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Leading Girls: Our Favorite Cartoon Heroines for Preschoolers

Written by Jessica Williams

Photography by Jeanne Chan's Daughters, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

Here’s an exercise more difficult than it should be: name five cartoons with female human protagonists for preschoolers. Rattling off cartoons with male protagonists is relatively easy. But, if you’re looking for a leading female human character to model strength, bravery, empathy, altruism, or intellectual curiosity for an hour, you’ll have to work a bit harder.

We know what you might be wondering: what about the cartoons with leading female animal characters? Don’t those expand the number of female protagonists in cartoons? The answer is yes, but that increase may not be as beneficial as one would hope.

A recent, first-of-its kind study published in Developmental Science concluded that children learn more prosocial behavior—like altruistic giving—from human characters than from anthropomorphized animal characters. While researchers examined the reactions children had to picture books, the study’s findings likely apply with equal force to cartoons, says Patricia A. Ganea, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors and an associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. “Based on what we know about children’s understanding of the symbolic nature of TV and the factors that influence children’s ability to transfer information from screen media, we would predict that preschool children will find it easier to learn and apply lessons from characters that are more realistic,” says Ganea.

While human cartoon characters can help children learn more prosocial behavior, human characters can also expose children to and reinforce gender-stereotyped behaviors and contribute to their beliefs about gender roles. So, it makes sense we choose our cartoon protagonists wisely: if we want our girls to be leaders, we should surround them with examples of girls leading.

Read on for some of our favorite young heroines for preschoolers. Did we leave one out? Let us know in the comments below.

Peg + Cat. Peg is an inquisitive little girl who solves math problems with her sidekick, Cat. There are no flirty eyelashes in this American/Canadian animated series, the winner of the 2016 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Preschool Animated Program. Peg is not designed to look older than she should; she’s just a child going about solving problems in settings drawn on graph paper dotted with infinity clouds. Although your preschoolers may pick up phrases like “I’m totally freaking out,” they may also learn to calm themselves down by counting backwards from five. The images can get a little busy at times, but we think this cartoon about a smart girl loving math is a win.
Peg + Cat
PBS Kids, Debuted in 2013
Ages 3-5
Airs on PBS and is available on Amazon and with Amazon Prime

Sarah and Duck. Like Peg in Peg + Cat, Sarah is a curious 7-year-old girl who explores the world with her sidekick, Duck. Sarah, wearing a striped hoodie and green beanie, responds to questions and suggestions posed by an off-screen male narrator, who acts like a parent or teacher helping Sarah find answers to inquires like how she’ll bake a cake without a recipe or why donkeys look sad. There’s a nice flow and rhythm to this soothing and cheerful British animated series.
Sarah and Duck
BBC, Debuted in 2013
Ages 4-6
Available on Amazon and Netflix

Dora the Explorer. Debuting in 1999 on Nickelodeon, 7-year-old Dora in Dora the Explorer (not to be confused with the older preteen Dora in Dora and Friends) was one of the first Latina television cartoon characters. In each episode, she embarks on a quest with help from Boots the Monkey, Backpack, and Map. She must find her way through various obstacles in a fantastic world, including warding off Swiper the Fox, to accomplish her goal. Your preschooler will pick up some Spanish vocabulary and learn about Latino culture along the way. In “A Sociological Influence in Dora the Explorer,” author Karina Havrilla discusses the enormous impact Dora had on popular culture: “Besides being one of the first Latina cartoon characters in television, Dora is also unique because she is also a young female heroine. She is not reinforcing female stereotypes that children are often exposed to on television. Dora is socializing children, particularly other young females, to see that they can be independent, problem-solving adventurers.” Each episode follows a familiar outline, which can make the show a bit repetitive. Dora also breaks the fourth wall and shouts at her audience (your preschooler), which can be loud, but we applaud this enthusiastic, adventurous, bilingual heroine.
Dora the Explorer
Nick Jr., Debuted in 1999
Ages 3+
Airs on Nick Jr. and available on Amazon and with Amazon Prime

Stella and Sam. In this Canadian animated series, imaginative 9-year-old Stella gently guides her 4-year-old brother Sam, along with their dog Fred, on backyard adventures. With her big imagination and her love of nature and discovery, Stella teaches Sam about the great outdoors, like explaining that, in autumn, leaves fall off the trees because the trees get cold and shake them off. When Sam asks why the trees don’t wear sweaters, Stella explains that trees’ branches are too big to fit through sleeves. If you value creativity, imagination, and wonder, and you don’t mind a less-than-scientific explanation about the world, you’ll fall in love with this cute sibling pair. Based on the Stella and Sam books by Canadian author Marie-Louise Gay, this animated series is, hands down, full of feel-good sweetness. With images developed from quiet pencil drawings, watercolors, and collage, you’ll want to watch Stella and Sam again and again.
Stella and Sam
Sprout, Debuted in 2011
Ages 3+
Available on Hulu and Amazon

Nina’s World. Six-year-old Nina and her sidekick, Star, will teach your preschooler about Latino culture as Nina goes about her everyday adventures in her multicultural, urban neighborhood. In the first few episodes, Nina must contend with losing her special yellow hair bows and accidentally breaking her piñata for her birthday party, a celebration complete with taquitos, sopapillas, and tres leches cake. She also learns about Machu Picchu when her uncle travels to Peru. A colorful Canadian-American animated series, Nina’s World is available on Amazon.
Nina’s World
Sprout; Universal Kids, Debuted in 2015
Ages 3+
Available on Hulu and Amazon

Doc McStuffins. Yes, a girl doctor! In this American animated preschool series, 7-year-old Dottie “Doc” McStuffins will teach your preschooler about the importance of helping and caring for others. Modeling her mother, a pediatrician, Doc uses her magic stethoscope to heal her dolls and toys. This bright, positive animated series is on our list for purposely challenging stereotyped gender roles. (Even today, there’s almost twice as many male physicians as female physicians in the United States. Even more shocking is that only 2% of physicians in the United States are African American women. And that female physicians earn 74 cents for every dollar a male earns.)
Doc McStuffins
Disney Jr., Debuted in 2012
Ages 4+
Airs on Disney Jr. and available on Hulu and Amazon

Pinkalicious & Peterrific. This new animated series, premiering February 19, 2018 on PBS Kids, aims to teach children the fine arts through the everyday explorations of Pinkalicious, a young pigtailed girl in charge. Based on the Pinkalicious book series written and illustrated by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann, this cartoon follows Pinkalicious, her younger bother Peter, and their family. In the first episode (sneak peeks available here), Pinkalicious sings to her Pinkabloom and learns about tempo. While her brother offers suggestions, for instance, on how to make the Pinkabloom seed bloom, Pinkalicious is the one ultimately making the decisions but teaching and sharing with Peter and their friends along the way. Each episode includes two approximately 12-minute stories. In her pink dress, Pinkalicious will be the newest female protagonist to arrive on the preschool cartoon scene.
Pinkalicious & Peterrific
PBS Kids, Premiering February 19, 2018
Ages 3-5
Airs on PBS Kids

Clifford The Big Red Dog. We know Clifford is actually the protagonist, but eight-year-old Emily Elizabeth Howard is such a huge part of Clifford’s world that we felt compelled to include her. (After all, it is because of Emily’s abundant love for Clifford that the giant Labrador Retriever/Vizsla cross grows so big). Based on Norman Bridwell’s classic book series, the first of which was published in 1963, this cartoon aired on PBS Kids from 2000-2003. Available through Amazon, each 30-minute animated episode includes two 15-minute stories about the antics of Clifford, voiced by John Ritter, and the friendly, lovable, and helpful Emily Elizabeth. Together, they teach good stuff like love and the importance of sharing in this cartoon where childhood, and its innocence, is celebrated.
Clifford The Big Red Dog
Debuted on PBS Kids in 2000
Ages 3+
Available on Amazon and Netflix

For more on this topic, check out Mother’s pieces on How To Fight Gender Stereotypes In The Media Your Kids Consume, The Best Teacher-Approved Apps For Kindergarteners, and 10 Moms On Their Screen Time Rules And Realities.

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