So much for post-feminism. The world of networked hurt that descended on the spiteful media enterprise that is Rush Limbaugh revealed a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy.
When your brand’s Facebook wall is overtaken by feminist outrage, you can’t just write it off as a few man-hating cranks and continue on as usual.
This is just what happened when Reel Girl, Pigtail Pals, and others complained about a sexist ad from ChapStick. We complained on the company’s Facebook page and ChapStick deleted our comments when its own ad copy invited us to “be heard.” Several women took screen shots of their comments before their deletion, and I blogged about ChapStick’s removal of them on Reel Girl and SFGate. Jezebel picked up the story, then so did others including Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. When ChapStick’s unethical behavior became known to so many, ChapStick apologized and removed the ad.
“Post-feminism” has always been a bullshit term. One of the most effective ways to keep women in their place is to claim that sexism doesn’t exist. Social media is making it harder to pull off that lie.
My kids were playing at the park up the street and made friends with a boy and girl who spoke fluent Norwegian. An hour later, my three daughters were in their backyard, splashing around in a hot tub. At some point, I was telling the mom, who is Norwegian and a doctor, about my blog. She said that her daughter is not, and never was, into princesses. She told me she’d noticed how sexist American movies and TV are, and that the media in Norway isn’t like that at all. (“What is going on with this American talk show host and contraception?” she asked. “That would never happen in Norway.”) She started pulling out books and DVDs from her shelves. Not only did most of them include female characters but they were pictured front and center. I bet the reason that her five year old daughter isn’t a “girlie-girl” is because she’s hasn’t been brought up on American media. You’ve probably heard of the Scandinavian Pippi Longstocking, but what about this Norwegian grandmother?
Or this elephant firefighter?
All of her DVDs look like that– the submarines, soldiers, police, and helicopters are female characters. I wish I spoke Norwegian.
“I’m not a feminist,” she told me. “I never had to be before I came to America. It’s so sexist here, maybe I am one now.”
My children love card games, and even though I don’t, I’m learning to. Cards are a great activity for the whole family to do together. Playing them also teaches kids math, how to follow rules, strategy, and how to win and lose gracefully.
But what are the card games that we play with our kids also teaching them about gender?
So the all time worst has got to be Old Maid. Ugh. Horrible. Even before I knew I was a feminist, I was offended by this game that teaches kids no one wants to be stuck with the lone female card. I thought this game was so weird when I was a child and I still do. A racist card game would never be allowed to be sold to children. It’s not funny. As far as I’m concerned, Old Maid should be banned for its sexism. Reel Girl rates Old Maid ***SSS*** Do not play this game with your kids, or call it something else and use different cards.
My favorite card game right now is Slamwich. It’s really fun to play for my 8 yr old and 5 yr old. The cards are diverse in the gender representation. Most of the cards are food (the idea is to build your own sandwich) but there are also “muncher” and “thief” cards, three females and two males types. As far as amount, there is one more male thief card than female thief card. Reel Girl rates Slamwich ***GGG***
Another game we play is called Sleeping Queens. Can you tell by the name I have a problem with this game? At least it’s not called Sleeping Princesses, right?
The game was invented by a little girl, so that’s cool, except I wish she wasn’t influenced to play to this “female get rescued” script. It makes me sad about her imagination. The idea is to wake up the Sleeping Queens which you can do by picking a king card or rescuing her with a knight. Not so great. A dragon can block a knight from stealing a queen (we refer to the dragons as she). Playing a sleeping potion puts a queen back to sleep and that can be blocked with a magic wand. Queens are the power cards, the goal of the game is to get them, but they can’t wake themselves up. This game is pretty fun to play. Reel Girl rates Sleeping Queens ***G/ SS***
JoJo’s Flying Side Kick is about a Tae Kwon Do student who must break a board with a flying side kick in order to win her yellow belt.
JoJo is nervous about the test, telling her Grandaddy: “I’m freakin’ out!” He helps her by giving a tutorial on fancy footwork from his boxing days. JoJo experiences other fears– a creepy-looking tree, the swing that hangs from it, a boy from her class tells her she “yells like a mouse.” In order to nail the side kick, JoJo uses the footwork, imagines the board is the tree, and gives a giant yell: “KEEEYAAAHHH!”
This book is really fun to read out loud. I love how all of the protagonist’s fears are woven together and then conquered in unison. The story teaches kids the great lesson that courage doesn’t mean having no fear but doing something even when you’re terrified. Reel Girl rates JoJo’s Flying Side Kick ***GGG***
Adelaide is the story of a kangaroo born with wings. She knows she doesn’t quite belong in her family of wingless creatures, so she hooks up with a pilot and travels the world, exploring and having adventures.
She decides to stick around Paris where she loves the art and culture but misses kangaroos. One day she saves two children from a burning building but is seriously hurt in the fall. (Her wings can’t carry all that weight.) After a hospital stay, she decides to visit the zoo where she meets and falls in love with a kangaroo named Leon. I really like how this story ends with a wedding and then baby kangaroos but its an unexpected surprise. The “happily ever after” finale isn’t the focus of Adelaide’s quest, but its nice that she finds her soulmate showing heroic, powerful females can fall in love, too. Reel Girl rates Adelaide ***GGG***
Shrek the Third: Fiona’s Fairy-tale Five is kind of chesey, and a cheaply made, stapled together book, but I adore it. There is much to love about the first Shrek story/ movie: how Fiona transforms at the end from “beautiful” princess to fat, green, troll to find true love. How great is that? So much potential here to flip fairy tales– and the notion of what it is to be “happily ever after” and what beauty and love is too– on its head. Not to mention that so much of the Shrek franchise is about making fun of Disney.
But as the far as the big screen, the female potential for greatness in this epic remains tragically unexplored. All three movies are Shrek’s stories, not Fiona’s. Fiona is only the Token Feisty, the strong female character included in many contemporary animated films so the audience won’t care or even notice that all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for.
Fiona’s role is the love interest. The Shrek movie sequels are even more disappointing with the third one morphing into another animated father-son type saga (and Justin Timberlake vehicle) where Shrek must find an heir– male, of course. Fiona’s part is reduced to nothing. Where did she go? It sucks to see “Shrek 3” with your daughters, to say the least. But luckily, there is this cheap, little book. From the back of Fiona’s Fairy -tale Five:
“When Shrek is off finding an heir to the throne, Fiona must watch the kingdom. But soon Prince Charming and his band of villains storm the castle. Fiona has little time to turn a group of prim and proper princesses into lean, mean fighting machines. Can the fairy-tale five come together to take back the castle?
This book would make such a great movie, it kills me. Imagine the princesses voiced by Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph joining Cameron Diaz’s Fiona. This little story is so subversive too, because Disney absolutely forbids its princesses to interact with each other. (Or even look at each other, embossed on diapers, T shirts, or coloring books each one gazes off in a different direction, ignoring the other. Great model for female friendship, huh?)
Reel Girl recs this week feature super passionate heroines. All three Reel Girl rates ***GGG*** Triple Girlpower. Make sure you read these to your sons as well as your daughters!
Knuffle Bunny is one of my all time, absolute favorite books for kids. How do I love thee, let me count the ways…
First, the book begins with my total as yet unrealized fantasy: Father and child do the laundry (they go off to a launrdomat in Brooklyn) while the mom sits on the steps, a book you know she’s about to crack open held lovingly on her lap.
Next amazing thing about this book? Our main character, who I think is younger than two, sports no bow or curly eyelashes (just like the female Red Wolf of Reel Girl’s last recs.) With her overalls, Trixie wears a pink T shirt, but it’s no big deal. I’m not against pink for God’s sake, just Pink World Domination.
One of my favorite illustrations is in the laundromat when Trixie puts pants on her head and waves a bra in the air, her dad watching and smiling at her. Maybe I’m reading too much into this picture, but I think it’s a lovely commentary on adulthood and the various costumes we all wear.
Next is the best part of the book: When Trixie and her dad walk home and she realizes that she’s lost Knuffle Bunny, her big eyed, terrified expression is priceless. This picture communicates terror better than Munch’s Scream. Trixie tries desperately to communicate the disappearance to her to her dad (“Aggle flaggle klabble!”) but he’s oblivious.
At this point in the reading, I have never seen a kid not be totally wrapped up in the story, relating to what it’s like to lose a favorite animal and to have your parents not understand what’s going on. Both parent and child become increasingly frustrated which leads to my favorite sentence in the book (that my husband and I have used ever since to describe a tantruming child) “She went boneless.”
I won’t tell you how this story ends, but I have no doubt Knuffle Bunny will be one of your kid’s favorites.
Mary Had a Little Lampis a funny book about a heroine who follows her heart and couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks of her.
This is a great book to read to your kid if she feels uncomfortable around her peers for liking a toy or outfit or anything that the rest of them aren’t into. Kids will also relate to this book because, like Knuffle Bunny, it’s about an attachment object. It’s impossible to read this without a huge grin on your face at the end.
The Old Woman Who Named Things is about another passionate female, but this one starts out afraid of her strong feelings.
She’s elderly so doesn’t want to get attached to something that might die or fall apart, including old furniture or cars. She only wants to get attached to objects she can trust will be there forever. But when a stray puppy befriends her, she can’t help but care for it. (The genderless puppy is either called “it” or “shy brown dog” which I like.) The old woman refuses to name the puppy to try to control her attachment to the animal, but when the dog disappears, she finally starts to take some risks that help to make her feel more alive.
Ever since her fifth birthday last July, I’ve been trying to get my daughter, Alice, to ride a big girl bike.
She wouldn’t do it. She wanted to stay with the training wheels. Alice is often reticent to try things, from sharing a new idea to exploring physical activities. If I can convince her to attempt something different (soccer, monkey bars) she usually ends up loving it and excelling as well, but the first push is often hard.
When I pushed with the bike, she just resisted. She was scared. She’d seen her sister fall and scrape her knees. I think healthy risk-taking builds real self-esteem, and I want my kids to learn how to take risks. And that you can fall and get up again and all that. But I didn’t want to push too hard, making her resist even more. Every time I asked her if she wanted the training wheels off, she’d yell “NO!”
Then last Saturday night, I read her one of a pile of new books I’d collected with female protagonists to read to my kids and review on Reel Girl: Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen. Sally Jean starts out as a baby in a seat on the back of her mama’s bike, progresses to a tricycle, training wheels, a two-wheeler, and by the end of the book can build her own bike. This kid is supercool.
So on Monday, the President’s Day holiday, as we were all heading to the park, Alice asked her dad to take her training wheels off. No prompting from us. We tried to remain calm. I resisted my urge to leap up and down, clapping. Instead, I went ahead to the park with her two older sisters so they wouldn’t rush her. Alice showed up about ten minutes later on a real two wheeler, her dad holding her seat to help her balance. For the next hour, he and I took turns practicing with her until our backs couldn’t take it anymore. She looked so happy and proud afterwards, I wanted to cry.
So coincidence or heroine-influenced?
This event seriously convinced me– as if I wasn’t convinced enough already– how important it is for kids to see girls being brave and taking risks in books, movies, and toys. If you can’t see it, you can’t do it or be it. Or maybe you can, but it’s much harder. You can talk to your kid until you’re blue in the face, but if you show her, she can learn so much quicker. She sees a “peer’ doing what she wants to do, not her mom babbling on about another thing.
Thank you Cari Best for writing Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen. You influenced my daughter’s life. Reel Girl rates Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen ***GGG*** Buy this book for your sons and daughters, especially if they need a push trying out a big kid bike.
“The Secret World of Arrietty,” which opened Friday, is the latest effort from Studio Ghibli, the same animation studio that created Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky, and Princess Mononoke. Unlike American animation, many of Ghibli’s films star powerful female protagonists and feature multiple strong female characters. Ghibli doesn’t disappoint with its new movie. Arrietty is smart, resourceful, brave, and beautiful. She is just three inches tall.
The animation style shows what it’s like to be tiny and vulnerable in a world of intimidating giants in countless original and creative ways. Arrietty leaps across a row of nails aligned like a rickety bridge over a chasm. She uses a pin like a sword, shoving it into her dress for easy access. My five-year-old is obsessed with bugs, and those are particularly well done in this movie. We see crickets, roaches, ladybugs, and my daughter’s absolute favorite: roly-polies. Arrietty’s home is so beautiful, colorful, and cozy, we wanted to move in.
Arrietty seems bigger because her courage, along with her fluid form and softly dappled world, come by way of the famed Japanese company Studio Ghibli, where little girls rule, if not necessarily as princesses.
That kind of screen equality is rare in American animation (this year Pixar releases its first movie with a female lead), but it’s never been an issue at Ghibli, where girls have long reigned, without the usual frou-frou, in films like “Spirited Away” and “Ponyo.” In keeping with that tradition, a tiara and pink tulle don’t make Arrietty special: her size and especially her bravery do, as evident when, early on, she sprints across a yard with a few leaves and a sprig of flowers while being chased by a cat that looks like a furry blowfish.
I do have a couple questions about the marketing of this film. Have you heard of it? Seen a poster around town on a bus? A TV commercial? I found the poster weeks ago on the internet while I was briefly researching kids movies coming out in 2012.
From the poster, I could not tell that the female was the star. I thought the boy was. I also couldn’t tell from the poster that the girl pictured was “Arrietty.” I thought the title referred to the name of another world. One more thing: If Arrietty were male, do you think he would be shown walking in front of jar giving the impression he could be easily trapped inside of it, with a giant girl’s face looming over him? Do you think he would share the poster with a human girl at all?
In contrast, the ubiquitous Lorax, all over TV and buses, claims his spot with no doubt about who he is, clearly defining the made up word with his picture.
So I’ll do my best to promote this incredible film right now: it came Friday and daughter has already seen it twice– how good a rec is that? Reel Girl rates ‘The Secret World of Arrietty” ***GGG*** Take your sons and daughters!
We read One fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish. My daughter loved the rhythm and rhymes, just as I did when I was a little girl. She memorized whole pages on the couch pretending to read “I am Sam/ Sam I am.”
The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. I found myself changing the pronouns from male to female when I read stories to her. …
One night we read If I Ran the Zoo as bedtime story. A part of the story described hens roosting in each others’ topknots. When it said, “Another one roosts in the the topknot of his/ And another in his, and another in HIS, I got angry. Since when is a hen masculine?”
Ragan’s shock at how far adults will go to maintain male privilege in the imaginary world reminds me of my reaction when I saw the animated film “Barnyard.” The protagonist, Otis, played by Kevin James, is a cow. A cow with an udder. I kid you not. So not only do our kids go to the movies to learn that girls aren’t nearly as important as boys, but they’re getting distorted lessons about basic anatomy.
After the male hen experience, Ragan began counting characters:
As soon as my daughter went to sleep that night, I picked up And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. I looked for female characters. There were none. In fact, the only mention of a woman occurred in the lines “Why Jack or Fred or Nat/ Say even Jane could think of that.” I picked up the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Even the crowd scenes were male…I did a more thorough survey, hoping to find Dr. Seuss books with positive, exciting female characters. I found that over 90% of the characters were male. …
I continued to count. I counted books in my local library which prides itself on being gender conscious yet there were at least twice as many male protagonists as female protagonists in the children’s fiction section. In the scarcity and poor quality of heroines, my daughter was constantly being told ‘you don’t exist, you’re not important.
Ragan started to research to folktales. In published anthologies of world folktales, she found a low percentage of female characters: 4% female protagonists (not necessarily heroines) in a book of 220 folktales and 2% female protagonists in a book of 107 folktales were standard ratios. When searching through fairytales Ragan found 10% female active protagonists to 90% male. In the first edition of Grimm’s, supposedly more feminist than later adaptations and Disney movies, out of 210 stories, just 40 featured female main characters.
So Ragan decided to create her own anthology. She reviewed over 30,000 folktales from around the world and came up with her fabulous book featuring 103 tales complete with inspiring heroines.
Thrilled to have discovered Ragan’s book and read about a mom’s experiences of frustration with kidlit so like my own, I thumbed to the copyright to see when Fearless Girls was published. I was hoping that this anthology had just come out and was about to inspire Hollywood to make a new slew of movies with female heroines, LEGO to make sets with female adventurers, derivative video games and apps to follow. A new trend of gender equality in kids media was about to begin.
Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters came out in 1998, 14 years ago. Before Ratatouille, Cars, and Wall-E. Before the Happy Feet 1 and 2 and Tintin. Before Disney announced it will make no more princess movies i.e. the only genre, albeit totally sexist, that allowed in a very limited way for females to be to be front and center, to star, to actually get a movie titled in honor of them.
In 15 years from now, is some other mom with little kids going to come across my blog and think: wow, someone was writing about this years ago and things have only gotten worse?
How can we as parents continue to allow fewer and fewer female characters? There is no reason for fantasy world to be sexist. It’s an imaginary world, equality for our kids should at least be possible there.
And if this phenomenon of missing girls continues to go on at the rate it is now, how does that affect our kids’ imaginations and aspirations? Who they are and the adults they’ll become?
This radical and perpetual gender disparity of choicemaker-hero-male versus passive-sidekick-female (if she’s allowed to exist at all) might continue to replicate in the adult world, as if it’s expected, as if its normal. Here’s an illustration of today’s congressional hearing on contraception that could be right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Not a uterus present but lots of facial hair. Minus a few trees, The Lorax would feel right at home in Washington DC.
All three recs this week are feminist takes on fairytales. Reel Girl is debuting a new rating letter, T for Traditional. Read about it here.
My five year old is absolutely obsessed with The Red Wolf. The illustrations in this book are extraordinary and what is especially cool about them is– see that red wolf– she’s a girl!
No bow! No curly eyelashes! How often do you see a female, magical furry creature like this not in drag in kidworld? And look how happy she is leaping over the forest. It’s impossible to read this book and not smile.
The Red Wolf is a version of the Rapunzel story that rubbed me the wrong way at first. I don’t like to see girls locked up in towers. The princess in this story does free herself, though I worry her liberation is temporary. But I decided that maybe her struggle– the child trying to break free of the overprotective parent who tries to keep her kid safe by teaching her to be fearful of the world– is a universal struggle. Didn’t the father of the Buddha try to isolate his kid from all pain and death? And it was Buddha’s first encounter with an old man that led to his enlightenment, right? With this in mind, and knowing I’m hyper-sensitive to these things, Reel Girl rates The Red Wolf ***GGG/T*** I seriously adore this book.
Next feminist fairytale is Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave.
What is special about this story is it features the rare female friendship and also– are you ready? A positive mother-daughter relationship. OK, the mom is dead, but still. Vasilisa, the protagonist, has a magical doll who helps her. But this story is also clearly a traditional fairytale as well with sentences like: “Whereas the other girls were cruel and ugly, Vasilisa was kindness itself and beautiful beyond measure.” Ugh. I think this equation of beauty-kindness and ugliness-cruelty probably started out right: if you love someone, they appear beautiful. But somehow, the correlation got switched so an “ugly” person implies a “wicked” person. When I come across this correlation in stories, I ask my kids about it and we talk about what it means. The story doesn’t dwell on the beauty issue and Vasilisa is resourceful. Reel Girl rates Vasilisa the Brave ***GGG/T***
Now for my favorite feminist fairytale yet: The Rough-Face Girl. This story also features the rare female friendship. Marriage is the central conflict but its handled in such a beautiful and original way. This is a love story in the best way. Reel Girl rates The Rough Face Girl ***GGG/T***
Before I go into the issues I have with this story, Beautiful Warrior should be in your collection. It’s the story of Wu Mei who defies expectations to become a fierce Kung Fu warrior. Wu Mei mentors Mingyi who doesn’t want to marry a brute and, with Wu Mei’s training, ends up beating him in a fight and liberating herself.
What is great and rare about this book: It features two female friends, one who mentors the other. Wu Mei doesn’t rescue Mingyi, she teaches her how to save herself.
While this teacher/ student relationship is extremely common in boy fantasy world, it is highly unusual for girl characters to experience it. Strong females often exist in isolation. If there are two strong women, one is usually evil. (And we all know the patterns of dead mother, wicked mothers, and the dreaded step-mother that dominate fairytales and keep positive female relationships at bay.)
This female friendship is so rare, please tell me if you see it in books, movies, or TV shows. I think its super threatening to the male power structure. I’d like to make a media list of examples. Of course this list will include a female protagonist whose best friend is a magical creature (such as BFF males Remy and Ratatouille from “Ratatouille,” Andy and Woody or Buzz and Woody from “Toy Story,” Hiccup and the dragon from “How to Train Your Dragon.” I could go on and on, the male buddy relationship is the most common plot/ theme of kids movies today.)
I also love Beautiful Warrior because, as I’ve written before about violence in kidlit, it’s metaphorical. Violence is as normal for kids to see in a story as it is to occur a dream and just as symbolic. In Beautiful Warrior, the violence is so clearly teaching larger life lessons, so much so that it seems even weird to call it violence.
So why does Beautiful Warrior get an S? I’m reviewing this book in part, because, though it’s clearly about strong females, it also features three stereotype themes/ plot devices that show up so often in feminist kidlit.
(1) Rebellion against marriage: Yes, its better than marrying the one she’s supposed to, but why does marriage have to be such a central issue in the story at all? Personally, I’m sick of it. When I come across this plot device, I sigh.
(2) References to sexism: Both Wu Mei and Mingyi become warriors, even though the story says its surprising for girls to act this way. While I understand, obviously, that sexism exists in the real world, and this kind of story can teach a great lesson in how to deal with it, why do kids have to hear so often about the low or different expectations for girls? Why do female heroes so often have to perform in this context? Why not jut show them doing heroic acts?
(3) The heroine ends up alone: This is another classic outcome in feminist kids stories such as the Paper Bag Princess. The men are obnoxious brutes and the women don’t marry them. But why do the females so often have to make this choice? Males rarely do. I think its pretty scary for girls to get drilled into them that being strong is oppositional to being in love. It’s the same artificial choice that they can’t me be smart and beautiful, while male heroes usually are, in fact their intelligence and strength makes them attractive. (One reason I was attracted to this story is because it’s title, Beautiful Warrior, defies that duality. At the same time can you imagine a story called Handsome Warrior? It sounds like gay porn.) This pairing of attributes actually seems to be the lesson learned from much of kidlit. It’s so stereotypical and annoying to deny females that wholeness. It’s one reason I absolutely love Brave Margaret (and that story could be the basis for Pixar’s Brave) Margaret gets to be smart, strong, and beautiful and ends up with a cool, hot guy who admires and adores her. Can’t girls have it all, too? We need more stories like that! Tell me if you know of any.