and men to a target audience of girls and boys. Thus a glance at the state of current research on how children’s television or television relevant to children constructs gender seems worthwhile. ← 3 | 4 →

2. Children’s TV Offerings From the Perspective of Media Analysis

Gender Constructions and Presence

Under natural conditions, around 51% of humanity is made up of females and 49% of males. However, this is not reflected in children’s television. In the largest media analysis to date worldwide, we examined television programs in 24 countries with the help of international colleagues. The analysis of around 26,500 main characters from everyday fictional children’s TV revealed that 68% of all main characters are male, while only 32% are female. This means that there are two male main characters for every female main character (Götz & Lemish, 2012). This basic tendency can also be observed in computer games or cinematic films relevant to children. An analysis of the 101 theatrically released films with the highest US-box-office returns from 1990 to 2005 revealed that only 28% of characters are female. Moreover, female characters are only involved in 17% of scenes. Not only are there markedly more male characters – they are also seen much more frequently (Smith & Cook, 2008).

Gender Constructions and the Representation of Character Traits

In terms of content, characters are given particular traits and patterns of action by their makers. Typical gender trends in this respect are clear. In comparison to male characters, female characters are less active, less loud, less represented in positions of authority and behave more childishly. Male characters act more aggressively, are louder, and are rewarded more often within the plot. They demonstrate more ingenuity, ask more questions, are more frequently presented through their particular abilities and talents, laugh more often, are more insulting and threaten others more frequently. Female cartoon characters show more emotions, are more frequently presented in the context of their relationships to others, are more helpful and more frequently ask for help and protection (Streicher, 1974; Thompson & Zerbios, 1995; Sternglanz & Serbin, 1974; Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Baker & Raney, 2004 among others). For example, in an analysis of 147 half-hour cartoon TV shows, Catherine Luther and James Robert Legg examined the kinds of aggression exhibited by characters. While approximately 48% of male characters used physical ← 4 | 5 → aggression, only 34% of females did. Forms of social aggression, such as slander, are used much more frequently by female characters than males (30.6% compared to 9.5%) (Luther & Legg, 2010). There are some heroines who are at the center of things, are strong and active, carry out missions, follow their goals self-assertively and have special powers to do so. Some examples include the superheroines in the cartoon series Kim Possible, Totally Spies and the Powerpuff Girls. However, an analysis of 70 cartoon heroes (drawn from 160 hours of programming dating from 2004) also reveals that there are more male than female superheroes and that these female characters are far more often shown as (overly) emotional in their reactions, particularly in critical situations. Heroines are more likely to be superficial and more concerned with their looks than heroes, are more likely to ask questions than use threats, and usually work as a team (88% of all superheroines). Furthermore, twice as many heroines as heroes have a mentor, who is nearly always a man (Baker & Raney, 2007).

Gender Constructions, Narrative, and Action

The cultural construction of the category of gender is not only reflected in numbers, outward appearance and character traits; it is primarily produced by the way the characters are embedded in stories. In one study, the IZI team analyzed the main characters of German children’s television in terms of how they were structured in the narration, with particular attention paid to the episode’s main conflict. The analysis revealed typical ways of dealing with problems. Some actively deal with the problem and try for example to change the world according to their own needs (egocentric characters). Other active characters tend to mediate when conflict ensues with their partners or friends (communicators), or address conflict proactively but motivated primarily by their sense of responsibility for others (responsible characters). In quite a few series the stories were typically structured that the main characters have to defend themselves and others constantly against external attacks (resistant characters).

Some of them are even buffeted and overwhelmed by the conflicts that they face (clueless characters), or need rescuing from concrete danger (helpless characters).

This study was initially developed from a qualitative analysis of 90 male and female protagonists, and was subsequently applied to a sample of 412 fictional protagonists representative for German children’s TV. It became evident that female and male characters were represented in all categories. ← 5 | 6 →

However, male characters comprised 80% of the responsible, aimless, and mediating characters, and 70% of the egocentric and defensive characters. There was only a near-equal gender ratio among helpless characters, of which females comprised 44% of all characters (Götz, 2006). Thus, it is mainly male characters who are allowed to prove themselves using active, defining patterns of action.

In a qualitative analysis of theatrical movies, Stacy Smith examined the narrative context of 13 film heroines in highly successful Hollywood films relevant to children between 1937 and 2006, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Princess Diaries, The Wizard of Oz, and Mulan (Smith & Cook, 2008). These films tell the story of heroines who usually have to overcome great trials to save friends and family. Only in a few exceptions are they victims of circumstances (“damsels in distress”), as in the case of Snow White. At the same time, nearly all characters were famed for their looks or makeovers aligned with a universally desired beauty as in the case of The Princess Diaries. Thus, narratives focus mainly on beauty as the most important and most valued aspect of female personality and on becoming more beautiful as the external symbol of positive development. There is no narrative counterpart to this for boys. Apart from this, the female characters Smith analyzed were driven by a range of typical motivations. They are daydreamers without any clear goals, are led astray or lose their way. There are also the daredevils, who have a relevant goal in mind that drives them on. In nearly all of the films, the female character longs for true love, she experiences love at first sight, love that has to overcome intrigue, or love that is saved through communication. The main focus points of the female roles are always beauty, recognition, and true love (Smith & Cook, 2008). Jeanne Prinsloo comes to a similar conclusion in her analysis of narrative constructions in children’s films and shows such as Winx Club and Bratz. While heroines have adventures and save the world in the main plot strand, the secondary plot strand is usually concerned with their wish to be desired sexually and their longing for a fulfilling relationship with a man (Prinsloo, 2012). In summary, strong female main characters do exist in children’s TV shows. However, there are markedly fewer of them than male characters, and they usually appear as teams. They tend to be the exception to the male norm. The characters are usually constructed as much more emotional, more focused on consumption, less active and less competent. Extant dominant discourse on female images is underpinned and constructed anew. For all the main characters’ strength and agency, their ever-present ← 6 | 7 → main inner motivation is a hypersexualized femininity focused on looks and attractiveness to the opposite sex. Can the same be said of the representation of masculinities?


IX, 466
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
TV heros fan studies TV characters identification television characters:
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. X, 466 pp., 85 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Maya Götz (Author)

Maya Götz, Dr. phil., is Head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) in Munich and of the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation.


Title: TV-Hero(in)es of Boys and Girls
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478 pages