Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lego Friends

Reactions: 
The Lego Group
2011

Rating: N (G)

Lego is about to release a new product line: Lego Friends. Though their website currently shows only a "come back December 26" message with purple butterflies and a girl's face peeking from behind the screen, plenty of other people are talking about the new toys.

According to Businessweek, Lego did extensive market research to find out that girls don't like their toys because they aren't aesthetically pleasing and don't fit with the way they tend to play. In response, they are releasing Lego Friends, a series that follows five girls in their daily lives. It features many pink and purple blocks, and it also features a redesign of the blocky Lego man in favor of curvier physiques for the girls.

The Good


Gender
As neuroscientist Lise Eliot points out in the Businessweek article, playing with blocks is good for children's brains, so if marketing them to girls increases the chances that girls will play with them, then that might be worth it.

Race
Andrea, the only person of color in the line, appears to have natural hair, and it is positively portrayed as beautiful.


The Bad


Gender
While it may be true that changing the marketing will promote girls playing with the Legos, the new designs (which you can see described in more detail here and here) fall squarely into gender stereotypes. The characters will come with backstories and pre-set identities, promoting less creativity in the play. The girls are characterized by one-dimensional qualities (e.g. Mia the animal lover and Emma the beautician).

The aesthetic change to the boxy Lego man also added breasts and hips to the doll's bodies, making them one more place where girls are exposed to subtle messages about the need to be sexy and the importance of their bodies.

Race
The only doll of the primary five characters that is a person of color is Andrea the singer. I find it troublesome that the black girl's primary identification is one of performer. Black bodies have traditionally been used as spectacle and entertainment, and it's unfortunate that the only person of color in the set gets stereotyped in that way.

Bottom Line
Lego's motivation for jumping on the gender binary bandwagon is profit-driven, and I can't say that I blame them. Their market research or even just a casual visit to a toy store throws it in everyone's faces that little girls love pink. What they need to realize is (as Reel Girl points out in her letter to Lego) that all the market research really reveals is the pervasiveness of gender-based marketing practices. It's up to companies to have better practices, and it's up to us as consumers to make those practices worthwhile. I won't be buying Lego Friends for my daughter because I prefer to spend my money on toys that don't promote gender biases. Lego, once upon a time, understood this, too, as this 1981 ad demonstrates.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales

Reactions: 
MGA Entertainment
2008
Rating: N(G, R)

Overview-
Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales centers around four friends who are having trouble getting excited about putting on a play as fairy tale characters (Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella) because they feel no connection to them. As they complain about the fairy tales, a talking frog appears and explains that he's been sent by The Keeper to whisk them away to Fairy Tale Land where they will each embody their character in her actual story. If they are able to outsmart the villains and ensure happy endings all around, then everyone will get to come back safe and sound, and he can become a prince again.

The girls help each other overcome each of the fairy tales, throwing in modern interpretations of their surroundings and recognizing that the heroines of the tales didn't have it quite as easy as they originally thought. They ultimately succeed, defeating two wicked witches, a hungry wolf, and an ugly stepmother.

When they return to their own time and place, they have a renewed appreciation for the fairy tales they dismissed earlier.

The Good
Gender-
The premise of this film centers around a dismissal of the princesses from the fairy tales as too weak for modern standards. In this way, the girls demonstrate high expectations for women and do not accept ascribed gender roles as an excuse for substandard performance.

There are also some moments within the recreated fairy tales where the girls get to share their modern worldview--with mixed success. The girl playing Rapunzel initially thinks that waiting for someone to save her is ridiculous and immediately tries multiple ways to escape the tower on her own. Though she is ultimately caught, she does escape from the wicked witch without any help from a prince (unless you count the frog, who does throw in a little assistance).

Likewise, the girl playing Snow White lets the Seven Dwarves know that where she comes from, there's "a lot more going on than cooking and cleaning." She is bullied into cleaning anyway, but eventually wises up and walks out, even as the men taunt her by telling her how scary the woods will be. She stands strong on her principles that being demeaned is above her and that she is capable of more than cleaning and cooking.

The girl playing Cinderella tries to take an equally dismissive stance toward romance and the need for a prince to save her, but she discovers that without a prince she will remain poor and homeless. The frog informs her that there were no other options for women in the "15th century . . . not even school." Upon finding out that Cinderella threw a glass slipper at the wolf to escape him, the prince happily declares that he's "so over wimpy gals."

Through these messages, there are some efforts to demonstrate a modern portrayal of women as powerful and able to step outside of traditional gender norms.



The Bad
Gender
First of all, no matter how much the show might intend to subvert traditional gender roles, it's created as a platform to promote Bratz dolls, which are horribly sexist stereotypes. Even though the girls in the movie are fully clothed, they still represent traditional (and fairly adult) standards of beauty. They wear tight-fitting clothing and heavy make-up. They are all thin with big eyes, nearly invisible noses, and pouty lips.

In addition, many of the plot lines promote sexist ideas. I know that the creators of this film didn't create the story lines, and that they were sexist in the original fairy tales, but I can't give them a pass on this because the message at the end is that the stories are "great" and so much "more fun" than the girls originally thought. Even though this is--on the surface--an endorsement of the strength of the heroines, it is also an endorsement for the stories themselves (and all the sexism they contain).

Beauty is equated with good--at least for women. The witch in the Snow White narrative is trying to get rid of (by feeding some to the wolf and locking one in a tower) all of the girls so she can be the "fairest in the land." The witch from the Rapunzel story line is old, wrinkled, and misshapen--and she discusses her frustration with her looks on screen. While the women villains are ugly (or at least perceive themselves as uglier than the girls), the wolf exhibits the stereotypes of the traditionally strong male. He has a broad chest, narrow waist, and big arms. These portrayals promote female morality as associated with beauty while male morality is not.

Also, the wolf story line made me uncomfortable. He's trying to eat the girls, but he demonstrates how sad he is that the girl playing Red Riding Hood didn't play along with his grandma act to tease out the chase a little longer. The chase then becomes literal, as he scares all of the girls up a tree and then follows them, teasing them about "which order will I eat you in." He teams up with the witch from Snow White until his ravenous bloodthirsty-ness overcomes him and he pounces on her and devours her. The body language and ways of talking about the chase were too reminiscent of predatory sexual behavior for me.

Race
According to this document on ways to analyze children's books for racism, a sign of tokenism is when a minority character "look[s] just like whites except for being tinted or colored in." That is definitely the case for both the black girl and the black dwarf. 

In addition, the black dwarf speaks with a stereotypically black accent and says things like "what are you doing up in our crib?" He's the only character who speaks like this, and these decisions promote stereotypes in a negative, reductive way. 


Also, it really bothered me that both of the black characters (which are the only real representation of racial diversity) have green eyes. While I know that black people can have eyes in a variety of shades, other critics have talked about how making a dark-skinned character have light eyes can be read as a way to keep people of color from identifying with the character. Shannon Price dubs it the "Esmerelda Eyes Syndrome" (as a reference to Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another person of color with unusually green eyes). Price says that the decision was meant to show "that in order to be beautiful or worthy . . . you had to have at least one European feature, and animators were determined to provide Esmerelda with one even though it clashed alarmingly with her other features." The same can be said for the black characters in this movie. 


Bottom Line
Even though the film purports to be subverting the rigid gender roles in traditional fairy tales, it ends up claiming that these same story lines are actually "great" and "fun." It gets to this message through a series of mixed messages about gender norms and some very stereotypical portrayals of race. It's also important to remember that this film acts as a marketing platform for the entire Bratz line, which is rife with stereotyping and sexist portrayals.

My first-ever Bratz doll.
From partymonstrrrr

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

B. Toys

Reactions: 
Battat, Inc.
Rating: Y

Finding toys that aren't firmly situated in a gender binary can be difficult, especially if you're buying those toys as gifts.

Thats why I was happy to find B. toys, a line of toys designed to "inspire individuality." These brightly colored toys represent a diverse range of interests and age groups.

This line includes everything from remote-controlled cars to interactive abstract sculptures to electronic guitars shaped like a dog.

The Good
Gender
Unlike most toys, the B. toys are not divided into a gender binary of "girl" and "boy" toys. On the website,  the toys are instead divided by thematic category (ex. "B.Curious" or "B.Smart").

The toys themselves are all bright without falling into stereotypically gendered color schemes. Take these toy cars, for instance, which manage to use a combination of green, pink, orange, red, and blue to create a toy that is inviting for any child. I also appreciate that, though they're anthropomorphized, there are not any gendered features in the car's faces.
Must of the toys avoid falling into gender stereotypes by simply avoiding any gendered representations. There are a few toys, however, that have human figurines associated with them. These figurines demonstrate both men and women as active agents.

Race
Again, there aren't that many human characters presented in the toys, but there is some racial diversity present in the few human beings that do appear.

This Fire Flyer, for instance, features both a black male and white female firefighter.

The Bad
Race
The only races that I see represented are black and white, which presents a limited view of racial diversity. A few characters that represent other racial identities would be nice.

Bottom Line
I would have no problem giving these toys to my child (in fact, I've already purchased some as Christmas gifts for my own daughter, nieces, and nephews). These toys do an excellent job of avoiding a gender binary in their marketing, color scheme, or thematic categories. Even when the toys themselves fall into a category that is traditionally gendered (like the toy cars), the design is carefully crafted in a way that avoids giving into those stereotypes.

B. toys can be purchased at Target.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Last Unicorn

Reactions: 
Bankin/Bass Production
1982
Rating: Y

Overview

I was afraid to re-watch this movie in order to review it. It was one of my all-time favorites as a child, and I was afraid that re-visiting it with a critical eye would expose it as being full of the stereotypes and limiting messages I'd found in so many other films I'd watched as a child. But I pushed my fear aside, and I'm so glad I did. This film is even better than I remembered!

The Last Unicorn is the journey of a unicorn who seeks others of her kind because she's suddenly discovered she may be the last one. Her travels take her to a castle where a lonely, controlling king has used his monstrous red bull to drive all of the unicorns into the sea in order to quench his thirst for power and his desire to surround himself with joyful things. Along the way, she picks up a bumbling magician named Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the only woman in a band of traveling thieves. With their help, she makes it to the castle, where Schmendrick turns her into a young woman to save her from the red bull. In her new human form, she lives in the castle where she is ruthlessly pursued by the king's adopted son, Prince Lir. As the unicorn begins to lose sense of her identity and struggles with remembering who she is and why she's there, her friends work to figure out how to get to the red bull's secret lair and rescue the unicorns. When they find it, she fears returning to her true form and debates the mission, but her friends (including the prince) help convince her to stay true to herself. She returns to unicorn form, defeats the bull, saves the unicorns, and once again reigns as protector of her forest, leaving behind the life she momentarily knew as a human.

In addition to being a fairly intricate and unique storyline (based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, who also did the screenplay), it is also beautifully animated with an excellent score.

The Good
Gender-


This film is filled with powerful women. The unicorn herself sets out on a dangerous and frightening journey because she knows she must save the rest of her kind. She leaves the safety and comfort of her forest home to do so, fully aware of the risks but determined to do the right thing. Along the way, she becomes a spectacle and an object of desire. When men try to capture her, she fights back and escapes. She is momentarily captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who runs a traveling circus, but she escapes by setting free the Harpy, the only other creature of the circus that is real and not an illusion of Fortuna's spells.  Even the villains are powerful women.

As a woman, the unicorn faces the pressures to conform to the traditional fairy tale. The prince tries to woo her by slaying dragons and acting as a traditional hero. By defying the stereotypical "fair maiden," she also teaches Prince Lir that he can step outside of his stereotypical role. In the end, Lir steps in to save her from the bull, but he fails and is killed. The unicorn (returned to her true form) brings him back to life, the one thing she can do to show that she was touched by human emotions, but not enough to give up her identity.


I also really appreciate the complexity with which the identity struggle unfolds. Prince Lir (and the traditional life he offers) is not vilified or over-simplified. Instead, the unicorn must make grand decisions about who she is and what she wants from her life. As the video above shows, that's not an easy choice, and I think that's a realistic portrayal of the identity struggles we all undergo, and it's a powerful message for children to see. 

The Bad
Gender


The unicorn's human form does adhere to stereotypical standards of beauty, with long, flowing hair, big round eyes, and a very thin frame. The human version is also shown to be fairly weak. She spends a lot of her time whining about her confusion and waiting inactive for someone else to unravel the riddle of the castle. The human form is not nearly as strong of a female role model as the unicorn.

Race
There is virtually no racial diversity in this film. Also, the human form is supposed to be strikingly beautiful, and she is very, very white. Her hair is white. Her clothes are white. Her skin is white. While this is a reflection of the transformation from an all-white unicorn, it also portrays a white body as the most beautiful.

Bottom Line-

The Last Unicorn offers a complex look at identity struggles through the lens of a well-developed quest story. Featuring strong female characters in the protagonist, the villains, and the secondary characters, it demonstrates multiple versions of femininity. It offers an alternative to the traditional story of romance and strongly promotes the message of discovering who you are and being true to yourself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Mighty B!

Reactions: 
The Mighty B!
2008-2011
Nickelodeon
Rating: M (G, R)

Overview- There's a lot to like about the idea of this cartoon. Co-creator Amy Poehler voices the main character Bessie Higgenbottom, an excessively ambitious 10-year-old "Honeybee Scout" who aims to earn every merit badge (all 4000+) and become a super hero: The Mighty Bee.

Bessie is extremely loud and obnoxious. The qualities alternate between endearing and infuriating. The plot lines focus around Bessie's outcast status and her ambition. Each episode offers some dilemma (she's too short to ride the carnival ride, she needs to win a dog show to get the "Pet Appreciation Badge" but has no dog) and then shows a series of outrageous, obnoxious, and--above all--persistent strategies to overcome the challenge.


The Good-

Gender
Bessie definitely defies a lot of stereotypical portrayals of girlhood. She's clumsy, wears glasses, has buck teeth, and doesn't have any characteristics that are overtly "pretty" or "sexy." Her goal to become a super hero is a direct attempt to defy stereotypes that portray little girls as princesses, and this messages becomes even clearer when Bessie is shown interacting with the popular girls from her scout troop, stereotypical girly-girls that are portrayed as vapid and often cruel. The show does not glorify popularity, and it does not shy away from the fact that Bessie is mocked and ostracized by many of her peers.

Despite this treatment, Bessie is not anti-social. She has an enthusiastic and loving relationship with her mother, a tolerable relationship with her brother, and is clearly known and liked by adults she meets  as she zooms through town.

She also demonstrates qualities that girls are often discouraged from portraying: persistence, directness, curiosity, and the ability to use connections to get ahead.

The portrayal of Bessie's mom is also interesting. In the episodes I watched, there is no father figure in sight. Her mother is shown working often, sports a tattoo, and is overweight. Most cartoon characters drawn the way she is are portrayed as lazy and uncouth. But the mom, however tired and overworked, is a loving provider.

The Bad
Gender
 Bessie, for all of her powerful girl-positive portrayals, still exists in a world where stereotypes persist. Most of the other women (especially the popular Honeybee Scouts) still fit into stereotypical norms.
Bessie is only able to be powerful and ambitious by accepting outsider status and retreating into friendships with imaginary playmates and her dog.

Race
Despite being set in an urban landscape, the show didn't have much racial diversity in the episodes I watched. What diversity I saw was disappointingly portrayed. In the first episode, Bessie enters a Chinese restaurant. The characters in the restaurant are crudely drawn Asian stereotypes and--as Bessie slips into one of her superhero fantasies--they transform into kung fu fighting enemies she must defeat before being rewarded by Mr. Wu with a dumpling. While I know that not every show is going to be able to work to actively dismantle both gender and racial stereotypes, it is very important that it doesn't actively promote them.

Bottom Line-
I like the idea of The Mighty B! more than the execution. The protagonist has a lot of potential to break down gender stereotypes, but the delivery falls short. While Bessie does portray a strong-willed, driven female character, she is only able to do so at the cost of being ostracized, so I wonder how much of a role-model she would be to older girls. And I do think this show is geared toward older children. The scenes change quickly and the messages are hyperactive and erratic, and recent research shows these fast-paced shows might not be good for young children's development. Finally, the show does a poor job of dealing with race, falling into stereotypical portrayals.

And, though this isn't really about the messages it sends, the hyperactive plot lines, high-pitched tirades, and general silliness make for pretty nerve-grating viewing experience.

What Other People Say-
You can see some reviews of the show from Common Sense Media and an About.com Parent Guide.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fisher Price Brilliant Basics

Reactions: 
Fisher Price Brilliant Basics
Rating: N (G)

Fisher Price has a series of toys marketed as their "Brilliant Basics." These are infant and toddler toys that are brightly colored and perfectly shaped for little hands.

The Good
These toys are marketed as the "basics" for a reason. They are fun, interactive, and durable. Take the Brilliant Basics Hammer, for instance.




In bright primary colors, this hammer acts as a rattle (the beads inside make it satisfying to shake), a mobile roller (the handle is equipped with a ball that acts as a wheel), and a . . . well, hammer. It stands up to the general tossing and beating that any infant toy must accept, and it is a generally inviting toy. 

The Bad
The problem? This hammer is part of a marketing strategy that is promoted for "busy little boys." In fact, it says so right on the package of the individually-sold hammer. The Fisher-Price website has a page about this set (the Fun to Fix Gift Set) that explains "Baby boys are so adorable! Keep him busy with these fun tools—each with very practical teethable features."



The girl-marketed equivalent is the Little Glamour Gift Set. 



The individually-packaged purse declares it's for a "Sweet Baby Girl." This message is repeated on Fisher-Price's website for the set: "Baby girls are oh-so sweet! Give her a little glam and—just to be practical—teethable, easy-to-grasp features."

So, little boys are "busy" while little girls are "sweet." Little boys need to learn to fix things with a hammer, saw, and wrench that are molded in bright primary colors. Little girls need to learn to make themselves "glam" with a diamond ring rattle, a purse, and a bracelet teething ring molded in pink and purple. 

Infants will play with anything, and they're probably not making many conscious decisions about how the toys they're using are shaping their identities. However, the blatant marketing of these toys as entrenched in gender is over the top. Putting that the toys are "for" a girl or a boy right on the package aims to steer parents into choosing the "right" set based on gender norms. Even if parents go against those directives for their own children, are they likely to buy a set of toys for their friend's baby girl that says "For A Busy Baby Boy" on the package? 

Furthermore, sending a message that boys "fix" things while girls "glam" themselves further promotes the stereotype that men are more useful than women. It starts sending messages to little girls that their job is to be pretty and that being pretty requires purchasing objects.The diamond ring rattle is particularly disturbing because the marketing surrounding engagement rings is already so aggressively gendered; starting it in infancy definitely feels like overkill. It starts sending messages to little boys that their job is to be productive and that production is based in their physicality.

Bottom Line
While these toys could be given to children outside of this gendered context, the way these toys are marketed is insulting to the idea of gender equality and purchasing them rewards that strategy. Gendered marketing is pervasive, and infancy should be a time free from such blatant messages.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jon Scieszka's Trucktown on the Move!

Reactions: 
Little Simon Publishing
David Shannon, Loren Long, David Gordon
2009
Rating: Y



On the Move! is a board book and, therefore, is understandably low on complex content. It offers readers a series of friendly anthropomorphic work vehicles as they go about their daily tasks. Complete with interactive moving parts, this books is bright, colorful, and fun.

It also does some work against gender stereotypes. The first character we meet is "Wrecker Rosie" a smiling wrecking ball who is hard at work knocking down a building. While Rosie does have a pink wrecking ball, the stereotypical female features end there. She does not have pouty lips or long eyelashes. She's mid-stomp and clearly a tough, hard-working machine who is comfortably at home on the construction site. She gives young readers an example of a female in a male-dominated work environment and sends the message that it's fine for little girls to like trucks, too.

After meeting Monster Truck Max and Dump Truck Dan, we are introduced to a second female character, Rita the Ambulance (pictured on the cover above). While Rita does have some of the more traditional characteristics of a female anthropomorphized object (long eyelashes, big round eyes) and is shown being rescued from a ditch by Tow Truck Ted, she is no typical damsel in distress. She spends no time mooning over Ted or lamenting her brush with danger. She replies with a cheery "Thanks, Ted!" and follows it with "Now let's go rescue someone else!" Rita demonstrates that girls can have an important role in society while also showing readers that it's okay to mess up and to rely on others for help.

Bottom Line-
In eight pages, we get two examples of female characters defying stereotypical expectations. That's a pretty big accomplishment for a cute, short board book.