Ask M & Ms to stop sexualizing female cartoon characters

Yesterday, I blogged about how, except for the pink ghetto, female characters marketed to kids are usually shown as a minority. They are also sexualized. See the M & Ms below as a typical example. Ms. Brown, the new female M & M character, also shown in heels, is missing from this photo. You can see her here.

I wrote about how presenting females as a minority is dangerous because it normalizes invisible women. Adults stop noticing that girls have gone missing. So do kids.

Females are 51% of the population but we manage to make the illusion of a female minority real when it comes to power positions across America. At the top, women are stuck at 16%.

Where else are females a minority? In the imaginary world, a place where singing lions befriend warthogs, rats can cook, and toys come to life, where anything should be possible. So why is the animated world so sexist? Why do the female M & Ms have to be in the minority, wear high heels, and bat their eyelashes? Why is this OK with parents? What is this gender stereotyping teaching our kids?

A couple things happened after my blog yesterday.

I got even more than the usual amount of hate emails on SFGate: Who cares about M & Ms, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I can’t write blah blah blah.

Then I saw on FB someone had blogged on About Face about the same sexualized M & Ms issue and was asked by her sister: who cares?

And finally, my daughter is turning three this week. When I went to Party City this morning, I was greeted at the door by a giant green M & M in go go boots. Every kid who walks in the store sees that. It is messed up. It’s no better than that cartoon Camel selling cigarettes to kids. Sexualizing girls is dangerous, and it needs to stop.

So, if you think the above picture is messed up, if you think female M & Ms should be allowed to wear sneakers and run around just like the males get to do, please go to M&Ms Facebook page. Ask M & Ms to stop sexualizing cartoon characters. It’s bad for kids.

Reel Girl rates M & Ms ***SSS*** for extreme gender stereotyping.

22 thoughts on “Ask M & Ms to stop sexualizing female cartoon characters

  1. Hi Margot,

    Wow, some of those Sfgate comments are terribly rude. I will say, though, that some of them raise legitimate points, and it would be great if you could comment on them. For example, I thought it was interesting that the brown M&M (who I honestly thought was supposed to be Tina Fey!) is apparently a business executive, and that she has a Twitter account that sends out educational messages, often about strong women. I’m also curious how you think a female M&M should be portrayed, given the limitations of cartoon art. I mean, cartoon art by its very nature is simple, and uses gender stereotypes to tell males and females apart (bows, long eyelashes, etc.) In the animated world, I suppose the M&Ms could all look alike and you could tell their gender by their voices, but what about print ads? Unfortunately, people’s default assumption seems to be that cartoon characters are male, so if all the M&Ms looked alike, I’d be afraid that everyone would assume they’re all guys. Just wanted to get your thoughts 🙂

    • Hi Rain,

      I cannot wade through the muck of SFGate comments to look for real arguments on the issue, but thank you for doing it for me, happy to respond.

      M & Ms has given Ms. Brown a somewhat feminist narrative, and she also sports glasses which means she’s smart, right? But the problem is that most people don’t read the narratives or Twiiter messages. Most kids see– any certainly all the non-literate ones– see the girl M & M in high heels and the boys in sneakers, see 2 females in the clear minority.

      Ho would I like her portrayed? NOT IN PUMPS!

      MM

      • Thanks for responding! (Although in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that, like Ms. Brown, I am a businesswoman and I do indeed wear pumps most days of the week!) Just to follow up–what about long eyelashes, or a bow, or a flower, or lipstick–do you think those are more acceptable/less harmful ways of differentiating gender in cartoon characters? Again, I’m talking about print, where the advertisers must rely on visual cues alone to get the point across.

        • Hi rain,

          Most business execs wear pump, most pirates in history are male, but why when we created cartoon characters for kids do we recycle sexism?

          You question about how to distinguish males from females is a great one.

          First you have to ask, do we need male and female M & Ms? Why must we gender everything? In the movie Wall-E about ROBOTS, the robots were gendered in stereotypical ways.

          I do not think we need to gender everything.

          That said, right now, gender neutral means male and invisible females. I think we are in desperate need of presenting strong, cool, heroic females. They don’t exist and girls need to see them.

          So how to create a female M & M without sexualizing her? What about braids or pony tails? Eyelashes don’t bug me as much bows. I’ll think about this some more and ask Reel Girl readers for thoughts.

          MM

  2. What I think is so funny about Morgan’s comments is that marketers are constantly tweaking ads and measuring their effect. That’s their job. I’m sure the creation of a sexy M&M was a carefully plotted strategy. They likely assumed their primary audience was young males, so they came up with a character they thought would appeal to that demographic.Why else put her in high heels and give her a lascivious walk? Does anyone honestly believe that wasn’t intentional?

    Unless they hear from women, and men who care about sexual stereotyping of women, they will have no incentive to change. So they SHOULD hear from us.

    It’s risky to make gender/race comparisons, but I’m gonna try one here anyway. Suppose these goldfish and candy companies decided that to appeal to young white consumers, they were going to develop a painfully stereotyped HIspanic or African American character, one that was deeply offensive to actual Hispanics and African Americans? You don’t think they would get blowback from that? Do you really think they’d be able to ignore the criticism of racial stereotyping? So why should they get a free pass on sexual stereotyping? Why should they be allowed to take female consumers for granted?

    • Hi Lesley,

      Agree with all your comments including the racial stereotypes. Racial stereotypes are no longer acceptable in cartoons, recognized for how horrible and offensive they are. Sexual stereotypes are accepted. It’s wrong.

      MM

    • Please see rain‘s comment which appears above yours.

      My point is that this perception of the M&M is subjective. In fact, if we’re going to get into attributes of the portrayal seen by some among the opinionated and not others, I would point out the male M&Ms seem somewhat less dignified, more clownish; I would further point out that particular gender disparity goes back in time a long ways, across a great many different industries. Yes, marketers are constantly tweaking their material and measuring their effect, and will avoid anything that invites too much blowback. That’s why the wife never uses Brand X, ever. SHE corrects the HUSBAND. That goes back to, at least, the 1970’s and there’s very rarely any disruption to this pattern.

      My point is not that the advertisers won’t react to this kind of mid-course-correction, my point is that they have, and that’s why you don’t see many females here & in other places. A decision’s been made that there’s less of a dust-up if they just sidestep the whole issue (which, after all, is human nature). If they had to decide on it a hundred more times, they’d probably decide it the same way a hundred more times.

      Honey. Vinegar. But, again, fine, if you don’t wanna listen to me don’t listen to me.

  3. Make…half of the characters female. Don’t sexualize them. How hard it that?

    Extremely easy IF the producers have access to the consulting services of some panel of aggrieved persons, who can replicate your complaint, and pass credible judgment on the drafts that are offered to satisfy it.

    AND if there is some guarantee that the work will never be critiqued by anyone with a higher standard than what is used by this panel of aggrieved person.

    If both those resources are not in place, it is impossible. I get the gist of your complaint; the problem is, you’ve created this “Potter Stewart” situation (can’t/won’t define obscenity but I know it when I see it). As I said above, in this example you’re ticked about the shoes. They shoulda seen that one coming? Really? I’m very sure they’d say otherwise. And legitimately so.

    First question in my mind is: How about female M&Ms with thinner lips. Would that not upset anybody? I’ll bet it would.

  4. I’ve been following your blog for a long while now (after having read your existing material on one sitting) and I just felt like I had to give something (no matter how awkward) back for a change. Because it would really and dearly suck if these loud rude voices would actually succeed in silencing you.
    Before your blog I had not even realized how pervasive this problem was (pretty much the point, huh) and how dangerous this limited portrayal of girls is, especially when marketed to kids this young. I think you are a very talented writer and very brave for publishing your opinions.
    I understand people who consider M&M’s a silly, unimportant issue – if it was only this one brand of candy doing this, everything’d be fine. What I don’t understand is why in the world they would commit much attention and energy to demanding you be quiet about it. What does it take away from them if girls can see positive role models and exciting female characters as well?

    Also,here’s one feminist’s take on nasty comments bloggers receive. I hope you never run into anything this extreme. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/11/on-blogging-threats-and-silence/
    But hope it helps.
    Keep this up, you’re a great influence to young, silent creepers like me!

  5. How about if you put faces on cartoons of candy, just don’t gender-ify them at all? In other words, why is the “default” face male, thus causing a false need for a “girl” one? I support what you’re doing. Thanks!

    p.s. And why is the GREEN one female? Could it have to do with that myth about green M&Ms?

  6. Hey Margot, I don’t see eye-to-eye with you on this, but I’ve seen the letters from people insulting you and they need to just go…well…you probably don’t want that kind of language here. They’re ankle biters. Not even worth writing about. What kind of person makes time to put up a comment, under a column, informing the author of the column that nobody is reading it. It disproves itself, seemingly without the knowledge or understanding of the person who posted the comment, which says very little for their intellect.

    To the issue under discussion. Seems to me that Mars, and everyone else receiving your ire for the same reason, is putting up a trial balloon: Let’s have ONE female character and see how it goes. Then, along comes you to say — what do you say? NOTHING positive. As I understand this particular one, you don’t like the lady M&M’s shoes. So then the candy company executives meet somewhere after a few months, and ask, well how did that go? Answer: The public, which means you those who reverberate your comments, absolutely hates it.

    Okay then. We’ll stop portraying females. It’s just way more trouble than it’s worth. I’m sure someone in the boardroom is saying, okay this was a laudable goal we had, but we’re in the business of selling candy, we’re not in the business of figuring out what female portrayal is the right one. Leave it to the psychiatrists to mull that over, and we’ll keep looking for a marketing campaign that helps us more than hurts us.

    I can’t prove it, but I am positive that is the conversation taking place. I would bet money on it, and I don’t bet often.

    Just my two cents.

    • “It’s just way more trouble than it’s worth.”

      That’s where the problem is, that putting a female character in the mix should be able to be considered “trouble” they didn’t have to do tells something about how messed up things have gone. Nobody wants to feel they’re being thrown a bone just so they’ll shut up, women are part of the consumer base for their product, yes they are entitled to like or dislike it without being dismissed as not worth the “trouble”. And her complaint is simple, the females are being sexualized, give her normal shoes, change the pose, done, anyone can go through this “trouble”.

      • Agree, with the possible exception of the word “entitled.” But given that their reaction is a human one, what should be done about it?

        They put out a female character, they get grief. They survey the people most likely to give them grief before they put the character out, they put the character out, they still get grief. They don’t bother in the first place and they don’t get grief. So…well, it’s the old thing about honey & vinegar. We’ve been here before.

    • You seem to think we’re talking about a few fragile flowers here who will not be able to pick themselves up after critique and continue their work, that’s not at all who they are, these are professionals, if they can’t take “grief” and try again, they should have tried a different profession than one which focus is pleasing a consumer base.

      • I agree, and my comments aren’t about feelings, they’re about money. It’s pretty clear the corporate construct will respond to sticks as well as to carrots; if that were not the case, then why bother with any of this, right?

        Now, Margot has made a point of identifying occasions on which the products that are put out, do things right. That’s exactly what’s needed. But it’s counterproductive when a product is put out with a clear intent and purpose around female-appeal, and it’s exactly what’s been demanded, status on par with the male counterpart…and it’s not quite perfect so the result is more criticism.

        The message is: Just don’t bother with the female appeal. You’ll never win anyway.

        That’s not the message you’re trying to send. Can we at least agree on just that much?

        And no one individual here gets to “customize” the product to her own liking. Just like I don’t get to do that, nobody else gets to do that…except maybe the president of the company. We can agree on just that much, too, right?

    • But it’s not just not quite perfect, it’s no good. We’re not trying to customize things for our personal liking here, we know it needs a generic appeal, but they’re not there yet, if they choose not to bother with us that’s great, the product in question is candy here, I guess we will just have to stop bothering with it. And buy, who knows, one of the other thousands of brands out there that actually do bother with us?

      Margot’s wishes couldn’t be easir to fill, give her normal boots and don’t make her pose to the viewer, perfect.

  7. I don’t hate you and I think what you are writing about is important and I am glad I am not the only one who notices these things!!!

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