‘Gender neutral’ not exactly what I’m going for…

Friday, on the local San Francisco public radio station, KQED, I heard a show about children and gender neutral toys. It was a great program, featuring the brilliant Peggy Orenstein, among others, and I was psyched to hear the topic of kids and toys debated as we go into the Christmas season. But, I’ve got to say, I’m not entirely on board with the term “gender neutral” that the host kept using to define a goal. And that is a term that the media seems to cling to when the topic of sexism in kidworld is discussed. When I was on Fox News, the host kept trying to put the same words in my mouth, and I didn’t like it.

Let me be clear here. I absolutely believe toys in stores should be divided by type– building, outdoor, figures/ dolls etc– not by gender. I don’t believe objects should be color coded to imply they should be played with by boys or girls. I am hard pressed to think of something more absurd and simultaneously socially accepted than this. I desperately want to see girls and boys pictured playing together on boxes. When the term “gender neutral” is used, I think this is the goal referred to, a goal I share with all of my heart.

I guess the issue from me is that powerful female characters are already drastically missing from the fantasy world created by grown-ups for children. When we talk about “gender neutral,” I fear that girls will continue to go missing from this debate– about children, toys, play, and sexism– even more. “Gender neutral” needs to be a goal of sorts, but we also have to keep in mind that all kids need to see more girls and women doing more things. Do we call that “gender neutral”?

Another problem for me with the term is that “gender neutral” doesn’t inspire me. “Gender neutral” makes me think of a bunch of grown-ups or academics or psychiatrists sitting around wearing super thick glasses and holding notebooks.

Here is what I want to see in kidworld: More females having adventures. More females doing cool shit. Got it? Do you call that gender neutral or do you call that being alive?

I want options. Variety. Diversity. Multiple narratives. I want all kids to see many more images of powerful and complex females, to see girls taking risks, saving the world, being brave, smart, and going on adventures in the fantasy world and in the real one. You could argue that we need to see more images of boys being kind and geeky and paternal, but from my vantage point, as a reader, movie goer, and watcher of TV shows, that’s pretty covered. I honestly believe the best way to help boys get out of gender stereotypes right now is to show them females being strong, being the star of the movie, or the central figure in a game that everyone wants to play.

But, as it stands, this is not the case at all. Strong female characters have gone missing. Part of this lack is because there are so few female characters in kids’ movies. Those narratives get licensed into LEGO and diapers and clothing. But even when female characters show up, they get “make-overs” or companies like Stride Rite will remove Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and Leia from their Justice League, Avengers, and Star Wars products and marketing. It’s really shocking how strong female characters keep disappearing from toys, clothing, and all kinds of children’s products.

Here’s my four year old daughter (holding a lunchbox from the Seventies.)

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My daughter isn’t a “tomboy” or a “girlie-girl.” She likes pants; she likes dresses; she like yellow, she likes pink, she likes black. She likes to race and play soccer and read and make art. She loves superheroes and her mermaid Barbie. But the older she gets, the more I see her choices getting influenced and limited by stores and marketing and media and peers. My goal is to have her world grow, not shrink. I’m not sure that “gender neutral” is what she needs.

 

Art creates reality: Imagining gender equality in the fantasy world

Some good quotes here. Let me know what you think

Bono on Jay-Z in November’s Vanity Fair:

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.

 

Whoopi Goldberg:

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.

‘Her breasts are much too small and do not have the lift that superhero women should’

Who decides what narratives we see and if they are good or bad?

This artist of Batwoman received this critique from a company she chose not to name. (via Escher Girls and goodcomics.comicbookresources.com.)

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Her breasts are much too small and do not have the lift that superhero women should have. Her jawline is fat and her neck much too long. The style of her hair is clunky and does not flow in a sense that a super human would. Her hips, waist and thighs are too big and she honestly looks fat. No one is going to want to read a comic with a fat female protagonist. I honestly recommend looking at issues of Sport’s Illustrated to get the right anatomy. Those women are the peak of human perfection, and that is what we want in this industry.

 

“That is what we want in this industry?” Who the fuck is “we?”

Here is my three year old daughter last Halloween as Batgirl.

(If you are offended by my older daughter dressed as a Native American, she was studying the Miwok tribe at school, you can see a blog/ discussion about her on Cherokee Writer.)

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Who is thinking about my kid, and girls like her, and what they want when making these “artistic” decisions?

You know what happened to my daughter on Halloween? Everyone called her Batman. At first, my daughter said nothing back to them but asked me: “Why do people keep calling me Batman?” Then, she started to quietly correct them: “I’m Batgirl.” By the end of the night, she was shouting; “I’M BATGIRL!”

I know Batgirl doesn’t have five major motion pictures about her, all featuring famous movie stars. There aren’t Batgirl toys or Batgirl clothing or Batgirl comic books everywhere you look. Why is that? There is princess shit everywhere. But, I guess, when you try to get Batgirl, or Batwoman, out into the world, you encounter some asshole in charge who tells you to make the character look like a Sports Illustrated model, because that’s what “we” want. And after all that, all the limitations put on little girls and who they are supposed to be and what they get rewarded for and recognized for and celebrated for, people actually say, time and time again, “Girls just love princesses. Go figure.”

Argh. It drives me crazy. I am grateful for DaSilvo’s comment. I am so sick of pointing out the obvious and having people still not see it and deny it exists.

Stride Rite needs to give kids more choices, not fewer

Since my letter to Stride Rite about how its gender stereotyped marketing limits all kids,  hundreds of commenters on Jezebel, Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Fox News, and this blog are upset for the same reason: (This one from Daily Mail)

Normal boys will NOT wear pink, girly shoes. It’s just a fact of nature. That is the reason society and marketers accept different preferences for different genders. Get over it! Who wants to live in a world where there are two genders who all look alike, have the same preferences, etc. What a boring world you liberal nuts would desire to live in!

 

Not wanting to live in a boring world where everyone looks alike is exactly why I wrote my letter to Stride Rite. All children need to be exposed to all colors. Children weren’t even color-coded before the early twentieth century. Before that, babies wore white, because to get clothing clean, it had to be boiled. Take a look at President Roosevelt:

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Pink was first a “boy” color, a version of red which symbolized strength. Blue was a “girl” color, associated with the Virgin Mary. That’s why in the early Disney movies, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland all wore blue.

But today, because of marketing, we get comments like the one above from adults and from kids. Here it is again:

Normal boys will NOT wear pink…It’s just a fact of nature.

People keep asking me if I want “gender neutral.” I’m not even sure what that means, and the question misses the point. I want options. I want all kids to see many more images of powerful and complex females, to see girls taking risks, saving the world, being brave, smart, and going on adventures in the fantasy world and in the real one.

As it stands, strong female characters have gone missing from kidworld. Part of this overall lack is because there are so few female characters in kids’ movies. I started Reel Girl because in movie after movie for kids, there’s usually a male protagonist while females, who are, in fact, half of the kid population are presented as if they were a minority. The fewer females you have, the easier it is to stereotype them. And still, companies like Stride Rite continue to erase the few female characters that do exist in mainstream culture, removing Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and Leia from their Justice League, Avengers, and Star Wars products and marketing.

Here’s my four year old daughter. I wouldn’t call her a “tomboy,” whatever that means.  She likes pants; she likes dresses; she like yellow, she likes pink, she likes black. She likes to race and play soccer and read and make art. She loves superheroes and her mermaid Barbie.

supergirl

My daughter chose Star Wars shoes because her male cousin had them. So part of her decision was made from just hanging out with a boy, something we don’t see nearly enough of today with all these gender segregated toys and marketing. At school, wearing her new shoes, my daughter was teased by a five year old girl who told her she was wearing “boy shoes.” How long until my daughter stops going to the “boy” side of stores?

My 7 year old daughter told me that at her school, a first grade boy was playing with a castle, and she heard a first grade girl keep telling him: “That’s a girl toy.” The girl wouldn’t let up until the boy stopped playing and moved away. Gender stereotyping leads to bullying and that limits all kids. And gender stereotyping is everywhere. Even if I don’t shop at Stride Rite, my kids will still see this ad in the window. The Stride Rite store is in a San Francisco neighborhood where lots of kids go school. Hundreds of children will see this ad every day.

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I agree with the commenters. I wish Stride Rite would recognize that we don’t want want to live in a world where two genders all look alike and have all the same preferences. All kids need to see more female protagonists and strong female characters. Stride Rite, are you listening?

Missing Wonder Woman found on lunchbox from 1976!

My daughter has been searching and searching for Wonder Woman. She’s always on the lookout. We comb bookstores and toy stores. We couldn’t find her on socks at Stride Rite or at T-shirts at Target or on a birthday cakes at Safeway. It’s possible to find her on the internet, but you’ve got to seek her out. Her image doesn’t appear here and there as my daughter and I go about our day, unlike the ubiquitous Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, male Avengers, and other male superheroes. So my daughter was thrilled when today, we were at my sister’s house and she saw a Superfriends lunchbox sitting on a shelf in my nephew’s room. It’s from 1976. Check out Wonder Woman, front and center!

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On the back? Batgirl, front and center.

batgirl

On the side? Catwoman!

catwoman

Other side? Supergirl!

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That makes 4 female superheroes. So I wondered, in 1976 was this awesome lunchbox made “for girls”? It does have a purple border. Was purple strictly a “girl” color in ’76 the way it is today? But even if this Superfriends lunch box was meant only for girls, today in 2013, it’s not likely you’ll find a lunchbox with 4 female superheroes on it. Maybe, if you internet search, you’ll find someone selling it somewhere, but it’s not something your daughters and sons will see as they go about their day. In 2013, female superheroes have gone missing from kidworld.

Last week, it was announced that Ben Affleck will play the new Batman. Plastic heroines reacts:

It’s not just that I think Ben Affleck is all wrong for Batman (I do), it’s that Batman and Superman have already had so many feature films that it’s ridiculous.

  • Batman (movies, live action): 1966, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2008, 2012
  • Superman (movies, live action): 1951, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987, 2006, 2013

Sixteen in all, if you count the movie Affleck has been tapped for. And we can’t get a single Wonder Woman movie???

 

I remember there was a Supergirl movie when I was a kid. I LOVED seeing her on the screen. Where has Supergirl gone in 2013? My kids don’t even know who she is. My 4 year old keeps asking about Spider-Girl. Instead of telling her she doesn’t exist, I help her draw her and write down the stories she tells me about her. I wish some major movie company and toy maker would help me out spreading narratives of Spider-Girl to kids, not to mention Spider-Woman.

Melissa Silverstein spotted a book on Wonder Woman when she was out with a kid. She posts about the sighting on her blog Women and Hollywood:

I was with my four year old nephew who is obsessed with The Avengers. He only wears Avengers t-shirts and knows all the characters even though he has never seen any of the movies. But that’s the culture. These male superheroes are everywhere and kids pick up on it.  We were in a book store and had lots of time.  We made our way to picture books with superheroes on the cover.  He immediately pointed at the Batman and Superman books.  Right next to those books was a book on Wonder Woman.  I said do you know about Wonder Woman? And he said no.  He had never heard of her. We sat down and read the story and he was really into it.  He thought it was cool that she had a magic lasso and also the book ended with Wonder Woman and Superman rescuing someone together so he got to see that she was a real superhero and could keep up with Superman.I am relaying this story because I am sure there are boys all over the country and the world being exposed to only male superheroes because that is what our mass consumer culture allows us to see. While it would be great for us to have a Wonder Woman film and that would be a great start it will not be enough. That’s the problem with the lack of critical mass we have in our female stories.

Disney execs tell us that they make movie after movie with male protagonists because that’s what kids want to see. Their line is that girls will go see movies about boys but boys won’t go see movies about girls. That’s bullshit. Girls don’t come out of the womb any more open minded or generous than boys. All kids are self-centered, and they all want to see themselves reflected out there. But kids get trained from birth to pay attention to stories about boys, they learn that stories about boys are important and for everyone while stories about girls are just for girls. I wish parents wouldn’t perpetuate this sexism. Read your kids stories and show them movies with strong female protagonists. Get excited about the bravery of the female characters. Don’t ask your kid what movie she wants to see, you choose. Turn on a Miyazaki film. Here’s a list of great movies with female protags. Your kids will get into them when they watch. Let’s all bring back female superheroes and celebrate them much more than before, because even in the seventies, they weren’t around nearly enough.

 

Where the fuck is Wonder Woman?

I’m at my wit’s end here. After a trip to Target, Kara Bara posted this pic on Reel Girl’s Facebook page of the store’s sexist Justice League display:

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She writes:

I love your blog and I was in my local Target and I noticed Wonder Woman had gone missing from all their Justice League superhero stuff. She’s already outnumbered 7:1 on the team and now she’s completely missing from all the displays.

Kara posts a second pic:

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Here’s the other side of the display with an even more obscure member, Cyborg, instead of WW – just in case we didn’t get the message that superheros should only be dudes.

 

After I saw this, I went to Target’s website, and guess what? Wonder Woman has gone missing from the all male group pic. Can you get any more sexist in your marketing strategy for children than excluding the only female? Seriously, Target, WTF? Please stop teaching kids that males are more important than females. Put Wonder Woman back where she belongs.

 

After public outcry, Disney removes sexist ‘I need a hero’ shirts

YAY! Victory dance! Here’s Disney’s statement:

Disney Store recently  received some guest feedback regarding the tagline of a Marvel Avengers adult women’s t-shirt that stated “I Need a Hero”.  While the t-shirt was designed  to be a witty, playful interpretation of the Super Hero theme, there were some that did not see the humor and felt it could send the wrong message. We decided to remove the t-shirt from DisneyStore.com and Marvel.com, however, we do offer other Marvel t-shirts including ones with the tagline “Girl Power!” which are currently sold out but will again be available this summer.

Thank you, Disney for doing the right thing.

Reel girl readers, thank you for all of your help in getting this story out. Without your action, things like this don’t happen. I’m happy to report that Reel Girl’s post on Disney’s sexist T was linked around the internet including to sites like Miss Representation, the Huffington Post, and Feministing.com. Reel Girl’s post on the T was shared almost 1,000 times.

Now, Disney, about those movies…

 

Marvel markets sexism with Avengers T-shirts

Just saw Marvel’s sexist T-shirts on the Huffington Post (there’s some link to Reel Girl but I can’t find it?)

Marvel’s T-shirt for boys.

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Marvel’s T for girls.

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Argh!

This sexism, by the way, goes beyond the specific imagery of a superhero. “Be a hero” translates to “act, take risks, make choices. “I need a hero” means “I’m a minor character. I’m passive, and I wait.”

See the difference?

The insidious problem with this stereotyped gender casting is that women are constantly sidelined and marginalized, remarkably, in the roles they play in their own lives. Females are cast in the supporting role, defined by their relationships as girlfriend, wife, mother, or helper. This sexist narrative has been going on for a long, long time, and we keep recycling it. I just saw this Virginia Woolf quote Tweeted by Bitchflicks:

And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends…They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.

 

How small a part! But who would ever guess from looking at how women are depicted in the media– movies, TV, books, advertising– in 2013? Ironically, and this is what is so fucked up and twisted, females get to exist, get to play a part at all when they are sexualized and marginalized.

“Avengers” has the classic Minority Feisty ratio of 5 male superheroes to one female. As artist Kevin Bolk illustrates, the lone female is highlighted by her ass.

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What is the solution to this sexism? Be a hero. Women, write your own stories. Make your own art. No one else can do it for us.

Update Here’s a comment from Nick:

The solution is not only for women to write their own stories, but for men to understand why this is sexist. There is a dearth of great female superheroes, and when they exist, they usually suffer from the Women In Refrigerators trope, where they die or lose their powers not doing something heroic, but assassinated while cooking in their kitchen, sometimes horrifically placed in the refrigerator, where the trope’s namesake comes from.

The solution has to be EVERYWHERE. Men and women alike should write compelling female superheroes. Some men don’t understand why Women in Refrigerators or Damsel in Distress tropes are inherently sexist, so education on this is also key.

For my part, I read up on feminist blogs like ReelGirl and watch Anita Sarkeesian videos (and the reaction videos, because she is very one-sided). I try to avoid making the same mistakes as other writers when dealing with women. I don’t ever assume I can write a compelling female character, I always question myself and I always push myself to do better.

I think that’s another good answer to this problem – each of us individually pushing the status quo.

And my response:

Hi Nick,

Totally agree the solution has to be everywhere. Thanks for this comment and for the thought and research you put into writing female characters.

Margot

 

Obviously, it’s a sexist world out there, and when women make art, it’s often ignored or marginalized. It would help if women were running the major Hollywood studios or had the funds to bankroll those studios, not to mention lead the prestigious organizations and comprise the boards that give awards to “great” artists.

That said, women need to keep writing and creating. Making art is risky and dangerous, engaging in the process is being a hero. Persevering is especially challenging when your work gets dismissed and rejected because stories about women aren’t valued. But, even with all of this against us, women must put our stories and visions out there. I really believe this is the only way we’ll ever achieve full gender equality.

Here are a couple posts I wrote on the issue of women making art: What if Van Gogh took Prozac? and Why aren’t there more women artists?

Update Miss Representation started a petition against these shirts. I signed and hope you do too.