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Month: December 2011

Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves

Just like the all-knowing, ominous voices in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, every festive season concerned commentators apparate to warn us about the imminent dangers of Christmas shopping for children- especially for little girls. Lego releases a new range of pink blocks for girls? Beware of buying into limiting gender stereotypes. Disney has launched a new pint-sized princess? Girls are doomed to a future of passivity and reliance on male rescuing. Your daughter wants a Bratz doll? Well you might as well give up right now.

Of course there are numerous toy ranges that are unarguably sexualised and adultified- everything from Baby Bratz in lingerie to scantily clad Vampire – wannabees courtesy of Monster High. Then there is the “tyranny” of pink; to peruse the girls’ aisles in the toy shop you would be forgiven for thinking little girls were cognitively unable able to respond to any colour that is not associated with sugar, spice and all things nice.

But while there are legitimate concerns, is the extent of the worrying all that proportionate? And is it actually productive?

Reinventing "Pink Princess" play.

As educators who work with young women, we know it is vital to give girls the skills to deconstruct the gender messages they receive along with their much-loved dolls. Cultural goods are not “values free” and there are certainly some questionable toys being marketed to our girls.

And yet, to listen to the rhetoric of how “toys are corrupting our children and destroying their innocence”, you would be forgiven for thinking that the toys had come to life- Toy Story style- and were now fiendishly plotting to hurt vulnerable, passive children. It is as though we have begun to think of the children as lifeless objects, being acted upon by toys, rather than the other way around.

As adult women, we have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then- we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like most women who ever played with Barbie, we somehow managed to turn out just fine.

So, instead of merely asking “what are toys doing to our children?”, we look at what children actually do with their toys.

The reality is that many children play in delightfully creative and often highly subversive ways. If you watch how girls actually play with Barbie they may well quite literally deconstruct her by pulling her arms off, chopping at her hair, or as we did, ignore the pretty pink Barbie Kitchen and instead drive her around in a makeshift car pretending she was building an empire.

Nor do little girls play at princesses by waiting poised for their prince to come and rescue them. Rather, girls use princess and fairy themed props to play at power. They order around servants. Right wrongs within their kingdom. Grant wishes. Four year old Snow White devotee Teyah was known as the “Gum-boot Princess” by her pre-school mates for under her princess gown she always wore sensible boots – all the better for stomping about to create order.

This is not to say, however, the toy aisles couldn’t do with an overhaul. But little girls we speak to say rather than give girls fewer options, we should be giving them more options by opening up the entire toy shop to all – regardless of gender.

“When you look in the girl’s aisle it’s all just pink, princess stuff…but the boys get fun building stuff, and puzzles and cars. I still don’t know why marbles, puzzles and mighty beans are in the boys aisles [and not the girls]” says nine year old Lucinda. “And you might think that black, blue and all dark colours are for boys but to me they are girl’s colours too. There are just things in this world called ‘colours’ and they don’t belong to anybody.”

It seems that raising healthy, well adjusted kids has less to do with the toys they play with and more to do with the values we instill them with. By teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and by equipping them with skills to navigate complex cultural messages we will be empowering them for life.

Education-not panic- enables girls to see clearly, think critically, and reinvent their worlds.

What a fabulous gift to give to them.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald 23/12/11

A happy, peaceful, girl-power Christmas!

At Enlighten we believe it’s vital to not only help girls develop the tools to deconstruct toxic media and marketing messages, but also to offer them positive alternatives, so this year we’ve made an extra-special effort to provide girls with products that are inspiring and empowering. As we head into Christmas, I thought I’d profile these, and some other great gift alternatives created by amazing women. If you’re like me and you think girls deserve better than what many retailers are offering — Playboy-branded bling, T-shirts with sexy slogans — then here are some other gift ideas for the girls in your life.

Girls of all ages (and their mums, too) are just loving the Enlighten posters we had custom designed, featuring gorgeous imagery and uplifting messages. Some girls like to cover their bedroom walls with all eight of the posters, which are only $5 each — you can check them out at Enlighten’s website. I know a lot of people have had it with the commercialism of Christmas, and I agree that it shouldn’t really be all about spending. So another way to treat girls is to download the posters for free as wallpaper for their mobiles; for that matter, treat yourself, too.

On our site you’ll also find our free iPhone app, which each day features different inspiring quotes, self-affirming messages and web links to info that all girls should know — plus, it looks stunning! (We hope that one day in the future we will be able to roll it out for Android phones too.) For parents and people who work with teen girls, my book The Butterfly Effect: A positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls can make a great gift. (P.S. the girls’ edition, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, will be out in March next year, just in time for International Women’s Day!)

 For Real GiRLS!, a fantastic new Australian magazine for ages 7 to 12, has just hit newsagents and Coles stores. It is the brainchild of designers Sonia Pereira
and Liz Purdue. Liz came to one of my parent seminars after her eldest daughter, Rachel, did an Enlighten workshop at Pymble Ladies College. The themes of my presentation struck home with Liz, who at the time was working on several girls’ magazines, including Bratz and Barbie. Now the mother of three is working with a team of designers who are all mothers, producing a magazine that is a true alternative to the other magazines on offer for girls. There is no beauty, fashion, celebrity gossip or ads — oh, sweet relief. Her experience working on girls’ magazines and reading the fan mail that came in convinced her that “girls don’t really want to read a mag about celebrities and popstars (if they do they can access far more recent info for free on the net) and they are certainly not interested in makeup . . . they are far more focused on friendship than fashion!” This magazine will make girls and their parents equally happy. 

Another magazine concept, for girls aged 8 and up, is New Moon Girls, which combines a magazine and social networking site where all of the content is created by girls themselves — artwork, fiction, poetry, videos and more. There are no ads, and a year’s subscription gives girls 6 issues of the printed magazine and access to the social networking site, which is fully moderated and designed to be educational and build self-esteem and positive body image. Nancy Gruver founded New Moon almost 20 years ago, inspired by her twin 11-year-old daughters. It is based in the US, but the magazine can be shipped to Australia, so an annual subscription can make a great present. If you want to check out the social networking site, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

If you’ve been trawling through the shops in the lead-up to Christmas, you might have been infuriated by some of the hyper-sexy clothes targeted at young girls. So check out Pigtail Pals, which is run by Melissa Atkins Wardy, a mum and entrepreneur who was fed up with the stereotypes found in children’s clothing and wanted role models for her daughter that exemplified courage, intelligence and imagination. “Our motto is to ‘Redefine Girly’ and raise girls with the message they are smart, daring, and adventurous,” according to Melissa. “Our designs show girls as doctors, astronauts, pilots, pirates, exploring the ocean, and playing with dinosaurs.” They also have stationery, hats, tote bags and backpacks with positive messages for girls.

If you’ve been in the toy aisles lately, chances are it was just as infuriating. Perth woman Helen Schofield was looking for dolls for her granddaughters to play with and found herself asking, “Why do so many young girls seem to be enslaved by the need to be sexy at such an early age?” Rather than wring her hands in anguish at the poor choices on offer for girls, she decided to create a range of dolls herself. She and her husband risked their retirement funds and created Australian Girl, a range of five dolls that represent the lives of real Australian girls; the brand encourages self-acceptance and care for, and awareness of, others. Being a big reader ever since I was a child, I love the fact that the Australian Girl website encourages girls to make up stories about their dolls. The company even launched an adventure fiction book in which the dolls’ characters travel back in time and discover things they never knew about Australian history and significant Australian women.

Do you know of any other positive, empowering gifts for girls? I’d love to hear about them.

Wishing you all a happy, peaceful — and girl-power! — Christmas.

Instead of mocking teen Twihards, try talking to them

Criticizing the latest film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, is child’s play. As columnist Jordan Baker writes, “I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family and mortal soul – for a man.”

It’s a common concern. And others have raised many more. Are the books and films romanticising stalking and controlling relationships? Why is Bella always in need of rescuing – often by more than one hero at a time? Is this yet another fable designed to teach girls that sex is an inherently corrupting force, where – once again – male sexuality is constructed in terms of the danger and risk it poses, while female sexuality is characterised in terms of deficiency and loss – loss of virginity, innocence and reputation?

Thousands of centimetres of column space have been dedicated to critics bemoaning the insipid and sullen Bella, and this latest film has triggered yet another flurry of exasperated screeds all taking aim at the Twilight franchise and, more specifically, at the fans who are ridiculed as mere “Twihards”.

And therein lies the problem. While the criticisms of the film may be legitimate, the subsequent worrying over teen girls, and criticism of those who enjoy Twilight, is not productive. When we roll our eyes at the cultural goods which appeal to teen girls and when we dismiss texts that manage to speak to them, we miss out on an opportunity to better understand and engage with girls.

As teen educators, we see this all the time. Parents like to repeatedly carry on about the “trash” that their teen girls are into (mind you, these same parents probably grew up on a diet of genies in bottles and Stepford-like domestic witches who both aimed only to please their masters). These same parents then act surprised as to why their daughters might be reluctant to share other parts of their lives. We can hardly expect our children to open up about the things that matter most to them when we dedicate so much energy to insulting the cultural goods they identify with.

As insightful as the critiques of Twilight might be, the problem is that they don’t in any way help to explain why teenagers like it or how it manages to speak to them. Instead of arguing the reasons as to why teenagers shouldn’t watch Twilight, let’s turn the problem over and try and understand why they do.

According to 15-year-old Elena Burger, the appeal of Twilight is that it marries up the fantasy of eternal youth with the fantasy of having access to adult privilieges, minus adult responsibilities:

“Bella gets to stay a ‘child’ forever. She doesn’t need to worry about the adult things that we teenagers know we’ll have to worry about: she doesn’t need a university degree, a car, or a mortgage. Plus, she still gets all the advantages of adulthood: sex, freedom, and a honeymoon. This is the ultimate fantasy for teenagers, and probably what a lot of adults hunger for as well.”

Other girls comment that they like the fact that Bella is decidedly not interested in dieting, cosmetics, fashion or other superficial trappings. Others seem to revel in their power to read resistently and deconstruct the text. One twelve-year-old girl we know leaned over to her mother while watching the latest film and commented, “Um hello? Domestic violence, much!”

The real power of the series is that, like it or not, the film seems to tap into a number of themes that resonate with the lives of young women. It is unsurprising, then, that they would wish to discuss and reflect on those themes.

Twilight presents us with an opportunity to springboard into discussions about some very sensitive issues. Ask a bunch of teen girls what a healthy relationship looks like and they will probably roll their eyes. But say to them, “Edward and Bella: a tale of domestic abuse. Discuss,” and you’ll unleash a passionate and thoughtful discussion as to what a healthy relationship is and how gender and power operate.

The latest film invites discussion on matters including premarital sex, abortion, consent, rejection, crushes, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, male competition, body image and secrets.

Teen films create “teachable moments” where we can connect with young people and engage them in discussions using the cultural goods already familiar to them. It’s far easier to debate the motives and actions of a removed, fictional character than it is to discuss the behavior and motives of your child or one of their peers. Young people enjoy expressing their opinions about the former, but will often become defensive or guarded about the latter.

You don’t have to love what your child likes. But if, instead of dismissing it, you view it as an opportunity to engage with your child, you just might learn something.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald. 

 

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