Smart Girls, Good Friends, and Pretty Dresses

Given my interest in girls in STEM, it made sense that I took notice the first time I saw an ad for the Project MC2 fashion dolls. The way the ads were structured, they appeared to be girls with interests across science, technology, and the arts, and I loved that. Then, I learned there was a series, and binge watched that while I was sick last month. As expected, the girls work together, each coming from her own STEM interests, to solve problems. And each girl is absolutely crazy about her own interests, and in exploring where her own interests intersect with the other girls’ interests. And this is all from girls wearing cute clothes and learning how to navigate the interpersonal skills appropriate to girls of their age. The series has a lot to offer.

I’ve since learned the dolls each come with experiments appropriate to the girl represented by the doll, along with tips for how to continue those experiments at home.

While I was sick, I also gave Liv and Maddie a shot. I’d heard an explanation of how the show was filmed (that involved splitting scenes oddly) that seemed so backwards for current technology. Having now watched the entire series (because I couldn’t stop myself), the show does not support that explanation. (It turns out they actually opted to use a technique from an older show with a single actress playing two roles.) But that’s not why I stuck it out. I watched the entire series because I was fascinated by Liv, the twin I assumed I wouldn’t like at first because she initially came across as stereotypical and flaky.

Except that seems to have been the point. Liv is an actress who has spent more time away from school than in it (beyond what would be required on set). She is into fashion and helping her friends get the boy. But she tends to make personal choices that support her friends and family. And no matter what she may think of someone, she tries to always have a kind word and not assume the worst of someone unless she has a reason.

She’s also been working on a science-heavy show, and has a great skill for recognizing where something she’s learned from the show can be applied to a situation she’s currently in. She helps out her nerdy brother by building the winning Rube Goldberg device in a competition. Taking construction skills she’s learned from her inventor best friend, she leads the other girls in her cast to build their own woodblock car and win a derby against the boys in the cast, changing the storyline in her show in the process. When she needs to quickly learn basketball for an audition, her athletic twin realizes she can use Liv’s ability to see connections and apply skills to use shopping to turn Liv into a passable player for the audition.

Both shows are great examples of interesting girls who are smart, while being good friends and people, while being totally girly. And girls need more opportunities to see that.

Find Five Friday: Tinker Gnome Academy Edition

Sorry for the lack of post the last couple of weeks. The past few weeks have been a bit crazy, and the blog has been lost in the shuffle. But this week, I thought I’d share some posts I’ve been gathering about learning from playing and doing.

Because…you know…I never talk about those things.

Anyway, off we go!

1. Allow me to introduce you to Sylvia, a kid who loves to explore and share what she’s learning. She’s a great example of what the Maker Movement can inspire, and she’s an up-and-coming role model for girls interested in STEAM topics. (Source: Why Kids Need to Tinker to Learn)

2. Does Lego No Longer Promote Creativity? They do. The fact that the back wall of Lego stores are walls o’ brick proves that. There’s just a lot of money in tie-in materials for movies and games. But a lot of artists and fancrafters have realized they can show their love for genres and properties by recreating scenes, characters, and the movie itself through Lego creations, often pioneering new building techniques in the process. (For good examples, look up Bruce Lowell and Rick Martin. Both are doing some pretty cool things with Lego bricks.)

3. Why You Should Become Curious Today The title pretty much says it all, and the article does a good job explaining why inviting curiosity into your life is a good thing. And curiosity isn’t just for creative and scientific types. We can all benefit from being just a little more curious.

4. Have you seen that Lego ad from the 80’s with the little girl proudly holding her Lego creation? Well, someone caught up with that little girl, all grown up now, and interviewed her on the directions Lego has developed since then. It’s a good reminder that play exists in all its forms without being hemmed in by grown-up gender issues.

5. And finally, remember these very smart words from Rene DescartesEach problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems. (Just try not think of Lefler’s Laws every time you read that.)

So, there you are. Five more links for you. I don’t know if there will be any of these “link dump” posts during the holidays, and I’m thinking about changing the name of this series. Keep an eye peeled, and have a safe holiday!

Find Five Friday – Girly Geek Edition

I don’t know how things have gone for y’all, but for me it’s been a week. Actually, it’s been a long couple of weeks, and next week will be pretty crazy, too. You may have noticed the blog’s been a little quiet this week. So has the social media. I’m not even sure I’ve done the bare minimum. What I do know is that this week’s Find Five Friday only has four links because things have just been that crazy.

Soooo…on with the show!

1. I have designed jewelry off and on my entire life. I’ve just re-opened an Etsy shop, and was strong-armed last week into a craft show that my work was not a good fit for. But because I have been designing jewelry my whole life, I tend to be fascinated when someone does something interesting with jewelry design, like creating a wearable light show. You can tell from the pictures it’s still a work in progress, but it’s an interesting idea.

2. I’ve also grown up interacting with music. I danced for a long time. I’ve done choirs off and on. In school and at LARP, I even played a couple of instruments. I frequently joke that music runs through my veins, and I can’t imagine not being able to read or interpret sheet music. So, finding out that people with dyslexia can find sheet music daunting was a bit of a surprise. A product designer who has experience trying to get dyslexia and a desire to play music to cooperate has designed a way to create and play music in a way that doesn’t trigger a war with her dyslexia. The Dyssonance looks like Colorforms on steroids, but the idea and implementation are pretty cool.

3. This has been a stressful month for STEM women. In 2013, Mattel released a 2-in-1 Barbie book where one half was called I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The Barbie line has a mission of trying to show girls all the doors that are open to them, and has come under a lot of heat over the years for the limited number of hard science/STEM professions represented in the line. I suspect this book was part of an attempt to address that. A pair of blogs discovered and shared the book this week, pointing out that while Barbie does design the game featured in the book (girl game designer = good), she then hides behind guy friends to code the game and clean up her virused computer. She then takes credit for both the game and saving the infected computer. Needless to say, women coders and their friends and supporters shredded Mattel, who has now offered a very half-hearted apology for the mess.

The book’s discovery comes only a week after STEM toy developer GoldieBlox announced their Barbie-like action figures. GoldieBlox still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths after the whole Beastie Boys incident, but their CEO was recently the keynote speaker at a Texas women’s conference where the themes included responsibility and presenting positive role models for up-and-coming STEM women. (I just about spit out my chai when I read that.)

4. While many made memes of the more troubling statements in the Barbie book and some mocked the pink tech and the flash drive necklace, one woman coder created a mock-up of the book (PDF) rewritten to reflect the message Mattel should have put out if they truly want girls to see what they could experience as a coder. The book is heavy-handed, but the message is much more positive.

Also, my inner jewelry designer couldn’t understand those upset about the flash drive necklace. It was completely appropriate to Barbie. But what do I know? I spent part of a season of Pretty Little Liars wanting Jenna’s owl flash drive necklace.

 

All right, there you go. Four links, but I tried to make up for it in the commentary. Hopefully, I’ll collect five links next week, but we’ll have to see what free time my workload gives me.

Tomboy Feminist

I am, by birth, a Southern Belle and a Texas cowgirl. So, I grew up with lectures on etiquette and how a girl was supposed to behave, but I couldn’t stop being an assertive, climb-everything-in-sight girl.

And I couldn’t understand why outdated etiquette rules superseded simplicity. I didn’t think there was anything offensive about getting grades that were as high or higher than the guys in my class. I didn’t mind carrying my own things, regardless of whether there was a guy around. If I opened a door when other people were coming, I saw no point in handing it off to a guy while I passed through. It was faster to just hold the door, get everyone through, and then close the door behind me. It earned me a reputation as a stubborn girl who wouldn’t ask for help, or worse (to a Southern/Texan mind) a feminist. Between my assertiveness and my determination to do well in my classes, everyone was worried that I just wasn’t going to catch a guy (the worst thing that could happen to a Southern/Texan girl).

It turns out they were right, but I was far more afraid of being a feminist than I was of being single.

I grew up thinking feminists hated men, and that wasn’t me because most of my friends were guys and I was busy trying to prove that a girl was just as capable of a guy at doing “guy” things, and supporting guy friends wanted to do “girl” things. I wanted equal treatment, and I was positive that didn’t make me a feminist.  I think I was in grad school when a feminist friend sat me down and said, “Sweetie, you’re fighting for equal opportunities for both genders. You’re a modern feminist. Embrace it.”

And I tried. But that fear of being a feminist was so strong, that it took years for me to understand what she was trying to tell me and to accept that I am in fact a feminist. In fact, it took working at a girls camp to finally set me straight. A girl in my cabin wanted to be a stay-at-home mom because she saw everything her mom got to do as a stay-at-home mom and she wanted that kind of space to be able to explore her interests, too. One of the counselors told her she was aiming too low, and I just about lost it. In that moment, I realized that what I’m really fighting for is for people to be able to make their own choices based on their needs and interests.

So, I am a feminist. I don’t hate men, but I do think you should be able to decide for yourself what you want to do.

Gender Needs to Stop Being an Issue in Geek Circles

Last summer, geek band The Doubleclicks released a song called “Nothing to Prove” with a video of geek women sharing their geekiness and some of the more disparaging  comments they’ve received from men, followed by a bunch of geek women and men asking guys to stop being bullies. Read any forum or social media thread supporting programming, game design, gaming, comic books, or just about any other geeky topic, and you will find rampant sexism (often with illegal language attached), despite the fact we’re all members of the same tribe.

When I saw the video, I responded with a series of tweets reminding people that it’s not just men who bash on geek women and try to drive them out of their geeky pursuits:

While we’re pointing out how guys have made geeky pursuits unpleasant for women, let’s remember women also oppress geeky women. (#) My worst geek girl moment ever came at the hands of a condescending woman, and I no longer shop at that Barnes & Noble because of it (#) …which is sad, really, because it was a pair of guys at that B&N who helped me find my favorite books on scripting for graphic novels. (#) My second worst was a woman comic book store employee informing me my choice of comics was too girly. (The comic in question was The Guild.) (#)

The second worst attack I’ve ever endured as a geek girl…came at the hands of a another geek girl. In fact, I’ve endured more harassment from other geek girls than I have from geek guys, who have tended to be very welcoming, even when I was sitting in a corner needlepointing scenes involving dragons and writing fan fiction with boy characters who were too pretty for their own good.

Take a minute to think about that.

This is actually why I campaign for making gender a non-issue in geek circles. There is an “us vs. them” mentality among geeks, and it’s really not the one everyone expects. The Mean Girl phenomenon rears its ugly head (in some rather spectacular ways sometimes) in geekdom just as quickly as it does in “girly” circles, and men who engage in “girly” crafts and fandoms suffer the same fate in geek circles that they suffer outside geek circles.

It’s embarrassing.  And we need to work together to make it stop.

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.

“Women Don’t…”

The television and film industry awards season is in full swing, and one question keeps coming up in the days after each award show: Where are the women? 

It’s been this way for a while but ever since Kathryn Bigelow won her landmark Best Director Oscar, it seems to come up more frequently. Or maybe just more people are taking to their blogs and social media to protest and discuss the dearth of women involved with television and film projects. This year, the conversations started right after an infographic demonstrated that last year, movies that passed the Bechdel Test tended to be more successful than those that didn’t.

Not a month before the infographic made its debut, animation executive Paul Dini made waves by claiming that cartoons aren’t made for girls. When pressed for an explanation, he said it was because girls don’t play with the same toys boys do, so animation executives didn’t want girls watching because they couldn’t sell them toys. (As a lifelong animation fan whose Glamour Gals regularly stole Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder and resented that they couldn’t steal Brad Turner’s bike, I was really offended.)

And while rabid animation fans raked Dini over the grill, someone made a comment (I don’t know where this one started. Sorry. If you do, link it in the comments.) about women not writing horror. ScripChix rose to the challenge by offering tongue-in-cheek apologies on Twitter to every single woman they knew who writes horror they could for “miscategorizing” their work, linking to the slighted writer with each apology. Needless to say, the list was impressive.

Lest you think it’s only motion pictures and animation that are having all the fun, an unfortunate SFWA incident last year that demonstrated women’s struggles to be recognized within science fiction inspired Lightspeed Magazine to put out a call for submissions (Deadline: February 14. Get writing!) for a women-only special issue they are putting together to demonstrate that women do, in fact, write science fiction. (Just to be clear, Lightspeed Media has published both men and women authors; and Skyboat Media, who produces Lightspeed’s podcast, has employed women narrators. This is not new territory for either company.)

So, in the past few months, we’ve heard a lot of what women don’t do…only to find that it’s not that women don’t do it. It’s that the gatekeepers don’t necessarily notice it, deliberately or subconsciously. But profits show that women do produce (well); and that women characters are not a turn-off, and are in fact a potential indicator for success when employed correctly. Perhaps industries and genres should focus less on what they think women can’t do, and focus more on getting out of the way and letting women do.

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.

Pick a Tag!

Assertive Women vs. Feminism vs. Girl Studies (both fell out of wide use)

This one arose because I still don’t have a firm grasp on my own sense of feminism, how gender issues impact my work/studies, and the fact that there are few women among my role models…or I simply don’t have them listed. This needs to be wrestled with before I can truly resolve this conflict.

This really is perfect timing. I’ve been in a “Why aren’t there any girl-helmed movies where the heroine doesn’t end up with a guy?” funk thanks to Mr. “I only find myself interesting”. The only movies I can think of that don’t follow that are the Tomb Raider movies, except Lara has a romantic interest that doesn’t work out in the second. Why does Happily Ever After, regardless of the gender of the protagonist, have to include romance? What’s wrong with being a bachelor or spinster?

In addition, TED has announced TEDWomen, which (despite the fact it’s both men and women talking on women’s issues) has led to quite the uproar. Men are offended at being left out. Women are offended at being singled out. The only people who really seem in favor of it are women in heavily male industries or women who have chosen to be victims. My initial reaction fell inline with the women offended at being singled out. Gender will continue to be an issue if people allow it to be an issue.

All of that said, I find myself with several manuscripts featuring girl protagonists. But I think it’s really to fill the void I perceive of having a pure girl action/adventure protagonist, and because it’s easier for me to write from my own experiences and worldview. (Oh, really? *sarcastic snort*)

So, I’m turning on my Princess playlist, debating what girl-helmed movie I want to watch next, and looking through everything bearing one of those three tags. I’m realizing this is already an empirical problem, but I enjoy being a girl and celebrating my girliness. I like stories about strong, confident women who broke down some gender barrier. I know this colors how I look at my work. I think the world needs more strong, confident girls, but I don’t think the price should be ignoring boys. Feminism is supposed to be about gender equality, not reverse discrimination.