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The Trouble with Female Super Heroes and Other Musings by Zoe Gaetjens
Last year for a period of time American McDonalds gave out DC Comics super heroes as the Happy Meal toy. They were pretty cool and the best thing was that there were male superheroes and female superheroes. Having a son and two daughters, this was fantastic. No one missed out, no one went home disappointed. McDonald's was getting it right. Gender equality nailed. Or so we thought. When we took the toys home, we began to notice a significant difference between the male and female heroes. All of the males did things. One had a working bow that shot an arrow. Superman spoke. Another had a button to press to activate his wings. Switches, levers, activity. How about the females? At best you could move their arms. Oh, and they had hair that could be brushed. Oh, the fun to be had! The boy's toys were active and dynamic while the girls were static and silenced.
Generally, I'm happy to let things like this ride. There are clear differences between boys and girls and that is a good thing. The problem is that when you start looking it is all too clear that our society has a tendency to belittle and block girls. Recently, in a waiting room, I witnessed a little boy sliding around on the ground while his older sister was forced to sit still because playing on the floor was 'unlady like'. Where is the equality in that? At a picnic I heard a father, angrily telling his upset son not to be a girl. I can only assume it was because the dad believed that only girls are allowed to feel emotions and that sensitivity is not a quality boys should exhibit. Way to develop stilted emotion intelligence and to make being female into an insult.
The thing is, girls need opportunities just as boys do. They need challenges and inspiration. And boys need nurture, love, and the language to discuss and chance to experience emotions.
So what does this have to do with children's literature? Quite a lot really. As writers we have the opportunity, nay the imperative, to shape children's minds. We need to entertain, but we can also inform, and teach. The way we do this should be subtle. No child wants to be preached at by a book; they have enough of that elsewhere. Nevertheless, we do want our books to open worlds of possibility. We want their messages to be positive and we want children to learn from them.
A great example of a book that does this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This is a book that shows children examples of real women who have done amazing things. Women for children to aspire to. On International Women's Day, a video advertising this book circulated Facebook, The Ugly Truth of Children's Books. It's here if you didn't see it. As well as talking about the book the clip sets down a challenge to look at our children's bookshelves. It tells you to remove books without female characters. Books where female characters exist but don't speak. Books where they might speak but they hold no dreams or aspirations. If you take up the challenge I hope you fare better then they did on screen, their shelves were quite like Mother Hubbard's…bare.
After viewing this, I questioned myself and set self a goal. Does my writing reflect the world I want to see? Are my manuscripts going to inspire my daughters to strive to reach their goals or to be stationary and silenced like the McDonald's super hero toys? I will be aiming for the former. Additionally, I am challenging myself to create male characters who show genuine emotion and who care for those around them. Who knows what I will end up with?
A well-balanced children’s book is always a joy to read. Basically I believe it’s only the first step for a writer, Zoe, because it will take more than books to rectify gender inequality. The next step is acceptance by the majority, by our culture, otherwise we are writing for those already converted. For any story to uphold equality, affirmation must be followed up by parents and caregivers, reinforced by gatekeepers, read in classrooms and made available in public libraries. Don’t cosset these books in a high-end bookstore. Authors should give their book to that demeaning football coach, contact that one-eyed food outlet, that biased publisher or talk to teachers with segregated bookshelves. Visit under-funded schools and daycare groups, drop in to neighbourhood centres and talk to families with no books and poor literacy skills. Debunk the differences with your writing and offer everyone all sides of the gender story, emotions, aspirations and choices. You can do it, and I think you will!
Thank you Gretchen for your comment and encouragement. I absolutely agree with you. I do love that books evoke conversation and discussion for even the littlest in our families and communities. It is only the first step but it's a good one!