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What is kids TV really teaching our children?

During a recent fit of nostalgia, I found myself hunched over a laptop with my twenty-something housemates, enjoying an episode of Rugrats. Between laughs and guffaws, I rediscovered my mixed feelings towards the feisty, funny, rude, manipulative toddler overlord that is Angelica Pickles, a character I loved to hate during my childhood.

Our household binge on ‘90s kids’ TV reached beyond Rugrats; we also revisited Arthur and Angela Anaconda. During this return to childhood favourites, I had a strange realisation. Arthur’s stuck up and selfish Muffy Crosswire, a stuck-up and selfish monkey, and Angela Anaconda’s Nanette Manoir, a snob with a penchant for all things French, make Angelica far from a lone figure in the land of kids’ television. All three characters are young, rich, female bullies.

Is it just me, or is this a strange stereotype?

All three characters are young, rich, female bullies.

I can understand the thinking behind a lot of other familiar figures on kids’ TV: the goofy main character, the loyal best friend, the stern but loving parent, and the distant, vaguely menacing school principal. They probably reflect, to some extent, the average primary schooler’s own experiences. But a well-to-do, female five-year-old with a Machiavellian streak? I certainly don’t remember anyone fitting this mould during my schooling.

Angelica and Muffy remain TV fixtures (though the removal of Angela Anaconda from TV listings means Mademoiselle Manoir is accessible only via YouTube). Research (and consultation with my younger cousins) reveals that the pair have since been joined on TV screens by a number of other wealthy female bullies, in both human and animal form. There’s Suzi in Camp Lakebottom, Pacifica Northwest in Gravity Falls, and the aptly-named fillies Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

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These characters aren’t evil villains but they do exploit their peers and classmates without concern for the consequences. They demonstrate behaviours to avoid: they're selfish, bratty, aloof and shallow. Of course, teaching kids of both genders that these traits are negative is probably a good thing. What’s concerning is the fact that these qualities seem to be linked to females — and females from wealthy backgrounds, particularly — far more often than to males.

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They demonstrate behaviours to avoid: they're selfish, bratty, aloof and shallow.

As far as I’m concerned, Angelica and her equivalents across Nickelodeon, ABC3, The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network have some enviable traits. They’re resourceful, motivated and strong-willed. But where these qualities might be celebrated in a male (or a less privileged female), they’re seen as negative when combined with both femininity and wealth.

These young, female bullies are like primary school equivalents of the stereotypical “rich bitches” of teen film (think Christy Masters from Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, Sharpay Evans of High School Musical, the titular character from Heathers and, of course, Mean Girls’ Regina George). There’s the same depiction of self-obsession, the same materialism, and the same disregard for the feelings of others.

There’s the same depiction of self-obsession, the same materialism, and the same disregard for the feelings of others.

In some cases, the juniors’ behaviours also seems to be linked to their mothers’ apparent shortcomings. Nanette Manoir’s mother Bunny is a snobbish Southern belle with hair from Dallas and an all-pink wardrobe — not exactly a great role model. Angelica Pickles, meanwhile, is the spitting image of her mother Charlotte, who works around the clock as the CEO of the imaginatively-named Mega Corp in Rugrats.

This is where things get particularly concerning from where I sit. If kids grow up accustomed to depictions of young, rich, female bullies, they’re surely less likely to question related female stereotypes. The “rich bitch” and the “workaholic mother” become natural evolutions of Angelica and her fellows. They become normal, and they become expected.

If we want to change the way women are depicted in the entertainment world — to change the backwards, patronising portrayal of a certain type of woman as having a natural, life-long tendency towards bitchiness and bullying — then kids’ TV might be a good place to start. As Angelica Pickles would surely attest, kids deserve the best.

John Rowley is a final year Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney. He is a former editor of BULL, a student publication at the University of Sydney, and he has a particular passion for entertainment journalism. 

Do you agree that girls are unfairly stereotyped on children's television?