I recently read a post by a mom, Michelle Nijhuis, who says her five-year-old daughter insists that the classic hero of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is a girl. And so, after some hesitation, she decided to read the novel with Bilbo as a female, changing pronouns the whole way. As it turns out, changing the genders of popular characters in literature is something that many parents are doing, because the number of strong heroines in literary fiction in the past century is appallingly small. “More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things?”
My eight-year-old son is reading The Hobbit right now. He's pretty heavy into Tolkien-land. He plays the Lego Lord of the Rings video game, he has The Hobbit Lego sets, he listens to these amazing Middle Earth Meditations on YouTube each night before he goes to bed. He's got about 50 pages in the novel to go, and when he finishes the book we've promised to let him watch the first and second of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies. Pretty awesome, right?
Well, we also have a six-year-old daughter, who has absolutely zero interest in anything Tolkien right now, and I suspect that's to do with it being seen as more of a boy thing. While we are fairly gender-neutral in our house, biology and society have made it pretty difficult to shield her from the pink onslaught, and frankly, I think freaking out about it would only make things worse. Yet, it's true, the books we read with her tend to be about girls surviving a social setting (Babymouse), or about boys on heroic adventures (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Of books we've read together recently, I can think of one (Zita the Spacegirl — highly recommend) where the heroine was strong and adventurous. We are up to our eyeballs in Rainbow Fairies books right now, and while Rachel and Kirsty continuously outwit the bad apple Jack Frost in every book (like every. single. time. Why am I made to read them ALL?), there's still a very "girly" slant to the books, which are fun, but would hardly be considered literary fiction.
The examples on TV are worse. A recent LA Weekly post pointed out the many ways in which the female characters on popular tween shows are ruining our daughters. Rude, fashion-obsessed and boy-crazed girls, like on Disney Channel's Jesse, are teaching our daughters only one shallow way to be. Where are the incredible, brave, inspiring female characters? I think the success of Disney's Brave proves there's an appetite for them. (Yet they had to go an change Merida to look more "grown-up" to match the other princesses.)
My cry for change is not just about my daughter. Our boys are watching and reading, too! As many have pointed out, the road to equality will have as much to do with how men see themselves in a world where women are equal, as with how women see themselves. We all need to see that strength, bravery, courage and heroism are not masculine traits, but characteristics that we can all have. In the same vein, we need our television, movies and literature to show us that empathy, love, kindness and other traits that are seen as feminine are ones we should all strive for, regardless of our gender. I'm looking forward to seeing the upcoming film The Mask You Live In (by the team that made MissRepresentation), which tackles the ways in which we oppress boys and men by making them suppress characteristics which are seen as feminine. I'm also really looking forward to the upcoming kids' series Annedroids, which follows a female lead obsessed with science and engineering (Anne), and her androgynous androids. (See the trailers below.) We need more game changers like these!
As for books, please share with me your picks for kids' books with strong female characters that both my kids might enjoy. In the meantime, change those pronouns for your sons and daughters and keep pushing for better female representation in our popular culture by voting with your ears, eyes and wallets.
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