author – activist – faculty – mom
My daughter attends a cooperative preschool where I work a weekly shift. This past Monday, some of the boys were playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They insisted that the girls couldn’t play, and that there could only be four boys, because it needed to be exactly like the show. Most of the children at the school, including my daughter, have never seen the show, but can rattle off names of the characters and a bit about the show anyway.
This reflects a trend that many critics have written about. For example, feminist critic Peggy Orenstein and the documentary film Consuming Kids both show how commercial media doesn’t actually encourage imagination, but rather rigid imitation. And even when we don’t let our kids watch, they learn all the storylines and values from their peers.
When the boys insisted that the game had to be only four boys, I pushed back, saying that we could use our imagination to make a Ninja Turtles game that was even better, because it had girls. While I doubt my suggestion would have been a hit with the boys, I’ll never know, because the tire swing opened up and everyone ran over to play in another area.
A major limitation of my intervention was that the boy was simply playing out the sexism that he saw in the media. It wasn’t this four-year-old’s bright idea to have a story with four heroes that didn’t include any girls. Had the turtles been 50/50 boy/girl, he would have rigidly insisted on that.
So the Ninja Turtles were the new bastion of sexism in my daughter’s world. A week before, our family had a media episode with them on the way back from vacation. My partner had downloaded several Dora episodes for our daughter to watch on the plane. And thank goodness. The movie on the plane was the live action version of the Ninja Turtles, complete with gun battles, chase scenes, explosions, and other violent imagery I don’t want my daughter seeing. “Scary grown up movie,” I said. Her eyes kept flicking up from Dora on the tray table laptop to the eye-catching light changes in the movie’s quick cuts on the overhead monitor. I urged her to keep her eyes on her own screen. I was horrified that there’d be some damsel at gunpoint moment, or someone getting shot. Finally, I stretched an airplane blanket from the back of the laptop and tucked it into the seat headrest behind her. “Look,” I said. “Your own little movie theater!” She liked the blanket; perhaps she was even relieved to have the scary grown up movie no longer pounding anxiously in her peripheral vision.
Two mornings after the Ninja Turtles four boys only incident, I lay in bed, listening to Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and had a vision. I crept out of the family bed and into the living room. I had left my glasses in the dark bedroom, but didn’t want to risk waking my daughter. So I squinted at the laptop and created a parody that turned the Ninja Turtle boys into girls: Donatella, Rafaella, Micaela, and Leonarda. I don’t have photoshop, so I just did it in google drive, the most rudimentary design program that exists.
How do preschoolers understand gender? I added a few geometric shapes for skirts and hair. I tried for earrings, but that was completely beyond my design capacity. My daughter woke up and wanted my attention. “Just a minute honey,” I called from the living room as I put on the finishing touches. When I brought the image to her, I was afraid she would think it was stupid, or, as she often says “bo-ring!” My worst fear was that she’d agree with the boy and tell me, “no, mom, the Ninja Turtles are boys. Don’t you know anything?” But she loved them. She even suggested that I vary their hair color (originally all black). “Can we make a movie of it?” she asked. I balked. “We’d have to find someone to help us.”
I doubt the parody movie will ever happen, but I plan to print the image as a poster and bring it to sharing circle at her preschool next week. My girl and I will be a superhero team that pushes back on the media vision of all-boy protagonists. My daughter is ready to be a hero. Sometimes she says things like, “they were no match for my powers!” I vow to support her sense of herself as a heroic girl, and will fight back with all the creativity I can muster. The Ninja Turtles slogan is “Heroes on the Half Shell,” so I added the slogan “Heroines Hold Up Half the Sky.” Take that, sexism! You are no match for our powers of imagination!