Feminist Friday Discussion: Children and Youth Media

Even before I discovered the actual term feminism and what it could entails (in good and problematic depending on people’ definition), I was always interested in what it meant to be a girl, what representation of being a girl I saw on television or in books as I grew up. It was always on the back of my mind, even prior to my decision to engage into media studies. I do consider myself a feminist, but in an egalitarian and positive way. I don’t hate men and consider that accepting women as an equal part of the society who deserves same respect is a goal that needs to be attained so we all live in a better world, no matter our gender.

During the past months, I had the chance to read interesting materials that sparked not only my thinking about life in general, but also made me realize of how I have been working more and more on female characters in my research and writing. It had happened on a subconscious level, but it was there. I am grateful for Gene’O Gordon at Sourcerer for having been hosting Feminist Friday Discussions over the past few weeks, and to all the people who contributed. These have been compelling and thought provoking. There is still so much work to do to change mentalities but talking about it is a way not to sweep the issues beneath the carpet.

One topic that has been mentioned a few times in other discussions, such as Rose B. Fischer‘s discussion about Disney Princesses and Diana Gordon’s at Part Time Monster A to Z posts about children and young adult literature, is children and youth oriented media. Exploring girls’ representation in mainstream media, not just from the most recent years but other older creations which remain of significance either from a historical point of view or due to a still existing consumption is important. It gives input in what exists and what needs to be upgraded for a better and more substantial representations from girls.

A few years ago, I discovered that besides her work as an actress, Geena Davis had also created an institute with other professionals from different fields, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Covering all the work that is happening there would take me more than a post, so I invite you all to check the website to get a better idea. I love how Davis started to form the idea of this project while watching television with her daughter. The motto that is mentioned on a regular basis about how to develop more and well layered female characters in youth media (and in overall media as well, as the Institute is interested in female representation in any age bracket media) is telling, especially for children: “If she can see it, she can be it.” I also found that her guest column about easy improvement of female representation in media narratives, was a clever way to help change happen, should people follow it:

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

Nothing is going to be a magic wand that fixes everything at once, but I believe in how various small things can help. I admit for example that the thought provoking Bechdel Test doesn’t really appeal to me for example. I think that the idea behind it is great, and that it helps us identify the issues of lack of female representation in popular fiction. Yet, it tends to put aside some works that give solid and layered female characters, but that don’t pass the test because there is only one significant female character. In that, I believe that the Bechdel Test reaches its limit, as I personally prefer a single female character that is well executed than two or (let’s be crazy) three that are barely engaging.

Regarding children television, I grew up watching things made in my home country (I am French) as much as French dubbed versions of American programs. Beyond the obvious example of  the Disney princesses (which have been knowing a good evolution but that still had qualities in the titles I watched when a child, and I was also familiar with the Grimm tales and other original versions of the fairy tales used by Disney), I also watched a good many other things.

One Japanese anime based on an English children book that I loved to pieces, was Story of the Alps: My Annette. I admit that I don’t know whether it was ever shown in the US, but I loved the story and the female portrayals. Annette is a young girl who lives in a small Swiss village with her family. Her mother dies upon her young brother’s birth, and they are raised by their father and their great-aunt. I like that Annette has to deal with all the tragedy and later drama the best she can, but she isn’t made a saint or just a miserable being. I rewatched it a few years ago and I liked it as much. The show also gives room to other female characters with her great aunt Claude, her friend Julien’s mother (who raises her own children on her own), his elder sister Marie, and a few female classmates.

I admit that maybe this will come across as weird to Americans or any English native speakers but when I used to watch Tom and Jerry when a child, I always thought that Jerry was a girl. It was only a few years ago that I realized that Jerry Mouse is supposedly male. I still don’t buy it in my personal Tom and Jerry bubble. I still find it quite neat that Jerry is a girl.

Over the past few years, I have seen some children/family oriented movies and television series that I’ve found as good steps towards a better representation and space for female characters and viewers.Beside the ground breaking Frozen movie, another obvious mention is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I honestly didn’t plan on watching this, but after hearing a presentation about it at a conference, and what a few friends of mine were saying, I tried it. I was surprised in a very positive way. The characters are all different and none of them is perfect, making them more credible. The fact that some of them can be outright annoying also adds to the credibility in my view, or maybe this is just my personal perception.

While not all of Star Wars: The Clone Wars series is kid friendly as it tackles some heavy storylines and themes at times, this show has also participated in better female representation in my view. Ahsoka Tano is one of the most compelling female characters I have seen in a long time and to me she is a game changer in how layered she is and all the character development she sustains throughout the show.

I also find it interesting how the voice actress portraying Ahsoka Tano, Ashley Eckstein, decided to embark on her own journey to promote positive female characters and also fangirls of every age, from toddlers to grown up women. In 2013, she launched “Year of the Fangirl” and the blog of her website Her Universe, was more than an online shop featuring female kid and grown up fannish fashion, but also a showcase for fangirls, with a different one featured every day. It was so successful and such a praised idea that it has been carrying on in 2014.

Questions:

  • Which children and youth programs do you believe give a good place to female characters?
  • What do you think could be done to improve the current situation?
  • Which other institutes, organizations, groups, do you know of that work towards promoting better female representation in children and youth media?

Link of Interest:

 

35 thoughts on “Feminist Friday Discussion: Children and Youth Media

  1. Gretchen Kelly

    I can’t comment too much on children’s shows from my youth because A. I have a horrible memory of a lot of things from my childhood and B. I don’t think I watched too many children’s shows.

    My daughters don’t watch your typical “girl” shows. They have never been into Disney Princesses, or My Little Pony or Strawberry Shortcake. My older daughter was always drawn to Pokemon, Avatar, those kind of shows. Avatar did have strong female characters that I felt were positive representations.

    The books that she reads are Fantasy Fiction, about Dragons, etc. But she loved The Hunger Games and Divergent, both of which feature strong female leads. She really was drawn to Katniss and started practicing archery and even went as Katniss for Halloween. I love that she is drawn to these characters more so than the Princess’s. But, she’s a little atypical from her peers. A lot of the girls were into the Princess’s when they were younger. A lot of her friends were more into Dora and my daughter liked the Diego show.

    As for Disney princesses, probably the only movie I’ve watched in it’s entirety from this genre was The Princess and the Frog. The lead character is a strong, independent, hardworking character. She exhibits some traits typically applied to men in pop culture. She’s a workaholic. She’s so driven to reach her goals that she forgoes fun and friends. I thought this was an interesting turn for a movie in this genre. She ends up learning to lighten up a little and let friends in, and still goes on to own her own successful business. I thought it was a great movie. And she was black. To me, this was the best of all the princess movies. Maybe not a fair statement since I’ve never seen the others all the way through. But this is the only one that ever really appealed to me. It’s also the only one my daughter really liked. My mom has all the old Disney movies and watched them with her, but The Princess and the Frog was the only one that stuck with her.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      I missed a lot of children shows that people watched when I was a kid as it wasn’t part of what I was allowed to watch. That could range from Japanese animes to more girl shows such as the old My Little Pony (it is kind of ironic that I’m watching the new one as a grown up). So I understand how we can have watched only few children shows. I realized thanks to your comment that one of my biggest memories from childhood is actually the sitcom “Who’s the boss?” and that I really liked how the female characters (Sam, Angela and Mona) all had their own personalities and how they were from different generations and could relate to each other and yet be so different and have trouble at understanding one another at times. Another big memory is Star Wars, so not so typical either (at least in France).

      By Avatar, do you mean Avatar, the last airbender or the legend of Korra? I only heard of them, including how they had interesting female characters. I also realize that I need to think for a moment to realize that I know of some titles but need to make the connection between English titles and the French ones. I’m curious about the Princess and the Frog now, because it is one of the Disney I never saw. What you’re saying about the main character definitely sounds like a character I would enjoy.

      It’s great how your daughter liked Katniss so much that she picked up archery because of her!

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      1. Gretchen Kelly

        Yes! Who’s the Boss! That was one of my favorites also! Mona was awesome!

        It was The Last Airbender that my daughter watched. Actually, we all watched it, as a family, on occasion.

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        1. Natacha Guyot Post author

          I wish they had continued to issue the other seasons on DVDs! I’m planning to transfer my taped episodes onto a drive one day. I agree about Mona’s awesomeness!

          Thank you for the precision about The Last Airbender.

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  2. Rose F

    I agree with you about Who’s The Boss, Natacha.

    I don’t know that I watched “typical” shows marketed to girls. I was aware of them and would watch them when they were on, but I LIKED the action shows and those were geared more to boys.

    The most influential representation I ever saw of female characters in children’s shows was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, with Queen Marlena, Teela, and the Sorceress. I’m not as cognizant of current shows. The first thing that comes to mind is MLP: Friendship is Magic, but I can leave that to Hannah.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      I often think that Who’s the Boss isn’t considered enough, because it considered quite different aspects of life and possibilities which have only become more present since the creation/airing of the show. Now I feel like writing more about it. *sigh*

      What I watched as a child was kind of random to me now that I looked back at it. I mean it is random in how my parents decided to allow me to watch some and not others. I guess this is also why I am curious about this topic as a grown up.

      And I still want to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe since the first time you talked to me about it!

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      1. hannahgivens

        MLP is a really interesting case because the VAST majority of characters (named or background) are female, but it’s never remarked upon onscreen. It’s led to some interesting discussions of how their society might be structured (that might interest you because of Synn, Rose.)

        They’ve added more male ponies over time, though. I’ve wondered if it’s just supposed to reflect the de factor segregation of friendships growing up.

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        1. Natacha Guyot Post author

          It’s true that they never remark upon that aspect on screen. I like when female presence isn’t pointed out as a thing as it tends to be a bit counter intuitive in how “natural” and normal this should be in the first place. Analyzing female characters and representations is important, but when any marketing or related approach is all about “look there is X female characters in this and that role” as if it was a big record and everyone should be grateful, it just doesn’t feel right.

          I have only seen the first two seasons, so I haven’t seen many male ponies so far, so I am curious to see how the next two seasons pan out!

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          1. hannahgivens

            They’ve incorporated some slight romantic plots (Shining Armor, Flash Sentry, Cheese Sandwich, that time the Crusaders tried to set up Cheerilee and Big Macintosh) and there are a couple other male characters… The majority are still female though. I agree that I like it to be unmentioned.

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  3. Diana

    I watched, read, and listened to a really big mix of things when I was young. Part of that was me being drawn to both male- and female-oriented projects, but it was also that I had older siblings and because I stayed at my grandmother’s house with a few other children that she baby-sat, and we watched everything from Power Rangers to Strawberry Shortcake.

    I also played with a lot of my siblings’ old toys–Star Wars and G.I. Joe and the like. I had the typical girls’ toys–dolls, Barbies, and a Fisher Price Kitchen set. But I also had a red Power Wheels Jeep and a four-wheeler. I preferred to play with the dolls and such as a general rule, especially as I got older, but part of that was about using them for imaginative play, and part of that was about playing with what other girls would want to play with when they came over for play-dates or sleepovers.

    And I try to expose Little Jedi to a mix of things, as well. I paint his toenails, and he has books and movies that aren’t strictly boy-oriented, as well as toys that aren’t.

    And I work in girls’ studies during my studies, thinking about how feminism often leaves out the girl completely or looks at the girl as merely a smaller version of a woman, when girlhood is far more complex than that.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      I was an only child and since my parents had me late and that I didn’t see any of my few cousins, I was mostly (only?) exposed to school friends for kids my age, mostly girls, though I had a few male friends every once in a while (which changed as I grew up). I was a big science fiction fan from early years, both through Fantasy and space stories to how the first thing I ever saw on a screen was the Star Wars Muppets episode.

      I love how you mentioned playing with dolls for imaginative play! I never really liked dolls, but I played with my Barbies until I was like 13 or 14, all for imaginative plays, either in my own stories or in the Star Wars universe (yes, yes, there’s a pattern). I found that it was really practical to think aloud thanks to them. I also liked Playmobil and Lego toys which were labelled just for boys.

      I’m not surprised to hear that you expose Little Jedi to a mix of things as well! It’s great as I think that exposing boys and girls to a mix of things is important for mentalities and culture as to me all genders benefit from this, to make things evolve in a good way.

      No kidding that girlhood is much more complex than that! Your A to Z posts have very much fueled my reflection on this topic and was part of why I came up with this post idea, so thank you for this!

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      1. Diana

        Oh yes, I played with Barbies until at least 10 or 12, and I almost always used them to act out stories that I was making up. I think a lot of kids do that, but some to a far lesser degree. I’ve noticed that Little Jedi does less of that than I did as a child, even with all of the Star Wars and pirate and other types of figures he has.

        I think it’s really important to expose him to a balance of things to develop empathy…And also to de-emphasize the rigid boundaries that society often puts up between girls and boys.

        I’m glad those posts are interesting to people—they’re absolutely helping me formulate questions and places for research as I move toward exams and dissertation. Most of the girls I’m talking about are in texts I’m planning to use for my comprehensive exams. They’ve also just plain been fun to write about.

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    2. Gretchen Kelly

      Wow, what a great point Diana. I’d never really thought about girls being left out. I always think about trying to make things better for the next generation and trying to raise a sensitive, feminist minded son. But I think, after reading your comment, that it’s not enough. I know the whole “Ban Bossy” campaign is aimed at young girls (although still not sure how I feel about that. I like the idea of encouraging girls to take leadership roles, just not sure about picking apart semantics. I’m still on the fence about it). But I think there’s much more that probably should be done.

      I always played with “boy’s” toys when I was little. I had all the star wars figures, hot wheels, etc. And I grew up listening to Free To Be You and Me, which of course encouraged boys to play with dolls if they wanted to and girls to pursue careers in even male dominated areas.

      And I see my daughters naturally gravitating towards more “boy” type of toys and interests. Of course, it’s much more acceptable for girls to gravitate towards boy toys and some parents cringe at the idea of their son playing with a doll or a barbie.

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      1. Diana

        Gretchen, I think you’re right about encouraging girls to take leadership…But yes, I’m also split on things like “Ban Bossy” campaigns. They seem like, in many cases, one more way to discourage girls from being assertive.

        We don’t talk enough about girlhood separately from womanhood, and when we do, it’s often in a pejorative way. Childhood is conceived as a lesser state anyway, and girlishness even more so than boyishness. “Girl” is often a term of disrespect.

        It’s interesting, too, what you note about it being more acceptable for girls to gravitate toward boy toys than the reverse. It mirrors what happens as we get older, too. As long as it’s within certain parameters, girls are allowed to act boyish. With the rise of the tomboy in the nineteenth century U.S., that became an even more stark difference.

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  4. Sourcerer

    Reblogged this on Sourcerer and commented:
    I overslept, and I’m still thinking about how to respond to the questions, but do check out Natacha’s post on femail characters in children’s programming and think about chiming it.

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  5. vicbriggs

    A great article, Natacha.
    I will attempt to answer your questions succinctly.
    1. Which children and youth programs do you believe give a good place to female characters?

    In Britain there is a very interesting children’s series on CBBC: “Horrible Histories”. The are more men than women involved in the show, but the two female actor/comedians have a strong presence nonetheless and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the creators made an effort to include many strong women from history, both famous and quite a few that are less known. They had one episode were the Suffragettes featured as well as another that celebrated women’s contribution to the war effort, for example. There are many stories that would appeal to girls and inspire them, and although history series have always been biased, I believe that this one does a better job in addressing that bias than most others. It is fun, it is educative and it does give a good place to female characters – so I think it does meet your criteria.

    2. What do you think could be done to improve the current situation?

    I liked your suggestion of each writer changing their own work in a small way, simply by changing the gender of their existing characters (for work in progress) to have an equal number of male and female characters.
    Adding more programming where the main character is female and does not have a gendered role (job/family situation etc) would go far in correcting existing perceptions of women on and off screen.
    I took a look at the test you mentioned and I saw that there is an LGBT one as well. It made me think of the American show “Modern Families”. While the show meets the LGBT test requirements, it does not meet the Bechdel Test as far as I’m concerned. I find that all the main female characters are given stereotypical roles, even though they are themselves strong and layered characters. One is a stay-at-home mother, and so was the other until she started working for her father. Not sure how “modern” these modern families truly are.

    3. Which other institutes, organizations, groups, do you know of that work towards promoting better female representation in children and youth media?
    I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this question, although I do believe that it is a very important one and I will do some research on this.
    If they see her, they can be her… I have a journalist friend who is trying to break into automotive broadcasting and one of her main reasons for this is exactly this: She wants to be a role model for other girls so that the industry would be more open to women in the future. That is certainly a worthwhile project in my view.

    Thank you again.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      Thank you! I am glad to get perspectives from different countries, as I know we all have our specificity.

      I like what you are saying about this historical/pedagogical program. It is great that they are trying to include female characters/figures in it and that the actresses are doing a solid job. I will look it up as this type of programs can be tricky to be made engaging.

      I discovered this suggestion/quote through Geena Davis’s guest column, and it added to how I liked her work and contributions to make things change. I don’t watch Modern Families but that doesn’t sound utterly modern to me. Thank you for mentioning the LGBT aspect too. In my view, feminist and LGBT matters are related for they all work towards a more egalitarian and accepting society.

      I wish good success to your friend in the career she has chosen. Role models are important!

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      1. vicbriggs

        I agree, Natacha: the issues we discuss on Feminist Fridays are not confined within any borders, although of course we are limited in part to a Western-centric narrative. Perhaps in time we will be able to find other bloggers to add perspectives from elsewhere as well.
        I don’t know how easily accessible CBBC is outside the UK, or whether BBC World includes some of their programming. I do hope you can find it. They have a song included in each episode however and these can be found on YouTube.
        Here are a few links that I think are relevant to this discussion, as their songs aim to entertain as well as educate. Let me know what you think:
        The suffragette’s song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEEqFao2Ank
        The World War Two Girls Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkYGXHmtZcg
        Rosa Parks Equality Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNupxNLmv1E

        Regards,
        Vic

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        1. Natacha Guyot Post author

          It would be wonderful if we could find other bloggers to expand our perspectives! Hopefully this will happen one day.

          I will see whether I can find Horrible Histories, or at least read more on the program. Thank you very much for the links! It is great that they brought certain significant moment in recent history in which women were pivotal. Thank you again for bringing it up in this discussion!

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  6. kateywrites

    I’m raising 3 girls and spend a lot of time thinking about, planning, and evaluating the media they are exposed to. Even though they are young (4,6,and 8 right now) I think it’s important to discuss gender roles as well as other stereotypes that they see on TV/media. We have frank talks about their viewing: discussing violence, truthfulness, and gender roles. You’d be surprised how much they notice and can talk about intelligently (or maybe you wouldn’t!)

    I’ve found that CommonSenseMedia.org is a good source for reviews of media of all types (apps, games, movies, tv) because it gives approximate age ranges, lists questionable subject matter by type (consumerism, sexuality, violence, etc) and often gives talking points for parents and kids to guide discussion.

    My girls do love My Little Pony (as much as I tried to avoid it) and I agree – it shows strong friendships between diverse and flawed individuals. They also really enjoy the show Horseland, which models conflicts and friendships between some strong, competitive and fairly diverse girls (one latina, one black, different socio-econimic backgrounds) at a riding stable. Our third strong-female-character favorite is H20, an Australian series we stream on Netflix here in the USA. It’s definitely for teens/tweens. 3 girls who are not originally friends all come under a spell that turns them into mermaids when they touch water. They form friendships with each other, rescue people and animals, and learn who they can trust with their secrets.

    I have been trying my best to avoid the Barbie line of movies. While the females in them are often good at solving problems and emphasize friendship, there is such an focus on beauty and fashion that I can’t get past it. My girls know why I can’t stand these movies – but they want to watch them all the same because their friends watch them and sing the songs. It’s a tough call sometimes.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going! You’re doing great work here.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      Frank talks are good and important! I’m not surprised about how much they can notice, which is also another reason why you being able to have frank and intelligent talks with her is good. Noticing things only to get answers we know/feel aren’t taking into account what we are saying can be problematic, even during childhood. So, thumbs up! (I grew up as an only child and don’t have any kid of my own so far, so I’m very glad to see mothers partaking in this discussion!)

      I didn’t know about CommonSenseMedia.org. Thank you for pointing it out! I know the generics about ratings in the US, but in France we have more or less stopped using them for a very long time. It isn’t uncommon for something R rated in the US to be barely PG in France. I don’t think this is a good idea because it doesn’t give any guidelines anymore. I know that generic ratings aren’t everything, but I think that media and families would benefit from having them be better used again in this country.

      I didn’t know about Horseland, but the fact that they present a fairly diverse group of female characters sound clever. I heard about H20 but didn’t know the topic! I will look them up then! After all, I didn’t watch the old My Little Pony when I was a child, but like the new one as a grown up!

      I can’t really speak of the Barbie line of movies, for I have never seen a single one. I loved playing with my Barbie dolls when a child (until I was about 13-14 for imaginative play) but never dabbed into the rest of the products/productions.

      Thank you! I was happy to be able to keeping the discussion going and was lucky to have got some ideas for this topic thanks to different bloggers’ posts in the past few months.

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  7. hannahgivens

    I’ve always had mostly male characters in my writing, and I really blame that on the lack of them in my fandoms. People rave about Uhura, for example, and now that I know the context I love her too, but as a kid with no context, why would I care about her when the nuances of Spock and Kirk were onscreen? There were awesome ladies on Doctor Who, but not AS awesome as the Doctor or the Master. Etc.

    However, now that I’m aware that I need to write more female characters, they just appear. I also randomly assign gender to incidental characters. I really like that advice about randomly changing characters to female and specifying about crowds — see my post on Captain America. 🙂

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      It’s interesting that you had mostly male characters in your writing. I only have some basic knowledge of both Star Trek and Doctor Who as I watch neither, but I indeed heard that the male characters were predominant. I had quite a few female role models in stories when I grew up so my writing always had a lot of female characters in them, and writing males could be a bit daunting to me, though I enjoy writing both, especially as I grew up.

      I’ll have to check your Captain America post, as I am unsure whether I read it. 🙂

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      1. hannahgivens

        I’ve always had some female characters (I had a lot of brother-sister pairs in my early stories especially) but they just didn’t seem to be my default, especially when I started writing original stories. I think in fanfic I did more Mary Suing so there were more girls.

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  8. Sourcerer

    I haven’t said much because I’m not really up on the children’s media, but I’m enjoying these comments – there’s a lot to think about here.

    I like the writing advice. One of of the first revision tricks I learned in my undergrad fiction workshop was to change the gender of a character and see what happens to the story. I never thought of it as a way of leveling out gender representation, necessarily, but I can see that it would be good for that.

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    1. Natacha Guyot Post author

      I am glad that you are enjoying the discussion! Thank you again for sharing the link!

      I never took a writing workshop (except some classes about script writing when I was in cinema school). It’s great that changing the gender of a character to see what happens was mentioned in your undergrad fiction one! I never really thought about it before reading Geena Davis’s guest column but it does make sense for gender representation too. Having different options to approach it might help in the long run, especially with sometimes simple tips. They don’t fix everything but a small start is better than nothing!

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