What Do Girls Want? I’m Not Sure

Before I get into the post, I wanted to announce that I’m still reaching out to authors as I mentioned in my last post. Expect the interviews at some point.

Back in the day when I had a Barbie (or four), I tied a cape around her and made her a superhero. This was before Supergirl action figures existed. (More on that later.) A napkin made an excellent cape. And a parachute. My Barbie also was a spy who parachuted out of trees. She knew karate and had super strength. (Interestingly enough, the latest Barbie movie is Barbie: Spy Squad.)

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My BFF and I wanted our Barbies to be empowered before we even knew the meaning of the word empowered. Now, before I go any further, this is not a Barbie-bashing post. This doll has had enough controversy in her over 50 years of existence. (By the way, a really good book about Barbie is The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone.)

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Last week, I went to Toys “R” Us with a friend and her little son, and saw a huge display case full of Barbies in various professions. She’s a doctor, a spy, a businesswoman, a pet groomer—you name it. She’s even a pizza chef.

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Barbie’s handlers want her to be a role model. Female superheroes are getting their day too. Recently I read an article about a line of DC action figures for girls (including Supergirl)—something I would have wanted when I was a kid. You can read that article here.

Getting back to Barbie-like dolls, the Elsa doll pulls in more sales than Barbie. With her ice powers and staunch determination to be herself in Frozen, Elsa seems the picture of empowerment. (You’re probably thinking of the “Let It Go” song now, aren’t you? And after months of finally getting it out of your head. Sorry.)

Elsa-Doll-disney-frozen-35517836-872-1500      Frozen-Elsa

Her sister Anna, however, didn’t have ice power, but was heroic in a very moving way. (Which makes her my favorite from that movie.) Awhile ago, Time and Fortune featured articles on the empowering influence of Elsa and Anna. You can read them here and here.

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Now, many channels on YouTube feature discussions about toys, and include dolls in various fanfiction scenarios. (For example, Elsa marries Jack Frost; Baby Alive becomes a superhero.) So imagine my surprise when I saw not one but several fanfiction depictions of Elsa being kidnapped and having to be rescued. And those are just the YouTube videos. You have only to Google elsa kidnapped fanfiction to find a host of stories—some rawer than others. (There are several Anna-as-the-damsel-in distress scenarios too.) So much for empowerment!

“Now wait a minute,” you might say. “Anna had to save Elsa in the film.” True. And what a beautiful moment of sacrifice. But Elsa was not hand-wringing helpless. So many girls had mentioned how much they love Elsa’s ice powers and let-it-go attitude. And since many of the YouTube videos are fan-driven (many YouTubers asked fans, “What do you want to see?”), fans obviously desired to see the helpless-Elsa scenario. (I saw one of those videos just today in fact.) Many of these fans are girls.

You might think, Who cares? But as an author who is trying to provide strong heroines in books, I care. Yet I’m confused by the mixed messages. Last year, many people complained about Black Widow’s damsel-in-distress scene in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. (I was not one of the complainers.) Which leads me to believe that people want to see strong heroines ala Wonder Woman, Supergirl, etc.

The audience for Frozen, the YouTube toy videos, the non-YouTube Elsa fanfiction, and Age of Ultron differs to a degree. After all, Frozen had a very high preschool fan base (girls and boys) who probably did not see Ultron. I wrote probably, because I saw small children in the audience at the theater I attended. But there is some overlap, obviously, since Frozen grossed over a billion dollars. Many teens and adults loved Frozen, and were inspired enough to write fanfiction or request it on YouTube. But many younger kids also watch YouTube, sometimes with their parents. They make their desires known too. Based on what I’ve seen online, not only do I wonder what they want but also whether they have a different definition of empowerment.

What say you?

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I asked these girls how they defined empowerment, but they remained mum on the subject. I guess I’ll let it go.

Barbie images from ricardodemelo.blogspot.com, shoppingsquare.com.au, and pixmania.fr. Black Widow action figure from tvandfilmtoys.com. Barbie Spy Squad poster and Elsa doll from fanpop.com. Elsa and Anna dolls from disneytimes.com. Elsa with ice powers from blogs.disney.com. Photo of Popette (Moose Toys), Donatina (Moose Toys), Hello Kitty (Sanrio), and Strawberry Shortcake (Hasbro) by L. Marie.

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54 thoughts on “What Do Girls Want? I’m Not Sure

  1. As an old, long time Doctor Who fan, this got me thinking about the Doctor’s companions on the show. In the old series, before the reboot, they generally ran around and did a lot of screaming, and was useful for the Doctor to have to explain to them (and us) the scientific stuff behind his actions.* (Although yes, I loved Sarah Jane Smith.) But since the show returned, the companions are very much more kick-ass. My daughters loved Rose Tyler!

    *There was the bomb-carrying Ace, but I’m not very qualified about her as at the time I hated the Seventh Doctor. Sylvester I apologise.

    • I remember those days. Sarah Jane used to be my favorite companion. (Still hard to believe she’s dead!) I recall how much shrieking she did in the Tom Baker years. But at least she was somewhat active (though she was captured a lot).
      Donna Noble is still my favorite companion of the reboot.

  2. I do think it’s a problem when kids stumble onto these things on YouTube, but I have to point out that this type of fan-fiction isn’t new or rare. Every fictional character, regardless of gender, gets treatment like this and you only have to look for it. Back when I read it more often, I stumbled onto fan-fiction that has male characters kidnapped, turned evil, turned into rapists, and all manner of stuff that was mixed in with the more respectful tales. One of the most common things is to make two male characters gay and these tend to be written by women. We do tend to pay more attention to the heroines getting treated as such since there is a big push for strong, female characters. It’s disturbing, but nothing new. Not sure how you would stop this without pulling out lawyers though.

    One thing to consider is that these things are part of what happens when you get a popular character. It’s the dark side of fame in a way. A reason the kidnapping and damsel thing is so shocking with ‘Frozen’ is that it goes entirely against the original. The truth is that such a theme in fan-fiction has been around for as long as the medium has been around.

    • I know what you mean. I’m not trying to come across as being against the right of people to post fanfiction (though I wouldn’t want my male characters turned into rapists on a fanfic site). It gets frustrating when fans say they want one thing, but then request something totally different on YouTube. I have to wonder if women (rather than girls) are the ones who champion empowered females.

      • Not sure what you mean by the last line. I do think more adults of both genders are championing things. Going by my son, he’s just happy with whatever makes him happy. That could be Hulk one day and Wonder Woman the next. I’m probably in the minority here, but I think kids don’t think in such categories like adults and we forget this. So many push it on them for their sake when it might not be needed to that extent or could be forcing them in a specific direction.

        As far as fans go, I think there are two scenarios at play. There are those requesting certain things and they stick to those guns. Yet, there are other people in the same fan-base who want something different. These groups all love the same thing, but they’re composed of individuals and sects. One group can ‘ruin’ things for the other and you get in-fighting. The other scenario is that some people will scream for something and then not indulge. Maybe even forget history. For example, ‘Rey is the first female badass in Star Wars!’ I believe Princess Leia Organa has some words for those people. Heck, she was more capable than the guys.

      • What I meant was the articles I’ve seen, which were written by moms, all mentioned how empowering these characters were. But they were the ones doing the talking, rather than their daughters. I think the issue is what Marie brought up: empowerment fatigue. All of the scenarios I saw were rescue scenarios. But as others brought up, it could be them working through some issues in their own lives.

      • I’ve always been a little suspect of those articles. Not only by mothers, but fathers too. Many of them have the ‘my daughter asked me this’ and it ends up being a very socially minded question from a 5-year-old. Again, it could come from me interacting with my son. He doesn’t really care as long as it makes him happy. Thinking of some parents I’ve met in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids are introduced to these things soon after birth. People really do want to put the hardships of adulthood on kids as soon as possible. Not only how they act, but just removing the innocence and making sure they realize it’s an unfair world.

      • Very true. 😦
        When two of my nieces were small, we went to the movies. They were probably about five or six. (They were born in the same year.) When I asked them what they liked about the movie, one mentioned she liked the heroine’s new dress. The other laughed about something she found funny. Neither cared about empowerment–only what entertained them. 🙂

      • Kids will be kids. My son used to run around with a cape and ‘freeze everything’ because he wanted to be Elsa. Now he’s a Kratt Brother or the Hulk. It’s fun to watch and changes every few months. Not sure why we should have to direct such things since it’s flexing their imagination.

      • That’s so cute! I love watching kids using their imagination!
        One of my nephews used to sneak a cape from Halloween under his clothes. We would suddenly discover that cape while out in public! He liked the way it billowed at the back.

      • They have some shirts that come with capes. My son had a Thor one, but outgrew it and now has a battered Superman one.

        BTW- Sending you an email with the secret project info. Finally got that activated.

      • Send went off before I was done: The thing with Leia is that she was a strong female character with flaws. Even when she was a damsel, it didn’t really last long or hurt her character.

      • I admit to having that problem with her, but I’m trying to wait until Episode VIII. The biggest complaint about Rey is that she can do everything and her biggest mistake was letting those monsters out by accident. This wouldn’t be so bad if there was a clear explanation of how she got all these skills. We have to take guesses about it and the fact that Abrams is involved adds to the issue because he hates revealing stuff. For me, I left the movie feeling like I was flat out told that she should be my favorite. She ended the movie with a lightsaber, above average Jedi powers, mechanical skills, piloting skills, Chewbacca by her side, the Millenium Falcon, and R2-D2. Finn and Poe could be absent the next movie and it wouldn’t change a thing. Meanwhile, you remove Luke, Leia, or Han from the originals and you miss a piece. Rey is all 3 combined and that didn’t sit well with me. Especially after enjoying her for the first 2/3’s of the movie. As an author, I felt her capability came off as forced. Even Superman has kryptonite and screws up. Not to mention he’s weak against magic and vampires too.

      • It will be interesting to see what happens to Finn and Poe in Episode VIII, especially Finn, since he’s horribly injured. Perhaps they’ll take the fans’ complaints to heart. The plot of Episode VII definitely felt simplified character-wise–as if they wanted to hit the ground running. I appreciated Episodes IV through VI because of the character development, world building, and back story elements that made the world so colossal. Though I loved Episode VII, I felt there were a lot o underused characters (like Captain Phasma).

      • Finn became my favorite because I found myself more interested in his path. I think he has a bigger evolution since he starts with even less than Rey. At least she had experience surviving on her own while he was being forged into a drone.

        I hope they fix things in VIII too because the character definitely deserves it. Watched it again recently and it really did feel like Act 3 surged her to another level without any warning. It would be like Luke abruptly stopping his whining and Force hurling Vader across the Death Star in the first movie. Then again, I get the sense that most modern movies aren’t too interested in second viewings.

        Now Captain Phasma . . . That is a character that I can’t make up my mind on. They put a known actress in the role, but it wasn’t in the original plan. Abrams was going to make the character male, but listened to a call for more female characters. I read that the design is an early version of Kylo Ren. The thing is that the media and fans made a big deal out of Phasma, but the actress and director didn’t say much. I’m guessing she’s another Episode VIII evolution character. Honestly, that’s one thing that’s a little irking about Force Awakens. It feels like it was designed more to set up for more movies than give a solid story. This is why I consider it a bridge movie.

      • I also liked Finn and was interested in why a stormtrooper would rebel. And a lot of his decisions were very gutsy. He seemed to have way more at stake, especially when he picked up a lightsaber without having the force. And his defeat showed the stakes very nicely.

        I had heard that Captain Phasma was played by someone well known. The ARC troopers in the Clone Wars series had way more character development than she did. Granted, there were a lot of new characters. But it seemed odd that they would go through the trouble of naming her and giving her lines if she had so little to do. They could have just called her Captain (or Commander) as was often the case in Clone Wars.

      • Finn also had a sense of humor that appealed to me. It’s funny that Disney put a lot of effort into making people think Finn was going to be the Jedi. I wonder he can still go down that path. Though I’m guessing he’ll be a gun-guy and battle Phasma a few times. I’m not sure what was going on with her. My best guess is she was a last minute addition that they would evolve in a future movie.

      • Hopefully he’ll retain that humor. I’m guessing they’ll fit him with some kind of prosthetics, since he was pretty damaged by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber.

  3. Although the concept of women’s empowerment hasn’t been around that long (certainly wasn’t when I quite young and I’m not that old yet), I sometimes sense an “empowerment fatigue” among young women. Some think they are being anti-feminist or at least disrespectful of the older women who fought and got the rights they currently enjoy. But the problem with empowerment among women, and by extension, girls, is that it still means we have to “do” everything: have a career, bear AND raise children; maintain a household. And all with a smile 😉 Even among my younger friends who are driven to have it all, I sometimes sense a desire for someone to “please take me away from this!” So, maybe (and I know this is a stretch), the whole “Elsa is kidnapped and rescued” fanfiction is just a working out of the desire to sometimes, just sometimes, not have to be the strong one. But like I said, this is all probably a bit of a stretch … especially on a Monday morning … lol 😉

    • I agree with you, Marie. I also wondered about empowerment fatigue among young women, since many young women are requesting these scenarios. (Apparently, they love Spider-Man, since he’s the often the rescuer.) There are so many heroines on screen who seem empowered. Yet life sometimes isn’t like that. I’d love for people to know that strength comes in all forms. I have friends with small children who have patiently nursed their kids through a cycle of illness that seems to go on and on. Now, that’s strength!

  4. I’m smiling at the vision of you tying a cape around Barbie’s neck when you were little, L. Marie. My best friend and I used to pull her head off and throw her into the swimming pool. She’d sink and would end up standing at the bottom of the pool. We’d watch her with our underwater goggles thinking she was wonder woman.
    I didn’t see Frozen but the mention of damsel-in-distress made me think of Penelope Pitstop, a cartoon I watched as a child. She was always crying for help.

    • I remember her, Jill! She was in Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.

      Ha ha! I wish I’d thought of that scenario with the swimming pool. I’m pretty sure Barbie’s head came off at some point. Her hair certainly was cut! Nowadays you can send dolls to the doll hospital and have them fixed!

  5. Hmmmm . . . I was never a Barbie fan, but, that was probably because I was a teenager when she arrived on the scene. I did play with dolls, however; my storybook dolls, Tiny Tears, a few others, and our girls played with dolls (Strawberry Shortcake was a big hit with our older daughter). I wonder if empowerment vs damsels in distress allow kids/whomever to work things out in much the same ways as fairy tales.

  6. The sooner we get rid of the damsel-in-distress premise the better. Having to save people makes good fiction, and it’s fine to write that. In fact, most thrillers have that detail because the protagonist needs to have something at stake, and saving loved ones is often it. But as you allude to, those loved ones don’t have to be whimpering wusses. They can be active participants in their ‘saving.’ And having stories where either sex can save the other is a better way to do it.

  7. I always find this quite a tricky question, because of the whole feminist baggage that comes with it. I do like strong female characters, but strong in terms of personality and intelligence, not necessarily kickass (although kickass can be OK, sometimes). My issue with kickass heroines is that I think the underlying suggestion is that women should strive to be “as good as” men. Well, firstly, it’s a rare woman who is ever going to be physically stronger than even an average man, and secondly, is that really such a great thing to aim for? This feminist thinks that women should aim to be great women – whatever that might be. I don’t like the whole ‘woman as victim’ thing, but sadly it is a more honest portrayal of real life than “woman as kickass heroine”. So the question for me would be – is the story trying to present reality (often nasty) or fantasy (often fun). Is it reflecting society or trying to change it?

    • You brought up some really good points. One of my pet peeves in movies and shows is to see a 100-pound woman beat down a 200-pound man. I’m not talking judo. I’m talking fist fight. 😦 And you have a point. Why is this something to aim for?

      Perhaps we’ve seen kids mixed signals about feminism or skewed the definition of strength in only one direction (physical strength or having to be “the same as” men). Empathy is a strength, as is wisdom.

  8. I’ve always never really understood what these popular vocabularies mean: words like “empowerment”, “strong”, “weak”, “vulnerable”, “flawed”, etc. These types of words and phrases have always flown over my head and I never grasped what exactly they meant or why being “empowered” is good and being “not empowered” is bad or why being “strong” is good or being “weak” is bad or why/if being a damsel in distress is good or bad or whatever. Maybe it’s because I don’t really identify as a feminist so I don’t have much exposure to these words to understand what they really mean.

    I’m more of a let them live how they want-type of guy. Like I don’t think these feminist ideas should eradicate and replace more traditional ideas. I don’t see a reason why they can’t coexist in harmony and women can get the right to choose which way they wanna live their lives. I’m sure there are still many women who identify with being traditional as there are women who identify with more feminist ideals. To me, it’s all about the woman choosing how she wants to live her life and not promoting one way of living or ideals over another way of living or ideals.

    But that’s just me. And I’m a guy so it’s not really my place to give an opinion, lol! That’s just how I feel about it.

    • It is your place to give an opinion! You brought up some interesting points. Yes, I think they can coexist. Aren’t we striving for diversity? However, as I mentioned in another comment, the mixed signals aspect is frustrating. The way I will make peace with that is to do my own thing story wise and try not to worry about what fans who flip-flop might want.

      • Yeah, I feel it’s an issue that isn’t ever going to be solved as every society and generation will have different aspects that are important to them. I can only imagine in 100 years, people will be looking back at us and criticizing so many decisions we’re making in this day and age just as many of us do with older generations, lol!

  9. I don’t think girls all want the same thing. Some want to rescue men, others want to be rescued by men, and some want to avoid men whenever possible.

    Vive la difference!

  10. I’m not familiar with some of the movies/characters you mentioned …

    Sometimes you wonder what women want, lol!
    In her Ted Talk,Confessions of a bad feminist, Roxanne Gay, says: I’m a mess. I am full of contradictions.

    Extremes on either end of the spectrum may be unreasonable. “Strong and vulnerable” isn’t oxymoron is it? I keep going back to John Eldrege:
    Men want a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. A woman wants to be romanced. She wants to be an essential part of a great adventure.

    You’ve made me think… thanks!

  11. Interesting about the Elsa fanfiction. My guess is the fans wanting Elsa in distress are those who see that empoweredness and feel small by comparison. Elsa can kick booty big time and look fabulous while doing it. It ends up being another of those standards women are expected to live up to. “You have to be gorgeous AND powerful.”

    • Yes. We have to have it all, even if we don’t or can’t maintain “it all.”
      You’re probably right though. Poor Elsa. It’s just the way she’s drawn as Jessica Rabbit once said.

  12. Don’t you think younger girls already think of themselves as powerful? Or maybe, to put it another way, girls don’t have to pretend to be weak and lacking in power until they become teens. Then they become fearful that their strength will repel the boys. I think younger girls want their heroines to be the same as their heroes–slay the dragon, explore the world, etc.

    This may be off the subject, but last night I watched “Confirmation,” the HBO movie about Anita Hill. The sexism was soooo disgusting. I hope some progress has been made.

    • I didn’t see the movie, but I remember those hearings. So awful!!!

      Some might think of themselves as invincible; others not so much. I’m just so surprised that they like the damsel in distress role (or least think it’s helpful for them to work out their own issues).

  13. Lots of good stuff in this post and in the comments…it’s one of those things I’d love to discuss over coffee, ya know? I do find it interesting that Barbie is still stimulating such discussions. 🙂

    • I would too! Would love to see you, Laura! I’m excited about your upcoming recording session!

      Yes, Barbie is hanging in there in the news. I saw some newer Barbies in the store that look like average women. Barbie is evolving!

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