I am a mother of two young children, a Sociologist, a proud feminist, and an avid reader. These things usually compliment each other. Lately, as my oldest child nears five years old, I have been struggling more and more with the children’s literature market. My son has developed a love for anything superhero. Most superhero comics, movies, and even toys, are not yet age appropriate for him. So he reads these DC Super Friends books.
Essentially, they are a toned-down, less violent depiction of the super world. The Superheroes all make appearances and work together to keep the world safe. Are they quality, well-written literature? I’m not sure that’s even the point of these books. Do I read them every day anyways? Absolutely. I allow and encourage him to explore his interests, and strongly believe that giving him (appropriate amounts of) freedom in his book choices fosters a love of reading and helps him develop into an independent reader. In many regards this is working. Books are, without a doubt, his favorite “toys”. He loves to read with me or his dad for hours at a time, but Super Friends books are some of the only books he will “read” on his own. When we hit the library each week, they are the first section he runs for. So I bite my lip and read him page after page of bottled images of hyper-masculinity, all the while worrying that his 5’6″ father and I have not passed him the necessary genes to ever live up to the muscle machines depicted. This was going relatively fine, I thought, but now we have another problem…and she’s two and a half. His precocious little sister also loves to read. But more than that, she loves her brother and has an overwhelming desire to be just like him. So, naturally, she gravitates towards the superhero books as well, asking for them over and over. When they play pretend, she wants to be “Gween Wantern”, and I recently enrolled them both in a locally taught Superhero Class. I know she’s the youngest, but we have yet to find out if there are any other girls in the class.
I am confronting a real problem now with the Super Friends books. I already know that our toy market offers girls a narrow definition of what it means to be a girl (if its not pink, it must be boy), and a corresponding narrow definition of what it means to be a boy (big, burly, tough). But somehow, in my romanticized ideals of children’s literature, I thought we’d be safe with books. From Matilda to Hermione, I have seen books empower girls in literature. I want them to empower mine! However, as the options of preschool literature become more and more franchised (try to find a good mermaid book that doesn’t include a Disney Princess), I see our choices slimming. What’s wrong with franchised literature? It’s not literature. It is a marketing tool. What’s wrong with Super Friends, in particular? For starters, there are no girls.
I am the first to admit that I am no comic enthusiast, but I am aware of Super Girl and Wonder Woman. Yes, I am also very aware of their exposed cleavage and bedroom eyes, but we can deal with the sexualization of comic characters another day. Today, I’d take a well endowed Super Woman over no Super Woman at all. What message does it send my daughter when there are no female superheroes in her much idolized brother’s favorite books? No wonder she always pretend-plays the boy characters. If girls can’t have superpowers, I’d rather just be a boy, too. Aren’t females strong enough and smart enough to fight crime? She is not even three years old yet, but already notices and is effected by this. More subtle socialization occurs in early childhood than any other time in the lifecourse. Children are sponges; shaped by everything around them. They tend to make generalizations based on what’s offered to them. When they do not see female Superheroes, they assume that girls are not and cannot be Superheroes. Perhaps more importantly, what message does it send to my boy? The people he looks up to the most, who he TRULY believes protect the world from “bad guys”, are all male. How does he learn to work with, respect, or empower women, when his heroes do not exhibit any of these behaviors? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have yet to find a super friends book with a female superhero. We own a lot of these books, and have read more at the library. Even if there is one out there that we have not seen, one is not enough.
This week the UK based Toys R Us released a statement that it will follow Sweden’s lead and quit marketing differently to boys and girls. My hope is the the US Toys R Us will soon follow suit (though I have my doubts). Last year Hasbro promised us a blue Easy Bake Oven (after the petition started by a brave young feminist). These are great steps, but what about books? This isn’t up to a retail store. They can’t sell something to boys OR girls if it doesn’t exist! As more and more people discuss the “end” of the picture book market, and less and less picture books are being published than in the past, we are being forced into a world of franchised literature. I have yet to see a company put out a quality piece of literature. Companies are not authors. I have, however, seen the way many of these same franchises depict and sexualize boys and girls in their toys and videos. I shudder to think this is the future of children’s literature. A narrow definition of childhood, made narrower by the very things that used to open minds. As a mother, I’ve done what any good writer would. I’ve written multi-dimensional picture books, and I’m seeking literary representation to hopefully get them into the hands of multi-dimensional children. Even if I can crack my way into the shrinking world of Children’s publishing, I can guarantee that my son will continue to go straight for the Super Friends books, with his loyal sister by his side. New “girl power” hero books are a start, but they are not enough. DC Comics has a huge marketing base, from toys to books to movies. My children need to see females equally represented in this market as well.
On behalf of my own little Superheroes, this blog post is my plea to DC Comics: please include females in your Super Friends series. Not just in the background, either. The entire premise of Super Friends is that they all work together; so let them be strong, brave, and kick some bad guy butt. (And I wouldn’t complain if they did so in a conducive pair of kicking pants with their bust secured.) Let them be present in each book, showing that boys and girls can and do work together, respect each other, and have their own unique superpowers.