Sofia the Not-So-Latina-After-All

Months ago, Disney announced that a new Disney Channel cartoon, Sofia the First, would be released this year, targeting girls ages 2 to 7. With the title character a little girl, rather than a teenager, Disney promised that Sofia the First would be “age-appropriate” for preschoolers. The cartoon would feature not just “plenty of pretty dresses and sparkly shoes,” but also lessons relevant to little ones.

The original announcement caused savvy critics of girls’ princess culture to raise a collective eyebrow. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was incredulous. She accused Disney of trying to have it both ways: claiming that their princess-themed feature films are harmless fun for young girls while also claiming that Sofia would address some of the problems found in princess-themed feature films.

What a contradiction.

This week, Disney was again caught trying to have it both ways–but this time, it’s not about whether Disney’s princess culture is healthy for girls.

This time, it’s about diversity.

When Disney announced a few days ago that Sofia would be Disney’s first Latina princess, this sounded promising: It’s important for girls of all backgrounds to see characters who resemble themselves on screen, to feel included in the media culture they so cherish. Considering how incredibly popular princesses are among preschool girls, it’s high time that a Latina princess join Disney’s franchise.

And the statement sounded pretty definitive: “She is Latina,” said Sofia the First’s executive producer Jamie Mitchell.

But the announcement prompted many people to take a closer look at Sofia, and a few things came to light:

  1. Sofia is pale skinned and blue eyed. While some Latinas are in fact white, Sofia doesn’t look like the majority of people hailing from Latin America do.
  2. Sofia speaks unaccented English and is voiced by a white girl (Ariel Winter from Modern Family).
  3. Sofia does not appear to be bilingual: there is no evidence so far that she speaks Spanish or another Latin-American language.

So, where is the evidence that Disney’s “first Latina princess” is actually Latina? Any one of those three elements might have given the claim some credibility. But if neither her appearance nor her voicing nor her dialogue testify to a Latina identity, how does Sofia improve the diversity of the Disney Princess brand and serve to represent Latina culture?

The answer: she doesn’t. It was just lip service, betraying a misunderstanding of why parents, educators, and critics want to see racially and ethnically diverse princess characters. It’s not to fill quotas; rather, it’s to provide support for countless young girls who struggle with their identities when characters like them are systematically stereotyped in or excluded from the media. Inclusion is important.

In claiming Sofia as a Latina, Disney was trying to have it both ways–seeking praise for adding diversity to its princess lineup without actually giving Sofia any significant markers of diversity.

Facing criticism for their handling of Sofia’s Latina identity, a Disney spokesperson explained:

“The range of characters in ‘Sofia the First’ — and the actors who play them — are a reflection of Disney’s commitment to diverse, multicultural and inclusive storytelling, and the wonderful early reaction to ‘Sofia’ affirms that commitment. In the story, Sofia’s mother, Queen Miranda, was born in a fictitious land, Galdiz, a place with Latin influences. Miranda met Sofia’s father, Birk Balthazar, who hailed from the kingdom of Freezenberg, and together they moved to Enchancia, where Sofia was born.”

So, wait–Sofia isn’t Latina, after all–she’s a multicultural girl, half Latina at best. Right?

Actually, it turns out that Sofia should not even be called half Latina. As controversy stirred, Disney execs began backpeddling, clarifying her background further:

“Princess Sofia is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world,” explained [co-executive producer/writer] Gerber. “Her mother is originally from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Spain (Galdiz) and her birth father hailed from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Scandinavia.”

Gerber also noted that Enchancia is modeled after the British Isles. So this is an entirely Euro-centric fantasy world they’ve created for Sofia.

If Sofia’s dad is basically Scandinavian, and her mom is basically Spanish..well, that never made her Latina at all. It made her half Spanish(-esque) and half Scandinavian(-esque). A person of Spanish birth or descent would not categorize herself as a Latina, as Spain is not part of Latin America: In standard U.S. usage, “Latino” and “Latina” describe people who were born in or have family heritage from Latin America and speak a romance language (usually Spanish or Portuguese).

Sounds like some folks at Disney were unaware of what “Latina” means! How embarrassing.

So, Disney, in the future please remember: Diversity is not about quotas; it’s about meaningful representation. If you want your characters to be diverse, that’s great! Just do your homework and give them real markers of diversity–ones inspired by the actual children in your viewing audience, not by your limited Euro-centric imaginations.

Turn off your television! Screen-Free Week starts Monday.

Have you heard of “screen time”? It’s a term describing the time we spend in front of screens, large and small, consuming media on a daily basis.

Television.
Computers.
Video games.
iPhones.
iPads.

Many screens compete for our attention, and we’re spending more time with them than ever.

Because of concerns about this trend, experts encourage parents to keep their children’s time with all these screens to a minimum. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and a maximum of two hours daily for preschool children.

But it’s easy to make screen time a family habit. In the typical U.S. home, T.V. is a focal point for relaxation and entertainment–constantly on, as long as someone is at home and awake.

Unfortunately, for our kids, too much screen time can harm their development. Too much media and too little time on other developmentally important tasks can lead to poor school performance, childhood obesity, and other problems. New research suggests that even background television–when the T.V. is on without really being watched–can harm younger children by interrupting their mental tasks.

Too much screen time hurts older children, too. For example, adolescents who watch three or more hours of television each day often have more trouble completing their homework and risk long-term academic problems, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Overuse of internet, including social media, has been implicated in similar problems.

Screen-Free Week logoMedia habits are hard to break. That’s why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sponsors Screen-Free Week annually. This year, Screen-Free Week runs from from April 30 to May 6. Thousands of families will participate, putting aside their screens for other fun activities.

The CCFC explains:

Screen-Free Week is a fun and innovative way to improve children’s well-being by reducing dependence on entertainment screen media, including television, video games, computers, and hand-held devices.  It’s a time for children to play outside, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time having fun with family and friends.

It’s also a chance to reset media habits. After taking a break for a week, many families find it easier to enjoy other activities besides screen time on a routine basis.

Play, not screens (CCFC image)So, what will families do with all their “extra time” during Screen-Free Week? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. The CCFC suggests these ideas:

  • Play with art supplies
  • Play with words
  • Play with music
  • Make up songs
  • Play with blocks
  • Play with nothing
  • Play cards and board games
  • Play indoors
  • Play outdoors
  • Play tag
  • Play sports
  • Play together
  • Play alone

Want more detailed possibilities? Here’s a list of 101 great screen-free activities, courtesy of the CCFC:

101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 1101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 2

My family will join Screen-Free Week. Won’t you?

Parents: Is Screen-Free Week a good option for your family? What kinds of fun things could you do in a week without screen time?

Also, if you’ve participated in a previous Screen-Free Week and have any suggestions or memories to share, please post them below!

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Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl Power Hero

When I saw The Hunger Games on its opening weekend, I was really struck by something:

Although the sexualization of girls and women is rampant in the media, Katniss Everdeen is not sexualized. Not at all.

Take a look at these images from the film: The fact that Katniss is presented as heroic and strong without being made sexy is a big deal. Previous mainstream girl heroes have been defined by their sexiness. Consider the heroes of girl power, on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. With dedicated fans of both sexes, their producers seemed intent on making the girls’ strength less threatening by presenting them as sexy and sexually available. Here are a few images from such shows, featuring heroines who–unlike Katniss–are impeccably coiffed and revealingly dressed:

In my analysis, the concept of “girl power” seemed to hinge upon the idea that girls could be strong AND pretty at the same time. It broke the binary that suggested “strong female” is an oxymoron, almost normalizing the idea that being girly doesn’t equal being weak.

But.

Girl power media targeting audiences of teens and adults presented strong-and-pretty as strong-and-sexy, with “sexy” narrowly defined (as illustrated by the above images). This link was so constant that it seemed you couldn’t have strength without sexiness, and that sexiness came to seem a natural part of being a strong female character on screen.

When Katniss appears in The Hunger Games in fancier, more feminine, more revealing attire, she looks uncomfortable. The performance of normative femininity is completely unnatural to her. It is an act, something she is forced to do–not a choice, and certainly not something she finds empowering:

This is probably why Hunger Games critics and fans have complained that Jennifer Lawrence is too “fat” for the role of Katniss. Because, seriously, by no stretch of the imagination is the woman shown above fat. She’s not as thin as Sarah Michelle Gellar or Alyssa Milano, but she’s nowhere close to being overweight.

No, they’re just not used to female lead characters who aren’t dished up to titillate a male gaze. If she’s not scantily clad in a super-sexy way, then she’s not attractive, which means she’s fat. Sigh.

In short, Katniss Everdeen is arguably the first post-girl power hero to grace the screen. Her presentation as a strong character who is not defined by her sex, and who is not sexualized, is a nice contrast to the message that “girls can be strong AND pretty/sexy,” in which pretty/sexy is ultimately obligatory.

Katniss Everdeen is a girl, and she is strong. But not in a girl power way.

And that’s a good thing.

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“Chess for Girls,” or how Saturday Night Live predicted the future.

Saturday Night Live’s fake commercial, “Chess for Girls” [transcript], was hilarious in 1997–but today, it strikes awfully close to home. An ultra-pink chess set that’s “not too hard, just pretty and fun”–with prancing ponies and a long-haired queen in a gown? Wow. Who knew SNL could see the future of children’s popular culture?

Right now, everyone is talking about gender divisions in the toy aisles. Boys toys swim in a sea of blue and black, while girls’ toys look like victims of a catastrophic Pepto-Bismol spill.

This is a big enough problem that about a month ago, Hamleys toy store in London made news by desegregating children’s toys, grouping them by interest instead of gender.

It wouldn’t have been newsworthy if the typical toy store layout wasn’t such a problem.

As you’ve likely heard, LEGO one-upped the stakes recently by creating a reductive and offensive girls’ line of LEGOS. If you think about it, the concept of LEGOS for girls practically plagiarizes SNL’s Chess for Girls. Like chess, LEGOS are enjoyable to both boys and girls. But making a new LEGO line that is pink, beauty-centric, and not too hard? Perfect!

No wonder parents and critics are upset.

In fact, it seems a movement is building, buttressed by a national dialogue about unnecessarily heightened gender divisions in children’s popular culture. SPARK mailed LEGO more than 48,000 signatures protesting the new line yesterday. The numbers speak volumes.

But how did we get here? How did gender divisions become quite so divisive?

There are lots of ways to explain this history. But in my opinion, Disney–one of the major producers and arbiters of children’s culture–plays a central role in it. In 1999, a Disney exec realized that by grouping Disney’s Princesses together, they might be worth more than the sum of their parts. This marketing insight that has brought Disney billions in revenue. Other companies like Mattel moved quickly to cash in on the trend, fueling the princess craze.

If there’s a princess version of nearly everything, and “princess” is a category that excludes boys, then gender divisions in children’s popular culture can only be heightened. Superheroes are for everyone–even if they’re “for” boys, girls enjoy them, too–but princesses are aspirational. Only girls can become princesses, so princess culture is only for the girls. And this means that the Disney Store now gives about 2/3 of its floor space exclusively to girls, if the Boston-area Disney Store I visited with my family last weekend is the norm: Cars and Toy Story products largely filled the left-hand side of the store, while the center and right featured princess and nothing but princess.

When I was a kid, Disney was about Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Pluto. Oh, and Minnie and Daisy, too. These were characters all kids could enjoy. The recent devolution in children’s culture–from boys and girls having at least SOME shared interests, to such a divisive schism–is troubling. In fact, when I assign my 19-year-old media studies students to analyze what’s happening in their local toy aisle, even they are surprised: They haven’t shopped in toy aisles in nearly a decade, and though they remember some gender divisions (boys’ aisles and girls’ aisles have been around for ages), they often don’t remember those divisions being quite so complete.

The only way our current situation will change is if we fight back. And that’s why I created a petition about Hasbro’s talking Princess Celestia toy. A television show has finally presented a princess character that appeals to boys and girls alike–because she’s a leader, not a beauty object. If you agree that children need more characters like these, and that toys shouldn’t reduce such characters to princess stereotypes, won’t you please sign it?

Readers: What are your thoughts on the gendering of children’s popular culture? How have you seen it shift over time? Do you agree that the Disney Princess phenomenon has a lot to do with the current situation?

P.S. I’m excited to announce that my new book was released this week! If you check it out, please let me know what you think.

Pretty Princess Problems: The Case of Princess Celestia

My family and I were shopping for a child’s birthday present this weekend when we came upon the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic section at a local Target store. As I’ve discussed previously, MLP:FIM is an unusually good children’s cartoon. My three-year-old son loves it, and he was excited to see these toys.

My son searched for his favorite character, Rainbow Dash, but there were none to be found. Then, the largest MLP toy in the aisle caught his attention: the talking My Little Pony Princess Celestia.

My son pressed the bright yellow button on Princess Celestia’s cutie mark, and her wings lit up. He was entranced. But as the toy began speaking, my husband and I exchanged annoyed glances. This toy repositioned Princess Celestia as a conceited, girly-girl princess stereotype—not the wise, powerful leader and mentor portrayed on screen.

So, I grabbed my phone and took this video:

What’s going on here?

We captured 12 different sayings, which I think is all of them. I later transcribed them* and categorized each saying according to topic, in a miniature content analysis. Here are my findings:

APPEARANCE (5)
I love when you comb my hair!
Oh, my hair looks beautiful.
My wings are so pretty!
My barrettes look so pretty!
You’re beautiful!

FRIENDSHIP (2)
I love to make new friends!
You’re my best friend!

PRINCESS (2)
I am Princess Celestia.
I’m a princess! Are you a princess too?

ACTIVITY (2)
Let’s fly to the castle.
I will light the way.

EXCLAMATION (1)
Spectacular!

In short, 5 out of 12 of this toy’s sayings are appearance-centric—possibly more, depending on your interpretation of the phrases “Spectacular!” and “I’m a princess! Are you a princess, too?” So if a child plays with this Princess Celestia toy, about half of the time, he or she will be subjected to pretty princess rhetoric—the kind of vanity discourse that the show, happily, is free of. For parents who appreciate the show’s generally informed approach to girly-girl stuff, this toy would present an unpleasant surprise.

In relation to this, it’s important to consider this toy’s appearance. Although Princess Celestia is portrayed on screen as a white pony, this toy is pink as can be. (In the video, listen to my son’s surprise: “She’s Princess Celestia?” and “She supposed to be white!” Yup. Sorry, sweetie.)

So, why is this pink Princess Celestia toy obsessed with stereotypical pretty princess interests?

Princess Celestia’s pre-production history offers some insight on the issue. Lauren Faust, MLP:FIM‘s creator, originally planned for Celestia to be a Queen. At Hasbro’s insistence, however, she was made a princess. Faust has explained:

I was told [by Hasbro] that because of Disney movies, girls assume that Queens are evil (although I only remember 1 evil queen) and Princesses are good. I was also told that the perceived youth of a Princess is preferable to consumers.

She does not have parents that outrank her. I brought the weirdness of that situation to my bosses, but it did not seem to be a continuity concern to them, so I’m letting it alone. I always wanted her to be the highest authority, and so she remains so. And I certainly don’t want marriage to be what would escalate her. (Bad messages to girls and what not.)

[...]  I put up a bit of a fight when her title changed, but you win some, you loose some.

In short, Hasbro wasn’t interested in fighting stereotypes in this instance. Their execs just wanted to cash in on stereotypes about pretty princesses. They apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a princess instead of a queen.

Toy manufacturers are content to market stereotypes to consumers who, unfortunately, they see as little more than stereotypes: “Girls love princesses! Princesses are girly and pretty and pink! Let’s give girls what they want.”

Yeah, right.

As critics such as Peggy Orenstein have argued, this is a huge problem in our culture–for girls, for their imaginations, and their visions for their own futures. And it’s the antithesis of girl power.

Consider Lego’s recent and controversial decision to create a separate girly-girl line of Legos for girls, instead defying the stereotype that girls will ONLY play with pink toys and inviting them to build with regular legos. It’s the same kind of logic.

Toy manufacturers need to stop pretending that what’s good for their bottom line is what’s good for girls.

So, Hasbro: I have some ideas for future iterations of the Princess Celestia toy. She could say:

I’m a princess! I rule my country with wisdom.
I love teaching my students. Do you love school?
You’re so smart!
You remind me of Twilight Sparkle, my best student.
Can you tell me what you learned today?
Together, we can do anything!

There. Now, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Parents: Have you had similar issues with toys in the past? Do any of your children own this Princess Celestia toy, and if so, what are your thoughts on it? (Bronies, what do you think?)


Update (1/17/12): I’ve set up a petition at Change.org, urging Hasbro to reprogram the talking Princess Celestia toy. Please sign itif you agree.

Also, if anyone has other ideas about what the talking Princess Celestia toy should be saying, I’m all ears. Post your ideas below, and I’ll consider adding them to the petition.

Thanks!


* A full transcript of the video, including what my son and I are saying, is available on the YouTube page.

Note [added 1/20/12]: In my list of suggestions, I originally offered, “You’re beautiful, outside *and* in,” meant as a corrective to the emphasis on external beauty in princess toys. But some moms have persuaded me that, really, we don’t need any additional beauty rhetoric! (Smart moms, you rock.) So I’ve replaced it with, “Can you tell me what you learned today?” which is very much in line with the character on the show.

My Little Pony: Even better than The Powerpuff Girls

A children’s television cartoon that appeals to boys and girls, men and women, is a rarity.

The Powerpuff GirlsThe Powerpuff Girls exemplified this. In 1998, it stunned the television industry by crossing demographic barriers. The combination of extreme cuteness and extreme strength in well-written characters proved a point: Boys (and men) will indeed watch a show about girls, IF the characters have … well … character.

(Writers, take note: To be successful, girl characters need to be defined by more than their sex. “Girl” is not a character.)

Because of The Powerpuff Girls‘ success, the networks greenlighted a bunch of other girl hero cartoons. After years of being depicted in passive secondary roles or insipid leading roles, girls were everywhere.

Milky Way by Lauren FaustNear the end of the decade, cool cartoon girls were no longer on-trend. But while working on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Powerpuff animator and writer Lauren Faust was developing a new concept: Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls. Despite her best efforts (chronicled on her blog), these great characters never got a television show (though they did enter production as some really nice plush dolls).

Enter the Ponies

When Faust pitched the Milky Way show to Hasbro execs, her approach resonated with them. They didn’t have a place for Milky Way, but they wondered: would she re-imagine the My Little Pony brand with them?

Applejack & Rainbow DashAt first, Faust felt “skeptical”; as she explained in Ms. Magazine, “Shows based on girls’ toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child. They did not reflect the way I played with my toys.” But she realized that if she took the lead on the new My Little Pony, she could rebut “the perception that ‘girly’ equals ‘lame’ or ‘for girls’ equals ‘crappy'”. So, she developed the characters and the show, and she led the production of season one of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.*

MLP: Friendship is Magic vs. The Powerpuff Girls

I love putting current media texts in the context of their predecessors. So, let’s consider: how does MLP stack up against those pioneers, the PPGs?

  1. Both feature a range of female characters who are individuals in their own rights.
  2. Both feature lead characters who are active, smart, and have agency–arguably making them good role models for children.
  3. They appeal to boys and girls alike, thanks in large part to their non-stereotypical characters. (I recall one mom telling me that her five-year-old son “insisted Buttercup is a boy”; similarly, my three-year-old son seems to believe that the pony Rainbow Dash is a boy, calling her a “he.”)
  4. They appeal to adults as well as children; MLP has a devoted following of male teenagers and adults called “bronies,” who are such dedicated fans they even have their own MLP convention.

Furthermore:

  • MLP is produced specifically as a children’s show (rather than for Cartoon Network), so the producers had to adhere to Educational and Informational standards. This means there’s less chance of the characters modeling bad behaviors.
  • The PPGs featured a lot of fighting, and many parents objected to the frenetic violence. In contrast, the ponies exist in a more peaceful realm. For example, when the ponies attempt to drive a dangerous dragon away, only gentle Fluttershy succeeds: after giving the dragon a stern talking-to about bullying, he agrees to leave.

Finally, while the PPGs offered three character “types” — Blossom, a smart girl; Bubbles, a cute girl; and Buttercup, a tough girl — MLP’s six leads have more range, individually and collectively. Perhaps my favorite quote from Faust’s piece in Ms. is this, on what she really wants viewers to take away from the show:

the six leads from MLP: Friendship is MagicThere are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.

::nodding:: Yes. That’s really important.

Parents: Have you seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic yet? What do you and your children like best about it? Are there any elements that give you pause?

Interested in reading more about girl heroes and girls’ television cartoons? Check out my new book, Growing Up With Girl Power.

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* I was sorry to learn that Faust left her position as MLP’s producer after its first season was complete. I wonder what the second season has in store, with Faust in only a consulting role. But I’m definitely looking forward seeing whatever she moves on to!