It has become quite commonplace for the folks who embody “girrl power” to criticize every bit of media in terms of whether girls are being aptly represented (to their standards, of course). It is especially common for them to chastise children’s shows, as the viewership is young and impressionable. Often, we see demand for positive female role models, with little complaint about the prevalence of negative male role models.
Because I have a two-year-old in the house, I’m all too familiar with the current lineup of Disney programs. I would like to address these shows from a neutral position, evaluating their parity — or lack thereof — of gender representation. After all, I believe that it’s possible for cartoons to include positive female role models who don’t come at the expense of male ones. So, I will use a five-star scale to rate children’s shows based on how well they provide equitable gender role models.
I’ll start with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. It is my son’s favorite show and one of the more equitable ones in the Disney Jr. lineup. From me, it gets a 4 out of 5: fairly equitable but would be well served by some improvements. Many people are familiar with the cast — Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. It’s not an even split, but additional characters are often brought on, including Clarabelle Cow and her puppy, Bella; Professor Von Drake; Chip and Dale; and Pete the Cat. Overall, there are more male characters than female. However, on closer examination, is that a bad thing?
For starters, out of all of these characters, we can enjoy at least one positive male role model: Mickey Mouse is a great leader and friend who always helps support and encourage others. Mickey leads most of the Clubhouse adventures. While everyone takes turns solving problems, Mickey always stays calm, collected, and rational. No matter what happens, Mickey will do everything he can to help his friends, overcoming obstacles and never giving up, especially in his special, “Mickey’s Adventures in Wonderland.” He is the picture of loyalty and perseverance.
Minnie Mouse is also an excellent role model. Like Mickey, she is a good friend who supports and encourages her companions. She occasionally upholds traditional gender stereotypes (e.g., her love of baking), but she is also adventurous, acting as a detective on a team of “Go-Getters.” Minnie loves and cares for her friends so much that in her “Minnie-rella” special, she takes on all of her friends’ chores and repair work without a single complaint, even when they’re taking up her time on purpose (so they can set up a special party for her). In her “Wizard of Diz” special, she goes on an adventure, meeting and helping new friends while still treasuring her old friends and the Clubhouse. She is also an entrepreneur who has opened at least two businesses, including “Minnie’s Bow-tique” and “Minnie’s Pet Salon.” She sets a standard of love and dedication.
Then comes Donald Duck, who is famous for his bad attitude. He is usually in a foul mood: he refuses to work with his friends, laughs at his friends when they face challenges, tries to solve problems by cutting corners and being dishonest, and is often a poor loser. In the “Mickey’s Adventures in Wonderland” special, while Mickey exhibits strength and determination, Donald blames others for his mistakes and is generally abrasive in his attempt to catch the Cuckoo Bird. He is the picture of cynicism and disdain. On a personal note, Donald’s cynicism makes him one of my favorite characters because he delivers some of the funniest lines. For example, when Goofy coincidentally pulls a necessary tool out of his hat, Donald says, in his typical incomprehensible speech, “You never cease to amaze me.” While I have no problem with a male character being portrayed as purely miserable, I would like to see a female character portrayed as unpleasant as well.
Like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck are male/female counterparts. However, Daisy is not a female version of Donald. While Daisy has some flaws, like selfishness and clumsiness, she does not exhibit these traits often. She also has more positive traits than Donald, caring more for her friends and exhibiting more patience and honesty than Donald. She is also adventurous, like Minnie, and is portrayed as Secret Spy Daisy on the team of “Go-Getters.” Daisy also partners with Minnie in her Bow-tique business. Overall, she is probably one of the most realistic characters in the crew, as she exhibits both positive and negative traits in contrast to the mostly positive Mickey and Minnie or the mostly negative Donald.
Goofy is named for what he’s known for — being a complete and total goof. While some think that the “bumbling fool” archetype is a negative portrayal, others argue that it is positive, as it provides humor to the viewers. It is undeniable that Goofy is exceptionally foolish — he is often clumsy, he loves stinky things like his stinky shoes, and he is known to lack intelligence. However, his love for his friends makes him endearing. Despite his overwhelming foolishness, he always does everything in his power to help his friends; even if his contributions turn out to be useless, he always tries. While it can be argued that the bumbling, foolish male trope is overused and damaging, children love his slap-stick antics, and more subtle forms of humor are difficult for young children to comprehend.
Pluto is considered one of Mickey’s main friends. However, because he is not anthropomorphized, he doesn’t have as many clear characteristics as the others. What is clear is that he is a loyal canine friend, especially to the characters with more positive characteristics, while he can sometimes be seen mocking those with more negative traits. He also exhibits jealousy when another friend gets a new pet, Bella the puppy. But overall he is a devoted friend who shares his love in traditional canine ways.
Clarabelle Cow is an additional character who shows up from time to time. She seems to have been included as a sort of counterpart to Goofy, as she has been seen attending a dance with him, but she is not foolish or clumsy like Goofy. She is kind and caring as well as dedicated, as she cares for a brood of chickens. She is also an entrepreneur like Minnie, owning and operating the “Moo Mart,” where Goofy sometimes helps out. Like Minnie and Daisy, she is portrayed as an adventurer on the “Go-Getters” team, playing Captain Clarabelle. Her puppy, Bella, seems to be included as a counterpart to Pluto, especially when the young dog wanders off and Pluto rescues her.
Professor Von Drake is another additional character. He is the stereotypical crazy old inventor, behaving somewhat erratically while presenting the crew with fun new inventions that instigate adventures (such as a time machine, a rescue truck, a submarine, a thinking cap, and special potions). Like the majority of the characters on the show, he is kind and eager to help the friends in any way he can.
Chip and Dale also appear from time to time. They have minimal distinguishable characteristics, often playing silly supportive roles, especially in the more extensive specials. They are often helpful to the other characters but sometimes provide additional challenges.
Pete the Cat appears semi-regularly. While he has traditionally played the role of the resident villain, he actually goes through an interesting transformation. Early on, he plays the bad guy in every episode that needs one: stealing things, plotting to steal things, and impeding the friends by showing up just in time to require some sort of payment in order for them to advance. However, as the show progresses, Pete begins to renounce his villainous ways and become a better friend, inviting the crew to beach parties on hot days and apologizing profusely to Minnie for not recognizing her calendar pages and nearly using them as napkins. I find it intriguing that the writers have allowed Pete’s character to expand from a two-dimensional, resident villain to a more compassionate friend.
While Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has more male than female characters, male characters portray most of the negative characteristics of cynicism, anger, foolishness, and villainy. While there are fewer female characters, they are mostly portrayed as strong, loyal, capable, and dedicated. I said in the beginning that I would rate the show as 4 out of 5 stars for equitable gender portrayals. I chose a good but not perfect rating because the show portrays positive characteristics in both male and female characters but portrays negative characteristics mostly in male characters and rarely in female characters. Still, it’s worth noting that in the spinoff shorts like “Minnie’s Bow Toons,” since the primary characters are female (Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Cuckoo Loca), Daisy becomes the major source of slapstick comedy, being clumsy and excitable. However, when the group is all together, I believe the show would benefit from a more equitable allocation of negative characteristics between male and female characters. As I continue to review shows, we’ll see that this is a common theme throughout Disney Jr. cartoons.