Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

Advertisements

A Cartoon Designed Not To Offend Anyone

Apart from raw vegans perhaps. And aliens.Spirulina-Kebab-web

 

(I don’t want to start writing on the topic of Charlie Hebdo right now…it’s being written about so much that there’s nothing more I can add. Plus I am 7+ months pregnant and sort of incoherent. But I’ll point you in the direction of a few interesting links:

Nabila Ramdani’s article in the Guardian, ‘Don’t blame this bloodshed on France’s Muslims’
Kamran Pasha’s HuffPost article ‘The Big Lie About Muslim Silence on Terror

Will Self and Martin Rowson debating free speech on C4

Malian Muslim Lassana Bathily saves several customers from bloody attack on kosher supermarket in Paris

And the hilarious Aziz Ansari ripping into Murdoch on Twitter with some spot-on satire of his own

…Oh alright, I can’t help it…here’s a poem.)

Freedom from Expression

Break out into a dance if that’s your urge
or rock weeping in a corner of the shower
let out what needs to be let out
the caged ocelot pacing in circles
longing for the zookeeper
to leave the door open a moment too long
– that is freedom of expression.
It’s singing when the song billows out
in your lungs before you have a chance
to shut yourself up.
It’s grabbing a pen – anyone’s –
and scribbling a torrent of thoughts
that blur everything else
until your mind runs clear again.
There is no violence to it,
no evil intents; even the ocelot
only wants to race to the nearest forest
to pad his giant paws through rustling leaves
and catch a bird the way his nature longs to.
There is no hatred in it.
But when the doors of art open
and out pours a wave of bile
unwitting passersby are swept up in it
lose their handbags and footings
and if it seeps into the streets,
trickles through windows and soaks into sofas
it starts to appear like normality.
That is not freedom of expression;
it is abuse of the onlooker’s innocence.
Give me freedom from that expression.
I’ll take my chances
with the ocelot.

Here is the News (That Never Happened)

Oh, the peculiar fears I carry around with me.

A black and green dirty rucksack, for example, deposited on the floor by an empty table where I sit to have my coffee that gets me thinking: who does it belong to? I ask around politely, and nobody knows. Could – and this is the very first possibility that springs to mind – someone have left it there with a bomb inside?

This is how my imagination works. Let´s just say I can get quite creative with my paranoias. So I begin calculating what kind of rucksack a terrorist would use to leave a bomb in this haven of depravity – I mean, cake shop – in Plaza Larga, Granada. Would it be a slightly grubby one, like this specimen? You´d think that such a decisive moment in the life of a hardcore extremist would warrant a bit of spit and polish. Isn´t there something in the suicide bomber´s handbook that regulates nice, neat backpacks in order to avoid raising suspicions? Or it is more suspicious to carry a brand spanking new rucksack?

 

Already exhausted with these worries – which have raced through my head in the time it takes to open a packet of sugar – I start to think, if it is an explosive device, I am the nearest person to it. I´ll be obliterated. Balls. I should´ve sat round the other side of the biscuit display.

I wonder at the irony of it, a Muslim woman being the first one obliterated by a supposedly Islamic poke in the eye of Western consumerism. Damn those walnut-embellished cookies! Just thinking about the decadence of this chocolate-encrusted institution would make the average al-Qaeda neophyte turn crimson with fury. The irony, of course, is that they would see me, with my long blonde locks shamelessly exposed and assorted prints and patterns and fringed knits, looking more like a walking circus act than the kind of subdued woman they expect Muslim women to be, and I would be lumped in with all the other infidels.

Yet I would rather run that (admittedly infinitessimally small) risk than to succumb to the fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t. What I fear most is to wear my fear as a cape, not in order to protect my precious body from the rapacious gazes of the barbarian hordes, but for fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t.

Whichever way I turn, fear stands with its steel toe-capped boots blocking the doorway, an amalgam of Hollywood psychopaths (as Wednesday Addams said to explain her lack of a Halloween costume, “I´ve come as a homicidal maniac. They look like everyone else”), a cartoon demon, a cardboard ghoul, a carjacking kidnapper, an ideological lunatic bent on purging the world of evil by, er, blowing it up, and, inexplicably, my high school P.E. teacher, Ms Haversham.

All of these fears are constantly bubbling, morphing, accreting new dimensions with every newspaper I read, evolving into a vaster and more powerful tyrant with every day I allow it to reign.

The craziest thing of all is that all of these fears are completely and utterly hypothetical. I have never personally been kidnapped, or murdered by a Samurai sword wielding teeange mob, or blown to smithereens by anti-Westernisation madmen. I have never even been verbally condemned by a Muslim man for my Western appearance; on the contrary, being an Anglo-American Muslim sometimes generates a little too much interest for my liking.

 All of my fears are completely illogical, but the subconscious does not respond to logic unless you pin it down and shine a 1,000 candlelight torch down its throat. Until I do that, my head will continue to be the most dangerous place in the world.

In the meantime, a stubbly, student-type young man comes out of the loo, picks up his rucksack and leaves. The safety of my immediate surroundings remain unviolated. A million tiny acts of disinterested generosity, kindness, and love take place undocumented all over the world, while I have spent twenty minutes running through a worst case scenario so improbable that I am more likely to be struck by lightning whilst playing a flute on a mountaintop. Dressed as a blueberry.

Psychological studies show that bad news is more memorable than good news. So the 99% of the time in which no violent theft is taking place, no verbal abuse being slung, no building blown up, no airplane hijacked, no child bullied, no alien invasion happening, are not documented in any way. It just isn´t as interesting. That 99% of events remains, like the 99% of people with 1% of the wealth, anonymous.

I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule of non-newsworthy events to read this article, in which no brains were devoured by zombies, no old ladies were killed in their homes by burglars, and absolutely no animals were harmed in any way. Thankyou. Feel free to carry on living your lives, a little bit happier, I hope, for them to be non-newsworthy.

The Battle to Surrender

Yesterday I felt first-hand the studded battlement walls of surrender. It was a shock; I had always thought I was doing rather well with the whole surrendering thing – I do my prayers, yadda yadda yadda – but now I’ve touched its actual perimeters and seen that no meek and compliant person could scale those walls.

That morning it had been my turn to lead our creative writing group; it went well, after much hassle of finding lifts (my car has kicked the bucket) and printing out worksheets (my printer is likewise pushing up paperchain daisies) and leaving kids in various places to be looked after. The class had gone well, with one person even commenting that I should run creativity retreats (something I have longed to do for many years). I was feeling rather grand.

With all this excitement, pride and caffeine swishing about my brain, however, I was on such a high that when it came time to calm down, return to a mumsier pace and make a meal, I nosedived. The urge to rush about, achieve things, create masterpieces and be ‘on my way’ (somewhere abstract and shiny) rendered the simplest task of welcoming my kids home and cooking something reasonably edible a crippling, outrageous imposition.

Needless to say, things went swiftly downhill. The tofu I’d just opened was so revoltingly off that I had to shower and change my clothes afterwards, the smell was so offensive (I did wonder afterwards if it was in fact a material expression of the interior stench made by my ego putrefying). Caveboy had a yelling fit. Cavebabe peed on the chair. I drizzled a supposedly über-healthy oil on my food (‘rich in alpha-linoleic oil!’) that made the whole plate taste of floor cleaner. I felt like throwing myself onto the floor and having a screaming fit myself.

The classic picture of the mother in Islam is a patient, obedient woman who devotes herself to her children and husband with unflinching self-abnegation. I don’t really match up to that image, and almost don’t believe that they can ever be real. But then I hear astonishing stories, for instance, of my Iranian friend’s mother who not only breastfed him (the youngest of nine), but also three or four other babies in the village. And then went out to work in the rice fields.

To live a life of conscience, one has to decide at every juncture whether some situation must be changed or endured, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to know which one is right. It is a truism passed down over many generations of Muslims (and many others besides) that the secret to happiness is being thankful when times are good and patient when times are hard. Motherhood is the real training ground for these skills; as Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother’ (he might have added ‘because it ain’t a game of tiddlywinks’).

I suspect that the way we have been trained to think in the West has always been in terms of working, fixing, improving things outside of ourselves, developing technology, coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. It’s an approach that is ideally suited to a workshop, an office, a building site. But there are times when striving to make things better on the outside only drains our energy, creates frustration when nothing seems to work, feeds conflicts between differing opinions, and leaves us off-centre and wondering why our efforts aren’t making us any happier.

The answer isn’t to down tools, flop out into any easy chair and wait for the great Pizza Delivery Boy in the sky to bring dinner (well, maybe sometimes it works – think Rabi’a al-Basri and jugs of honey descending out the sky). But I think that it’s this word ‘surrender’ that catches most of us out.

Surrendering to what is necessary and unavoidable is not an easy ride. It might be domestic duties and creative frustrations; or it might be enduring a boring office job, or unemployment, or even going to war. When it is not a matter of ego but of clear need, an obligation made by life and not the command of any dominating authority, there is not need to dither or analyse, or to take pride in personal actions, individual skills, perceived genius.

Finding the clarity to see what needs to be done, and having the guts to do it isn’t ‘surrender’. It’s wisdom made tangible by courage.

The Great If Only

Tonight is full moon, the last before Ramadan; it is known as the night on which a person’s decree for the coming year is written, when one’s destiny is laid out, in that wonderfully impermanent way; there is, after all, always next year. Everything is apt to change.

Tonight is also the night I abandoned my feeble attempts at enforcing a sort of bedtime dictatorship, whereby, at the ages of 3 and 1, my children ‘should’ be capable of tucking themselves in, saying nighty-night, and dozing off even when it is still daylight outside and everyone else in Spain is only just slinking out from under a cool rock and coming to life again.

Thankfully this period of Victorian nannyesque insanity only lasted a few days, or rather, a few long, horrible evenings racked with hysterical screams (Cavebabe) and pitiful whimpers (Caveboy). It hit me that, with their father away, and a great many complicated adult emotions lurking under the playdough exterior of family life, there was ultimately nothing more awful in this world than a heartbroken kid. Anything that eases that heartache is worth a try, even if it does give me bruises on the shoulder (how??) or broken nights (argh) or long evenings curled up with my beloveds telling stories in bed (hold on, is this the same sentence?)

There was one piece of advice which had stuck in my head from recently reading Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Listen and Listen So Kids Talk: acknowledging a howling child’s fury/sadness/jealousy will help them deal with it, but if it’s still causing turbulence, grant them their wish in fantasy. Tell them you wish you could fix that biscuit with edible glue and make it complete again, and then go and buy a huge box full of biscuits and shower them over their head until they could never imagine a broken biscuit again.

It might sound dubious, but this approach strangely seems to work. Perhaps it’s because the tangible world for a child is so quick to merge with an imagined one, so that merely thinking about all the amazing things they could do is just as good as actually doing them – perhaps even better (no car trips, disappointments, broken bones).

So, tuning into a screamingly obvious vibe from my son, I asked him if he wished we could send Rosa away for a bit, have a day just for ourselves, and of course he said yes. What would we do on this day? I began to have a wild fantasy about taking him out to a restaurant and the cinema, which was admittedly more my own fantasy than his, but his ideas were all so sweetly prosaic: dig in the sandpit, play with his pulley and bucket, buy a wheelbarrow.

Just wishing we had a day to do all those things together, an acute tension broke between us, and we were back within our old bond, Rosa Nour asleep at last on the other side of the bed, out of his sight. The tenderness invoked, the devoutness with which we codesigned our imaginary day together, made it feel quite prayer-like, and I was reminded of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (s.) that even imagining how one might distribute charity is rewarded with the same blessings as actually giving that charity.

He fell asleep almost immediately, mumbling something about not taking apples to the beach, and I went to hang out my laundry under a beaming great moon, and took stock of my own wishes and prayers, or cynical forgetfulness of them. It seems I have forgotten how to wish for something in that young, fervent way, so strongly that there can be no doubt that something will come of it.

Tonight was also the first night that my son twigged what it meant to pray for someone, to wish them well from afar in the belief that somehow it had a effect greater than simply making us feel better. I wonder, then, if praying is something that comes easily to children. Even more, it make us children again. It evokes that plasticity by which anything can be brought out from a passionate daydream into reality.

The Great If Only is, in truth, a Glorious Could Be.

The Gospel According to Mum and Dad

Lately, I have been pondering the best ways to parent.*

(*This is a complete lie. I am constantly worrying about it. I am frankly obsessed.)

The simplest advice I have heard so far, apparently given by members of the Jerrahi Sufi order from Turkey, is that the only things you can offer your child are a good name, good food, and a good example.

Names, check. Caveboy’s main name is Shamsudeen (Shamsie for short) – having Rumi’s spiritual master and poetic muse as a namesake can’t be bad. Rosa Nour is for her part endowed with hints of exquisiteness, resilience, Divine light… (let’s ignore the thorns).

Food, check, more or less. No deep-fried Mars bars on our menus at least.

Example…ah, now that’s a different story. It makes sense, of course. How many times have we heard the hackneyed phrase that ‘kids are like sponges’? They don’t learn how to live in the world from a how-to manual, that’s for certain. (Now that would be a book worth its weight in gold!) We parents are their blueprints, their paradigms, the pioneers in every habit and prejudice and turn of phrase. The gospel according to Mum and Dad is, without a doubt, the main reason people seek out therapy of one sort or another. Recognising the dictums your parents imprinted on you as a child as the ‘tape’ you run when in need of authoritative advice, and not your own, proven experiences, will (so the thinking goes) show that tape up as the cold, impersonal celluloid that it really is.

So, now that we’ve neatly wrapped up all our complexes inherited to us by our forefathers (hey, ancestors don’t get off any lighter! With the wonders of modern genetics they are brought right back, like a scientifically-endorsed psychic hotline!) we can move on to our children. And the complexes we will inevitably give them, like it or no.

For those interested in some great advice on how to parent with compassion and respect, check out this very thoughtful blog post on The Parenting Pathway. Alternative, Google ‘good parenting’ and spend the next fourteen years reading all the hits, by which time your kids will have grown up and will already be seeing a psychologist for your absenteeism.

Personally, I got stuck on the very first of Carrie’s basic steps for dealing with gentle discipline: getting the rest and time you need to be a centred, calm, balanced individual, capable of giving your children the best of yourself. If only this blog post were a personal promise to come to your house, give you a footrub, put your kids in the bath, make you dinner, put on a funny film and tell you you’re great, all wrapped up in one giant, sisterly hug. When I have one child who wakes up almost every hour, despite all my ‘good’ techniques (not letting her fall asleep on the breast, yadda yadda yadda) and another child who wakes up most nights several times to for various baffling reasons, my eyes will barely stay open long enough to read one paragraph of all that good advice.

(I have been trying to come up with jokes to help me laugh it off: ‘I’m so tired I went to visit my granny, in advanced stages of dementia, and she told me I was rambling.’ ‘I’m so tired I picked up my handbag and it miaowed.’ ‘I’m so tired I can’t even be bothered to work out a punchline for this joke.’)

In all of my reading to date, even the wonderfully helpful No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, nobody has yet offered a cure for the mind-curdling exhaustion that looking after small children entails. It stands there, blithely ignoring all the tips and suggestions that concerned friends throw at it, like an obelisk in a hurricane.

I have come to the conclusion that after reading all of the advice, trawling all the forums, driving yourself bonkers trying to figure it all out, the only approach that does not involve a perpetual sense of disappointment in oneself is that of accepting it. The whole kit and caboodle: crotchety behaviour, imperfect affection, even wonky teeth and a predisposition to keeping pet newts. Run headlong towards your crummy, substandard parent-self and just give it the most enormous, loving, honest hug imaginable.

And if that is the conclusion offered to me in my chronically sleep-deprived state, then I believe that is in fact the point of it all. Bag all the hot tips, guys. Don’t even try putting money in the mental meter. Bewilderment is, as the Sufis say, the only way to witness to Divine Reality; ‘tear down the house to find the treasure buried beneath.’ It’s all in the best hands you could possibly imagine.

Now go to bed!