I was gulping down some breakfast at my boyfriend’s house, staring the dazed-looking seagulls on the back of the cereal box. “You ever wonder why there are no female cereal box mascots?” I mused to the room.
My boyfriend and his roommate looked confused, or perhaps just sleep dazed because it was 6:30 am. But I continued. “I mean, think about it—Count Chocula, Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, the Trix rabbit, Cap’n Crunch… They’re all dudes! I can’t think of a single woman mascot!”
I was surprised and a little miffed by this revelation, but all I got in turn was a one-word response.
I didn’t have a pithy answer, so I just swallowed more of my Trader Joes Rice Crisps and brewed about it. Why did cereal characters suddenly matter to me?
Humans are story-telling creatures. We weave fables and characters and heroes into our daily lives. I’ll admit that cereal box mascots are a tiny part of the stories we create as a society, and maybe no one really cares about cereal in particular, unless you’re a screaming, sugar addicted toddler. But they are a symptom of a larger issue, the fact that our society operates through a male lens.
According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films, a ratio that has remained the same since 1946. Research from the University of Florida shows that each year, 57% of children’s books published have male protagonists, while only 31% have a female protagonist.
It seems kind of a sad reality for a kid when all their storybook characters and their heroes are always of a different identity group, always look different. It can change the way they see themselves, the way they relate to others. It can make kids feel like their a supporting character rather than the star of their own film.
A 2012 study by the University of Indiana showed that television exposure predicts a drop in self esteem for girls and black boys, and an increase in self esteem among white boys. This mostly comes from how each identity group is portrayed in mainstream media. Research from the University of Texas at Austin also indicates that kids notice when people who look like them are not as represented.
It also means that from a young age, girls have to learn to empathize with boy characters, but boys are not equally taught to identify with girls. This feeds back into the cycle when boys grow into men who do not value media featuring women, and publish things accordingly.
Gender representation in media is an infinite rabbit hole, and I could go on all day talking about its harmful effects and linking you to research. But for now, consider this. We live in a world that constantly shutters aside identity groups in our collective stories. Advertisements, books, movies, news, they’re all a part of it. Cereal box mascots might not ever cross your mind as important, but in reality, they fit into our stories, what we tell ourselves about how the world works. And that matters just a little bit to us all.