Between sexism and inclusion: CBBC

According to the online commissioning briefs of CBBC, the channel is “for everyone, everywhere”. Still, let’s not get carried away. The whole thing might sound diverse but apparently “children haven’t changed as much as we might think: girls are still girls and boys are still boys”. But what does that even mean?

If you’re hoping that “Our Guide to the CBBC Audience” might offer further details, you’re out of luck. That webpage is now blank, following complaints about sexist stereotyping earlier this year. Back then anyone hoping to pitch to CBBC would be informed that male viewers were “task focused” while female ones were “emotionally focused”:

Girls are more socially adept and motivated than boys. They will chat enthusiastically, try to support the people they care about and form profound friendships and relationships and develop an interest in boys from age 10. […] [Boys] enjoy achieving goals and completing physical challenges. There is a focus on doing, confrontation and physical strength, and for many their football team is a top priority. […] They often think girls of their age are annoying but like to talk about their body parts and sex.

Interesting, right? And handy, not just if you’re penning the latest white male hero plus ethnic minority male sidekick plus equal-but-not female helper cartoon series (hello, Mike the fucking Knight!). It’s almost as though CBBC commissioners were planning ahead, for a future in which today’s young girls end up passive, patient carers for today’s young boys, who will be out there having their own adventures and not giving a shit about anyone (because hey, supporting people you care about is girls’ stuff!). It’s such a shame that Mumsnet feminists caught wind of all this and forced them to cover their tracks!

So, in CBBC Land, girls are girls, boys are boys, and none of us knows what the fuck this means other than that we are, in all probability, preparing them for a future of 1950s gender roles via Splatalot, Dennis the Menace and Dragons: Defenders of Berk. To be fair, this doesn’t make CBBC much different to the rest of the world, in which youngsters are conditioned to within an inch of their pink or blue lives. But here is an interesting thing: CBBC are now about to air a programme about a transgender teen as part of their My Life series. It is, says a BBC exec, “about gender and identity”:

‘It’s not about the science or the medicine, it is fundamentally about identity and passion – about a boy taking a stand, saying “This is who I am”. He has an identity that others find tricky to accept. That’s a pretty universal story.’

Well, yes, it is, especially in a world where we are constantly told “girls are still girls and boys are still boys” and in which there are TV listings and commissioning programmes to back this up. It’s especially hard to accept when a gender hierarchy is so fiercely protected that any transgression means one is cast outside the group. No, you can’t be a boy / girl and feel those feelings / look that way / want those things! Because boyhood / girlhood is sacred! Rules are rules! No space for sexed bodies plus diverse humanity here!

I don’t want to write anything about the teen featured in the programme; it is their decision, it is a brave one and there’s nothing about their feelings I would challenge. One person’s subjectivity is their own. It is impossible for young people to be accepted as who they are should they fail to conform to our arbitrary standards (most girls, especially those who grow up to be feminists, know this all too well; that’s why feminism exists). However, in a world which really did challenge bullying and gender, “living as a boy” or “living as a girl” would have no meaning whatsoever. Is there anything a child could do or say or feel or wear or believe that is, essentially and eternally, “a boy thing” or “a girl thing”? That’s something a child would need to be taught (and of course, they are taught this from the moment they are born). But the sad truth is they don’t have to learn this at all (still, in the interests of maintaining a gender hierarchy in which the people born with penises exploit the people born without, it is of course useful that they do).

If CBBC (and, please god, even CBeebies) wishes to be less steeped in gender stereotypes, that can only be a good thing. Girls and boys do need, very badly, to be taught that there is nothing wrong, unnatural or transgressive about their attitudes to their bodies or their personal preferences, feelings and needs. But such teaching has to be serious and thorough and holistic, otherwise it is gardening in a gale.  Right now it seems that a persistently sexist CBBC will allow for the individuality of one while still sidestepping the far more revolutionary truth about the diversity of all.