3 Apr

Gender, Intelligence, and Diversifying Characterization

Last week, I started watching T.U.F.F. Puppy.

T.U.F.F. Puppy is a Nickelodeon show by Butch Hartman (The Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom) which follows the adventures of Dudley Puppy, an excitable, boneheaded mutt and new agent of T.U.F.F., the Turbo Undercover Fighting Force. He works with his extremely capable partner, Kitty Katswell, as they protect Petropolis from anthropomorphic villains.

Kitty Katswell and Dudley Puppy following an explosion caused by Dudley.

While watching this show, I realized something: There are an awful lot of dimwitted, idiotic male characters in children cartoons that are offset by competent and intelligent female characters.


In T.U.F.F. Puppy, Dudley is completely untrained as a secret agent and essentially gets a job at T.U.F.F. by complete accident. Nevertheless, he still manages to earn the same respect from his boss and peers as Kitty does, even though she has been training for years and is ridiculously talented and perceptive. Although Dudley often sabotages his missions with Kitty, he still manages to be successful—in fact, Kitty is almost always inconvenienced by Dudley’s negligence and stupidity, yet Dudley almost always benefits from Kitty’s abilities.

This unbalanced male-female relationship is exceptionally prevalent among current programming, and the characterization of male leading characters as incompetent and female leading characters as intelligent—or, at least, more intelligent than their male counterparts—has become a cliché.

L to R: Darwin, Gumball, and Anais.
L to R: Darwin, Gumball, and Anais.

For instance, let’s look at The Amazing World of Gumball. Gumball and Darwin, two boys, are goofy and always getting into trouble because of their negligence. Conversely, Anais, Gumball’s younger sister, is a brainiac. Considering that she is still of the age to ride in the child seat of grocery carts, she is basically a genius.

We can see the same dynamic between Gumball and Anais’s mom and dad. Dad is an absolute moron—albeit a hilarious one—who always gets himself caught in jams and never really seems to understand much. Mom, on the other hand, is the voice of reason; she is logical, perceptive, and always makes the right decisions.

Think also about We Bare Bears. Grizz, Panda, and Ice Bear (all male) are often impulsive and rarely think through their decisions, yet their human friend, Chloe, studies hard and always weighs the consequences of her (and the bears’) actions.

We also have Timmy Turner of The Fairly Odd Parents, who is simultaneously clever and aloof, and his new female counterpart Chloe Carmichael, who is considered intelligent by nearly everyone and is both enthusiastic and a perfectionist.

Even Adventure Time‘s Finn and Princess Bubblegum fit nicely into this trope-esque dichotomy. While Finn is certainly capable, he is nowhere near as intelligent and collected as Princess Bubblegum.

There’s SpongeBob and Sandy, the boys and girls of the Teen Titans, the Breadwinners and Ketta, and surely many more.

But, why?

Why do these primarily male-centered cartoons belittle the intelligence and capabilities of boys while uplifting and celebrating the intelligence of girls?

Finn helping Princess Bubblegum with one of her many experiments.
Finn helping Princess Bubblegum with one of her many experiments.

In some ways, it does seem like an effort to break stereotypes. In the past, female characters did not have much of a role in the action. They played the damsel in distress, stood at the sidelines, or, in some other way, needed a male character to incite progress. While this still occurs in some cartoons, it is certainly something that arises much less frequently. Through this male-female character dynamic, these cartoons help show boys that girls are their equals (or perhaps even their superiors), not their inferiors. Clearly, as these cartoons show, girls can compete with boys intellectually. While girls may still be the objects of some character’s affection, at least they are also valued for their intelligence.

And that is wonderful. We should always do what we can to uplift girls and encourage high self-esteem.

However, fighting the incompetent girl stereotype so consistently only creates an entirely new stereotype which positions boys as the incapable, empty-headed sex. While this may raise the self-esteem of girls and encourage boys to value girls as competent and capable individuals, what effect does this have on boys? Shouldn’t we now worry that we are leaving the boys behind?

While it is great to have goofy, sometimes dimwitted characters, we need to be conscious of attributing these characteristics to only one sex in such a prevalent pattern. Diversifying not only the gender of the characters in current cartoons but also their personalities can help ensure that everybody is portrayed fairly, without sacrificing entertainment value. There is no need to rely on clichés to develop characters or tell stories, and diversity leaves no one behind; no one is left as the weaker sex.

[Images from Nickelodeon‘s T.U.F.F. Puppy and Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball and Adventure Time via Hulu. Feature: T.U.F.F. Puppy Episode 2, Season 1. “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.” Inline: 1) T.U.F.F. Puppy Episode 1, Season 1. “Doom-mates.” 2) The Amazing World of Gumball Episode 6, Season 1. “The Dress.” 3) Adventure Time Episode 1, Season 1. “Slumber Party Panic.”]