On November 26, Macy’s will hold its 89th Annual Thanksgiving Parade marking the beginning of the Christmas Season. Three-and-a-half million people will line the streets of New York and another fifty million will watch the parade on television. Giant helium balloons of America’s beloved cartoon characters, superheroes, and toys are the signature item of the parade. Since the parades inception in 1924, Macy’s has designed and created 136 giant balloons, only five represent female characters. While the underrepresentation of female character balloons is startling and sends a powerful message to young girls, the female characters selected by Macy’s also raise serious concerns.
The first female character balloon, Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend, was produced in 1982, 58 years after the parade’s inception. The sexual and sensual Betty Boop, Macy’s second female character balloon debuted in 1985. The shy, cute, pink Cassie from Dragon Tales produced in 2000 was the third female character balloon. Dora the Explora, from Nickelodeon television, produced in 2005, is the only female character balloon that portrays a talented young girl and a positive role model. The final female character balloon, Abby Cadabby, produced in 2007, is a three-year-old Muppet who lives on Sesame Street with limited magical powers. Four of the five female character balloons, a classic damsel in distress, a sex symbol, a shy dragon, and a baby muppet have spoken volumes to the hundreds of millions of girls who have watched these larger than life characters maneuver the streets of New York. They have disempowered, sexualized or infantilized our daughters rather than give them a sense of their own worth.
Cartoon characters with well-known partners make up a substantial proportion of the balloons in the parade. The male half of the pair have balloons in the parade while their female counterparts, with the exception of Olive Oyl, are excluded. Mickey and Minnie Mouse were introduced by Walt Disney in 1928 in the cartoon Steamboat Willie. In 1934, Macy’s teamed up with Disney and introduced the first of four Mickey Mouse balloons. Each Mickey Mouse balloon, has been used in multiple parades, yet there has never been a Minnie balloon. Disney created Donald Duck in 1934 and his girlfriend Daisy in 1940. Donald got a balloon in 1962, but Daisy never did. Two different Smurfs have flown in the parade multiple times, but there is no Smurfette balloon. Bart Simpson has his own balloon, but his sister Lisa does not. Fred Flintstone has been in the parade, but Wilma hasn’t. Two different versions of Kermit debuted in 1977 and 2002, but there has never been a Miss Piggy balloon. There have been seven versions of Snoopy in the Macy’s parade, the last one included Woodstock. Charlie Brown had his own balloon, but Lucy Van Pelt is missing. Instead of an eighth Snoopy balloon, why not add Lucy to the line up?
Superheroes are also a big theme in the parade. A total of three Superman balloons, two Spiderman balloons, and a Mighty Mouse balloon have each flown in multiple parades. Yet here has never been a female superhero in the parade. Supergirl, currently featured in her own television, would be a perfect addition to Macy’s balloon line up.
Once a balloon has exceeded its lifespan of approximately eight years, Macy’s or a balloon’s sponsor decides whether to redesign and reissue the character. In the history of the parade, thirteen balloon characters have been introduced twice. Twelve were male characters. Superman was issued three times and Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse were issued four times each. Snoopy holds the record as the most reissued balloon in the parade’s history. Hello Kitty is the only balloon aimed at girls issued more than once.
Over the nine decade history of the parade there is no real trend to adding more female character balloons. The 2015 parade will contain 17 balloons, four of which will be new: Angry Bird’s Red, Ronald McDonald (4th version), Ice Age's Scrat and His Acorn, and Sinclair Oil’s Mascot DINO. Even more astounding is of the 13 balloons used in previous years but slated for this year’s parade, only one, Hello Kitty, is specifically aimed at girls.
In 2014, Macy’s introduced the largest number of new balloons in its history: Paddington Bear, Pikachu, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Skylanders Eruptoran and Thomas the Tank Engine. Out of the ten additional balloons added to the lineup, only one, the powerless yet adorable Hello Kitty, was a girl.
If you think parade balloons are trivial, think again. The sheer volume of viewers plus the large size of the balloons, imports special status to the characters they represent. The absence of female characters tells girls and boys alike, girls are not important. Macy’s not only needs to put more female character balloons in the parade, they need to add more current and empowering female balloons. The current male character balloons portray boys as strong and brave and the female character balloons suggest that to be successful girls need to be cute, helpless, sexual and girly. Feature length cartoons like Brave and Frozen feature strong female leads that both boys and girls admire. New balloons should feature female characters from current movies and products, not outdated visions of what it is to be a girl. The most famous parade in the world needs to meet the needs of more than half our children.