My daughter Niamh is 2 1/2 years old. Her life, I admit with some embarrassment and resignation, is inundated with mass-marketed media: Disney movies, children’s TV shows, picture books, and so on—to say nothing of the books, comics, movies and TV that Mom and Dad read and watch. From the very first my mind has been pondering and anticipating all the wealth of beloved stories I’ll be able to share with her as she grows up. Some I’m waiting until she’s older and can appreciate them better, and some I’ve started already: The Iron Giant. The Hobbit. The Muppets. Star Wars. Winnie-the-Pooh. Whatever she seems ready for, whatever she responds to, and whatever I watch for my own enjoyment that she just happens to be around for.
It was the latter case when Niamh became obsessed with Mega Man. I have a passing fondness for the old video game series, and stumbled on the 1995 cartoon adaption while poking around Youtube. Niamh, playing on the floor at my feet, perked up and said “wanna watch!” So I plopped her on my lap and we watched the episode together.
The show was terrible. Clumsy, slapped-together pseudo-anime pap that captured none of the energy and cute stylishness of Mega Man. But Niamh loved it. I pointed out the characters and their names, and by the end of the 24 minutes she could rattle off “that’s Mega Man!” “that’s Wily!” “Dok’or Light!” “that’s Roll!”
Ah, yes, Roll. Here lies my deeper problem with the show. Roll is the girl robot. In a show called “Mega Man,” it’s probably no surprise that she’s the only girl around. But tokenism aside, the real difficulty with Roll is in, her, er, role. The story goes like this: Fatherly scientist builds a girl robot and a boy robot. The boy is his lab assistant, and the girl is his…housekeeper. When evil robots attack, the scientist transforms the boy into a combat robot! And the girl…stays a housekeeper. But she still fights alongside Mega Man, assisting him with her…vacuum cleaner arm.
Ugh. I wish I was kidding. It’d make a great parody of girls’ roles in classic action cartoons. But it’s no parody, it’s the real deal. And I wish I could say that the show redeems Roll as a capable and determined character who holds her own in a boys’ world and makes a positive contribution. But, alas! in the several episodes Niamh and I watched, the pattern goes like this: Robots attack! Mega Man charges off to stop them! Roll wants to come fight too! Mega Man tells her “No, you’re just a girl! Stay home and clean!” Roll fumes: “Ooh, that Mega Man! I can fight too, even if I’m girl!” Roll chases after him, and arrives at the battle just in time to make a minor contribution, using her vacuum arm or a weaponized toaster, or somesuch. Aaaand then finds herself helpless and in terrible danger, forcing Mega Man to come to her rescue and let the bad guys get away.
I say again, ugh. It breaks my heart to see a character told up front she can’t participate because she’s a girl, then have that judgment vindicated when she inevitably screws things up for the hero. I get angry on behalf of my daughter and on all girls everywhere. I’d like to blow it off as a crappy, insignificant cartoon, which it is. And those themes are definitely over Niamh’s head…for now. But they won’t always be, and even excepting outlier junk like Mega Man, these messages of female marginalization are everywhere.
I’ve found it so difficult to find stories with positive roles for girls. Cartoons, children’s stories and adventure films are very much a boys’ world, usually with no girl in sight or else a single girl who, no matter how plucky, capable or brave, is basically support for the boys. Most kids’ stories with girls at the center are about finding a man and getting married. All the stories I named at the beginning of the post fit the former pattern, and we’ve got plenty of material in our house that fits the latter. And of course Niamh loves them, with no clue about the gender politics behind them.
Before I was the father of a young girl, I had the luxury of remaining oblivious to these politics. My wife is a strong, savvy woman who knows her own mind, and certainly needs no safeguarding from me. And with my “geek interests” shared mostly by males in my life, I had little cause to worry about any of the games, literature, comics or anime I consumed being offensive or marginalizing to women. I figured I was a fairly pro-feminist dude, and I certainly, vehemently, rejected my upbringing’s conservative Christian ideals of female servitude. But I didn’t really look deeper than that, or consider how women’s marginalization in our culture actually affected them concretely, day to day, or how I might ally with them in that struggle.
But Niamh changed everything. Suddenly every incoming subtext was vitally important; every underlying ideology needed thought and scrutiny. Niamh’s unsuspecting receptivity means joyful acceptance of everything with no thought to the cultural values attached. Niamh doesn’t know that Mega Man is telling her, as a girl, to stick to cooking and cleaning and leave adventure to the boys. And it’s doubtful she’ll grow up believing that in a straightforward way. But the message is getting into her brain and it’s going to affect her SOMEhow.
So being a dad made me a feminist ally. It took having a daughter to make me really aware of how womanhood is presented in pop culture, to reexamine my own tastes and proclivities in light of gender norms, and to start the journey toward finding a more female-positive range of stories. Because the stories we tell matter, and I want Niamh to hear stories that will empower and inspire her, not try to cram her into a gilded cage. I want to find more stories like Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, or My Little Pony, and more radical ones besides, that celebrate her primal strength as a woman. I hope to be there for Niamh at every stage of her life, ready to show her that she has a voice, and listen to her story. I want to learn how to lay aside my masculine power and privilege that I might make a space in Niamh’s life for her own power to flourish and grow.