Dear Mr Zoo

Anyone who thinks we don’t have inherent sexism in our language and most of our texts from childhood onwards needs to do this simple experiment. Take the popular children’s book Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell and switch the genders of all the animals to female. And suddenly the characteristics seem way loaded.

Dear Zoo


Here’s an interesting Guardian article about gender imbalance in children’s books. And another article about the fact female voices figure far less than male ones in Disney films (yes, even Frozen, which seems mad).

When I think of the films my 5 year old son loves such as Finding Nemo (a dad looks for his son, and aside from one main female character, all the other main speaking parts are male – the irony being that a male clownfish actually TURNS INTO A FEMALE if/when his mate is killed.) Cars (one main female speaking part, the love interest) and Planes (two minor female love interests and a female secondary member of the crew) it does make me despair.

We’ve also recently started watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a show I watched regularly in my youth. There’s 4 male turtles, their male mutant-rat ninja master, the male enemy – a Darth Vader style dude named Shredder – and his overlord Krang, his two male offsiders etc. There is one main, strong female – April O’Neil – a journalist, so that’s awesome. But do we really celebrate ONE main chick among NINE male characters? What kind of ratio is that? And how is it anything like real life? I could outline a similar catalogue for Star Wars and everything else but you get my drift. Sigh.

Also everything is Mr Sheen, Mr Muscle, Mr Mower etc. I’ve noticed this, along with the huge gender imbalance in kids cartoons, since I was a child and it always bugged me. I know this is because maleness is seen as “the norm/neutral” (I am not a gender studies expert, so excuse me for not using the proper terminology here) but still.

Going back to my first example. It’s not just that all the animals are male. I find that changing them to female gives the characteristics of the animals – She was too: Big, Tall, Fierce, Scary, Grumpy, Naughty, Jumpy – a whole different dimension that makes me feel uncomfortable in a way I’m not even sure how to articulate. What do you think?


Happy Mother’s Day!


  1. I love how you changed the gender of the animal! There are all these hidden messages everywhere, it really is quite shocking, I never noticed it before becoming a parent, and I’m still at a loss as to what to do about it. For example my daughter always gets comments for wearing pretty dresses, and already she laps up the attention, and wears dresses every day because of it.

    1. I don’t think I’ll be taking on the world as a photoshopper anytime soon but still… point made! 😉 Yeah… my other problem is I’m lazy as a parent – it would take SUCH an effort to avoid all this stuff (if indeed it’s even possible). I guess we can only talk to our kids and try to address the balance a bit.

  2. Once you start paying attention to the gender bias, it’s everywhere. And even more disheartening is the rubbish and abuse that women have to put up with in areas such as gaming. I have no idea how you negotiate this as a parent, but I love that it’s being discussed. Great post, Claire. xxx

  3. You are painfully right!

    There are a couple of strong female characters that I liked as a kid: Pippi Longstockings, Wicki und die starken Männer, die rote Zora, but those are exceptions to the rule.

  4. Great post Claire! My 4yo daughter also refuses to wear anything else than dresses and plenty of hair accessories. Also the shows on TV ate such a rubbish, there is an interdiction to watch all the barbie shows on Tiji (right after I saw few minutes where barbie was flying private jet with her dog to Paris… I mean wth is that?!?). For the moment we watch Masha (Russian cute cartoon about a little girl and a bear), Peppa Pig (I found it amazing and very educative show). Most shocking though is to encounter such genderism at schools. My friends 5yo was told at school that she can’t possibly be a firefighter as this is a men’s job.

  5. Excellent point Claire. You can add Lord of the Rings to the list. I have three girls so notice this all this time. I do a lot of correcting to female in books with animal characters but it’s never enough. My eldest loves sea creatures but when I told her there was a film about a whale who makes friends with a kid and is set free, she just shrugged and said, ‘yeah and I bet it’s a boy’.
    The final straw, aged 9!

  6. Yes. A friend mentioned The Jungle Book has no female characters. And neither does Wind in the Willows … Now I’m also thinking about the Roald Dahl books my son is enjoying so much at the moment…

  7. Soooo right. 😦 and the female characters the girls have to relate to often frighten me. I love the changes you made. I used to do this just off the cuff while reading. You’d better keep that book for your kids as they get older!

  8. I love the Octonauts for a kids show, now my 8 year old son is into Power Rangers which surprisingly has 2 females to 3 male Rangers and they r not merely eye candy. 🙂

    1. We love Octonauts too. Although I still find the 4 main guys are, well, guys (Cap’n Barnacles, Kwazi, Peso and Shellington… OK 2 females in Dashi and Tweak but then Prof. Inkling and all those vegimales – see what I did there?) I’m slightly embarrassed to be able to rattle off all these names so easily.

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