Dr. Rebecca Hains

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.

Media literacy for preschoolers, pt. 4: Tips and resources

This week, I’ve been writing about how parents can help their preschoolers become media literate. [See: Part 1: how media work, Part 2: media content, Part 3: media creation.]

For my wrap-up post in this series, I’d like to share some tips and resources.


Key Tips for Fostering Media Literacy in Your Preschooler

In my opinion, there are five essentials that will help your preschool child become  media literate:

  1. Pre-screen media as much as possible, and choose only the good stuff for your child to view. Talk about these choices with your child; help him or her make good choices, too.
  2. Don’t let young children watch shows and films that really go against your family’s values, or that you do not feel are age-appropriate. It’s okay to set limits.
  3. Watch with your child, but don’t be silent–speak up. Only by talking about what’s on screen will your child develop the critical thinking skills that are central to media literacy. So, point out things you like and don’t like. Convey your values. Ask and answer questions.
  4. Keep television out of your child’s room. If he or she is watching in private, you can’t talk about what’s happening on screen. (Also, studies indicate that watching TV before bedtime can disrupt young children’s sleep, so it’s best to keep TV out of their sleeping spaces.)
  5. Find ways to create media with your child. Help your child see him or herself as not just a consumer, but a creator.

Discussing Media with Preschoolers: Conversation Ideas

Talking about media with your child is really important. Studies show that conversations about television do help to develop children’s media literacy, whereas two other common parenting strategies–watching TV silently together and/or restricting children’s media use–are less effective. It takes active conversation to foster a child’s critical thinking.

So, where to begin? Talking about media if you haven’t often done so can feel awkward or forced. Try using simple declarative statements to share your reactions to what’s on screen. For example:

  • “I like this part because [reason].”
  • “I don’t think he should be lying about that.”
  • “I don’t agree with her decision.”
  • “No one is listening to her! They should listen to their friend.”
  • “He’s being greedy! We shouldn’t be greedy like that.”

Ask questions to solicit your child’s opinion. Yes/no questions are okay, but open-ended questions are even better:

  • “Do you think it’s a good idea for her to do that?”
  • “Why do you think he is keeping that secret?”
  • “Uh-oh–what did her mommy say to her earlier? Can you remember what she’s supposed to be doing?”

Resources to Prompt More Conversation:
Books for Preschoolers about Television

(Also available on my Pinterest!)

If you’d like to talk with your child about media-related issues away from the screen, it can be helpful to read some books together. Here are some age-appropriate books that might be helpful.

On balancing screen time with other interests:

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair: What happens when people no longer read? A cautionary tale: don’t let TV take over your life!

The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV: The bears go without TV for a week, and find all kinds of other things to do, instead.

Box-Head Boy: Denny learns about the consequences of too watching too much television.

Mama Rex and T Turn Off the TV No power means no TV! Mama proves to T that there are other fun things to do besides watch television all day.

Mouse TV: A mouse family squabbles over what to watch. No one can agree. But when the television breaks, they learn to enjoy all kinds of other activities together.

On other topics:

Arthur’s TV Trouble: Arthur learns that the products on television commercials aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be! A good prompt for conversations about ads.

The Bionic Bunny Show: A behind-the-scenes look at Arthur’s favorite television show, this story describes how an ordinary bunny seems to have superpowers on screen, even though it’s all make-believe. A good prompt for conversations about how media are created.

How a Book Is Made: This book is all about the publishing process. It shows how a book progresses from an author’s idea to a published work. Another good prompt for conversations about how media are created.

Teddy’s TV Troubles: Teddy Bear sees frightening things on television; fortunately, his mommy knows how to help him cope with his fears. Filled with positive ideas for helping children recover from viewing scary media.

When the TV Broke: When the television breaks, Jeffrey is upset and doesn’t know how to occupy himself–but soon he becomes an artist, creating his own media! Good for discussing the idea that we don’t just have to consume; any of us can create.


Creating Media with your Child: A Few Ideas

Marketers love positioning kids as consumers. There are entire books on the topic, written to help people in the industry encourage your children to consume media and merchandise–and to pester you to spend as much money as possible on their behalf.

Teach your child that he or she can break out of that box and be a creator, too. Some ideas:

  • Give your child an inexpensive camera or camcorder. Teach him or her to document his world. Ask him or her to direct your actions. How should you pose for a photo? What should you say or do on video?
  • If your child enjoys telling stories and drawing, have him or her tell you a story and write it down. Then, help your child draw pictures to illustrate it. Now, you have a homemade book!
  • Take the homemade book one step further: help your child take a photo of each image. Upload the images together to your computer. Put them together in a software package you’re comfortable with–it doesn’t matter if it’s PowerPoint or iMovie. Now your child’s story is on screen!
  • If you’re good with video editing, or want an excuse to learn, you can help your child make videos featuring his or her toys. You could take inspiration from a favorite program; for example, a lot of families have created video remakes of the “Accidents Happen” song from Thomas and Friends. Or, you can help your child use dolls or stuffed animals act out a story that you videotape. Technology is so ubiquitous nowadays, and so affordable, that there’s lot of potential for making cute, creative stuff!
  • Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth also recommends the web site Storybird for creating stories and, for those who have iPads, a variety of storytelling apps. I don’t have an iPad myself, but I’m eager to check out Storybird–it looks promising.

Readers: Do you know of any other good books for young children about TV and related topics? Or, are you familiar any other resources that parents can use to help young children create their own media? If so, please post them here–I’d love to add them to this post!

Media literacy for preschoolers, pt. 3: Understanding that media are created

This week, I’m writing about media literacy and the preschool set, and talking about how I’ve been actively helping my little boy become a media literate person.

First, I shared the kinds of conversations we have about how the media work–particularly the idea that commercials are trying to sell us things.

Next, I described our discussions about media content, emphasizing the importance of actively communicating your family’s values to your child while watching media together.

Today, I want to talk about a third aspect of being media literate: understanding that media are created by people–which means we can create our own media, too.

Media as people’s creations

Very young children can have a hard time understanding that what’s on screen is created by other people, and not just a window into some other location in the world.

The genre can make this concept clearer or fuzzier to little ones. For example, I’m pretty sure our son knows that the animated Cars and Thomas are make-believe; there are no talking trains or cars in real life. But live-action programs are tricker: He spent several weeks begging us to take him to visit Mister Rogers, whose show he enjoys. (During the opening sequence, he would even point out Mister Rogers’ model-sized house to me, insisting that it was a real place we could go visit.)

Media literacy experts assert that if we give children the tools to create their own media, they will better understand how mass media are created. They will know that other people have made decisions about what stories to tell, what shots to show on screen, and what words the characters will say. This kind of knowledge is truly a form of literacy.

So, I decided I’d like my son to start exploring some tools that would let him create his own media. As a starting point, I looked into digital camera/camcorders meant for children. Unfortunately, the ones I found online and in the toy aisles of our local stores were all a little pricey and/or poorly reviewed by other parents.

Instead, I dug through my closet and found a great solution: an old pocket digital camera/camcorder that I haven’t used in several years. It’s in the “flip” style (with a USB port that flips out of the side)–a slightly older model of this one by Jazz (which at less than $25 is more cost-effective than the ones meant for kids). He loves it!
With this tool at his disposal, now he’s learning how to aim the camera to frame a shot, how to start and stop recording, and even how to ask/direct people to do things for the camera. (This mostly involves asking mommy and daddy to make funny faces, but hey, it’s something!) And he knows how to play the video back and see if it turned out the way he wanted, or if he needs to try again. All very basic stuff, but very age appropriate; he’s becoming comfortable with a media-related tool, and we will be able to build upon these skills together later.

For example, later on, if he begins making up his own stories, we might draw pictures together to illustrate those stories; photograph them with his camera; upload them to my computer; and put them in a slideshow that he can narrate. It won’t be anything fancy, but it will be media creation nonetheless!

I also use the time we spend reading together to help him understand that media are created by people. Whenever we read a book, I read him the cover page, as well–stating the name of the book, the author, and the illustrator. Then I clarify which person wrote all the words, and which person drew all the pictures.

Just last night, we read the book Tuesday for the umpteenth time; it’s one of his favorites, as the flying frogs’ antics delight him. Unlike many of his books, the author and illustrator are one and the same. So as I read the cover page, I said: “This book is called Tuesday, by David Wiesner. He made this whole book by himself.”

“But mommy,” he asked, “Who made the words?”

“The same person! David Wiesner did the words AND all the pictures. He’s the author AND illustrator. He must have worked really hard, huh?”

“Yeah!”

I like that he is attuned to the fact that people create books, and that when I read only Wiesner’s name from the cover page last night, he suddenly thought to ask who the author was. We haven’t really discussed authorship of television programs and movies yet, because it’s so much more complicated; but with the understanding that most books he enjoys are created by one or two people, this lays the groundwork for understanding that moving pictures have writers and animators, as well.

Up next: For my final post in this series, I’ll offer a collection of media literacy tips culled from various sources. I’ll also share a list of books for preschoolers that are specifically about television, which can be helpful in sparking some healthy parent-child conversations.

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Parents: Do your children understand that people create the media they consume? Have they had any experiences creating media themselves–their own stories, videos, etc.? If so, please share below!

Media literacy for preschoolers, pt. 2: Thinking critically about media content

As I began discussing yesterday, young children can become media literate with their parents’ help. In today’s media-saturated world, raising media literate children is an increasingly important goal. Our kids need to (1) understand how the media work, (2) be able to think critically about media content, and (3) learn how to create their own media texts–empowering them not just to consume, but also create.

In my post yesterday, I explored my family’s approach to teaching our four-year-old son how the media work–particularly, how commercials work. From an early age, he learned my mantra: “Commercials try to sell us things we don’t need.” This simple concept helps him understand that commercials aren’t neutral or factual. They have an agenda: persuasion. And kids have such an innate sense of justice that the idea of being “tricked” really rankles them!

Although my son will often complain about commercials trying to sell him things he doesn’t need, some days, he has a little fun at my expense. He’ll look at me with a wicked gleam in his eye, a smile playing on his lips, and say, “Mommy. I LIKE commercials.” The little tease!

This always makes me smile, at least inwardly: if he has figured out that he can tease me about liking commercials, he has also figured out what my values are. And knowing what we value as a family is an important part of thinking critically about media content.

Fostering Preschoolers’ Critical Thinking About Media Content

A couple of strategies have worked well in helping my four-year-old develop the ability to think critically about what he sees on screen, which is a fundamental part of being media literate. First, I make sure that we watch things together, and that while we’re viewing, we talk about what’s on screen in ways that draw upon our family’s values.

Second, I find opportunities to talk with him about his favorite shows at other times–like when we’re driving in the car, or having dinner, or chatting before bedtime–when we can have broader conversations, e.g., comparing different movies he likes.

1. Using values to discuss media content during viewing

By viewing media together, parents can help their children become media literate. This means that whenever possible, I watch programs with my son, so that I’m present to see and hear his reactions.

But viewing together is not enough; active viewing is key. This means I talk with my son about what we are seeing. I talk back to the screen, share my ideas and concerns with my son, and respond to anything he says, too.

We wind up talking about characters’ behaviors a lot. Lots of kids’ programs focus on bad behaviors. Academic studies show that even prosocial children’s media, like the kind found on PBS that are meant to teach lessons about good behavior, spend way too much time modeling bad behavior. The result: little kids often don’t pick up on the resolution or good behavior that such programs mean to encourage. The exciting and interesting bad behaviors get all the attention.

Because I’m aware of this problem, when my son and I are watching movies or television programs together, I’m quick to point out on-screen behaviors that I don’t like–in a gentle way, of course. I might say, “Thomas should tell Sir Topham Hat the truth!” or “Gee, I don’t like the way the Witch is talking to Rapunzel right now–that’s cruel,” or “Uh-oh, Spike is being really greedy! That’s not nice.”

In the interest of positive reinforcement, I’ll point out good behaviors, too. “That was really kind of Kanta to let the girls take his umbrella,” or “It was so clever how Word Girl figured that out,” or “Rarity is so generous with her friends.”

Sometimes, I’ll phrase my commentary as questions: “Do you think that’s a good idea?” or “What do you think of that?”

What’s great is that the older he gets, the more often he’ll turn to me and offer the kinds of commentary that I model for him. For example, we recently watched Beauty and the Beast together for the first time; he’d been asking about it for a while. “The Beast shouldn’t yell like that,” he told me. “It’s naughty.” Then, later, when Belle appeared in her gold dress for the ballroom scene: “Hey, where did her blue dress go that I like??” (Blue is his favorite color.) Whatever his comments are, I like to hear them–and I make sure to give him an answer so he knows I’m listening.

2. Comparing and contrasting media depictions while away from the screen

Even though my son is only four, I’ve had some conversations with him about topics or behaviors that are shown across more than one program and movie. Such conversations need to take place while the television is off, so I’ve found it important to pay attention to his interests and his reactions while we’re viewing things together, to gauge what he might like to talk about later.

For example, my son has been interested in the concept of “thieves” since he was about two and a half years old. One day, our family were enjoying a picnic on a park bench in Salem, when a sneaky seagull stole his sandwich! It just crept up behind us and grabbed it through the slats in the bench. To say we were caught off guard is an understatement.

Our little guy was really upset about losing his sandwich this way, so we encouraged him to shoo the nearby seagulls away by shouting, “Go away, thieves!” He seemed a bit empowered by his ability to fight back.

Now, anytime we are at the beach or another location where seagulls approach, he is vigilant about shooing them away, saying, “You can’t have our food, thieves!” He’s even noticed seagulls creeping up on other families and seems to have made it his personal mission to try to scare encroaching seagulls away. He doesn’t like thieves.

About a year ago, he had an experience with a real thief when my iPhone was stolen while we were running errands in the mall. I wound up spending a couple of hours in the mall’s Apple store, tracking the phone’s whereabouts on their computers (“Find my iPhone” is an amazing application) and giving a police report to an officer who came to meet me. We were actually able to recover it that same night–but that is a story for another day!

In the midst of all the excitement about mommy’s phone being stolen, my son was amazed to learn that people could be thieves, too–not just seagulls.

Oh.

Yes, we said; some people are thieves!

Then came the inevitable, perplexed question: “Why?”

Well, because sometimes, people make bad decisions.

So, between the seagulls and the iPhone theft, thieves have been an occasionally recurring topic of conversation. (Key questions he’s asked have included: “Do thieves live in houses?” and “Do thieves have teeth??”)

And guess what? After becoming enamored of the Disney films Tangled and Aladdin, he realized that Flynn and Aladdin are thieves. Thieves! Uh-oh. He had a hard time making sense of this, since both are really likable characters, and he feels very keenly that stealing is wrong.

So we’ve talked a lot WHY Flynn and Aladdin are thieves, and the differences between the two characters. Flynn seems to steal because he’s greedy and thinks it’s fun; in his verse of the “I’ve Got A Dream” song, he sings that his only dream is to be “surrounded by enormous piles of money.” In contrast, Aladdin is a boy without parents who steals food because otherwise, he won’t eat. And he’s not greedy, either: in an early scene in the film, he gives his stolen bread away to littler kids who are also hungry, showing that he is a kind person.

As a result of these conversations, when we’re watching Tangled, he will sometimes offer his own running commentary. He’ll say things to me like, “Flynn shouldn’t be a thief! That’s too naughty,” or “Poor Aladdin! He is a thief because he doesn’t have any mommy or daddy or food. He doesn’t want to be a thief.”

In my opinion, being able to identify differences between on-screen characters and their motivations is a form of age-appropriate media literacy. It’s the result of talking and thinking critically about how people are represented, and why characters are shown doing the things they do. I’m glad that my child has a basic understanding that depictions of bad behaviors don’t make those bad behaviors okay, even when the characters engaged in them are fun and exciting.

In other words, media literacy can be developed in simple, age-appropriate ways, connected with real-world experiences.

My hope is that these conversations are laying important groundwork for the future, making it clear that we discuss and think critically about media content in our family. Considering the content he’ll likely see later in childhood and in adolescence, I think it’s crucial to establish parent-child communication and critical thinking practices as the norm now.

Coming soon: Stay tuned for my next post in this series, in which I’ll explain how I’ve been talking with my preschooler about how media are created, and how I’ve also begun helping him to use the tools that would allow him to create his own media texts.

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Parents: How do you foster media literacy in your children? What has worked for your family? What hasn’t? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Media literacy for preschoolers: Explaining how the media work

Media literacy is a concept that’s often taught in schools–though not often enough, in my opinion. Being media literate means having the ability to think critically about media content, as well as an understanding of how the media work. It also encompasses knowing how to create media texts yourself.

So, students in middle school who are learning about media literacy might be asked to think about who produced a certain media text (advertisement, movie, television show, etc.) and why. They might be asked to contemplate about whether they agree with the content–with the messages and values it conveys. For example, is an ad or program portraying certain people in stereotypical ways? If so, what problems do they see with that practice? In some programs, they might even be handed a digital video recorder and taught how to edit their footage together on a laptop, to create their own advertisement about something they care about.

Although most research about media literacy focuses on children’s classroom experiences, I believe it’s never too early to begin fostering media literacy. Media literacy can happen at home. Parents can talk with their preschoolers about the media in age-appropriate ways, giving them tools to help them think critically.

Unfortunately, there’s not much research out there on parent-based media literacy–but from speaking with other parents, I know it’s happening in a lot of homes. Now, some families may not think of the conversations they have with their little ones about the media as “media literacy.” It’s not a term that everyone is familiar with, after all. But if you’re talking with your child about what is happening on screen, and why, chances are you’re helping your child become a media literate individual.

Media literacy and my family: Explaining how the media work

My son is four years old. A couple of years ago, we suspended our DirecTV subscription and experimented with using Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other internet-based sources for watching television content on our TV set. The results were great: for a fraction of the cost, we were still able to access 99% of the content we enjoyed.

Because we didn’t miss “regular” television, we canceled our DirecTV subscription altogether and never looked back. (This worked well for us, but I’m sure it’s not for everyone…your mileage may vary!)

As a result, since the age of two, our son has mostly watched programs available on Netflix. Shows like Sesame StreetBlues CluesThe Wonder Pets, Thomas and FriendsDragon TalesDora the Explorer–they’re all there, and commercial-free. We also watch Mister Rogers Neighborhood through Amazon Prime and assorted movies, like Monsters, Inc, Tangled, and My Neighbor Totoro on DVD.

I appreciate that anything our child views is deliberately selected by or for him. There’s no segueing from one show to the next all afternoon long on a single channel with him suddenly watching something he shouldn’t. (Except that one time he was trying to click on Bob the Builder but accidentally turned on Doctor Who, instead… It took me a minute or two to realize it, and he saw some scary-looking aliens before we could turn off the screen. Oops.)

This also means that the commercials my son has been exposed to have been very limited. He sees the previews on DVDs before he gets to the feature film, and sometimes he sees regular ads on Hulu or YouTube, too.

One day, when he was about three, he complained about a commercial coming on screen instead of whatever it was we were actually trying to watch. I thought for a minute, then used it as an early media literacy moment, saying: “Yeah. Commercials just try to sell us things we don’t need.”

That became my stock explanation for what was happening when commercials came on screen: “This commercial is trying to sell us things we don’t need!” Sometimes, he would echo me in an indignant little voice: “Yeah! We don’t need those things!”

My son is four now, and just this week, he was watching a Thomas and Friends DVD in the living room. I’d popped it in the DVD player per his request and went into the kitchen to work on a few things. Next thing I knew, he was calling out to me, really annoyed: “Mom-meeee! This commercial is trying to sell me Bob the Builder. I don’t NEED Bob the Builder!!!”

Score one for mommy!

I love that my preschooler has a basic understanding of how advertisements work. He knows that they exist to sell things. Television ads are not neutral purveyors of information; they have an angle, an agenda. They’re trying to get us to do something–to buy something.

Considering how relentlessly marketers target kids nowadays, it’s really important for kids to be armed with this basic understanding.

Coming soon: In my next post, I’ll explain how I’ve been discussing media content with my preschooler–how we chat about the messages conveyed on screen during his favorite programs and movies.

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Parents: How do you foster media literacy in your children? What has worked for your family? What hasn’t? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Halloween and the rise of sexy costumes for women and girls

For years, families struck a balance between store-bought and homemade Halloween costumes. But these days, DIY Halloween costumes are out; store-bought costumes are an $2.87 billion business.

What does this mean for consumers? Well, for one thing, we’re seeing a lot of costumes that reproduce tired gender stereotypes. Sex sells, and in an $8 billion seasonal industry, it seems designers and retailers are maximizing profits by creating more and more “sexy” costumes for women and girls.


Image
Cartoon by Andy Mariette, via Sociological Images

In today’s relatively new, hypercommercial Halloween, it’s become an expectation for females to dress in sexually provocative ways–even when costumed as, say, a children’s cartoon character, like Nemo from Finding Nemo, or a mundanely macabre item like a body bag. Are you a man? Your body bag Halloween costume will resemble an actual body bag. Are you a woman? The ladies’ version of a body bag costume will be (drum roll…) a skimpy dress with a hood that zips over your head. Seriously.

Adding insult to injury, the definition of “sexy” applied to the majority of women’s Halloween costumes is appallingly narrow. Tiny dresses with a lot of revealed skin available in a very limited range of sizes make it clear: Mainstream, readily-available “sexy” costumes aren’t being made for the full-figured, despite the fact that a size 14 is the average American woman’s size.

The typical sexy Halloween costumes divide women and shortchange young girls by conveying the same old message: if you don’t fit our society’s narrow beauty ideal, this culture doesn’t want to think of you as being sexually desirable. So you’d better focus on your appearance above all else. Note that even the new “sexy” costume for Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid is scaled down, available in tiny sizes, even though the original character from the film is a confident, full-figured woman–which seems really incongruous.

Unfortunately, as parents of young girls know, today’s girls’ Halloween costumes are highly sexualized, too. This reinforces the same unhealthy messages about what female bodies are considered desirable and undesirable in our culture.

Although the issue is not just with costumes modeled after sexualized dolls, Bratz and Monster High costumes are a perennial source of concern; several years ago, in her book The Lolita Effect, Gigi Durham wrote:

Last Halloween, a five-year-old girl showed up at my doorstep decked out in a tube top, gauzy miniskirt, platform shoes, and glittering eye shadow. The outfit projected a rather tawdry adult sexuality. “I’m a Bratz!” the tot piped up proudly, brandishing a look-alike doll clutched in her chubby fist. I had an instant, dizzying flashback to an image of a child prostitute I had seen in Cambodia, dressed in a disturbingly similar outfit.

But, no–even the most inane girls’ costume ideas are rendered in skimpy styles, calculated to be provocative. From sexy witches and sexy vampires to sexy crayons, costumes that encourage young girls to sexualize themselves are everywhere.

No wonder some are complaining that Halloween has turned into “Happy Sexualize our Daughters Season.” Ugh.

Readers: Do you remember wearing a homemade Halloween costumes when you were a child? Which childhood Halloween costume was your favorite? Are you planning to make a costume this year for yourself of your kids? Share your ideas in the comments!
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Teens and Sexting talk at Salem State

For my readers who are in the Salem, Mass. area: I am helping to organize a talk on the topic of Teenagers and Sexting, to be presented by Dr. Jessica Ringrose (Institute of Education, London) at Salem State University on September 20. It is free and open to the public.

How do young people experience the sending and receiving of sexually explicit content through mobile, digital technologies? At this presentation, Dr. Ringrose shares the findings of her study on “sexting” with 35 teens from two inner city London schools. She reports that among boys, collecting explicit images of girls served as a way to secure status among peers. In contrast, most girls experienced “sexting” with these boys as a site of potential risk, blame, and hatred around sexual reputation (e.g., being called a slut). Join Dr. Ringrose for a provocative discussion of how digital technology mediates school life, including gendered and sexualized peer hierarchies, popularity, intimacy, sexualized bullying, and harassment.

More details available at Teenagers and Sexting: Thursday, Sept. 20 at 12 p.m..

Disney Princess Prom Gowns and Cradle-to-Grave Marketing

Just a few months ago, I wrote about how Disney Princess-styled extravagance among toddlers reflects the extraordinary extravagance of today’s proms, which now cost families an average of $1,000 to $2,000.

But until Mouse on the Mind brought it to my attention this week, I didn’t realize that there were actual Disney Princess-inspired prom gowns in production, scheduled for the 2013 prom season. (Were there any previously? I haven’t seen them.)

The plan: Each year, a new line of prom gowns will be released, and each line will take inspiration from a different Disney Princess film. The 2013 gowns are meant to evoke Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; red and black appear to be the dominant colors of the collection.

Disney Princess prom gowns 2013

With a price point of $350 to $800, these gowns definitely align with the high costs attached to today’s proms. Ouch.

So… what’s going on here? If the Disney Princess line is meant for the preschool set, why would teenage girls want Disney Princess-inspired prom dresses??

The answer can be found in a tactic called “cradle-to-grave marketing.”

As I’ve explained previously, the Disney Princess franchise is a great example of a lifestyle brand. Disney’s marketers want Princess to be everything and everywhere, integrated into as many aspects of audience members’ lives as possible. This epitomizes a basic principle of lifestyle branding: the more closely people identify with a brand–the more they feel like it is their brand, and a part of who they are–the more money the brand will make.*

Although the Disney Princess brand is primarily for little girls ages 2-8, with its strongest devotees ages 2-5, they are not its only target market. With “cradle-to-grave” marketing, Disney marketers extend engagement with the brand well beyond these years. The goal is for children to become loyal customers for life.

This has played out very well for Disney in general, as well as for the Princess line in particular: When children too young to ask for Disney products are swathed in them from birth, it’s often a because of their parents’ understandable nostalgia and fondness for Disney. Parents who loved Disney when they were children are likely to be tempted by Disney-branded sippy cups, diapers, onesies, teething rings, and toys.

Then, as children begin developing brand preferences, nostalgic parents who enjoy the fun, wholesome aspects of Disney are happy to fulfill their children’s requests.

But for a megabrand like Disney Princess, purchases on behalf of children is not enough. It’s even better for business if adults want to buy Princess products for themselves–collecting the dolls, perhaps, or film cells. But not everyone is a collector.

So, it’s logical for marketers to ask: At what points in life do people make expensive purchases that could be linked back to the brand? This, I’m sure, was the genesis of Disney’s ongoing success partnering with designers to produce Disney Princess-inspired wedding gowns, and to offer “Fairy Tale Weddings” in the Magic Kingdom.

With the average cost of the prom continuing to rise, it makes sense that proms are the newest target. Attracting teens connects more dots on that cradle-to-grave continuum.

(Now, I wonder if they’ll ever release those Disney Princess coffins that Peggy Orenstein enjoys joking about?)

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*I know that may sound cynical, like some kind of conspiracy theory, but it’s really the way the business works. Books written for members of the marketing industry are filled with tips about these tactics.

Reimagining Disney Princesses with racial diversity: From Tumblr to D-Tech

A couple of weeks ago, a young woman named Lauren reimagined the white Disney Princess characters as women of color, posting recolored images of them on her Tumblr blog. Her inspired designs quickly made their way around the blogosphere. Responses ranged from supportive (“I love this!“) to perplexed (“This was done because…?“; “But why?“); from grateful to critical (including requests for more inclusivity); and, sadly, from defensive to exclusionary (people of color “should come up with their own princesses and heroes“) and clearly racist.

wrote a little about the Disney Princess franchise and race earlier this year, when I noticed that in the Disney Store’s 2012 redesign of their Disney Princess dolls, Disney westernized Mulan’s dress and lightened Pocahontas’s skin. So when the Huffington Post Live asked me to be their expert guest on a segment called “Black and Brown Princesses” about the reimagined Disney Princess characters from Lauren’s Tumblr, I was happy to oblige.

Although I have my criticisms of the Disney Princess franchise in general, I do think it’s important for young girls to see characters on screen and elsewhere in popular culture that look like them. I’ve been doing academic research on the Disney Princess phenomenon for a while now, and I’ve heard about the heartbreaks caused by Disney’s predominant whiteness: The little black girl who came home from first grade from first grade in tears because her classmates said she couldn’t be a princess. Their reason? She wasn’t white. (This was pre-Tiana.) The little Latina girl who would brush and brush her tightly curled hair, completely frustrated that she couldn’t smooth it out so that she would look more like a princess. (New princess Merida is the only one without silky smooth straight hair.)

While conducting field research for my book, Growing Up With Girl Power, I also saw firsthand how important diversity in dolls and other products is to pre-adolescent African-American girls. For example, as I mentioned previously, the racial diversity of Bratz dolls was really important to the African-American girls in my study. For them, the diversity was often much more important than the dolls’ skimpy fashions, which have resulted in a lot of negative publicity for the brand. The girls also cared tremendously about whether popular characters like Dora the Explorer and those from The Proud Family were represented on toys and other products with the same skin tone as they had on television. (I remember that a beach towel depicting Dora with the wrong skin tone had been a serious affront.)

As these girls and I talked and talked about how few characters looked like them, I found myself remembering being a young girl and wanting nothing more than a doll that had brown hair and brown eyes, like me. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, these were almost impossible to find, as my mother can attest: she had to hunt high and low to find a single brown-haired doll whose eyes were brown, not blue. When I shared this memory with the girls, they were surprised. “How rude!” one said.

That’s one of the brilliant things about the “My American Girl” dolls. Although they are prohibitively expensive for most families (sigh), girls can customize the dolls to have whatever skin tones and hair colors they’d like–just like Lauren did with the Disney Princess images on her Tumblr blog. Of course, there’s little diversity in actual facial features, which is an ongoing problem in the doll business: even when racially and ethnically diverse dolls are available, their facial characteristics typically reflect white beauty norms. In the essay “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandizing of Difference,” scholar Ann duCille famously criticized such dolls for being merely “dye-dipped”–brown versions of their white counterparts.

In this context, a new experiment from Disney is fascinating. As of this week, children ages 3 to 12 who are visiting Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney Marketplace* may order custom-modeled 7″ Disney Princess figurines made to look like them. Just like them. As in, modeled after images taken via 3D scans of the children’s own faces.

The price is about the same as an American Girl Doll, but thanks to the 3D technology, these new “D-Tech Me” princess figurines won’t just have the children’s eye and hair color; they’ll also have their noses, cheekbones, lips.

The service is being offered for a limited time–“at least through Thanksgiving,” according to one Disney rep (see comment #12 here), but not much longer. The characters available are Ariel, Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Tiana. (Sorry, Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Merida!) The sample images are diverse: Ariel, Rapunzel, and Snow White all have darker skin and dark brown to black hair, Aurora is a redhead, and Tiana is a fair-skinned blonde.

I have to agree with The Business Insider that the samples images Disney has shared so far look pretty creepy–a little too “uncanny valley” for my taste. And I’m not sure why three of the four characters of color from the Disney Princess franchise are being excluded as choices in the first place; it seems a little insensitive to me. (Anyone have thoughts on that?) But I don’t agree with Marketplace that the figurines are a sign of the apocalypse.

Although the Disney Princess franchise teems with stereotypes about girlhood, femininity, physical appearance, and race (and although I strongly dislike that the girls’ heads will be as large or larger than their waists on these figurines) the reality is this: Little girls are growing up in a princess-obsessed girls’ culture, and feeling excluded hurts.

By letting any girl see herself as a princess–well, at least any 3- to 12-year-old girl whose parents can bring her to Disney World and afford to pay $99.95 plus shipping and handling for a figurine–Disney has taken another small step in the right direction. I’ll be curious to see whether the experiment catches on.

*Some reports have stated this service is available at Disneyland, but a Disney rep on the Disney Parks web site has clarified that the D-Tech Princesses are only going to be available in Walt Disney World in the Downtown Disney Marketplace.

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Boy teeth, girl teeth, and the gendering of ungendered things

My three-year-old son had a check-up with his pediatric dentist yesterday. The dentist is a friendly fellow who is good with kids, and we like his practice a lot.

Shortly after a dental hygienist cleaned my son’s teeth, the dentist approached us and warmly greeted my son. My son was in great spirits because moments earlier, we had played a game of thumb war, and he won. (Okay, okay… I admit I threw the game. I would be a bad Olympian.)

“Hello!” said the dentist. “I just want to count your teeth today,” he said reassuringly. “And let’s make sure they’re all boy teeth, okay?”

As my son smiled and opened his mouth per the dentist’s request, I said, “Gee, I’m pretty sure they’re all people teeth, doctor.”

The denist began the exam but seemed to have missed my point. “Let’s see. Boy tooth… boy tooth… boy tooth…”

I didn’t like where this was going. In a gentle effort to redirect his script, I asked a playful question: “Hmm…Are you sure none of them are puppy teeth?”

“Puppy teeth? No… But, uh, oh!” In a voice of mock concern, he asked, “Is this one a girl tooth?!?!”

Smiling at my son as naturally as possible, I said in a bright, upbeat tone, “Gee, it could be!” (Meaning: and there would be nothing wrong with that!)

The dentist frowned and furrowed his brow. “No, no,” he said, “this is a boy tooth. You are a boy. You don’t have any girl teeth! Phew.”

Boy teeth. Girl teeth. Let’s unpack this: What’s going on here?

Dental exams are considered unpleasant by most people, and they can be downright scary for small children. The dentist was obviously trying to make my son’s exam as playful and entertaining as possible. I’m a fan of playful parenting strategies myself, so I appreciate his intentions.

But I can’t help but wonder why everything has to come down to gender.

My son is only three. Gender isn’t an issue for him yet; he isn’t worried about what things are supposedly for boys or girls. (In fact, at the end of his exam, he was allowed to choose a toothbrush and a toy prize. He chose a blue toothbrush and a pink toy lizard. Yes, a pink lizard–imagine!)

My son’s indifference to matters of gender is normal. Studies show that it is only at about age five that children internalize gender rules. When they do, though, they really do: Kindergarteners often perform the role of gender police zealously, monitoring themselves and their peers for the slightest signs of gender deviance and attempting to squelch any hint of it.

This behavior has to do with an uncertainty about what makes boys boys and girls girls, as well as an uncertainty that gender is fixed. Researchers report that children of kindergarten age fear that if they do things associated with the opposite sex, they might suddenly become the opposite sex–finding themselves a boy instead of a girl, or vice versa. As children of this age are usually happy with their gender identities, their gender policing can be read as an effort to do everything possible to protect and cement those identities.

In grade school, children’s attention to gender is often channeled into what developmental psychologists call an ingroup/outgroup bias. This means that children often have positive feelings about their own sex, favoring it over the opposite sex. This doesn’t necessarily mean they feel hostility towards the opposite sex–just that they have preferential biases for their own (as in the “girls rule” mentality of girl power).

When media texts dichotomize boys and girls–presenting them as entirely separate and distinct from one another–it both plays into these developmental stages and exacerbates them. That’s why many media scholars, including myself, would argue that it’s important for television shows, movies, toy packaging, and so on to present boys and girls interacting together at least some of the time. Although gender is an organizing concept in our culture, boys and girls have more in common than not, sharing things such as feelings, family structures, racial identities, educational experiences, and so on.

Unfortunately, our culture often trivializes interests categorized as “girlish,” and boys therefore often eschew them, because our society regards girls and women as second-class citizens. (Examples of this abound, but consider the recent New York Times article that quoted a psychologist as saying that girls are the “lesser gender” without even pausing to problematize that quote. The reporter actually presented it as fact. Great, huh?) Therefore, directing at least a bit of attention to childhood’s common ground is an important task for parents, educators, and media producers alike. Boys and girls really aren’t opposites, and it’s healthy for children to know this.

Teeth are one of the many things in life that have neither sex or gender. They look the same and serve the same function, no matter whose body they are in.

Unfortunately, when a well-meaning authority figure such as a dentist feigns alarm at the horror of an imaginary opposite-sex tooth in a child’s mouth, it reinforces the message that boys and girls are very, very different, from head to toe, and that children must guard against contamination from the opposite sex at all costs.

Just imagine “girl teeth” and “boy teeth” as a diagnosable medical condition! I suppose “girl teeth” would be regarded by boys as embarrassing and shameful. It would certainly not be something a kindergarten boy would want his peers to hear about. (I can just hear the sing-songy playground taunts now: “Timmy has girl teeth! Timmy has girl teeth! Na-na-na-na-na!”)

But even though I’m not a dentist, I’m confident that feminam dentes exists in imagination only. So I’ve asked the dentist’s staff to please put a note in my son’s chart: no “boy teeth/girl teeth” talk, please. The dentist is a smart fellow; I’m sure he can come up with another script.

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