Princesses as feminist

October 20, 2008

Sarah Haskins’ latest video has gotten me thinking about princesses. On the one hand, they’re the definition of empowerful. On the other hand, it’s better than housework.

Obviously, I am not going to defend the way that we gender-segregate kids’ toys. It’s pretty blatantly wrong: boys can be firefighters and knights and scientists and anything else they want to be; when boys play pretend, they get to be the characters that have cool powers and do cool things. Girls get to be shoppers, mothers, and princesses; when they play pretend, they’re being kidnapped or buying clothes or doing laundry.

So, given that girls’ choices for play pretty uniformly suck– of mothers, shoppers, and princesses, isn’t it better to be a princess?

Maybe I’ve grown up with more subversive princess role models than most, but princesses at least have some institutional authority. Princesses don’t get stuck with the drudge work; princesses have adventures! Okay, in most Disney movies, that means doing drudge work until someone else’s adventure culminates in your rescue, but when I was little my friends and I knew that that wasn’t what being a princess was about. That was just how you became a princess. Once you were one, you had an entire kingdom to explore, and everyone had to do what you said!

It was actually slightly unbalanced in our favor, for a change. Nobody wanted prince dolls; those were boring. Princes are all interchangeable. But princesses are all uniquely fascinating. We would make up tragic curses set upon us, or herculean tasks required by evil relatives, and even though the prince’s story was always the same (he conquers evil and gets the girl) the princess was different every time.

It’s still an obviously problematic narrative, but it at least allowed us to take our princess dolls and imagine stories that were centered around our desires and motivated by our actions.

Now, it’s possible that my friends and I were the sort of girls who would have made up unconsciously-feminist narratives no matter what toys we were given. Except that, thinking back, we received the baby dolls and fashion dolls in equal numbers, but we weren’t interested in them as the princess paraphernalia. There’s not a lot you can do to claim motherhood or shopaholicism as a way expressing your own autonomy. Inherent in the idea is the fact that you are defined by your children or by your things.

So, sure, “princess” isn’t great as a cultural frame, but at least it gave us just enough wiggle room to do our own thing. We could have done worse.


Books that changed my life; or, the importance of “kid books.”

September 25, 2008

I found this article on StumbleUpon and it really rang true with me. The idea is that the books we read as children can change our thinking more profoundly than any books we read as adults, because when we are young we are looking to books to explain how the world words. Sure, we can still learn things from books as adults…

“But when a 14-year-old gushes that the Twilight series are the best books she’s ever read in her whole life, it’s easy for grownups to forget that this is not necessarily hyperbole. At that age, we haven’t heard any clichés, and even dumb ideas are new.”

It made me think a lot about the books I read as a kid, and how they shaped my expectations of the world. I started with Little House on the Prairie (because the main character was named Laura just like me!), then read every Trixie Belden book (who was like Nancy Drew with brains instead of boyfriends), followed by every Wizard of Ox book, and those books by the guy who did “Half Magic,” but the best, by far, were Tamora Pierce’s books. I found them when I was 10, maybe, and I read every single one over and over again. I still buy everything she writes, even though it’s too young for me. I also read Harry Potter starting when I was 11, and loved the fact that I was always exactly the same age as Harry.

Now, I can see a pretty clear pattern here. Little House on the Prairie, Trixie Belden, and Tamora Pierce’s books are all dominated by strong women. The Wizard of Oz and Half Magic series are about 50/50 gender-wise, even among the kick-ass adventurous heroes. Pierce’s books and, surprisingly, the Oz books were very racially diverse as well. Harry Potter is the only one that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors (I think it probably passes somewhere in those hundreds of pages, but female friendships were not given much screen time at all, making it compare very unfavorably to the others.)

And so, when I was looking to books to figure out how the world was supposed to work, what made someone a bad guy or a good guy, what was fair and what was unfair, when I was creating my ideas of normal— this is what I was reading. Is it any wonder I’m a feminist these days? (Is it any wonder I’m supremely disappointed by the sexism rampant in the world?) It’s what my books led me to expect.

Ralizing this about myself has also given me a newfound respect for “kid’s books.” I’ve been bemoaning the fact that Tamora Pierce still write YA fiction, since I want her to do something for me, something I can really sink my teeth into. But now that’s the last thing I want– I want her to keep writing great books for young teens, so that the next “me” still has wonderful, world-changing books to look forward to! I’d enjoy a denser Pierce book, but it wouldn’t matter to me the way that a YA book would matter to a younger girl. And although, since she’s a self-declared feminist, I want to hog her all to myself, I think it’s more important that she continues to reach out to kids and show them her beautiful picture of normal.

What books did you love to read as a kid? Would you say they’ve had an impact on who you are and how you see the world today? What other books would you recommend to younger kids?

I’m sticking by Tammy. If you know anyone of the right age– boy OR girl!– do them a favor and give them one of her books at your next opportunity. They come in quartets (and doubles, these days) so pick the first of any set and you won’t regret it.

Lesbians in science fiction: give me more!

September 22, 2008

Earlier, while talking about the possibility of a relationship between Talia and Ivanova in Babylon 5, I commented,

I tend to err on the side of lesbians. Otherwise there aren’t enough.

In other words, when there is subtext that makes a lesbian relationship plausible, even if it’s never stated by the text, I will take that wiggle room and assume that the relationship is there. I’ve talked before about how this holds true for Xena, but I find that I do it a lot. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were pretty much official, in my mind, and after Talia spent the night in Ivanova’s room (and her bed), I believed in them as well. All it takes is a close relationship between two women, and I’ll take the chance to slip myself in.

What’s odd is that there are so few close friendship between two women for me to read into in the first place. I mean, even in the stuff with huge casts– Harry Potter? Hermione and Ginny speak, on occassion, but that’s it. Lord of the Rings? It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. Can you believe that? Nine hours and it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test! I tried looking at my bookcase to find more examples, and even though I’ve got a lot of kick-ass women, they’re all in relationships with men; the few that are single (even if temporarily) are always surrounded by male friends. It’s no wonder that I started settling for imaginary lesbians years ago.

Even my very favourite sci fi author, Lois McMaster Bujold, who has included every other letter in the acronym, has managed to forget the L. I was surprised to realize this, since she had a recurring hermaphrodite character (ah, the future!) as well as an entire novel from the viewpoint of a gay man. But nope, no lesbians!

In fact, the only lesbians I have on my bookshelf are Rosethorn and Lark (bisexual, but together) and Daja (totally out!!) from Tamora Pierce’s books. They’re awesome (!!!), but written for young teens, and while I still enjoy them, they’re an afternoon’s light read and not really up to the task of being my Only Lesbians.

Ooh, also: Trouble and Her Friends. It’s and OLD cyberpunk book that I stumbled upon in my Gender and Cyberculture class, and it’s all about this group of hackers who banded together because they were gay (an impulse I totally get). I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t end with with death for our main lesbian couple, unlike a lot of lesbian love stories (see: Battlestar Galactica. Well, actually, don’t; I don’t like that show much at all.)

Originally, I wanted to talk about how I always play as a boy in Harvest Moon, so that I can give myself a feminine name and marry the girls, and just pretend to be a butch lesbian, but instead I’m going to leave this as a desperate attempt to think of excellent female characters who loved other excellent female characters. If you can think of any, whether they’re Officially gay or not, please let me know! I finally have some gay friends now, but it gets a little lonely sometimes, in the world of science fiction.