Report: the cartoon character became an unexpected lightning rod issue in the culture wars around gender representation and stereotypes

It has been a tough few weeks for cartoon character Fireman Sam. He was dropped as the mascot for Lincolnshire Fire & Rescue because they saw the popular children's cartoon character as outdated, not inclusive and not reflecting the message they wanted to achieve, especially when it comes to recruiting women. 

But does it matter what role models are portrayed in children's cartoons? And what does this lightning rod issue in the culture wars around gender representation say about stereotypes and representation? Mary McGill from the Centre for Global Women's Studies at the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures at NUI Galway joined Justin McCarthy on RTÉ Radio 1's This Week last Sunday to look at the issue. 

"There's a real practical element to this story which has been overlooked and that's that the fire brigade are really struggling to recruit volunteers", pointed out McGill. "Part of the thinking behind this story was that if we have a mascot which says to half of the public that they can't apply because they're not a man, it might not be the best approach. The fire brigade union spoke to the BBC during the week and said they're not bothered by Fireman Sam, they're bothered by the subconscious message the term 'fireman' has created as an issue in recruitment.

We have Peppa Pig now, who you wouldn't mess with, and Dora the Explorer

"This is one fire brigade who are making this change to get more recruits. It's not a male issue or a female issue, it's an everyone issue - we need people to volunteer. We can get incredibly sidelined by the gender issue instead of taking a step back and going 'this could be good for everybody'."

Fireman Sam first took to his ladder in 1987 and much has changed since, McGill notes. "We have Peppa Pig now, who you wouldn't mess with, and Dora the Explorer. It does comes down to the variety of roles that children see on media, whether it's literature or television, and that these roles are open and representative of all the things men and women can do with their lives. 

"There has been a huge pushback against limiting representation for male and female characters. In traditional children's television, male characters would be quite dominant or the main player, while female characters would be more subservient or the sidekick or girlfriend.

"We do know when it comes to gender stereotypes that the media can produce a reinforcement effect. if those stereotypes are negative, it can be a serious thing for children as they are growing and developing and learning about their place in the world. 

Hear the clip in full below

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