NEW YORK (Reuters) - Smart, adventurous lead girl characters like Dora the Explorer and superheroine WordGirl have found time on children's television, but Hollywood has preferred to keep princesses safe in their turrets.
There's more than just the self-esteem of girls at stake. TV executives have found young boys have no problem watching shows with girls as lead characters, which can result in improved ratings -- and advertising dollars.
Kids between 2 and 9 can tune their television sets to shows about Dora, the now almost 10-year-old adventure girl, or vocabulary heroine WordGirl, who came onto the scene three years ago to fight villainy and poor word choice.
When it comes to movies, Hollywood prefers to bet on male leads that can guarantee the interest of both girls and boys, such as Harry Potter. The culture of princesses -- and the traditional fairy tale of being rescued -- is still prominent.
"I'm not sure overall that the gatekeepers have completely signed onto the girl thing," said Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media, the force behind WordGirl. "It has been more prevailing opinion among the gatekeepers that boys will not watch girl-centric shows."
Television executives are more receptive than 20 years ago, Forte said, when she was trying to sell her first live-action TV show about girls -- "The Baby-Sitters Club" -- and found no buyers at first. It eventually became a successful show.
More than half of the 20 kids' shows on Viacom Inc's Nick Jr. channel profile female characters in the lead or in equal roles with their male counterparts. Pink-haired problem solver Pinky Dinky Doo and Blue, the female dog lead of "Blue's Clues," are two examples.
"It's so important for these girls to have a strong sense of self when they are very young. When they get older it is much more natural to be influenced by their peers," Forte said.
Nickelodeon has been open to girl leads in part because the shows aim to attract both boys and girls, said Brown Johnson, President of Animation at Nickelodeon.
"Little kids are much less prejudiced or judgmental about the sex of the characters they love. Little boys want to be Dora," Johnson said. "I think it's only when they get to be a little bit older that they get to have strong point of views about what kinds of characters they want to be."
The live-action show "iCarly," which is about a 13-year-old girl, attracts both boys and girls, Johnson said. It pulls in an average of 2.36 million viewers per episode this season, according to Nielsen.
Kelly Collazos, an 18-year-old New Jersey high school graduate, says her three-year-old cousin Andrew loved Dora the last time she babysat for him. "It was his favorite show," she said.
"Shows now are teaching girls to stand up for themselves, to speak up," said Collazos, who added that she wished she had more "superhero" girl role models while growing up. "It's not just Superman and Batman anymore. It's WordGirl and Pinky."
"Girls in shows in my era were 'You stay home, you cook and clean.' That's important, but it's not the sole purpose of girls. What they're aiming at now is awesome."
Young girls are seeking out smart, fun girl characters even when they are not in lead roles.
One of this summer's few G-Rated movies is "Toy Story 3," which stars Sheriff Woody and his ensemble of pals, including space ranger Buzz Lightyear and cowgirl Jessie.
Antoinette Rodriguez, a marketing consultant and mother of a girl, 5, said her daughter saw the movie and then begged for a backpack featuring the female sidekick Jessie.
"I guess it's progress because it's not a princess," Rodriguez said. "You generally don't see a female lead with any goal other than to attract the prince," she said.
It's possible that there are not enough female writers, directors and producers to create hit television shows and movies with strong girl leads.
"Creative people aren't looking in that direction," said Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University. "Part of what is going on is that many writers don't know how to write girls that age."
The obstacles to that big girl lead could come down if someone proves the establishment wrong.
"All you need to have is a blockbuster success -- just one," Forte said, "where it's really being driven by a young female protagonist, and it will change."
Reporting by Caroline Humer and Chelsea Emery; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao