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Dad fights the good fight, seeking heroic role models for his girls

A screenshot of the HeroicGirls.com website run by John Marcotte.-(HEROICGIRLS.COM)

John Marcotte loves that his daughters are interested in comic books and their heroes. For one, it’s a shared interest between them, and the making of, and dressing up in superhero costumes (known as “cosplaying”) has become a bonding experience for the family.But he also sees it having other positive effects.

“My wife and I love the fact that our girls love superheroes because we compare it to what we see in the toy aisle at the store, which is princess culture,” he said in a TedX Talk. “Princesses wait to be rescued. Superheroes rescue themselves and other people. Princesses project unattainable beauty. Superheroes teach girls that it’s okay to be different. Princesses reinforce a very narrow version of femininity. Superheroes tell girls that they can be more.”

When Marcotte took his two daughters to see “Guardians of the Galaxy,” they immediately identified with Gamora, the female hero and most dangerous woman in the galaxy. But when they went to Target looking for a Gamora toy, the daughters came back empty handed.

That’s because the store only carried toys for the film’s male characters.

“They had toys for all of the Guardians except for Gamora,” he said over the phone. “There was a collectors line, the Marvel Legends line, but that was a $20-something figure.

“But the cheap toys for kids? No Gamora in there at all.”

That the children’s line of toys was so fastidiously gendered has an impact that reaches far beyond the toy aisle. That’s because segregating toys and, in effect, culture has a detrimental impact on the broader socialization of children that begins at an extremely early age.

“My oldest daughter, when she was in first grade, came back from school one day and she was crying,” Marcotte said. “She had worn a Spiderman T-shirt and the kids at school, both the boys and girls, made fun of her because superheroes were for boys.”

After that, his daughter would never wear that shirt again to school.

“Even at that early age, we are shaping what our kids are allowed to like and dislike through societal pressures,” he said.

That socialization creates patterned behavior that continues through adulthood, which is something Marcotte has noticed with some of the adults who participate in comic book culture.

“I was my local comic book shop and we were talking about how Marvel was doing a push to come out with several female-led titles and there was a guy standing there, in the vein of the Comic Book Guy from ‘The Simpsons,’ who went on this rant about how political correctness is ruining the comic book industry and they’re not written for him,” he said.

“I brought up how 53 percent of the comics market is female and he wanted to argue that.”

Marcotte then asked the owner if the shop had any female customers and was corroborated by the proprietor.

“Then, the hilarious thing was that, after denigrating women, when they guy found out there were women who came into the shop, he asked if the owner would organize a mixer,” he said.

That anger, Marcotte said, can be linked to the socialization of segregation at the early age.

“I think that’s a lot of these guys out there, who are socially nervous around women and get uncomfortable and shy so, when women come into space they had traditionally held for themselves, they get angry,” he said. “That’s where it comes from, I think.”

Undoubtedly, this type of socialization has an effect on how young girls perceive themselves.

According to the scientific journal Sex Roles (my risky Google search of the work day), a study authored by psychology professors Aurora Sherman of Oregon State and Eileen Zurbriggen at UC Santa Cruz found that girls who played with the Pink Toy Aisle staple that is the Barbie doll saw fewer career options available to them than girls who played with a Mrs. Potato Head.

And that was just after two minutes of play time.

“It’s sobering that a few minutes of play with Barbie had an immediate impact on the number of careers that girls saw as possible for themselves,” Zurbriggen said. “And it didn’t matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or as a pediatrician, suggesting that the doll’s sexualized shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.”

And while Target failed to include Rey, of the main characters in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” in its initial line of toys for the film, there have been some gains.

That includes yesterday’s news that Hasbro has (finally) included Black Widow in its toy line for the forthcoming Captain America film.

For more information on Marcotte’s work, visit his website HeroicGirls.com.

Andrew Sheldon
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