Imagining gender equality in the fantasy world

Can you imagine gender equality? Really see it? What does it look like to you? Or is it impossible to picture because we are so influenced by how things “are?” Or perhaps, too difficult because my idea of gender equality could be different than your idea of gender equality?

I’ve been thinking about all of this because I’ve been hard at work on Reel Girl’s new logo. I’m creating the image with an exceptional artist I met on line, and in order to come up with the right symbol, we’ve been revisiting the blog’s title, tagline, and mission.

“Imagining gender equality in the fantasy world” has never felt more appropriate. Now, more than ever, three years after I started blogging, I am amazed, fascinated, inspired, and disheartened by the way I see fantasy create reality and reality create fantasy in an endless loop.

What happens when children, even pre-birth, experience a world that is so saturated with gender segregation? How do parents’s expectations for their sons versus their daughters affect brain growth?

I was re-reading one of my favorite books Can Love Last: The Fate of Romance Over Time. (I’ve blogged about this book before in relation to romance in longterm relationships.)

Author Stephen Mitchell writes:

However, the traditional dichotomy of nature versus nurture that has dominated Western philosophy and psychology has been profoundly challenged  by recent advances in neurophysiology. The stratification model of human experience, nature versus nurture– was predicated on the assumption that human biology was  a complete package at birth…

The brain of the newborn, we now know, is only partially developed. Nerve cells and neural pathways are incomplete at birth; they are shaped to a considerable extent by the baby’s experience with others.

To show this visually, Mitchell uses Escher’s “Drawing Hands.”


Would this be a great logo for my blog or what? If only Escher wouldn’t mind. I could stick some jewelry on those fingers, maybe some cool nail polish too? A Bic pen “for her” in those big, strong hands?

Too heady, I know. But looking at this image reminded me of Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. She wrote:

“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.”

Both Mitchell and Eliot support the idea that humans are born into the world with “potentials.” Qualities humans are designed for can “turn on” or “emerge.”

These ideas on brain development take on the basic assumptions of Enlightenment, the driving theory behind the last century, which Mitchell summarizes as “a correct, rational, scientific, fantasy-free way to understand the world.” Mitchell summarizes the Enlightenment world view into three basic assumptions:

(1) All genuine questions have answers

(2) All true answers are discoverable and teachable to others

(3) All answers are in principle compatible

Mitchell describes reality, or realities, instead where fantasy and reality continually create each other i.e. the Escher drawing. Mitchell writes:

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.

When I read this, it seemed radical to me. Most of everything I’ve ever learned or heard about artists is not a model for psychological health, but rather that they are “totured.” Artists are crazy, art comes out of pain, and all that.

There is one exception I recalled that I blogged about as well: Peter Kramer’s Against Depression. Kramer was inspired to write this book after his more famous Listening to Prozac. Everywhere he went on that book tour,  people asked: “What if van Gogh had taken Prozac? What about Kierkegaard?”

Kramer argues artists are not creative because of their depression but in spite of it. Depression is a “stuck switch,” the opposite of resilience. Art, a career of it, requires resilience. (So does long term romance, by the way which is the real topic of Mitchell’s fantastic book.)

I have to say, these theories make sense as far as my experience writing a Middle Grade book. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half, and if I’ve learned one thing about writing: it requires optimism and faith.

I’ve written novels before, but I’ve never been able to stick with one as it gets torn up and put back together multiple times. I think the difference here is that I know a MG book requires plot. (Maybe all books do, but I was never so committed to plot before.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve faced a plot problem that completely overwhelmed me. The only way to get through the challenge is to believe there is a way out, a solution. The only way to find that solution is to be able to try on multiple outcomes. For me, that is a terrifying process of allowing one version to disintegrate and another to emerge. But, the more I do it, the better I get at it. It’s a skill, like any other skill.

Mitchell wrote Can Love Last in 2002. In the ten years since, more information on “brain plasticity” continues to emerge and support his thesis. It seems that not only is Mitchell correct (he died soon after he wrote the book) but that the only place he was off was in believing “brain plasticity” didn’t last for a lifetime.

Just this week, The New York Times had an article on concentration:

Until recently, our 20s were considered the point when our brain’s wiring was basically complete. But new evidence suggests that not only can we learn into old age, but the structure of our brains can continue to change and develop.

Could imagination be far more powerful and useful than we, well, ever imagined?

Stay tuned for Reel Girl’s new logo…


Disneyland is to imagination as pornography is to sex

I spent the last two days in Disneyland, and to my surprise, I didn’t even feel like I was in another world. I thought I would take lots of photos of pinkification and gender-stereotyped-marketing, come back and post them on my blog, and you’d all be shocked and appalled. But I didn’t see much in Disneyland that I don’t see every single time I go to Target or Safeway or turn on my TV.

Disneyland’s “magic” has completely infiltrated our everyday life. In Disneyland, wherever we went, everyone called my daughter “Princess” and handed her free stickers of girls in poofy dresses just like they do here when we visit her doctor’s office.

The significant difference that I kept noticing between Disneyland and San Francisco is that various signs and people kept telling me to have a magical time, that this was a place for my imagination to run free.

Yet, as I strapped myself into my eighteenth car or rocket or clam shell, it occurred to me there are few times in my life that I am encouraged to be this thoughtless. I sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride while I am handed the same fantasies, images, and narratives repeatedly. That’s when I realized that the passivity and homogeneity that Disneyland perpetuates in my mind and body, with all of its highly controlled thrills, is as deadening to actual imagination as pornography is to sex. Too much exposure (and we all have way too much exposure) messes with our brains and puts humans in danger of losing the ability to be stimulated by the real thing.

One of my favorite books ever is called Can Love Last: The Fate of Romance Over Time. Author Stephen Mitchell proposes that contrary to popular belief, romance doesn’t fade naturally in long term relationships. We kill it. And we kill it because it’s terrifying to lust for and depend on the same person. The more you need your partner, the more courage is required to risk perpetually experiencing the roller coaster highs and lows that come with being desperately attracted to him. Mitchell argues that instead of committing to that dangerous ride, for a lifetime, no less, we flatten our romantic partners into something more stable.

Here’s what Mitchell writes about pornography:

Rather than being a measure and consequence of the power of naturally occurring sexual desire, pornography is a measure of the extent to which people tend to prefer controlling desire through contrivance rather than being surprised by desire that spontaneously arises. Do not underestimate the power of contrivance. If I desire you, a real person, and if I long for not just sexual contact but a romantic response, I may be in big trouble. In fact, there is no way to escape big trouble! Because what I want from you makes me dependent upon you, makes me hostage to your feeling towards me, I naturally want some control over my fate. What I want is for you to love me, to find me attractive and exciting, precisely when I want you…This is what makes the contrivance of pornography so useful. Pornography operates on the “what if?” principle. What if I found myself desiring someone, and what if it happened to be this very person in this picture? on this videotape? on this computer screen? Guess what? I can have him or her. A close cousin of the oldest profession, prostitution, pornography offers the wonderful combination of stimulation in the context of simulation–risk-free desire. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. You can’t miss.

Porn is often considered exciting, daring, risky, or imaginative, but it’s just the opposite: a safe roller coaster instead of a real one.

Disneyland, of course, operates on that very principle. Controlled thrills– “stimulation in the context of simulation”– manufactured, repetitive images that don’t inspire individual creativity but paralyze real imagination. Disneyland is like porn for kids.