“You Put Your Left Hand In . . .”

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What song/dance did you think of immediately when you read the title of the post? It’s considered a novelty/fad dance because of its popularity for a time at wedding receptions and large gatherings of kids. (If you still aren’t sure what that song is, I’ll whisper it to you in the comments if you ask.) I didn’t notice anyone suggesting it at any wedding reception I’ve attended in the last few years. The “Chicken Dance” is still hanging in there as a wedding reception staple.

img_4151Connie Willis’s 1996 science fiction novel, Bellwether, is all about fads and trends. Dr. Sandra Foster, the main character, is a sociologist who studies them. Like this one:

dance marathon (1923—33) Endurance fad in which the object was to dance the longest to earn money. Couples pinched and kicked each other to stay awake, and when that failed, took turns sleeping on their partner’s shoulder for as long as 150 days. (Willis 105)

And yes, Barbie herself (pictured above) has endured past her early fad-dom. (If that’s even a word, which I suspect it isn’t.)

This is not a review of Bellwether, by the way, though I loved the book. (Which I guess is kind of a mini-review.) I’m more interested in the central concept of the book: the bellwether. (Maybe now you’re thinking of the Bellwether character in Zootopia.)

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Assistant Mayor Bellwether

According to Merriam-Webster.com, a bellwether is

one that takes the lead or initiative : leader; also : an indicator of trends

States can be bellwethers too. You can check out Wikipedia (click here) for more information on the bellwether’s antecedents. Willis’s book addresses the notion of the bellwether in a very creative way.

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I’ll be bahhh-ck. (A sheep’s impression of Ah-nold Schwarzenegger)

We can’t always predict what will become a fad, thanks to the fickle nature of humans. Even if we’re contemptuous of the fads others follow (especially if they seem dangerous or dumb), if we’re being honest, we’ll probably admit to having followed a few fads at some point in our lives.

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Blue hair on a dude is not uncommon nowadays.
Is this a passing trend? Who knows?

Bellwethers set the trends, sometimes inadvertently. Think of the artists who are simply being true to themselves, but who wind up starting fads, thanks to the adoration of fans.

Maybe we don’t think of ourselves as trendsetting bellwethers. But sometimes, for good or ill, we are bellwethers in the lives of someone impressionable. I can’t help thinking of some children I’ve babysat, who use some of the same exclamations I’ve used. “Oh good grief!” a three-year-old said in frustration, using the same inflection I used. This taught me to keep a careful watch on what I say around him.

What fads or trends have you noticed lately that you like or wish would go away? Do you know who started them? Have you ever started a fad? What was the result?

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Willis, Connie. Bellwether. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

Assistant Mayor Bellwether image from thefandomnet.tumblr. Bellwether sheep found at Goodreads.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Barbie and Kris dolls by Mattel for the movie Barbie Video Game Hero.

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Try Everything?

I’m currently obsessed with the movie Zootopia. Now that it’s on DVD/blu-ray, I’ve seen it at least six or seven times.

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I even have the theme song, “Try Everything” by Shakira, on my phone. I love the message and the way it relates to the journey of the main character—Judy Hopps.

If you have an extra three minutes, you might check out the song (though be warned; it has scenes from the movie that are slight spoilers):

My sister-in-law is someone who embodies the message of this song. Last week, she went to boot camp, not because she enlisted in the military but because she wanted to test herself—to see if she could make it through boot camp. She had the same attitude about the half marathon one year. Six months before the event, she organized a group of her friends to train for the half marathon. Never mind the fact that they’d never done the half-marathon before. They met the qualifying time and did well in the event.

“Try Everything” also reminds me of a conversation I overheard last week while on the train. A woman was talking to a friend about her upcoming birthday celebration.

“We’re going skydiving!” she declared. I couldn’t tell if she was about to try skydiving for the first time or not. All I know is that she was excited to go.

For me “try everything” usually only comes up in regard to an all-you-can-eat buffet. (Talk about a “full” life.) But lately, I’ve worried that I’ve been missing out. Is fear of failing holding me back from “trying everything”? Have I truly tried to be all that I could be? Did I miss out because I didn’t go to boot camp with my sister-in-law?

So I had a heart-to-heart talk with Barbie today. I grabbed a cup of joe while she made herself comfortable on a napkin. Since she’s the Made to Move variety, I was certain she would have good insight.

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“The way I see it,” she said, “is this: you admire your sister-in-law for trying new things. But did you really want to go to boot camp?”

“Um . . . not really.”

“Well, let’s talk about some things you tried that were out of your comfort zone. What about the time you wrote a screenplay?”

“How’d you know about that?”

“This is an imaginary conversation, so of course I would know. Did you like doing that?”

“I enjoyed trying a form of writing I hadn’t tried before.”

“What about when your advisor challenged you to write poetry every day and you decided to also write song lyrics. What did you learn about yourself?”

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“That writing any kind of poetry is difficult. Poets like Andy Murray make it look easy, because of the high quality of their work. Still, I enjoyed the challenge.”

And that was the key. Some people enjoy mountain climbing, skydiving, and other activities that challenge them physically, because that’s what they enjoy. And I enjoy some aspects of a physical challenge. But I love anything that challenges me creatively.

What about you? Are you the kind of person who tries everything? In what way(s) do you like to challenge yourself?

For more info on Made to Move Barbies, click here.

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Zootopia movie poster from film-book.com.

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.