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Balancing Act

Movies, TV shows taking all the fun out of being a girl

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

February 23, 2014

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My daughter was in no hurry to see "The Lego Movie."

"Are there any girls in it?"

There are, we assured her. She then raced to catch her brother, who was speeding Shani Davis-like from car seat to theater seat. This was the movie he'd been waiting all month for — scratch that: All my life, Mom.

Few brands are as revered and reviled as Lego right now. Brave Girls Alliance has gathered 40,000 signatures on a Change.org petition urging Lego executives to diversify female minifigures beyond the hairdressers and pastry chefs that populate the girl-centric Lego Friends line.

A 1981 ad showing a sneaker-clad girl holding her gender-neutral Lego creation went viral last month, prompting commentaries on Huffington Post, Mashable and Princess Free Zone, among others.

"In an age when little girls and boys are treated (like) two entirely different species by toy marketers, this ad for Lego issues an important reminder," wrote HuffPo family editor Jessica Samakow.

Then along came the movie, prompting lively discussions about everything from gender balance to the value of plopping kids in front of a 100-minute commercial.

Still, we were not skipping this flick. My son, as he mentioned, waited his entire life for it. And I would no sooner let my daughter sit it out than I would've let my son skip princess-heavy "Frozen."

I want them to experience toys and entertainment marketed to the opposite gender and decide for themselves what they like. More than that, I want them to go to each other's stuff, whether that stuff is a piano recital or a movie. They're growing up in a world that lets us tailor everything from ring tones to Netflix queues. We customize. We individualize.

Family time? That's about the good of the group.

Anyway, the movie.

It achieves a lot of things (spectacular visuals, a whole lotta box-office receipts). Gender balance is not one of them.

As is so often the case on screens big and small, the boys have a blast. They build and destroy and plot and play and crack jokes. They're witty and brave and resourceful. They change the world.

As is just as often the case on screens big and small, the girls are buzz kills. Wyldstyle, the main female character, is scolding and joyless. She tries to clip the wings of Batman, her sometimes-boyfriend. She tries to outsmart lead Lego Emmet. She prattles on so much that, at one point, Emmet (and the audience) hear, "blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff."

And in case you miss the message, the boys send it home again at the movie's end, which involves a fun-wrecking sister.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Buzz-kill sisters wreck the fun in shows as treacly as "Berenstain Bears," as grating as "Arthur" and as snarky as "The Simpsons."

Anyone who's watched an episode of "Thomas the Tank Engine" knows Thomas and his gang of boy engines have a grand old time until Emily comes along. ("She can be a little bossy and think she knows best, but is always ready to help a friend," reads her bio on the official "Thomas and Friends" website.)

Enough. Can we please stop raising our boys to think their sisters and colleagues and future girlfriends and possible wives are harpy scolds? Can we please give our girls more characters who are hilarious, mischievous, brave, joyful, relatable?

"Hollywood isn't going to change overnight," says Melissa Wardy, executive director of Brave Girls Alliance. "It's our responsibility, as parents, to frame the world for our children."

That means turning to our sons and daughters when we see a buzz-kill girl on screen, she says, and asking, "Is that how girls act in real life? What about your friend Lanie at school? She's pretty full of awesome."

"It's not about regurgitating a bunch of feminist mantras," Wardy says. "It's just teaching our kids basic human decency."

It's also teaching them to know each other. And, hopefully, like each other. Which are lessons they should learn inside and outside of family time.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13