A bit late on weighing in on the buzz from a couple of weeks ago re: Disney’s makeover of Merida. Short version: gross.
Slightly longer version: It’s really making me question whether I want to take my kid to any Disney parks (when he’s old enough to appreciate them, of course.) The modern Disney machine is so intensely gender segregated, with so very little variation in the types of girls it presents, that I’m not sure I want him exposed to that. There are some Disney and Pixar movies he’ll watch, of course, but I’m not sure I want him going beyond that, at least when he’s very young.
Some people might think I’m overreacting. Especially because he’s a boy (at least as far as I know for now), they might wonder why I’d even care about his exposure to the sticky-sweet Princess onslaught. Well, the first reason is obvious: Even if he wouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to emulate the Princess thing himself, he’d still get the wrong ideas about what girls and women are or should be. And being an upper-middle-class white dude, he’d have a lot of power to put that kind of twisted view into action. Of course I’ll be doing everything I can to counter the messages he’ll be getting that direction (not to mention teaching him to understand and respect the privileges he was born with), but part of that will be steering him away from those messages until he’s old enough that we can discuss why they’re problematic.
The other reason, however, is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with the lack of alternatives to Disney’s vision of female protagonists in child-aimed media.
The furor about Merida’s redesign met with some headscratching: “She’s just a little prettier/older/fancier. What’s wrong with that?” The problem is that that’s not who that character is. While I may have issues with the film’s ultimate message (“No, you don’t need to get married right away, but your primary responsibility is still to your family–no independence for you!”) Merida is still a very different heroine than most. Lumping her in with Disney’s other boy-crazy, prettied-up princesses is character assassination and–most importantly–runs contrary to the feminism of her story. (A side note: yes, I know that not all of the other princesses were like that in their original stories. But the later rebranding did shave off what independence and original thoughts they had. See: the horrors of what they did to Mulan, in putting her in the very dress she hated.)
Part of the reason I wrote my book is because I’d seen how few realistic, strong girls and young women there were in kid-aimed media, especially in the SFF/fairy-tale genre. There are some, indeed–Lyra, Dorothy, etc.–but by and large, most protagonists in kids’/YA stories are male, and the ones who aren’t fit very sexist versions of female identity. Mirya is a Dwarf in the Tolkien mode, so not exactly up to modern standards of attractiveness, and she’s not terribly femme, either. She’s also not interested in marriage; while there are romantic elements in her story, her goal is to be involved in her people’s war, not find the cute boy of her dreams.
Because there are so few of these kinds of female protagonists (especially in YA), I actually was a little worried about Brave when I saw the first trailer for it: a young woman throwing off her culture’s gender demands and going adventuring? I figured people would assume my story was a copycat (even though the bulk of it was written back in 2008.) As it turned out, Brave was different in significant ways, so that worked out just fine. Still, it was kind of sad that, despite there being thousands of carbon-copy manly-man heroes out there, I was worried that people would assume Young Female Warriors can have only one story about them, and that mine would be unnecessary.
Fast-forward to being a parent, now, and thinking up ways to raise my son so that he doesn’t get too pickled by ridiculous gender expectations. Some of that, undoubtedly, will be exposing him to stories in which girls are strong and independent, and boys are gentle and loving. So: Brave most likely will be part of his media exposure, as will Thunderstone.
But as I was considering that, I had a moment of subconscious hesitation. Would he like those stories? I wondered. How would he deal with a story with a girl hero? Would he identify with her, or think that, since the story was about a girl, it was made only for girls? Would he identify with the protagonists more if their stories didn’t involve the gender-related struggles they face?
One of the criticisms of Thunderstone has been that it’s a little too “message-y.” The point–that women and girls should have equal power and freedom–does get laid on a bit thick, I admit. But messages in stories for younger folks are often like that. Kids and teens don’t have the same ability to read subtext as adults do, and are more likely to take away an intended message if it’s literal. So yes, I did want this story to be actively feminist, and actively make its point, rather than trying to cover it up in layers of metaphor.
Because that message is so strong and direct, I did wonder, however, whether my kid would relate to it. In his position of relative privilege, will he be able to relate to Mirya’s feeling of being constrained by what her culture wants women to be? He’ll have some of his own underdog issues, of course–being adopted, having queer parents, etc.–but yeah, he’s pretty privileged, and it’s unlikely he’ll truly understand what it feels like to be in a group of people who are systematically denied rights. If he did enjoy these stories, it would be from an outsider’s perspective–seeing the world through the eyes of someone unlike himself. Would he enjoy that, or be disinterested? Undoubtedly, I’d be teaching him in other ways about how to have empathy for others, but would it still be difficult for him to understand the commonalities he has with those characters if their central struggles are alien to him?
And therein, I think, lies the biggest problem we have with getting protagonists who aren’t straight, white dudes. Because those people have been protagonists for so long, they have become the default. Issues that matter to other people are considered “special interest” and issues that are important to the ruling class are considered universal. Indeed, there’s even a word for it: the Everyman. No matter whether the reader/viewer has the privileges of an Everyman, they’re still expected to identify with a protagonist who does. When we do get a rare protagonist who isn’t in that group, he or she most often is accepted by wide audiences only if every trace of their deviation from the Everyman is erased: Like “ethnic” Barbies, they’re the same mold, just with different colored plastic. Yet, it’s also not just about these alternative people losing aspects of culture or personal experience that are unique to their gender, race, etc., but about erasing their experience of being second-class. People of privilege might be tolerant of a hero of color who is identifiably so, but if the story brings up the discrimination he faces? Not so much. Bringing up issues of injustice makes people who benefit from that injustice uncomfortable, and therefore more likely to avoid that kind of a story.
It is, of course, very important that we get heroes who are women, people of color, queer, etc., even without necessarily including the neon signs reminding us that they are such. Just having those faces up there in popular media does a lot to help rid audiences of the discomfort they feel when they see someone who doesn’t look the way a hero is “supposed” to look. But I do think it’s also essential to have heroes who aren’t just played by people considered second-class in a power-stratified culture, but whose experiences related to that are part of their character and even part of the story. Queer folk, for instance, may love to read stories about queer characters who experience no homophobia, but ultimately, we know such an experience is fantasy. Sometimes, we also need to experience stories where queer folk suffer some of the same homophobic crap that we do, and yet still survive and save the day anyway. People can be heroic even if they aren’t being mistaken for straight, white dudes. A black man, after all, can even be the leader of the free world and still face racism. Ignoring that racism is ignoring reality.
The plots of Brave and Thunderstone hinge greatly on the experiences their respective heroines have in being tied to the restrictive gender roles of their culture. These young women save their respective days even as they struggle against those expectations. While I wouldn’t say that those restrictions make them stronger, or perhaps even better suited to their quest than someone who didn’t experience them, they still play a key part in how the story unfolds. And even if those experiences aren’t something every audience member, including my son, will understand intrinsically, it’s still important to note that those experiences exist, and that the people who have them are and should be heroes, and people anyone–not just those who share their vital statistics–can look up to.