Monday, May 5, 2014

Making the invisible really freaking obvious.

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. It was also the day I had a sadly revealing conversation that got me thinking—a lot—about the state of the culture I so enjoy. Also grammar. Bear with me here.

I’ve mentioned Flatmate, my longtime friend and house-buddy. (We decided when we moved in together that we couldn’t be roommates because we didn’t share a bedroom and, because we watched way too much British TV, “flatmate” sounded better than “housemate” or any variant thereof.) I have not mentioned what she does for a living. Flatmate is a speech and language pathologist. Basically, if your kid has a speech impediment or a speech delay, trouble pronouncing certain sounds or having certain conversations or just talking at all, you’re probably going to take the kid to someone like her. She works with a lot of kids who are on the autism spectrum and a fair number of kids who aren’t. And because she lives with me and we are both massive geeks who encourage each other in geekery, she’s started using comic books in her clinical practice.

It works really, really well.

Most speech therapy relies on traditional therapeutic tools like flashcards to get kids to practice saying certain words and sounds over and over. That’s okay for a while, but when you’re trying to get a five-year-old to say the “f” sound, you can only show him so many pictures of fish before he gets bored. So Flatmate recently pulled one of my Captain America collections out of her tote bag, turned to a page that didn’t have anything too objectionable on it, and pointed at a certain winged superhero.

“See him?” she asked her kid. “His name is the Falcon!”

“Falcon!” the kid repeated, excitedly. And suddenly he was way more interested in saying his Fs.

Flatmate does this kind of thing a lot. She’ll use popular cartoon characters, movies, and the like to get kids to do what would otherwise be boring, repetitive linguistic tasks that most of us learn to do by instinct as we’re growing up. Any comic retailer can tell you that comics are good for developing brains—good for visual and spatial processing, verbal development, the whole shebang. It’s not news to geeks, but it’s just starting to penetrate practices like speech therapy, largely thanks to geeky therapists like Flatmate, who has superhero Mr. Potato Heads in her office right next to her TARDIS cookie jar.
Thor, Potato of Thunder.
Anyway, because last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, Flatmate and I roamed from local comic shop to local comic shop, trying to collect as many kid-friendly comics as we could for her to use on her kiddos (because Ed Brubaker comics, while useful in a pinch, really are not appropriate for five-year-olds, and there were only so many pages that contained the Falcon and not anything that would freak out a little kid). We picked up most of the appropriate free comics, but Flatmate was most interested in graphic novels and books with sturdy bindings that could take a lot of abuse. I pointed her at youngster-friendly comic lines like Marvel Adventures, Tiny Titans, and so on, and I mostly wandered around the store looking at the grown-up stuff while she sorted through the enormous pile. I bought myself a Winter Soldier bobblehead that makes me smile every time I give him a cognitive recalibration—er, a bop on the noggin.

I don't normally like bobbleheads,
but he's just so cute and disturbing!

But on the way back from the last shop, Flatmate said something revealing.

“I wish there were more girls in these comics.”

I was familiar with the lament, and gladly joined in. Yeah, it’s a crime that there aren’t more strong, well-developed female characters in comics; yeah, it sucks that the gender ratios among creators and creations are so insanely out of whack; yeah, it’s awful that comicdom so often presents itself as hostile to anyone without a Y chromosome. I was just getting a good rant going when she interrupted:

“I’m not talking about that.”

Then what, pray tell, was she talking about? I wondered.

“I’m talking about pronouns.”

As it turned out, because Flatmate so often works with young children and kids whose verbal skills lag seriously behind those of their same-age peers, she often uses her geeky books as part of therapy with kids who can’t actually read. So one of her favorite exercises is to use a series of pictures—including those in a comic—and ask the kid, “What is [name of popular character] doing here?”  The kid then replies, “He/She/It is …” This gives the kid practice at connecting subjects and verbs, creating grammatical sentences, and, yes, using pronouns. But because most of the patients Flatmate sees are boys, she fills her office with superhero and Pixar properties that appeal to little autistic boys … and therein lies the problem.

“I’ve got some great Avengers books,” Flatmate said, “and Toy Story, and Monsters Inc. … but aside from Boo and Black Widow, who don’t show up all that often, there really aren’t any girls in these books. I want to find something that will give the kids practice at saying ‘she’ and ‘her’.”
This picture is only here because it's awesome. Carry on.
Think about that for a second. We spent half a day collecting the very best pop-culture detritus … and we couldn’t come up with enough female characters to teach a male toddler that feminine pronouns exist. Not that girls can be just as strong and competent as boys, or that rigid gender roles do no one any good … I’m talking about teaching kids that the English language contains the pronoun “she”.

We finally found a Hello Kitty book. God knows whether Flatmate’s patients—and remember, spectrum-diagnosed boys far outnumber spectrum-diagnosed girls—will take to it. Iron Man and Captain America are pretty much a lock. Hello Kitty, maybe not. But for now, the fate of the feminine pronoun rests upon a Japanese cartoon cat.

This isn’t a radical feminist agenda. Flatmate’s not part of the wild and crazy liberal Left you hear about on conservative talk radio. She’s trying to teach small children to use basic parts of speech, and she’s really quite innovative about it … but she’s working with the product of a culture that, more often than not, doesn’t admit that girls exist outside of highly girl-centric media like My Little Pony. Girls looking at girl books will still learn to say “he” and “him”, if only because Disney princesses usually end up with Disney princes, and they’re a lot more likely to read boy books than boys are to read girl books anyway (because the Avengers are awesome no matter what your chromosomes look like). Boys looking exclusively at boy books, however, will not learn to say “she” and “her” because Iron Man and Captain America tend to fly solo, at least in toddler-level stories.

Is there a better indication that this culture is fundamentally FUBAR?

Never mind the high-minded attempts to get more complex female characters into pop culture aimed at grownups. I want to see some girls in the toddler market. I want to see boy books that have girls in them. Girls who do things. Girls who show up in a significant percentage of the pictures. Girls involved in the action, whatever it is. I want to see boy books that acknowledge the existence of girls in the same way that girl books acknowledge the existence of boys. I want Flatmate to be able to point at an illustration in a boy book and, at some point, ask a kiddo, “What is she doing?”

Girl books are allowed to say “he”. It’s long past time boy books learned to say “she.”

Stories are the human operating system. What does it say that our operating system, at its most basic level, denies the very existence of half the units using it? There’s a theory in linguistics that holds that ideas that cannot be expressed in words cannot, in most cases, be clearly thought. If you can’t say it, you (almost) can’t think it. It’s certainly very hard work to think it. Not something most people do without a really good reason.

We’re starting an awful lot of humans out in life without the basic tools to think about half the human population. Is it any wonder our culture treats women the way it does if, for the first few years of our lives, half of us don’t happen to learn that women (other than the ones we personally know) exist?

Come on, pop culture. The least you can do is use all the damn pronouns. 
And now, a photo of Winter Soldier Bobble with a tiny
plastic Groot on his head. You are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment