Where Is Skye? And Why It Matters

This subtle and insidious erasure of female characters in popular culture is not new. But it needs to stop.

This article was originally published on BacktoBeyond.com. It has been republished here with the author's permission.

I'm not usually an overly confrontational person. In fact, I generally start feeling pretty shaky and upset at the thought of any kind of altercation, and I tend to keep my views - which are often strongly held - to myself when I'm not with like minded people. I get flustered when confronted and I'm hopeless when put on the spot. I'd make a terrible politician.

With this in mind, I was a little surprised this week to get myself caught up in a minor online furore. It all began when I was browsing for sleepwear for my little boy, who's currently both obsessed with Paw Patrol and short of pyjamas. I'm not usually into character clothing, but I am into things that make bedtime less of a scream-fest. I found a set from Next that fitted the bill, but just as I was heading for the checkout I realized something about the set that bothered me. 

For those not familiar with the ubiquitous Paw Patrol (and there's really no reason you would be unless you too possess a pre-school aged child), a little background: the Paw Patrol is a pack of six pups, five boys, and a girl, Skye, each with a special skill set and fancy equipment to match. These pups (for reasons unexplained, but I can only assume as a result of government cuts to public services) are the main port of call when there is any sort of trouble in their town. Natural disasters, runaway baby elephants, balloon-related emergencies, you get the idea; the Paw Patrol will save the day. 

So back to these pyjamas, which had a list of the pups' names and their faces: Chase, Marshall, Rubble, Zuma, Rocky. Wait. Where's Skye? The six original Paw Patrol pups are on equal footing. They're all mentioned by name in the (really annoying) theme song. They all rescue the feckless inhabitants of their small town on a regular basis. So why no Skye?

As I dug a little deeper, I realized that this was not a one off thing. The vast majority of the Paw Patrol merchandising (and there is A LOT of Paw Patrol merchandising) can be split into two camps: brightly coloured stuff aimed at boys featuring the boy pups, and almost exclusively pink and purple stuff aimed at girls, featuring Skye (or Skye and Everest, another girl pup who joined the pack in later seasons). Very rarely does the entire Paw Patrol appear together. 

It bugged me, so I decided to post on Next's Facebook page:

"Hey, Next Quick question. I was just about to order these pyjamas for my son when I realized what was off about them. Where is Skye?! Apparently, it's not enough that already only 1/6 of the Paw Patrol is a girl; you needed to actually erase the ONLY girl character from merchandising because... why? Because little boys couldn't possibly want a girl character on their clothes? Come on. I won't be buying these after all, or anything else this time round. It's put me right off. Time to start listening to what customers actually want, not projecting your weird assumptions onto small children. For the record, my son loves Skye. Stop trying to tell him he shouldn't."

The post got some positive responses, lots of likes, angry faces, and lovehearts, and Next got back to me pretty quickly saying they would look into it and pass my comments on to their buyers and merchandisers. So far so good, Brownie points to Next. But pretty soon the negative comments started rolling in too. 

First I was told I had too much time on my hands; then I was told to get a life. One commenter decided I must be after 'compo'. Another called it a 21st-century problem (well, yes, yes it is) and accused me of being patronizing. Someone told me to get a grip. One man told me I was the reason women were paid less than men (sorry, ladies!) A number of people kindly reminded me that there are bigger issues in the world, and a whole lot, who might have heard a whoosh as the point of my post went whistling over their heads, suggested I just buy my son something from the girls department if I want Skye on his pyjamas. 

Now, as much as I really shouldn't care what random people on the internet think about me, and as much as there was also a whole heap of well articulated positive responses, it did leave me feeling frustrated and a bit rubbish (secondary moral of the story: even strangers on the internet have feelings, people!) and I've spent a lot of time thinking about it over the past couple of days and wondering why I did care so much about a pair of pyjamas. So I decided to break it down, for myself and for anyone else who wants to understand why this shit matters. 

In the interests of full disclosure, it's only fair to say that I have something of an issue with heavily gendered children's clothing in the first place. It bothers me that small people who are all broadly speaking the same size and shape need different clothes in the first place. It bothers me that girls shorts are shorter than boys shorts, that their t-shirts are slimmer fitting, that boys' shoes are rugged and hard wearing while girls' are flimsy and ornamental. As far as I'm concerned, children's clothes should be primarily comfortable, functional, and fun, should not limit their movement, or impede them in any activity. I cringe at slogans that label girls as pretty, sweet princesses, and boys as smart, brave trouble-makers. I'm vocal about it, and I make a living out of designing and making clothes that tick those boxes for me: fun, comfortable, practical. Suited to anyone, regardless of their genitals. 

Now to get down to business, I believe that the message being conveyed in this particular case is genuinely damaging, and part of a much bigger picture. I believe that by systematically and deliberately erasing the already under represented female character(s) from merchandise targeted at boys we are saying a number of things. We are saying that boys should not like girls. So what if Skye has a helicopter and saves the day on the regular? She's pink and doesn't have a penis, so she's not for boys. 

This subtle and insidious erasure of female characters in popular culture is not new. Remember playing with the Rey figure when The Force Awakens monopoly came out? Nope. Me neither. Because why on earth would boys want to play with a girl character? And it's not like any girls might like a 'boy' film. Never mind that Rey's the main protagonist. Never mind that I'd bought the set for my Star Wars geek of a daughter. Rey is a girl. Star Wars is for boys, and boys don't want to play with a girl figurine, so let's chuck Darth Vader in there instead. That makes much more sense. Who cares that he's not even in the film. 

It's a pattern that repeats itself over and over again. Big Hero 6 merchandise conspicuously omitted Honey Lemon; Black Widow was notably absent from the bulk of Avengers paraphernalia. 

This sort of message does multiple things. It tells us that girls are less. Less important. Less interesting. Less aspirational. It tells boys that liking girl characters is a no-no. It tells them it's not only acceptable but normal to marginalize and exclude girls. Skye is basically the Peggy Olsen of animated anthropomorphic baby animals, always getting left out of meetings and expected to pour the coffee. 

It tells girls that being marginalized is to be expected. It tells them that they can play with the boys, keep up with the boys, do everything the boys can do, but they're still going to be less. Less important. 

I do get that this is a first world problem. I get that there are bigger problems in the world (aren't there always?) but I also know this is a bigger problem that it appears to be at first glance. It is the seed. These messages are everywhere, and they are toxic. They are the messages that little boys and girls internalize and that grow into issues like the gender pay gap (again, sorry about that), into toxic masculinity, into women being interrupted in meetings, into being overlooked for promotions, into the mental load.  

As Kristine Kimmel writes much more succinctly than me: "My kids don’t know that girls are seen as less valued in society because they haven’t existed on Earth long enough for it to be shoved down their throats." This is how we teach them. This is how they learn. This is how it begins. Boys aren't taken aside when their balls drop and told that they are more valuable to society than girls. Girls aren't sent a pamphlet when they get their periods explaining that from now on they will be primarily decorative. This is how it happens, this drip, drip, drip. 

So it matters that Skye is not on the sodding pyjamas. It might not matter to you personally but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. I don't need you to jump on board and storm the castle with me, we can't all be passionate about everything, but using name calling and silencing tactics to belittle people for caring about things you obviously don't really understand makes you a prat, and there are enough of those on the internet already. If you feel that defensive or angry about it, maybe take a step back and try to figure out why. 

On a final note, I feel I should add that I know this isn't really Next's problem: it is a Paw Patrol problem; it's an industry problem. But Next have the buying power to genuinely make a difference here and influence change. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that actually happened?

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