Why Isn’t Bilbo A Girl? GeekGirlCon ’14 Panel Recap
Written by guest blogger Adrienne Roehrich.
“Why Isn’t Bilbo a Girl?” came with this description in the GeekGirlCon ‘14 Strategy Guide: “Comics, games, and films tend to go the ‘less is more’ route when it comes to representation. Often we only see one character of a racial, gender, or sexual minority. Even worse, some people aren’t represented in media at all. Kids grow up asking, ‘Where are the characters like me?’ Let’s have a thoughtful discussion regarding how we address this issue with kids with an emphasis on constructive, positive, and educational answers for the kids who ask.”
The panel began with Moderator Simone de Rochefort saying the panel wasn’t about telling us how representation is important; she assumed we were on the same page about that, since we were all at GeekGirlCon. The panel was also not about The Lord of the Rings. The panel was thought up when Simone saw that some people got into a frenzy when others looked at transmedia and big franchises and asked to be represented. The panel’s title came from a story online, about a child whose mother read The Hobbit to her, and who just assumed that Bilbo was a girl.
Simone went on to introduce our panelists to us. Cora Walker is a writer, editor, and lots of other things for the Digital Future Lab at UW-Bothell. Linda Breneman is an editor, publisher, and writer at Pixelkin.org, a website focused on the ways video games can bring people together, especially families. Simone de Rochefort is a content developer at Pixelkin.org. Keezy Young is the art director at Pixelkin.org, and has a background in teaching. Emmett Scout is an editor and game designer at Digital Future Lab.
Simone de Rochefort then moved into a quick statistical rundown of what we know about representation in media, and specifically children’s media. She used many tables from the Gina Davis Institute, about gender and race in television and films. She pointed out that in the children’s television section, 69% of the characters are males and 30 percent are female, illustrating that, at children’s very introduction into media and the first time they partake in the stories, they aren’t equally represented. Out of the top 500 feature films, six feature a woman of color as a main protagonist. Young Adult literature shows huge disparities in terms of representation of race (over half have white protagonists) and sexuality (nearly 100 percent are straight protagonists). As a game developer, she noted that if there is any sexuality other than straight mentioned then the game gets a higher age rating, even if there is no actual sex or sexuality in the story–anything other than straight is viewed as adult content. She added, “I think it is really sad that someone can be viewed as inappropriate just by virtue of existing.” Continuing on, people with disabilities receive representation at virtually the same level as LGBTQ representation.
In video games, the main characters are 89% male and 85% white. People with disabilities are represented in one of two ways: either they are super-powered, or they are a liability. There is little room for nuance, even if the character is awesome.
Two big walls exist when it comes to better representation in media. The first is lack of visibility, when you don’t see yourself or anybody like you represented in the media. The second is negative visibility, when the character is like you but they are on the wrong side, they have to be beaten down, or they are cogs in the wheels of someone else’s plot.
This lack of representation has real effects on people, especially kids who are growing up and internalizing all this information. She points out the oddity that when looking at crowd scenes in films, the number of women is roughly 17%, and that same percentage of women is seen in government, tenured professors, law partners, board members, and military officers–despite the gender balance for college students being at about parity. A study by Indiana University showed that television exposure decreased self-esteem for all genders and race except for white men, which was increased. Another study a number of years ago (prior to President Obama’s elections), Austin University asked children why there weren’t any black or female Presidents (of the United States.) In a time when children are told they can be anything they want to be if they dream big and work hard and are “good enough,” children came to the conclusion that the genders and races who never had been President weren’t “good enough,” even if it was their own gender and/or race.
The consequences of negative representation are just as bad, if not worse. Being stereotyped is really draining and leads to poor performance. For example, studies have shown just indicating gender as female before a math test will decrease the score. The American Psychological Association showed that sexualization of women, as seen in a ton of games, leads to a number of problems including depression and eating disorders. Men suffer from stereotypes as well. For example, men make up 76% of suicides, and are less likely to reach out for help, a possible reflection of the obsession with “manly men” in media.
Given all that, the panel then went on to address strategies to help children have “Aha!” moments like the girl who said “Bilbo is a girl.” The panel wants to help them see themselves in media, and possibly help ourselves.
To start, Simone asked Cora and Linda about a character they really looked up to as a child. Linda listed the Bionic Woman, with the slow motion and sound effects, and the kicking ass. Lt. Uhura was important to her, although she felt like Uhura didn’t get to do much other than tell the bridge the Klingons were coming. Simone points out that Uhura is a great example because the first black female astronaut, Mae Jamison, has also statued Lt. Uhura as an inspiration for why she chose her career. (She later got to appear in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Cora was really drawn to action roles, and couldn’t pick just one. She admired Lara Croft because she’s so smart and she’s so capable and a little bit roguish, like a female Indiana Jones (who was also an early icon for her). The objectification of Lara flew over her head as a kid. She enjoys Xena with her best female redemption arc in tv history and her relationships to other women. Lastly, she likes Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, which sent her the message that if someone tells you you can’t do something just because you are a girl, well, you do it anyway. You do whatever you have to do to do it. Another great aspect of the Alanna series is that it is not just one single girl who takes action–she busts the door open for a number of them. In addition, Alanna doesn’t hate on other girls.
Simone then asked Keezy, Emmett, and Cora: How did lack of representation affect you as a kid? Keezy grew up on media like Digimon, which has a large disparity in men and women characters. This had a profound effect on her because she would look at her friend groups and think “there are too many girls here” if there were half or more present. Emmett is a transgender man, who stated he never saw someone like him growing up. It had a strong effect on him because it meant there was literally no possibility of being himself, as a child or an adult, in society. It would have helped to see himself. He added the statistic, as he learned from speaking to Press XY at PAX, that there are 7 trans characters total in video games. It really affected him not to know there was a possibility of growing up into who he really was because the characters didn’t exist. Cora gave the example of her school reading curriculum (grades K-12), when she only wanted to read books with female protagonists but almost never got to for school. She asked why not? One reason, she was told, was because she wouldn’t “always get to read books with female characters, you need to branch out.” The only book on her high school reading list with a female protagonist was To Kill a Mockingbird, which while told from Scout’s perspective, isn’t necessarily about Scout. She asked teachers and librarians why they didn’t read books with female protagonists for school, and received varied answers, for example that they were about sex or they weren’t literary. The core response was they tried to include more, but “boys wouldn’t read them.” But girls will read books with male protagonists.
Simone asked Emmett and Keezy, What makes a good character? Emmett said, having more than one! One character cannot embody the entire representation of a group. Keezy added that when it comes to heroes, “You want to want to be that person.” Minority characters are often side characters. They are someone you want to date, not be. Linda felt it goes back to agency. The age of kid is important to consider. With little kids you can really feed into their imagination. Go ahead and change the gender. When kids get older, to the tweens, and get to be more on the mean side, just talking about it over and over again, sticking with it, is the way to go. Cora suggested thinking about the characters people like, whether they are part of a minority or marginalized group or not. Consider, “What makes Tony Stark appealing?” “What do people like about Bilbo?” Don’t make the fact that the character is from a marginalized group their defining trait. Think about humor and quirks and terrible, terrible choices that they make.
Simone then asked, how do we address these token characters and stereotypes in media with children? How do we stop that sort of representation or at least stop it from being internalized? Keezy jumped in, pointing out that a lot of kids are smarter than we give them credit for, although they need help finding their way to the answer sometimes. Ask them, “Why isn’t this character a woman?” or, “Why did that character do that?” because it is a good way for them to think through it for themselves. Emmett adds that he’s a big fan of validating kids when they feel discomfort with what they are seeing. Say, “Yes, there is a big problem with this.” And if a child is from a marginalized group, confirm that sometimes the portrayals they will see of themselves and their friends will be harmful and toxic. Let them know it is okay to see it, to criticize it, to call it out. And let them know that it is not necessarily a truth about them. Recognize that sometimes the creators have biases, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. Simone added that it is a good point to acknowledge that media does not come from the ether, but rather from inside us with all our inherent biases. It is also important not just to talk to children of marginalized groups and girls but also boys and people with privilege. For example, pointing out that a girl is wearing high heels into battle and asking, “why do you think that is?” Asking questions that lead to the natural conclusion, “That’s kind of weird.” Linda points out a situation she had with her own children and says there are a lot things she would have done differently. Things have changed enough that now you can pick out media that’s better, but it takes a lot of research. She encourages seeking it out, finding that indie game, while understanding that parents are busy and grabbing that game off the shelf may not be the best thing for your kid.
Simone asked, When are kids ready to have these conversations about complicated things like representation, about sexism? Is it always on the table? Linda responded that the best time is all the time. Whenever you have the opportunity, whenever you are awake enough and alert enough. The way you live your life, the stuff you consume, the conversations you have around the dinner table all make a difference. Keezy adds her mom always pointed out the high heels, especially in horror movies. “Why is she wearing high heels? I wouldn’t be wearing high heels in that situation.” Now that they are both adults, they can have conversations that go beyond that, but it started there when she was a young child.
Simone then posed the question, When or can you cut off media? Cora started off by pointing out that she knows how to break engagement with things that are making her uncomfortable, but kids don’t necessarily know how to do that. She acknowledged that and thinks parents should definitely set boundaries. But overall, she is of the opinion that kids can watch almost anything as long as the parent is there to contextualize it for them, obviously with some exceptions and extreme examples. It depends on the parent and it depends on the kid. Keezy adds that you can and should set boundaries with what you as a parent are comfortable with and what your kids are comfortable with. But it gets harder as kids get older. There’s little that can be done about teenagers going out and finding what they’re going to find. Even if you choose not to watch certain TV shows or play certain games, you can’t use ignoring the media as an excuse not to have the conversations. Emmett says he has complicated feelings about it, since he himself is not always the best at shutting off the media when he needs to for himself. He has a hard time sometimes breaking engagement with something that is making him feel uncomfortable. It’s important to let kids, and yourself, know that you have the option to step back, even if you’ve gone to a theater and paid to see a film. When at home, you have the opportunity to pause a movie or turn it off and have a conversation about it. You can come back to it later, or not if you so choose. Keezy added, when talking to them about turning it off, add why. Give them concrete reasons for it. Don’t just say, because it’s bad or I don’t like it. Say, because it makes me uncomfortable and these are the reasons. Simone contributed that kids are their own people with their own built-in limits and respecting that rather than pushing them past their limits is helpful to their growth. Cora then pointed out that parents can be wrong. Be aware of your own biases too. Emmett added it can be good to be a role model about setting boundaries for yourself. When you say, “I’m not watching this because it makes me uncomfortable,” it makes it really clear that it is okay to step away from media that makes them uncomfortable. You don’t have to force yourself to sit through this if you don’t want to. Linda added that then when the kids grow up and find material for themselves, by then they know where you stand and that’s the important part.
Simone then steered the topic to how young people interact online. How do we best keep them safe while encouraging them to be themselves online? Keezy said that many online communities have adults that don’t necessarily think about the fact that kids may be there. So when your child engages in a community, think about that. Emmett added that regardless of what limit you set, make it okay for kids to talk to you, especially if they are made uncomfortable about something. He shared that when he was growing up, he viewed his parents as inherently anti-internet and anti-online communication, even if it was with his real world friends. Therefore, when something came up that made him uncomfortable, he wasn’t going to talk to them about it. He knew he would hear “That’s the internet, it’s a dangerous place, you should go outside.” Simone shared her own experience of playing an online game that was outside what her parents typically allowed. But they allowed it. However, what she found out later is that they checked the chats and online history, and checked up on her to make sure things were okay. Perhaps, some level of snooping is okay in these situations, to allow your child outside your comfort boundaries while still making sure they are okay. Or not, as the case may be. However, be steady and don’t ban something needlessly due to your snooping. Linda suggested taking the plunge and playing the online game. You’ll find out about the community and what your kids are immersed in.
The last ten minutes of the panel was questions. To join in this panel or ask your own questions, come to GeekGirlCon ‘15 on October 10 and 11. Buy your passes now!
About the Panelists:
Cora Walker: Cora is currently a student at UW Bothell. She has a passion for all forms of writing, especially creative and analytical, and hopes to work professionally in the creative fields. An avid consumer of science fiction and fantasy, she’s interested in studying the ways in which people engage with media on all levels. Cora comes from a diverse family and educational background, with a strong emphasis on both humanities and the STEM fields. She loves to read, and has recently fallen into a terrible comic book habit.
Emmett Scout: Emmett is an assistant editor at The Next, and a current student of the UW Editing Certificate Program with ambitions of becoming a famous novelist. He was homeschooled in the woods for the first sixteen years of his life, an upbringing which taught him the value of an active imagination. His university studies include narrative design, genre fiction, and queer history and representation. In his free time he can mostly be found writing, gaming, baking, drinking too much tea, and raging about social justice.
Keezy Young: Keezy is a content developer at Pixelkin.org, as well as a gamer, illustrator/comic artist, and N7. Her background is in teaching. You can find her at keyofzee.wordpress.com.
Simone de Rochefort: Simone de Rochefort is a content developer for family gaming website Pixelkin.org. She is a writer, gamer, and a student of pop culture. Simone loves crying about video games, as well as talking about issues of storytelling and representation in all mediums.