The Wiggles matters to kids, and the message behind it even more so

I have loved The Wiggles for almost thirty years. My mum tells a story about taking my sister and I to a Wiggles concert when we were little and watching every kid in the room wet themselves as soon as they came onto the stage. That’s how much we loved them. Now I have a toddler of my own, I love them again.

But there is something I don’t love about The Wiggles (and it’s not the irritating ear worms that swim around my brain at 3am, I can live with those).

When The Wiggles changed their line up five years ago, I was thrilled to see a woman, the extremely talented Emma Watkins, in the yellow skivvie. What I wasn’t thrilled to see was that she wasn’t being presented as a Wiggle who just happened to be female, but as the ‘girl’ Wiggle. Heaven forbid the ‘girl’ Wiggle wear the Wiggle uniform of coloured skivvie and black pants. No way, she must wear a skirt. How else can we make sure everyone knows she’s the ‘girl’ Wiggle? Oh! A bow in her hair. And a pink ballerina music box. Yes! And in a pink room!

If the lead Wiggle wasn’t already yellow I wonder whether they would’ve just given her a pink skivvie to complete the picture.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not having a crack at Emma Watkins. I think she is flipping fabulous and I can’t think of anyone better to wear the yellow skivvie, except Greg Page (I’m a child of the 90s, sue me).

I love that they are showing that traditionally feminine things are valuable and fun. Emma even has her own show that my son absolutely adores. But it is troubling that they are reinforcing that traditionally feminine things are for girls. Why can’t Lachy wear a bow? Why can’t Simon have a lovely pink ballerina music box? Why can’t Anthony have a pink room?

We know that exposure to gender stereotypes can affect children’s future interests, ambitions and skills. And The Wiggles’ target audience of toddlers and preschoolers are smack in the time of life when research shows they first start to show preferences based on gender. It is when they learn that they are a boy or a girl and when they start to learn how boys and girls are ‘supposed’ to behave and which toys, colours and interests they are ‘supposed’ to like. That a group that sold-out an arena tour in under 24 hours last year reinforces these gender stereotypes instead of challenging them and encouraging their audience to explore interests outside traditional conceptions of gender is disappointing.

One way The Wiggles are challenging gender stereotypes is that Emma Watkins drives the Big Red Car. That’s right, a woman driver for arguably the most recognisable car in the country. Not only that, but Emma is, in fact, a rally car driver. Brilliant!

We often focus on encouraging girls’ interest in traditionally male pursuits. The Australian Government committed $ 3.9 million to encouraging women and girls to show interest in and pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

But we seem to be less concerned with encouraging our boys to engage with stereotypically female things. The message? Things that boys like are cool so everyone should like them, but things that girls like are not valuable and so boys don’t need to worry about them.

And this message is received. Professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science Lise Elliot reveals in her book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, that boys become increasingly rigid about their preference for ‘boys toys’ over the preschool years, while girls do a bit of a reversal about halfway through this period, showing interest in toys, sports and clothing that are not typically associated with their gender.

This is why it is so disappointing that, although The Wiggles are valuing the typically feminine, they are only valuing them for girls. They are perpetuating the association between the pretty, frilly and pink and the female, to the exclusion of boys. This reinforces the strict gender divide that children already demonstrate, particularly in this age bracket.

I can’t wait to see Anthony with his own recurrent segment about how much he enjoys fashion, or Lachy’s segment in a glittering room filled with butterflies singing about unicorns.

I love that we have a woman who is a Wiggle, but I wish she could just be a Wiggle, instead of having to be constantly reinforced as the ‘girl’ Wiggle. And I can’t wait until we don’t have to have a ‘girl’ Wiggle in order to see ‘girlie things’ on The Wiggles.

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