‘Minions’ and ‘Penguins’ star multiple males, no females

Before I saw “Big Hero 6″ today with my 2 daughters, ages 5 and 11, we saw ads for “Penguins of Madagascar” and “Despicable Me 3: Minions.”

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There are no females starring in these movies. While this is sadly not unusual, it is striking that “Penguins” stars 4 brothers while Minions stars 3 male, um, what are they, clones? Are there any female minions at all? A minionette? They don’t show up in the preview.

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In the “Despicable Me” 1 and 2, I remember the males dressed as females for laughs, one in a maid costume ha ha ha. Can you imagine a movie marketed to boys and girls starring 4 sisters, not a male in the preview? Can you imagine a franchise built on hundreds of all female yellow banana goggle cyclops creatures? How do they reproduce?

Wish ‘Big Hero 6′ starred a girl robot

Before I saw ‘Big Hero 6′ I wondered what the title meant. I’d only seen posters with the balloony white creature and the boy. So now I know. There is a new superhero franchise made up of 6 characters. And guess what? The team is led by a Hiro, a scientist wonder boy and his BFF a healer robot, also male, named Baymax. The whole human team are techies including 2 girls, one in a pink suit but at least the other is in yellow. Typical Minority Feisty ratio.

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Before I go on about gender issues, I want to be sure you know I really enjoyed this movie. It’s no doubt one of my favorite animated films this year. The narrative deconstructs what a hero (Hiro is a cool play on words) is in a compelling way that children can understand. Though I would love a gender flip, Baymax is super appealing. His mission is to heal, which includes not only tending to cuts and scrapes, but matters of the heart. When Hiro’s brother dies, at the beginning of the movie, Baymax urges Hero to get lots of the hugs and the support of friends. That sounds kind of chesey when I write it, but the prescription doesn’t come off like that in the movie because Baymax’s character is so well done. He is giant and round with stumpy legs. Watching his body squeeze through obstacles and give hugs is fascinating. Just seeing him move is entertaining. There is no way you cannot like this guy but…

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how I wish he had been a she! Before all of you write me that Baymax challenges notions of masculinity, that kind of boundary busting is standard in children’s animation. In “Book of Life,” the movie I just reviewed the bullfighter chooses to be a musician instead of a macho man. (Can you even imagine a narrative based around a female choosing careers– should I fight bulls or compose music– instead of focusing choosing husbands?) When I’ve complained about the lack of females in Monster University, Planes, How to Train Your Dragon, practically every male centered, male dominated movie I review,  I always get the reply: well, it’s great to show a geeky, smart, sensitive, artsy, fill in the blank male. You know what would really challenge standard notions of masculinity? Seeing half of children’s films star female protagonists and feature as many females as males in the cast. The icing on the trope cake was the damsel in distress scene. I was super disappointed to see ‘Big Hero 6′ squeeze in that storyline.

In case you’re wondering, I would’ve been thrilled if Hiro had a been a girl as well. And had a older sister inventor-mentor instead of a brother. And if the villain had been female.

I’ll end on positive note. I was so into the mythical San Fransokyo where the story takes place. The city has all the beauty, hills, bridges, Victorians and openess of San Francisco, (where I live) but loses its quaintness, small towny aspect by adding the clumped tall buildings, blinking lights, and crammed streets of Tokyo. The movie itself is a fusion of Disney and anime in the best way.

Reel Girl rates “Big Hero 6″ ***H***

‘Book of Life’ crew member defends movie as not sexist

After reading my post ‘Book of Life’ ticks off tropes in most sexist kids’ movie of the year’ a member of the movie’s crew, Romney Marino, defended the movie, debating with me on Reel Girl’s Facebook page. While I appreciate the passion and intelligence of Romney’s arguments, I can’t see “Book of Life” as feminist given the structural sexism of the plot. I started my blog, Reel Girl, because I wanted children to experience fantasy worlds where gender equality exists. Still, reading Marino’s comments, I was struck by how much not only she cares about gender equality but also, as you will see when you read her post, so does the director of the movie, Jorge Gutierrez. On Reel Girl’s about page, explaining why I started Reel Girl, I wrote:

Most of the time, I don’t think there’s a conscious sexist conspiracy going on. I just think that for thousands of years women have been living in stories written by men.

While I don’t believe Guiterrez intended sexism, his efforts at equality are confined to a sexist framework. As far as the arguments “that’s just how it is,” in children’s movies we see magic, animals talk, lions befriend warthogs etc, yet when it comes to historical sexism or the lack of females, suddenly we become sticklers for “reality.” It’s believable that a talking rat can cook, but a female led french kitchen? Now way! Besides magic, “Book of Life”  has performances of contemporary music ( Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of my favorite parts of he movie.)

In the hope that we have the same goal, to create fantasy worlds– and ultimately a real world– where gender equality exists, I’m posting a blog written for Reel Girl by “Book of Life” crew member Romney T. Marino.

“The Book of Life” from another feminist’s perspective…

 

The reason for my writing this is in direct response to ReelGirl’s blog post calling The Book of Life ‘the most sexist kids film’ of the year along with linking it to her Facebok page with the comment: “please don’t take your children.” ReelGirl classified this film as another “Minority Feisty” or ‘MF’ film, defined when females in the cast are the in minority and only used as a tool to help the male protagonist achieve his goal. I will concede that The Book of Life is yet another animated children’s film whose protagonist is a male. Point made, ReelGirl, one more for the statistics. However, I think that is where the perceived sexism ends, and in fact, I’d go so far as saying Maria and La Muerte in The Book of Life are among two of the strongest written female animated characters I’ve seen in a long time, because they are played as equals to their male counterparts, Manolo and Xiabalba.

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ReelGirls’ post missed this and so many other positive things about the female characters in The Book of Life and the movie as a whole, because all she focused on was that it was an ‘MF’ film. That classification flattens out the fully realized and dimensional characters of Maria and La Muerte, and minimizes their actions as taken only to forward the male protagonist and his goals. Do not forget, at it’s core The Book of Life is a *love story* set during Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and both couples (Maria-Manolo and LaMuerte-Xiabalba) have their own unique dynamic. One where the women hold their own and at times best their men. I would venture to say that the women from the village of San Angel are “minority equals”.

 

When discussing Maria’s strong, independent character, director Jorge Gutierrez said, “If feminism means men and women are equal, then, yes, this is a feminist movie. And besides, romance is the new punk. It’s OK to be emotional. It’s OK to care.” [1]

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I hope to defend the female characters in The Book of Life not only from the story told, how they are presented and their actions in the film, but also with some perspective from those whose passion brought those animated characters to life. I had a small part working with the Animation team in Production on the film, and know the film’s director Jorge and his wife Sandra, who designed all the female characters. Every step of the way, Maria and La Muerte, not to mention Manolo’s Grandma, his Mother Carmen, and his Cousins in the Land of the Remembered, are all strong female characters and positive role models for girls. From the beginning they were conceived to be that way, from the symbolism incorporated into their design, to their actions on screen.

 

However, I want to emphasize that at the end of the day, ReelGirl and I share the same goal, to get more female protagonists in children’s content, animated and otherwise. We just disagree about The Book of Life. So I say, ignore ReelGirl’s blog post, and watch the movie for yourself and make your own judgement. Below are some of the reasons why I believe this is the truth, or so help me La Muerte.

 

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead]

 

THE WOMEN OF SAN ANGEL:

 

LA MUERTE – The beautiful, majestic ruler of the Land of the Remembered, La Muerte is a fierce goddess who goes toe-to-toe with Xiabalba, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, in their wager over which boy will win the heart of Maria. La Muerte choses her champion, Manolo, and blesses him to always be pure of heart.

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La Muerte herself, is an important icon in the Latino community [2]. Designed by Sandra Equina, the director’s wife and “muse”, she has created an new modern image of the Latino cultural icon of Death, and brought her to the screen as a beautiful sugar-skulled goddess. She is graceful, imposing, wise, fallible, and sexy. Her design uses marigolds around her waist and bodice signify the feminine power using the flower that is a symbol of Dia de los Muertos said to help guide the spirits. She is a character that both women and girls alike are drawn to because of her power and beauty, and they want to be her for Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and in Cosplay [3]. I for one would rather see little girls dressing up as more goddesses and less princesses, or ‘sexy’ whatevers.

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MARIA – Does not just say she is strong, but her actions prove it every step of the way. Throughout the story she is no damsel in distress, and in fact she’s always been the leader of the 3 amigos. Both she and Manolo struggle to fight the patriarchy within their own family and be true to their own heart, (but more on that to come).

 

Maria’s costume is a “nod to Frida Kahlo who wore folkloric clothing as a statement of her rebellion and an embrace of the people’s culture in Mexico.”* Maria’s clothing as a child and as an adult symbolizes Maria’s strength of character. In the Director’s own words: “I asked Sandra to design young Maria’s outfit to be an exact kid version of what she wears as an adult. Unlike young Manolo and Joaquin when we first meet all three kids in the cemetery, young Maria has already formed who she is.”*

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And who is Maria?

  • She’s an animal rights activist and freedom fighter. Young Maria decides that she must save the pigs because they can’t be butchered, “not on my watch.” It is Maria who initiates the action, and Maria who the boys try to catch up to. She is riding the pig at the head of the stampede with her sword held high chanting for freedom, while Manolo gleefully hangs on for the ride and Joaquin tries to stop her. Later in the film during Manolo’s first bullfight, she visibly sneers when Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her, but then she is the only one cheering in the audience when he does not ‘finish the bull’ (or kill it, for those not up on the brutality of bullfighting, which Manolo fights against). She is not afraid to take the action that she believes in, and to stand up for those beliefs even in the face of opposition from the entire town.

 

  • She is someone who not only fights against gender stereotypying, she wins in the end. One of the most important character arcs of the film is seen in the change in Maria’s father, General Posada. At the beginning of the film he is exactly the image of the overpowering father and cultural machismo that she must fight. After the pig stampede, the General sends Maria away to be taught by the nuns to “learn to be a proper lady” because “I said so!” and he embraces Joaquin as the masculine “Son I never had.” However, at the film’s end, Joaquin runs off to get his magical medal (which gave him his false strength) and it is Maria who is left behind to rally the village into defending themselves. General Posada finally sees the true strength in his own daughter, and says “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.” Posada follows his daughter into battle to save their town. When discussing Maria, this B-character’s arc can not be ignored.

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THE ADELITA COUSINS – A brief moment that for most may go unnoticed, but is a huge feminist shout-out, are Manolo’s Adelita cousins. When Manolo reaches the Land of the Remembered, he meets a whole barrage of his ancestors. Two of which are tall women with sombreros and bandoliers, he is introduced to them,

“These are your cousins, they fought in the Revolution.”

“And we won.” they say.

These two minor characters are a tribute to the women, or soldaderas who fought in the Mexican Revolution. La Adelita was a folk song from that era about a soldadera, and her name came to symbolize the archetype of a female warrior in Mexico, a woman who fights for what she believes. [3]

 

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I would go into the characters of Carmen, Manolo’s mother, who plays a significant and pro-active part in his journey through the lands of the dead, or his Grandmother who is a stoic voice of wisdom, and who used to be “a beast in the arena,” but I think I’ve made my point. The women in The Book of Life may not be the protagonists of the film, but for a modern day romance set in Revolutionary Mexico, I think both Maria and LaMuerte, and the rest of the women of San Angel are unforgettable and to be admired.

 

Maria is ALWAYS her own woman, as a little girl and even after she gets married.

 

I specifically want to address a comment that “Maria says she is strong, but never shows it.” Absolutely false, she shows it time and time again in what she stands up for and the actions she takes. I also want to address my point that Maria is more of an equal to Manolo in both their actions in the film. I’ll try to be brief, but here are some specific moments from the film:

 

  • IN THE CEMETERY, the boy children, Manolo and Joaquin, are already play acting their future battle for Maria. Young Maria jumps in and declares, “I belong to no one.” The three friends laugh together and then both Maria and Manolo get called home by their fathers.

 

  • THE PIG STAMPEDE, is all Maria’s idea. When the three amigos run into the square she leads them, this was by design. She knows the future for the pigs in the butcher’s pen, “not on my watch,” she says. Then she breaks the lock on the pen liberating them. In the chaos of the stampede she is riding the lead pig, sword held high declaring “Freedom is coming through!” Manolo is just happily along for the ride, while Joaquin is trying to stop it all.

 

  • GENERAL POSADA, Maria’s Father comes to having missed most of the action, but attributes the solution all to Joaquin, who is “So like [his] Father.” When Maria faces her father’s anger, the first thing she notices is Manolo’s broken guitar for which she feels guilty. The General declares that she will be sent to the convent so the nuns can straighten out her “rebellious nonsense” just because “I said so!” He then embraces Joaquin as “The son I never had.” When Manolo protests sending Maria away, his own father reminds him that “Fathers do what’s best for their children.” Both Manolo and Maria fight their father’s ideas for their own future the entire film.

 

  • SAYING GOODBYE, when finally “the three amigos would be no more” Maria does more than simply face her exile to boarding school bravely. First of all she takes responsibility for breaking Manolo’s guitar by replacing it. Manolo in turn gives her the little pig she saved, Chuy, to remind her of home. Second of all she parts by giving each of the boys sage advice knowing their true spirit, and then runs to the train hiding her tears. Manolo’s future mantra is inscribed on the guitar she gave him “Always play from the heart. – Maria”

 

  • DIFFERENT FROM THE CROWD, In Manolo’s bullfight celbrating Maria’s return, Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her. Maria, still the animal lover, visibly sneers in disgust. At the moment that Manolo must make the critical decision it is Maria’s reflection in his sword that he sees, and he decides not to finish the bull. Maria stands up and applauds Manolo, while the rest of the crowd boos him. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, even against the entire arena.

 

  • LA MUERTE’S WISDOM, After Manolo’s defeat Xiabalba thinks he’s won, but La Muerte knows better, “it’s not over,” she says. Thinking he is alone, Manolo proceeds to sing from his heart, but Maria returns to retrieve her fan and sees his true self. Manolo, singing his heart out in the ring and not fighting a bull. It might be said that it is here that she falls for him. Even Xiabalba asks, “What just happened?!” and LaMuerte remarks, “You don’t know women, my love.”

 

  • THE DINNER PARTY, is thrown by General Posada in honor of Maria’s return, though he is scheming to connect Joaquin and Maria. At the dinner table when Joaquin compliments her beauty and says one day she’ll make a man very happy, Maria mockingly says how she’d love to cook and clean for him. When he clearly doesn’t get the joke, she immediately puts him in his place, “Are you kidding me? Is that how you see women? That we’re only here to make men happy?” She then dismisses herself from the table, in order to be surrounded by someone “more civilized,” her pig, Chuy. She insults Joaquin, and walks out on the entire affair with her head held high.

 

  • MARIA IS NOT THAT EASY, up in her room alone, Maria hears Manolo and the mariachis’ attempt to serenade her. More than one thrown vase discourages the 3 mariachis, leaving Manolo alone to serenade her from the heart. At the song’s romantic climax when everyone from Manolo to the audience is expecting them to seal it with a kiss, Maria lays a finger on Manolo’s lips, “Did you think it was going to be that easy?” and playfully pushes him over.

 

  • MARIA IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE, she goes down stairs to help Manolo, but is surprised by the General and Joaquin who pops the question to her just as a dazed Manolo stumbles in. The two men begin to fight over her, and she yells “you two are acting like fools” before she takes her own sword, disarms them both and breaks up the fight, letting everyone know that she “also studied fencing.”

 

  • A PROPOSAL BETWEEN EQUALS, When Manolo proposes to Maria, notice that she also goes down on one knee when she responds to him. When the snake comes out Maria pushes Manolo out of harm’s way and is herself bitten. She acted to bravely and instinctively to save her love from harm, and she took the hit.

 

  • A PROPOSAL TO SAVE HER TOWN, When Maria wakes up and finds that in fact Manolo is the one who has died, her Father the General pleads with her to marry Joaquin so he will stay to defend the town. Joaquin knows where her heart truly is and even he protests, but she finds the strength within and accepts the proposal solely to help save her village. Even Joaquin can see she is putting duty before herself.

 

  • THE SON HE ALWAYS WANTED, at the wedding ceremony with Maria and Joaquin, the banditos attack. Joaquin realizes his magic medal is on his other coat and bolts leaving everyone behind. Maria does not miss a beat, and it is she who makes the rallying speech to the village. It is she that convinces them to fight for themselves, and it is she who opens her father’s eyes to the strength that has always been within his own daughter, “We can fight them together, Papa.” The General recognizes this in his own way, “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.”

 

  • SHE IS RIGHT THERE IN THE FIGHT, its the third act climax, Manolo has just returned from the dead, Joaquin is back, but is Maria who gives their familiar rally cry, “No Retreat!” and Manolo and Joaquin return “No Surrender!” And the 3 amigos go into battle. At one point, Chakal has Manolo on one arm and Joaquin on the other  and each guy is telling the other, “I got this.” Maria comes in with a flying kick to Chakal’s face, which lets them regroup and lets us know she also studied kung-fu. In the bell tower, she and Manolo fight together in a dance that is both beautiful and painful for Chakal. At one point, she takes the lead and says to Manolo, “Pretty good, guitarista, now it’s your turn,” and she pushes him into the fray.

 

  • SHE KISSES HIM, when Manolo returned from the land of the dead, he swoops Maria in a passionate kiss. When they are married SHE swoops HIM up in a kiss. Their final song is a duet from Us the Duo, that is all about supporting each other as equals.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6_-JoC8jpw

 

ONE LAST THING: You would never know this unless you worked on the film, but Jorge Gutierrez, the film’s director valued the female perspective so much that he insisted that all female characters have female Animation leads. This might not seem like a big deal, but in my years experience in feature animation, I’ve never known a director to care, let alone insist on female artists for more of the female perspective in the female characters. So I say, hats off to The Book of Life and especially its creator Jorge Gutierrez and his wife Sandra Equihua. They are an incredibly talented team, and I hope we will see more from in the future.

 

Please note my opinion does not represent that of the film makers, or any studios associated with the film. I simply had a small part in it’s production, and now The Book of Life has a big place in my heart.

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Romney T. Marino is a is a Director of Development and Associate Producer at Powerhouse Animation. She has worked in animation production for over 15 years at both independent and major animation studios across CG Features, VFX, and Television. A long time member of Women in Animation, Romney hopes to bring more women to the table and on the screen in animation, and more amazing cartoons and memorable characters to audiences. You can follow her on Twitter @RomneyTM

 

REFERENCES:

 

*from the Art of The Book of Life

[1]  http://theflama.com/the-book-of-life-latinos

[2] La Muerte references:

[3] La Muerte cosplay:

http://www.pinterest.com/pin/562950022145215893/

http://analogapocalypse.deviantart.com/art/WIP-La-Muerte-Costume-The-Book-of-Life-488106294

http://www.costume-works.com/la_muerte-3.html

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=775362795842585&set=a.109996642379207.4822.100001066166583&type=1&theater

[4] Adelitas:

Romance novelist Danielle Steel pens book ‘for little girls’

I admit it, I’m judging Danielle Steel’s new picture book “for little girls” by its cover: a smiling chihuahua wearing a pink bow and jewelry sitting in a purple sparkly stiletto. The book in called Pretty Minnie in Paris.

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The Publisher’s Weekly blurb tells us it “will delight young fashionistas.”

The synopsis:

Inspired by the adorable adventures of bestselling author Danielle Steel’s own Chihuahua, Pretty Minnie in Paris is the stylish, ooh la la tale of a fashionable Parisian pup out on the town. Lost backstage during a noisy, crowded fashion show, tiny Minnie is separated from her owner, the girl she loves best. Quel désastre! But chaos turns to couture when Minnie unexpectedly finds herself the star of the runway. With a dreamy Paris backdrop and an atelier full of adorable outfits, Pretty Minnie in Paris is sure to be in vogue as the season’s must-have tale for little girls—and Danielle Steel fans of all ages—who love clothing, glamour, glitter, and all things à la mode.

 

On Amazon.com, Cookie writes:

Adorable!! So pink and glittery and girly. Plus Paris and fashion! Swoon! Perfect for little girls who love pretty things.

 

How did I find out about Steel’s debut contribution to kidlit? A full page ad in Us Weekly. Here are 3 books I wish had ever gotten that kind of PR:

 

Sparrow Girl

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This synopsis from fantasicfiction:

Ming-Li looked up and tried to imagine the sky silent, empty of birds. It was a terrible thought. Her country’s leader had called sparrows the enemy of the farmers–they were eating too much grain, he said. He announced a great “Sparrow War” to banish them from China, but Ming-Li did not want to chase the birds away. As the people of her village gathered with firecrackers and gongs to scatter the sparrows, Ming-Li held her ears and watched in dismay. The birds were falling from the trees, frightened to death! Ming-Li knew she had to do something–even if she couldn’t stop the noise. Quietly, she vowed to save as many sparrows as she could, one by one…

This story is based in truth: Sparrows were eating up grain so Mao’s solution was to make the Chinese people bang pots and walk the land for days. Exhausted sparrows fell dead from the sky. As a result of the sparrow massacre, crops were decimated by insects free of predators. The Chinese people went into years of famine and millions died. In this fictionalized version, Ming-Li saves her people by rescuing the sparrows and coming to a true understanding of what farming really is.

Reel Girl rates Sparrow Girl ***HHH***

Stone Girl Bone Girl

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I first heard about the young fossil hunter, Mary Anning, in an Ivy and Bean book. I was thrilled to learn more about her in this beautifully illustrated story.  Anning begins her life surviving a lighting strike that killed her nanny. She is passionate about finding fossils and is teased for it by the kids at school who call her “stone girl, bone girl.” In 1811, when Anning was 12 years old, she discovered an Ichthyosaurus skeleton, one of the most important fossil finds is history. She goes on to survive her father’s early death, her work supported by two rich female benefactors. I love that this book also features those powerful, wealthy, ethical, smart women. How often do you see that combo in kidlit?

Reel Girl rates Stone Girl Bone Girl ***HHH***

The Story of Ruby Bridges

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In 1960, four African-American girls were ordered to integrate two white elementary schools in New Orleans. Ruby Bridges was sent to William Frantz Elementary as the only African-American student. When children and parents taunted her and police did nothing to protect her, the national guard was sent in to escort her to and from school. At that point, the white kids stopped going to school. Ruby stayed on and learned her lessons. One day her teacher saw her stopped in front of the taunting crowd, moving her lips. Later, Ruby told her teacher that she was praying for those people. Eventually, the white kids came back to school. This story is amazing on many levels; it is remarkable to see how brave Ruby is and that she has such a great, strong spirit.

Reel Girl rates The Story of Ruby Bridges ***HHH***

Trade in your tiara for a light saber this Halloween

Susan Prasher wanted to dress up as Darth Vader for Halloween. Her 7 year old son told her that the costume was not appropriate for “a girl.” Here’s her story.
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Guest blog for Reel Girl by Susan Prasher

 

Growing up, I never had a doll, a Barbie or a princess dress. As a mother and a former teacher, I have seen children verbalizing, practicing and sharing experiences of social interactions with the use of dolls, which is really wonderful and joyful. One can definitely learn a lot by observing and listening to children at play with these types of toys. One thing that throws me off guard are the sheer number of princesses. With each princess, there is a new dress, a story line, and possibly a tiara. I get confused with which princess represents which movie. I’ve had the good fortune of having a best friend’s daughter explain why she felt sad that I didn’t know about the princesses and proceeded to break it all down for me. Perhaps all the role playing actually encouraged her to be an empathic person that understood and heard me.

 

One of my boys is obsessed with Star Wars. When searching for a new sitter, I lucked out by meeting a computer science engineering student who loves Star Wars just as much as my son does. Together, they have the most engaging conversations. The sitter is a young woman. While she did have some dolls growing up, her room is filled with Lego and items from Star Wars.

 

Back in August my son asked for me to please consider being one of three characters for Halloween: Princess Leia, Queen Amidala and Ashoka. I had trouble being a princess or a queen. To encourage me to consider one of these three roles, he began calling me Queen Momidala. I would banter back various lines including “Shaan, I am your mother” using a Darth Vader voice. He’d have this funny expression on his face, laugh and at some point tell me all the parts I was doing wrong. Since this was rather fun, I ordered a female version of the Darth Vader costume. And when it arrived, my son was thrilled and proud. Of course, the costume is a skin tight costume, but it’s a power suit nonetheless. The red light saber was placed on me like the finishing touch of a tiara. And that’s when it all clicked.

 

In the United States and in Canada, light saber sales are up. They sell like hot cakes. With the new movie coming out, you know it’s going to remain a hot toy. They are fun to play with, my kids mimic the exact movement patterns in battles and beg to attend Light Saber School. From what I’ve seen, light sabers are a source of tremendous power. There are even adult versions of these things that can do some serious damage. But is it really a toy? The science behind making one is pretty interesting. And Star Wars has inspired all kinds of advances in science as well as inspire people all around the world. In the case of our incredibly bright female sitter, she grew up loving Star Wars and is now creating a program designed to teach the art of coding.

 

As a teacher, I used to swap the names of characters as we read from a picture book for names of children in the class. Their eyes would light up with joy and excitement because suddenly, they were IN the story. There are females in Star Wars but what if we encouraged children to take on a role that appealed to them personally, regardless of gender? What if we reversed the gender roles in Star Wars by having all the males fill the females roles and visa versa? What if Leia became the great Jedi master and not Luke? When I suggested this reversal to my son all kinds of drama unfolded. He was upset with the mere thought of such a thing and thought that it was being disrespectful to the story. When I told him that George Lucas is an incredible writer and that it would be great to have a different version of the story, my son laughed and blew me off. He pointed out that there are some females in key roles and insists this is the story, like it or not. What I was really aiming for is a demonstration in a growth mindset and that as a female, my version of the story would be different.

 

We all have power, whether we hold a light saber or not. There are different kinds of power and each medium channels its own type. If I walked around with a tiara on my head, I’d be channeling a certain mindset. But the outcome is vastly different. With the use of Star Wars, little girls can be exposed to Science, which is huge, but they need to know the storyline. And yes, it involves a queen and a princess but they are welcome to take on any role of their choosing and rewrite the story.

 

Our friends’ daughters are like my own. It’s time to swap a bit of princess dresses, tiaras and dolls for at least one or two light sabers, even if they choose pink or purple ones, because it helps them channel a different type of power.

 

May the force be with you!

 

New ‘Land of Stories’ available now!

Yesterday, in the book store when we were buying a present for someone else of course, my 8 yr old leaped for joy at the sight of Chris Colfer’s latest The Land of Stories A Grimm Warning. 

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Note on the cover, the girl is front and center, also she’s standing ahead of the boy. Do you know how rare this image is in kidlit? Even series like Harry Potter and all the Rick Riordan books show consistently the female characters a step behind the males.

While I was initially dismissive of the books (Redone fairy tales again? Written by a “Glee” actor? Who is 23 years old?) The Land of Stories is the series is that got my daughter really into reading. Here is what I blogged after she finished the first two books:

“My daughter plowed through the book, requested its sequel, and then finished over 500 pages in about a week. My daughter, now just turned 7, read most of the book herself, so I only got snips here and there, when I read it to her. From the scenes I read, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. The protagonists are twins, Alexandra and Conner. I get annoyed by how books with a female protagonist seem to need to balance her with a co-starring male. Can’t we just see the female protag? Or what about sisters? Or female buddies? Why is that pairing so rare?

But in most parts of Land of Stories that I read, Alex is a strong and brave character. Here are a couple passages that won me over as we neared the finish of the second book, The Enchantress Returns.

“You have to save the fairy-tale world, Alex!” Conner said. “You have to save the Otherworld and Mom, too!”

 

Alex’s grip around her brother’s feet tightened. “I can’t save anything without you,” she said.

 

“Yes, you can,” he said. “It was always meant to be you! You’re the one who got us here and you’re the one who is going to get us out! You heard the ghosts– you’re the heir of magic! You’ve got to defeat the Enchantress so this world can go on!”

 

“I can’t do it alone,” she said, terrified to lose him.

 

“Yes, you can,” Conner said. “I’m really sorry about this.”

 

Conner kicked Alex off of him, and the vines consumed him entirely. They dragged him and Trollbella down into the ground and disappeared.

 

“Conner!” Alex yelled after him, but it was no use. He was gone.

 

Alex looked across the camp just in time to see the vines pull Red, Froggy, Jack, and Goldilocks into the ground with one, final heave.  As soon as Trollbella, Red, and the others clinging on to them had been taken, all the vines in the campsite disappeared into the ground. They had com efor the queens.

 

Alex got to her feet and looked around in shock. In a matter of minutes, all of her friends and her brother had been taken from her. She had no choice but to finish the quest alone– it was all up to her now.

 

Love it! Of course, as I reading this to my daughter, I was thinking: “Right on, Conner, get out of there. Alex needs to do this.”

Unlike Harry Potter’s magical world, this Fairy world has an almost equal number of females and males in power in the government, with a the Fairy Godmother at the head, and the evil enchantress as the villain. Here’s a passage that describes the governing group.

Hung across the wall from top to bottom were Queen Snow White and King Chandler, Queen Cinderella and King Chance, Queen Sleeping Beauty and King Chase, Queen Rapunzel. and members of the Fairy Council. And now, withe the inclusion of Red and Trollbella, the entire Happily Ever After Assembly was at the Enchantress’s mercy.

I appreciate all the subtle ways Colfer recognizes female power. The female characters are not princesses but queens and they are listed before their male partners. Red is Little Red Riding Hood and Trollbella is the leader of the Trolls. It’s great to read a story about what happens to these princesses after they marry and their adventures are supposedly over. It’s also nice that Rapunzel remains unmarried. It’s interesting that Colfer makes an effort to pair the others and gives the kings big roles. It’s sort of like giving a female protags a male twin, and other passages I read, the deference of the Queens annoyed me.

Here’s the passage that made me a true fan. How does Alex find the strength to save Fairy-tale world all alone? She has a dream where goes into a cave and meets four little girls: Lucy of Narnia, Alice of Wonderland, Dorothy of Oz, and Wendy of Neverland. They five girls talk together about the various ways Alex could try to destroy the Enchantress.

 

She looked up at the girls and around the cave. “Now I understand the meaning of my dream,” she said. “Deep down, I knew I could never kill the Enchantress, so I was searching for another way. The cave represents my questioning and you represent the answer— because ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always thought of you when I had a problem.”

“Why is that?” said Alice.

“I suppose I’ve learned so much from you,” Alex said. “I always wanted to be as loving as Wendy, or as curious as Alex, or as brave as Lucy, or as adventurous as Dorothy– I always saw a little bit of myself when I read about each of you.”

I’m not a fan of Wendy, but I named my oldest daughter Lucy and my second Alice after those incredible characters. I really enjoyed the pages where they come together and mentor Alex, giving her sage advice from their own experience.

The writing in these books is not the greatest. There is a lot of word repetition in sentences like: “It happened so fast Alex wasn’t sure what happened.” Also, too many adverbs: “Her hair anxiously swayed above her.” But Colfer is twenty-three, for goodness sake. I’ll be following his writing career. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

If you have read these two books, please let me know what you think. With the caveat that I have only read passages of them, Reel Girl rates Land of Stories ***HH***”

Here’s to hoping Book 3 is as good as the first two. I’ll let you know…

Mini Taylor Swift gets her hands on ‘1989’ as it hits stores

Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ drops today, and I just bought it for my daughter as her reward for getting an HPV vaccine (which turns out to hurt pretty bad.)

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Told she looks just like T.S. practically since she began walking, my music loving, constantly singing daughter dressed as her idol for Halloween back in 2012.

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Back then, I was psyched she chose not to be a princess and since, I’ve only come to admire Taylor more. We’re listening to the CD right now, so I can’t review it yet but Time’s post is excerpted below along with links to previous Reel Girl blogs on TS.

But Swift has gambled before and won. After writing every song solo on her blockbuster 2010 country-crossover album, Speak Now, she teamed up with a varied roster of top-shelf tunesmiths for 2012’s sprawling, genre-spanning opus, Red. That album went quadruple platinum, earned rapt critical acclaim and four Grammy nods and made her an icon.

 

On 1989, out Oct. 27, she sounds like one. Leaner and keener than those on Red, her new songs fizz and crackle with electricity and self-aware wit. Driven by synths and drums in lieu of guitars, all trace of country abandoned, 1989 holds together sonically as a tribute to the electro-pop that dominated radio 25 years ago. Swift executive-produced the album alongside Swedish hit machine Max Martin, who lends pop shellack to her nimble lyrics. Winding choruses have been whittled down to their stickiest essence.

 

Thematically, too, Swift breaks with the past, skirting victimhood and takedowns of maddening exes, critics and romantic competitors. Instead, there’s a newfound levity. Not only is Swift in on the joke; she also relishes it. The bouncy “Blank Space” hyperbolizes her portrayal in the media as an overly attached man-eater who dates for songwriting material: “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane/ But I’ve got a blank space,” she coos before, incredibly, a clicking sound like that of a pen, “and I’ll write your name.” The skronky, horn-driven lead single “Shake It Off” communicates a cheerful disinterest in being critiqued, and a panicked, operatic vocal sample of Swift singing the word “Stay!” gives the swerving “All You Had to Do Was Stay” an oddball kick. The angriest song here is “Bad Blood,” a chanting call to arms over a dispute with a frenemy, and even it feels tongue-in-cheek.

 

If Taylor Swift is boy-crazy, is Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’ confessional?

I admit it, I loveTaylor Swift’s ‘Red’

Taylor Swift sings her way from victim to hero, triumphs at Grammys

More on Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

 

 

‘Book of Life’ ticks off tropes in most sexist kids’ movie of the year

“Book of Life” is so retro-sexist, if I weren’t with my kids, I would’ve walked out. Instead, I sat there in the theater with my mouth hanging open, trying to focus on the movie’s dazzling animation instead of the cliched plot.

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Manolo, the protagonist of the movie is a bullfighter/ musician. He competes with his rival, Joaquin, a war hero, to marry Maria who is the prize to be won. That’s right, in 2014 children are shown a movie where the female’s role in the narrative is to be a trophy. Typically, as in most contemporary animation, “the girl” actually has a personality! Maria is educated, she likes to read and she likes art. Isn’t that great, parents? Maria is a smart prize. She can fence too, which she gets to do for about 2 minutes of the movie.

“Book of Life” is inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead, art I love and used to collect. The characters and scenery are so gorgeously colorful, I tried hard to overlook the sexism. The point where I didn’t think I could take anymore came when Joaquin is at a party with Maria by his side. He is going on and on about himself and Maria mocks him, “I bet you want a wife who can just cook and clean.” She walks away in a huff. At this point, Joaquin’s buddy comments: “Oh, she’s a feisty one!” If you read Reel Girl, you know I use the term “Minority Feisty” to describe the fake feminism that crops up in almost every animated movie made for kids:

If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include a token strong female character or two who reviewers will call “feisty.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Astrid; in “Toy Story,” Jessie; in “Ratatouille,” Colette. She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear.

 

The problem is that because Pixar or Disney has so magnanimously thrown in this “feisty” female (who may even have some commentary about sexism or male domination) we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for and usually his best buddy as well. The crowd scenes in the film are also made up of mostly males.

 

“Feisty” isn’t a word that describes someone with real power, but someone who plays at being powerful. Would you ever call Superman “feisty?”  How would he feel if you did?

 

The Smurfette Principle has evolved into the Minority Feisty. Now instead of a “token” female in a children’s movie, we may see a few females sprinkled around, a “minority” of them. Parents, the next time you watch a children’s movie, try not to let the Minority Feisty population distract you from the limitations female characters are almost always forced into. Ask yourself: Is the female the protagonist in this film? Does the narrative revolve around her quest? Or is she there to (play a crucial role in) helping the male star achieve his goal/ dream?

At the end of the movie, there is a wedding. I’m not going to call that information a spoiler. After the ceremony, Maria is referred to as “Mrs Sanchez.” She has no quest. Instead, “Book of Life” ticks off gender tropes to become the most sexist children’s movie of 2014.

Reel Girl rates “Book of Life” ***SS***

Florida mom, I’d rather see my 4 yr old in orange jumpsuit than dressed as slave Leia

Susan Schrivjer, the Florida mom who started the petition against Toys R Us for selling “Breaking Bad” toys to adults, tells CNN, “Kids mimic their action figures, if you will. Do you want your child in an orange jumpsuit?”

Toys R Us banned the toy almost immediately after Schrivjer started her protest, so I want to know: Do we all finally agree that kids imitate their toys? And if we do, why are toy stores selling half-dressed, belly-baring, high heel wearing sexualized figures to little kids?

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If Monster High were atypical that would be one thing, but these outfits worn by female dolls are standard. Polly Pocket is marketed to girls age 4 and up. All that kids are encouraged to do with Polly is to dress her, change her from one short skirt to the next. It was Polly and her endless tiny plastic outfits who inspired me to start this blog about the sexism marketed to kids.

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The Winx girls are also marketed to little kids.

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When Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals saw this backpack on a first grader, she  blogged:

Try this test: If the image can be lifted from the child’s toy/backpack/t-shirt and placed on the billboard for a strip club and not look out of place, then things are seriously fucked.

 

Wardy, myself, organizations like Let Toys Be Toys for Girls and Boys, and parents have created and signed petition after petition about sexism, only to be ignored in the USA. After shopping at Toys R Us, one mom wanted to know why Slave Leia was the only available Leia. Jezebel reports:

Over the weekend we received a tip from a concerned mother who had come across something very disconcerting while perusing the aisles of Toys R Us. Apparently the only available toy or figurine of the Star Wars character Princess Leia is of her in the “Slave Outfit” from Return of the Jedi. Bikini? Check. Loin cloth? Check. Chain around the neck? Check. And in case you were wondering if it was actually geared towards children, it’s listed for kids ages 4+….This is a perfect and heart-breaking example of how ingrained sexism is in geek culture. It’s not like there’s a Chewbacca toy in a banana hammock.

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Yesterday I wrote a blog thanking “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul for calling out Toys R us hypocrisy with his Tweet:

 Wait, so @ToysRUs pulled all of the Breaking Bad figures from their shelves and still sells Barbie? Hmmmm…I wonder what is more damaging

The more we all rail against “Breaking Bad” toys, the more we ignore the sexism and affirm it as normal. It is shocking to me, as a mom of 3 young daughters, that sexism in kidworld is accepted so completely. And this acceptance goes beyond toys to media, which of course loops back to inpsire more toys. In Disney’s movie “Planes,” the fast plane, the hero of the movie, mocks the slower planes for being girly.

Plane One: What’s taking this guy so long? Is he really as good as he says he is?

Plane Two: No, better.

Plane One: Whoa! Who was that?

Plane Three: (Descending fast on top of the other two) Well, hello ladies. Ready to lose?

Plane Three goes on to leave the “ladies” in the dust.

As with the toys, this kind of sexism in movies for children is typical. In “Madagascar 3″ a scene features a male penguin mocking other male penguins, “You pillow fight like a bunch of little girls.”

As with “Planes” this sexist scene is so hysterical, it’s the one chosen for the preview.

Training a new generation of kids to learn this kind of sexism is dangerous. In the New York Times, Frank Bruni writes about his discussion with Chris Kilmartin, author of “The Masculine Self.”

 “When the worst thing we say to a boy in sports is that he throws ‘like a girl,’ we teach boys to disrespect the feminine and disrespect women. That’s the cultural undercurrent of rape…It’s not DNA we’re up against; it’s movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer.

 

I want Toys R Us– and parents– to know that it is far more damaging to sell sexist toys to kids than to sell Jesse to adults. The Florida mom asked CNN if we’d prefer our kids in orange jumpsuits. I’d like to reply with this story. A while back my 4 year old daughter was looking through a magazine, and she saw an ad for “Orange is the New Black.” She cried out, grinning, “Look Mama, so many girls!” It’s that rare for her to see an image of a group of women together in the media, no belly buttons, no cleavage, and also, by the way, not all white. She was so excited, she wanted to be in a picture with them, so I took this.

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Does my daughter know these women are playing convicts? Nope. Would I allow her to watch the show? Of course not. If I saw “Orange is the New Black” action figures sold at “Toys R Us” would I buy them for her? Absolutely, because Florida mom, I’d rather see my 4 year old in an orange jumpsuit than thigh high boots.