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.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.