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Posts tagged ‘gender’

The Barbie doll

Barbie representing the traditional Venezuelan dance of Joropo. Source: Barbie de Sonho (blogspot.com)

When I was younger, one of my favorite toys was the Barbie doll. Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, one of the founders of the very successful toy company Mattel. With a modest selling price of $3, Barbie was debuted on March 9, 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. Just a few months later, Barbie was flying off the shelves, as parents rushed to buy them for their daughters.

Ruth Handler designed Barbie with the goal of inspiring American girls to imagine “their lives as adults” (page 173). This is what Chudacoff refers to when he says that the Barbie doll exemplified the role of adult domestication in children’s play (page 173). More importantly, Barbie has always been a very innovative toy in terms of gender stereotypes. Throughout the years Barbie  has held over 125 careers, including those that have traditionally been held by men, such as astronaut, surgeon, CEO, Air force soldier, and countless others. Most recently, Mattel began the I Can Be… campaign, which shows Barbie as a computer engineer, a doctor, race car driver, and even an architect. This serves the very important purpose of broadening the scope of careers choices for girls and inspiring them to be anything they set their minds to. An article in Vogue magazine quotes Ruth Handler as saying:

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper,” creator Ruth Handler said. “I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters – who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals – but also with mothers.”

Despite Handler’s best intentions, Barbie has always had a problem with being culturally diverse. This is made obvious by Barbie’s predominantly Caucasian features. This might send the unfortunate message that a girl can be anything she wants, as long as she is white. The first effort to make Barbie more diverse came in the shape of “Colored Francie” in 1967. Colored Francie, however, proved to be a huge failure because she lacked any African American features and was essentially a white doll painted black. In recent years, however, Mattel has made a greater effort to make the Barbie doll more inclusive in terms of race, culture and ethnicity. As can be seen by the Dolls of the World collection,  Barbie is now a lot easier to relate to for white and colored girls all over the world. In fact, when I traveled to Venezuela over the summer, I was very happy to see a Venezuelan Barbie. I only wished I would have her when I was a little girl.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation

From as far back as I can remember, I have always had a love for video games. My earliest memories of video games are of my sisters and I playing Mario World on the Super Nintendo. Almost all of the games my sisters and I owned were Mario games for the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64. Then, the PlayStation was released. Because Mario was a Nintendo franchise, I began to play other, more challenging games. One of the first PlayStation games I owned was Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was developed by Core Design Ltd. and published by Eidos Interactive, Inc. in 1999 for PC, PlayStation, and later Sega Dreamcast. This action and puzzle-solving game, set mainly in Egypt, presents Lara Croft, tomb raider, who, after uncovering a lost tomb and unwittingly releasing the ancient god Set, must do whatever it takes to reimprison Set and save the world from total annihilation while also being pursued by her arch-rival, archaeologist Werner Von Croy.

While I enjoyed the adventure and puzzle-solving aspect of this game, perhaps the aspect I loved most about Tomb Raider was the fact that the main character of the game was a female. In video games especially, it is rare to see this. However, when I grew older I realized that, while the main character is indeed a girl, she is obviously sexualized. In the game, Lara Croft has a ridiculously proportioned body, with her hips and breasts being way bigger than the rest of her body. She is seen multiple times in the game wearing clothing that is way too small for her and also climbing and sliding down poles that just happen to be in the tombs. While reading David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, I couldn’t help but relate the comic books that portrayed women with poorly proportioned bodies in skimpy clothes to Lara Croft, because it is essentially the same thing. This is especially true with comics like Wonder Woman, in which the story line revolves around a dominant heroine saving the world. However, even though these types of comics books can almost be directly related in terms of content to this game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation faced a significantly less controversy than the comic books, which shows how society’s views on pop culture have changed over the past fifty years.

PlayStation disc cover of "Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation" game, developed by Core Design Ltd. and released in 1999 by Eidos Interactive, Inc.

Temple in Distress

Shirley Temple truly plays her part as Nell in the “Glad Rags to Riches” (1932) Baby Burlesk short film. Interestingly enough, this film was actually not a spin-off of another film. Shirley Temple stars as a dancer at the Lullaby Lobster Palace, and the nightclub owner baby, later called the Diaper Viper, is very discouraging even though she was cute and the audience (of babies) was amused. The Diaper Viper ignores Nell who says she cannot go on dancing, but he will not let her leave because he wants to marry her. She mentions that she wishes her sweetheart would come and save her. We later find out his name is Elmer. He shows up and through a humorous series of events, wins Nell over the Diaper Viper.

 

You really have to consider how long it took to film with a cast of so many small children. They probably had to rehearse the lines right before the scene was shot. I disagree with the notion that kids are not exploited during acting because the point is that they do as they are told. They tilt their head in a certain way or stand up at a certain line. But taking it a step further, these are not children acting as children. “The children literally go through the motions of adult characters without presumably, comprehending anything about the drama they are enacting.” (Kasson 131) Shirley Temple played Nell, whose age is up for interpretation, but she is old enough to have a sweetheart and to have men fighting over her.

 

A different exploitation well worth noting – the exploitation of women – is very present in this film. It is more an emphasis on making the woman a victim than making her flirtatious. Nell is so tired of her job and can’t go on but the Diaper Viper won’t let her go until she marries him, perhaps inferring that if Elmer did not save her, she may have married the Diaper Viper. Shirley may have learned from this and many other characters she portrayed, that men have power over women. Theoretically, in real life she could have quit and walked out but that is not an option it seems in this film. Shirley’s character is less flirtatious than the typical one described in Kasson’s “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile.” Elmer proclaims, “Alas that I should find you in a state of inequity,” reiterating the idea that she is not being treated fairly and she says “please save me,” vocalizing her damsel in distress role, needing to be saved by a man.

 

A significant aspect of the film is the use of a darker child as the helper in Nell’s dressing room, addressing the still racist environment of the time. Women are still playing the roles of damsels in distress and flirtatious, but casting a film set in today’s time of a nonwhite person serving a white person would be unacceptable. There is also the use of a dog! Some comic relief (Relief from what? Or maybe just more comedy?) in a classic form, where the dog eats the ice cream held behind the back of a child. I’ll admit the film was entertaining, but just as some rap songs are derogatory towards women but still sometimes enjoyable, the themes of the film were not uplifting towards women.

Kim Possible

Disney Channel TV Show Kim Possible. Source: wikia.com

When I was younger, one of my favorite cartoons on the Disney Channel was Kim Possible.  This show started airing in 2002, and it was very innovative in its presence of strong female characters. Unlike the typical female protagonist, Kim Possible was a confident and assertive teenage girl who fought crime on a daily basis under the motto “I can do anything”. She was also a straight-A student and captain of the cheerleading squad at her high school.

The other strong female character was her rival Shego, who assisted many of the villains on the show, particularly Dr. Drakken.  Shego, with her amazing fitness and agility, was a master of martial arts as well as a skillful saboteuse.

The primary male characters, on the other hand, were portrayed as being incredibly smart but clumsy, and often in need of rescue (which I consider to be a nice shift from the usual “damsel in distress” that usually accompanies most female characters).

The innovation is in the freedom of Kim’s and Shego’s roles as female characters, a freedom that has been historically more common among male characters in movies, books, TV shows, and any other form of storytelling. As Elizabeth Segel describes in her essay, the stories in boy’s books were of action and adventure, whereas the stories in girl’s books were more focused on morals and were restricted to the domestic setting. As if that were not enough, “the restrictiveness of woman’s role as prescribed by girl’s books was also embodied in the female characters (when there were any) of boy’s books” (73). Because of stories like that of Kim Possible, the restrictions set on female characters have slowly been dissipating.

This show was especially meaningful for me because it provided a much needed female hero, one who was just as strong and independent as the traditional male hero.

Kitchen Playsets

"My Very Own Kitchen" by American Plastic Toy, $32.99, Amazon.com

When I was younger, I, like most of my friends and family, had a miniature kitchen playset. I had plastic bowls, utensils, pots, and even plastic food. I loved to make multi-course meals that I would force my brother to “eat.” I logged so many hours over the stove that eventually, many of the knobs, doors, and handles fell off, leaving me with a long laundry list of household repairs, much like my parents encountered in real life.

While modern kitchen sets have not always been around, I’m sure kids have been playing with their parents’ pots and pans since the invention of the pan, until someone finally thought to create miniature sets for play. A variety of companies make them and they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. My brother even had a mini grill, complete with sound effects. They’re affordable, in the range of $50 to $200, and they come with all kinds of fun, fake accessories.

I think that one of the main appeals for these mini kitchens is what Cross talks about when he explains the necessity of mimicry (43). Mimicry is a form of learning and is something most kids do in order to associate themselves with the adult world. Mimicry is fun, although I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that the things kids imitate are usually not as fun as they are when you’re pretending. I hate cooking and doing the dishes, which are two of the very things I used to do with my kitchen set.

In class, we talked about toys for boys and girls, and I think that kitchen sets can be very gender neutral, which is another reason for their popularity. Yes, some are clearly meant for girls (the bright pink ones) and others for boys (the grill my brother had looked “manly” in red and black colors), but many of the sets on Amazon have gender neutral colors and show boys playing with them in the pictures. My brother always played with mine when we were little. Maybe this gender neutrality is recent due to shifting gender roles, or maybe not, but either way, I think that kitchen playsets can be for boys or girls. I don’t think that there is any stigma about boys pretending to cook, especially since many men cook now.

However, I can’t say that other types of toys are always gender neutral. I remember the year I stopped getting the same toy as all my male cousins. It was sad to see them all shooting each other with their nerf guns while I stared at my stupid charm bracelet wondering how I could steal my brother’s gun without my parents noticing. However, life goes on.

Kitchen playsets are a fun way for kids to imitate their parents and enjoy their childhood. If only doing the real action were half as fun as pretending.

 

The Baby-sitters Club

Illustrated characters from Ann M. Martin's popular series The Baby-sitters Club.

In my experience as a devoted reader of The Baby-sitters Club, these books were quite popular among girls my age during our elementary school careers in the mid 1990s. Each week when our class would go to the school library we would scour the shelves for The Baby-Sitters Club novels, seeking one that we had not yet read. If memory serves, these books always had very tattered covers. This could be for a couple of reasons: One, that elementary school children are incapable of not destroying something as delicate as a paperback novel; or two, that these books exchanged hands between many elementary school girls. During the summers the search for unread Baby-sitters Club books would be transplanted to the public library, which always had a much larger selection of tattered cover books about a certain group of babysitters. Through the years and many dedicated search efforts, I never came across any boys who read the series. If boys did, they certainly did not advertise their interests.

Beginning in 1986, Ann M. Martin began writing novels centered about middle school aged children who ran a babysitting business. These middle school children worked to fulfill the need for babysitters in their neighborhood. Her novels were published from 1986 until 2000 and sold approximately 170 million copies. 131 novels were published; this number does not include the special edition novels or subsequent series that sprouted after the initial success of The Baby-sitters Club novels. Of the ten main characters that Martin developed in her novels, only one of them was male.

A typical cover style seen in the publication of The Baby-sitters Club series.

In Elizabeth Segel’s discussion of gender and its relation to childhood reading, she suggests that “boys [venture] into the territory of girls’ reading only with considerable trepidation” (73). The Baby-sitters Club series was quite obviously marketed to girls. If the flowery and brightly colored covers did not dissuade boys from reading the series, the cast of main characters that only included one male might have. The series seems to reinforce the gender role of females as caretakers; in her writings Segel discusses how literature that is specifically catered to girls tends to reinforce ideas such as these. It appears that in writing the series Martin does attempt to reach out to male readers through the inclusion of a male babysitter. However, whether or not this was enough to induct male readers into a predominantly female following is difficult to say. As Segel plainly puts it: “reading a book about a girl is still cause for embarrassment for many young readers” (76).

Why Can’t I Like the Pink One?

When I was a kindergartener, there was nothing cooler than the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show. The Power Rangers, which debuted on Fox in 1993, were a gang of teenagers who defended planet Earth from invading aliens by using sweet martial arts moves and teamwork.

The six Power Rangers were defined their colors: there was Jason the red one, Kimberly who wore pink, Zack in black, Trini would be in yellow, Billy donned blue, and Tommy was the green Ranger. By displaying the Power Rangers in such a manor, the show’s producers easily enabled children to pick their favorite character based on their favorite color.

The 6 Original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

But there was a catch. If you were a boy in my kindergarten class, you could not like the Pink or the Yellow Ranger. Those two girls characters were reserved for girls to like only, although I do recall girls being allowed to like the boy Power Rangers without penalty.

This gender separation of selection of favorite character reminds me of Elizabeth Segel’s article, “‘As the Twig is Bent…’ Gender and Childhood Reading.” In the article, Segel describes children’s literature and the division of stories between boys’ and girls’ books, and also the readiness of girls to read about male characters and the unwillingness of boys to read about females (Segel, 73).

Laura McGrath also noticed the separation of the boy and girl Power Rangers, especially in the opening credits that would air before every episode. She describes, on her blog, how the male characters would be portrayed doing physical actions such as karate kicks or wrestling aliens, while the female Rangers were seen stretching and doing gymnastics.

I do not believe that the Power Rangers were sexist or gender separatists, rather it was the children themselves who created the separation. Every child was free to chose whichever Ranger they wanted to be their favorite, but it was the fear of being ridiculed in the classroom that restricted the choices.