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Just a Girl Robot: Adventures in Fatherhood and Feminism

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.

Peace,

—Joel

19 thoughts on “Just a Girl Robot: Adventures in Fatherhood and Feminism”

  1. I have cross-posted this all over the place. And when I post my interview with Tamora Pierce in August, you totally need to hear it.

    If you don’t know about her stuff, you need to. She writes primarily strong female characters, in the YA category.

  2. It’s so soul crushing to hear that these things haven’t changed that much in the 30-40 years since I was a little girl.
    I’m glad your daughter has such good influence in her parents; I wish all little girls had such allies.

  3. Thanks so much, Mickey! You are definitely one of the kick-ass women who’s inspired my perspective-shifting journey.

    And thanks for the rec! That’s exactly the kind of stuff I need to find. Though I must say, it’s kind of excruciating practicing patience while Niamh grows up. I want to share everything with her NOW!

  4. Thank you, Xythen.

    I go back and forth on how pessimistic to be about all this. My gut feeling is that these messages are getting slowly slowly filtered out of the culture, or at least being forced to share space with other, more empowering messages. And of course WE’RE the ones who have to carve out that space–civilization’s power structures sure aren’t going to do it without a hefty push.

    But some days, yeah, I feel pretty angry and radicalized about it. Some days I even feel hopeless.

    Talking about it helps kill those feelings dead, though. Talking and listening, and realizing that I’m not alone.

  5. Grab everything by Hayao Miyazaki you can find. Strong, capable girls/women abound and there’s even usually more than one in a given film.

  6. Miyazaki, yes! I have a deep and abiding love for everything that man has created. We just watched Ponyo for the second time last night, in fact. I watched Totoro back when Niamh was about a year old, and I was struck by how much the younger sister resembles her. I can’t wait to share that movie with her.

    Miyazaki films, even the “cute” ones, have so much to say about children in general–their private emotional life and relation to the adult world–that having a strong female presence is just delightful icing on the cake. An important icing though, that means Niamh won’t have to filter the character’s experiences through a “oh, except he’s a boy” translation process*. She’ll have plenty of characters she can identify with more directly.

    Come to think of it, the Miyazaki canon has, not only a fantastic assortment of girl characters, but a great spread of ages, from toddler to kid to teenager to adult. it’d be interesting to pace the films out along Niamh’s own development. But honestly I expect we’ll just end up watching them in a chaotic mess via the unpredictable needs of real life. As it should be.

    Peace,
    -Joel

    *I freely admit I’m speculating, and that Niamh doesn’t NEED to always have a girl character to enjoy a film. But boy-as-default means less room for Niamh in the world of story, and more girls in stories means a broader field for her to explore.

  7. Hey Joel,

    Something that concerns me about some “girls literature” is that often it’s ABOUT this topic. That is, the very central conflict is that the main female character is out to prove herself in the face of men/a world that doesn’t accept/believe in her. Those kinds of stories send this kind of combative message to girls: “The boys will never accept you, you have to be prepared to fight!” Which kind of sucks for men who don’t have that hang up. I understand WHY those stories exist but a steady diet of those stories seem almost as harmful to me as the, “the pretty princess learns how love her man” stories.

    That’s one of the reasons why I really liked Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” It’s about three siblings. A boy and two girls. But in the early stories the youngest girl feels almost gender neutral. It’s more like, a boy, a girl and a baby. The two older children have a great, positive, non-combative dynamic. Klaus is book smart and Violet is inventive. In many ways Klaus is the scientist and Violet is the engineer. Klaus often brings information to Violet which the question, “Can we use this?” And Violet often brings things to Klaus with the question, “Do you know what this is?” And there’s no shame or sense of defeat in having to rely on each other like that.

    With those two being so brainy the gag is the baby is the muscle. She has one very sharp tooth that she uses to do all kinds of crazy physical feats like fight a duel and climb and elevator shaft. But again the message isn’t, “OMG a *girl* who can FIGHT!”, it’s “Wow. That’s one badass baby.”

    Anyway, that’s what came to mind when I read your post.

    Jesse

  8. Joel: I’m moved. I want to take this journey, too, and i would like to think i have been. I have no daughter, no wife or girlfriend, but i’ve got two sisters, three moms, and a wonderful niece. And nothing i’ve really loved feels suitable to share with them. Glad i realized it, glad i’m not the only one. Loved your words.

  9. I’m right with you, Jesse. I’m not looking so much for overt “stick it to the boys!” stories, as much as stories that provide a rich palette of roles for girls, stories that celebrate their power by treating them as full people, plain and simple. Stories that don’t treat it as weird that a girl can achieve greatness, or be the center of a tale without being married off to the first man with a royal pedigree.

    Lemony Snicket is great for that. So is Miyazaki. I’m excited to have stories like these available as Niamh grows up.

    Though sometimes I want to just see a good, unabashed girl-power butt-kicking, too!

  10. Thank you, Sharla! When I first started writing, I was all set to identify as Feminist, but had a moment of pause when I remembered I’ve read some take the position that only women can properly be feminist. I know not all feminist or pro-feminist writers think so, but I couldn’t get much of a read on the spread of opinions. Being pretty new to most of these concepts, I didn’t want to walk into any landmines and potentially alienate anyone. And I certainly didn’t want this post to generate controversy for the wrong reasons. So I sidestepped the issue. You’re affirmation is encouraging, though. Perhaps I’ll be more bold in self-identifying when I better know the lay of the land.

  11. I just read this article by Becky Chambers about growing up with video games and finding a place, as a girl, in the culture and in the games. She makes the case that being able to play just as “herself” was important to her for engaging emotionally with a game, which is why the first-person, ungendered Myst, and later, the first-person female-protagonist Portal, were so important and special. It let her, like Jesse was saying above, just BE a girl and get to do stuff, rather than the game making an issue of the character’s gender or sexuality, or using her as eye-candy.

    Thoughtful and moving stuff.

  12. I really like “Ever After”, a retelling of the Cinderella story with Drew Barrymore in the lead as Danielle. It very deftly turns the “someday my Prince will come” trope on its head, and in the end it’s Danielle that saves herself…and the Prince.

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