I get a lot of comments on Reel Girl about how muscly superheroes promote idealized, unattainable body types for males in the same way that skinny, big-breasted Barbies do for females.
I’ve written about how rigid gender boxes are bad for everyone. They are limiting and repressive. That said, the toys and narratives around muscle-bound superheroes aren’t anything close to damaging the way the beauty based toys of girlworld are.
Muscles symbolize strength and power. Superman does not spend his time, in toys or narratives, brushing his hair, putting on make up, or gazing at himself in the mirror. Superman doesn’t come with a plastic comb or even plastic a gym set. Superman has muscles because he, like all supeheroes, is known for what he does, not for how he appears.
As a kid– or as an adult– what would you rather be valued for: your actions or your appearance? Which would make you feel inspired and which would make you feel insecure? Would you prefer that your heroic actions, bravery, courage, and your accomplishments helped to make you attractive to the opposite sex, or your weight and your outfit?
The related topic that comes up on Reel Girl is violence. Games marketed to boys are violent and that’s bad.
I don’t like gore; I don’t like how movies and toys marketed to boys predominantly feature war and battles. Toys should be marketed to all kids and have diverse themes and characters. But violence in imaginary play isn’t bad; it’s natural.
Good art evokes emotions in the reader, the observer, or the listener. All kids– and adults– experience intense emotions. Our internal, emotional world is dramatic. Art depicts that internal world, in part, though narratives and dramatic play. A child is ordered to share a toy and she may collapse in tears on the floor. She feels like her world is caving in. A narrative or a game will actually show the world caving in. You may feel like you had “the wind knocked out of you,” or feel like you are “being attacked.” Art shows that. Not only does art make emotional experience visible, but to be effective, it has to do so in a way that is universal. That is why, in art, you’ve got to raise the stakes. For example, for me, cleaning my closet is a monumental task. I approach it with fear and when I’m done, I feel as if I’ve scaled Mount Everest. But if I were to write a story about cleaning my closet, most of my readers would be bored to tears. Art creates a dramatic metaphor around an emotion that everyone can relate to. Instead of cleaning a closet, there is the Greek myth of Psyche sorting seeds.
People feel like the walls are caving in on them for different reasons, but every human experiences that feeling at one time or another.
As far as “boys make sticks into guns, girls make trucks into beds for their dolls,” I just think that’s bullshit. There are so many ways– books, toys, movies, TV, parents, teachers, doctors, and dentists– kidworld encourages and validates “boy” behavior or “girl” behavior. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids were allowed to be human?