This might be an odd post to begin with after another 4-month hiatus from blogging, but I couldn’t help myself. By way of introduction, there has been a growing conversation–and increasingly, outcry–regarding the treatment of women in society. Sexual assaults on college campuses, slut-shaming, the continued income disparity between men and women in the workplace, #yesallwomen…I’m sure we could all name a few more hot topics from the past year alone.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that running parallel to these trending topics is the conversation revolving around the portrayal of women and minority characters in media. Visual media is the better known conversation, but for those of us who love books, the same conversation is taking place among novelists. I’ve been very interested in these conversations, and have found myself becoming increasingly aware of these portrayals when I watch TV, go to movies, or read books, especially the portrayals of women.
That being the case, in my regular activities as a parent of a 3-year old, I ran across a rather bizarre example of a specific issue–the “token female,” and felt compelled to draw attention to it.
So, my son has recently decided that he loves Larry Boy. If you don’t know who that is, then you haven’t watched Veggie Tales, and I won’t go into too much detail trying to explain it. Suffice to say, it’s a show with talking vegetables that teaches nice moral lessons and sometimes Bible stories (with much creative license). One of the characters that shows up on occasion is Larry Boy–Larry the Cucumber’s super-hero alter ego.
The show itself is tolerable as a kid’s show–even amusing sometimes–though I could rant about the entire premise, and won’t right now. But when we sat down to watch “The League of Incredible Vegetables” (2012) the other day, I found myself heaving a sigh of frustration.
Yes, even Veggie Tales.
The super hero sub-genre in movies has been blasted particularly hard when it comes to the token female–especially in movies that feature a cast of protagonists instead of just one super-hero. There’s always that token female. And it’s not just super-heroes–it’s any movie featuring a larger cast of characters. My husband and I recently went to see Kingsman, for instance, which was an amusing almost-but-not-quite-parody of spy movies. (Minor spoiler warning) There were two female characters in the initial group of kingsmen trainees, out of a much larger number of males. I’ll grant that the setting may have warranted less females. But what happens to one out of the two females? Of course, she’s the first to be cut. Because we can’t have two females making it further through training. It’s almost like someone said proudly, “Look what we did! We put two women into this elite group!” *pats on back all around* “Now, quick, get rid of one of them. We clearly can’t have two women for too long [even though there are many more men from which to choose from as our first cut]).”
Back to talking vegetables. The League of Incredible Vegetables (in case you didn’t guess) obviously takes its name from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is an Avengers-style super-hero team with Batman references…with talking vegetables.
All right, put down your eyebrow and just stay with me here. I have a 3-year old.
There are six members of the team (if you include Alfred). Five are male (okay, I know they’re vegetables, but they’re portrayed as male characters) and one is female.
And what do we get for our token female super-hero, “Vogue”?
The official Veggie Tales people have put together this video with clips from “The League” that so helpfully illustrates my point:
Yes, that’s right. Not only have they chosen to have the “token female” but they have chosen to portray her in the most stereotypical way possible (aside, perhaps, from making her into a fighter with tight black pants, but um, remember, talking vegetables).
Now, let me just offer the caveat that the way to fix the problem is not to expunge females who like fashion from movies or kids shows. I’m not saying that women can’t like fashion and potpourri and have bad hair days. I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of women who do (though, to be fair…I know a good number of men who do as well). But the whole problem with the token female is that she is just that–a token. And whenever you have only one of a character–whether it be the token female, the token African-American, the token Asian, or the token homosexual–that character naturally assumes the burden of representing their entire demographic sub-set.
Right, wrong, or indifferent, that is simply what happens, and a start (not complete solution, mind you, because nothing is that simple) to fixing the problem is to eliminate the “token” character.
If three (or, heaven forbid, four?) out of the six main characters were female, one of them could have been fashionable Petunia “Vogue” Rhubarb, and the other two could have had, you know, other personalities and identifying traits. Because women have different personalities and quirks, just like all real people.
I realize that the creators were probably trying to appeal to girls with this character (as if girls need to somehow be given fashion and shoes and pink to enjoy something–but that’s another issue). But I was disappointed, if not surprised, to find this attitude show up even in the most benign of TV shows, even (especially) one that purports to teach good moral lessons.
You might say, “Come on. It’s just a kid’s show. You can’t expect them to think that deeply about character creation. Are any of the characters that developed?”
I can, and do, expect that. Because whether they like it or not, they are communicating a subtle message to my son that will probably ingrain itself better than their intended one, simply by virtue of the fact that he will hear this message repeated so much all around him as he grows up. That message, which is a part of a larger message that I referenced at the beginning, is one I will have to actively combat as a parent. I will instead need to communicate the message that women are complex human beings and individuals, just like men, who have value and are worthy of respect. They are not one-dimensional. They are not tokens.
And there is a place for more than one at the table–even a table filled with talking vegetables.