Fireman Sam is a popular British children’s show about, you guessed it, a firefighter named Sam and other characters in the fictional village of Pontypandy. The show got its start in 1984 and continues to air today, but the animation has since been revamped.
In October 2017, controversy sparked over the name of this show. During a campaign for gender-neutrality, Dany Cotton, a longtime firefighter, proposed that the name of this show be changed to Firefighter Sam rather than Fireman Sam. As the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Cotton felt that it was time to stop reinforcing the stereotype that fire service is a job for men.
“One single thing that would help bring more women into the service? Stop saying ‘fireman.’ How many people still use that?” she said. “It would make a real difference if people stopped. Why did they have to go for Fireman Sam? What’s wrong with Firefighter Sam?”
A campaign called “Gender Equality: Will it take another 100 years?” was organized by the Young Women’s Trust, an organization that supports and represents young women who struggle with poverty in England and Wales. It was here that Cotton spoke about the sexism she has experienced throughout her 30-year career, which began when she was just a teenager.
“For every single rank promotion I’ve got I have been told, every single time, that I’m going to get the job because I’m the only woman on the panel – even the job I’ve got now. Which is quite bizarre, really,” she said. This is called reverse or positive discrimination, or when people in traditionally disadvantaged groups receive advantages because of their gender, race, disability, etc.
However, regardless of the positive message Cotton was trying to get across, she still received pushback for bringing attention to how the name “Fireman Sam” could impact young girls and what they believe they can do as adults.
“The backlash I’ve had – the vitriol, the spite, the unpleasantness – truly horrified and shocked me. And it showed me we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “For a little while it made me want to back off and hide in a cave because it was shocking. I had letters of hate written to me at work.”
When Cotton decided to become a firefighter, she did not question herself. She didn’t understand the concept that a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t do something. Her only view was, “Why can’t I?” This is a perspective that she wishes all young girls and women had.
“Women make fantastic firefighters,” Cotton says. “If all you want to do is leap on the big red shiny engine and be a hero then the fire service is probably not for you anyway.”
Cotton believes that something as simple as a name change could make a difference in the confidence a girl has about pursuing careers like firefighting or police work.
“Equality is important,” she said. “It’s about how life should be, not about obtaining it in one hundred years, it’s about us doing it now, doing it collectively in small areas working together, and standing up for what is right and what should be happening.”
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