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.
- 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: