Why I Would Rather Let My Son Watch X-Men than Bob the Builder

With my child reaching the advanced age of four and a half I am having a harder time keeping him on the television designed for very little people, and he is starting to ask for the stuff with superheroes in it. I haven’t shown him any of the live-action Marvelverse movies, and probably won’t for a while, but I am allowing him a drip feed of some of the cartoon versions. This means watching him make the transition from TV full of gentle stories about making friends and being responsible to TV that is mostly about hitting people. As much as this gives me pause, I have been drawn in against my better judgement to the X-Men and their anti-normative struggles. I am even finding the animated series of The Avengers to be something I don’t hate. There are several fantastic conversations going on at the moment about sexism in geek culture, and I am right behind every person who is agitating for change. Just at present, however, I am being given an unexpected insight into the positives of these forms of storytelling.

Because there are two kinds of change we need in the representation of women in fiction: seeing a woman at centre of the story, and seeing women (plural) filling up the frame. When we watch Mulan, as refreshing as it is to see a story about a girl, as long as she is doing anything active or heroic she is surrounded only by men. On this score, the X-Men are offering more than that irritating zebra, Zigby, Thomas the Tank Engine, Rory the Racing Car, Bob the Builder, or even the Octonauts, in which two of the eight core characters are female, but the storylines invariably centre on the antics of their male counterparts. I get so weary of watching TV shows designed for young children, named after a central male figure with one or maybe two female characters obviously inserted because somebody told the show creator they have to have them.

One of the first episodes of Wolverine and the X-Men we saw showed a telepath watching a mother clutching two crying toddlers begging a traffic cop not to give her a ticket. The telepath worked some mojo and the cop ate the ticket and wandered off. Both the telepath and the cop were women, and my thought was, how often in children’s TV do I see three women in the frame like that, with no male gaze present, just functioning as ‘people’? How often does ‘cop’ get to mean a woman?

This general spirit may even be creeping over into the phallocentric world of the action movie. In the movie version of The Avengers, as Alex Cranz has observed, a failure to pass the Bechdel test is not a automatic fail for women: “But you know what The Avengers did have that sets it apart from other films, and particularly other Bechdel failures? It had women in many small supporting roles usually reserved for men. Women flew planes and manned computers and gave orders.” However many problems feminists may have with Joss Whedon, where he excels is in thinking of women as half the people who make up the world. The X-Men movies have their high and low points, but I was surprised and gratified when I heard a female voice in a fighter jet instructing the heroes to land or be blown out of the sky.

Obviously this is a simplistic take on the topic. There is plenty to discuss about why I am prepared to treat less than 50% representation as acceptable, about the comparative sexualization of male and female costumes, about Wolverine still being the one at the centre of the story, about how Wasp was dropped from the Avengers movie during the script drafting stage. But if I am hoping for progress, that is what I am seeing.

On Blue Milk’s recent post about Brave, Tamara told us that her daughter ‘can hardly think of anything to draw besides princesses’, because the stories she has to look at offer no alternatives. If she were to watch an episode of X-Men she would almost certainly see Storm, Frost, Rogue and Shadowcat, all in one go; and probably also one or more of Domino, Mystique, the Scarlet Witch, Dust, Polaris, or Christy Nord, plus a few whose names I didn’t get, and although Jean is currently coming out of a coma somewhere, I suspect we will be seeing more of her before the series is out.

During a complicated story thread in the animated version of The Avengers, Ironman was captured by Black Widow who took him to see Nick Fury, who was backed up by Mockingbird and a woman I didn’t recognise whose role was to be Fury’s sidekick. This meant that the room had two men and three women in it, not because anyone had planned for women to dominate, but simply because that happened to be the way it fell out. When the Avengers fly in their fancy jet, my son sees Ms Marvel (and I notice she is ‘Ms’) pilot it, even when there are male heroes available. Just seeing Wasp have a night in with Carol, or Rogue share a coffee with Domino might act to forestall his little brain developing the habit of assuming that a room filled only with men is ‘normal’.

We still don’t see as many female characters as male, and some of, through not all, the women’s costumes are sexualized in a way I find a bit iffy. But after watching an episode I am just as likely to hear my son say, ‘she has cool powers’ as ‘he’, so for now I’m calling that a win.

Cartoon screencap of X-Men characters Domino and Rogue

Domino and Rogue from the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series

Categories: arts & entertainment, education, gender & feminism, parenting

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7 replies

  1. I feel the same way about superhero cartoons, most of which are many, many times better at representing female heroes than the comics they stem from. Allow me to pitch from the DC side of the fence! (though our family also loves X-Men and Avengers)
    I bought Justice League Unlimited for my then-five-year-old daughter because it was the only way to get hold of a Supergirl story that felt age appropriate and she was expressing interest in her as a character based on an image she had seen.
    But what a wonderful discovery it was! Not only Supergirl, but more than a dozen interesting female characters mixed up in its enormous, rotating ensemble. There were even some all-female team ups.
    Not only is this great for my girls, who play happily with action figures as well as Barbies and fairies, it’s great for my friend’s 3 sons, and for our kids finding something awesome to play together. My daughters don’t have to fight over who gets to play the one girl character when they’re all playing superheroes. And I was delighted that my 3 year old godson went for at least a year when Wonder Woman was his favourite superhero, and role model. Captain America has now replaced her in his heart, but how awesome that he was exposed to the idea that a woman could be the coolest of the superheroes!
    When your son starts reading I recommend you invest in a stack of “Tiny Titans” trade paperbacks. These are some of the best kids comic books in the business, basically all the DC superheroes (including what feel like equal numbers of girls and boys) reinterpreted as if they were in a modern version of Peanuts, and all the kids of my acquaintance (and adults) think it’s wonderful. As my daughter said with great relish, she loves it because “it’s not girlie or boy-y, it’s just about kids”.
    I wish more stuff for our children really was just for and about kids without all the ridiculous pink/guns separation.

  2. What about Avatar (the Nick series, not the Cameron movie)? It’s not perfect, but it gets better and better (especially into the second season).

  3. it’s not girlie or boy-y, it’s just about kids”.

    That sounds perfect!
    Jason, I’ve been told I should look at the Legend of Korra series, is that one of the ones you recommend?

  4. Orland:
    You should watch Avatar: The Last Airbender before watching Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Korra follows on from the first one.
    It’s also really cool. And really well made. Check out http://atla-annotated.tumblr.com/ for info about the small details included in the series. I’d definitely recommend it for young children. And old children. And adults.

  5. Definitely watch The Last Airbender before Korra. But definitely watch Korra too 🙂
    I don’t want to spoil the best bits of the series, but some of my favourite aspects were:
    1. “Team Avatar” are children, more or less. But unlike a great many other shows and movies with child protagonists, they’re not ignored or dismissed by adults, and they’re not privy to some experience of the world that adults can’t see. Some grownups help, some hinder. Some are allies, some are enemies. But they all inhabit the same reality.
    2. Iroh.
    3. A certain earth bender. (If you’re looking for it, you might notice that they often try make it clear that the writers haven’t just lazily erased her disability with magic.)

  6. Moving away from superheroes, and on the understanding that I haven’t yet watched it myself, the fact that so many adults I know online are fans of female-centred stories of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic makes me think it’s worth checking out.

  7. We are big, big fans on MLP: FiM in this house, tigtog. All 3 of us watch the shows, and the Tiny Tyrant is very into it. It’s certainly not without its issues, but I for one really love that it is female-centred, so he gets a sense that girls have stuff going on, and are interesting, complex and complete characters/people in their own rights. It’s also about navigating interpersonal relationships, with rarely anything vaguely romantic going on, but more siblings and friends with different tastes and personalities having to negotiate that.

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