Where the (Super)Girls Are

Happy Labor Day! Here in the U.S., we have the day off. Sounds ironic, huh? For more information on the holiday, click here.

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The other day, I listened to a TED Talk by a media studies scholar: Dr. Christopher Bell. Though the talk was given in 2015, it caught my attention, because I’ve discussed on the blog before an aspect of what Bell talked about. Click below for that video. Warning! It’s about fifteen minutes long.

After talking about his athletic young daughter who likes to dress up as her favorite characters, Bell said

Why is it that when my daughter dresses up . . . why is every character she dresses up as a boy? . . . [W]here is all the female superhero stuff? Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?

It’s not that Bell wanted to diss male heroes. On the contrary, his daughter had several favorites among the male heroes. Bell went on a hunt for female superhero costumes and toys, because his daughter also loved characters like Princess Leia, Black Widow from the Avengers, and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. But after searching the stores for costumes, he came up empty. He also discovered that these characters were missing in the toy aisles as well.

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I know what you’re thinking: there are plenty of female heroes. You can also find female villains who do heroic things. After Bell’s talk, Wonder Woman appeared in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will have her own movie next year. Harley Quinn and Katana were in Suicide Squad. Supergirl has a show, now on the CW. Jessica Jones has a show on Netflix. There also is an animated show for kids that has become a favorite of mine—Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, which features a Parisian teen named Marinette Dupain-Cheng, who turns into a superhero called Ladybug. She works with a crime fighting partner—a dude named Cat Noir—to foil the nefarious plans of Hawk Moth, a supervillain.

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And Raven (below right) and Starfire (below left) are on Teen Titans Go.

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But, as Bell pointed out, if you look at the lineup of superhero movies in the upcoming years, only two females—Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel—will have a starring role. (If you have heard of others, please comment below.) Kinda sad, but some progress at least. And Gamora and Black Widow will costar in some movies.

As for costumes, after Bell’s talk was given, Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted and provided inspiration for costumes. Like Rey. A little girl I know plans to dress as Rey for Halloween. Online, I saw a Princess Leia costume—the iconic white dress with the bun hairdo—at Target, which also has an adorable Captain Phasma costume. (The one below is from Halloween Costumes.com.) Since Felicity Jones will star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, perhaps her character will be popular enough to have a costume in stores.

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Also, Mattel developed a line of DC female superhero dolls (see below)—a fact also mentioned by Bell, who cautioned against only marketing these to girls. Boys too could benefit from learning about female heroes. As Bell mentioned,

It’s important that boys play with and as female superheroes just as my daughter plays with and as male superheroes.

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Interestingly, though an actress played Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the costume shown above is marketed for kids, rather than girls only.

Bell’s point is not without its supporters and detractors. I mentioned in a previous post how a little boy I know was criticized for liking the color purple, because, he was told, it was a “girl” color. In his talk, Bell brought up the tragic results after a boy who loved the My Little Pony show was ridiculed for loving it.

Some people are of the mindset that it’s okay for a girl to want to emulate a male hero, but not okay for a boy to emulate a female hero. Note that I said some people, rather than all, so please don’t yell at me if this is not your viewpoint. I think it’s sad that we live in a world where a kid is bullied for any reason.

So to wrap up, I found Bell’s talk interesting. I’m working to produce the kinds of stories that a kid—male or female—will want to read, and characters with whom they can identify. Other authors are too. But I hope we get to the point where no one has to ask where the female superheroes are.

What would you say to a kid who greatly admires a show heavily marketed to the opposite gender?

Labor Day image from wallpaperspoints.com. Ladybug and Cat Noir images from fanpop.com and sidereel.com. Teen Titans Go image from the Teen Titans Go wiki. Rey costume from costumeexpress.com. DC superheroes from TechTimes.

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.)

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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.

Color Show

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While researching sight in horses, I learned that horses can’t distinguish as many colors as humans can. The human retina has three cone photoreceptors while the equine retina has two (dichromatic vision).

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One of the articles I read is “Vision in horses: More than meets the eye” by Neil Clarkson for Horsetalk.co.nz. The following line from the article made me sit up and take notice:

The research showed that horses, with their dichromatic vision, cannot distinguish red.

love-red-colorHumans with protanomalous (red-weak) vision have the same issue. And since red is my favorite color, well, you can see why I took notice, especially since the color red led me to research the topic in the first place. While writing a story with shape-shifters, I wanted to know which colors a teen in his animal form (horse) could distinguish. Could he distinguish the color of blood on snow?

I guess it’s up to me whether or not he retains his trichromatic color vision or switches over to dichromatic while a horse. (This is a fantasy book after all.) Since I wound up dumping the snow in the scene, the color aspect became moot anyway. But it caused me to think of how enriched my own world is due to having trichromatic color vision. Since I love bright colors (note the nail polish in the first photo), I have to fight the temptation to make every person, place, or thing I write about brightly colored. But I love using colors as symbols to show the emotional landscape of a character or to show mood in general.

Color choice can be very important when you’re using an objective correlative. If you’re wondering what an objective correlative is, here’s a handy definition from Merriam-Webster.com:

Something (as a situation or chain of events) that symbolizes or objectifies a particular emotion and that may be used in creative writing to evoke a desired emotional response in the reader.

A great post on objective correlatives with a helpful (and color-filled) example can be found here at Ingrid’s Notes. I can wait while you jet over there. I’ve got coffee to drink anyway.

You’re back? Good. Moving on, I also love to use color in an ironic way; for example, a depressed character who has the most colorful hair or wears the most colorful clothing (or both).

Color is one of the reasons why I love superhero ensemble shows or movies—all of those colorful costumes. Yet some of the most interesting heroes are the ones in basic black (or “very, very dark gray”; if you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you probably recognize that line). Here are some of those heroes:

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Black Panther (in front) and Lego Batman

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Black Widow and Hawkeye

(Still wondering about the “dark gray” line? Watch this video.)

How do you use color in your stories? What, if anything, have you admired about another author’s use of color?

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Hello Kitty and Jordie wanted to be part of the color photo shoot, since they’re colorful as well. However, if this post were a magazine, this photo would be one of the alternate covers.

By the way, I mentioned in another post that I was going to make myself a puppy hat. Mission accomplished. And yes, I wear it proudly.

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Horse eye from commons.wikimedia.org. Color wheels trotusa.com (which had the same photos from the Horsetalk article). Red wallpaper from love-wallpapers.com. Batman from jeffajohnson.com. Jeremy Renner from Hawkeye from fanpop.com. Black Widow from hdresimler.com. Black Panther from fanpop.

Where Are the Good Guys?

BaileySpur4XAngoraBlendFurFetlCowboyHatWhiteThe other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?

As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)

Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.

In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.

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Glinda

Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)

I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?

Robert-Downey-Jr-Iron-Man-3I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
 
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Black Widow

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Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)

Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.

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Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)

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Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)

I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.

It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?

Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.

That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.