As a woman, a tomboy and one of the proponents of the big name change from WiCM to CMA, gender issues and media is a topic I’m really interested in, sometimes conflicted about and always passionate about. So I was delighted when CMA welcomed cultural historian, writer and teacher Lori Rotskoff; creator of “Princess Revolution” Melissa Levis and co-director of the Educational Equity Center Barbara Sprung for a discussion.
The presentation started with Lori who gave us a little history on the “Free to Be You and Me.” Lori is the editor of “When We Were Free To Be” an anthology looking back on the historical television special. You know the old axiom “You just can’t win?” Well, it turned out Marlo Thomas really couldn’t. When Carol Hall did a song about different jobs sung by Harry Belafonte and Marlo they set out to show all kinds of work – blue collar and professional and to affirm the important role of parenthood as a kind of job. Check it out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0_qbtLnsVI
Well, radical feminists criticized it for being too heteronormal while the network was made uneasy by portraying Marlo and Harry as an interracial couple. See what I mean, can’t win!
The song “William’s Doll” dealt with issues of a little boy being bullied and made fun of because he really wanted to play with a doll. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lshobg1Wt2M
The message in the end: Let the poor kid have a doll! Progressive, eh? Especially for 1972. Well, it was criticized for going too far and for not going far enough. Some critics didn’t like that the song portrayed William as still loving sports and saying that he’ll grow up one day to be a daddy. Other critics would’ve been right out there with bullies chanting, “A doll! A doll! William wants a doll!” Poor Marlo just couldn’t win. The big question: How do you be progressive and popular at the same time? When we figure out that one let me know!
Barbara was up next to talk about some of her work with the Women’s Action Alliance. She set out to create a non-sexist early childhood curriculum. Barbara showed us some of the books that were in vogue in preschool classrooms in the ‘60s and ‘70s and man, oh, man (or woman, oh, woman) was I shocked! The most appalling entry: “I’m Glad I’m a Boy, I’m Glad I’m a Girl” included the following pages: “Boys can eat. Girls can cook. Boys invent things. Girls [wait for it] use what boys invent.” If you listened closely you could probably hear the sound of all our hearts breaking. Barbara worked to make changes in classrooms, she put up pictures of kids playing with their dads (before that most pics showed moms as primary caregiver), she made job toy sets that included men and women doing the same jobs. Normally one would buy these little sets and there would be one woman for every 7 men and that woman would always be a schoolteacher or a nurse. Barbara says she noticed that there was a chance toward gender equality and then a backslide as girls’ clothes showed off bling and tutus and boys’ clothes were all about camouflage and sports. And that backlash is still around today.
Last but not least, we heard from singer/songwriter Melissa Levis who is redefining princesses one song at a time. http://moeysmusicparty.com/
Melissa read fairy tales to her son and didn’t like the messages of princesses having to be rescued by a man so she made an album “Princess Revolution” that tackled all the fairy tales and turned them on their heads. The album has won a well-deserved Parents’ Gold Choice Award! My favs are “Give Yourself A Kiss” and “Sing, Little Mermaid.” She wanted to reinforce that girls aren’t just pretty, they can rescue themselves and just because you like pink doesn’t mean you have to be dainty. The panel left us with a question to explore for ourselves: What do we see in the current kids’ media landscape? Where are we succeeding in having gender equality and where are we struggling?
Main Takeaway: For me, I’m always thinking of the little girls like me. I wasn’t interested in pink or things that were stereotypically identified as girl. I need a “William’s Doll” equivalent that’s all about a little girl who doesn’t want a doll, she wants an action figure with kung fu grip. As long as we have a “boy’s aisle” and a “girl’s aisle” and separate boys and girls happy meal toys, we’re not there yet. And a change would be so simple. How about instead of asking, “Do you want the boy toy or the girl toy, the cashier just asks EVERY kid and parent, “Do you want the Barbie or the Hot Wheels?” No need to mention gender at all. Why am I so upset about McDonald’s? I dunno, but it is lunchtime.
Personal Takeaway: Did anyone see the “Big Bang Theory” where the guys went to talk to jr. high girls about getting into science? There was some clever, lovely irony at the end when the woman scientists (Bernadette and Amy) talked to the girls via speaker phone while dressed as princesses at Disneyland. Melissa’s right – women can be princesses and scientists and football players and whatever they wanna be. I know I’m all those things, if only in my head.
Inappropriate Takeaway: Ever since watching that William’s Doll video I want to point and chant “A doll! A doll!” every time I see a kid with a doll. Not in a malicious way, more in an envious way. Where’s my doll? The kicker? I live right next door to a school. My life is hard.