Girl toons rule

Pepper Ann Pearson is 12 years old. She’s spunky, quirky and stars in her own animated series. And she’s not alone anymore. In fact, “Pepper Ann” fits right in with current primetime and Saturday-morning programming, which has been recently overrun with animated teenage and pre-teenage girls.

“Because of the success of girls’ shows, more of them are being created and more of them are being presented and getting up to the studio level,” says Barry Blumberg, senior VP of series development for Walt Disney Television Animation. “Five or 10 years ago, this wasn’t happening. Girls were watching girls’ shows. That’s changing now. Girls’ shows are now created to be interesting to boys, too.”

“Pepper Ann” creator and exec producer Sue Rose adds: “Good, smart, funny shows with girl characters are something everyone can embrace. Pepper Ann is a kid who happens to be a girl. Gender doesn’t have to enter into it.”

Worldwide phenomenon

But girl power is just now hitting the small screen with some force — domestically and overseas. Popularity continues to grow in the U.S. for characters like MTV’s sarcastic Daria Morgendorffer, WB’s sassy Calamity Jane and ABC’s spirited Pepper Ann. Overseas, Saban rolled out its new “Princess Sissi” series this fall, and “Sailor Moon,” a junior high school girl endowed with the power to save the world, is a popular toon heroine.

There are even more girl role models playing big parts on other series, like Bart Simpson’s sister and conscience, Lisa, on “The Simpsons”; “Hey Arnold!” nemesis Helga; and the “Rugrats’ ” tyrannical Angelica.

“There are good female role models in the primetime animated shows, and the Saturday-morning animated shows are rounding out female characters better,” says Glenn Eichler, co-creative supervisor and story editor of “Daria,” a spinoff from “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “I think some shows featuring young adults are getting smarter all the way around.”

And the shows getting smarter are featuring smarter female characters, girls able to express themselves and their feelings to a new generation of young girls and boys.

Important messages

“It is important that female characters deliver the message that it’s OK to be who they are and what they are,” Rose says. ” I would have totally appreciated someone telling me that you don’t have to look and dress a certain way, that the most important thing you can be is true to yourself.”

“We want kids to know they’re not alone,” Eichler adds. “We want them to know that it’s OK to be different. Being smart and an outcast is not a bad thing,” chimes in Susie Lewis Lynn, “Daria” co-creative supervisor and producer.

“Helga is a good role model because she is smart,” said 12-year-old Frannie Smith, the voice of “Hey Arnold’s” Helga. “At first she may seem like a bully to most kids, but she really does have a heart of gold. In the end, she does the right thing.”

In most cases, girls’ shows are successful in capturing the attention of both girl and boy viewers because of their realistic storylines, funny escapades and strong supporting characters.

Bad girls play, too

In other cases, male viewers are drawn to lead female characters who are anything but sugar and spice and everything nice.

“The Legend of Calamity Jane,” an animated Western adventure, is one of the best examples, featuring a whip-cracking heroine who seeks out truth and justice. Producers, creators, animators, writers and execs agree that their popular new girl characters have to be positive role models for boys and girls alike.

“I think the most important thing we can do is be responsible to the kids we reach,” Rose said. “It would be hideous to not use the opportunity wisely — to not send a positive message.”

Everybody’s watching

The ratings show that both boys and girls are watching the shows that feature girl lead characters, but it’s still primarily men creating and writing those shows.

“Animation remains kind of a guy’s club,” says “Hey Arnold!” creator and producer Craig Bartlett. “Up to this point, boys were encouraged to grow up to be animators. More and more women are now coming to animation and they’re creating girl characters. Even though I created Helga, I think she’s an interesting and strong character.”

One notable exception to the rule is “Pepper Ann,” which is brought to the small screen by what Blumberg described as a “girl power team.” Rose is creator and serves as exec producer, Sherie Pollack directs, and Nahnatchka Kahn is head writer and story editor.

And the ratings and popularity seem to indicate girl animation is here to stay.

“There’s a perception in Hollywood that girls don’t open movies either,” says “Daria’s” Eichler, a veteran of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “Just wait till our movie comes out.”

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