PBS blind to its own sexism says former employee

This comment from Lisa on my post “PBS puts another male protag in coveted morning line up:”

Oh, Margot, you have just hit upon one of my pet peeves. I used to work for a PBS affiliate many years ago. At one point in the late 1990s I attended a PBS conference at which they rolled out the slate of new kids’ shows for the coming season. I was appalled not only at how few of them featured female characters, but how several of them were named for the male character: Caillou, Arthur, Franklin, on and on. As we were walking out of the ballroom and everyone was talking excitedly, the (female) VP of Development for our station said something to the effect of, “Wasn’t that great?” to me. I said, “Yeah, but where were the GIRLS? Did you notice these are all shows with boys in the lead?” She looked shocked and then as light dawned she said, “You’re right, where ARE the girls?”

I am disgusted but not surprised that even some 13+ years later, nothing has changed. I think there’s a tendency to think of PBS as more progressive, but presenting a more gender-balanced kids programming division is clearly not a priority for them.

One show that I really enjoyed on PBS once I had my daughters was Sagwa, which followed the adventures of a female Chinese Siamese cat – the title character! Notably, created by the wonderful author Amy Tan. Of course that is no longer on the air….OMG!!  I just looked up Sagwa to see when it aired, etc. and discovered this (via Wikipedia, though cross-checked in a couple other places and it seems to hold up):  “The name of the titular character, Sagwa, literally means “silly melon head”. Although innocuous without context, this phrase is typically regarded by Chinese to be an insult, carrying connotations of incompetence, foolishness, and even mental retardation.”

Wow. So one of the few shows actually named for a female character insults her by giving her a derogatory name. So frustrating!!


I love what Lisa says about “progressive” too, because you so often hear about the “liberal” media, especially PBS. I guess invisible females is just politics as usual. Isn’t it nice that people across the aisle can agree on something?

15 thoughts on “PBS blind to its own sexism says former employee

  1. The sheer stupidity of this article is laughable. Nothing worse than a bunch of women torn asunder due to falling out of your role and element. You gals have been jarred out of your femininity. That is problem number one. Hollywood has seriously impacted your brains and hearts with it’s satanic paedophile jewry. Hopefully one day you’ll realize that feminism was created to destabilize.

  2. Hi

    I don’t know if you can get Cbeebies channel in the USA or for older children CBBC. They are on the BBC in the UK. It’s still not perfect in terms of gender representation but they do seem to make a real effort in terms of not only gender but race and disability in their programming.

    Needless to say over half the shows have a male protagonist, but there are quite a few that have both male and female characters with neither ‘leading’ and some that have a female lead.

    Because the BBC has a public service remit they are very conscious of diversity in their programming. If you can find it then check it out.


    • Hi Lesley,

      Yes, WordGirl is on PBS and she is awesome and not a white girl. She is smart a d brave and kind. Just one problem. The show is never on. I bought the DVDs and the books for my daughters though, so if we want to watch her, we do that. Strong girls exist on PBS if you work hard to look for them. You’ve got to be focused and seek them out.


    • word girl is still there on some PBS channels. Netflix has it too now. I really do love her and her awesomeness. I also like that she is a girl of darker skin. Anyways they have that show right. I think boys would dig it as well. Too bad there are not more shows like that….

      • HI Margaret,

        I just wrote to Lesley about this. I am a HUGE fan of Wordgirl and I think boys would dig her too, but boys are not going to seek her out. She needs to be aired frequently and she’s not. If you’re going to make Wordgirl into a household name, like Clifford or George or Arthur, you can’t just create a show. Great first step but put it on in prime slots when kids are watching TV, run it back to back the way they do other shows. Promote it. When I have written about Wordgirl before, complaining its never on in the morning, commenters have said that its for older kids, pre-school shows are on in the morning. All I know is my just turned 4 year old LOVES the show. And anyway, if that is your argument make a damn pre-school show starring a girl, with her name in the title, and put in on in the morning! Is that so much to ask? Relegating shows starring girls to off hours is just another way to sideline them.


        • I hate to admit this (only b/c I should not be doing screen time with my young son at all). But he is 21 months old and loves it. He asks for it by name “Girl” “Girl” 😉 He like My Little Pony too though not PBS. The friendship is magic one and the one I think may get your stamp of approval. Another one he asks for by name by saying “pinkie pie”. He has no choice with an older sister and I am completely happy about it.

          • sorry my comment was related to the preschool aspect you posted about. Word Girl is kid friendly enough for preschools too. He my not understand the vocabulary, but that should not prevent him from enjoying it too. That is a lame excuse….

  3. I’ve been PO’ed about this since my daughter was born. (She’s 15 now, and I’m not any less unhappy about it.)

    I do have to correct Lisa’s comment about Sagwa, though. PBS didn’t name the book or the character, Amy Tan did, after her own cat: “At age 17, my cat, Sagwa, was diagnosed with renal failure. She would die in a month. I was heartsick. One night, I had a dream that Sagwa could write Chinese characters with her tail dipped in ink.” So the idea that “one of the few shows actually named for a female character insults her by giving her a derogatory name” is completely false. PBS is innocent of that crime.

    • Hi Wendy,

      I get that the origin of the name “Sagwa” isn’t sexist, but I still think it’s a bummer, as I wrote to Alina, that one of the few female characters has an ambiguous name. Regardless of why Tan came up with it, when there are hardly any female names out there, I would prefer if this one didn’t mean “silly melon head” (though I think it could be a great name for a cat.) If the producers at PBS had a clue, I think they would have agreed.


  4. I’m somewhat disappointed that PBS isn’t where it should be in terms of providing educational shows for girls. But in reference to Sagwa, “silly melon head” isn’t meant to be disrespectful. I think the writer might have taken this term directly from Wiki if I’m not mistaken and what we call Sagwa is usually referred to someone foolish or naive (as young children sometimes are). So it might just be a cultural misunderstanding.

    • Hi Alina,

      I think its a bummer that with hardly any eponymous programs for girls, out there, one of the few has, at best, an ambiguous one. Give the girl a strong name for goodness sake! Names are important.


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