"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Subverting the Script

I babysat for my 19-month-old nephew over the weekend, and I learned that one of his favorite toys at the moment is an adorable "Finger Puppet Theater" featuring a fold-out, castle-shaped stage made of felt and a collection of "medieval"-themed felt finger puppets. Among these characters are a knight in armor, a dragon, a wizard in a purple gown and pointy hat, and the only female character is, of course, a yellow-haired princess in a pink dress.

The kid has just entered the cutest phase where he'll climb into your lap, act fascinated, and actually sit still long enough for you to tell a couple of stories with the puppets. So, when he did this with me, I suddenly felt like the pressure was on for me to stretch my feminist muscles with some non-heteronormative feminist puppet tales.

The sad thing about this is that when all you have to work with is a knight in shining armor and a princess in a pink dress, it's actually really hard to subvert the traditional "princess is stuck in the castle tower and needs to be rescued by the knight" cliche. Because when you start to make the puppets "perform" for a little kid, it feels so natural to slip into using an over-exaggerated, super-high and weak-sounding voice for the princess and an over-exaggerated, super-low and heroic-sounding voice for the knight, which would make it so easy to lead right into repeating the same old story.

I resisted the bothersome urge to follow that sexist script, but I have to admit that the stories I did tell felt super forced. I had no idea what sorts of voices to use for the characters, since their appearances seemed to suggest what their voices should sound like. After having the princess teach new spells to the bumbling wizard and tame the dragon and rescue the prince, I just felt tired and welcomed the opportunity to switch to playing with choo-choo trains.

It just made me sad, because I know that as he grows, he's going to hear and watch and read hundreds of stories, and he's going to learn all of these sexist tropes that are lurking everywhere, and if his feminist aunt who has a master's degree in women's studies has trouble improvising a few gender-role-subverting stories, what hope do we have of ever thwarting patriarchy?