This morning, I picked my son up from school. The kids had a half day, so we had the whole afternoon planned together. On the ride home, I heard the kids talking the way they sometimes do. They were “in character,” taking on the roles as they engaged in pretend play. My daughter is the one who likes this sort of play, dragging her brother along for the ride. She has quite the range of characters she likes to play. We had an entire year in which everyone in the family had to endure, “Let’s play _____ [some movie, cartoon, or book]. Who do you want to be?” It was constant, to the point that I was worried about why my daughter never seemed to want to be herself. You know, the sort of weird thing moms fret about, but that are normal parts of childhood.
Anyway, whenever she’s in the mood for this sort of role-playing, and insists her brother play along, he resorts to his default character. To please his sister, he made up this character called “Jack Spy.” I don’t think Jack Spy does any actual spying; I think my son just needed something on the fly one time and that’s what popped into his head. Apparently, the kids have a whole world devoted to Jack Spy, though. His sister is “Sarah Spy” (yeah, my kids are really original sometimes). I think they have pets, and they have a whole “show” about their adventures (which usually, as I said, don’t include spying of any type; but whatever).
Getting back to the car ride (I do have a point somewhere in here), they had gotten into character. Sarah was playing Bowser Junior from Mario Kart, and Jack was Jack Spy. As I listened to them talking, something struck me: Sarah usually takes on the roles of male characters. She didn’t even want to be Sarah Spy today, she wanted Bowser Junior to join Jack Spy on his adventures. From the way she was talking, this is because Sarah Spy doesn’t appear in the adventures very often, as she is “just” Jack Spy’s sister (and therefore not very interesting). The real Sarah wanted a more active role.
Some of it is personality. Sarah’s the kind of kid who, given the choice, will be an animal rather than a human when engaged in pretend play. And let’s face it, most animal sidekicks are male. But at least part of the problem is just that—there aren’t many interesting female characters (leads, sidekicks, or pets). And by interesting, I don’t just mean “smart” or “resourceful.” I mean the kind of girls and women who have adventures just like their male counterparts.
I don’t think it’s bad to have female characters that are smart and resourceful. Hermione Granger and Velma from Scooby-Doo are two of my favorites (although I would argue that they get to have real adventures, rather than just being brainy). The problem is that there aren’t many like them, females who are adventuresome and brave as well as clever. As I pointed out above, it’s just as bad when you have a kid who likes animals. I can’t think of any female sidekick pets that get the kind of press the boys do.
I’m sure some well-meaning woman will have soothing words for me that it’s just pretend play; that I’m reading too much into it; that there are plenty of good female role models out there; or that it’s more important for her to have real people she can look up to. To a degree, that’s true. At the same time, though, there is something that troubles me about it. I’d like her fictional heroes to represent her demographic, at least some of the time.
It’s time we stopped believing the lie that it doesn’t matter whether a hero is male or female, therefore we can go with male because men are more universal. If it really doesn’t matter, then why not have girls and women equally represented? After all, we make up half the population! It would be nice if instead of believing the hero’s sister is uninteresting, she could create a sister character who is just as adventuresome as her big brother. But to do that, she needs to see it modeled.
So, fellow female writers, let’s make it happen. Let’s create female characters that our spunky daughters are glad to emulate. And let’s take Hermione out of the classroom and out from behind her male friends, and send her on a wild adventure of her own.