Token Boys

For all that we girls complain about poor representation in media, we aren’t the only ones suffering. Just as there have been token girls in boys’ media, there have been token boys in girls’ media, too. The token girl is often either an action girl who’s seen as one of the guys  until she does something “girly” or she’s a flat out damsel in distress. The token boy doesn’t get a better shake. At one end of his extremes, he might be the damsel in distress, constantly captured so the girls have something to do, or he’s emasculated because that was the only way the writers could figure out how to make him one of the girls. At the other end of his extremes, he might be an overbearing chauvinist, becoming an obstacle the girls have to overcome to complete their story.

It’s equal but opposite, creating an “eye for an eye” mentality. And that helps precisely no one.

It still perpetuates the idea that activities must be classified as “masculine” or “feminine”, and if you’re doing an activity that doesn’t match your gender, something must be wrong with you…just with guys in the Seat of Wrong. Amazingly, switching the genders doesn’t make it all right, fair, or anything else good. If anything, as some videos and ads have proven, it actually causes more trouble. Girls, who have earned a reputation for being the more vicious gender when “normal” is challenged by an insider, have been pushing against gender expectations for so long that it’s become normal. Guys don’t have it so lucky. When one pushes on gender expectations, he can expect to be not only mocked by both men and women, but flat out physically attacked by other men for daring to be himself when “himself”challenges the male view of “normal”.

To make matters worse, too many of us turn a blind eye to it…instead of fighting for his rights to just be himself the way we would fight for a fellow woman who was undergoing the same treatment.

Does anybody get this right? Well…not perfectly. We’re not living under the right societal values yet to allow that. But I’d argue the first two attempts to bring Winx Club stateside didn’t do too badly. That’s why I watched the second attempt. It was a magical girl cartoon that didn’t make me want to go on a silly string rampage. If a character was doing something, it was born from the character’s background, not her or his gender. The guys were just as likely to become endangered as the girls, and both genders would work together to solve problems and save the day. It was nice. (For those curious, I walked out on the third when it became clear they had removed too many of the girls’ spines in favor of creating a girls vs boys situation…after I had a really good laugh at their soundalike attempt.)

How can we get it right? A good start would be to take a page from George R. R. Martin’s book, and just write characters, regardless of their gender, as human beings. It works for him and other authors and writers celebrated for being able to successfully navigate this issue; theoretically, it should work for the rest of us, too.

Transparent Notetaking

I’m currently reading an older book I checked out from the public library that doesn’t appear to have come from someone’s personal library, but it has been marked up by a previous reader who did not then erase the marks before turning it in. I’ve seen this before in other nonfiction books, and it’s historically annoyed me. (I use tiny paperclips to mark up books, and then type up everything into my notes and remove the paperclips before I turn the book back in.)

This time, though, I’m kind of passing judgement on the person’s notes. I’m looking at their coding, and thinking, I would never have highlighted that. It’s just not important. Their notes, barely legible, leave me wondering what kind of student they were.

But at the same time, I’m getting a glimpse into how this person thinks, even if it makes no sense to me whatsoever. You don’t really get that very often…unless you borrow class notes from someone. You can almost put together your own narrative of who this other person is. What are they like (or were they like at the time they read this book)? Why did they read this book? Where were they planning to make use of the information they highlighted? (Given how little sense I’m making of their coding and their notes, I haven’t been able to get too far in answering my questions yet. Perhaps that will change by the time I finish reading the book.)

Not that I’m suddenly going to start leaving tiny paperclips in library books. (I simply don’t have enough to be so irresponsible with them.) Nor am I going to start marking up library books I read. I prefer to be a little mysterious.

The Complicated Nature of STEM Girls in Media

This was triggered by a handful of watchings of Thor. The first time through, I liked it because Jane Foster is an astrophysicist and that fact keeps coming up in the movie. For Thor: The Dark World (which I haven’t seen and don’t know when I’ll get around to fixing that), actress-scientist Natalie Portman teamed up with Marvel to create some sort of program to encourage girls to get involved and stay involved with STEM. It seemed like a great idea.

But a small problem became apparent on further viewings of Thor: Jane keeps saying, “I’m gong to go charging in,” only to be seated on the sidelines by Thor (and her research supervisor, I believe). Her social scientist gal pal Darcy sees more action than Jane does, effectively making Jane a super-intelligent damsel in distress.

It got me thinking about other STEM girls (often my favorite characters) in other science fiction media. For example, Firefly‘s Kaylee is a gifted mechanic, a natural talent capable of directing others to complete mechanical repairs she’s unable to because she’s just incapacitated enough to not be able (which happens with some regularity across the show’s brief run). But Badger’s men manage to get a hold of her pretty easily, and Jubel Early subdues her with nothing but verbal threats while she’s surrounded by tools that could easily do double duty as a bludgeoning tool. (I get that Mal’s cool with her not handling a gun if she doesn’t have to, but when her life and safety are being threatened? Doesn’t quite work.) Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation is similarly talented in her field, whipping up antidotes to the strangest alien contaminants. But when she gets kidnapped, she just sits and takes it. (Actually, she doesn’t. She starts applying her healing skills to her kidnapper’s people, provoking a conversation about Stockholm Syndrome among fans.)

Before you start thinking Star Trek dumbs down its women characters (or that all STEM women seem apathetic toward their physical well-being), Dr. Pulaski (whom I actually can’t stand) also whips up whatever medical miracles are needed. But when she’s infected by a bizarre virus that’s in the process of rapidly killing her by accelerating her aging process, she creates the antidote that saves herself and the other infected people in the area. More recently, Jemma Simmons from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a biologist talented enough to be drafted into a secret operation. But when she caught an alien bug that turned her into a ticking time bomb, she spent what she assumed would be her last hours developing the antidote that ultimately saved her life (even though she herself was not the one to administer it because she was busy taking an extreme action to keep herself from blowing up her teammates).

Joss Whedon is noted for writing strong female characters, which we’ve discounted with Kaylee and supported with Simmons.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow doesn’t necessarily sit and take it when something bad happens to her. She takes up arms or starts talking her way out. Willow actually has a different problem: She is shown repeatedly during her high school years engaging in some pretty decent-level hacking to help her friends out. But when the Scoobies get out of high school, Willow appears to leave her hacking hobby behind, preferring instead to employ magic even where a computer might make more sense.

And while we’re on the topic of girls who are heavily engaged in a STEM activity and then drop it quietly for no apparent reason, let’s add one more girl for the fire, because her own path has just been odd: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ April O’Neil. I’m going to leave out April the Reporter, simply because I didn’t care for the original series, and as a result don’t really know much about her. But April from the 2003-2010 series started off as a research assistant in a lab. Unfortunately, her boss is a complete whack job, and when the lab ceases to exist, April doesn’t go find another lab job. She opens an antiquities shop, the shop she has in the 2007 movie, where she’s clearly decided to embrace the Action Girl trope. She does return to her STEM roots, helping Donatello with various geeky projects from time to time and eventually leaving behind a technical corporation. The current CGI incarnation of April has so far tutored a fellow student in math, and sought out martial arts training so she can defend herself in the future.

I’m pretty sure if I had the time to fall down the TV Tropes rabbit hole, I would find that these are various shades of the same trope. It’s just fascinating to think about as we say we want more STEM women represented in our media. Jane Foster is considered a good representation, but she’s not a thoroughly strong character. What is it we’re really asking for?

Maybe There’s Hope For the Princess Scene

Last weekend, ABC Family ran a “Princess Weekend”. As expected, there were a number of Disney princess movies, both animated and live-action, present, but there were some interesting interpretations (for a Disney-owned channel) of “princess”. Sunday’s line-up really caught my attention:

  • Bring It On: All or Nothing
  • Another Cinderella Story
  • A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song
  • Cinderella
  • The Little Mermaid

I choked on my chai as I scrolled through the list. Not even kidding. At first, because of my current adaptation project, I focused on the humor of the middle three movies. Folklorists generally agree that Disney’s Cinderella is the first time in the story’s 1300-year history that the heroine was a limp dish rag. (Actually, I think they use the words “docile” and “submissive”.) The Cinderella Story series features girls who have about as much interest in rolling over and being walked all over as cats have in not shredding furniture. Even Another Cinderella Story protagonist Mary skips out the instant her chores are completed to work on her dancing in preparation for the audition she hopes will let her move away from her current situation and to support her best friend’s budding fashion career.

It was six brilliant hours of, “We know. We know. We totally totally screwed up the character seventy years ago. But look! We’re learning!” (I admit it. I didn’t sit through all six hours. I had work to do.)

The whole Cinderella situation is funny enough, but then you add on those two end movies. People look at me funny for this, but I actually respect the Bring It On series for what it tries to accomplish. Each movie centers on a girl whose cheerleading squad gets into some sort of problem that only a cheerleading squad could get into, and then she (often by bringing her team together and employing a little teamwork and leadership) saves the day. To the series’ credit, no two girls have had the exact same problem (although the fifth movie gets dangerously close with its mashup of elements from two of the earlier movies).

But in all five movies, each girl defines herself by her cheerleading. She admits she doesn’t know who she is if she isn’t a cheerleader, so she proudly wears her pompoms on her sleeve…so to speak. The only exception is Carson, the fourth movie’s heroine. (She’s at a cheerleader camp. She would fail. But it would be entertaining to watch her try.) She has to hide her squad affiliation from her new crush because the two squads have a literal West Side Story feud going on. But even she does little to hide what she is at her core when she first meets her crush at an amusement park.

Compare that with The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, who defines herself by her singing, but drops her voice in a heartbeat to snare a guy she’s seen once and knows nothing about. How very Disney of her… (Or would be if that weren’t actually part of the original story, but you can see how the original story appealed to Disney’s sensibilities during a time when the feminism movement hadn’t yet convinced the House of Mouse to consider knocking it off.) I openly hate the story, the movie, and the mermaid herself, so I had a field day with this Sunday afternoon.

Princess culture has become such a polarized concept, but I think there’s room (a growing space, actually) to let girls have their cake and eat it, too. Because at the end of the day, what we really need girls to be is self-reliant, ambitious, and compassionate.