Monday, February 6, 2012

Nerdy Narratives: Or, the Reason LEGO Struck a Nerve with Me in the First Place

Part 2 of Feminist Frequency’s examination of LEGO is, like Part I, one of their most well-researched and well argued looks at the LEGO fiasco that can be found. But it also raises some questions for me as to the types of narratives that are being marketed to children in general. LEGO is falling into stereotypical traps when they market battle/conflict/ammo oriented narratives exclusively to boys and nurturing, friendship-oriented but otherwise banal narratives exclusively to girls. As a little girl, and now as a young woman, I have always preferred my narratives to have an action-oriented, adventurous edge. I think that explains the persistence of my “geeky” interests in Star Wars, LOTR, Quentin Tarantino films, etc. Therefore, I always get a little miffed when 1) Media and society tells me and other women and girls that stereotypically “male” interests aren’t for me, and 2) When women and other feminists dismiss those interests as “testosterone” fueled, violent and stupid. I spend a lot of time within the happy community of geek women bubble, where we can all bond over the new Hobbit trailer, and other amazing things, and frequently rage against sexism. But sometimes, when I step out of the happy bubble, it seems like my interests are getting hostility from both sides of the camp.

So of course, when LEGO’s focus on Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and some sort of Ninja story was brought up in this video, as it has been brought up before, as evidence of LEGO excluding girls, this feminist fangirl was ready to see gender stereotypes at work. Because there is nothing to say that girls “naturally” should feel put off by action oriented narratives.

But then I took a closer look, and realized that the narratives being sold in toy aisles, and the narratives frequently enacted by boys and girls at the school where I work, rarely resemble the narratives that I love. Feminist Frequency points out that boys are sold violence and conflict, while girls are sold love and nurturing and relationships. But the best narratives are when both components come together.

In Star Wars, there are exhilarating battles and explosions and action sequences, but there are also vivid characters, (I’m talking original trilogy, of course), an emphasis on family, friendship, love, and strong human connections, a sense of good and evil and moral ambiguity, and the insistence that war and conflict are not the natural order of things and that peace is the ultimate goal. Same goes for The Lord of the Rings, which is also anti-war, pro-humanity, pro-environment and pro-love. And Harry Potter, while also chock-full of awesome action, is all a massive love-fest in the end. That’s because all of these narratives are built around classic mythic structures that have been humanity’s go-to narrative for millennia. And for good reason! The actual purpose of myth is to examine universal themes of life and love, and there is no better background for such an examination as a trying conflict between good and evil.

All three also get my feminist stamp of approval.  

Meanwhile, with products like Beyblades and Pokémon,[1] narratives that emphasize battles with no rhyme or reason or hope for peace, boys are getting all the conflict and none of the pathos. And with LEGO Friends and other residents of the “pink ghetto,” girls are getting a whole lot of beauty and love and no challenges or conflict. Either way, we are emotionally shortchanging the next generation, narrative-wise.

Sure, Star Wars remains incredibly popular with boys, but I doubt they get it, especially with their minds so pumped up on ammo. The Clone Wars television series is incredibly popular with youngsters, mostly boys, but it seriously goes over their heads! I recently watched some of the series for the first time, curious about these new Star Wars narratives that were playing out without me, and I was struck by three things. 1) The show is MUCH better than the prequels, though that’s not difficult. 2) The stylized animation looks less weird in motion, and 3) The show is incredibly political and ultimately carries a timely message about the corruptive power of corporate/military systems.  I see a lot of first grade boys running around the playground during recess making “pew-pew” noises and spouting words like, “Separatist warship” and “Republic army” etc. without understanding that the “good guys” in the Clone Wars are going to be the Empire in the trilogy, and these battles they are playing out are a farce. Star Wars itself is very thematically aware of the cynical fact, kids are not.

But that is not to say that they are incapable of grasping the deep, life affirming themes that mythic narratives have to offer. A parent who waits until their child is seven or eight, sits down and watches Star Wars with them, and allows them to absorb the narrative with some thought and discussion, will have successfully introduced their children to a timeless story for any gender.[2]  Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings should be approached in a similar manner. Last summer, working as a day camp counselor, I actually told The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a story to a rapt audience of seven year olds, four girls and two boys. It took two weeks, included all the scenes and most of the dialogue, and it was a huge hit. Boys and girls equally loved the Nazgul and the Orcs and the Riders of Rohan, but they were mostly moved by humanity’s struggle to survive great evil, the bravery of the Hobbits, the last march of the Ents, and the triumph of peace. It was magical to see a myth affect an audience so deeply. It transcended any presumption of what boys and girls were supposed to like, it was the transformative power of narrative in action and it was beautiful.

I have always considered my self-given titles of geek and fangirl to be a casual way of explaining a much deeper feeling. Because the narratives I love have given so much more to me than my shallow expressions of fandom could ever hope to approximate. It saddens me that our current consumer culture reduces the value of those narratives to pointless explosion fests for boys and puppy parties for girls. The real stories are there, but for ad-drenched kid brains, they are becoming increasingly hard to find. If we’re not careful, the nuance will disappear for the next generation. Cue Imperial March.

[1] Sorry adult Pokémon fans. All nostalgia aside, I have yet to hear a good argument for the narrative values of Pikachu.

[2] Episode IV comes first. It’s just good parenting. 

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