Kids today can plop down on the couch and pull up pretty much any TV show ever made. But until “Molly of Denali” they couldn’t find a show about a 10-year-old Alaskan Native who canoes, blogs and shoots hoops. In fact, they’d be hard pressed to find another national kids’ show with a Native American lead. According to PBS Kids, Molly’s the first.
Molly and her two friends Tooey and Trini may go on adventures in a fictional Alaskan village, but they learn a lot of facts and history about Alaskan Native people and land. In one episode they teach themselves about canoeing by reading library books and watching online videos. In another, they track down Molly’s grandpa’s drum using clues in a picture from his youth.
Dorothea Gillim, WGBH executive producer and the show’s creator, says she and co-creator Kathy Waugh had wanted to make an outdoorsy adventure show for girls. They successfully responded to a request for proposals for a Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS Ready to Learn grant to pilot “Molly.” That financial support enabled an innovative production model, says Gillim. From the early stages, collaboration with Alaskan Natives infused all levels of the show's production.
“Who else but public media would go to this extent to insure that this would happen? I can’t think of anybody,” says Gillim, whose other PBS Kids’ credits include “Pinkalicious & Peterrific” and “WordGirl.” Both are educational but take place in wholly fictional worlds. That’s why Gillim credits “Molly’s” Alaskan Native advisory group and creative producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson with insuring that the show accurately represents “not just one voice but many voices” from the Alaskan Native perspective.
Johnson is a longtime advocate for Native Americans in the arts. She lived in Los Angeles for a while before returning to her home in Alaska. She says that the Hollywood model has made non-Natives the heroes of Native stories. “For too long people have literally swooped in and taken our stories and tried to tell them for us. That’s appropriation,” says Johnson. That model also perpetuates damaging stereotypes. With “Molly” she says her goal has been to build capacity for her fellow Native people to be able to tell their own stories. She cites holding voiceover workshops in Fairbanks and Anchorage and offering a writing fellowship to cultivate Native talent as just a few examples. Many characters, including Molly, are voiced by Native or First Nation people.
As a producer, Johnson has written and reviewed “Molly of Denali” scripts, voice recordings, animation, as well as the show’s digital games and educational materials. She says that might mean telling the creative team, “We wouldn’t say it like this,” or “This is how this encounter would work.” She even composed a song with Dewey Kk'ołeyo Hoffman for the episode about Grandpa’s drum.
In “Grandpa’s Drum,” Molly helps locate a drum that her grandpa gave up in childhood while attending a Native American boarding school. Historically, such government-operated schools separated Native children from their families in the name of assimilation into white, English-speaking culture. Kids were punished for speaking Native languages, singing traditional songs, and for wearing traditional dress. Molly learns that her Grandpa’s experience made him stop singing, and made him too sad to tell her about his past.
That episode impressed Polly Conway, senior editor of TV for Common Sense Media. “Just the way they framed it was really right on,” she says, “they’re going there,” on sensitive subject matter. Common Sense helps parents and educators navigate the media kids consume by reviewing media with age appropriate criteria. Conway says that small details that challenge identity assumptions, like having Molly’s mom pilot a plane for example, can make a big difference. That’s because kids in “Molly’s” targeted age group of 4-8 “take this stuff to heart,” says Conway. “The more diversity they see as normal, the better.”
In its guidelines for content creators, a Common Sense report on gender representation suggests showing kids in early childhood “diverse races, body/facial/hair types, clothes” and in “egalitarian, cross-gender friendships.” “Molly” checks these boxes, says Conway, and “it’s also really fun.”
Fun isn’t always an ingredient in a what parents or creators deem a healthy media diet, according to Michelle Cove. A former editor for Girls’ Life Magazine, Cove founded the Boston-based nonprofit Media Girls in order to help kids and parents think critically about media, especially in terms of gender. Her first instinct when she heard about “Molly of Denali” was, “OMG, where has she been?”
“I love that she’s fishing, having snowball fights, hanging out with friends,” says Cove. She calls the joy Molly experiences while being her own person with her own ideas “sacred.” Partly, the sacredness is about youth itself and how quickly the media climate changes. After age 8, “It’s all about “pretty girls, friendships, and liking boys,” says Cove.
Yet according to both Conway and “Molly’s” creator Gillim, the 4-8 age group lacks quality TV options at large. Gillim says she jokingly calls the show’s age group “underserved.” She frequently hears from frustrated parents who don’t know where to turn after “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
Conway likewise acknowledges that the preschool landscape, including “Daniel Tiger,” is great, but then, until nearly age 12, “there’s not that much. It’s sort of a weird no-man’s land at this point,” she says. She’s excited to see shows like “Molly” stepping in and even more likes “this show being a little aged up.” Molly searches for images of Alaskan mountains on a computer, for example.
Gillim says she sees no challenge in getting boys to watch “Molly” just because a girl holds the lead role. “There can be a certain adult assumption about what boys will watch,” she says, adding that boys hold a slight majority over girls as the audience for “Pinkalicious,” about a girl who adores pink.
For both Gillim and Cove, it’s all about what happens after the TV is turned off. Cove suggests watching “Molly” or any show quietly next to a child and then asking very open-ended questions to encourage independent thinking. She says that will help plant the seeds for how to have conversations about media in the future, when the stakes get even higher.
To measure the show’s success, Gillim wants to know if kids are playing “Molly” in their backyards. Some of her questions include, “Are they asking elders about stories? Are they learning more about Native Americans in their hometown?”
Johnson says that “Molly’s” village may be fictional but “to us it’s real.” The characters and stories “are based on our children and our elders and the people in our community that we love and cherish and we want the world to see.” To help young viewers further their own sense of history and place, she suggests acknowledging the land on which one stands.
It might be called Boston now. But that wasn’t always so. It was the land of the Massachusett, the Wampanoag and Nipmuc tribes, among others.
WGBH hosts three free advance screenings of “Molly of Denali” on Saturday, July 13. The show premieres on PBS Kids on Monday, July 15.