Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Feminism
9 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:26am

Emily Thornberry vs Mr Men is just the start of taking down patriarchal kids’ cartoons

The shadow foreign secretary described the “Little Miss” title for female Mr Men characters as demeaning. 

By Dulcie Lee

All those hazy sunny days, full of ice cream, cartoons, and laughter. Rushing home from school to catch your favourite TV show… all that, ruined. By what? The patriarchy. What a surprise.

On Good Morning Britain, the quick-witted shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry took on her latest adversary: Mr Men.

“I don’t like this thing about being little. I think that’s my problem with the Mr Men books,” she said. “Why do you have Mr Men, and then, Little Miss? It’s something about women being less.” Her comments come after an academic study argued the series was sexist as the women characters are portrayed as less powerful. 

At one point in our past, even the most progressive feminists among us know we were watching these horrendously sexist shows, soaking up all the subliminal messages which have long been filed under “common sense – do not challenge”. But now that Thornberry has taken on Mr Tickle and his ilk, what should we have really learned from those sexist shows of our childhood?

Fireman Sam

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Err, shouldn’t that be Firefighter Sam? Dany Cotton, the first female boss of the London Fire Brigade, wrote to the creators of Fireman Sam, suggesting they change the namesake: “Why did they have to go for Fireman Sam? What’s wrong with Firefighter Sam? We have to change that perception of a six foot hairy-arsed bloke who can kick a door down.”

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

What kids learn: Only men can be firefighters.

What they should actually learn: Hairy-arsed women can also kick a door down.

Bob the Builder

Can he fix it? Yes! He! Can! But guess who doesn’t get a look in? The token woman, Wendy. She mainly sits in the office doing admin and making tea, while all the (masculine) machines get to do all the good stuff. (The show got a makeover in 2016, during which Wendy got a “promotion”.)

What kids learn: Only men can do DIY.

What they should actually learn: Boys overcompensate for their inadequate equipment with huge masculine tools.

Thomas the Tank Engine

Back in 2013, Labour MP Mary Creagh said Thomas the Tank Engine was sending the wrong message out to children, and needed more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers. While all the trains were men, the women were left to be the carriages. (Four years later, the show was overhauled, and two male tank engines were replaced with females Rebecca and Nia.) 

What kids learn: Only men can be train drivers.

What they should actually learn: It’s mainly the men puffing out hot air while the women do all the grunt work. (Gendered division of labour etc.)

Dexter’s Laboratory

This show basically follows a boy genius, Dexter, in his secret mega-lab that he’s installed in the basement of his house. His sister, Dee Dee, is a vapid, shrill, stick figure, complete with blonde hair and pink dress. The mum is obsessed with housekeeping and the dad is a white-collar worker (they’re really going for it here, guys).

What kids learn: Only men can be scientists.

What they should actually learn: If you’re a woman and try and go into STEM, there will always be shit men in your lab trying to get rid of you.

Totally Spies!

Totally Spies is basically Charlie’s Angels, but they are sexualised cartoon teenagers, wearing latex getups. They do general spying and fight crime, and also find time to be high school students and have a nemisis Mandy (sisterhood FTW). The three spies use their lipsticks as lasers and handbags as shields (you can find a full list of their inexplicably feminised gadgets here.)

What kids learn: Women have to rely on femininity to succeed.

What they should actually learn: Burn your bra and use it as a weapon.

Johnny Bravo

Johnny Bravo is a blonde, tanned, muscular, self-centered bro with an Elvis-like voice and delusions of grandeur. Episodes are usually about getting a woman to go on a date with him (though he usually fails, how sad).

What kids learn: Men can be cheeky.

What they should actually learn: Men will persistently pursue women even if they clearly signal their complete disinterest. Get ready girls!