If I’m recommending a TV show—or any piece of media for that matter—nine times out of ten I’m talking about a story that’s distinctly women-centric. Stories about women and other underrepresented groups are so incredibly overshadowed in the mainstream that it feels wrong to spend my time and energy celebrating anything else.
However, our media landscape being what it is, I sometimes find myself drawn to books, movies, and shows that aren’t as overtly feminist as I would like. In these cases, I like to think about why, despite its less-than-ideal representation overall, a story still resonates with me. It’s this process of (hopefully legitimate) rationalization that I’ve been going through for the past few years with Mozart in the Jungle.
Let me get the obvious out of the way first: I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work. Her storytelling finesse, and experiences as being at the intersection of several identities speaks to me. I recently saw her in conversation with KUOW’s Jamala Henderson as part of Humanities Washington’s speaker series, talking about identity, the comics industry, and of course, Ms. Marvel. Part of the flyer for the event introduced Willow (the G is silent) thusly: G. Willow Wilson lies at the epicenter of multiple fault lines of American identity.
Written by Guest Contributor Regina Barber DeGraaff
With all the excitement surrounding the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, I wanted to discuss the ideas of diversity that the book explores and how the ideas of what is “different” and “normal” has affected my life as an academic in science.
Not long ago, I was an PhD astrophysicist who had never read A Wrinkle in Time. Madeline L’Engle’s book was beloved by many of my academic colleagues due to the physics references; however, literature that everyone else read in childhood was always a touchy subject for me. I remember being a sophomore in college when several fellow physics majors said to me “You haven’t read The Lord of the Rings? You haven’t even read The Hobbit?!” That summer I spent the entire break reading the Tolkien series in the Shire-esque landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Being a female, Mexican/Chinese American, first-generation college student in physics, I was already wary about my appearance and “class,” so I did anything to belong.
I did not grow up in a house with books for children or adults. My mother was always nervous about her English due to growing up in Taiwan and never wanted to read English books. When I would visit my father during the summer, he tried to encourage my sister and I to read, but he was self conscious about his own reading skills. I remember the crippling dread when teachers would ask me to read out loud. This is probably one of the many reasons I moved towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
I am my most geeky when I’m thinking about Harry Potter; this is an objective truth about me. And so, when I saw that there was going to be a panel entirely about Harry Potter and critical approaches to considering it, I planned my entire con weekend around attending it.
Robyn began the conversation by proposing that the blood status metaphor—one of the key themes in Harry Potter—is not quite as overt as we all may like to think. While the allusion JK Rowling draws to race in our world via blood status in the Wizarding World is obvious to many PoC readers, it’s not necessarily clear to everyone. This affects how race is discussed throughout the fandom and how readers, especially those of marginalized identities, are able (and allowed) to engage with the story.
What were you doing when you were twelve? For many of us, we might have been pursuing our geeky interests, but the speakers at the Next Gen Geek Girls panel made me (and several other people in the audience) feel completely inadequate!
Introduced by Whitney Winn, the Next Gen Geek Girls at the panel were two twelve-year-olds, Maddie Messer and Rowan Trilling-Hansen. Both of them had deep-seated, wonderfully geeky interests: Rowan loves comics and Maddie –who I had the pleasure of interviewing for the GeekGirlCon blog last year—plays games on her phone.
Both of them made waves in 2015 when they addressed gender disparities in the representation of women in comics and games. Rowan wrote letter to DC for more women in comics and merchandise, and was featured on the Today Show. She said that she had loved comics for her whole life. However, her issue with the representation of female characters began when she got into the DC Chibi collection. Rowan showed the audience the packaging for the Chibis, which lists the ones that are available. Of the twelve characters, only two were women. “I just think it would be really nice if they would add more female characters to the set,” she explained to the panel. “When I was looking at the pamphlet I kept thinking something wasn’t right.”
Over the weekend in downtown Seattle, you may have seen cosplayers dressed as Black Widow by the International Fountain, or you might have noticed your social media feeds were flooded with pictures of Black Widow. You might have seen that the hashtag #WeWantWidow was trending.
That’s because there was a multi-city flash mob to generate buzz and awareness of the lack of Black Widow on Avengers merchandising, as well as to show support for Black Widow to star in her own movie. Starting in Sydney, Australia at 12:00 pm local time, the “Widow Wave” spread across to Canada and the United States. In cities from Tampa to Ottawa, and from New York City to San Diego, hundreds of cosplayers dressed as Black Widow descended on the streets, while even more online supporters showed their support by changing their profile images to ones of Black Widow, and reposting images or tweeting using the hashtag #WeWantWidow.
Although Maddie says that she loves these games, she discovered that there were oftentimes male characters, but not female ones. Or, where there were female characters, they had to be unlocked, while the default character was male. This was problematic. However, there are few statistics about the representation of gender in this genre, so, she set out to prove it.
Written by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Manager of Editorial Services
Vision: “A Book in Every Child’s Hand” by Pratham Books
Today, April 2, 2014 is International Children’s Book Day. Established in 1967, the holiday falls on or near Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, the 2nd of April. Ostensibly, it is meant to encourage a love of reading and highlight children’s books. It is also an opportunity to turn a critical eye towards children’s book and their representation of people.
When I look back at the books I loved most as a little kid, they included:
The Poky Little Puppy A Big Golden Book – representation male, animal
Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up by Shel Silverstein – I’m not going to go through the poems, but there were poems about boys and girls and animals, all the depictions in the illustrations seem to be white people
McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Suess – ‘young man’ main character, drawn as white
Giants Come in Different Sizes by Jolly Roger Bradfield – all main characters are male and apparently German, based upon umlaut usage, or British, based upon names. There are a few images of female characters.
Richard Scarry’s Peasant Pig and the Terrible Dragon – all the characters are animals, the cast seems fairly evenly split as male and female, but the major players are male.
Dr. Suess’s Sleep Book by Dr. Suess – a variety of genders in made-up species
According to my favorites, there was a slight advantage to the boys, and other groups of people were not so well represented. A study in 2011 looking at the representation of gender in books found that in children’s books written from 1900 to 2000, male characters had a central role in 57 percent of books published per year while female characters were at 31 percent. This value did not get better over the century, and in fact, it was worse mid-century. Another more recent study has found that in the literature children read in their school textbooks, male characters outnumber female characters in both text and visual representation. As I pointed out in the books I listed of my own interest, even when characters are female, they are doing stereotypically female things.
I didn’t go into my favorite books where the text outweighed the illustrations, such as Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe or The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But these books are characterized in the above studies as well, and also show the same gender disparities.
What about race or disabilities? What about sexual orientation? To address the latter, I found one study directly exploring the representation of sexualities other than heterosexual in children’s literature. Considering so many children’s stories actually have a romance or an arranged marriage between a male and a female character, I would expect that heteronormative experiences are the huge majority of any sexuality presented.
There have been studies of the representation of disabilities – and a wide range of disabilities in children’s books. You guessed it, they are hugely under-represented. And the disabilities shown do not reflect those that most children see in their peers in elementary schools. Sadly, children’s books are where the tropes of characters with disabilities start. These tropes include being support characters, inspirational, “pitiful or pathetic, or a burden and incapable of fully participating in the events of everyday life.” For those who are disabled reading this, this is not the reflection that is healthy. And for those who are able, seeing only these stories is also unhealthy for learning about others.
Studies of the representation of both disability and race have been done. In general, when you find children’s stories with disability represented, the percentage of those with non-white races depicted is very low. In fact, the percent of children’s books depicting any race that is not white is low.
As every single study or article linked above says, it is important for children to see representations of themselves, and positive representations of themselves in the literature they read.
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon was not a book of my childhood, but it is a book I read to my kids and have kept because I liked it so. The main bat character is female, but it does not live up to a fully diverse cast. Do you have some examples of inclusive children’s books?