In the midst of feminist empowerment and diversity movements growing among teenage girls and women all over the world, an army of dolls are also getting in line to expose these issues to the younger demographic. Love it or hate it, Mattel and Netflix are on the forefront trying to make little girls and boys play with different body shapes and skin colours.
The most heated debate is centred on the Barbie Fashionista line. Fans of the blue eyed and blonde haired doll can now play with a tall, curvy or petite Barbie as well as seven skin tones, 22 eye colours and 24 hairstyles. A big discussion on social media, many think this is an “adult hang-up” – an issue too soon to be showed to young girls, while others congratulate the initiative, as shown in this article from Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3422410/Social-media-users-slam-Barbie-s-diverse-makeover.html). Mattel calls it an “evolution of the doll” previously known for unreal waist and body proportions.
“We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand — these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them — the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them,” said Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice-president and global general manager for Barbie, in a press release back in January, when the news about the launch came up.
Even classics need to change. Having grown up knowing only the cheerful 1950 Disney Cinderella cartoon, I fondly remember my confused and horrified reaction to reading The Grimm Brother’s recording of this tale originally known as Aschenputtel.
How could Disney have forgotten to mention that Cinderella’s abuse started while her father was in the house, that praying to a tree that represented her mother would get a bird to produce anything she wanted, that she twice tried to convince her evil stepmother to let her go to the ball before giving up and asking for help, or that she hid from the prince despite having no time limit? But that was the point, wasn’t it? Aschenputtel was based on a religious moral lesson that outweighed its practicality, and was neither suited for children nor for the 1990 culture. Thus, Disney turned it into the musical that we remember.
The internet erupted on March 3rd with outrage over the death of Lexa, a lesbian character on The CW series The 100. Emotions have ranged from fury to misery, but perhaps the most upsetting aspect is the feeling of fatigue. The LGBT community is sadly accustomed to being pulled into a series with the promise of representation, only to have it sent away or worse: killed off. For teens struggling with their sexual identity, this practice of queerbaiting could have potentially devastating consequences.
The 2015 GLAAD report of “Where We Are on TV” shows 4% of TV characters are LGBT+, compared to an estimated 10-20% of the actual population. With so few characters to represent the community, the weight of responsibility is heavier on the writers to give meaningful depictions of queerness. However, due to many factors including network restrictions, lack of queer writers, and a tendency to rely on tropes, queerness is often handled poorly or merely used as a tool to gain a queer following.
Queerbaiting is not a new phenomenon. One of the earlier examples in the teen sphere is the band t.A.T.u.’s 2002 music video for “All the Things She Said,” in which the 17-year-old female singers share a kiss, going on to affirm their heterosexuality in interviews. This is echoed years later by Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008) and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” (2014), both of which use homosexuality (in the titles, no less) to draw the listener in, but within the same song reassure them of their heterosexuality. This turns queerness into a gimmick to be exploited to attract attention, yet all are songs are massively popular both in and out of the LGBT+ community. With so few sources of representation to choose from, it’s unsurprising that queer communities rally around even the slimmest examples of queerness, and those marketing to teen audiences are definitely aware of this.
“Do you even lift, brah?”
Yes, you’ve heard it before. It’s a familiar phrase that has made the pop culture rounds. Maybe you’ve heard it at the gym, maybe you’ve seen it on a meme…the two of you have certainly crossed paths before. Oft used in jest, the expression is a colloquialism of condescension – implying illegitimacy in one’s supposed fitness expertise. Poking fun at a lifestyle so imbued with discipline and commitment, is there anyone who could actually take the question seriously?
News Flash: There is. And he’s only seven years old.
On average, 30-34% of American boys aged 6-8 feel some sort of dissatisfaction with their bodies. As most studies surrounding body image issues are female-centric, this alarmingly high number may surprise you. We as a society generally consider the boy psyche to be impenetrable of such ‘vain’ concerns. Turns out, boys are just as susceptible to negative body influences as girls are, but somehow the concern for them fell between the cracks
There is no doubt that digital media is certainly casting its imprint in the kids market. Just think of all the apps designed for kids, not to mention all the online content that is available to them. Despite this, however, “traditional” toys (aka, toys that aren’t on screens) are still very much present in the marketplace. Perhaps one of the most popular toys for ages 5 and up right now is Shopkins.
Shopkins was launched in June 2014 by Moose Toys, an Australian company that specializes in developing, designing, and distributing toy and lifestyle products for kids all around the world. The company found previous success with their collectible figurine toy line for boys called the “Trash Pack”. They decided to make a collectible line that was geared towards girls and the result? A toy line whose motto is: “Once you shop, you can’t stop!” and whose characters live in Shopville.
Shopkins are small figurine-like toys that depict anthropomorphized objects like food, household items, and clothing/accessories. Just imagine a purse with a cute little face on it and you have “Handbag Harriet”. A cookie with a cute face? “Kooky Cookie”. There are also three female human characters, named Bubbleisha, Jessicake, and Poppete. Shopkins can be differentiated by seasons. For instance, the first season of toys features grocery store items like “Fruit & Veg”, “Health & Beauty”, “Bakery”, and “Dairy”. The latest season launched in December 2015, marking the fourth season of the toy line. While the toy line was originally designed for girls, it has also found appeal from boys.
Nostalgia plays a role in each of our lives. From TV shows, movies, songs and celebrities, there are pieces of our earliest memories which cling in our thoughts well into adulthood. I grew up in a very busy home. I participated in piano lessons, gymnastics, lacrosse, painting and sculpting each week from early years until the end of elementary school. This means that I associate certain events, sounds, or even colours with things plucked directly from my early childhood. My parents, both artistic and sporty in their own ways, made sure to raise my younger sister and I in an environment that would challenge our developing minds.
It was not until recently that I was put on the opposite end of this spectrum: I had the opportunity to play the adult watching young children take part in activities which would surely affect their development and their nostalgic memory. At the boutique baby store that I work in part time, we have a weekly group session led by Sally Jaeger and her daughter Erika Webster of Lullabies and LapRhymes. Their sessions consist of teaching new parents songs of their own creation to sing to and with their babies or young children. The songs span on a variety of subjects: there are songs for getting to bed on time, songs for cleaning up your toys, songs for helping out around the house and even songs for mom or dad to sing to help their babies fall asleep. This session boasts a group of varied parents with children spanning from newborn to pre-school.
The future is already here. 2016 has been predicted to be the year when Virtual Reality will explode, with a series of headsets on sale and enormous amounts of games available for download. The most represented demographic for players may be generation Z, our fellows born between late 1990s and the 2010s. Their adoption of the technology can fast forward a futuristic new world to become reality.
In a millennial culture so intrinsically tied up in visual media, the new mantra for popular storytelling has been explicitly stated: If it can be written in a book, why not show it on the big screen?
This is not to say that film adaptations of novels is a brand new concept, however it has really been over the last ten to fifteen years where the trend of massively popular, big budget book adaptations has taken a firm hold. I think all of us remember the mania surrounding the release of both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film franchises. The incredible success of those films seemed to act as a catalyst for production studios to explore other projects of a similar ilk. Before long, adaptations of young adult fantasy/sci-fi narratives — Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Percy Jackson series, Divergent, and The Maze Runner to name a few — started to pervade the landscape of popular cinema. Millions of fans have relished the opportunity to see the fantastical drama and scope of these stories play out visually on the big screen.
However, the act of adapting these stories does not come without a significant detractor; one that can be boiled down to the medium itself. A Hollywood film can only be so long and the significant majority of its running time must be devoted to moving the plot forward. This inevitably means that many of the extraneous details that readers love about these fantastical worlds and the characters that inhabit them, get left out of the final cut.
Fortunately, there are upcoming adaptations of two fantastic young adult series’ that will try to subvert this trend. Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) A Series of Unfortunate Events and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have recently both had TV projects green-lighted. They will follow in the footsteps of HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones, which has set the standard for the live action, long-form interpretation of a book series. Both are unique in that the respective narratives target a younger readership, meaning that they have a chance to attract a whole new generation of readers and viewers to the brilliant source material.
What is Manga?
Manga is one of those topics that you either know nothing about or way too much about, because once you know it’s out there, manga is hard to forget. If this is your first time hearing about it, then worry not. There was a time when I too had no idea these books existed.
A friend introduced me to Manga in my public school — a transfer student in fact — and just as this sort of person was a mystery to me, so was the manga that she spoke of. As this friend described what manga was about, I was very interested in the wide variety of subject matter that was presented in the simple comic book format of manga. I saw these books as not only a new source of entertainment, but also as a learning experience in relationships, friendship building, and just life in general. Suddenly topics that I could never ask my parents about were available for me to read about.
Unfortunately, my library did not know what manga was either, but in a strange coincidence I noticed manga’s TV show equivalent (known as anime), was playing on local children’s television channels. Manga had hooked me once again. These shows were foreign, colourful, different, and managed to teach things without appearing educational.
Anime was also available online. Even before the invention of YouTube, these foreign shows were posted for worldwide availability. I would spend several years watching them. Then my library started to carry the books. In high school, I transitioned back to print manga by reading at my library (and later online), because the original drawn versions had more depth. Today I have watched and read over a hundred series, and each time I think that there cannot be anything interesting left, I find another life changing story.
So now you are probably wondering, what is manga?
Manga is the Japanese version of a graphic novel. Though both embody a larger volume of work containing multiple chapters of artistic storytelling, there are some distinct differences. The American graphic novel is typically bound in a 7in x 10.5in book with an average of 48 – 130 pages (a comic has 22 pages), while a volume of Japanese manga has a size of 5in x 8in and an average of 150 pages. Manga is always printed in greyscale compared to the full color American comic books, and the art style is considered to be more exaggerated and emotionally expressive.
Where is Manga Found?
The unique qualities of manga make it the equivalent of our mass-market paperback novels. That is to say, manga is cheap to produce, cheap to buy, and easy to carry around. Manga is also more accessible than American graphic novels and comics. Not only is much of it free to read online (because of fan translated versions), but it sells in general book stores such as Chapters instead of being limited to specialty comic stores.
Local libraries also more often buy manga than American graphic novels or comics. I believe that manga is more saleable because the stories are larger in terms of shelf space, more chronological and complete, and contain longer story lines.
You will understand what I mean by chronological if you have picked up a Marvel comic such as Spider-man only to realize that it is issue #14 of ”Superior Spider Man”, and you have missed fifty years worth of backstory and crossovers, most of which issues are out of print. Graphic novels are certainly chronological and do have full plot lines, but I often do not see them in the library and I believe this is because they do not contain the mainstream heroes such as Superman or Batman.
I also suspect that they are more expensive and difficult to purchase due to their limited print runs and colored pages. The only barrier to reading manga is that many series retain their back to front, right to left reading direction which is opposite from the way we read in English.
Who is Manga for?
Some people make the mistake of thinking that manga is for children, but that is not the case. The genres of manga expand beyond those of our own books, sometimes into specific age or gender groups such as seinin for young men 18-30 or shoujo for girls 10-18.
Sometimes manga divides into interest areas such as sports, martial arts, or school life. I find it interesting that their romance section is clearly divided to represent different relationships such as yuri (lesbian romance), yaoi (gay romance), ecchi (sexualized characters), and smut (adult romance).
Do not let dramatic cover poses and bright colors deceive you into believing the work is child friendly. While American graphic novels may be violent, manga can contain situational material that you may consider controversial. The main character may be a justice minded killer, romantic relationships may get tangled, or in the case of ecchi the characters may be flashing their underwear.
If you are buying manga for a child it is important that you check the recommended age printed on the back, read the synopsis, and maybe even flip through the pages, because the cover art does not always reveal the whole story.
More than Entertainment
Whether you are a child or an adult, Manga provides a safe and engaging way for people to explore social situations. If a social niche or quirk exists, then Manga express it in a very open and expressive way.
As the artist Jennie Wood says, “Emotions are often exaggerated for comedic purposes, like a vein popping out of a character’s forehead to show stress, or sweat drops to signify worry”. This exaggeration makes the intentions of characters clear to the audience as the emotions and worries of the characters are laid bare.
Manga also does a better job at exploring the cause and finding realistic solutions of these social troubles with characters that are more relatable compared to American graphic novels. To understand what I mean by relatable, take a moment to think about who the big American comic hero’s are and what they do for a living:
- Batman – a rich adult trained in combat who uses expensive tools to hunt criminals
- Superman – an alien adopted by a couple on a farm who is constantly saving Earth
- Green Lantern – a reckless jet pilot is given ‘will power’ to fight evil in the galaxy
- Spiderman – a teen bitten by a radioactive spider decides to protect his entire city
Okay, maybe that last one is relatable. Still, these people do not go to school, hardly see their parents if they have any, do not search for romance, and hardly ever go out for a normal day of fun. Heck, most don’t even have real jobs.
There are certainly graphic novels about more ordinary heroes, but you do not hear about them as much. In comparison, most manga heroes are young teens who attend school, fight with their parents, ask their friends for romantic advice, and go out for fun. This makes the manga character and their problems more relatable, and while the big American heroes push personal issues aside to save the world, Manga heroes often find that saving their friends and saving the world is the same thing. This is why I believe that manga provides a social experience that kids can learn from.
Media offers a world of entertainment and learning possibilities for children and youth. The kidsmediacentre explores kids' media futures and is committed to supporting cross-platform content producers in Canada to ensure the kids' media industry is vibrant, indigenous and committed to the healthy growth of children.