An Open Letter to the BBC on Gender Bias

Dear BBC

There are plenty of things that annoy me about our society but there is one thing that really gets my goat and that’s inequality. As a female IT nerd person it is the gender inequality strain of this that affects me the most. And today my rage is pointing firmly towards you. Why is it that in 2015 we still can’t get females equally represented in BBC broadcasting? I am, of course, talking about the shameful display of gender inequality in the CBeebies program the Octonauts.

This sexist fleet of under water heroes is the current obsession of my three year old girl/boy twins and in turn it is a current obsessional annoyance of my own that the 3 main protagonists in it are all male. The program starts off thus:

Octonauts to your stations!
Barnacles! (male)
Kwazii! (male)
Peso! (male)
Ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba ba ba, ba-ba-ba ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba ba ba!
Ba ba-ba-ba-ba…  (you get the idea)

Bam! Right from the get go we’re shoving three male heroes in our kids’ faces. Why did you decide to make all of them male? Why is the most highly educated Octonaut, Professor Inkling, male? And indeed, why is that only 2 of the 7 gendered characters (the Vegimals appear to be gender neutral) female? The only female characters that appear in the program are Dashy, who apparently ‘oversees operations ..monitors the computer systems and manages all ship traffic’, but in reality is seen taking the odd photo and pressing a few computer buttons occasionally. And Tweak, the ‘ship engineer’ who has the most annoyingly bad fake american(?) accent you’ve ever heard, making you want to kill her whenever she appears fleetingly to say “you got it Cap!” dutifully to Captain Barnacles. It seems you’ve tried to give the females non-gender biased (perhaps even ‘stereotypically male’) roles (computers and engineering) but in excluding them from the opening sequence and giving them less air time you’ve effectively relegated them in the ship’s hierarchy. It feels like you think you’re ticking diversification boxes by having females with techy jobs (and I’m not belittling those jobs), but why isn’t Captain Barnacle female? All you’ve got to do is lose the tache, give her a female voice and maybe a bit of hair and you’re done. Professor Inkling? Lose the tache! Do you see how easy it is? And surely it’s a no brainer to always have equal numbers of male and female characters?! I mean come on.

Our society needs more women in higher roles within organisations for it to work as well as it can and as a key source of education and influence it is the BBC’s responsibility to promote that through role models in your programmes. This is so obvious to me, and I’m astounded that in this day and age the BBC still fails to hit the mark. Through programmes like these you’re still setting poor stereotypes early on in a child’s life. If we can’t get it right there, what chance have we got of changing the order of things in society as a whole?

Please do better. Now cue the race and sexual orientation inequality police for their take on things.

Yours, Kate Woodroffe.
An infuriated Mother of boy/girl twins who is trying desperately (against the tide) to raise her children with equal expectations of what they can achieve.

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5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the BBC on Gender Bias

  1. We have some of the Meomi Octonauts books and I’ve noticed that a couple of things have changed in translation from the books to TV: in the books, Peso is described as a “nurse” but in the TV programme, and the later TV spin-off books, he’s a “medic”, while the Octopod seemed to start out as pink, but by the time it gets to the telly and the action figures etc it’s translated into good old non-girly orange.

    • Thanks for that. I’ve looked at the books online but have only seen the TV spin off ones in the flesh. The Meomi ones seem to include the female characters more on the covers, and I notice that their outfits and accessories are (unlike the Octopod) girly pink free. Why did they feel the need to shove pink all over the chicks for the TV series?? Whereas for the Octopod they’ve done the reverse. Clearly the Octopod is not female in TV land.

  2. I’ve had a response from the BBC. There are more stories led by Dashi and Tweak in the pipeline. I still have outstanding Octorage though: more stories with the existing characters is one thing, but other female characters should be introduced too and given equal weighting to the 3 main dudes. And (as mentioned above) I’m sick of all female characters wearing pink! The original books had them in blue, why did they feel the need to change that in the series? So, to sum up: New characters in positions of importance, gender neutral clothing and, ideally, females in the theme tune. Here’s their answer :

    “Thank you for your message in which you express concerns about a lack of female lead characters in Octonauts.

    We are very aware of the importance of providing strong role models for all children and while we do agree with you that there is room for improvement, we believe we are constantly improving the number of female characters in programmes across the channel, the range of activities in which they participate, and the roles they play within narrative. In the field of live action we have female leads in shows like Nina & the Neurons, Katie Morag, I Can Cook and Woolly & Tig, and in animation there is Sarah & Duck, Everything’s Rosie, Abney & Teal , and Tilly and Friends to name just a few, with more female led shows in the pipeline.

    It is true that Octonauts has a male skew in terms of its lead characters – it was commissioned several years ago to address a falling boy audience. However, it became clear to us very quickly that the undersea world of the Octonauts is as loved by girls as it is by boys, and we have tried to embrace that in the new episodes that are in production with more stories led by Tweak and Dashi. Animation takes a very long time to produce, and these episodes won’t be making an appearance for a little while, so if you could bear with us! We do however, have new episodes of Everything’s Rosie, Sarah Duck and a new show called Kate and Mim Mim coming soon, which will help with the balance of male vs female leads on the channel.

    Thank you very much for getting in touch, we do make great effort to properly reflect UK children, and in particular we are trying to make sure that we have proper gender balance on the channel – we hope you are reassured that we are making efforts in this direction. ”

    What do you think? Leave a comment below

  3. Hi Joni – I wanted to reach out and applaud your open letter to the BBC re: the gender imbalance of the Octonauts. My 3 year old daughter, Amélie, is addicted (think crack cocaine) to the 7 crew members. A couple days ago I wrote a letter to my friends re: the very same observations… plus a bit more. My partner, Frank, decided to check the internet to see if anyone else had noticed the imbalance… low and behold, we found you.

    I’m thrilled to find another parent who is seeing these horrible “over-sights” that belittle and subjugate females. I want much more for our daughters. Would love to connect sometime… johnangelo0107@gmail.com.

    There is another incredibly insidious aspect about the gender imbalance of the Octonauts you didn’t mention. Here’s the letter I wrote to my friends (check out item #3):

    JUST HOW INSIDIOUS ARE THE TECHNIQUES TO SUPPRESS FEMALES?

    To answer that question… tune into Netflix and marathon-watch the first ten episodes of the Octonauts. Amélie’s and Uma’s favorite cartoon is turning out to be a real eye-opener.

    This wonderfully educational show introduces small children to all kinds of interesting sea creatures and shares numerous facts about each. Much of it sticks with its young sponge-brain audience.

    One thing that won’t stick – females make up half the world.

    After peripherally watching numerous episodes, I decided to sit down and apply my scientific approach. In this case, examining female representation. I began re-watching the program from the first episode and tallying facts about the casting. I will continue, but I already have enough data to share some troubling news with you.

    Here are the findings… (#3 really gives gender balance a kick in the pants)

    1) There are 7 recurring Octonauts with speaking roles…
    5 are male
    2 are female

    Interestingly, the one-minute intro that repeats at the beginning of each episode introduces all five male characters first (one by one, and calling out the first three by name) and then the two females last and nameless.

    2) Out of the first 20 missions (there are 2 missions per episode), the breakout of who gets to actively go out on the missions to be a part of the adventure breaks down as follows:

    ​Males:
    Inkling – 2**
    Shellington – 9
    Peso – 18
    Kwazii – 20
    Barnacle – 19​
    ** – note: Inkling is an elderly Octopus who protects his brain by staying in his library

    Females:
    Tweak – 3*
    Dashi – 5*
    * – note: on 3 of the above missions, at least 6 of the 7 crew members went out… the females were blended in with the entire cast

    So aside from the elderly octopus, the two female recurring characters see less adventure action than any other crew member. Most male characters are seeing 3-6 times as much action.

    ​3) In the first 20 missions, the crew interacts with 37 sea creatures who have speaking parts… and thereby reveal their genders. In these missions the crew meets lobsters, giant squids, crabs, walruses, flying fish, whales, blobfish and numerous others. Now here’s the kicker…

    ​Total number of speaking sea creatures in first twelve missions – 37
    Male – 36
    Female – 1

    Over 97% of the sea creatures are male and less than 3% are female

    ​​Hypothesis: The issue is that female voices are perceived to turn boys off. They are therefore used sparingly. The two female regulars have about 1/5 or less the air time of any of the other key male figures – who dominate the vast majority of the dialogue.

    While Octonauts gets high scores for educational value and not pandering pink and blue (though both female characters are branded with pink hair accessories)​, the program reduces female influence to a minuscule level. Little girls do not see themselves in the bulk of the adventures and verrrrrry rarely see themselves in the exciting and exotic creatures that live in the ocean. They are conditioned that males are the risk takers and adventurers… and ubiquitous.

    ​These anthropomorphized characters must all be males to carry any sense of adventure. It is perhaps a minor thing, but it is insidious. It is not all that different from minorities going to movie theaters to view the latest blockbuster… only to find all the characters are Caucasian. There’s no one on the screen for them to relate to. ​They get by and enjoy the movie, but are not connected to the audience at large or given the chance to feel proud about how their subgroup is portrayed.

    ​In the Octonauts, the 2 female characters do contribute in their helpful ways, but they are not cast as adventurers, and virtually none of the interesting characters the crew comes in contact with are females. Males MUST be much more interesting.​

    ​Too bad. Amélie is truly addicted to the show.​ It’s such a missed opportunity to show her females are part of the world as well.

    What do you guys think? Am I making mountains out of mole hills or is life for females really this suppressed?​

    ​John​


    John Angelo
    513.289.8300

  4. Aaaaaagh. I’m a bit late to this party but still full of rage. Do they even realise that by making Dashi and Tweak the engineer and ‘computer systems manager’ they are simply providing a believable cover to MAKE THE WOMEN STAY AT HOME??!!? So, so angry with this show.

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