Sunday, November 30, 2008

Must female characters in children's properties be merely vehicles for an ethical lesson?

My wife works in the Transmedia industry. She has dealt with properties ranging from adult to teen to children to general marketing. For those who do not know, Transmedia refers to a larger storytelling medium that creates a world that transcends merely one medium. You can't just have a novel, a movie, and a video game, but you must have a contiguous narrative.

In preparation for a possible contract on a famous girl's property she began to read the book, "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes" by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown. It was also inspired by the fact that we have a young daughter, and so does her boss. So in general because of career reasons, and family reasons it is a topic that has become near and dear to our hearts. There are few things more revolting than Bratz dolls. Unfortunately though, even as natural allies to the book's message, it has managed to turn us off to it's subject matter. In a stereotypically academic way, the authors are out of touch with mainstream society. I won't even go too deeply into their penchant for picking properties that never really found purchase, who people are largely unaware of, while missing out on perfect examples that would have resonated for a much greater audience, or their recommendation for documentaries that cost hundreds of dollars, ensuring that those documentaries bypass the concerned parent market almost completely.

The main thing that we have noticed, as we are very concerned with narrative, is the notion that characters should be reduced to mere objects for a moral lesson. In adult literature/film, it is considered a masterpiece if the characters touch on something deep within us. Yes, the ethical lesson is there, but it need not be there as a result of the characters exemplifying it. Many a great tragedy has touched our hearts with characters who are destroyed, never redeemed throughout the course of the entire film. In Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream", none of the characters, not even Ellyn Bursten's innocent single widow is saved despite the warnings of her more worldly son played by Jared Leto. Everyone in the film ends tragically. Leto loses his arm to Gangrene from shooting up, Marlon Wayans goes to a southern prison, Jennifer Connolly cuddles with the heroin she earned by being part of a double anal penetration show, and Ellen Burstyn goes insane from a speed induced craze as prescribed by an inattentive doctor. No one in that movie ended up in a good spot. But it made it's point about the horrors of drug addiction, in a way that few films have before or since.

In "Packaging Girlhood", Lamb and Brown make various complaints about some really nitpicky details of some fictional girl's lives. They range from the extremely trivial, such as Peaches Tickle's 50s housewife style in 'Jojo's Circus' where they completely ignore the dynamism inherent in the character, who is an attentive Mother and wife, who is treated well by her husband, has lots of supportive friends who she is supportive of as well, and helps run the family business as clowns in the circus. Jojo Tickle, the main character an Peaches's daughter is a very happy well adjusted child who is the leader of her group of friends. It is one of the best and most uplifting shows that show girls in a positive light without presenting some sense of arbitrary opposition between men and women. The men are men and the women are women in the show, but there is no conflict between them and their identities. No one tells people what they can and cannot do because they are women. Jojo's parents perform stereotypical tasks, her Mom bakes and her Father fixes things, but in both cases they teach Jojo how to do what they are doing. In making a nitpick about Peaches's clothes, they diminish their point.

Another example, is speaking of the American Girls franchise. They make one good point about it in that the pretty white girl characters, the word pretty is used over and over, but in the book about the black slave's book, the word fancy is used over and over. That I believe is a legitimate complaint, but their other complaints about Addy the girl who escapes from slavery is that no one compliments her on her many accomplishments. They don't point out that she is a capable person. Ultimately she is congratulated on her ability to control her emotions to keep her opinions to herself. In a society where there was a very real danger for an 'uppity' black girl opening her mouth, this is an important lesson to learn. It's an important lesson for anyone to learn regardless of circumstances, controlling one's emotions is one of the highest arts and the core of self-discipline. The book itself is about her containing her rage at being a slave, so the lesson about restraint is the core message. There are, however, character considerations as to why it is especially important for THIS character. In their desire to make girls feel good about themselves, our academic critique would have us completely ignore the literary merit of the time and place in which Addy lives. They do not want her to be human, they want people to build her self-esteem like a clueless Boomer parent raised on 'The Power of Positive Thinking'. Is there anything telling us that a slave Mother might even consider thinking about making a production of raising her daughter's self-esteem? Would that even be in character for her? Why would it be something that she even values? Raising self-esteem for it's own sake is a very 20th century bourgeois conceit and not something I would expect from an early American culture. As is the idea that every accomplishment requires fanfare. She knows what she did, she knows she saved her Mother's life when she almost drowned, she knows she escaped from slavery, is pointing this out really necessary?

The authors would enslave characters to the notion of making girls feel empowered. Somehow this to me does not seem empowering. It is an idealization of what they want girls to be, and not a continuous tradition as to what girls historically have been. It also propagates the notion that girls still need to be pandered to to find their own power. The implicit assumption that girls ARE inferior and need to be built up until they no longer are. The idea that it is not ok for girls to resemble girls in the past is just as undercutting as many of the stereotypes they decry in their book.

No doubt Girls are underrepresented in children's properties. On the Disney channel, in both 'The Wiggles', and 'Imagination Movers', the female characters are tokens and completely subservient to the male characters in the show. This needs to change, but people within the industry such as my wife and her company are actively working to do so. As it is, a girl's property that she worked on has come out and they can see the fruits of their labor in how it is presented by the owner of the property, but it is not because they explicitly set out to empower girls by harping on the way they dress as much as it is that they portrayed girls with thoughts, feelings, aspirations and most importantly projects of their own.


Jeff Gomez said...

Excellent points, Erek. In the future, I would appreciate your thoughts on how transmedia storytelling either helps or hinders the driving of the points you ponder to the target audience. Is transmedia a legitimate aesthetic that allows the visionary new ways to convey narrative to today's audience, or is it simply a crass new way to shill for the Mice that Be?

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with your generalizations regarding females in children's programming. Amazing how one can be so fundamental in their belief that they can make television a malleable device and consequently fold it into a flawed philosophy.

Your attempts at being academic in your argument comes off as shallow. Honestly, do your homework before you write such drivel.

Albert M. said...

I disagree with anonymous...perhaps he is generalizing and extrapolating a bit based on the examples he has actually been exposed to, however I feel the arguments he has made regarding his examples make perfect sense. So often people dumb things down and generally try to oversimplify content they present for consumption by children. I think that their capacity to understand the adult world is greatly underestimated and that the sooner the harsh realities of life can be understood by a child the better prepared they will be. The idea is to empower them as early as possible and make them the masters of there own destiny with heavy parental guidance of course. Overprotecting children generally backfires as it just sets them up to be naive and ripe for "victimhood". At the same time I would foster the notion of "magic" and possibilities as I believe that many experiences can transcend the mundane and a too jaded or skeptical child would be apt to ignore many wonderful doors because they doubt their very existence...

Hows that for drivel? lol

Joseph L. said...

It's hard to steer a course between obnoxious moralism and brainless hedonistic coddling in narratives for young people.

In capitalist society, the weight generally falls on the side of hedonistic coddling. The girl-culture phenomenon of the moment, "Twilight", is an excellent example. It is a quintessential postmodern product, offering all the supposed glamour and dark romantic intrigue of consorting with vampires, while it completely lacks any sense of the spiritual risk or sacrifice inherent in the authentic vampire dynamic.

Historically, the decadent romanticism of vampire stories involved the sense that, yes, one could live forever and be capable of sensory pleasure as a vampire, but the price of it was spiritual death, much akin to "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

In "Twilight", the family of vampires are basically yuppies with superpowers, living alone but in perfect happiness; they do not represent any kind of danger to "normal" values; they're just really stylish and cool and eternally rich.

"Twilight" is thus the Diet-Caffeine-Free-Coke of Vampire stories. Why do girls go for it? Because it offers them a risk-free dream of love in which the messiness, complications, and inevitable disappointments of sex are forever deferred.

Oh, it works, to be sure; look at all the money. But it is fundamentally deceptive in its apparent advocacy of abstinence; what it really does it uphold the fantasy of riskless world.

erek.tinker said...

I must apologize to all here. I thought that it would e-mail me automatically when I got responses and so I didn't watch it thinking no one responded. Now I'm sad because I had thought I had no readership.

anonymous, I don't really respond terribly well to 'you're ignorant' without someone trying to assuage my ignorance. If you are following this and receive an e-mail follow-up regarding it would you please come back and educate me by providing quality examples of rich and dynamic female characters in children's stories?