My Daughter's Grrrilla Tactics: #Unapologetic

The Barbie Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover got all the buzz, but  it was nowhere to be found yesterday at our local book store. Instead, this cover caught my 10-year-old's eye: swimsuit issue

"Ick!" My daughter said. "What does that have to do with sports, Mom?"

"Absolutely nothing," I responded.

She  glanced at the next magazine over,  also Sports Illustrated, with this cover of Mikaela Shiffrin looking very real and really happy with her incredible accomplishments.

shiffrin

My daughter looked back and forth for a moment, then grabbed the  Shiffrin cover and put it on top of the swimsuit issue, blocking it from view.

"There," she said, satisfied, and walked away.

Yes. That's my grrrl.

How We've Decamped from Science

A recent Christian Science Monitorarticle confirmed that there are still gaps between girls and boys in STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) subjects despite larger gains in education for women over the past 40 years.  Among the high school graduating class of 2011, for instance, 80% of computer-science course Advanced Placement test-takers, 77% of those taking the physics exam for electricity and magnetism and 74 percent of mechanics exams. Also, 59 percent of those taking Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP courses offered in the subject, were male. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows  continued achievement gaps between boys and girls in STEM fields as well, especially science. Boys outperform girls at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade level with the biggest gap being in 12th grade.

No bueno, right?

I was thinking about this the other day, when I attended the orientation for my daughter's drama camp, a wonderful program that centers on Elizabethan history, stage combat and Shakespearien drama. Be still my English major's heart, right?

As it happens, she's attending it with a male friend. He  will be one of maybe three boys in the entire camp. I was truly saddened thinking about how the  arts have become a  "girl thing" (not to mention the irony given that all the female parts in Shakespeare's plays were originally played by boys). It's impoverishing to boys' souls when they are tacitly discouraged from drama, fine art, writing, reading, music.

What ARE boys doing? Well, sports, of course. Science camps. Robotics. Things my girl did up until this summer. Somehow, without my noticing,  we slipped into stereotypical girl land. I think that is exactly what happens: according to the article, girls begin to fall behind in STEM in elementary school and the gap just gets wider. In part, no doubt, because of  something going on in the classroom. But the culture outside of school is also to blame:  from the get-go girls are rewarded in their play and by adults  for how they look rather than what they do. Even the putative "science kits" for girls, which I've written about before  are more about cultivating obsessions with beauty and consumerism than actual science. To that list I'd add the HELLACIOUS video "Science: It's A Girl Thing" by the clearly-on-crack European Commission that's been making the rounds lately. I guess they didn't read the recent study of middle school girls  from the University of Michigan  that found that attempts to "glamorize" women in  STEM seem to be less motivating to girls than more "everyday" female STEM role models. So try this video instead:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_176279&src_vid=g032MPrSjFA&v=vpgc_cvCsP4&feature=iv

There are also the extra-curricular activities we think about for our girls. This is not an easy one for me as a parent. I'm not a STEM person myself. Nor is my husband, who is a documentarian. Still....our daughter loves math. She adores science. She is a regular at the science museum that's down the street from our home. We listen obsessively to the fabulous They Might Be Giants "Here Comes Science" album. Here are a couple of vids from that one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0zION8xjbM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf33ueRXMzQ

And even with all that, we ended up this summer with nary a STEM activity in sight. Nor will she see many boys in her activities over the next few months, reinforcing the idea that they are more "other" than is necessary (though we do discuss a great deal why there are no boys at horse camp or drama camp).

The truth is, I probably will never enroll my daughter in as many extra-curriculuars as I should that would keep her brain STEM alive. I am a passionate under-scheduler and I prioritize the arts, then something physical and, eventually all will fall by the wayside for Bat Mitzvah training.  I depend on her school, her teachers, to stoke her interest--and all their students' interest--in those critical subjects. I hope they do. I hope they notice when the little differences begin emerging so that they don't become the kind of big gaps that will, later, limit them in their choice of professions and earning power.

 

***

Yeah, I know I haven't written about Brave. I was on a deadline. Now it seems too late. So, briefly, I thought the movie was okay. It wasn't my favorite Pixar movie by a longshot. If considered as a "princess" movie it was certainly superior to most (though Mulan I and II are still my favorites). I could talk about how we deserve broader representations of females on film, ones that aren't royal (it seems that a number of people can't even remember that princesses were not, until recently, the only image for girls allowed on screen).

I could also talk about how I didn't understand what made Merida "brave" per se. Her mother was certainly brave. But what was brave about her? How did she change? She changed her relationship to her mother because her mother changed. In the revelatory scene when she's talking to the men her mother is feeding her lines, she's not coming to anything. It seemed to me that what made her "brave" was that they slapped a bow and a quiver on her. But that's a symbol, not a character trait.

I would've found the movie more interesting, too, if the men hadn't been such dolts. What if her suitors were actually appealing? Was the issue that Merida didn't want to marry someone she didn't choose or she didn't want to marry an idiot?

And, then, while the mother was fine, it would have been nice if there were some other female roles in the movie--a friend, say, or lady-in-waiting. It was as if Pixar was so afraid males wouldn't go that they didn't want to have any extraneous females muddying up the place. Imagine, for a second, a movie in which the two main characters were male and every other character in the film was female, without comment  (ok, yeah, the cook in Brave was female, but still). The movie did nothing to change the statistics that the Geena Davis Institute published on the percentage of speaking characters  in family movies held by females: it remains a paltry %29..

But really, I think the issue is this: the discussion of the movie is symptomatic of the problem. There are so few female protagonists in family films (or any other film) that when there finally is one, we can't just look at it as a movie. We can't just say, yeah, it was okay. It has to have all this weight on it, all this pressure. It has to be a referendum. If there were just more, more, more then Brave could've just been another Pixar film, no more, no less, instead of a major event because they FINALLY, after twelve films, realized they hadn't made one starring a woman.

So what do I think of Brave? What I think of Brave is that I wish I didn't have to think so much about Brave. You know what would have been REALLY radical? In our screening (and I assume at theaters) there was a short before the movie called "La Luna." It featured two old men and a little boy in a row boat whose job involved changing the phases of the moon. What if the old men and been women? What if the boy had been a girl? What if there had been no comment about that? Seeing the short before the much-ballyhooed "first Pixar princess" (note that "princess" was at some point substituted for "female" as if the two are interchangeable) reminded me that when a character is male it is assumed to be universal, and so goes without comment. Only when she is female does she become specific. I want to see so many females on screen that we, too, are universal.

Also, I wish I could get my hair to look like that.

If Brave didn't do it for you, or even if it did, I hope you'll also take a look at the movies on my fight fun with fun page. And be sure to check out Studio Ghibli's latest: Arietty based on The Borrowers. Disney buried it, which was a shame.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp2nb9Vq0yY

 

DREAMY reviews for "Kepler's Dream"

I wrote earlier this week about the must-read YA novel, Kepler's Dream, which was officially published yesterday. I'm thrilled to report that the book is already racking up stellar reviews. In this coming Sunday's New York Times "Book Review" the discerning Dani Shapiro--herself a wonderful writer--calls the book  "delightful" and "marvelous" and  "full of smart, subversive commentary on the numbing effects of contemporary youth culture." She adds:

But in the end it is Ella's voice--utterly captivating, idiosyncratic, rich and memorable--that ties all the pieces together in, yes, a kind of dream logic, making this not only an entertaining book but an absorbing and artful one.

From Library Journal:

Ella’s divorced mother has leukemia and her father is busy guiding trips for his fly-fishing-trip business so the 11-year-old is sent to stay with her grandmother. Neither of her parents gets along well with her father’s mother, and Ella hasn’t ever met her. She joins eccentric Violet Von Stern at her adobe home and names it The House of Mud. Under the brilliant Albuquerque’s night sky, she wishes on stars for her mom’s recovery. Her grandmother sternly corrects and lectures her, but Ella’s stay is full of interesting surprises. One of grandma’s books, Kepler’s Dream, has been stolen from her extensive library, and it’s worth thousands of dollars. Ella puts her detective skills to work to find the missing book while discovering the importance of family. Bell has created a fascinating cast of eclectic characters who are sure to capture and retain readers’ attention. Smart and thoughtful, the story sparkles like Kepler’s favorite stars in Bell’s debut offering for children.–Helen Foster James, University of California at San Diego

And Booklist:

While her mother is in treatment for leukemia, 11-year-old Ella goes to spend the summer with the grandmother she has never known. She is initially intimidated by the formidable relative she calls the GM (for grandmother or, alternately, general major). Despite worries about her mother, Ella falls into the rhythm of life in Albuquerque, befriends a few people, and begins to uncover family secrets. When the theft of a rare book, Kepler’s Dream, upsets her grandmother, Ella and a friend attempt to find it and unmask the thief. However, the mystery always takes a backseat to the revelation of characters and relationships in past and present. Punctuated by the occasional letter to her mother, Ella’s narration is fresh, distinctive, and full of dry humor. After she discovers that her grandmother is a stickler for correct word usage, Ella privately refers to the GM’s home as the GGCF (Good Grammar Correctional Facility). One of the pleasures of the novel is Ella’s gradual realization of what she has in common with her initially aloof grandmother. Two strong individuals under stress, they come across as fully rounded characters, and even the minor players here are distinctive, credible, and memorable. An impressive debut for Bell. — Carolyn Phelan

Congratulations, Juliet Bell!

 

I feel so passionately about this book. I so want to get it out there. Rare is the book for middle graders these days that is beautifully written; has a very real girl at its heart; and has a well-plotted, age-appropriate, gore-free story!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfD6CLGmwfM

 

 

Read These Now!!!

Looking for a  new “fight fun with fun” book for your middle grade daughter (or son….)? Honey, have I got two for you. Kepler’s Dream, the debut YA novel by Juliet Bell, is about 11-year-old Ella, a clever, compassionate  girl whose mother’s cancer treatment and father’s disengagement exile her to   “Broken Family Camp” for the summer: staying with her severe-natured grandmother in her peacock-ridden hacienda in Albuquerque. Neither of them is happy about the arrangement. Ella is afraid her mother may die, but all her grandmother seems to care about is her crazy library full of books When a rare and much-loved volume, Kepler's Dream of the Moon, is stolen, however, Ella decides it's up to her to find it. The result  could be the key to healing her broken family. This is the kind of book I used to love as a girl, back in the days before the vampires and zombies and murder-tainment (nothing against Hunger Games)  struck. Ella feels utterly real, her voice just the right amount of snarky, her struggles relevant and relatable. I loved that nearly all of the central relationships were among women (though plenty of complex men are in there, too), especially the initially-hostile  one between Ella and her friend-to-be Rosie. Just because they’re the same age doesn’t mean they have to like each other, right? There’s a mystery at the heart of Kepler’s Dream, which I won't spoil, but really, this  a family issue story in the tradition of Paul Zindel or Judy Bloom. As Kirkus said when describing this “utterly satisfying” book:

Ella learns how blame can tear a family apart and how forgiveness and the things of which dreams are made can heal. The credibly realistic resolution leaves Ella firmly grounded with deepened family ties, a new friend and some hard-won horseback-riding skills.

 

Meanwhile, back in the land of fantasy and fairy tales, Daisy and I have been riveted by the audiobook of Shannon Hale'The Goose Girl. It is performed by our beloved Full Cast Audio and, as usual, they do not disappoint. Amazon says this book is for 6th-9th graders and they may well enjoy it, but as a read-aloud, Daisy and I were riveted (and she’s 8 ½ these days). She has friends in second grade who are enjoying it as well.

You may be familiar with the Grimm’s story that inspired this tale, but Shannon Hale has taken what amounts to a (very bloody) sketch and turned it into a (less bloody) masterpiece. At 16, Anidori–Kiladra Talianna Isillee, Crown Princess of Kildenree is sweet, if naïve and cosseted. She possesses the gift of “animal speak, ” something little valued by her imperial—and imperious—mother, the queen. When she’s shipped off to a neighboring kingdom to marry its prince (and keep the peace) she is easily overthrown by a mutinous entourage headed by her lady-in-waiting. Ani barely escapes with her life. Eventually she disguises herself as a goose girl. Before the story is over, she learns lessons in courage, justice, perseverance and coming in to your own as a woman and a person. In the end, birthright doesn’t make Ani a princess—her character, forged by experience, and her brave actions do. I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough.

Both Kepler's Dream and Goose Girl are about girls who face enormous obstacles they have to work hard to overcome--that only they can overcome. And through making hard choices, facing unforeseen challenges, they make not only their lives but the lives of those around them--friends, family, strangers--better. They come into power, and that is a beautiful thing.

Enjoy.

Foot Binding 2012: Of Princess Shoes, Parents, & Outdoor Play

I can't get this new study on preschoolers and outdoor play out of my mind. Initially brought to my attention by KJ Dell'Antonia at Motherlode, it found that roughly half of parents of preschoolers did not take their children outside to play regularly--suggesting that those children are not getting the level of physical activity they need (see KJ's post for important caveats). But here's the kicker: parents were 16% more likely to take preschool boys outside than preschool girls. Why? Researchers theorized it was ingrained (and probably unconscious) stereotypes about how much exercise girls need. This sets the stage for sedentariness in adolescence and beyond. Which, I'm guessing,  plays into distorted body image and unhealthy dieting. Great for the 60.9 billion dollar diet industry (with its 95% failure rate); not so great for girls. So you know I'm going to loop this back to the Princess Industrial Complex, right? Girls don't  seem to "need"--or even want-- to play outside when they're flouncing around in their princess dresses. What's more, you can't run, jump and get dirty  when you're wearing your  miniature high heels (or even your sparkly flats) or worried about chipping your nail polish.

Think that’s a stretch?  Melissa Wardy over at Pigtail Pals recently wrote about an exchange that she overheard between her daughter Amelia, and a friend:

“Your shoes are ugly,” said Amelia's kindergarten classmate.

“No they are not,” replied the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal, Amelia.

“They are. Look how pretty mine are,” the classmate taps her toes for emphasis.

“They are the same pair of shoes. Like the exact same,” explains Amelia.

“They aren’t the same. Mine still have all of the pretty sparkles. I didn’t get them messed up,” boasted the girl.

“Listen, who cares about pretty? All I care about is playing,” retorts Amelia.

"...Amelia, you should care a little bit about being pretty or you won’t get a boyfriend,” says the classmate.

On her girls' studies blog Rebecca Hains broadened the lens of that exchange  with pictures from her local Stride Rite store. You remember Stride Rite, don’t you? They used to sell cute, sturdy footwear for little ones? Like these saddle shoes (which I had and loved ever so much) from an ad in the 1970s?

No more. Rebecca reports that girls are now instructed to “Sparkle with Every Step”..... like Cinderella, whose glass-slipper shod likeness graces the display.

 

 

As for boys? They get …Spiderman!

Rebecca went to Stride Rite's web site and found more of the same: "Girls are meant to be looked at, so their play shoes are a route to prettiness, while boys are meant to be active, so their play shoes are made for play." Her excerpts from Stride Rite's gallery below:

Cinderella sneakers “transport your little princess to a world of fantasy”

Hello Kitty Keds are “the cutest sneakers on the block”

Glitzy Pets sneakers help girls “to really shine and steal the show”

Spiderman sneakers offer “light-up powers,” “no matter what kind of web he spins”

Star Wars sneakers with “lighted technology” are good for “your little adventurer’s feet”

Lightning McQueen sneakers, also with “lighted technology,” let boys “be as fast as the legendary Cars Lightning McQueen on-and-off the track”

Rebecca connects this to Colette Dowling’s Frailty Myth which holds:

Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits.... Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.’”

So. we may not be stunting our girls' piggies' by wrapping them in cloth bandages, but we seem to be binding their feet--or binding them through their feet--all the same.

My personal blow against the Princess footwear industry (which, mark my words is priming girls for a lifetime of painful, sky-high—in both price and scale-- heels that will leave them be-bunioned and miserable) was to allow Daisy to pick out a pair of classic Van’s slip-ons. Her choice of flame skater shoes became her “trademark” from preschool through first grade, one that her classmates, male and female, admired and even copied. Remember my fight-fun-with-fun philosophy? There it is in practice. D got to wear fabulous shoes that were comfortable, cool, and broadened her notion of femininity. She also got a tacit lesson in the benefits of individuality over following the crowd. Beat that Cinderella.

As a culture (based on box office receipts) we are currently obsessed with one of the most radical and self-determining female  characters ever to appear on screen: The Hunger Games' Katinss Everdeen.  Check out her shoes.

“Exceptional” girls and women  like Katniss  crop up periodically in the culture, female warriors who transcend stereotypes and gender norms.  Ripley of the Alien franchise is one. The girls in  Mirror, Mirror, as well as the upcoming  Snow White and the Huntsman  and Pixar's Brave appear to be as well.  And, of course, there was Buffy, who took a glorious stand against the "chosen" girl in the series' last episode with this speech:

From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

I recalled  those lines as I read the end of Pigtail Pal's sparkle-shoes post:

Amelia tells her friend: “You should care less about being pretty and more about playing with us. My mom says there’s lots of different ways to be a girl,”

“I don’t want to mess up my shoes,” says the classmate, which is met by an audible sigh from Amelia, who sprints off to play in her busted up not-so-sparkly-anymore shoes.
I'd like to see a world in which girls like Amelia--girls who play hard and often, who live fully--are not  the exception.

 

Is it Contradictory to Embrace the "Princess Boy?"

In today's Motherlode Emily Rosenbaum struggles with what seems to her to be a contradiction in the how she parents her daughter vs. her sons. The revelation was triggered when her  3-year-old girl returned from the Home Depot (with Emily's husband) brandishing a Disney Princess light switch plate (in case you're keeping track: that would be DP item #25,978 of the 26,000+  I mention in CAMD). It probably looked something like this:

Emily was furious, but her husband said:

You know, you’re reacting just the way I react when Zach wants to buy pink clothes. You should allow her to express herself as much as you let the boys do it.

That pulled Emily up short. Turns out their son, Zach, "is the only boy in his second-grade class to regularly rock a pink hoodie and pink socks. Benjamin spent his toddler years dressed as Tinkerbell, and we potty trained him by giving him plastic Disney princesses as reward." What bothers her is the idea that her daughter is into pink and princess. "It's a parenting Catch-22," she writes:

We have excellent books like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter [Aw, gee, thanks, say I!] that deconstruct why princesses are so injurious to girls. Yet Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy has us jumping up and down to support a boy’s right to like pretty things. We gag at nail polish marketed to children, yet we are delighted by a J. Crew ad featuring a boy in toenail polish.

Which is it? Are princesses bad for kids or part of their right to express themselves? Should we shield our children from the nefarious influence of cosmetics or embrace them?

I don't necessarily see these positions as mutually exclusive. Because really, it's not about "princesses." It's about recognizing the limitations our culture places on both girls and boys through its selling of very narrow ideas of femininity and masculinity.

So let's unpack this a bit.  Emily's husband says girls are "expressing themselves" by buying into a $4 billion marketing blitz that is geared towards convincing girls this is  the only way for them to act out femininity. Remember that developmentally, most 3-year-old girls do want to express their girlness (and boys their boyness). The princess industrial complex exploits and distorts that impulse.  Take a look, for instance, at the winner of the contest I held  when the CAMD paperback first came out.  It's one of the best illustrations I've seen of how today's  princess play flattens girls individuality and imaginations. They're not  "expressing" femininity so much as latching onto one  heavily marketed aspect that has been sold to an unhealthy extreme. I mean look at  how many DP items there are at Home Depot alone! That's not including non-Disney items (search princess instead of Disney Princess). What other choices are little girls offered?

That brings me to the  second issue--the pendulum-swing we often engage in when we discuss this topic. The choices seem to be that  a girl is either "expressing her femininity" by ensconcing herself in pink and princess or shunning  "girlie stuff" and sleeping with a football. To me the real task is to find a "third way" that exposes  girls to and allows them expression of a broader, healthier range of ideas about femininity: ones  that aren't perpetually linked to appearance and consumerism and  that aren't putting them on a path to define themselves through that connection for the rest of their lives. That's why I added the "fight fun with fun" section to this site--to offer  at least some options for cultivating a different, celebratory, joyous vision of girls' femininity that is unhooked from the current script.

Okay, now, onto the princess boy. Honestly, who doesn't like a few sparkles? I put them on the cover of my book! Everyone should be able to indulge in a little dress-up occasionally. That said, celebrating the  "princess boy" is really about  not wanting ANY of our children limited by stereotypes or denied the full range of human desires, emotions, enjoyments and potential. In  our culture right now boys are actively discouraged from engaging in anything seen as "feminine," which means they're denied color, sparkles, art, aesthetics, music and many things that, once upon a time, were the province and right of both sexes. When we hyper-segment kids by gender everyone is hurt, everyone is limited. But there's an additional issue when we teach boys they can't play with "girl" things: they learn not only to disdain  that which is associated with girls but to disdain girls themselves. Enforcing masculinity in childhood play is how we replicate misogyny and homophobia. Bad, bad juju.

Another way to think about it might be to flip it.  You might be more comfortable buying your daughter a toy gun because violence is not marketed to her as the cornerstone of feminine identity. It might feel subversive, expansive, whereas you might fret that buying one for your son  would reinforce the message that he's supposed to be tough, hard, emotionless, cruel.

So it's not about saying pink and sparkles are okay for boys and not girls, it's about trying to navigate through a world of products and images that are hyper-segmented and unhealthy, promote stereotypes, alienation between the sexes, and limit kids' access to the full spectrum of life. Emily, that's a really, really good impulse on your part that the marketplace, in its simplicity, is trying to convince you is hypocrisy.

You've got so many opportunities to create change as the parent of both a girl and boys. Listen, a  little self-decoration (henna tattoos, washable markers, face paint, glitter) is fun for all. Meanwhile,  try to expose your children of both sexes to a wide range of ideas, toys, images, clothing. Rather than simply allowing Zack to wear pink, why not also read him  the kind of stories about strong women and competent, clever girls that I'm sure you read to your daughter? If he likes to dress up as a Disney Princess, why not suggest a Greek goddess? Or Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Or Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service? How subversive would that be? Would that make you less comfortable than celebrating "the princess boy?" And if so, why? Perhaps that's the real question.

Don't be a "Trick" or "Treat" This Halloween

My beloved friends at SPARK have teamed up with HollabackPhilly and Beauty Redefined to sponsor a "Taking Back Halloween" contest for teenage girls. I wish they'd extend it down to 5-year-olds, whose costumes are getting sexier all the time, but hey, it's a start.  Here's what the site says:

Submit your spookiest, creepiest, punniest, funniest, most creative and brilliant costumes to our Costume Contest for the chance to win amazing prizes (including an iPod!). But we don’t want just any store-bought costume–like SPARKteam member Melissa says below, this contest is about creativity.

Over to you, Melissa:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqs-TFQFaBA&feature=player_embedded

 

SPARK has created a fabulous space where girls can talk back to the media that tries to define and narrow them. It's also a great resource for us adults looking for "what we can do." Take a look at their SPARKit! Action ideas.

There. Now I feel a little teeny bit better about October.

Forget Harry Potter--The New Miyazaki Looks Like Magic!

Oh my goodness! More good news! The next Studio Ghibli movie, Arietty, will open in the U.S. in February. Ghibli the Japanese company founded by the visionary auteur Hiyao Miyazaki is responsible for the fight-fun-with-fun screen gems My Neighbor Totoro,

Kiki's Delivery Service,

Spirited Away,

Ponyo,

Castle in the Sky,

Nausicaa,

Princess Mononoke (not for little ones),

all of which feature spectacular, wonderful, natural female protagonists. I could not have gotten through my daughter's childhood without him. Plus, Miyazaki totally blows out of the water the old chestnut that female protagonists can't be universal or hold boys' attention. His  creativity puts Pixar to shame. In fact, John Lassiter idolizes Miyazaki.

According to an article in the UK Guardian:

Ghibli is often lazily dubbed Japan's answer to Disney, but the comparison only holds true in terms of box-office sales (Spirited Away is still Japan's all-time top-grossing film – three other Ghibli films are in the top 10) and sales of cuddly toys. In terms of content, Studio Ghibli is a world apart. Since 1984, under the auspices of its founder and chief auteur, Hayao Miyazaki, the studio has rolled out a succession of dense, ambitious fantasy adventures, almost all of them led by strong, intelligent, independent-minded girls. Miyazaki's movies are exciting and fantastical, often involving flying machines, ecological disasters, clashing civilisations and precarious spiritual values – all rendered in clean, colourful, hand-drawn animation. His heroines also tend towards a certain type. They are adventurous and active, but also compassionate, communicative, pacifist and virtuous. Their "female" qualities and childish innocence are often what resolve the crisis at hand and bridge conflicting worlds. Miyazaki does princesses, too, but the first time we see his eponymous Princess Mononoke, she's sucking the gunshot wound of a giant wolf and spitting blood into a river.

As Miyazaki once explained: "If it's a story like, 'Everything will be fine once we defeat him,' it's better to have a male as a lead. But, if we try to make an adventure story with a male lead, we have no choice other than doing Indiana Jones. With a Nazi, or someone else who is a villain in anyone's eyes."

"He thought heroism was much more complicated than that black hat/white hat stuff," explains Helen McCarthy, a British author who has written extensively on Miyazaki and Japanese animation. "By making the hero a girl, he took all that macho stuff out of the equation and that gave him the freedom to examine heroism. His career has been a very beautiful building of an idea that the feminine doesn't preclude the heroic."

The new film has all the earmarks of a Ghibli classic:

Arrietty fits right into this mould. It was adapted by Miyazaki from Mary Norton's Borrowers stories and directed by his protege, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Arrietty herself is a miniature 14-year‑old girl, who lives with her parents in secrecy under the floorboards of a rural Japanese home, "borrowing" their possessions – a pin becomes her sword, for example. Like any little girl growing up, she's independent-minded and eager to explore the outside world. Just as Spirited Away's heroine bridged the world between the spirits and the living, so Arrietty bridges that between her little people and the full-sized humans, but she is also driven by her curiosity about boys.

Yeah, the boys thing, I don't know. But in Miyazaki's hands I imagine we'll see something beautiful...and real. Here's the trailer (somewhat lame, but the animation and story look great).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeoKCQUDE-k

And--GIRL CRUSH ALERT--it stars Amy Poehler!!!

 

Forget Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (well, okay, don't FORGET it, but....). I'll be first in line for this one.

 

 

Being Part of the Solution for Girls AND Boys

Let's take a break from chronicling the problems today and--hey. in honor of women's soccer (woot!)--be a little solution-oriented. I just spoke with the magnificent Diane Levin and she mentioned an organization she's founded: TRUCE, which stands for Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment.

Our mission is to raise public awareness about the harmful influence of unhealthy children's entertainment and to provide information about toys and activities that promote healthy play. We are working to eliminate marketing aimed at exploiting children and to reduce the sale of toys and entertainment that promotes violence.

This is not specifically about girls--it's about the unhealthy messages beamed at both sexes. On their web site they have a fabulous set of action guides teachers and parents can download on play, toys and media for infants, toddlers and young children. They're totally grass roots, so if you do it and like it PASS THE INFORMATION ALONG!

I'll put this on my resources list, too!

Happy Friday!

 

 

Girl Crush:The Lennon Sisters

One of Daisy's favorite toys of ALL TIME is a set of Lennon Sisters Paper Dolls that my friend Dawn gave her for Christmas when Daisy was 6. Some weekend mornings, Daisy will wake up early and I'll find her in her room, happily cutting out elegant dresses or winter ski jackets and inventing stories for the four girls. She doesn't know who they are. And again, they are not licensed to the hilt. And their clothing is always appropriate. Sometimes I blow bubbles at her while she plays with them, though she doesn't know why and gets annoyed if they get on the paper (you'll WRECK the, mom). It's just all so sweet and incongruous it cracks me up.

So what a thrill it was, after I mentioned the dolls in a post I wrote for Motherlode to hear from the Sisters' publicist. She wanted to tell me about the Best Pals dolls that Kathy and Janet have created. They're rag dolls that are exact replicas of the dolls they had and loved as children.

 

Kathy doll:

Janet doll:

 

 

Give it a second. It takes awhile to adjust to something so sweet and basic, a doll that looks childlike. They remind me a little like Laura and Mary Ingalls. What's notable is that they exist to be girls' friend--a companion doll--not as a tool to teach girls  to fuse femininity with  constant consumption, materialism, "sassiness" or focus on appearance. Because in 1949, that was the dominant role of dolls--to be a girl's "best pal."It seems that is more of the stuffed animal today.  

There is also a line of multi-cultural best pals (in the first version of this post I hadn't realized). One of them, Isabelle, was named after the Lennon Sisters' grandmother (who was Latina).

There's also Lily:

And Sofia:

The Lennon Sisters themselves were the four oldest in a family of TWELVE kids. They worked hard to help support their family, honed their talents and did well. And yeah, maybe they were square but they were the only act I enjoyed when I'd  watch "Lawrence Welk" with my grandma (who gave my Minnesota homegirls The Andrews Sisters an early break--had a signed photo from them that said so-but that's another story....). Here are the Lovely Lennon Sisters singing the story of "Ferdinand the Bull."

 

Also, the Best Pal dolls are what they are. There are two of them. That's it. There are no "Best Pal" grapes or t-shirts or band-aids or diapers or DVDs. What a relief

One more thing:  Notice the colors of the original dolls' clothing and ribbons.  In addition to what I've said in the past about pink being originally for boys and blue for girls, my clothing historian guru, Jo Paoleti, has told me that the other classic division was: brown haired children (girls OR boys)  were dressed in pink and blonde children in blue. Certainly plays out here.....

And oh, just for the heck of it, here's a great Andrews Sisters' vid.

 

Coda: I just found this fascinating article on the Lennon Sisters, who were the pop "princesses" of their time and were, in fact, merchandised more than any girl since Shirley Temple. Interesting to see, though, how they were protected, how the media declined to cover the scandal and tragedy in their personal lives for the sake of not only their privacy but their "purity." Back then, though, a girl whose wholesomeness was fetishized didn't try to "grow up" by objectifying her sexuality. I'm not saying it was BETTER in those days, but today's pattern isn't much of an improvement....