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Secondary Characters

Toys: Girls and Boys

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

From Tom Sawyer, through Batman to A Wimpy Boy and the innocent Nemo.  It’s not just in math, science and journalism where our girls and women are marginal. Boy-man heroes dominate our children’s books; films too.

Among theories on socialization, I subscribe to the argument that serious life-models for our children derive from the admirable, heroic characters in our books and films. And boy heroes who far outnumber female champions of any kind– even today– affect girls’ aspirations and achievements.   

Hadn’t 40 years of feminist campaigns reversed the dominance of males in the bedtime stories we read to our children and the films we so enjoy together? Aren’t women in all police squads now? Harry Potter’s creator is a woman.

Certainly that movement awarded many more women iconic status. After Wonder Woman, we have Leia of “Star Wars”, Agent Scully of “X-Files”,  Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games”, Barbara Park’s Jennie B Jones series for kindergarten kids , Elastigirl,  Xena Warrior Princess, and a host of ‘badass women’ sleuths.

Women are there. Somewhere. But boys and other male characters still dominate.

Arguments for stronger girl models to counter stereotypes of the bossy, the compliant or the adjunct female character are back . The debate’s been sharpened by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. “We have too few women leaders”, notes Sandberg. She argues that girls and women are still constrained by low self-esteem; “Lean In” is her strategy to change that (www.Leanin.org).

Authors Hadley Freeman  and Zoe Margolis are among the many journalists re-examining how heroic stories depict girls. Now animated films are brought into the argument. About time too. Animation is a major source of family fun– and possibly, just possibly– impact our children’s ideas of who can be brave and noble, dynamic and successful.

We have film interpretations of classics like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; we have video adaptations of bestsellers like Diary of A Wimpy Kid; and of course Disney’s fantasy hits. I marvel at the animation technology and human imagination that gave us “Toy Story”, “Finding Nemo”, and “Shrek”. (Even if all three of these happen to feature males in leading roles.) They offer entertainment for adults and children from Texas to Thailand. They are funny, playful, dazzling and touching.

But where are the girls? Am I just a grumpy lady frustrated by the sluggishness of feminist successes?

If so, I’m not alone. In the July issue of The Atlantic, Sarah Boxer convincingly demonstrates that female characters are not only secondary; those who save and protect lost children are predominantly male. She reviews the fate of cartoon mothers  in some of our favorite animated tales, from “KungFu Panda”, “Little Mermaid”, “Ice Age”, “Aladdin”, “Pocahontas”, going back to “Bambi” and “Snow White”. In film after film, she shows the pattern:–mothers die, leaving orphans to be rescued by men, be they fish, lions or princes.

And we haven’t even mentioned the issue of American children’s falling reading levels. Where do we begin to counter the imbalance? Would Pixel editions of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Zora Neale Hurston, and Doris Lessing work?

Tell me I’m misinformed or unreasonable. Shower me with examples of the little girl heroes who inspire your daughters and granddaughters. Maybe your sons too.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist based in New York; her work can be found at www.RadioTahrir.org