Friday, May 6, 2011

Who Rules

Recently, my son asked me why, since there are so many myriad T-Shirts and other signs that say "Girls Rule" and "Girls Rock," there were not shirts that said "Boys Rule?" (It was a little bit like when my daughter, a knee jerk feminist in her own way, expressed anger that Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton got the presidential nomination -- "But we have never had a woman in the White House!" We had to explain that not only women have been oppressed and that it was still pretty darn good to get an African American man there.) I explained to my son that there had always been an assumption that "boys rule" and that that had made it important to say that girls were cool and girls could rule. But, still. What is a little boy to think? Girl power has worked so well as a merchandising tool for the younger set that girls truly do rule in most media. iCarly, Hannah Montana and other cool tween girls dominate cable TV. The boys in these shows are generally full-blown idiots, virtually unable to function in the world (both Carly and Hannah's brothers), or they are crafty liars who succeed only through deception (Zack or Cody in the Disney series). The girls, however, are smart and strong and funny. In even the smartest children's lit, there has been a sea change in how boys and girls are represented. In the Magic Tree House books, two kids time travel to help Merlin and his sister Morgan le Fay find treasures for the library in King Arthur's court. It is nerdy and historical stuff and we love it. The girl, Annie, is intuitive, good with animals, and fearless -- she plunges into every adventure with the absolute certainty that she will come out okay. Her brother, by contrast, is more bookish, and a bit afraid. He can't move forward without doing research and even then is usually pushed by his younger sister. Neither fits an exact boy-girl stereotype. But there is a way in which we can no longer imagine the boy as fearless, or an adventurer. In order to allow girl power, he has to give up some of his power. So, what do tell our sons? "Move aside, it's your sister's turn?" Or "Nobody rules, at least not by virtue of their sex." But, can we say that really?


  1. I've been thinking about this post, Pam, in the back of mind all week as I try to squeeze in exercise amidst helping students with papers, catching up on reserach projects I've back-burned for months, and mothering my just-turned four-year-old daughter. Admittedly, my experience with the ways boys experience this new "girls rule" environment is limited to my years teaching middle school, and I don't think who has it harder has to be a zero-sum game -- but for as alienating as the rhetoric cna be for boys, I don't think it's super empowering for girls. I'm glad I didn't get to write this comment until this morning when I read your post on ambivalence, because I think the two are intricately related: sure, you can do anything, girls -- but God help you if you try to do it all. That sounds more pessimistic than I want it to, but I do see an element of backlash int he "girls rule" rhetoric. Raise them to think they can do anything -- then deny them a humane maternity leave. How is that progress?

  2. Well, and clearly girls don't rule in any real sense. It is something of a crock, even in grade school.

  3. This post is eye-opening for me because I am continually frustrated by the limited characters for women in mainstream cinema (which is of course designed to appeal to teenage boys, the biggest audience.) Even the New Yorker film critics are starting to harp on how very talented, funny comic actresses are not allowed to be funny, goofy, bawdy, etc. in movies. (See excellent recent article on Anna Faris: )

    I can see how the emphasis on girl power in children's literature and TV can feel demoralizing to boys. But there is so much out there they can access that portrays boys as fearless adventurers and positive role models. Fiction from now and previous generations (Huck Finn, My Side of the Mountain, etc.), for example. And so many of the Pixar movies seem to have a plucky young male hero. I would also highly recommend the animated TV series "Avatar: the Last Airbender" (no relation to the James Cameron Avatar movie with 3-D blue people). Top-quality children's TV with strong and well-developed male AND female characters (and good morals, exciting martial arts scenes, and humor.) Adults love this show as much as kids, and it proves that female characters can be strong without it being at the expense of male characters.

    -Michelle Wirth, psychology dept. (p.s., thanks for writing this blog, I'm enjoying it!)