‘There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’

Actress, comedian, and talk show host, Whoopi Goldberg, was a “Star Trek” fan as a kid.

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She’s spoken about her ecstatic reaction when she saw U.S.S. Enterprise crew member, Uhura, on TV for the first time.

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

 

Uhura

Do you see how reality influences fantasy influences reality and creates our world? Just to remind you, that’s the same world that our kids live in. Art inspires us to dream big, except when it doesn’t.

Last week, actress and writer Jennifer Sky wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times about her experience working as a model.

I was given drugs, then coerced into going topless for a shoot. I learned the hard way that my body was not my own.

After a series of horrible experiences, Sky quit modeling. She got a job acting as a warrior princess. That role changed her life, how she saw herself, and how she experienced the world.

During my time on the show, on six episodes from the fourth to the fifth seasons, I kicked butt. Off screen, I was trained in numerous fighting techniques, in archery and horseback riding. On screen, I hung with a Christ figure called Eli; I had a same-sex lover and a boyfriend of a different race than mine; I threw bombs and walked along high wires. I killed so many bad guys that they began to look the same…Gender was not relevant in the Xenaverse. There, a girl or a boy could be a warlord or a farmer, a bard or a sad sack needing protection.

If playing and seeing powerful females in fiction is so inspiring and life changing, why, again and again, in kids’ media, do girls go missing? Why do we hardly ever see female protagonists? This summer, all the movies that came out for little kids– and I saw every one– starred a male character. When I blog about this pattern of sexism– as I did, regarding the lack of female competitors and winners in “Planes”– I receive hundreds of comments dripping with sarcasm like this one.

The actual race in Planes is totally dominated by male competitors.” How shocking! You mean in real life the actual race is not dominated by male competitors?… This stuff is silly nonsense.

WTF? This is a movie about planes who talk to each other, and the commenter is  concerned about “real” life? “Turbo” is a movie about a snail who wins the Indy 500. A snail. Who talks. And befriends a human.  (A human male, by the way, with a brother, but I digress.) And that’s all well and fine, but a female winning a race, that is totally unbelievable.

I can go on and on with examples of sexism in the fantasy world justified because there’s sexism in the real one. In “Lion King” the lionesses have to sit around, doing whatever skinny, weak, old Scar wants because only lions can lead a pride. Yet, Simba is BFFs with a Warthog and a meerkat, not to mention, he sings and dances. All that is totally plausible? “Ratatouille” is a movie about a rat who can cook. We get to see just one female chef, Colette, who has a brief monologue explaining the lack of females in the movie. French kitchens are sexist so the film is too, got that?

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While we’re talking about “real life,” here’s a question for you. If, when it comes to gender, writers and producers of movies for kids, not to mention viewers, are such sticklers for “reality,” why are there so many, should we say, discrepancies? Reel Girl commenter, Nebbie, keeps a list of male characters in animation who, in the “real” world, would be female:

 

1) Barnyard movie and video game, Back and the Barnyard: male cattle with udders
2) The Madagascar movies and specials, The Penguins of Madagascar: Joey the male kangaroo with a pouch, male hornets with stings, King Julien the dominant male ring tailed lemur (Only female kangaroos have a pouch, ring tailed lemurs are matriarchal.)
3)Bee Movie: male worker bees, male bees with stings, Mooseblood the male bloodsucking mosquito (Only female bees, wasps, including hornets, and some ants have a sting because the sting is a modified oviposito)
4)Turbo: male snails, Burn the one female snail (Garden snails are hermaphrodites)
5) A Bugs Life, The Ant Bully, and Antz: male worker ants (Worker ants, bees, and wasps are all sterile females, the males are drones and they die soon after they mate with the queen– fertile female– ant, bee, or wasp.)
6) The Jungle Book: male elephant herd and leader (elephants are matriarchal)
7) Fantasia: female ostriches with male black and white plumage
8) Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos: Gonzalo the male tortoiseshell kitten (Most tortoiseshell cats are female. A male cat can only be tortoiseshell if it has Klinefelter’s Syndrome– XXY, usually sterile– has chimerism, or has mosaicism.)
9) Finding Nemo: Marlin the clownfish stays male after his wife died (Clownfish are protoandrous hermaphrodites; they are born male and the the most dominant male turns female when the dominant female is removed from the group.)

What’s so creepy about this is how often what is “natural” is used to justify sexism. Girls “naturally” love pink, princesses, shopping, and gazing at themselves in the mirror. Bullshit.

So here’s my question: Why, as parents, do we allow our kids to see, again and again, an imaginary world with the same manufactured sexism as the real world? It limits children, to say the least.

In the fantasy world, anything is possible. If we can’t even imagine a world without sexism, we can’t create it. And we must. If we live in a classist, racist society where women of color are maids for rich, white people, we owe it to children to show them a world where women of color are depicted as leaders and heroes. Recycling sexist narratives keeps a new generation stuck in a biased world. Don’t we want something better? When will Uhura get to captain the ship?

17 thoughts on “‘There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’

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  3. “1) Barnyard movie and video game, Back and the Barnyard: male cattle with udders”

    Heh, I remember that somebody asked the films’ creators on why a male cow has udders. Their response? “Because it’s funny”

  4. “(Most tortoiseshell cats are female. A male cat can only be tortoiseshell if it has Klinefelter’s Syndrome– XXY, usually sterile– has chimerism, or has mosaicism.)”

    I found this part really interesting. I myself have and awesome tortie cat. Even naming her FRIDA hasn’t prevented her from being called ‘he’ and quite often when I introduce her to people the only response she gets from them is “But ALL torties are MALE! You can’t get a GIRL one! There’s no such thing! You can only get BOY torties!”
    Not even an innocent cat is safe!
    *Smashes head my into keyboard until you can see the bone*
    because apparently I’ve been wrong about my own cat’s gender for the two years I’ve known her. Maybe the fact that my ‘male’ cat HAD KITTENS confused me… :/

    Genderfailing bees, ants, cats, cows ect is not only misogynist, it also creates a generation of brainwashed idiots who believe that bulls have udders.

    • Peafowl are another animal that is so commonly genderfailed. The peacock is always made female when peacocks, with their iridescent green and blue plumage and “train” (long upper tail coverts of the tail feathers), are actually male peafowl.

      This is averted beautifully in Kung Fu Panda 2. The peacocks are male as real peacocks are and the peahen, like real peahens, doesn’t have “train” to her tail feathers.

      In the case of ostriches, if those ostriches in Fantasia were supposed to be female, they would have dull brown plumage.

      In the case of ring tailed lemurs, both genders have a scent gland on their forearm, but only males have a horny spur overlaying it. So, in real life, King Julien would have a spur on his forearms.

  5. I always feel that the reason there are so little female protagonists is because the content creators DON’T want to write about them. Whether they admit it or not, they write what they want to see, what they enjoy writing about, and most people in charge don’t enjoy writing about female characters.

    I don’t know what to suggest, other than convincing people in charge that they can enjoy female characters.

    • Hi Cab,

      I agree that most people write what they want to see, what they enjoy, and write their experience. Most Hollywood writers and producers with the funds are male. I think the best way to convince people in charge is to create great stories with female protags, to keep saying publicly what they’re giving us isn’t what we want.

      Margot

  6. Good post, Margot, but I wish you included race in your discussions of marginalization, poc kids have even less media that directly represents them. This is not a criticism of this post, just something I’d like you to do more. 🙂

    • Hi aninha,

      I totally agree we need to see more charcaters of color. I write mostly about gender because

      (1) Females are half of the kid population, yet represented a minority in children’s media. This sexism is so glaring, yet accepted

      (2) Race is often not clear in the imaginary world of robots, cars, monsters etc, yet everything gets gendered

      (3) Blatant racism is not accepted in cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Tintin etc.) but blatant sexism is OK

      Margot

      • Think about it this way, how many animated movies in total have poc protagonists? How many of them about one subgroup of poc (black people, asian people)? This invisibility is a serious problem.

        2) Not so much, notice that when raceless characters become human, they become white humans (Shrek, demona from gargoyles).

        • Hi Aninha,

          I have thought about this, a lot. Again, agree it is an issue and yes, agree when characters turn human they are most often white but also that there are so many imaginary species in children’s media, the race issue is not in your face like gender is. I think its pointless to get into a whose oppression is worse debate, but I’ve laid out why I blog about mostly about gender, also obviously because I’m female.

          Margot

          • But when most poc kids get is magical species for representation then that’s still close to nothing, I’m not trying to argue that race is more of an issue than gender, but I think its just as “in your face” as gender is. And of course, this blog’s focus is gender, but poc girls can’t separate their race from their gender, what comes to them is always full pack, they are always a black girl or an asian girl and the sexism they experience is different because of that. Poc women are just as much women and feminism needs to be a safe space for them too.

            I’m not trying to say you should change your topics or choice of presentation, but rather just also mention issues of race along with sexism. For example, a while back you made some posts about Merida’s redesign and how it was sexist, it would have been nice if you mentioned as well that Mulan’s redesign was whitewashed and they changed Pocahontas to be even more culturally appropriative (feather earrings).

            Even further back you made a defense of Lena Dunham, and while I agree with your points about the scrutiny people put her through having to do with her gender, now, long after this post, she has made such problematic statements as saying the stray dogs she saw at India invoked more of her sympathy than the people. Another examination on just how justifiable she is would be nice.

            In the end it’s still your blog though, and I won’t push this any further, I understand how disrespectful it’d be. Sorry for the long post and for bothering you so much over this. 🙂

          • Hi Aninha,

            Disagree race is as in your face as gender in animation, but I guess i’ve said that already. I continue to defend against the vitriol directed at her, something Jerry Seinfeld never experienced for his all white, self-absorbed cast. It’s ironic that I write a post about people of color not being represented and you’re telling me I don’t write about people of color not being represented. As far as the princesses, I did write about how the ones of color are shoved to the side, the princess and the frog spends most of her time as a frog, and other racist instances as well.

            Margot

          • I don’t see the irony because I just want more inclusion, not saying there’s no inclusion at all, but as I said, I’m gonna respect your decisions as a blogger and a feminist.

  7. Hi NotaPrincess,

    I write about this a lot on Reel Girl, but its so important that boys see powerful females, in books and in movies. I’m not a fan of the Pink Ghetto in kids’ media, the only place where females are allowed to be leads consistently. Movies and books with male leads are for everyone, movie with female leads are “just for girls.” How can we combat it? Recognize our own sexism. Read all kids books and show them movies with string, not stereotyped female leads. There are lists of these on Reel Girl. Speak out more against gender stereotyping. Recognize how fantasy creates reality and reality creates fantasy, literally. Brains get wired up based on experiences. I’m a also writing a middle grade fantasy book with lots of brave, strong females, who are also friends with males. That helps me a lot, and my hope is that all kids read and love it.

    Margot

  8. I love your posts and this one in particular. Just a note. I recently heard from a friend that her mom doesn’t like it when she lets her son watch cartoons with female leads (few as they are I know, I think his favorite one in question was Princess Sofia which doesn’t exaclty go very far in pushing women’s rights but lets leave that for another discussion!) . My point here is, even if we can change the world and get female leads in our children’s viewing, how can we get away from the stigmatisation of gender roles and also, combat the reality that many people (be it parents, grandparents, teachers etc) grew up in generations where male/female roles were defined differently and therefore when, in the example of my friend, a 2 year old boy’s favorite show is a “girl’s cartoon” we disapprove. I am happy to say that I have seen many of my recent friends try and provide an unbiased approach to raising their kids (another let their 1 year old son pick a pink baby doll as his treat for the day and happily encouraged him to walk around the shopping centre taking care of it, although acknowledging that they would get some looks from passersby who found it strange and inappropriate), however how are they to succeed if they are constantly having to defend their openness? I think, like you, that pushing the people who make these shows/brands etc to change the perspective they show will help in educating society of new acceptable norms and roles for boys and girls, but sadly, I feel it is a big uphill battle we have on our hands!

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