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Dorothea Gillim's Stand-Out Heroines

Dorothea Gillim creates one smart heroine after another with her animated series, Hey Monie, and her latest program, WordGirl.  This month Hey Monie screens as part of Women in Film & Video/New England’s Chicks Make Flicks series.

By Elizabeth Engel

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Hey Monie has screened on both Oxygen and BET.
On April 12th Dorothea Gillim will be showing episodes of her animated series Hey Monie at the Chicks Make Flicks series at MIT. Gillim directed this 2003 comedy about the adventures of Simone “Monie,” a single African American urban professional woman and her best friend Yvette. The show originally aired on the Oxygen Network and was later picked up by Black Entertainment Television (BET).  Gillim will be present to answer audience questions after the screening.

Currently Dorothea Gillim works at Soup2Nuts as the executive producer of the PBS series WordGirl.  The team at Soup2Nuts does almost everything in-house. The producer, head writer, sound editor, and other members of the team all work from the Watertown, MA office. Gillim oversees all elements of production, including reading scripts and directing voiceovers. She developed the series with head writer, Jack Ferraiolo. Gillim describes herself as a language geek and Ferraiolo as a bit of a comic book nerd. WordGirl is a perfect blend of the two.

WordGirl, which first aired as a series of shorts in the fall of 2006, is an animated series that is designed to entertain children and to teach them about vocabulary. The show focuses on WordGirl, a female superhero from the planet Lexicon and her sidekick, a monkey named Captain Huggy Face. By day she is Becky, an average elementary school student, but she changes into WordGirl to battle villains and save her peers from disaster. She is a pint-sized superhero, she can fly at the speed of sound, she’s super strong, and she “knows every word in the dictionary and some hieroglyphics too,” explains Gillim. The fact that the main character is a female superhero is only one component of WordGirl that makes the show stand out from other children’s cartoons on television.

Before pursuing animated television, Dorothea Gillim taught fifth grade and some high school English. Gillim earned her master’s degree in education at Harvard, but she decided that she did not want to teach anymore. While contemplating where to go with her career 11 years ago, she took a job at Tom Synder Productions designing educational software.  She quickly jumped on the company’s first animated show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.  The company was later bought by Scholastic and became what is today called Soup2Nuts.           

Gillim describes herself as the kind of kid in high school who asked her parents for a dictionary for Christmas. “I’ve always been a bit of a word-hound,” says Gillim. So, it is clear where the inspiration for WordGirl came from. WordGirl introduces words such as “identity,” “reputation,” and “cumbersome” to viewers through comical situations. The target audience for the cartoon is children six to eight years old, but there is something for everyone in the show. The words included in the show “are a bit of a reach for kids,” says Gillim. However, the show tries to challenge kids and introduce them to words they may not encounter at home or at school. “I think that a lot of shows tend to underestimate kids’ intelligence,” continues Gillim. With its witty jokes and intelligent content, WordGirl entertains children while enriching their education.

Another aspect of the show that distinguishes WordGirl from other cartoons is the choice of villains. Unlike most villains who are very two-dimensional, WordGirl’s villains have character traits that humanize them. For example, Chuck, the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy, is very insecure. Another villain, the Butcher, is very polite. And, although 10-year-old Tobey is a villain, he has a secret crush on WordGirl. The villains are “sillier” than the usual gang of villains on cartoons, according to Gillim. And, giving the villains these humanizing character traits and extra silliness “helps make them less scary for kids,” says Gillim. You don’t often find a grandmother character on a cartoon that robs banks -- but that is exactly what Granny May, another villain, does.

The cast of voiceover talent on WordGirl is not what you’d usually find on a children’s cartoon. For example, Wanda Sykes plays the role of the villain Granny May. Sykes is known for her stand-up comedy and roles in movies such as Monster in Law and Pootie TangWordGirl features comedians who can improvise and truly bring the characters to another level. Occasionally the actors will throw out a joke that isn’t scripted and it will go into the show. WordGirl also uses writers who don’t specialize in children’s television. Some of the writers of come from sources such as Family Guy, and The Onion. According to Gillim, the cast of actors and writers “produces a crossover talent pool,” that you don’t typically find on PBS.

Episodes of WordGirl air in two-minute segments on PBS at the end of Maya and Miguel, another PBS program. In addition, one-minute WordGirl segments air throughout the afternoon on PBS. At the moment, WordGirl episodes exist only as shorts, but Gillim and her crew are working to produce a half-hour version of the cartoon to be aired in the fall of 2007. WordGirl episodes can also be found on the PBS kids website. The website offers an array of games for kids to play, a selection of episodes to watch, and educational companions that parents can print out. “We wanted to launch a show online and on air at the same time,” says Gillim. The website, which receives a tremendous amount of hits, is very successful due to young fans of the show who can become involved with the characters and review some of the words that were included in the episodes.

More information about the Chicks Make Flicks April 12th screening of Hey Monie can be found at http://www.wifvne.org/programs.chicksmakeflicks.php. Episodes of WordGirl can be viewed at http://pbskids.org/wordgirl/. More information about Soup2Nuts can be found on their website http://www.soup2nuts.tv/.

Elizabeth Engel is a freelance writer and journalist living in Boston. She can be reached at Lizlengel@yahoo.com.