LEGO Marketing Sex Change: The Follow Up


by Heather E. Ash

It looks like my son will get to “stay a boy” after all, thanks to Lego.

In my previous post, I wrote a letter to Lego taking them to task for requiring that my son identify himself as a girl in their database in order to receive the Lego Friends insert, which was sent only to girls. Yes, the pinkwashed Friends line is annoying in that it reinforces stereotypical gender roles while claiming to promote STEM participation in girls (yet do we see “Mia Mechanical Engineer?” We do not.) More annoying was that every girl was assumed to want the Lego Friends advertising while every boy was not.

And my boy still wanted it. After I told him about the blog post, he was back to whining. “Did you tell them to change me to a girl yet?”

“No, son. It’s wrong and I won’t do it.” Because we have rules in this family, guidelines for living that include “Be kind” and “Learn something new every day.” Also “Don’t sell your soul.”

Some of these rules are easier to explain to young children than others. This is another one they weren’t quite sure about:


I bought this magnet the day the post first appeared and put it on the refrigerator above our family calendar. I hoped the children would see it and somehow the words would leech into their minds, allowing the meaning to steep over the years.

But today I took it off the refrigerator. I made the kids stop their homework and read the words on the magnet out loud. “Do you know what this means yet?”

They shrugged.

“This is what it means.” Then I read this email to them:

Lego response

“Thanks for getting in touch with us about your son’s LEGO® Club membership. I’ve read your blog post with interest and I really regret that you’ve had this experience. Any of our LEGO themes can be enjoyed by any builder, which is why we offer so many different options from which children can choose based on their interests.

We found the conclusion at the end of your post very compelling. As a result, we’ve updated the way kids can opt into or out of the LEGO Friends insert in their LEGO Club Magazine. We’ve worked across global functions to make this happen as quickly as possible, while also developing a more in-depth strategy for next year.

The quick solution is that from now on, LEGO Service advisors will be able to select the LEGO Club magazine with or without the LEGO Friends insert. This will be based on the LEGO Club member’s preference as you suggested and not as determined by gender. Please call or e-mail us again so we can update your son’s preference to get the magazine with the LEGO Friends insert. We’ll then send the latest issue to him so he can enjoy it.

Our longer term approach to improving the online sign up process will offer parents and the LEGO builders in their family a choice of magazine versions, so that we can be sure that we really meet to our fans’ tastes.

For 80 years, our core values have been Fun, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Quality and Caring. We take these values very seriously and we really care about our fans, so I’m grateful that you took the time to share your views.

Please let me know if I can do anything else.

Brick on!”

If Lego follows through, my son will get his Friends insert. Someone else’s son won’t even have to ask, or forced to identify as something he doesn’t consider himself to be. And no one’s daughter will be automatically enrolled based on outdated gender stereotyping. And children with a gender identity that isn’t girl or boy, won’t need to identify as something they aren’t just to get the toys they crave.

Thanks to Lego, my kids understand the meaning behind the magnet.

After seeing how far companies can go to allow for greater gender equity in toy marketing, my daughter is composing a letter to Toys ‘R Us: “The Princess and the Pet Peeve: Where You Can Stick Your (Boys-Only) Sword”

I’m a Feminist Gamer and I’m Over Anita Sarkeesian


by Kristin Bezio

Be sure to check out Kristin’s follow up to this post, “Digital Damsels in Distress: A Simplified Version of a Real Problem in Gaming”

Back in May, the internet exploded both in favor of and against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” with a huge contingent of trolls attacking her professionally, intellectually, and personally. Another less vocal contingent supported her Kickstarter campaign to the tune of approximately $150,000. Since then, Sarkeesian has been a vocal presence in the online and real world communities, speaking out against online sexual harassment and occasionally tweeting and blogging about the games she’s playing (presumably for the video series).

On the surface, much of this would seem to align itself with my own personal sympathies, and for a long time I was also a supporter of Sarkeesian’s proposal and her efforts to defend herself against the trolls. I continue to think that her proposed project is one that needs to be done, and I also continue to think that the treatment she received at the hands of the under-the-bridge-dwelling internet was unconscionable.

I am, however, getting over her.

I think it’s long since been time to stop talking about what happened to her and how awful it is and high time to start taking a more progressive stance on the whole thing. Okay, there’s bad behavior on the internet. I got it. How do we help change it? How do we raise our kids and talk to our fellow gamers about acting like adults instead of infants? Repeating over and over how immature the gaming community is as a whole doesn’t do much.

Painting a picture of the gaming community as cruel, misogynistic, violence-prone basement dwellers is not helping with viewing gaming through the lens of rationality. It also alienates those gamers who are genuinely nice people. And further alienates feminist gamers as “White Knights” (people who will defend female gamers at all costs, no matter how wrong they are) rather than reasonable human beings with respect for all.

As a female gamer, I’ve been subject to sexist, harassing, and misogynist comments and assumptions whenever I play online. I understand and sympathize with her desire to lash back, and with her desire to see that it stops. I just think it’s time that the conversation move somewhere more productive.

But May was a while ago, and while Sarkeesian has been occasionally tweeting about games, she hasn’t managed to release even one video in the series her backers paid for. I’m actually finding myself agreeing with a lot of voices on the internet wanting to know why they haven’t seen anything. People are starting to wonder whether those who donated have any recourse if they don’t ever see videos. And that isn’t helping people to feel any more sympathetic toward Sarkeesian herself.

Yes, she’s been busy interviewing in NPR and doing a TEDx Women talk, and travelling around to universities and conventions and other places. I get being busy. But there doesn’t seem to have been a concerted effort to actually begin the serious production process for the video series. Perhaps she has – I don’t know, because she hasn’t been sharing that. I know she’s got a lot of work to do – a lot of games to play, a lot of notes to compile, and so on. As an academic, I understand the overwhelming nature of research and production. However, she can create videos in installments the way an academic researcher putting together a long-term study or a book cannot.

Most important to me is that the snippets of feminist criticism that I have seen coming out of Feminist Frequency have not inspired confidence, in either her interpretive skills as a gamer or in her ability to separate “feminist criticism” from “pointing her finger at women in games and saying ‘bad.’” Take her tweet on Dishonored, for instance: “Many truly brilliant elements in the game #Dishonored, sadly representations of women are not among them. #Disappointing.”

Here’s my problem with this. Dishonored doesn’t have many “strong female” characters … except for the Empress, the Empress’s daughter Emily, and Callista Curnow. Yes, the Empress gets killed in the first five minutes of the game and Emily needs rescuing (she is 10, after all), but Callista makes a point of doing several things in the course of the game that tell you she’s quite a capable human being. One of the most powerful figures in the game is female (though insane – Granny Rags), and the nation appears to be a matriarchy. Yes, there are a lot of female victims in the game, but there are just as many if not more male victims. In fact, pretty much everyone is a victim at one point or another. And yes, there are female villains, but there are male villains, too.

Sarkeesian seems to dismiss Dishonored as misogynistic simply because it doesn’t contain the stereotype of the “strong modern female” in a game that is about how everyone is at the mercy of arbitrary fate in the form of rampaging plague rats.

My point isn’t that games aren’t misogynistic – there are far more of them that are than that aren’t, and some of them are really blatant – nor is it that someone doesn’t need to have the serious conversation about representations of gender (especially women) in games. I think both those things are true. But if Sarkeesian is going to dismiss a complex and intelligent game like Dishonored out of hand, then I have my doubts about her overall ability to be that voice, at least to the degree that we as an internet gaming community seem to have accepted.

I don’t want me or other “feminist gamers” to be thought of as those that do nothing but whine and yell about how women are underrepresented and misrepresented in games and the gaming industry. I don’t want to see women and feminist men with valid criticisms and interpretive opinions silenced because “feminist gamers” have gotten a negative reputation because of what Sarkeesian has and has not said and done.

What I want, really, is for Sarkeesian to make her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series. I want to see what kind of critical approaches she actually takes, and I want to judge her ability to speak for female gamers on the merits of what she has to say about games, in detail, with examples, not based on fleeting tweets and TEDx talks on how internet trolls are horrible people. I want her to make something of quality, and to be successful because of what she’s done rather than what has been done to her.

And that’s how I want all women, gamers, academics, critics, and others, to be successful. Because of what we are capable of accomplishing, not because we have been made victims by trolls, by society, or by individual men (or women). Yes, it is important to talk about what has happened to women, historically and currently, but it is also much more important to talk about what women can do. Let’s talk about how to make the industry better, smarter, friendlier, more tolerant, and more accepting, not just how bad it is now. And if we want our games to change, let’s look at what’s really wrong with them, not just the surface checklist of whether it has a female protagonist or not.

And, finally, let’s stop all the arm-waving and finger-pointing. Videogames don’t cause misogyny. They don’t cause violence. They don’t cause any of society’s ills. Like any other form of popular culture, they reflect those ills and seek to make changes to those things they can. Dishonored puts a princess in a tower (literally) not because it thinks she belongs there, but because it knows she doesn’t.

TLF Says You Should Be Watching: Answer Me 1997


The Learned Fangirl is steeped in the experience of being a fangirl. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough pop culture examples that are from the perspective of fangirls. Fortunately, there is Answer Me 1997 (2012), a Korean drama, half-set in 1997, the starting point for K-pop’s unending hallyu wave of manufactured groups. This is a show for present or former fangirls of music — from Beatlemaniacs through the Metallica/Megadeth fan battles to those with Bieber fever.

What is so delightful about this show — from the first episode to the last — is that it shows fandom as a powerful, distracting, encompassing, and motivating force in the lives of fans, especially female fans. The show starts when the characters are teenagers, so it shows all of the aspect of high drama that only is possible with the heady mix of hormones, groupthink, and innocent obsessiveness of teenage girls. I laughed knowingly during the first episode when the main character Shi Won almost loses her mind dancing along to H.O.T. in the aisles, nearly passing out from pure fandom excitement.

Throughout the show, fandom is respected in a way rarely seen (and even rarer to see sustained through the entire run of a show). Friendships are tested, but never broken, due to being part of different fandoms. The show is based around the real-life Sechskies/H.O.T. fanwars, but also delves into real world issues, such as inclusiveness, especially of gay (& closeted) fans to traditionally female fandoms.

The fandom of the characters is so serious that one of the main characters as an adult is still known as Mrs. Tony — her teenage nickname based on her love of Tony (from H.O.T). And as an adult, a minor character despite her high profile job, still manages to be the head of a fan club. There is also a strong flavor for the idea that being an obsessive fan is passed down from mother to daughter — even if the object of the fandom varies, much in a similar way to the honored tradition of sports fandom being passed from father to son.

To show the recursive aspects of the show, most of the actors on the show have also been the objects of this type of fandom, considering many of them have been idol singers themselves. The writers clearly know how much they are poking at fandom by having the equivalent of a former real-life Backstreet Boy (here: member of Sechskies) portray the boyfriend of an obsessive fan of the Backstreet Boys.

This is a show that believes in fandom so much that a character wins a college scholarship based on her real-person slash-fanfic about her favorite group.

Dramabeans has great recaps of all of the episodes, but to watch the show, try Dramafever (my recommendation), Hulu, or VIKI. Be sure to watch Episode 0 if you want background on H.O.T. or other aspects of mid-90s Korean pop.

Learned Fangirls discuss fandom misogyny

Is sexism in increasing in online fan communities?

by Vivian Obarski and Keidra Chaney

This conversation was on the heels of an in-person conversation that Viv and I had earlier this year, there’s much less profanity, but the ideas are the same. – KDC

VO: Is it just me or is this year the year of harassing geek women? There’s been tons of news about people questioning Felicia Day’s geek cred, the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series and the whole line of “what’s a real geek”? What’s even funnier is seeing this happen roughly at the same time as what was going on in the metal scene.

KDC: Definitely not just you, I think it’s happening in a number of fan communities, that “Girls don’t like metal” post from Metal Sucks comes to mind, even though it was last year. And there have definitely been similar sentiments pop up in other blogs. It’s like open season on chicks who dare to enjoy any kind of pop culture that isn’t Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. And it’s weird to me because I swear this level of anger towards women in fan communities seems relatively recent, or at least more pronounced as of late.

Is sexism in increasing in online fan communities?

Cross-gender Justice League at San Diego Comic-Con 2011Image; Roger Chang, Flickr

VO: I think that some of this that the conversation is coming to the forefront. The Internet is offering the ability for women to speak up and tell their stories and I suspect that (geek-wise) they’re upset because they’ve always been seen as the outsiders that welcome everyone, and it turns out it’s not quite the case. Plenty of my friends have stories of being talked down to or having people play their characters at conventions or where gaming professionals talk to their boyfriends or husbands even though they asked the question.

The anger to me is reactionary to them finally being called out on their shit. And it’s not every guy, but it’s also food for thought on the culture as a whole.

KDC: I definitely agree with you, it’s not like like girl geeks are anything new. they’re not even new to fandom, or online fan communities (i am thinking of old school Star Trek fandom, or the Beauty and the Beast TV show or X-Files fandom in the 90’s) But I do think social media has brought different subsections and fandom niches together in a way that never happened as much before and allowed (forced?) them to co-exist. There’s not a cross-pollination of fandom in-jokes, tropes and culture and maybe for some fanboys, I think there’s a feeling that their special club has been invaded.

Fandom diversity because “mainstream” with social media because it encourages a higher level of transparency, rather than the total anonymity of the old school Internet (BBS, Usenet, etc.) I’m sure back in the day, people thought I was a guy, with the screenname “Pastor of Muppets,” and the fact that I never made a point to call attention to my gender (or for that matter, my race) I’ve had a couple of different experiences with this because as a metalhead, I feel like I’ve not really been talked down to or condescended to much, but then, I’m not super active in online metal fandom, where I think there’s more of that kind of behavior. Personally, I feel like male-dominated online fan culture tends to be more combative by nature, which I think plays a big role.

VO: I think it’s also seeing a different perspective that may not mesh with what they want — for example the vitriol aimed at DC’s reboot and their portrayal of Starfire (which is really, really awful and I can’t see letting my daughter read that, even though she loves Tiny Titans and Teen Titans). It’s like they fail to realize that there’s other audiences out there and it’s more diverse than what they think.

What I don’t get is that by ridiculing others, they’re alienating a potential audience that was ALWAYS there, but never noticed. To say that we’re not “real geeks” or that our voices don’t matter is incredibly insulting. I mean, being ignored is one thing, but outright dismissed? That’s fucking war in my book. But this also reminds me of the rock scene and how people start slagging off on an indie band when they start playing MTV or getting larger audience notice. They’re not selling out – there’s just a wider audience than what you initially thought.

KDC: I do feel like issues of wanting to maintain the status quo come into play: people want what they want and in many cases, especially with fandom, radical change on any level is usually not welcomed with open arms, but this is different to me, this has way more to do with (here we go…) privilege and entitlement, the belief that these communities were only meant for men and can only speak to men and that women are interlopers. I think about the whole music blogger trend of classifying melodic or (non-brootal) metal as “girlfriend metal” as if a.) only women like melody b.) only melodic bands are “safe” or “appropriate” for women. Which of course is some grade- A bullshit. I really do think it has to do with the idea that women are not only participating in these fan communities, but also carving out spaces where the approval and participation of male fans as so – called “experts” is not needed or even considered as a factor of our own enjoyment.

So what to do? Is there anything we, as fangirls, can do, except continue to speak out and be ourselves?

VO: What I’ve seen from my friends, and what I tend to do is just keep on keeping on. Don’t leave because of some asshats (and really, most of the geek dudes I meet at Gen Con are good players and good guys overall) are being jerks. You call them out on that shit and make them rethink their positions. Also, for me, having a good group of friends who are willing to speak up also helps. My view is that they need to be reminded that we won’t go away. We are here to stay and we will continue doing what we like to do, even if you’re weirded out, feel the need to categorize it or talk down to us. We’re here whether you want us around or not.

We’d like to hear your thoughts. Is sexism in fandom on the rise? Or are we just hearing about it more via social media? Leave your comments!

How I learned to stop worrying and love Ripley: A feminist nerd finally watches Alien

Main cast of Alien in costume in front of a white background
Main cast of Alien in costume in front of a white background

Ripley’s got a gun (so does Dallas, but who cares!)

At age 30, I’m a pop-culture-nerd feminist who just saw Alien for the first time, and I was shocked at how much I loved it. In fact, I think every Gen-Y lady should see this film – and not just because Prometheus is coming out tomorrow.

Full disclosure: I’m not one to watch horror films by choice. Slasher gore, creepy children, spit and goo don’t sit well with me. These aren’t deep thoughts about gratuitous violence but, honestly, fear. I was so freaked out by Michael Jackson’s yellow contacts at the end of “Thriller” that I didn’t watch the entire video until age 16. In college after coming home from seeing the U.S. version of The Ring, I covered my desktop monitor with a blanket so a wet, haunted girl couldn’t slither out.

I don’t mean to say that horror doesn’t warrant deep thoughts. Since the genre thrives on the scare, and our society is full of fear induced by bigotry and –isms, horror plots and characters can be problematic, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the scare can subvert viewers’ expectations and put sexism, classism and racism in stark relief. It’s a subtle set of details that can change a shallow, violent story into a radical reflection of a generation afraid of moving forward.

Such is the way with 1979’s Alien, which – thanks to today’s “post-racial,” “post-feminist,” post-Wall-Street-bailout atmosphere – feels chillingly contemporary. The opening credits of Alien and its first scenes gliding around the silent ship surprised me enough to say, “This is some Stanley Kubrick shit.” I’m no film critic or even amateur buff, but this reminded me more of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining than a monster or action movie.* Its devastatingly ugly-beautiful design, stripped-down realism and slow pace make you realize from five minutes in that this world is not as it seems.

Headshot of H.R. Giger, a white man with white hair

H. R. Giger is an evil-eyed penis artist

There are many easy targets for intersectional feminist analysis: a ship ship’s computer named Mother, an alien race with phalluses and vulvas all over themselves, simmering class issues, sexualized violence including a bloody birth, and most infamously a heroine who’s equal parts sharp-witted and vulnerable. [Ed: Thanks to reader Scott for noting the Mother flub.] The plot is simple enough, and even most of my eureka moments are cliché on their own – but heck if it isn’t weird to realize that the first people to die are the white men, for example.

What I really noticed were the accidental markers that actors and writers include that reflect sexism, racism and classism – the kind of signs I’m used to seeing in contemporary entertainment. I get the feeling that, like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, I was supposed to find the crew color-blind and the women liberated. I think the classism was intentional, at least in part (e.g. when low-ranked engineers Parker and Brett demand full shares and hazard pay, the WASP-y higher-ups roll their eyes at this brazen talk about dirty money), but it still manifested in subtle ways.

Ripley, like the rest of the crew, isn’t a fully fleshed-out character. We take what we can from snippets, such as her willingness to challenge authority when she knows she’s in the right. She refuses Dallas’s order to let alien-infested Kane back on the ship because of quarantine rules, as we all remember as the movie’s “Don’t go in THAT door!” moment, but what really set off my feminist alarm bells was Dallas’s mansplaining later on. Ripley asks him why Ash should be able to keep the horrible facehugger for SCIENCE!, to which Dallas responds by calling her “my dear” and saying, “Standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do.” Dallas tried to flex his sexist muscles because he sees his veneer of power and authority growing thinner by the moment – the “they” in charge isn’t him, it’s the corporation.

This was a big a-ha moment: Both Dallas and Ripley were sticking to their guns – Ripley toeing the line to keep the crew safe, Dallas refusing to second-guess his decision to save Kane – but what we see is that the system is stacked against both of them. Masculine power is a double-edged sword, not so much controlled by men or “patriarchy” but by wealth and corporate boards. Neither men nor women are safe when every employee is a pawn or, worse yet, a piece of bait for an alien that could be the key to developing galaxy-dominating weaponry. In an earlier classism-come-alive moment, we saw Dallas commandeer Brett’s pen to poke the melted metal…and then inexplicably return the goopy pen. To maintain his position, Dallas steps on his crew just as the corporation steps all over him.

After the fully-grown alien kills Brett, Ripley is the first one to offer to chase after it with a blowtorch, until Dallas overrides her. You get the feeling he wants to play hero to make up for his mistakes, while Ripley just doesn’t trust the others to get it done right. And whoops she was right.

It’s important to mention that Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto to “bring diversity” to the otherwise white cast, is a voice of reason akin to Ripley. Both of them point out the obvious flaws in others’ plans, but both are easily dismissed via white male privilege. When Parker asks why Ash doesn’t freeze Kane and the facehugger until they can get back to Earth, no one answers him. Although Parker is the one who alludes to cunnilingus at the crew’s doomed final spaghetti dinner (aiming his eyebrow-wiggle at Lambert, who’s an admittedly easy target for teasing of any sort), he’s also the one who beheads Ash when the android tries to stuff a porn magazine down Ripley’s throat.

In some ways I like that the Black man and two white women become the street-smart final three. In other ways, it’s tragic – they have to withstand the most, and in the cases of Parker and Lambert, they are killed not by violent birth (Kane) or by necessity for reproduction (Brett and Dallas, as we see them cocooned in the director’s cut that predicates the sequel) but by sexual blood lust. Their murder scene is sexualized, with the alien tail wrapping up the back of Lambert’s leg, and it’s no coincidence that this happens to the man of color and the emotionally unstable woman. Their bodies are hanged – it’s not a stretch to say lynched – and set up to terrify Ripley.

And yet, which scene is the most discussed and debated, made into the litmus test of feminism? Yes, the underwear scene.

In 1992 feminist film critic Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws about horror films, specifically slashers. These stories frequently leave only one woman alive to vanquish the bad guy and/or tell the story, and the final girls are empowered by virtue of their sexual purity and willingness at the end to use a phallic weapon to defend themselves. Clover argues that this gender fluidity, both in the final girl and in the killer, is a result of feminism and is basically kind of cool, if cliché. Unlike slashers, Alien doesn’t develop characters’ personal lives enough to assign purity or promiscuity, but that goddamn underwear scene seems enough for some.

Let us pause and consider what quote-unquote mainstream film buffs think of feminist critiques of Alien. (Hint: They think of Sigourney Weaver in teeny panties.) An unfortunate web search led me to a four-dude panel on YouTube from 2006 called CineFiles. Three white guys and one Black guy (who says nary a thing until six minutes in) review the entire alien franchise and, amidst discussing fun facts like casting changes and whatnot, Mike Foltz says that “feminist critics came out of the woodwork” to fuss over the underwear. I really do feel like it sums up the way people feel about feminism: we are fun-killers who make a big deal out of nothing.

I’m not saying the scene is without meaning, but I’m more likely to see it as a moment of character-building, not feminism-killing. Showing flesh literally signifies her human vulnerability, plus I think it shows her overconfidence in thinking she has bested the physically and intellectually gifted alien and, hand in hand, the wily faceless corporation.** There’s the alien in the shuttle, also maxin’ relaxin’ all cool. This is the last time Ripley has to learn this lesson: just when you think you can let your guard down, you’re reminded that if you are attacked, it’ll be blamed on you (if it seems I am alluding to the legal system’s continued insistence on examining rape victims’ clothing, it’s because I am).

Is Ripley a “final girl”? She shoots the alien with a spear gun, so that’s phallic, and she is the lone survivor who must tell the tale (and helm three sequels), but I don’t know that I can answer this question. Not yet, anyway. I’ll just have to watch a few more times, heh.***

TL;DR: This film is worth a watch today, as a historical artifact as much as a useful mirror for today’s fucked-up culture. It’s both hide-under-your-seat scary and pause-and-rewind interesting. Plus, you can draw parallels with Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the sci-fi oeuvre, even if not-quite-exactly an Alien prequel.

* Thank goodness Aliens director James Cameron didn’t do Alien because he would’ve ruined the opening credits by saying the Nostromo’s “mineral ore” in tow was (deep sigh) unobtanium.

** No maternal mask of a ship named Mother can hide that from Ripley; she knows her mother’s generation was in many ways complicit with this crap. I’m fine with Ripley calling Mother a “bitch” because she’s a false ally. Any more about Mother and we’ll have to start another article.

*** This footnote goes out to Jones the cat, because I am a cat lady who takes no shortage of joy from seeing a cat in a movie (or anywhere) and bonds completely with Ripley for rescuing him. Any deeper meaning is lost in my googley-eyes over fuzzy kitteh face.

Being a Princess Doesn’t (Have To) Mean What You Think It Means


I’ve thought about princesses more in the past week than I have in a couple of decades. I read an essay on  this morning, “There are no Black Kate Middletons” in which writer Helena Andrews laments the lack of black celebrities with which Black women can project their fairy tale fantasies, a la British princess-to-be Kate Middleton.

My first thought when reading the article was “who cares! there are better things to be than a British royal anyway”  But after reading the article again I realized I may have missed another of Andrews’ points: that black women must always consider their burden of race and (often) class, even in fantasy. Her case in point, the recent Disney film, The Princess and the Frog, which features a black female waitress who works and saves money to fulfill her dream to be a restaurant owner.  Andrews says:

As an adult I recognize that the fairy tales I told myself as a kid don’t always come true. That being a “strong black woman” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That there are indeed many cracks in that stank face. That the bitch armor — chinks and all — is no lasting replacement for a knight in shining armor. Nevertheless, I was excited last year when Disney released The Princess and the Frog. Black women and girls everywhere were overjoyed that finally they’d get to see themselves on the big screen. But the movie didn’t tell your typical princess story… Of course, when we get our princess, she’s pushing a broom and counting her pennies. “It serves me right for wishing on stars,” Tiana laments once she’s transformed from a waitress into an amphibian. “The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work….”

[Read more...]

The Economic (and LOL power) of I Can Has Cheezburger

The New York Times recently had an article on LOLcats, specifically the ICanHasCheezburger site, and I wondered, what took so long? Is it because it seems so … silly? Or is it because the idea of female nerd culture (not to say that those that are not female or nerds don’t enjoy LOLcats, but really) seems like a non-money making venture and thereby uninteresting?

While I’ll be writing a longer review in response to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one aspect of the book that really bothered me was the way he seemed so dismissive of ICanHasCheezburger. He calls the process of creating a LOLcat “the stupidest possible creative act” with the “social value of a whoopee cushion and the cultural life span of a mayfly.” He does, however, consider it to be an example of participatory culture — perhaps equal to Cartoon Network.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, he explains his viewpoint a bit differently, but I wonder how many readers are going to seek out this “explanatory footnote”:

SHIRKY:  But the interesting thing about lolcats, about these cute cats made cuter with the application of cute captions, is that when you see a lolcat, you get a second message which is: You can play this game, too. All right, when you see something on television, the message is: You could not do this, you can only consume this.
There is a giant gulf between doing something and doing nothing. And someone who makes a lolcat and uploads it – even if only to crack their friends up -has already crossed that chasm to doing something. That’s the sea change, and you can see it even with the cute cats.

But one aspect that Shirky does question — and that the New York Times gazes over in amazement (similar to the “weird Japan” newsreporting meme) is that someone is getting paid. But it is the owners of ICanHasCheezburger who are making seven figures (for the entire family of  sites) — not those creating LOLcats, who receive merch for their creative output.

Shirky describes concerns about labor efforts in participatory culture (and thereby fan culture in general):

If, purveyor of lolcats, is a late-model version of the fifteenth-century publishing model, then the fact that its workers are contributing their labor unpaid is not only strange but unfair. But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What happens if their efforts are an effort of love?

We here on The Learned Fangirl have discussed the labor/fan dynamic and are glad that it is being considered within the context of Cognitive Surplus — and will be addressing this issue head on in the followup book review. We’ll be discussing why Shirky not having an answer for his own questions above for both LOLcats and participatory culture is disappointing. At least this half of TLF will!

Guest Post: Sam Ford: Worlds Without End?

The soap opera was once defined in part as providing worlds without end, as some have put it: fictional worlds that carry on daily for years, decades even. While characters and actors would come and go, the shows often centered on the same community, and sometimes even the same character. Much as with a sports franchise, there was an idea that the soap opera was a media tradition that grandmother and mother would pass on to daughter and granddaughter, and the multiple generation of characters on the show mirrored the generations of (largely female) viewers who not only commonly watch but likewise discuss and debate what they see.

Certainly, this is what has set the soap opera apart from the telenovela, its counterpart devised south of the border which shares the frequent (often daily) airing but focuses on a finite story rather than a “world without end.” Nowhere else on television will you find a phenomenon like 91-year-old Helen Wagner of As the World Turns fame. Her character, Nancy Hughes, spoke the first line on ATWT when the show debuted in 1956, and she was seen as recently as last week, dishing out advice to her family and friends. Some viewers of ATWT have followed Wagner’s Nancy for more than five decades. Further, Nancy is joined by a whole host of characters that have been played by the same actor for years. Don Hastings and Eileen Fulton are soon set to celebrate 50 years in their respective roles as Bob Hughes and Lisa Miller on the show, and they are joined by actors who joined the show in the late 1960s, the 1970s, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In short, anyone who grew up watching ATWT can likely tune in today and see an actor who “started” during their initial viewership of the show.

But these “worlds without end” aren’t as definite as they used to be. There once were scores of soap operas on the air. Now there are seven. Another World was cancelled in 1999 after decades on the air. Its Procter & Gamble sister show, and the longest-running soap opera in history–Guiding Light–went off the air this year after 72 years. Rumors have circulated in the past year about the impending cancellation of ATWT, One Life to Live, and Days of Our Lives, and ABC recently moved All My Children’s production from New York to Los Angeles in part as a cost-saving measure. All seven U.S. soaps remaining on the air have seen significant ratings declines in the past few decades.

At the moment, the seven U.S. soaps remain on the air, and these shows still have millions of passionate viewers who tune in daily to watch characters they’ve been viewing for decades. The question remains: are soap operas still relevant to U.S. audiences? Where has the industry gone wrong, if some elements of the decline should not just be seen as the inevitable drop in viewership in a media landscape of multitude rather than a limited number of broadcast television channels? Are there strategies that soap operas might engage in to not only stay relevant but perhaps re-invigorate the genre?

These are questions I’ve been tackling with UC-Berkeley’s Abigail De Kosnik, Miami University’s C. Lee Harrington, and a host of scholars, industry representatives, fans, and critics, as part of a book that will be published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi called The Survival of the Soap Opera. We believe that the strength of the soap opera, and it’s continued viability, lies with capitalizing on these shows’ rich histories, continuing to experiment with new forms of production and distribution, and finding new ways to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and define success through that deep engagement.

Given The Learned Fangirl”s deep commitment to fan studies, we’d love to hear from any readers who have a history with soaps. Feel free to drop a comment here or shoot me an email at I’m curious what you think! Do soap operas have a future? If not, what will the legacy of the U.S. soap opera be, if its ratings decline and eventual extinction is deemed inevitable? Is the trend toward deep serialization, ensemble casts, and interpersonal relationships we see in primetime television today directly or indirectly attributable to the soap opera? These are questions we’re looking to tackle in our collection, and we’re excited to hear what you think.

[Editor's Note: Sam Ford is Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and MIT Research Affiliate. We were so pleased to have such a fan of wrestling and soaps moderate our fan-related panel at MIT5! ]

Guest Blogger V. Obarski: Gender and gaming

A (admittedly late – sorry!) recap of last summer’s Gen Con from guest blogger V. Obarski. Thanks!

Like many women who attend gaming convention Gen Con, I was introduced to gaming through my husband. But I’ve also attended for more than 10 years, which I believe gives me some solid street cred among the geek set. Or if anything, it’s given me a perspective of how the conventions changed through the years.

A few years ago, when Gen Con moved to Indianapolis, I was interviewed for the Indianapolis Star. Apparently I was so interesting, the reporter started with one of my ancedotes about playing, “Count the people of color game,” in which my friend and I counted minorities attending the convention in Milwaukee. It took us a couple of hours to get up to double digits.

But that was six years ago and it’s funny seeing how much the convention has changed over time. I don’t know if it’s because geekdom is becoming more chic, but there’s definite spots of color at the gaming tables now – it’s not just a sea of white. Even more heartening (as an Asian-American woman), I’m seeing more women of color take up the reins of running games.

Another thing that brought me glee this year was seeing a very out and proud gay gamer contingent. I started seeing them last year. You couldn’t miss the “GAY-MER. +5 TO FABULOUSNESS” shirts. I also had a out and proud GM one night, who ran the game like every other game. In the gaming world, it’s shouldn’t be about what color/gender/sexuality you are. It’s about how you run and play the damn game.

What also amused me is seeing how many families with young children were at the tables. Parents pushed strollers up and down the aisles (although aisle-clogging SUV-sized strollers are not fun to maneuver around). Gen Con obviously recognizes this, judging by all the family-friendly activities they had planned for the weekend and all the games that marketed themselves as family-friendly.

Why do these changes make me cheer? Because for a long time, it has felt like gaming is a “boys-only” club, where any sense of otherness is greeted with suspicion or ham-handedness attempts at political-correctness that degenerate into unintentional hilarity.

Now it feels like I can head to the table, break out my dice and character sheet and get my game on without worrying about someone telling me what to do, talking to my husband instead of me for strategy or saying just something completely boneheaded and stupid, or at worse, flirting with me (not that I would honestly notice — my hsuband noticed the flirting and leering before I ever did. Which shows you how oblivious I am.).

It’s also proof that as a parent, you don’t give up everything and become a “serious” grown-up. You can keep some things like gaming (be it video games, tabletop or something else). There is juggling, but you still can have fun.

I know that someday, we’re going to take my daughter to Gen Con and that it’ll become a family vacation for us (my husband is already speculating as to how soon we can bring our daughter to Gen Con and she’ll have a good time). What’s a comfort is knowing that we can go as a family and even if one of us is on “parent” duty, there’s still fun to be had.

I read a book: A bitchen read: Frederick Kohner’s Gidget

Gidget original book cover

Gidget original book cover

Once again, there may be another Gidget remake — the type that stars Miley Cyrus or other starlets of her ilk in a “fun on the beach” movie. Before Gidget became shorthand for cheesy beach party movies, it was a book, based on a real surfer girl, Kathy, the daughter of the author. The original cover included a photograph of Kathy with her surfboard. Arguably, this may be the first contemporary novel about the fangirl experience.

And the book does not shy from complicated issues facing teenagers in a manner-of-fact manner, surprising for its publication in 1957, including sexism, sex, teenage independence, participating in a fandom / sport, and the need to belong.

Much of the book is focused on Gidget finding herself — as a surfer and as a person — by joining a surfer community. She is no airhead bikini babe:

I felt right at home with the crew. They were regular guys–none of those fumbling high school jerks who tackle a girl like a football dummy. No sweaty hands and struggles on the slippery leather seats of hot rods….

Every day … someone else let me have a board to practice…

The great Kahoona showed me the first time how to get to my knees, to push the shoulders up and slide the body back–to spring to your feet quickly, putting them a foot apart and under you in one motion. That’s quite tricky. But then, surf-riding is not playing Monopoly and the more I got the knack of it, the more I was crazy about it and the more I was crazy about it, the harder I worked at it.

I also recommend the television show starring Sally Field, which unlike the movies (and later television series), focuses on what it is like to be a teenage girl with a fandom.

The issues that the real Gidget, Kathy, and the fictional Kathy needed to deal with to participate in their fandom of surfing still confront girls and women who are interested in male-dominated fandoms. But Gidget begins the story on passionate fandom – why female metalheads mosh, girl gamers guild, and other tales of belonging through participating in a fandom.

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