Female mascots are few and far between. Despite research showing children are more willing to approach female mascots, their presence numbers remain notably low. There is only one explicitly female mascot in men’s professional sports. That would be Mrs. Met, who recently returned to the field after, according to a spokesman for the Mets organization, “her children were grown.” Even as Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, and Alex Morgan have become household names, the mascot gender gap has expanded with every expansion draft. That matters not only because of the implicit signal it sends about women’s limited place in sports culture but also because of the strange social dynamics around childhood fandom.
“There were some instances where I was at the event performing as the male mascot and people would say, ‘Oh, that’s just a girl in there.'” says Carrie Norwood, who became one of two women to perform as mascots at the top level of professional men’s sports. “It made me feel like I was wasn’t allowed to be funny because I was female.”
Norwood, now the associate director of programs for the USO, performed as Herky the Hawk for the University of Iowa, Tommy Hawk for the Chicago Blackhawks, and, for 11 years, as Southpaw for the Chicago White Sox. She loved the job, but she always wanted to play a female mascot. She never got that chance because she wasn’t ready to move to Saint Paul to play Mudonna, the team’s pink pig mascot. “I would have loved to have been a female mascot who was really fat,” Norwood says. “It would have been hilarious.” It never happened and she eventually retired from the pros to work with the USO.
Norwood is by no means a cautionary tale, but her career serves as proof that mascots dance, sing, and caper around under an unusual glass ceiling. Women can succeed as mascots when they’re playing male costumed cheerers but are almost never given the excuse to take a female approach to the gig. And, lack of genitalia aside, research shows that gender is a critical issue for mascots. It informs not only how children react to weird mythical creatures, but how the humans inside those creatures react to children.
When Emily Dane-Staples, an associate professor at St. John Fisher College, set off to study gender roles in minor league mascots, she focused on the mascots of the Rochester Red Wings, Spikes and Mittsy, two birds of unclear genetic extraction. She watched how the two mascots, who frequently perform together, interacted with children. What she found was surprising.
“We did see gender preferences,” says Dane-Staples. “Girls and boys were contacting Mittsy more frequently than they were contacting Spikes.”
But the difference didn’t end there. More critically, Dane-Staples found that the mascots approached children the same way: They both actively targeted boys. She ultimately concluded that mascots are generally more accessible to boys because of their own choices and female mascots remain unpopular despite the fact that they would be more reassuring and exciting for both male and female children. She had accidentally diagnosed a cultural issue.
“The problem is sports are generally targeting boys and not girls,” says Dane-Staples. “The origins of mascots came from boys. Cheerleaders and yell leaders were all originally male.”
Nothing has changed that. For the better part of the last century, mascot culture proved resilient to cultural flux.
No one knows that better than David Raymond, who is arguably the most famous mascot performer in history. The original Phillie Phanatic, Raymond spent over two decades in a green, furry creature suit before becoming the owner and operator of Raymond Entertainment, which oversees the creation and rehabilitation of hundreds of mascots. Raymond’s close relationships with teams allow to him to see mascot development from the ground up.
“Honestly, what’s prevalent in our industry is that there isn’t a ton of thought put into the development of mascots in general,” he says. “But it’s changing.”
Raymond says most pro teams have only just begun to see mascots as brand extensions, which makes sense. Just consider the mascot for the Jacksonville Jaguar, Jaxson De Ville and his near 50,000 Twitter followers. That creates a real incentive to consider mascots have the broadest possible appeal. Still, despite the research about female mascots appealing more to children, there is little eagerness to head in that direction. And they’re starting to put a lot more thought into what type of gender their mascot should be.
“Now, they want a gender neutral mascot if possible when discussing new designs,” Raymond says. “There seems to be more concern about gender neutrality than there is over female characters.”
That trend may ultimately result in mascots being more effective at welcoming young women into the culture of sports, but there’s little reason to believe it will result in short-term progress unless mascots change their behavior. The boy-first mentality can’t be cured with pink fur, but it can be cured with education and awareness. It’s all a matter of, as Raymond puts it, improving training based on new data and new goals. If the goal is to optimize for fans–male and female–than behaviors will change.
“You can have a wet paper bag as a mascot and become successful,” he says, “if you follow those guidelines.”
Still, those guidelines are not in place. They likely won’t be until there’s a greater awareness among the people marketing professional teams see there’s an opportunity lost every time Mr. Met goes to the park alone.
This story is part of a series highlighting the importance of empowering girls, celebrate their athleticism, in partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Clinton Foundation. In honor of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, we’re working together to bring attention to this important issue and encourage you to join the conversation by using the hashtag #GirlsAre, and learn more at www.GirlsAre.org.