While following Google into some unpleasant places and bloating my Youtube “Watch Later” playlist to ridiculous proportions preparing to respond to this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpnT-i2vYL0), I ran across this little gem on my own homepage (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7v01qBBvlI ). (Yes, sometimes I do cross-sight research before responding to discussions on Youtube. What’s your point?) Also, a little aside: keep your eye on the red head in the middle around 2:07-2:08. That is the most epic bitch-face I’ve seen in a long time.
Anyway, the video.
I’m a sucker for tongue-in-cheek social commentary, so I pretty much loved, “It’s a Hard Knock Life (for Girls)” from the first stanza on, but I could only enjoy the lampooning aspect of it for about a minute. The more I thought about it, the more my Amateur Feminist senses started tingling.
If you’re still with me, Gentle Reader, I would like to take a moment to suggest that you get a good grip on your seat. This is going be a long, nerdy ride.
The problems that this parody cleverly and creatively points out are just the trunk-tip of a much, much bigger elephant in 21st century America’s collective room. The video opens by pointing out that only 32 per cent of characters on TV shows aimed at kids are female. Approximately half of this country’s population is made up of women, yet the vision of our society that we choose to show our kids is an America that is over 70 per cent male. Besides that, the females that do make it into the cast are usually fairly incidental background characters. When I see stats like this, my first response is usually, “really? In 2011? We’re serious, here?” and it’s not just the sexist attitudes that still pop up—both in media and in life—it’s the old, stereotypical assumptions about race and ethnicity, too.
Even though I really shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a good reason why I have a moment of blinking, sputtering, incoherent amazement every time I hear about something like this. Somewhere between the freedom marches of the 1960’s and the 2008 Inauguration of Barack Obama, we all got the idea that we were living in a post-“isms” culture. We built up this unspoken fiction about ourselves as a society, and eventually started to believe it.
Really, now—tell me if this story sounds as familiar to you as it does to me: around fifty years ago, America was a really nasty, unkempt garden full of poisonous weeds. Then a few people noticed that some of the things growing in the back yard were making us all sick. So, the activists of the 1960’s and 70’s—Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Native American Rights, Gay/Lesbian Rights, and countless others—got out the weed whackers and jack hammers and did all of the hard work so that lucky future generations like ours could live in a society completely free of “isms.”
I don’t want to discount all of the work done by those movements, even for a second. We live in a better society because of there efforts, and my generation in particular owes them a huge debt of gratitude. Even so, I think that some of us who inherited the world that they shaped are starting to notice that those “isms” aren’t quite as far in the past as we’d all like to believe. The movements that re-structured so much of our reality were long and difficult, but I think that even the soldiers of those culture wars would agree that it’s easier to change institutions than assumptions—and that some unspoken ideas, assumed to be eternal truths and, for that reason, never challenged, are just as potent, and nearly as poisonous, today as they were fifty years ago.
The weeds are smaller now. Maybe even slightly more benign. But really, ladies and gentlemen: they had been growing for a few thousand years before the United States was even a thing, and then got another 200 years of good, strong fertilizer within our culture before the housecleaning efforts of the 1960’s and 70’s got started. Did we really think that 20 or 30 years of work was going uproot them completely?
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, Shulamist Firestone, and thousands upon thousands of other women in the first seven decades of the 20th century fought hard to create the world in which I grew up, so that, as a child of the 90’s, the restrictions placed on my grandmother’s generation make 1950’s America look utterly foreign to me. Even though I know that women born before 1960 had far fewer choices and less control over their lives than their daughters and granddaughters would, my jaw still gets sore from its sudden drops to the ground when I hear what their lives were actually like. The fact that such a world is almost beyond my imagination, and nowhere near my experience, is in itself a testament to the victories of past generations.
But, even in a century in which female Doctors, Lawyers, Politicians, Executives, and soldiers are commonplace to the point of being unremarkable, our popular culture still manages to find ways to limit girls’ visions of themselves and what they can aspire to. We excuse TV and movies for a hell of a lot—because it’s “just a movie”; “it’s just TV.” Nothing to take so seriously. But when both children and adults spend so much of their free time consuming these “unimportant” things, it makes “frivolous” entertainment media serious business. Story in all its forms—at the movies, on TV, even on parts of the internet—carries messages about what it means to be human. Regardless of format, fiction comes loaded with messages and ideas about human beings—who we are, what we can be, and what we should value—and if we’re all spending our free time taking these messages in every single day, eventually they’re going to have some impact on who we are, even if it’s as simple as re-enforcing some of the toxic assumptions that we already hold. And if all 311 million of us are taking these messages and ideas in all the time, eventually they’re going to have a roll in shaping our culture.
I want to mention that I’m not trying to preach from the ivory tower, here. I consume the stories that reflect and impact our culture just like everyone else. I love movies (my favorite genre is horror, even though I know that it regularly takes at least the silver medal in the Sexist and Misogynistic Movie Genre Olympics). I came of age around the same time as the internet did, and we’ve been tight for over ten years. I also grew up watching too much TV, just like every other kid in the ‘90’s. I think that’s why the “ism” messages in movies, TV, and Youtube comments interest and concern me so much. They serve as a real-time barometer of the “ism” attitudes that still exist in our culture.
Which, finally, brings me to the video. Assuming that the link is working, you can see the details of it for yourself, so I won’t take up the space to summarize. I will, however, take a minute to respond to a few aspects of it:
“’Stead of sports stars—love interest. ‘Stead of funny—sister pest.”
I can actually relate to that a little bit. Kid’s television writers were pulling those tricks when I was in grade school, too. Even so, us 90’s kids did have a few heroines on TV: a handful of girls that had interesting things happening to them, were the major focus of the show’s plot, and thought about something other than supporting a man’s goals or making a boyfriend happy. I don’t have any kids, so it’s been a while since I’ve paid attention to “kid’s TV,” as they call it, but the combination of the arguments in this video and the massive success of the Twilight series among young girls leave me feeling like we’ve gone backward a bit since the 90’s. If what they say about the roles for girls on television is true—and since at least some of it was around even twenty years ago, I tend to believe them—then, as Bill O’Riely once said, “we’ve got an issue in America.” It’s tragic that TV writers would send such a limiting message to girls, even unknowingly. Relegating female characters to the sidelines while the boys go off and save the world (or the neighborhood or the school dance, depending on the show) implicitly tells the female audience: “the boys do the important stuff, but if they decide that you’ll make a good side kick, or they think you’re pretty and want to impress you, then you get to be part of the story, too. Isn’t that great, girls?”
“It’s easier for girls than boys to identify with the other sex.”
This sounds very much like the kind of defense that male-centric script writers would come up with to explain why they don’t write stronger roles for girls, and to be honest, this was the statement that I had to most visceral reaction to. Girls relate to the opposite sex better than boys, do they? Could that have something to do with the fact that boys aren’t required to identify with female characters, since they have plenty of male heroes to root for? Could it be that girls find it “easier” to identify with male characters because they have no other choice if they want to imagine themselves as something other than the “love interest” or the incidental, non-essential side-kick?
This kind of excuse is a good example of a culturally created circumstance viewed as a general, somehow inherent truth. “Male heroes appeal to everyone—because it’s ‘easy’ for girls to identify with boys—but if we wrote female heroes for general audiences, we would lose the boys, because, well, they can’t be expected to identify with a female protagonist, can they? It’s just the way it is.” And speaking of male heroes marketed to children of both sexes…
Sigh. I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t. But in the interest of fairness, I’m afraid I’m going to have to throw an old, dear friend under the bus a little bit. (Sorry, Harry—I still love you. I know you’ll understand).
First, let me say this: I love me some Hermione Granger. Hell, when I was a kid, there were moments when my nerdy, quiet, bookwormish self was Hermione Granger. I would never try to deny that her intelligence, courage and ingenuity are often the difference between success and disaster throughout the series…but even with all that, she is still basically the sidekick to at least one, and arguably even two, boys. Yes, she is an essential part of the mission, but that mission still belongs to the men.
The women of the Potterverse are brave, dedicated, and, in their best moments, even a little badass, but in the end, they aren’t really the major players. They support and protect, “The Boy Who Lived” (Molly as his pseudo-mother, Ginny as his patient lover, and Hermione as his faithful sister.) They uphold the orders of his wise (male) wizard mentor when Harry wants to rebel. They sacrifice themselves to the task of overcoming an (also male) evil that threatens the greater good. Ultimately, they provide support—albeit essential, sometimes even game-changing support—for goals and struggles helmed by men. The women work, love and even fight, but, to modify a phrase from Hank Green, “the weight of the world” still “rests on our boy(s).”
It’s intimated that Lily and Alice had interesting, even heroic, tours of duty in the First War, but their stories aren’t important enough to tell—unless, of course, we’re recounting the part in which they sacrifice to protect their sons. Even in one of the most equal opportunity stories I have ever encountered, the girls still don’t get center stage. They still don’t get the opportunity to be the main “heroine…or the…villain.” Maybe that’s because “it’s easier for girls than boys to identify with the other sex.”