The Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service has decided to move away from using Fireman Sam as a mascot in favour of something less gendered, and -- thanks to an amazing amount of pres coverage for the mascot selection of a county fire department -- many people are feeling bad for our beloved Welsh public servant.
But before we go too hard on the Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service, let's remember a couple of things:
1. Fireman Sam is an objectively annoying show. I've had to sit through a LOT of Fireman Sam, and if I lived in Pontypandy I would personally lock Norman Price up somewhere. That child is a menace and his voice is intolerable. Sam himself is — I’m sorry— sort of wooden and boring. Penny and Elvis deserve their own spinoff, but I’m aware I’m getting a little in-the-weeds for those only casually familiar with the show.
2. The chief fire officer said he'd consider bringing Sam back if the name was changed to Firefighter Sam. This is something female firefighters have long been pushing for, and is it really such a big ask? 'Firefighter' is the actual name of the role. As long as the show is called Fireman Sam, it's awkward to elevate a female character to top billing. Why not call it Firefighters and up Penny's profile? Fireman Sam is now produced by Mattel, and I'm shocked no one there has seen this as an opportunity to sell more toys to more kids.
Language matters. Role models matter. Research has shown that between the ages of three and five (Sam's target audience), children develop their sense of what gender means and start sorting things into 'male and 'female' categories based on what they see around them. From age five to seven, they rigidly cling to the categories they've created. They take the words we speak and the images we show them and use them to construct a world view. My own daughter lost interest in Fireman Sam when she started seeing it as a 'boys show'.
It makes me sad that she has already deselected herself from some really cool jobs. But controversies like this also make me think about the impact on my son.
Perhaps even more than my daughter is inundated with princesses and fairies, my son is shown men who tend to be physically tough, strong and risk-taking -- like Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder, and Roary the Racing Car. Just like girls are learning these dangerous roles aren't for them, boys are learning that they're supposed to be physically strong and unafraid. Even poor Postman Pat -- formerly a heroically normal guy -- has gotten an upgraded tough guy song and now flies a helicopter as part of the Special Delivery Service.
These messages carry through to adolescence -- the Good Childhood Report by The Children's Society found that both adolescent girls and boys believe that being tough is more important for boys. It's not hard to see the connection between this need to be tough and the mental health crisis in adult men (who are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to seek counseling, and more likely to commit suicide than women are).
Girls need to see that they can grow up to fight fires, build things, and fight crime. Equally, boys need to see that they can grow up to be primary school teachers, full-time parents, or even just occasionally vulnerable in their physically dangerous jobs. While we're modernising role models for girls, let's do the same for boys— by giving them diverse and interesting characters to aspire to.