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ESSAY TOPICS

Your essay should address one or a combination of the following topics. Alternatively, you may devise another topic

in consultation with your tutor.

Your tutor will only accept an original essay topic that the two of you have discussed beforehand.

Using the eighteenth century and the twentieth or twenty-first centuries as

points

of comparison, discuss some aspect of the interplay between social change, definitions of childhood, and narrative.

Literacy is a theoretical concept that was first formulated with respect to print culture, particularly the ability to read. Having now studied the different competencies required for “literacy” across a variety of technologies, this topic offers an opportunity for you to summarize your learning and

add

to it through further research. Choose two or three technologies to compare or contrast. What has changed from the medium of print? What has stayed the same? What do we think we know? What questions remain unanswered?

Examine how movies, toys, and experiences based on narratives are marketed to children. Outline and explain the effects that such media-based commodities and their associated advertising may have on children. Analyze and evaluate the role played by the Disney Corporation or any comparable organization in the narrativizing of consumption.

Genre is an important factor in any study of storytelling. Each text genre—whether chapter books, information books, series books, or digital stories—requires certain competencies from its readers. After performing a close reading of two or three books of a particular genre, indicate which skills readers would need to bring in order to understand that genre, and describe which skills would be developed through reading it.

Employing methodologies and readings that you have encountered in this

course

that relate to analyzing the relationship between narrative and visual imagery, write an essay indicating why you would or would not recommend five or six specific texts for the curriculum of a certain school grade (you must choose and identify the age of the children).

This option gives you the opportunity to write an essay that analyzes some aspect of narrative in film and television. This analysis can take you in many directions. You may look at repertoire, address, modality, intertextuality, focalization, camera techniques, cultural difference, and so on. You might, for example, compare different television shows or films aimed at the same age or gender; versions of the same show or film produced in both the United Kingdom and the United States; versions of the same show or film produced in different eras; or the same narrative delivered through different technological formats. You might focus on how successful the show or film has been in its intent to entertain, to educate, and/or to inform. Alternatively, you might examine how one show or film has influenced others over time. Choose a specific aspect of narrative in film and/or television for your essay.

The study of narrative in video games presents an especially interesting field for discovery. Have a good look at the literature on what happens to narrative in video games. What should we ask ourselves about the ways in which video games are changing (or may change) narrative? You may wish to refer to a specific game or game type to illustrate your argument,

but you must ensure that your tutor has access to the game.

Generic essays on “Violence in Video Games” or “Sex-Role Stereotyping in Video Games”

will not be accepted

, as these areas have been covered thoroughly by

students

before you. Be original. Take this general topic and apply it specifically to a narrative text or an aspect of narrative that has not yet been studied or thoroughly analyzed. For example, consider the questions raised about narrative in video games in the

course

readings. Do any of these questions or issues interest you?

Any study of children and narrative is inevitably implicated in the

material

culture of childhood. Several obvious choices include Disney, Barbie, Peter Rabbit, and so on. Describe and explain what you see happening to a particular narrative (and its readers) as it becomes part of the fabric of

material

culture. If you choose a popular narrative (for example, a Disney narrative), make an effort to develop a

new

take on an old theme. Alternatively, take a narrative not discussed in this

course

and use a theory or methodology that you have encountered in the

course

to describe and explain the progression of the narrative as it has become part of

material

culture.

Jones, Gerard. “Chapter 5: Girl Power.” Killing Monsters: Why
Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.
New York: Basic Books, 2002. 77-96.
Superheroes, fight scenes, and gun toys have traditionally been assigned to what we think of as “boy cultw·e.” Parents of
girls often assume they’ll never have to deal with violent fantasies or
play. But their girls may surprise them-and the current gener3tion
of girls is surprising them more than any previous one. The more I
study and work with children, the more instances I see ofgirls using
make-believe violence for as many developmental purposes as boys.
T hey often use it in different ways, and for slightly different purposes, but it can be just as important co them as to their brothers.
Jn early childhood, rhe play of boys and gids is more similar than
different. Both are likely to be rough- and-tumble dinosaurs and then
quiet down by playing mommy-and-baby. But tOvard the end of the
preschool years, they begin to diverge. ” Kindergarten,” wrote Vivian
Gussin Paley, “is a triumph of sexual self-stereotyping.” Girls tend to
puU away from play fighting b y the end of preschool, often dramatically, and sometimes with a strong disapproval of the roughness of
boys. Paley described the daily complaints of girls about boys who, as
superheroes or robbers, invade and disrupt the quiet doll corner.
The phenomenon is almost universal across eras and cultures. Even
the girls of the San, a. group of Kalahari Bushmen with a cuJture
quite unlike our own, tend to withdraw fi-om rough-and-tumble play
by abom the age of six. Authorities offer various possible explaua77
K/H/114 ;W0/{5{£-1?.5
tions, including biological disposition, but they also point to pervasive cultural factors . In our culture, dads tend not to wrestle their
daughters to the floor as they do their sons; we place more emphasis
ou how girls look; we make a bigger deal of girls’ pains and injuries.
Paley stressed the importance to children of labeling themselves
“boy” or “girl” as their social selves become more complex, which
includes demarcating whole spheres of behavior as un-hoy-like or
un-gir.l-like.
Whatever its origins, the shift is deeply intemalized and usually
lasting. 1’ve seen the alann and outrage of girls running to the nearest
adult yelling, “The boys are fighting again!” and it strikes me as the
same alarm and outrage of the many mothers f’ve kno…vn who ask,
“How do I stop my sons from fighr.ing?” In one study, the great play
researcher Brian Sutton-Smith and his colleagues showed groups of
preschoolers and young adults video tapes ofpreschoolers play fighting. The preschoolen of both sexes declared, on a-verage, that two of
the fourteen tapes showed real fighting and twelve play fighting.
Adult men chssified th em in ~lmmt prerisely thP ‘~me w~y. Arlnlt
women, on the other hand, tbought, on average, that eigh’c of the
fourteen showed real fighting.
Although I’m generally suspicious oflab studies, ti:Us one fits well
with what I’ve observed. When mothers respond to my ideas with,
“But when my son sees violent cartoons, he fights,” I ask, “But is it
real fighting or play fighting? ” And I find that the question i tself is
difficult foT some motbers. Many mothers have no trouble making
the distinction, but some are caught in the black-and-white dualism
of”fighting is bad” a11d “quiet is good.” On one hand, they are perpetuating one of the traditional functions of women: to soften the
brutishness of male culmre and protect the gentler aspects of civilization. Or, as Lynn Ponton put it, “Mothers have always seen one of
their sacred duties as keeping boys from killing each other.” On the
other hand, they may still be fighting that grade-school battle with
the boys.
The need for aggressive play continues iu gids, however, a1iliougb
it changes to function w;thin their developing social identities. From
the end of preschool onward, girls’ play tends to be increasingly
78
about relationships. Violent fantasies about mindless brutes battling or
spaceships clashing usually leave them cold, but if those fantasies are
built around social constructs or relationships between sentient characters, then even the most teminine girls are likely to connect to
them.
Once I was helping shepherd Nicky’s kindergarten class back from
a field trip, and while we were waiting for the streetcar, Nicky started
body slamming me playfully. One of his classmates, Haley, who normally played quiet games with girls and didn’t mix much with the
boys, saw this, drifted toward us, and then, looking me intendy in the
eyes, punched me gently in the chest. I pretended that she’d almost
knocked me down. She smiled and hit me harder. I played along, she
smiled wider and hit me harder. A couple of the boys jumped in,
keeping thejr heads down, pounding me on the sides and legs. Haley
kept going for a good two dozen punches, until I had a nice bruise
on my sternum to show for it- and the whole time she kept her eyes
locked on mine. I wasn’t just a grown-up body to pummel but someone whose reactions were to be tested and recorded.
Among Nicky’s kindergarten classmates, I quickly gained a reputation as a dad who would wrestle and play fight. Every boy and girl
who came over wanted to play Nicky’s “war game.” For the boys, it
was mostly about firing accurately with Nerf guns and hitting me
with pillows. Sometimes they’d hide and ambush me, but the hiding
was brief and the ambush savage. The gi.ds loved the Nerf guns and
pillows, too, but they preferred to conspire with Nicky on whispered
strategies, lie in wait, watch me hunt for them, tease me with a false
attack, run away laughing, and look back at my reaction. When they
did shoot me at close range or pound on me, though, they did so as
gleefully as any boy.
Violence for the girls was more a punctuation for a complex web
of manipulations and suspense, whereas for the boys it ¥as likely to
be the whole point. But I could see how joyful and liberating that violent punctuation was, and I sensed that the girls didn’t get enough
of it in their normal lives. Early in Nicky’s kindergarten year, I was
talking to the father of a girl named Maritte, one of the most rambunctious players of the war game. He said, “It must be so different
79
having a boy.You know, it’s true, as much as we fight the stereotypes,
that girls really are made of sugar and &pice and everything nice.” I
resi&ted the tempt4tion to ask, “Jim, have you met Maritte?” Soon
enough, Jim heard about the war games and told rne he appreciated
how exhau&ted and relaxed his daughter was after her play dates with
Nicky. The mock violence served the relationship, too: Nicky and
Maritte remained clo~e even as the boys and girls in their class segregated themselves in the second and thjrd grades.
When girls don’t feel free to pla.y at open aggression, their desires
to play with power and conflict don’t go away but take other forms.
Lenore Terr noted, “After they’ve abandoned rough-and-tumble play.
girls’ social play can become extremely aggressive. Games about inclusion and exclusion, social competition and defeat, express a great
deal of aggression. You see it in fantasy play with Barbie dolls, and
you see it in the very serious social maneuverings oflitde gids, wo.”
While boys run around wildly, playing battle games, crashing into
each other, sometimes stepping over the line into real fights, girls
draw into fierce little cliques, testing their power and one another’s
emotional wughness with daily battles about who’s in, who’s om,
who’s speaking to whom. This is why Terr thinks girls would benefit
from more encouragement to engage in rough-and-tumble play,
which can help them feel tougher and stronger as individuals and
therefore less at the mercy of peer approval and matters of appearance and dress. It can also help them to master their anger and tensions in playfi.tl ways, making them less likely to take their fe elings
out on one another or ~hemselves.
The popular culture of girls usually masks its violent side, but girls
find that side when they need it. Barbie is frequently criticized as a
model for passivity, consumerism, and obsession w ith appearance,
one role she does play. In the actual play of little gjrls, however, she
also functions remarkably often as an action heroine. Sandra Hume, a
writer and editor now in her late twenties, told me about a wide
range of violent fantasies she played out vi.th Barbie from 11reschool
to h er preteen years: ”My parents split up when I was fo ur, which
unleashed a n’C!Ilendous amount of rage between them for a while.
During the same time my Barbies would slap each other around over
80
4trl f’d1t’er
the one Ken in my collection, try to borde all the shoes and then
fight vicio usly over those. Or sometimes they’d bond together to detelld one of their sisters from the attacking Ken.” She attributed some
of those images to ·watching IMmder Wom111z, others to Dallas and Dytlosty, which she watched with her mother, and others ro her attempts ro make sense of the adult life around her.
Over the next several years, Sandra’s conflicts became more complex, and so did her Barbie play. Her mother wem through tbrc,· n:larionships with men, and with each new partner the dynamics of the
family changed unpredictably. Sandra described her household as
”highly sexualized,” as her mother rode the waves of tailing in love
and breaking up repeatedly. Her feelings of rage and feat w-ere closely
bound up with gender roles and sex. She made friends with lana,
another girl from a turbulent home, and together they concocted
vast adventures drawn from Greek mythology, Wonder Ut!Jman, Star
f,ffat:s, and fantasy novels. “Tribes of Amazon Barbies with aluminumfoil swords would slaughter invading armies of Kell5,” said Sandra.
‘·H,..::~ci~ wonlcl roll.litel””.J.ly- we had these Keus whose heads had
fallen off, so we’d use t hem for victims.”
When they finally put Barbie aside, Sandra and Lana turned to
adolescent fantasy entertainment: Gothic and dcarh-rock music. roleplaying games, comic boo ks like the violent, savagely satirical
Preacher. Much of it was alarming to the adults around them and certainly looked dra~rically different from Barbie, but Sandra said,” £twas
still the same basic feelings we were working through,just at a more
sophisticated level.” She maintained that her fantasies and play, from
Barbie through Preac/1er, gave her a feeling of”power over the forces
tha t kept chro’wi11g my life into upheaval. They got me used to doing
something with my emotions first before I just acted out, and they
gave me a continuity that real life wasn’t giving me. And I’ve been a
lot stabler in my life and relationships than my mom.”
Even now, when female acrion figures have become so much more
common than in Sandra’s childhood, I see JjttJe girls pitting Barbie
~gainst ferocious stuffed animals and burying Ken under mountains
of wooden blocks from which Barbie has to dig him out by sheer
strength. Almost never, though, do I see or hear about f,rirls pitting
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Barbie agamst a Power Ranger doll or introducing Barbie into
action-figure play w:ith boys. Girls above the age offour or so tend to
compartmentalize Barbie into the realm of girlishness, but within
that realm, they explore fantasies far more complex and powerful
than what Martel’s packaging and advertising would suggest.
Girls have long shown a remarkable ability to identify with male
fantasy figures wben they aren ‘t prov~ded w-ith adequate female
models. In writing comic books I found that although girls welcomed strong and interesting superheroines, they could identify just
as easily with a male hero as long as he was psychologically complex
or involved in intriguing relationships with other characters. Sharon,
the girl who 1oved my Freex so much, made it clear that she identified with Angela, the shy female character w hon1 she most resembled, but also with Lewis, the volatile leader of the group, whom Angela loved. Devin Kalile Grayson, one of the most successfl1l female
writers in comics, told me that she first fell in love with comi~
through Barman and Robin . Batman, in fact, has turned out to be
one of the mmt popular funtasy-selves for superhero-loving girls,
mainly because his stories are as much about relationships- with
Robin, with Catwoman, with the world ofhis own alter ego, Bruce
Wayne-as about action.
ln the desire to sustain their self- and social imAges of femininity,
however, most school-age girls will pointedly show no interest in
subjects like superhero comics, which they still tend to label “boy
stufi””; when they do seek action heroes from the media, they often
cloak their passion in what they consider more appropriately girlish
behavior. When I talk to women who grew up on the Star Wars and
Indiana Jones series, they invariably tell me that they identified less
with Princess Leia or any of Indy’s female friends than v,.rith Luke
Skywalker,Han Solo, and Professor Jones himself. A physician named
Janice Cohen told me: “We’d always start by ta.lkll1g abom how cute
Mark Hamill and Harrison Fo.rd were. lt was important that adults
saw us as being infatuated with Indiana Jones, and it ‘Vvith both Indiana Jones and the female sidekick in
love with him. That’s an imaginative strength, but it’s also, of course,
an eftect of the self-diminishment that girls have traditionally been
taught from eady childhood. If a woman is expected to glory not in
her own accomplishments but in her husband’s, then girlhood requires learning to admire tbe accomplishments of heroes without
openly wanting to be them.
Children’s entertainment supported those expectations for most of
the twentieth century. The most popular model of female physical
power for little girls, Wonder Woman, pointedly stbod outside the
tmdirional duality of ghlishness and boyishness: a Jone visitor fi·om a
lost island of Amazons, she was always a naive ot.her, disconnected
from normal, hmnau women. As her young fans became more socially sophisticated, they generally understood that Wonder Woman
was a fantasy tO enjoy from a distance, not a model to aspire to. The
producers of her TV show in the 1970s found thac her appeal was
strong among preschool and kindergarten gitls, bur then rapidly
evaporated. By the time her fans had reached middle childhood, they
were in love with, and pretet1ding to be, Luke Sky·walker. Over the
past decade, however, the emertainment industry has been £1.1: more
helpful in supplying yoU1Jg girls wich female power symbols, and girls
have responded eagerly–especially when 1:be creators place their superheroines in a context of vivid social and emotional relationships.
When I was reading superhero comics in the early 1970s, it was an
almos1: entirely male preserve, and no matter how many female heroines the writers and artists tried, no girls seemed interested. When T
began noticing comics again as an aduJt, a decade later, the situation
had changed noticeably: boys still made up the bulk of the fans, but
the number of preteen and teenage girl .readers ·was growing rapidly,
and their tastes had changed the way superhero stories were told. At
84
the end of the 1970s, the creative team on X-Meu, the w riter Chr~
Clart!mont and artists D ave Cockrum and John Byrne, had taken a
n ew approach to superheroines, emphasizing not what they looked
like or whar their powers were so much as which teammates they
were friends with, who they were angry with, who they admired, and
who they felt they should protect. They included some romances, but
unlike the simple fi:ustrations of Superman and Lois Lane, these were
more complex and tangled with issues of friendship and loyalty. They
were, in short, more uke the real crushes of early adolescence, which
are less interesting as love relationships than as complications to female
alliances. Girls began ro read X-Men , and sales began to rise. Other
comics began ro follm.’ ~uit, and more and more girls and young
women found fantasies in comics that spuke to them. That was one
reason co1IDcs rose from ncar death in the late 1970s to attain an unprecedented vitality and universality a decade later.
Female members of superheroic teams had never been successful
with young kids. The te:uns aimed at little kids in the 1980s, from
He-Man an n rhl” Masters of che Universe to che Teenage Muram
Ninja Turtles, were almost entirely mnle i n composition. l n the early
1990s, on the other hand, the five Power R ,mgers included [WO fcmales,judgjng by m~u·ket research, who were comp ;uable 1n popu ~­
.ity to their mnle cohorts. The female Rangers were ~tH.:ccssful with
Jads partly because girls \’Cre becoming more comfortable with superhero fantasies and bo)’~ were becoming more comfortable wuh
powerti.u femaJes having a place in their fantasies- but also because
of the nature of the group.
T he Pmwr Rangers’ srorie’l emph:tsized teamwork above all else.
The Rangers hung out together constantly in their civilian forms,
tra nsformed simultaneously into their super-forms, and could defeat
their opponents only through coordinated assaults by the whole
team. [n order to defeat their greatest foes they had to link their vehicles, their “Zords,” inxo “Mega-Zord.s,” which wouldn’t work if
even one member was absem. Powr r R anger tOys reaect that: Zords
and wrapons snapped together into bigger, more powerful forms.
W.1tching Nicky and his fi:iends play Power Rangers, 1 often saw
them express feelings of incompleteness unci! rbey had aU the
85
Rangers together for an action- figure battle. When they pretended
to be Power Rangers themselves, they usually worked hard to make
sure that each color of Ranger was accounted for, even if that meant
a boy playing the Pink or Yellow Ranger, or ;l girl playing the R ed,
Blue, or Green. Unity, togetherness, the group identity was as important to the mystique of the Power Rangers as their powers and their
colors, and that made it a powerful fantasy for girls as well as boys.
The Power Rangers, ho>.-ever, remained solidly in the ”boy” camp
as the sexes segregated themselves atound kindergarten. As essential
as the female Rangers were to the group, the fact that their hair and
faces were concealed by helmets and visors and their bodies were
sheathed in the tights associated with the boyish world of superheroes de-emphasized their femaleness. They were girls whose femaleness didn’t matter, which may have made them appealing to parents who hoped to raise their daughters to be free of gender
stereotypes, but DO( to gjrls whose femaleness was becoming more
and more important to their increasingly complex systems of identity. By kindergarten, a girl’s drawings of girls usually focus on wide
eyes, hair, and frilly dresses as markers of femininity-even if the
artist herself wears jeans nearly every day. Pink uniform and breasts
aside, the eyeless, hairless, muscular Power Rangers were quite the
opposite of what girls read as female modds; they can1e to see the female Rangers as girls who were made more like boys by their participation in physical power.
Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner, a developmental psychologist and educator
who specializes in children’s media, related the case of Amanda, who
in preschool was the most enthusiastic of all the Power Rangers fans
in her class an.d played at being a Ranger with more aggressive rambunctiousness than any of the boys. At first her parents were thxilled;
here was a girl rejecting stereotypical femininity and proudly taking
on physical power. But Amanda continued playing om her roughand-rumble Ranger fantasies nor only as the other girls in the class
rejected them but even as the boys began to outgrow them. Her
Ranger pl;1y took on a particularly repetitive, frustrated, angry quality, until even the wilder boys were complaining that “Amanda’s too
rough.”
86
When Amanda finally abandoned the Powe[ Rangers in first grade
she continued to seek the company of boys and to engage jn aggressive play; but she also began to behave with ferocious verbal and social aggression to borh boys and girls. By the fourth grade, when it
became apparent that sbe was denying herself food in order to keep
herself flesh-a.t1d-bones skinny, some of the adults in ber life realized
that Amanda might feel acme confusion and anger about her gender.
She didn’t like being a girl, resented girlishness iu general, and overplayed what she thought of as boyish fantasies in ar1 efiort to ease her
anxieties and mask the very sensitive isolated child within. The
Power Rangers had been a helpfi.u fautasy for her for a while, but as
the sexual landscape of childhood had become more complex, her
adherence to them had probably made it harder fot her to mature in
more constructive ways.
A far more inclusive £1ntasy of power appeared a few years later in
the form of Pokl:mon. Among many factors in the enormous success
of the Poke- phenon1enon in the 5ummer and fall of 1999 was the
Get that it spoke to nearly every sort of kid, with every sort of fantasy.Although its first and most fervid fans were boys, especially those
who loved Game Boy and collecting card~, the craze, at its peak,
seized girls, even gr.ade-school girls, in remarkable numbers. No action cartoon had ever ~old plush toys and pink lunch boxes like Pokenron. Although rhe ctaze soon faded, many girls remained loyal, continuing to sustain productS like the girl-oriented comic book, Magical
Pokh11o11 Journey.
I heard from many mothers who were startled to see their little
girls falling so in love w ith a franchise that came out of video games
and centered on vjolent fights between bizarre monsters. But it was
no surprise m those of us viewing the phenomenon from within. For
one thing, the whole Pokemon universe is founded upon relationships; hurrl:.trl trainers catch and care for the monsters called Pokemen, reaching them to use their powers in b attle as tbe monsters
teach their trainers the virtues of patience, empathy; and nurturance.
The trainers are linked by intricate affiliations w ith vario us gyrnnasil.Jms, teachers, tournam.ents, and secret organizations, and the Pokemen evolve &om one form to another as they master their skills, so
87
that Pichu, Pikachu, and Raichu aren’t just different creatures tc
memorize but siblings and symbols of the process of growing up.
For aumher, every ~orr of character can be found among the
Pokemon, &om savage dragons to impishly cute rodents to cuddly
balloon crearores to loyal canines. Kids who loved fish could become
the silly Golde en, kids who fantasized about taking care of babies
could carry a plush toy of the infantile, egg-shaped Togepi. And any
relationship or emmion could be embodied and exaggerated through
Poke play: the fiercest battles, the most gencle nurturing, che siUiest
acting up, the fiercest declarations ofloyalty made sense as some parr
of the mythology.
Pok~num also included a human heroine who appealed co most
girls as much as, or even more than, the male protagonist. Misty was
very g irlish, and fashionably so, with her ponytail, bare midriff,
scrawny limbs, and unspoken crush on the obli’ious Ash. She exhibited the frailties that gicls identify ‘With feminin ity: a sentimental adoration of anything cute and streaks of v-anity, squeamishness, and selfabsorption. She liked pretty Â¥t-ater Pokemon best of all, and she took
on most of the maternal responsibilities for the baby Togepi. She also
possessed a trait chat American popular culture bas rarely allowed in
fictional girls, though girls know very well ic con be a part of their
emotional makeup: an explosive, screaming rage, which could knock
poor Ash off his feet. Ar rhe san1e time, she was as tough and eager
for combat as any Pokemon trainer and ar crunch time was as physically potent and pas5ionate as Ash.
An old saw of the entertainment industry, which dates back at least
to the movie studios of rhe 1920s, maintains that a story has to include action to appeal to boys a.od men, characters and romance to
appeal ro girls and women. But girls respond to actiou just as powerfully as boys if the context is meaningful to them. Pokemon fans
laughed as Misty’s rage knocked Ash to the ground and jumped
in excitement as Ash won a savage battle against a superior opponen
because he and his Pikachu had formed a profound personal bond
Cartoons, comics, video games, cartoony live-action like P owe
Rangers are all about exaggerations of emotions and situations t< make them clearer and more powerful to children. Nlake-believe vi- ur 88 olence, in that senl>e, is a cartoon of conflict: a can:oon of anger, exasperation, loyalty, betrayal, and love. The violence in little girls’ fantasie~ doesn’t stand apart from or in opposition to the human rel:ttionships in those fantasies. It’s a vivid, exciting, and sometimes
w holly satisfying expression of the relationships.
Annette R om ao, an editor at V iz Comics, said that she fell in love
with the Pokf:mo11 projects she worked on after having gener.illy had
little enthusiasm for action conucs: ·• Part of that was seemg how excited it made my n ieces attd ~he d~ughters of my friends. an excitement f’d never seen any pop-culture phenom enon inspire in so many
girls before. Then, as I reaiJy began to let myself connect ~;ch it, I
saw how much T w ould have beneficed from a fantasy like this ,lS :1
girl. This was a fantasy world that allowed girls tO be complete. They
didn’t have co keep their anger and aggression in like good little girl~.
but chey didn’t have to act like little boy~ either. T hey could be cute,
funny, loving, charming, and then be destructive little terrors too!’
Significantly, both Power Rar1gers and Poktmon were ot;ginally Jap:tn~>~t’ creations. Even thou~h Am.e ricaru have spent far more t.U11e
and ene rgy in tliscussions of gender images in the media, we have
been dismal at creating heroic figures tor little gjrls. My experience
in d1e comics and animation industries has been that cre~tor> of superheroes feel th at male cl1aracrers Jre the most ljving and legitimate,
but that they are “supposed co” include stmng females. and so they
stitch female characters together from tired old archetypes and a few
feminist cliches. Even George Lucas, who produced the mosr powe rful children’s symbols of the last several dec,ades, was neve~: able co
create a female character who connccred powerfully with children. A
few women who grew up on Star Wars have told me tha t they tried
to like Princess Leio, but her obnoxiousness and unbelievability wore
them down; ulcinutely they found her interesting onJy in respect to
her rebtionships with Luke and Han. The only real success was Wonder Woman, and she was created by a p sychologist, Dr. William
Maulton-Marston, who understood little girls’ need for powerful
symbol& during the sex-role confusion ofWorld War U.
Japanese cultt1re stresses traditioo::tl sex roles to a much greater extent than modern Amer-ican culture. At the same time, the jap:mesc
89
have generally been far less worried about the social or ideological
implications of children’s entertainment; they have been more willing than Americans to let its content be dictated by children’s tastes
rather than adult concerns about what it “should” contain. Japanese
culture has always been especially tolerant offantasy elements, and its
highest art fonns and spiritual disciplines have been refreshingly free
of literalism. Even the indigenous religion, Shinto, is founded upon
what the mythologist Joseph Campbell lovingly described as “pure
fairy tale stuff;’ like the legend of the sun goddess who hides in a
cave and has to be tricked out by a noisy party thrown by her
brother, which no modern worshipper feels a need to believe literally. Zeu is all about play and suggestion, not doctrine. The “Floating
World” school of classical Japanese art is an evocation of life as a
dream. Perhaps living in dose proximity in such a small area, constrained by powenul social codes, has raught the Japanese the value of
an inner life. Americans, with our polyglot, mobile, conflictive society, are much more wary of others’ thoughts and emotiom.
Japanese children’s entertainment provides more complex and allinclusive fantasies than our own, and American children respond enthusiastically to it. Hollywood invented the gi;mt-radioactivemonstet- attacks-the-city genre with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
in 1951, but its creations invar iably ended with the adult-pleasing destruction of the monster by the police or military. Japanese producers
followed rhe formula with the fmt Godzilla in 1954, but then they
noticed what Hollywuod failed or refused to see: kids loved the l!ton.sters, not the ;mthorities.And not only Japanese kids: my son cried his
eyes out when he first saw Beast from 2000 Fathoms, and for a year afterward he wouldn’t watch a110ther momter movie unJess I promised
him rhat the creature would survive at the end. By the beginning of
the 1960s,Japanese monsters were becoming increasingly admirable,
sympathetic, even lovable, and they always survived at the end. American producers kept killing their monsters until they ran the genre
into the ground, but the Japanese created an internationally popular
product that’s stiU going strong today.
Speed Racer,Astro Boy, and Kimba did well on independent TV stations as American network cb.ildren’s programming abandoned phys-
90
ical acriou. More recently, Power RanJ?ers, Pokhmon, and Dragan Ball Z
have seized American kids’ imaginations with types of adventure and
heroism that domestic p roductions aren’t providing. The entertainment that appeals to girls’ imaginations provides images of female
power that speak to the complexity and scariness of gender roles in a
time of social change. The male producers and video-game designers
in Japan who created Power Ran,(_Jers and Pokemon drew from rheir experiences of what female fans responded to in game~ and cartoons,
and they created symbols that reveal a great deal about what girls
worldwide are craving from their fantasy lives tad.-‘ly.
Girls very much want p ersonal power and to be equal participants
in a world that includes both sexes. But they want to go on developing their identities as girls at the same time, which in grade school
requires that they keep their separate girl culture intact. They may
not have their life agendas mapped out yet, but in fantasy they know
t hat they w-a.m to step into a world of power and equality but still
bring with them the qualities that they’ve come to understand as
feminine. One American industry that has been more responsive to
those fantasies than action entertainment is the pop music business. It
has produced some of the images of female power that are most
compelbng to girls today–and most unnerving to their parents.
When we last saw Emily, the girl who h ad iinally talked her
mother into letting her play with toy guns, she was in the second
grade, putting dOvn violent fantasies and deciding she wanted to be
a veterinarian. Cynthia, her mother, bad made peace with her gun
fantasies, but she was also pleased to see tl1em fading away. As she told
me later, her da ughter still played with boys fairly often, v…-as still a
physically adventurous kid. but was now working harder on building
friendships with girls. She was, in general, pleased with her doughter’s
developmenr and no longer worried much about her media interests
or fantasy lite. T hen Emily discovered Britney Spears.
Nearly all of rhe girls in Emily’~ class were into Spears that year.
Although Emily wasn’t among the first m discover her, once she did,
she seized upon the singer more aggressively than any of her friends.
She initiated games: “Let’s pretend that I’m Britney an d you’re her
friends.” ”But I want to be Britney!’,.’So do 11” “Then we can all be
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Britney. And some animals are caught in a fire ac the zoo and we
have to come save them.” She wanted to dress like Britney-not the
slinky Britney of the ~wards shows but the cool-teen Britney of the
videos on Nickelodeon. She found friends who got to listen to Britney’s songs and memorized all the lyrics before Cynthia could make
up her mind about whether ro allow the songs co be played iu the
bouse. She even had Britney dreams: “She came into my room and
woke me up, then she carried me out through the window and took
rne to this huge house full of dogs and cats.”
Cynthia found herself going through agonies even more intense
than the guns had inspired. She didn’t want her little girl being
taught stereotypical gender roles by the media, she didn’t want her
being sexualized in grade school, she didn’t want her growing up
thinking that looking pretty and manipulating boys were a girl’s only
source of power. Wh:~t did it mean that she was iu love with Brimey
Spears, all of whose songs were about boys, whose entire image was
built on exaggerated gender traits, and whose first hit had horrified
parents with its title line, “Hit me, baby, one more Lime”?
When she told me about her anxieties Ttended to agree. My sense
of pop singers like Spears was that they were sex objectS marketed tO
children who didn’t know w hat they were buying into. Then I asked
the g~1estion I’ve always asked in this research. Not, “What does this
look like to my grown-up eyes?” but, “Why do they love what they
love?” I talked to kids, including Emily, about Brimey Spears and
started watching her videos through the eyes of a little girl whose
previous fantasies shoved that she craved images of personal, physical
power. And it made sense. Spears wa.> presented as an object of prettiness and se:x-uality, her songs were all about winning over boys, but her
most vivid actiom were symbols of physical power.
Pop singe.r:s have always been symbols of power, merely by the fuct
that they command the microphone, the camera, and the attention of
a crowd. Even Tiffany and Olivia Newton-John seemed powerful to
girls of the late 1970s, and young women who now find them dreadfully bland took some inspiration from pretending to be them when
they were much yotulger. As gender roles have evolved, as girls bave
come to crave more overt symbols of power, their tastes have created
92
a market for a more aggressive, more confrontational style of pop
performance. Britney Spears’s trademark dance move was to raise her
fist and pump her forearm in a sweeping line across her torso. She
also thrust her fists at the air, she jumped, she stomped, she spun, and
she kicked-a combination of stage dancing, gymnastics, and fightscene moves that click with any kid’s imagination as images ofaction
and power. She also did pelvic thnlsts, which unnerve parents with
their unquestionable sexual implications but which are also extraordinarily powerful and liberating moves for anyone who can unlock
h is or her torso enough to do them. And whenever Spears kicked or
punched or thrust, her fictional world responded dramatically. The
music pumped, the background dancers went flying, the camera
zoomed in, the crowd cheered.
Spears was as powerful a cartoon of individual physical action
taking over reality and knocking the world into a new shape as
Power Rangers or Pokemon. Even her much-maligned lyrics contained some exciting images of power. Their narratives may all have
been about boys, but when little girls sang the t·efi·a]ns of”Cra:zy,”
“Stronger Than Yesterday,” or “Oops I Did It Again,” they celebrated
acting up, toughening up, and strutting their power to shake up
other people’s lives. Even “(Hit Me Baby) One More T ime” turned
out to be a song about wanting action, a demand for a clear statement of affection from a boyfriend. As in card games, as in sports,
the “hit” is a playful metaphor for quick, exciting satisfaction. To demand a “hit” is an act of assertiveness, not passivity. To hear it as an
invitation to physical abuse is to hear our own fears instead of our
children’s reality.
Critics and parenting experts have warned of the messages little
girls learn when they bop around like Britney Spears and win attention by doing so. They have a point: if the only approval and attention girls ever get is for acting like a pop star they may not find much
reason to develop their other strengths. It’s important to be conscious
of the sexual and consumeristic imagery of entertainment and keep
our conversations with children open to discussing them. But it’s
even more important to respect the power that girls feel when they
thrust and jump and sing.
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Emily had a lot of social information to process: she was a headstrong girl who liked boys’ games, even as some of her best female
friends were refusing to play w ith boys; she had no adult male figure
in her home life at an age when she and her friends were becoming
increasingly interested in male-female pairings; her single parent encouraged her gender-transcending behavior and expressed :m.xiery
about socially coded femininity, even as the girls around her were expressing their feminin.iry more and more rigidly. Emily wanted her
power and her individuality, bu~: she wanted to feel a full mastery of
girlishness at the sa111e time. Enter Britney Spears, every inch the living Barbie doll, but pumping her fists, strutting the stage, blasting out
her pop- powered lyrics about hitting and strength, dominating
videos full of leaping bodies and flashing explosions by the sheer
force of her physical, sexual, cartoony presence.
T told Cynthia something I’d heard fi·om another mother, Rachel,
who resisted buying her daughter a Barb1e doD in order to protect
her from the messages about gender that Barbie embodied. The more
she re~i~tl”
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