Is the cartoon “Totally Spies” really feminist?

Broadcast on television from 2001 to 2013, the Franco-Canadian animated series Totally Spies met from its beginnings A great success with its young audience. She also gave birth to a feature film in 2009. This television series follows the adventures of Sam, Alex and Clover, three high school girls from Beverly Hills, who are professional spies employed by the WOOHP, a secret organization for the protection of humanity. Upon its release, this program for children, which does not fail to recall the Funny ladies 1970s, has often been referred to as revolutionary and feminist. One can however wonder about the relevance of these remarks.

Feminist or post-feminist?

During an interview given as part of the promotion of Totally Spies, the film, David Michel, one of the creators of the series, explains: “When we went to present on the channels for the first time Totally Spies, they were all very scared, saying to themselves: “But if you make a cartoon only for girls, it will scare the boys!” When you look at all that exists for girls […] today, it’s mostly stories of princesses, ponies, and things where the girl is in a rather passive role. We really wanted to empower girls with Totally Spies.»

Indeed, the cartoon features three strong and intelligent teenage girls, who are ready to do anything to save the world. This program comes into being at a time when the celebration of girl power is particularly present in pop culture. It allows a new generation of little girls to hope to become superheroes that nothing can stop.

Behind her feminist appearance, Totally Spies However, it would rather be part of a post-feminist logic. Sarah Banet-Weiser, head of the media and communication department at the London School of Economics, describes post-feminism as a cultural sensitivity that “Recognizes the importance of feminism at a certain point in history, but who considers that this movement is no longer necessary, women being now independent”. By showing strong and empowered women, post-feminist media gives the deceptive illusion “That all inequalities between men and women in society are over”, explains the expert.

The cult of beauty

In Totally Spies, the female characters are in the spotlight and lead the action. At first glance, this can be seen as a feminist accomplishment, especially in an era when male characters typically took the lead in children’s action cartoons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to wonder about the profile of the female characters represented on the screen. Can all little girls relate to Clover, Sam and Alex? According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, “If we don’t see ourselves in the media and don’t have access to representations that resonate with our profile, we may feel like we don’t matter. It is essential that the media offer varied representations that include a wide range of identities ”.

While Alex, Clover, and Sam each have different personalities (one is athletic, the other flirtatious, and the third is smart), however, they are extremely similar in other ways. All are heterosexual and come from a similar social class and presumably well-off, as they shop in every episode. In addition, they share an identical body shape. Although Sam, Alex, and Clover claim that “What matters is inner beauty” (season 1, episode 10), they are nonetheless conventionally beautiful, and particularly thin, as the dictates of beauty demand.

All of the characters in the TV series have slim, lanky bodies, which seems to rule out any other kind of beauty. Faced with the lack of diversity of bodies in the media, Sarah Banet-Weiser wonders: “Does this correlate with the fact that there is widespread discrimination against women who do not have bodies that look like those seen on television or in commercials?” According to her, stereotypes circulating in the media reinforce gender stereotypes in our daily lives.

The Totally Spies have an identical body, thin and elongated. | Screenshot of Totally Spies, Le Film via YouTube

Although the creators of Totally Spies want to send a message of empowerment to the viewers of the series, they probably do not all have the power to identify with characters so uniform and little varied. So what is meant to be a powerful message to young girls can become demoralizing for those who do not fit in with their heroines.

Jerry, a patriarchal figure

If the three spies are eminently courageous and seem almost invincible, they are however led by Jerry, the president of WOOHP. In action films where the main characters are women, it is not uncommon for them to follow the orders of a male figure. In the series Funny Ladies, whose program Totally Spies is inspired, the detectives are under the orders of Charlie, a powerful and enigmatic man.

The three heroines operate in a patriarchal system ruled by Jerry. | Screenshot of the trailer for Totally Spies via YouTube

For Sarah Banet-Weiser, the formula of portraying beautiful heroines working for a male superior is often used in action programs because it works. “This is a formula that has worked, and the production might find it too risky to fund a program without a man. Or maybe it just feels natural to have a man in power. ”

In the cartoon, Sam, Alex, and Clover seem to be thrilled to be working for their boss. Their identity as a spy seems to be an assumed choice. Yet in 2009, the feature film unveils the problematic way in which the collaboration between WOOHP and high school girls began. After being secretly watched for years by Jerry, the teenage girls had to solve their first assignment under duress from the almighty old man. After they find out about the deception, Jerry finally apologizes and offers them the option of no longer working for him. However, they choose to continue their spy activities, under his direction.

They agree to continue their collaboration with Jerry, but his methods remain questionable. Without ever considering their personal imperatives, Jerry disposes of Sam, Alex and Clover and brutally forces them to come to the premises of WOOHP, where they are given indications of their next missions. It’s also funny to note that when they’re about to finish a mission brilliantly, Jerry and his all-male team always come in to perform the final decisive act of defeating the bad guys. Without their help, wouldn’t the young women succeed in emerging victorious from their mission?

Feminist but feminine

When Sam, Alex, and Clover agree to work for WOOHP, they make one condition: they will only agree to become spies if they do it in style. No way for them to save the world without being feminine and at the forefront of fashion in all situations.

They then choose an extremely tight uniform which emphasizes their slim waist, and acquire a multitude of pink and girly gadgets. Among them, the famous compoudrier, laser lipstick and jet powered boots. If the three teenage girls are as strong as the men around them, they retain an overflowing and stereotypical femininity that differentiates them from their male colleagues.

The famous compoudrier of Totally Spies. | Screenshot of Totally Spies, Le Film

According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, post-feminist media express the idea that a woman “Can be glamorous, sexy and chic while still being a feminist”. The expert does not refute this idea: a feminist woman can obviously be feminine. Nonetheless, she notes that most of these programs imply that to be a feminist, you have to keep the attributes that you traditionally associate with the feminine.. Women in action programs are often hyper-sexualized, and continue to bear the brunt of patriarchal society. Although Sarah Banet-Weiser says she sees a shift towards more inclusive representation in children’s programming, she still believes that “Gender stereotypes are deeply rooted, and are so part of our culture that it is very hard to resist them”.

Despite its lack of diversity and its often stereotypical representation of women, the program Totally Spies probably inspired a whole generation of little girls. By featuring three strong and intelligent superheroines, this cartoon has helped to change the French television landscape, by addressing all children, girls and boys. The fact remains that he can hardly be called a feminist.

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