For thousands of years, in narratives females have been sidelined and marginalized. How would female characters look if they didn’t have a long history of being cast in the supporting roles? The minimal thing we should all be able to agree on is that we don’t know for sure.
Because we live in a strongly male-identified society the idea of a Pac-Woman as the “unmarked” default and a Mr. Pac-Woman as the deviation “marked” with masculinizing gender signifiers feels strange and downright absurd. Meanwhile Pac-man and the deviation Ms. Pac-Man seems completely normal in our current cultural context.
Here’s how the game might look if male characters were always on the periphery.
This same gender dynamic manifests in movies, TV, games, toys, and apps made for children. What are we teaching a new generation about who boys and girls really are?
In music, we love the idea of the screwed-up, shooting-up. fucked-up artist. The one bleeding in the garret having cut his own ear off. Jay-Z is a new kind of 21st-century artist where the canvas is not just the 12 notes, the wicked beats, and a rhyming dictionary in his head. It’s commerce, it’s politics, the fabric of the real as well as the imagined life.
Stephen Mitchell in Can Love Last, the Fate of Romance Over Time
It is the hallmark of the shift in basic psychoanalytic sensibility that the prototype of mental health for many contemporary psychoanalyitc authors is not the scientist but the artist. A continual objective take on reality is regarded as neither possible nor valuable in contrast to the ability to develop and move in and out of different perspectives of reality.
New York Times, October:
Public narratives about a career make a difference. The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen, few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.
Jezebel reacting to New York Times piece:
The New York Times today would like to suggest that storytelling is powerful, that, in the whole art/life dynamic, it’s life that imitates art, not the other way around, at least not when it comes to kids imagining viable career paths for themselves.
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.
In the fantasy world, anything is possible, so why do little kids see so few female heroes and female protagonists on TV and in the movies? While boy “buddy stories” are everywhere you look, why is it so hard to see two females working together to save the world? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in fantasy world? Why are TV shows, movies, and books about boys “for everyone” while shows and movies about girls “just for girls?” When we pass on stories to our kids, what are we teaching them about gender, about who they are right now and who they will become?
One more quote for you from neuroscientist, Lise Eliot:
“Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”
Eliot believes: “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”So let’s all use our brains to imagine gender equality in the fantasy world, take actions to manifest that vision, and see what happens next. I bet it’ll be amazing.
When our family plays games, there are fights and tears. I’ve blogged about Scrabble, Clue, card games, and there are moments of fun, but mostly, it’s miserable.
There is an activity that all three kids (ages 4 – 10) my husband, and I love, where everyone works together towards a goal: Bella’s Mystery Deck. We had 3 soccer games scheduled for 3 kids today, but due to bad weather and a scheduling mistake, 0 happened. Bella saved the day.
Bella is a 13 year old Mexican-American girl who lives in Tucson with her family and black lab, Noche. The game consists of 52 cards, each with a story that describes a mystery to solve. Besides Bella, the stories are full of colorful characters in Bella’s community. To check your answer, or find it out if you’re stumped, the package comes with a mirror to decipher the backwards writing at the bottom of each card. My kids love that part.
Bella is a female protagonist who is smart, brave, and kind. This game rocks.
I guess Disney was right to be so terrified of creating a strong, BRAVE, female protagonist (along with Pixar studios which hadn’t had ANY female protags before “Brave.”) It looks like Merida could be turning Disney’s franchise on it’s head. That’s pretty damn heroic.
Another mistake Disney made with “Brave?” They hired a female director. They fired her, but it was too late. Brenda Chapman wrote “Brave” based on her daughter. She was furious with the character’s transformation and wrote publicly about Disney’s terrible mistake.
That’s right: Although Merida was created by a woman as a role model for girls, the male-dominated consumer product division at Disney has ignored the character’s intended benefits for young girls, sexualizing her for profit. Compared with her film counterpart, this new Merida is slimmer and bustier. She wears makeup, and her hair’s characteristic wildness is gone: It has been volumized and restyled with a texture more traditionally “pretty.” Furthermore, she is missing her signature bow, arrow, and quiver; instead, she wears a fashionable sash around her sparkly, off-the-shoulder gown. (As Peggy Orenstein noted when she broke the news of the redesign, “Moms tell me all the time that their preschool daughters are pitching fits and destroying their t-shirts because ‘princesses don’t cover their shoulders.’” I’ve heard the same from parents, as well.)
Is the sexualized image of Merida gone for good? Has Disney learned a lesson? Or will that lesson be: No more strong female characters leading a film! No more female directors writing about their daughters! Keep the females weak and quiet!
Objectifying and sexualizing girls is dangerous. A first step to abuse is always dehumanizing the victim. Propaganda, in the form of images and narratives, effectively dehumanizes on a mass scale.
Images/ narratives of Jews circa 1938
Africans circa 1931
Females circa 2013
It’s easy to look back on history and wonder: How did people ever put up with that? I’d never buy into it, not to mention expose my child to it. But what are you participating in right now that is completely accepted, not to mention celebrated, by our culture?
Be part of the solution. Demand narratives with strong female characters for your kids.
Update: New Merida may be off Disney’s site but she’s showing up all over the place including Target. Below is Target’s web page.
Feminist Frequency has created an excellent must-watch video on the lack of strong, female characters in gaming, specifically the “damsel in distress” trope. The video begins with the story of Krystal, the fierce and magical protagonist of the game Dinosaur Planet.
The narrator of the video, Anita Sarkeesian, describes Krystal as she was originally meant to be:
The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of two playable protagonists. She was tasked with traveling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff, and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable, and she was heroic.
But as development neared completion, the strategy for the game changed. It was rewritten and redesigned, released in 2002 as StarFox Adventures for the GameCube. Sarkeesian describes the new incarnation:
Krystal has been transformed into a damsel in distress and spends the vast majority of the game trapped inside a crystal prison waiting to be rescued by the new hero, Fox McCloud. The in game action scenes that were originally built for Krystal were converted to feature Fox instead. Crystal is given a skimpier, more sexualized outfit.
Here’s the new Krystal.
The tale of how Krystal went from protagonist of her own epic adventure to the passive victim in someone else’s game illustrates how the damsel in distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right.
Watching what happened to Krystal on a few minutes of video, I felt like I was watching what’s happened to women throughout history; we’re minor characters in a story that someone else has written. Sarkeesian says: “I’ve heard it said that ‘In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.’ ”
Here’s how the video goes on to describe the “damsel in distress” trope that dominates our cultural mythology:
The Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
Think about how the weak and passive female is so intricately built into our cultural narrative. She’s in stories we’ve heard from birth, from Greek mythology to the Bible to Hollywood. She’s in the books and films that win our highest awards and accolades.
Because the human brain put events into context in order to understand them, this repetitive narrative gets embedded into our minds. If this trope were just one story of many, there would be no issue. It’s the constant repetition, the ubiquity of this story line, especially in the fantasy world marketed to children, that’s so alarming. Girls and boys don’t get to see females act, make important choices, take healthy risks, and become leaders. This sexist narrative affects who we are, how we see each other, and who we become.
This video from Feminist Frequency shows you what happens when a character tries to break free of this restrictive narrative. She’s put right back into her crystal prison. How is Krystal going to get out of there when the guy who’s supposedly rescuing her is the problem? There’s only one way she can break free. She must write her own story.
In addition to the aggressive actions against me that I’ve already shared, the harassers launched DDoS attacks on my site, attempted to hack into my email and other social media accounts and reported my Twitter and YouTube accounts as “terrorism”, “hate speech” or “spam”. They also attempted to “dox” and distribute my personal contact info including address and phone number on various websites and forums (including hate sites).
Thank you, Sarkeesian, for having the courage to tell your story while people kept trying to shut you up. We all really need to hear it.
Another cool thing Sarkeesian did: she begun her video with this quote:
This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
She likes games, got it? She likes to play them. She doesn’t want them to be sexist. She wants strong female protagonists. It’s not that fun attacking loveable characters who make up the fabric of America. And guess what? You can be a fan of “Ratatouille” and still be disheartened and discouraged that it’s yet another kids movie where females go missing. Unless we want to live on an island or a mountain top, this is the world we exist in, so stop telling women to shut up or get out already. Attempting to silence female voices– in games, movies, videos, or on the internet– won’t work anyway, because we won’t stop telling our own stories. That’s just human nature.
Update: My six year old daughter watched this video and totally ‘got it.’ Obviously, I’ve talked to her a lot about media literacy, but it was great to have her see this POV coming from someone other than her mom. This video is a great educational tool, and I hope that you show it to your kids.
The iron, forced upon young girl Monopoly players everywhere, has been ousted by the Internet generation. Here’s to that new Monopoly token, a cat, clawing away at old gender roles.
Are you thinking: How silly! How outdated. I can’t believe kids of olden times had to deal with that housewife bias.
At first, I was. I never even knew what that iron was for. Isn’t it great that Monopoly has the guts to be progressive while so much of kidworld becomes ever more gender segregated?
Here’s just the latest example of sexist stereotyping from my Twitter feed today: Hasbro’s pink Heartbreaker Bow, part of the new Nerf Rebelle line for girls. Rebelle, seriously? Gag.
The Heartbreaker Bow attempts to mutate the archery craze– incited after girls finally got to see Hollywood images of powerful bow wielding heroines like Merida of “Brave” and Katniss of “The Hunger Games”– into something cuter and more “feminine.”
Yesterday on my Twitter feed? This display of books from Harrod’s in London:
So good for Monopoly, a new leader in saying no to gender segregation. But then something occurred to me. Even I, a 44 year old woman obsessed with the gendering of toys, had no idea that the iron was created for girl players. Do kids today even know what an iron is? No one irons anymore. That’s when I got it: It’s not the sexism that’s outdated, its the iron. Girls don’t know that they’re supposed to pick the iron. Monopoly isn’t abandoning sexism but updating it. The iron is being replaced with…a kitty.
Monopoly’s month-long “Save Your Token” contest ended Feb. 6, 2013 when fans’ least-favorite token was replaced with this newer model. I suppose we should be grateful the diamond ring option wasn’t chosen.
Scrabble, in some ways, is best board game ever invented, hands down.
Scrabble is fun and educational. Anyone who can read can play, yet the game naturally evolves to meet and match ages and skill level.
Scrabble is in no way sexist, unless you believe in the bullshit that girls are verbal. That’s a generalization fostered by training and reinforcing girls to be well-behaved, quiet bookworms, then calling it a “natural feminine” behavior. A “female” advantage, by the way, that magically vanishes when “being verbal” gains status; males dominate Nobel prize winners and great author lists.
Whether you have girls or boys or both, Scrabble will develop spelling and vocabulary. There’s just one problem my family has playing Scrabble.The game is vicious. It’s rare to play without someone in the family crying or quitting.
Why oh why is this game so competitive? I have tried to figure out what it is about Scrabble that brings out the worst in my kids. The bad behavior happens not only in how my children treat each other but how they treat themselves. They make fun of and cut down each others words, but also they do the same thing to their own creations. Almost never do I see a one of them put out a word and feel really proud of it; more often, she feels like, somehow, she could have done better. Thus, when we play Scrabble we all feel slightly on edge and vaguely dissatisfied, until the inevitable blow up comes and the whole game is ruined.
Scrabble is a great game, but I don’t know if its worth the emotional upheaval. Nonetheless, Reel Girl rates Scrabble ***HHH***
If you follow Reel Girl, you know I am a sucker for narratives, and there aren’t many games out there that inspire storytelling like Clue.
Clue was my favorite board game when I was a kid. After 30 years, I played it last weekend at my sister’s with my kids and my nieces, and it was so fun. I love all of the rooms, imagining being in a mansion, and plotting or discovering a murder. The kids love all that, too, of course. The secret passages from room to room and the detective pads are also cool. If you’re not familiar with Clue, all of this may sound complicated, but it’s not.
So, now for the characters. There are three males and three females. You can’t get more equal than that, right? But here’s the problem. The male characters are Professor Plum (he must be smart, right?) Colonel Mustard (another status moniker) and Mr. Green. Poor Mr. Green, you think, he’s got no title, but at least his identity is concealed behind the ambiguous “Mr.” The females don’t fare so well: Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, and Mrs. White. Not a “Ms.” among them.
As a kid, I was always Miss Scarlet. I thought she seemed powerful and mysterious, and rebellious; she smoked.
I was disappointed to see that Miss Scarlet in my sister’s game looks far less dangerous.
Though I would’ve preferred modernizing Mrs. White and Mrs. Peacock to “Ms,” I am pleased with their new portraits. They look more complex and real than the originals.
Beyond the names or art, Clue is as equal opportunity as you can get: any character could have committed the murder with any of the weapons. The females are just as likely to whack a victim with a candlestick or a wrench as they are to shoot her. No sexism involved in solving this mystery if you want to win the game. That factor trumps all others in my book.
This game is a lot of fun for families. No tears so far.
The pics I posted below include images of girls b/c that is what Reel Girl is about, and I love collecting these images. Check out Merida’s expression, how cool is she? And in all the Merida dolls, I never saw this one before. That’s why I love TowardTheStars, Ines culls through everything and finds the best. My oldest daughter is also into detectives and spies, so I posted some of those images, and a few other toys/ games that I’m buying. So this is my personal list. TowardTheStars has all kinds of great toys and products for kids.
Why did you start TowardTheStars?
I have an engineering degree in Computer Science for all of my life I have been part of male-dominated environments where I was a minority. My career progressed from engineering to management and executive roles and during this journey I was confronted with the gender biases from others and with my own limiting beliefs that sometimes stopped me from voicing my opinions or applying for a particular role.
As I started coaching my female colleagues, I found out that we shared a lot of common patterns: we struggled with the lack of female role models, and we were trying to overcome the “fairy tale syndrome”, a need to be perfect, congenial and at the same time highly effective. This left little space for taking healthy risks and for being audacious.
Six years ago a little girl came into my life, Ally, she was 2.5 years-old at the time. As I spent more time with her and started to look at the world through her eyes and started experiencing the messages she was getting all day long from society, toys, media and marketing, I started becoming more uncomfortable with what I was experiencing. I was looking at the root cause for all my own limiting beliefs; I was looking at the reason why my colleagues struggled to speak up, why women were risk-averse, why girls don’t pursue science, engineering, technology, math, sports and leadership.
Ally was surrounded by toys, books and media that were constantly telling her that her worth came from her external appearance. Everything related to science, maths, leadership, risk taking, audacity, sports seemed to be missing from products targeted to girls.
I decided to do something about it and started to raise awareness with parents and educators via social media. I created my own ipad app with empowering stories for girls 7Wonderlicious, I created a small website with a list of empowering books for girls and another focused on short youtube videos with all the PSAs and documentaries I could find about gender stereotyping and sexualisation of girls, it was all cobbled together very quickly. My community grew to 100,000 people online across several social media channels. This year I decided to leave my corporate executive role in IT to launch TowardTheStars a global online marketplace for empowering gifts for girls. It is a natural progression and I am now pulling together all the work achieved previously into one single site and committing all my time to this worthy cause that I am so passionate about.
What are your most popular items?
We have a couple of small clothing businesses with empowering messages that are doing extremely well turning over close to 1000 dollars in the first month.
Products that support charitable causes are also very popular, people love to know that by buying a gift they are helping to improve the lives of girls somewhere in the world. We have fair trade gifts that are handmade by Indigenous communities in Africa and Australia for example.
Of course my book site (now fully integrated with TowardTheStars) is also extremely popular, people love to discover books with young bold female protagonists. I also spent years compiling top quality resources for parents, our parenting books are a huge hit, parents are always very grateful and enthusiastic when they discover that there is expert advice in book form that will help them counter stereotypes, sexualisation, body image issues etc.
Do you mostly support small businesses?
My goal with TowardTheStars is to create a venue for parents, educators, businesses, independent producers and not for profits to come together to discover new innovative ways to put an end to the stereotypes that are so prevalent in our society and in products targeted at children. I strongly believe that small businesses, artists and craftspeople are central to this movement because until we create great alternatives we are stuck with media and toys that belong in the middle ages.
This is why I invested in developing a true multisided marketplace where people can setup their shop in a few minutes and list their items directly on the site. This was a huge software development project but now the movement can grow organically. New independent producers join every day. It is a real pleasure to wake up every morning and discover new delightful items listed on the site. This girl empowerment intension box was listed last week for example, I was delighted to discover Ann’s work for the first time because she found TowardTheStars and decided to join us.
TowardTheStars will always give more visibility, priority and support to small businesses; I consider them my partners in crime and will do anything within my reach to make them successful. These are the people that welcomed me into the community two years ago and inspired me to create this venue.
TowardTheStars also provides products from larger businesses via our affiliate model with Amazon.com. We do this for the following of reasons:
To give access to parents and educators to our growing list of empowering books that was created more than 2.5 years ago. We want to ensure our amazing authors are represented within our community. I am privileged to be able to call some of these authors and experts my friends, many have supported this project from its inception.
To ensure that our community has access to products related to STEM that are less likely to be produced by small businesses.
To ensure our community has access to good alternatives being created by the large corporations. Great movies like Brave by Pixar, series like Doc McStuffins by Disney or anything from Studio Ghibli.
By providing a comprehensive range of products that counter stereotypes and/or are gender neutral we keep our community coming back to the site, which of course will benefit our small businesses too.
How does a business join your site? What are you looking for?
As soon as they register and login they are able to create their own shop and list their items, it is very user friendly and a business can setup shop in just a few minutes. Of course all items must comply with the strict guidelines that we put together with the help of some of the top child development experts in the world. This site will remain free of sexualisation and stereotypes. I review all listed products myself.
This video gives an excellent summary of what we are looking for.
My hope and dream is that this movement will inspire many others to innovate and produce great stereotype free products. I am already quite impressed with the level of conversation between buyers and sellers. The community is keen to provide feedback and our small business quickly respond to the desires and feedback of the parents and educators. Several of our businesses have already adapted/evolved their products based on feedback. We had a number of awesome t-shirts listed on the site with really great empowering designs and quotes but they were only available in pink initially, after some feedback from the community our sellers were happy to provide new colour options.
What are your future plans for TowardTheStars?
Continue to provide great resources and options to parents and educators looking for media and toys for their children;
Continue to support and engage small businesses and independent producers, inspiring them to innovate and produce outstanding items;
Do as much as I can to drive visibility to the site and promote the great work of our businesses, make them successful;
Expand our community functionality on the website to enable real conversations and ideas to emerge.
Get help! This project is growing fast. I am looking to expand my team as I am literally working night and day. I barely get any sleep. I am tired but very happy!
I’ve blogged about games before: Sexist apps for little kids and the card games Slamwich and Sleeping Queens. But now Reel Girl has a whole new category. My family has started a weekend ritual of evening board games during quiet time instead of reading, so I’m looking at lots of games. The switch in routine is a struggle for me, because I love reading and kind of dislike board games. It’s not that I hate them, I just didn’t get the point. I’d rather be reading. But according to my kids’ teachers, there is a point: math and verbal skills, art skills, rule following, winning and losing, and together time. The teachers are also right that my kids are at such different reading levels, that it is fun (when they’re not cheating or fighting) to do something together.
My first rec is Hedbanz. This game is super fun. All my kids, ages 3 – 9, can play this game and feel challenged at different levels. One kid holds a card with a picture up to her forehead (actually, most people place them there in headbands, thus the name of the game, but we lost our bands.) She asks yes or no questions (Am I alive, am I an animal etc) Because of the simple pictures, it’s easy for the three year old to feel like she’s a part of it. The older kids, obviously, like to guess the answer faster.
Needless to say, I love that the box that features two girls and one boy playing together and no sexist pictures.
Please send me your game recs! Reel Girl rates Hedbanz ***HHH***