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.

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Can You Rebuild as Well as You Tear Down?

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There is a time for everything . . .  a time to plant and a time to uproot . . . a time to tear down and a time to build. Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

I watch a certain show on Tuesdays (or at least I did until the season finale) where everything is in an upheaval. This show dovetails with a series of popular superhero movies. That should be enough of a hint for you to guess which show I mean. If you’re still at sea, feel free to ask me in the comments which show I mean, especially if you don’t live in this country and might not know. But I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, since the show is current. Suffice it to say that a major upset has taken place and the characters are putting the pieces back together.

That makes for good TV, right? It’s like when we were kids. We liked to build huge block towers only to knock them down and see what happens in the aftermath. Or, we wanted other people to build huge block towers while we had the satisfaction of knocking them down. That’s conflict. Shock, destruction, and chaos add up to a great season finale. Who didn’t reel when **SPOILER (and you’ll have to scroll past the next two pictures)** Captain Jean-Luc Picard had been assimilated into the Borg and called himself Locutus in the third season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Yes, I’m reaching way back. And maybe you were in diapers when the show aired so that reference means nothing to you. But the Borg were the enemies of the Federation. Picard belonged to the Federation.

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Jean-Luc Picard

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Picard as Locutus **END SPOILER**

Overturns occur quite often in books, especially in some trilogies featuring a relationship between a hero/heroine and a would-be love interest. In book 1, which I think of as The Chase, two individuals dance around each other for 90 percent of the book until finally they get a happily ever after (or HEA) of sorts. In book 2, The Separation, the HEA is overturned. In book 3, The Renewal, the plot builds toward the couple swooning over each other again.

As much as I like a good overturn with organizations crumbling and cities in chaos, my skeptical button lights up when an overturn is presented on the page or on the screen, especially if the destruction is widespread. I wonder, Can the writers/producers/trained cats reconstruct to a satisfying degree what they’ve destroyed? I’m not saying the reconstruction always has to be like Bruce Wayne’s vow to rebuild Wayne Manor “brick for brick”—exactly the way it was—at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005; script by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer)—thus ensuring that the world is exactly the same. (Okay, yeah, that’s a spoiler too.) Nothing is ever quite the same after a major upheaval. Think of the shape of our world after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 or the aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane.

Authors like J. K. Rowling and TV series creators/writers like J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), Michael Dante DiMartino (Avatar/Legend of Korra), and Bryan Konietzko (Avatar/Legend of Korra) know that a good plan for a series is paramount. Crafting a satisfying and credible season or a series, with all of the twists, overturns, and reconstruction leading up to its conclusion, takes time.

I’m reminded of the explosions that occur in movies. I recently watched the behind-the-scenes documentaries for Batman Begins for the sixth or seventh time, so the subject is fresh in my mind. Nolan and the effects team discussed how painstaking the planning was for the stunts, particularly the explosions. Once something is blown up, it stays blown up. You don’t get a second chance. But you need to plan for how an explosion will work and what it will change.

Overturns are like those explosions. Upheaval is a game changer. Consider the upheaval of The Avengers movie (2012; directed by Joss Whedon). Every Marvel movie after that has shown the aftermath of that event. So, how do you rebuild after that? What do you keep? What’s gone forever?

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With that in mind, I’m issuing this plea to anyone who is in a destruction/reconstruction mode in their stories. I include myself in that plea, since I have a fair amount of destruction in my novel and am sometimes tempted to take the easy way out as I plan the sequel. Fellow authors, you wowed us with the destruction in your works. Now wow us with how you rebuild your world, or barring its destruction (i.e., Earth is blown up), how your surviving characters move on in a satisfying way. Please knock my socks off. I’ll be forever grateful.

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Construction sign from kunonet.de. Patrick Stewart as Jean Luc Picard/Locutus from fanpop.com and arachnoid.com. Earth blowing up image from sodahead.com. Avengers image from wallpaperhd.co.

It’s All Good?

I’m in season 3 of The Clone Wars. The arc of a series of episodes spurred me to write this post on the depiction of goodness. I wish I could sound as calmly lyrical as Bottleworder, Andra Watkins, or Lavender Moon Girl always does. But I can’t. Not when I feel like screaming.

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I can’t avoid spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about this arc, you might skip to the part where it’s safe to read (bold capitalized text below). If you want more information, click here.

In the episode that begins the arc, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Anakin’s padawan, Ashoka Tano (see hero pose below; I often stand like this with my friends) are brought to a planet (Mortis) where they meet the beings known as the Ones: the Father, the Daughter, and the Son. For more on them, click here.

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Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ashoka

Take a look at the picture of the Son and Daughter below. Guess which one is the embodiment of the light side of the force and which represents the dark side. (I would have liked to see a role switch.)

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When the Daughter and the Son fight each other for arc-related reasons, guess which one is easily defeated. I’ll give you this one: the Daughter—the good side. Why? Because she is “good” and thereby constrained by the limits of goodness. The bad side, however, has no real limit.

We learn about a weapon that can defeat the Son—a dagger that reminds me of the sword Samurai Jack wields in the titular series—the only defense in the fight against Aku, the shape-shifting evil spirit. However, as the episode of The Clone Wars goes on to show, this valuable weapon is easily stolen by the bad side, thus once again proving that bad barely has to break a sweat to triumph over good.

The notion of the light (or goodness) being limited in comparison with the dark side gets my hackles up, especially since good is personified as a woman in a flowing gown who acts like a doormat. Based on her outfit, was the expectation that she would stand around and look pretty? Does that somehow show the power of goodness? Grrrr. Since when has good become this limited? Why is it limited?

IT’S SAFE TO READ NOW. BUT I’M STILL RANTING. I’ve seen this limited-good aspect played out in other series and books where the good guys seem about as engaging as a bowl of milk, while the bad guys are like ice cream sundaes—enticing, interesting, layered, and much more powerful than the good guys. While I can understand the need to place some limits on good for the sake of conflict (i.e., in the Lord of the Rings), I don’t understand the efficacy of the limits in this Clone Wars arc.

That’s why I’m thankful for shows like Avatar and characters like Katara and Toph.

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They are the face of good in the series, along with Aang the Avatar. None of these characters is perfect. They make mistakes, some quite boneheaded. Even when defeated, they come back fighting. And neither wears a trailing gown, which would be a hazard in a serious fight.

I have to stop here to explain that I grew up in a rough neighborhood. When I was in middle school, there was never a question of whether you’d get in a fight, but when you would. So I had my share, though I didn’t instigate them.

In a fight, the first things to come off were earrings and anything your opponent could yank or twist. That’s why I can never suspend my disbelief when a character is shown in battle wearing a prom dress with trailing sleeves. But I digress.

I’m also grateful for movies like The Avengers

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and characters like Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. Sure, she has a checkered past. But she’s got layers. She’s a complex character who stands with the other heroes in The Avengers based on the choices she’s made. And I think you can guess which scene in the movie is one of my favorites. If you can’t, please comment and I’ll tell you.

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Script writer/director Joss Whedon didn’t have to lower the stakes to make the heroes look effective. He kept raising the stakes because they were. So, I’m grateful for that and for . . .

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. . . beautifully, nuanced characters like these. They’re imperfect—prone to argue with each other. But they get the job done. Sure they were afraid. When Syndrome came knocking, these heroes answered the call. This is what GOOD looks like. And note the lack of capes and trailing sleeves. The movie provides an effective argument against both.

Want another image of good? If you get a chance, take a look at the photos at the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Service (iWomen). Go here for those. It takes guts and determination to be an emergency professional. It also takes a strong desire to help others. That’s the nature of goodness. Strong. Sacrificing. Real. And no prom dresses in sight.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go calm down somewhere.

Images from marvel.wikia.com, imdl.com, heatdown.com, deviantart.com, fanpop.com, captainrover220.blogspot.com, coverdude.com.