Being a Princess Doesn’t (Have To) Mean What You Think It Means

I’ve thought about princesses more in the past week than I have in a couple of decades. I read an essay on TheRoot.com  this morning, “There are no Black Kate Middletons” in which writer Helena Andrews laments the lack of black celebrities with which Black women can project their fairy tale fantasies, a la British princess-to-be Kate Middleton.

My first thought when reading the article was “who cares! there are better things to be than a British royal anyway”  But after reading the article again I realized I may have missed another of Andrews’ points: that black women must always consider their burden of race and (often) class, even in fantasy. Her case in point, the recent Disney film, The Princess and the Frog, which features a black female waitress who works and saves money to fulfill her dream to be a restaurant owner.  Andrews says:

As an adult I recognize that the fairy tales I told myself as a kid don’t always come true. That being a “strong black woman” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That there are indeed many cracks in that stank face. That the bitch armor — chinks and all — is no lasting replacement for a knight in shining armor. Nevertheless, I was excited last year when Disney released The Princess and the Frog. Black women and girls everywhere were overjoyed that finally they’d get to see themselves on the big screen. But the movie didn’t tell your typical princess story… Of course, when we get our princess, she’s pushing a broom and counting her pennies. “It serves me right for wishing on stars,” Tiana laments once she’s transformed from a waitress into an amphibian. “The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work….”

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The Economic (and LOL power) of I Can Has Cheezburger

The New York Times recently had an article on LOLcats, specifically the ICanHasCheezburger site, and I wondered, what took so long? Is it because it seems so … silly? Or is it because the idea of female nerd culture (not to say that those that are not female or nerds don’t enjoy LOLcats, but really) seems like a non-money making venture and thereby uninteresting?

While I’ll be writing a longer review in response to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one aspect of the book that really bothered me was the way he seemed so dismissive of ICanHasCheezburger. He calls the process of creating a LOLcat “the stupidest possible creative act” with the “social value of a whoopee cushion and the cultural life span of a mayfly.” He does, however, consider it to be an example of participatory culture — perhaps equal to Cartoon Network.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, he explains his viewpoint a bit differently, but I wonder how many readers are going to seek out this “explanatory footnote”:

SHIRKY:  But the interesting thing about lolcats, about these cute cats made cuter with the application of cute captions, is that when you see a lolcat, you get a second message which is: You can play this game, too. All right, when you see something on television, the message is: You could not do this, you can only consume this.
There is a giant gulf between doing something and doing nothing. And someone who makes a lolcat and uploads it – even if only to crack their friends up -has already crossed that chasm to doing something. That’s the sea change, and you can see it even with the cute cats.

But one aspect that Shirky does question — and that the New York Times gazes over in amazement (similar to the “weird Japan” newsreporting meme) is that someone is getting paid. But it is the owners of ICanHasCheezburger who are making seven figures (for the entire family of  sites) — not those creating LOLcats, who receive merch for their creative output.

Shirky describes concerns about labor efforts in participatory culture (and thereby fan culture in general):

If ICanHasCheezburger.com, purveyor of lolcats, is a late-model version of the fifteenth-century publishing model, then the fact that its workers are contributing their labor unpaid is not only strange but unfair. But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What happens if their efforts are an effort of love?

We here on The Learned Fangirl have discussed the labor/fan dynamic and are glad that it is being considered within the context of Cognitive Surplus — and will be addressing this issue head on in the followup book review. We’ll be discussing why Shirky not having an answer for his own questions above for both LOLcats and participatory culture is disappointing. At least this half of TLF will!

Guest Post: Sam Ford: Worlds Without End?

The soap opera was once defined in part as providing worlds without end, as some have put it: fictional worlds that carry on daily for years, decades even. While characters and actors would come and go, the shows often centered on the same community, and sometimes even the same character. Much as with a sports franchise, there was an idea that the soap opera was a media tradition that grandmother and mother would pass on to daughter and granddaughter, and the multiple generation of characters on the show mirrored the generations of (largely female) viewers who not only commonly watch but likewise discuss and debate what they see.

Certainly, this is what has set the soap opera apart from the telenovela, its counterpart devised south of the border which shares the frequent (often daily) airing but focuses on a finite story rather than a “world without end.” Nowhere else on television will you find a phenomenon like 91-year-old Helen Wagner of As the World Turns fame. Her character, Nancy Hughes, spoke the first line on ATWT when the show debuted in 1956, and she was seen as recently as last week, dishing out advice to her family and friends. Some viewers of ATWT have followed Wagner’s Nancy for more than five decades. Further, Nancy is joined by a whole host of characters that have been played by the same actor for years. Don Hastings and Eileen Fulton are soon set to celebrate 50 years in their respective roles as Bob Hughes and Lisa Miller on the show, and they are joined by actors who joined the show in the late 1960s, the 1970s, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In short, anyone who grew up watching ATWT can likely tune in today and see an actor who “started” during their initial viewership of the show.

But these “worlds without end” aren’t as definite as they used to be. There once were scores of soap operas on the air. Now there are seven. Another World was cancelled in 1999 after decades on the air. Its Procter & Gamble sister show, and the longest-running soap opera in history–Guiding Light–went off the air this year after 72 years. Rumors have circulated in the past year about the impending cancellation of ATWT, One Life to Live, and Days of Our Lives, and ABC recently moved All My Children’s production from New York to Los Angeles in part as a cost-saving measure. All seven U.S. soaps remaining on the air have seen significant ratings declines in the past few decades.

At the moment, the seven U.S. soaps remain on the air, and these shows still have millions of passionate viewers who tune in daily to watch characters they’ve been viewing for decades. The question remains: are soap operas still relevant to U.S. audiences? Where has the industry gone wrong, if some elements of the decline should not just be seen as the inevitable drop in viewership in a media landscape of multitude rather than a limited number of broadcast television channels? Are there strategies that soap operas might engage in to not only stay relevant but perhaps re-invigorate the genre?

These are questions I’ve been tackling with UC-Berkeley’s Abigail De Kosnik, Miami University’s C. Lee Harrington, and a host of scholars, industry representatives, fans, and critics, as part of a book that will be published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi called The Survival of the Soap Opera. We believe that the strength of the soap opera, and it’s continued viability, lies with capitalizing on these shows’ rich histories, continuing to experiment with new forms of production and distribution, and finding new ways to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and define success through that deep engagement.

Given The Learned Fangirl”s deep commitment to fan studies, we’d love to hear from any readers who have a history with soaps. Feel free to drop a comment here or shoot me an email at samford@mit.edu. I’m curious what you think! Do soap operas have a future? If not, what will the legacy of the U.S. soap opera be, if its ratings decline and eventual extinction is deemed inevitable? Is the trend toward deep serialization, ensemble casts, and interpersonal relationships we see in primetime television today directly or indirectly attributable to the soap opera? These are questions we’re looking to tackle in our collection, and we’re excited to hear what you think.

[Editor’s Note: Sam Ford is Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and MIT Research Affiliate. We were so pleased to have such a fan of wrestling and soaps moderate our fan-related panel at MIT5! ]

Guest Blogger V. Obarski: Gender and gaming

A (admittedly late – sorry!) recap of last summer’s Gen Con from guest blogger V. Obarski. Thanks!

Like many women who attend gaming convention Gen Con, I was introduced to gaming through my husband. But I’ve also attended for more than 10 years, which I believe gives me some solid street cred among the geek set. Or if anything, it’s given me a perspective of how the conventions changed through the years.

A few years ago, when Gen Con moved to Indianapolis, I was interviewed for the Indianapolis Star. Apparently I was so interesting, the reporter started with one of my ancedotes about playing, “Count the people of color game,” in which my friend and I counted minorities attending the convention in Milwaukee. It took us a couple of hours to get up to double digits.

But that was six years ago and it’s funny seeing how much the convention has changed over time. I don’t know if it’s because geekdom is becoming more chic, but there’s definite spots of color at the gaming tables now – it’s not just a sea of white. Even more heartening (as an Asian-American woman), I’m seeing more women of color take up the reins of running games.

Another thing that brought me glee this year was seeing a very out and proud gay gamer contingent. I started seeing them last year. You couldn’t miss the “GAY-MER. +5 TO FABULOUSNESS” shirts. I also had a out and proud GM one night, who ran the game like every other game. In the gaming world, it’s shouldn’t be about what color/gender/sexuality you are. It’s about how you run and play the damn game.

What also amused me is seeing how many families with young children were at the tables. Parents pushed strollers up and down the aisles (although aisle-clogging SUV-sized strollers are not fun to maneuver around). Gen Con obviously recognizes this, judging by all the family-friendly activities they had planned for the weekend and all the games that marketed themselves as family-friendly.

Why do these changes make me cheer? Because for a long time, it has felt like gaming is a “boys-only” club, where any sense of otherness is greeted with suspicion or ham-handedness attempts at political-correctness that degenerate into unintentional hilarity.

Now it feels like I can head to the table, break out my dice and character sheet and get my game on without worrying about someone telling me what to do, talking to my husband instead of me for strategy or saying just something completely boneheaded and stupid, or at worse, flirting with me (not that I would honestly notice — my hsuband noticed the flirting and leering before I ever did. Which shows you how oblivious I am.).

It’s also proof that as a parent, you don’t give up everything and become a “serious” grown-up. You can keep some things like gaming (be it video games, tabletop or something else). There is juggling, but you still can have fun.

I know that someday, we’re going to take my daughter to Gen Con and that it’ll become a family vacation for us (my husband is already speculating as to how soon we can bring our daughter to Gen Con and she’ll have a good time). What’s a comfort is knowing that we can go as a family and even if one of us is on “parent” duty, there’s still fun to be had.

I read a book: A bitchen read: Frederick Kohner’s Gidget

Gidget original book cover

Gidget original book cover

Once again, there may be another Gidget remake — the type that stars Miley Cyrus or other starlets of her ilk in a “fun on the beach” movie. Before Gidget became shorthand for cheesy beach party movies, it was a book, based on a real surfer girl, Kathy, the daughter of the author. The original cover included a photograph of Kathy with her surfboard. Arguably, this may be the first contemporary novel about the fangirl experience.

And the book does not shy from complicated issues facing teenagers in a manner-of-fact manner, surprising for its publication in 1957, including sexism, sex, teenage independence, participating in a fandom / sport, and the need to belong.

Much of the book is focused on Gidget finding herself — as a surfer and as a person — by joining a surfer community. She is no airhead bikini babe:

I felt right at home with the crew. They were regular guys–none of those fumbling high school jerks who tackle a girl like a football dummy. No sweaty hands and struggles on the slippery leather seats of hot rods….

Every day … someone else let me have a board to practice…

The great Kahoona showed me the first time how to get to my knees, to push the shoulders up and slide the body back–to spring to your feet quickly, putting them a foot apart and under you in one motion. That’s quite tricky. But then, surf-riding is not playing Monopoly and the more I got the knack of it, the more I was crazy about it and the more I was crazy about it, the harder I worked at it.

I also recommend the television show starring Sally Field, which unlike the movies (and later television series), focuses on what it is like to be a teenage girl with a fandom.

The issues that the real Gidget, Kathy, and the fictional Kathy needed to deal with to participate in their fandom of surfing still confront girls and women who are interested in male-dominated fandoms. But Gidget begins the story on passionate fandom — why female metalheads mosh, girl gamers guild, and other tales of belonging through participating in a fandom.

In a Barbie World?


I come neither to bury Barbie nor to praise her, but to acknowledge her larger cultural role, after turning fifty this year.

And she has played an important role in several reported IP disputes (and many more unpublicized ones) — and likely more in the future. I think an entire intellectual property class could be built around Barbie — considering that are publicized claims/suits on copyright, trademark, and trade secrets.

So what makes Barbie matter so much?

For most girls in the U.S. and in many other countries, playing with Barbies is part of their childhood–dressing them over and over again, putting their ridiculous shoes on after falling off, taking them out for a drive in her RV, arranging the furniture in her dreamhome. Oh, and arranging the most scandalous weddings! In many families, Barbies are passed down from sister to sister, mother to daughter (assuming that they survive having their heads popped off, fighting with G.I. Joes, and being parachuted out windows).

The Barbie experience is part of the cultural memory of girls and women, despite the brand being owned by Mattel.

According to Naomi Klein in No Logo, the lawsuit against Aqua’s Barbie Girl:

highlighted the uncomfortable tension between the expansive logic of branding — the corporate desire for full cultural integration — and the petty logic of these legal crusades. Who if not Barbie is as much cultural symbol as product? Barbie, after all, is the archetypal space invader, a cultural imperialist in pink. She is the one who paints entire towns fuchsia to celebrate “Barbie Month.” She is the Zen mistress who for the past four decades has insisted on being everything to young girls — doctor, bimbo, teenager, career girl, Unicef ambassador….

So what makes *this* use of Barbie acceptable, yet Barbie Girl isnt?

So what makes *this* use of Barbie acceptable, yet "Barbie Girl" isn't?

According to the Barbie website,

Creativity and inspiration is in Barbie® doll’s DNA. Artists and designers from around the world have been inspired by her, whether using Barbie as a muse for fashion design or using the famed image of Barbie for a painting

While supporting some artistic reinterpretations of Barbie, Mattel, the owner of Barbie, has been very aggressive in defending their intellectual property rights.

This could be considered *not* cultural critism?

This could be considered *not* cultural criticism?

Aqua’s Barbie Girl (video above) is only the most well-known of the Barbie cases, but some other famous cases of aggressive IP protection include: Distorted Barbie and Forsythe’s Food Chain Barbie.

According to Freeculture.org:

The Forsythe case highlights the increasing challenges faced by those who wish to comment on popular icons, symbols, or cornerstones of culture, most of which are copyrighted by large corporations. “If you want to talk about the problems with society, all of the widely recognized figures are copyrighted,” says Nelson Pavlosky of Freeculture.org. “In the past, cultural icons belonged to everyone…[now] if you want to use a relevant character to critique society, you’ll get burned by companies who can silence you, not by winning in court, but by outspending you and forcing you to cave in or lose all your money.”

And Barbie has lived up to the last sentence — challenging some very obvious cultural critiques with small pockets. Adiós, Barbie is now a website (and blog) about positive body image for girls and women, though it started as a book, called Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty & Body Image for its third edition:

The book book launched in 1998 under the name Adios, Barbie. It was all good for a year, until Mattel delivered my publisher a lawsuit, claiming a trademark violation. Shunned from the Dreamhouse, we agreed to change the book’s name and cover.

But what about the idea of a Barbie mashup? New York Law Revue’s Bar/Bri Girl (video above) takes the idealized clueless version of Barbie — as seen through the lens of Aqua — and pairs her with Bar/Bri, the law bar prep service. While both Bar/Bri and Aqua’s song are the focus, the cultural influence of Barbie is evident.

Original Flavor -- Barbie as Mashup, Star Trek Style

Original Flavor -- Barbie as Mashup, Star Trek Style

One final note, while trying to find pictures to illustrate some of the points made in this post (“fair use”!), I decided to go to the source — Barbie — rather than just doing an Google image search, or from news articles, or from sellers. When I found pictures and tried to copy, this was the pop-up:

This image is copyrighted, and it is owned by Mattel.  You may not reproduce, distribute, publish, transmit, modify, adapt, translate, display, sell, license, publicly perform, prepare derivative works based upon, or otherwise use or exploit this image.

New! Barbie as Mashup -- Star Trek style

New! Barbie as Mashup -- Star Trek style

Wow! It seems like Barbie doesn’t just think math is hard — but still  really doesn’t like fair use!

From Geisha to Go Go: Book Review of two recent books on Asian women

While no book can fully explore a culture, two recent books, Sheridan Prasso’s The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient and Veronica Chambers’ Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, give a window into how different the lives of Asian women are from the pop culture stereotypes.

Interestingly, both books are written by Western female journalists that are not of Asian descent. Also, both are written primarily around interviews with individual women, using their experiences to explore larger social phenomena. Both books touch upon fandom issues, but this is not their primary focus.

The most valuable aspect of The Asian Mystique from a pop culture studies perspective is a multiple chapter analysis of stereotypes used in Western media of Asians and Asian-Americans. Prasso discusses how media stereotypes are based in a binary dichotomy in two ways — first, the stereotypes vary based on gender, and second, Asian women are seen as either submissive and desirable (“China Doll”/Vixen) or as dominant and therefore to be feared (“Dragon Lady”). This section would be perfect for a film/television or ethnic studies class.

Kickboxing Geishas does discuss Japanese female fashion, including Harajuku, Lolita, and Gothic Lolita. (Interestingly, though Chambers is an African-American woman, she never mentions the racialized aspects of yamamba in her discussion of this fashion/social trend).

Kickboxing Geishas also discusses the economic and social impact of teenage girls and their style:

Joshi kosei [teenage girls] are voracious shoppers with a quirky eye for fashion and an uncanny ability to start trends.’

Although there are broad groupings among …Japan’s contemporary costume culture …– kawaii, or the culture of cuteness; gothic; Lolita, etc. — the young women (and some men) who embody these street styles thrive on their individuality. …I believe the costuming of today’s Japanese young women reveals, in a powerful way, how for many young Japanese females, Japan is a hard place to become a grown woman.

[Yasuko Nakamura] recently published a book, The Uchira and Osoro Generation: Unadorned High School Girls of Tokyo. The Uchira in the title refers to the way Shibuya’s masses of teenage girls like to refer to themselves–a posse called “us.” Osoro is short for osoroi meaning that the girls like to dress the same. Currently eight thousand of these girls are on [her company’s] payroll [;] companies rely on her and her teen experts to help develop products such as soft drinks and cosmetics.

The Asian Mystique mentions “ladies comics”/manga and their role as peer sex education:

Unlike in the West where [teen] girls pass around steamy romance novels between friends [Peyton Place to V.C. Andrews to Twilight] or watch teen dating shows [90201 of yore and now], Japanese girls read [explicit] manga.

One of the most interesting side notes in Kickboxing Geishas involves Bizet’s Carmen, which has been reinterpreted once again, this time in a Japanese ballet where the action takes place within a Japanese business where Carmen is an “office lady” (secretary/tea server) and Jose is the corporation’s security guard. (Someone should write a book on the incredible resonance of Carmen cross-culturally!)

Both books have so much more than is truly in the scope of this blog, with analysis of the real world day-to-day sexism that women face. The Asian Mystique is especially recommended for its in-depth analysis of many issues, including the sex industry throughout Asia.