DC Characters and Branding in “Young Justice”

DC is coming out with a new cartoon this fall. Since their cartoons are generally really good, I was pretty excited about this (Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorite cartoons ever and I really think Batman: the Animated Series is one of best cartoons ever made). This cartoon will be called Young Justice and is going to focus on teenage superheroes and the challenges they face to prove that they are good enough to join the adult heroes who protect the world on a daily basis (not to mention the challenges involved in just being teenage superheroes).

The cast of characters is largely drawn from the pages of Teen Titans, so we have Robin (because it wouldn’t be a kid/teen supergroup without Robin or Nightwing), Kid Flash, Superboy (because somebody has to be wearing a big red “S”), Miss Martian, Aqualad (who’s gotten an African-American make-over, presumably so the cast is more racially diverse – which still makes him token, which kinda sucks), and “Artemis”.

Seriously? Artemis? Ok, there are two MAJOR problems here. First of all, that means this is a made-up character instead of one of the many, many, many awesome female characters they already have that they could have used for this show. Second of all, what’s with the name? Not only is “Artemis” kind of a lame superhero name, but it’s already been used at least eight times in the DCU! Once by a pretty major character and a couple of times by various incarnations of the actual goddess, who exists and is a real entity in the continuity of both the DCU and the Animated DCU (or at least, one would assume she exists in the Animated DCU, since Ares, Hades and Hephaestus all do).

I really hate when companies decide to make up a new character like this, despite having lots of great existing options. It wouldn’t bother me if she wasn’t being thrown in with a group of characters who are not being invented for the show, but in fact, have years of history and personality in the comics. It also probably wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like this was another indication that DC doesn’t remember or care about their female characters, especially the younger ones and especially when it comes to animated shows.

The perfect example of them stating this can be found if you check out some of the behind the scenes materials on the Justice League cartoon. They made a test short to help sell that concept and at that point planned to use teenage sidekicks. In the test short they use Robin, Impulse (one of the young “Flash” characters from the comics) and a girl they made up who is basically Cyborg as a girl. They made her up because they felt they needed a girl “for the sake of diversity” but “there aren’t really many young girl characters in the DC Universe”. Right. Every incarnation of Teen Titans has had a couple of girls, but “there aren’t many young girls”. There are just about as many girls, some of them young, in the Batman family as there are boys, but “there aren’t many young girls”.

Can you tell that I don’t think much of this excuse? And I can only assume the choice to make someone up instead of using one of their many great female characters stemmed from the same way of thinking. I read the blurb about the show and saw Artemis and my first thought was “why didn’t they use someone they already have?” Like, for example, Arrowette (who clearly inspired Artemis’s look)? Or Speedy (another archer, who has been a boy and a girl)? Or Wonder Girl? Or Troia? Or Batgirl? Or Spoiler? Or Supergirl? Or Raven? Or Starfire? Or Terra? Or Ravager (who could be awesome to use in a show like this)? Or Bumblebee (who’s already African-American, by the way)? Or Aquagirl? Or Jesse Quick? Or Misfit? Or the new versions of Hawk and Dove? I could go on. And I can see ways many of these characters would be particularly fantastic in a show like this.

But no. We get a made up character. And I’m not saying that I don’t like new characters being introduced. I even like some of the brilliant characters who have been created in the animated shows and made the jump to other mediums (Harley Quinn, who managed to cross into comics, a live action television show and numerous video games, is awesome and Renee Montoya, who has actually grown out of the role she was created in and inherited the mantle of The Question, are two amazing creations from Batman: The Animated Series). What I’m saying is that it feels like they remember and celebrate the great history and long line of stories they have behind some of their characters when they pull these groups together and forget others.

And then they complain that their female characters don’t have the same sort of following. The repeated refrain of “we just can’t seem to make Wonder Woman as popular as Batman and Superman and the only reason we can figure out is because she’s a girl” comes from the higher ups at DC pretty regularly. Well, perhaps that’s at least partially because you don’t give her the same backing and visibility! Notice how even in this group of superheroes that notably does not contain any of the “big three” there are clear representatives of both the Bat-Family and the Super-Family (Robin and Superboy), but no such representative from Wonder Woman’s “family”? No Wonder Girl or Troia or anything? And even if they tell us “oh, but Artemis is an Amazon!”, she has no visible way of showing us that and since we don’t know her, we wouldn’t connect her to Wonder Woman without knowing that. It just doesn’t work.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. They could be creating a show about teenage superheroes trying to prove to their mentors that they’re reading for the big-time with all new characters, but they didn’t because part of the draw of this show will be the recognizable characters – the brand. There are people who will watch it primarily to see characters they know and love – to watch Robin and Superboy, to see cartoon versions of Kid Flash and Miss Martian, to find out who this new Aquaboy is (and if there’s any explanation for what happened to the old one). People are already asking if this show is part of the official Animated DCU or, like Teen Titans and the two recent Batman shows, a separate “universe” by itself.

But Artemis, as a new character, isn’t part of that branding. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want her to be, either. It’s a totally wasted opportunity. Pretty much any character who has been around for any real length of time has some kind of following, so why not draw on an already existing following as well as whatever new fans this show will bring in? Why not bring in the not-inconsequential number of Wonder Girl fans? Or the startlingly large number of Spoiler fans? Or how about the devoted and regularly disappointed Arrowette fans who always seem to be forgotten when the character isn’t included?

It seems to me like not only a bit of a slap in the face to all the fans of the many amazing female characters they could have picked from for this show, but also a startlingly poor marketing decision. When something so simple could mean more fans and more money with so little effort, why would you not do it (and isn’t it easier to use an existing character than to create a new one, especially when you can tweak details as needed since this is a new medium and you’ve already done it with everyone else and not lost hordes of fans over it)?

SPA Should Not Mean Prisoners

I’m a gamer and I’m a woman. I’m married to a gamer, too, but I’ve been gaming since long before I met my husband and got into pen and paper games playing D&D with other girls in elementary school. I’ve been going to Gen Con since, I believe, my junior or senior year in high school (1999/2000). I know a lot of other gamers. Some of their significant others game and some of them don’t. Some of those significant others are women and some are men, but there’s not actually much pattern to their gamer-ness or not. It’s a varied bunch. I enjoy Gen Con and a lot of my friends attend and enjoy it too. It’s a fun convention full of all kinds of gaming and entertainment.

But it isn’t always very friendly to women. It’s gotten dramatically better over the years. I felt out of place as a woman going ten years ago, so I can only imagine what it felt like when my friend’s mom was going thirty years ago. But every year there are more women and as more women come, the feeling of being out of place is reduced.

I was beyond thrilled a few years ago when Gen Con introduced “Activities for the Better Half” – non-gaming events aimed specifically at non-gaming significant others who came along with gamers and wanted something more amusing than walking the dealer hall for four days. The events offered vary widely and are generally a great addition to the convention. I’d love to see more of those events that are a little less specifically geared to women, since there are non-gamer guys too, but it is somewhat limited by what people want to run.

The major problem with this program is the icon used to represent it. This logo appears in the convention booklet and on the website both with the description of the program in general and with the description for each and every single event that is part of the program. It’s been the same logo since the program’s inception in 2006. You can see it portrayed above – it’s a green square (all of the icons are square) with a prison ball and chain image. I’ve hated this image from the beginning. Like a friend of mine, I complained to convention staff early on, but I was told that no one at the convention could do anything about it or even address the issue – that it was handled somewhere else by a staff that didn’t even attend the convention. I have no idea if that’s true or not and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. What prompted me to write about it now was this open letter to Gen Con about the issue and their response.

There are several problems here, but before we get to the image itself, I want to look a little at what Gen Con said in response to concern about it being raised.

Thank you all for your comments. Let’s go over some facts to set the record straight as some incorrect assumptions are being made here. Hopefully these facts will shed some light on this topic.
• Gen Con’s majority shareholders are women.
• Gen Con’s CEO is a woman and the staff is primarily made up of women.
• I picked the icon. I consider myself an independent, liberal minded woman. I picked it not because I thought it represented who or what I was or as a reflection on women, but because I thought it funny and I liked the irony. Yes it might be base, I’ll give you that, but I’m getting off point.
• The SPA icon has been around since the program began four years ago – it is not a new icon.
• Now in its fifth year, the SPA program has grown exponentially and boasts over 90 events in its offerings for 2010. Not all events are knitting or scrapbooking. The program also includes such events as wine and beer tasting, walking tours, chainmaile classes, Pilates, Irish Dancing, yoga, etc.
• SPA events are very popular with all types of people, gamers, gamer widows and widowers. A lot of the events sell-out.
• Events at Gen Con are submitted by fans for fans. While Gen Con hosts and sponsors some events, the majority are run by you. If you don’t like the offerings don’t go to that event, if you want to see something specific, host an event yourself! Simple as that.
I respect that we all have opinions, believe me I know I do … I find it ironic that the author of the open letter has his website sponsored by cougarlife.com. But I digress. I wonder if such passionate responses on such a non-starter issue might be better served on issues that really matter to women such as domestic violence, health, slavery, prostitution, the list goes on sadly.
Vanir you mentioned you were a karate instructor; it would be wonderful to have a beginning/intro to Karate class to include as part of the programming at this year’s show, SPA or otherwise. Since I’m the director of events at Gen Con you’ve come to the right spot, let me know!
Thank you all for your opinions and for calling attention to a wonderful program that Gen Con is proud to support. The process for picking the icon was not an arbitrary one; thought was put into it. It’s hard to pick one “icon” for such a diverse group of people and event types and to find one that wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. The icon was chosen for its tongue and cheek aspect, nothing more and will remain as is for the time being.
If you want to talk to me directly about SPA or anything Event related please feel free to do so. My email address is jeannette.legault@gencon.com.
Jeannette LeGault
Director of Event Programming for Gen Con LLC

I appreciate that Ms. LeGault personally responded to the original open letter. That’s totally awesome. Unfortunately, I’m not so impressed with her response. She starts out by saying that Gen Con is run by women, which is not actually germane. Women can do sexist things just as easily as men can. We live in the same culture and internalize all sorts of messed up messages, many of which are horribly sexist. Being a woman is not a free pass. Then she says that she picked out the icon herself, which I totally give her credit for owning when the icon is coming under attack, and gives her reasons for picking it, but she also dismisses concerns about it in the same point. Then she changes the subject by giving a lot of information about the program itself and how popular it is, none of which was either in dispute or under attack.

After that, she really makes a mistake by picking on the author of the letter for the ad on the website where it was posted, which (like most online ads these days) wasn’t chosen by him but rather by whatever magic formula Google uses to determine what ads appear on what pages. And then she picks on him further stating that the issue is too small to be worth his time and that he should be worried about the big problems in the world (this is an arguement that all groups working to improve how disadvantaged portions of society are portrayed in culture hear all the time and it’s worthless – you can’t stop the big stuff if the small stuff is reinforcing it). Then she thanks him and basically states that the discussion is closed. This is very bad PR and probably should have been reconsidered before it was posted.

But what about the icon itself? Why do I think it matters? I think that it sends the absolute wrong message. I think that it’s a dated, misogynistic image and that Gen Con hasn’t really considered the message that their icon actually sends. The phrase “ball and chain” has been around for a long time. The internet isn’t sure how long (a Google search will reveal a wide range of answers for the earliest date of the phrase appearing from sometime in the 1600s to the mid 1800s and sources vary as to where it originated as well), but it’s a phrase that has been used for quite some time. The image the phrase evokes – the image in the icon – of an actual iron ball attached to a chain and manacle refers to a device used to inhibit the movement of prisoners.

At some point, the phrase began to be used to refer to wives as well (wives, it is not a phrase that was used to refer to men of any kind until very, very recently and that is still very rare – most dictionaries still say “wives” and not “husbands or wives”). Specifically, to nagging, annoying wives who deny or inhibit their husbands’ freedom.

This is not a pleasant image. It means that the icon is either suggesting that the significant others of gamers are somehow inhibiting their freedom and fun, which is insulting and downright mean (especially when you consider that these non-gamer partners are not only “letting” their SOs geek out for a weekend, but are also along for the ride at a con not really full of things they enjoy), or it’s suggesting that the people who attend SPA events are like prisoners, which is an unpleasant image at best and an upsetting image at worst.

Ms. LeGault suggests that coming up with an icon for this group of events was challenging because of the diverse group of people and event types involved. This may very well be true – the program does have an extremely wide variety of events. Still, they all fall under the same banner. Every program or section of events has an abbreviation as well. The abbreviation for this program of non-gaming activities is SPA. I think that’s great – it suggests that these are supposed to be fun, relaxing vacation events for people to just enjoy. Why not pick an icon that suggests “vacation”? A beach umbrella, a little person in a yoga pose, a palm tree, maybe even a sun or something. There’s got to be a better way to indicate that the events are there than to use an incredibly old-fashioned slur for a woman who makes her husband feel like a prisoner!

Because the slur is insulting both the non-gamer significant others who were nice enough to let their gamers spend a weekend pretending to be great heroes (and to come along with them) as well as to the other women at the convention who are going to be affected by it being one more example of misogyny in a place that already has some problems with sexism sometimes. So even if it’s too late to fix it this year (although I have trouble believing that the programs are already printed), it is something that is well worth fixing for next year.

Schools as a Holding Pattern

Although it’s not something that I write or talk about that much, I’m actually very interested in science. I’m interested in a lot of types of science, but what really gets my attention is science that relates to people and how they work and how they relate to the world around them. I was probably a neuroscientist in another version of this life (seriously). So it’s really no surprise that I’m a big fan of the book Nurtureshock, which looks at the science of kids and raising them and how what we’ve learned from it doesn’t actually match how we raise our kids. Example: there’s a ton of scientific evidence showing that teenagers don’t function as well in the morning and that when school starts later, they do better, but high schools continue to start at 7am all over the country just the same.

This week I came across an article that one of the authors of the book wrote for Newsweek (as part of a whole series of articles, which are great and well worth reading) back in November about some research and a book by Dr. Joe Allen. The article discusses how Allen has been looking at teenagers and their lives and has come to the conclusion that they are stuck in a holding pattern that artificially keeps them from growing up. This is fascinating, but what really rang true with me was the statements about schools:

Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. “From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade,” said Allen. “There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities.” Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly montonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.

As Allen writes, “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”

And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature.

Think about that. Think about how school actually is structured. Not just how many kids are in a class and how long the day is and things like that – think about what they’re taught when and how and why. If you went to school in the U.S., how many years did you study U.S. history and how many of those years did you learn the same things over again? Did you take a foreign language? How many of the years that you took it did you learn numbers? colors? days of the week? How many times did your English teachers teach you how to write an essay or go over basic grammar? And now think about college. Did you do any of those same things again?

How many times do we really think kids need to learn about the revolutionary war? And, honestly, why did they get As in Spanish one year if they evidently didn’t learn the colors well enough to not have to learn them again the next? I realize not all those kids got As and that repetition is good and review is helpful. But how much repetition does it take before you’re just teaching them that it doesn’t actually matter enough to bother paying attention? And how much can you repeat the same material before you’re no longer “reviewing”, you’re just teaching the same thing over again?

I don’t know how to fix all this. I do know that some of it would be improved if we put kids in classes based on their skill level, as opposed to their age. Is it so vital that all the seven year olds be in the same room anyway? And by the time you get to the high school level, why is that the model at all? Colleges don’t entirely get out of this either. They are just as guilty as everyone else of the repetition problem. Just because a student learned it somewhere before they attended your college doesn’t mean they learned it any less well than they would if they learned it at your college (and this goes for everything from English Lit to Typing to Biology – mitosis is exactly the same process whether you learned it in grade school, high school, college or all three).

Maybe schools need to actually figure out what their classes teach and what they expect the students going into them to know and to not know. Once they have that information, they can start working on matching kids to the classes, and maybe even schools, that best match their educational needs and wants. And you know what? That’s a whole new set of jobs, too, since it would require a bunch of people to go through and do all that.

Too bad our society doesn’t actually value education enough to fund it. And there’s the real problem. We put our kids in holding tanks for almost twenty years that we don’t even care enough about to fund. And that’s something I really can’t even start trying to figure out a solution for because it’s something I really don’t understand. Maybe there’s a scientific study on it somewhere that will shed some light on it for me…

Competition in Videogames and Gender

I read this fascinating article about testosterone and competition in games yesterday and it got me thinking about a lot of things. One of the biggest things that struck me as I read was the discussion of player behavior after a victory. The paper talks generally about how “if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status.” The author discusses how this kind of crowing about a victory makes the losers feel worse and tends to cause them to stop playing the game. That got me thinking about gender dynamics in competitive games like this where the players can communicate with each other. And realistically, there are very few competitive videogames these days where the players don’t have the ability to easily communicate either through text or voice based chat systems. I think that extrapolating from this article can help explain one of the big, and yet basically ignored, problems with bringing more women into “hardcore” gaming.

The language of smack talk itself is extremely problematic from a woman’s point of view. A lot of it is extremely gendered and sexual in nature, and women never come out on top when it comes to smack talk language (pun intended). Losers are told they are “pussies”, that they “play like a girl” and to “bend over and take it” or “suck it” (there are worse ones, but I don’t feel like filling my blog with them). Winners have any number of euphemisms for testicles, “stuck it to them/you” and are “The Man”. It’s pretty clear that being a girl is a bad thing in the culture of competitive videogames, at least metaphorically. So what happens when the player in question actually is a girl or a woman?

To begin with, it’s sometimes hard not to feel unwanted and unwelcome in a culture filled with this language. To be the woman who can push past that and play with the big boys anyway (again, pun intended), you almost have to be willing to be twice as good as anyone else and able to somehow reconcile being female with that skill. Some do this by talking as much smack as the guys, in their sexist language, thus sort of adopting the mantle of “one of the guys”. Others basically stay silent and just let the guys josh each other about being beaten by a girl. Some almost get apologetic about being female, as if they have so internalized the language that they themselves are ashamed of being women (thankfully, this seems to be more and more rare as more and more women gamers gain visibility).

Many women (although not all) play a different kind of social game in their everyday lives than most men do. Deborah Tannen has explained how for many men (although, again, not all), social interactions are about forming and negotiating a hierarchy where the most dominant reach the top and it’s not very desirable to be on the bottom. Women, on the other hand, strive for connections. It’s not that they don’t want to be or think they are better than the next person, it’s that it’s very important to at least keep up the facade of a level playing field. It’s why apologies are so vital to female relationships, they allow things to return to the status quo by (implicitly) acknowledging a wrong done or invoking empathetic feelings.

This comes into play for some women when they lose and are “subjected to degrading displays of status.” For some women, this almost violent dressing down is actually painful. Because of the impulse they have to avoid social conflict, it’s actually a very distressing experience to be so spoken to. In female relationships, women will often assume that such responses are somehow their own fault, and this reaction becomes so ingrained that it carries over into other experiences. Add to that the gendered language and such an experience can easily go from distressing to frightening.

And then you’ve probably lost that player, and rightly so. We’re taught as women to avoid frightening situations, not to fight back and to stick together. So no matter how much fun the game itself might be, if the community provides a frightening experience for the woman, every instinct she has is probably going to tell her not to stay and not to come back. And then we come to what happens when a woman sees such things happening to other people.

When a woman sees something like that happen to her friend, she’s likely to be distressed like her friend, although to a lesser extent. And she’s going to leave with the friend. They’ve learned this is a dangerous place to stay away from. When she sees it happen to someone else, there’s a good chance she’ll empathize and realize that it could easily happen to her. And then, again, you’ve lost her (and that time she didn’t even have to have the experience, just witness it).

We’re taught to avoid danger and that danger is everywhere. And for women, avoiding danger makes a lot of sense. Games may not pose a real, physical danger, but they can cause us to feel that way. And why would you want to feel that way if you don’t have to? This doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t be competitive. Competition is good and women like competition as much as men do. And it’s not to say that games that allow communication are bad. Communication adds a lot to a game’s appeal, as MMOs and Facebook games prove daily. It’s just to say that perhaps there’s more to attracting and retaining female players than just making more appealing games and marketing to them better. The attitudes of the gaming community itself also needs to change.

On Customer Service

One of my biggest pet peeves is bad customer service. As far as I’m concerned, there’s really never any excuse for it.

Let’s be clear here about what I mean by good customer service, though, since I’m not sure everyone has the same definition. I consider customer service to be not so much about making the customer happy as about giving them the best service possible. It simply isn’t possible to make every single person happy all the time. Sometimes people have impossible problems (“my computer has smoke coming out of it and I have to finish this project by tomorrow!”), sometimes it’s not feasible for the company or the customer service rep to truly help the person such that it will make them really happy (“but I sent the check! why don’t you have a record of it?”), and sometimes people are just in bad moods and want to take them out other people (“look, if you can’t produce a purple plastic purse for me in the next five minutes I’ll scream!”).

None of those things, however, are excuses for bad customer service. No matter how annoying the customer or how outrageous their demand, they should always be treated with respect. Doing so also gives you the right to ask that customers treat your customer service reps with respect. It’s really a win for everybody. Good customer service means happier, more satisfied customers who are more likely to give you return business and happier, more contented employees who do more work at a higher quality.

Unfortunately, customer service is one of those things that people seem to only understand is important when they are on the customer side of the relationship. Everyone wants to receive good customer service. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to be pestered by store employees and read to from canned scripts when calling customer service lines. Those things aren’t indicative of good customer service, they are indicative of companies more concerned about their bottom line than their customers (which really doesn’t make sense when you realize that they only have a bottom line because they can attract and keep customers).

Good customer service requires truly respecting your customers and genuinely wanting to help them. Some examples of good and bad customer service:

Your cable goes out and it doesn’t appear to be because of any of your equipment. You call the customer service line to report that it’s not working and ask for it to be repaired. The customer service rep consults their computer and doesn’t find a note about your area, so they put you on hold briefly (less than three minutes) and call the repair coordinating office to see if anything is happening in your area that hasn’t shown up on the computers yet.

They come back on the phone with you and say that yes, someone is looking into it and the expected repair time is currently four hours. They apologize for the inconvenience, thank you for calling to let the company know the cable was out and tell you that if you call back after the cable comes back on, the company can refund your bill for the time it was out. You ask why they can’t do the refund right now while you’re on the phone and the rep explains that the company requires it to be done after the blackout is over so that the proper amount of time can be credited. That way, if it’s only out five hours you get that amount of credit, but if the problem ends up taking ten hours to repair you can be properly compensated for that time. The rep then asks if you have any other questions. You say no, thank them and hang up.

This was a good experience, even though your problem wasn’t fixed. You and the rep were both treated with respect, the problem was treated as real (even though the rep had no record of it to begin with) and procedures were explained when you requested them to be.

You are in a serious accident, but not seriously hurt yourself, and your doctor suggests you see a mental health specialist about your experience. You call each of the doctors recommended and find that your health insurance doesn’t cover any of them. Your doctor suggests that you obtain a list of doctors in your health plan and they will suggest someone from the list, to prevent that from happening again. You call your health insurance customer service line to obtain the list.

You get a voice recognition program first that has trouble recognizing your voice, but eventually get to an actual human customer service rep. The rep immediately asks for your identification number, birth date and name. You give this information and after a moment of silence, the rep asks you how they can help you. Slightly annoyed already, you explain that you need a list of mental health practitioners that are covered by your plan. The rep says you have the wrong department and transfers you, which causes you to wait on hold for a few minutes for another customer service rep.

You explain what you want again. The rep responds with “what do you need to see one for?” Taken aback, you stammer and ask why it matters. The rep gets exasperated and explains slowly that it will help narrow down the list. You state that you’d rather not go into your mental heath with a stranger on the phone. The rep seems annoyed, but doesn’t argue.

They then ask how you would like the list, since it’s “really long”. You ask what your options are. The rep says they can read it out to you (although clearly they don’t want to) or they can fax it to you. You don’t have a fax number. You ask if they can email it to you. The rep sighs and says sure and asks for your email address. You carefully give your email address and ask for them to repeat it back (having little confidence that they were listening). They seem to have it correct. They ask if there’s anything else you need and when you say no, immediately hang up. You go to check your email more than a little annoyed.

This is a very bad customer service experience. Even if you went into the call in a good mood, you ended up angry and throughout the call no one was treated with respect. Your requests were treated as annoyances, you were asked for personal information that you should never have been asked for and information that you should have been asked for in the wrong way and you became so annoyed that you started to treat the rep as if they were incompetent.

Unfortunately, the second call is becoming more typical of my experience as companies cut funding and training from their customer service departments, outsource to people who have no way of hoping to help the people who call them, and gain monopolies and other forms of control such that people have no choice but to remain their customers, bad service and all. Money is poured into marketing (and we see how well that seems to be working) and taken away from actually providing a good product and service to customers.

This is not a good way to do business and it’s not a good environment in which to be a customer. Being a customer doesn’t make you a lesser being. Everyone is a customer. Even CEOs are customers to someone, and they expect good service when they are customers, so why do they provide anything less to the customers they have? This is what I really don’t understand. No one is just a customer service rep or just a businessperson. Everyone is on the other side of the counter sometimes and when they are, they want good, compitent service.

They want cashiers who are efficient and able to do things like process returns without having to wait ten minutes for a manager, they want sales reps who don’t pester them to buy extra things but do find them what they want and make useful suggestions, they want reps who are willing to try and find the solution even if they don’t have it. They want to be dealing with trained employees who are respected enough by their companies to be allowed to think for themselves and do things. And companies should want employees who are loyal to the company to because it respects them and gives them enough leeway to find solutions or to hand customers off to people who can when necessary.

Customers who have good experiences talk about it. They tell their friends. I know that seems like a myth, but especially in this day and age when such experiences are all too rare, it’s true. I can’t tell you how many repeat customers I had and I saw the people working around me get because we provided great customer service when I was a bookseller. People would not only come back, they’d bring their friends and talk about it. I’d have strangers walk up to me and say “my friend said you were so nice and helpful to her last month when she needed a birthday gift for her niece and I remembered that, can you help me?” And I saw that happen to the people around me too. I also saw customers leave upset talking about never coming back and heard customers repeating horror stories of what happened to them or someone they knew. Bad stories get around too, you see. And both types also get Twittered, updated as Facebook statuses and blogged about.

The thing is, if you give me good service, I suspect you might care about me. If you fail to give me good service, I know that you don’t care about me. And thats really what it’s all about. I want to give my money and even work for companies that care, even abstractly, that I am their customer or their employee. I don’t want to give my money to companies to actively don’t care about me. So that’s the challenge. Show your customers you care, and they’ll care about you. Show them otherwise, and you might find that they respond in kind with that too.

Related Link: Marvel Divas: Bad Customer Service

In Defense of Words: “Censor”

A recent School Library Journal article stated:

“Don’t expect to see Lauren Myracle’s new book Luv Ya Bunches (Abrams/Amulet, 2009) at Scholastic school book fairs this year. It’s been censored—at least for now—due to its language and homosexual content.”

This statement was thoroughly backed up:

“But Scholastic says the book, released on October 1, failed to meet its vetting process because it contains offensive language and same-sex parents of one of the main characters, Milla.”

“The company sent a letter to Myracle’s editor asking the author to omit certain words such as “geez,” “crap,” “sucks,” and “God” (as in, “oh my God”) and to alter its plotline to include a heterosexual couple.”

“Scholastic defended the move. “Authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs,” adds Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman, explaining that the title will, however, be available in the Scholastic Book Club catalog.”

Scholastic responded to this article quickly. Their response gave the impression that they were having a very visceral reaction to having been called out for censoring a book:

“School Library Journal inaccurately stated that we censored the book. We review thousands of books each year and only a limited number can be carried in our channels.” – Kyle Good commenting on the SLJ article and the same comment was repeated verbatim on the Scholastic blog with pictures of their Book Club catalogs featuring the book to reinforce the statement

“Scholastic does not censor books. We review thousands of titles each year for our book clubs and book fairs, and we are committed to a review process that considers all books equally regardless of their inclusion of LGBT characters and same sex parents. In an interview with School Library Journal, Scholastic stated that we are currently carrying Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle in our school book clubs. We also said we were still reviewing the book for possible inclusion in our book fairs. Having completed our review of Luv Ya Bunches, Scholastic Book Fairs will carry the title in our spring fairs for middle school. Scholastic is proud of our long history of providing books that will appeal to the wide range of interests and reading abilities of children in the many diverse cultures and communities we serve. Luv Ya Bunches is just one example.” – On the Scholastic blog later, after much outcry arose in response to the SLJ article

The controversy over the book has been covered all over the internet, so I’m not going to go into it. Besides, as much as I wholeheartedly agree that it’s a really important issue, I don’t think that the reasons the book were censored are the most interesting part of this whole thing. I think that Scholastc’s knee-jerk reaction to a word is the most interesting part.

Scholastic repeated and vociferously claimed that they do not censor books, that they did not censor this book. But they have not countered or refuted any of the specific claims of the article, despite being repeatedly asked and given the chance to do so. Given that, it’s hard not to assume that they are, in fact, true statements concerning what occurred. And if that is the case, than Scholastic needs to dig out their dictionary (they publish several, so they must have some laying around they could check).

The word “censor” has a few meanings, but two particularly apply to how it is being used in this context. Seeing as I don’t happen to have a Scholastic dictionary on hand, I’ll provide examples of definitions from multiple other sources. The first is it’s meaning as a transitive verb.

- “to examine and expurgate” (American Heritage)
- “to examine and act upon as a censor or to delete (a word or passage of text) in one’s capacity as a censor” (Dictionary.com)
- “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable or to suppress or delete as objectionable” (Merriam-Webster).

The second is one of the word’s meanings as a noun.

- “an authorized examiner of literature, plays or other material, who may prohibit what he considers morally or otherwise objectionable” (American Heritage)
- “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds” (Dictionary.com)
- “an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter” (Merriam-Webster).

So now that we’ve got a good definition, let’s look back at the evidence stating Scholastic was censoring Love Ya Bunches.

1. The publisher has a “review process”, which rejected Love Ya Bunches on the grounds that it had “offensive language and same-sex parents”. According to our definition, any “review process” that rejects a book on the basis of “offensive” content of any kind, whether it offends them or not, is censoring.

2. Scholastic says “authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs”, which implies that they want the author to “expurgate”, “suppress”, or “delete” whatever it is that the “review process” determined needed fixing. Again, that matches our definition of “censor”.

If a censor is someone who “examines” media “for objectionable matter” (such as offensive language and same-sex parents) “in order to suppress or delete” said objectionable material (like, for example, asking the author to change it or refusing to carry it in a certain venue), then it seems that Scholastic has no leg to stand on in their claims of not censoring. In fact, it sounds like Scholastic censors everything they carry, it’s just that not everything is found to have “objectionable material”.

Words matter, and as as publishers and proponents of education Scholastic should know that. In fact, they should be among the first to stand up and defend language and encourage proper usage and respect for words. You can’t pick and choose – if you’re going to be a champion of something, you have to defend it even when you don’t like it. That means that even when you come up against a word you don’t like, if you claim to care about language the way Scholastic tries to through it’s educational publications and programs, then you have to accept and even defend it anyway.

That’s not to say that review processes and boards don’t have their place, because they do. But don’t rail against it when someone accurately calls them on being censors. Being a censor doesn’t have to be a bad thing A mom censors a TV show when she decides her three-year-old shouldn’t watch The Sopranos and changes the channel, but that doesn’t make her wrong for having done so.

Words are important and it’s worth defending them, even the ones you don’t like.

An Argument for Smaller Game Peripherals

I’m a small woman. In many ways I like this. I fit in airplane seats comfortably. I can buy kids’ t-shirts, which are always cheaper. But being small isn’t always easy. One problem that isn’t serious but is very annoying is that I am unable to comfortably play the vast majority of videogames for very long. Most controllers, computer mice, headsets and even keyboards are not designed for hands and heads as small as mine. My hands are not unnaturally small, either. They are proportional to my size (which means they are larger than those of most children and you can usually buy gloves that fit me without having to look too long). And my head is normal too. I can walk into a store and buy a hat that fits without a problem. Yet electronics remain an issue.

I have become increasingly convinced that more women need to be in the business of designing and creating videogame and computer hardware. I believe this about most electronics, actually. The reason I say this is that the vast majority of these things are designed for people with large hands and large heads and in our culture men tend to be larger than women. Since the vast majority of computer engineers are still men, I’m guessing that one part of the problem is that they are designing for themselves. What’s comfortable for me is usually not comfortable at all for my husband and what is comfortable for him is often either almost unusable for me or gives me hand cramps pretty quickly.

Now, this could also be fixed by the companies that market and sell these products realizing that women (and children and even smaller men) use their products as well and might buy more of them if they were more comfortable to use. I honestly believe that more women might game if it was easier to get smaller game controllers. I’m not saying that all women are little or that game controllers are sexist or even that women are consciously not playing because the controllers are too big for them, but I do know that I’ve met more than one woman who lists among her reasons for not enjoying videogames “they make my hands hurt”. I think it’s more an issue of the people creating and selling the products not thinking about it.

The most common reason I hear for not designing videogame electronics with smaller people in mind is that the core market for the videogame industry is young men, who by and large don’t have a problem with the size things come in now but would have issues if things were designed for smaller people. I find this argument to be kind of dumb because it is based on the assumption that you can only make things in one size. Console controllers, computer peripherals (mice, keyboards, controllers, etc.) and headsets can all be unplugged and interchanged without it making any difference to the system itself or to the game. So why couldn’t there be different sized peripherals to choose from?

It is possible to find smaller PC peripherals these days, but they are still very much in the minority (in a wall of mice at Best Buy I found two mice small enough for me and both were basic “laptop mice”). They are often of lower quality as well. I have yet to find a headset that fits my head that is of a higher quality than those I had with my discman in high school. This may have something to do with the fact that I have yet to find a headset priced over $25 that fits my head. But it is possible to at least find some options. When it comes to consoles it becomes nearly impossible. To find a smaller controller you must locate a third-party company that makes one, since none of the actual companies that make the consoles make smaller controllers, and then hope that it is both still being made and available somewhere. To get me a small XBox 360 controller, my husband had to go on eBay and pay more than $50 for one because only one company ever made any and they aren’t making them any more.

It may seem like this is a specialized concern, but it really isn’t. Women make up 50% of the potential market and children’s games come out on these platforms too. If it was easier and more comfortable for women to play, it’s likely that more would. It would also make family gaming more possible, since you could play games with your kids more easily on the same console you play Halo 3 or Mass Effect on. If consoles are more versatile, that makes them more marketable. I can imagine an X-Box 360 ad showing a guy playing an FPS with his buddies, shifting to the guy playing a cartoony adventure game with his kids and wife, shifting again to show the wife playing a puzzle game via X-Box Live with online friends and lastly shifting to the couple playing an RPG together. It could be a “build your own system” package that comes with a customizable group of controllers and a game chosen from a small selection or a push from Microsoft to show off the options their awesome peripherals give you. It won’t work if the controllers are only comfortable for the guy, though.

I also know that what I’m proposing costs more, but the potential gain could be huge. If the gaming industry really wants to reach a new segment of the market, a segment with incredible buying power and the willingness to spend a lot on entertainment if they feel it’s worth it, they need to do better than pink controllers and Pop-Cap game ports. Women are a huge potential market. HUGE. But even if you start making games for women (real games for women, not pink dress-up games), it’s not going to work if women can only play them for short periods of time before getting painful hand cramps. Think about how to take the basic building blocks of the industry – the very hardware the games are played on – and make it more accessible and fun for women. And that means not only getting more women to design the hardware, but getting more women in more shapes and sizes to play with it and give feedback.

Personal Agency and Women in Refrigerators

“But to malign writing for killing women when killing said women is a way of giving them the ultimate praise, of saying they’re the most important part of the life of a given character, hardly seems to be sexism to me. If anything, it is merely guilty of being an overdone plot device.” – Neal Bailey

Ok, so I’ve heard the argument that killing, raping, maiming, whatever a character as motivation for another character is actually a compliment to them because it shows how much they are loved before, but this goes a step beyond. The above quote is from a blog post. “Women in Refrigerators” is a phrase coined by Gail Simone and refers to the trend in comic books where female characters are killed or assaulted and seriously disabled somehow in order to provide a motivation for the male heroes in their lives.

I’m not going to argue that attacking the loved ones of a hero provides him or her a strong motivation, but I do have to wonder what villain in their right mind would possibly want to make a superhero that mad at them. I mean, seriously, do you really want a grieving husband or wife with superpowers coming after you? Really? That might deserve being thought through a little more before you actually attack his wife or her husband. But it’s motivation, and from the writer’s point of view, that’s the important point. I get that. And there can be times when it works. They may have had Joker shoot Barbara Gordon as incentive for Batman to hunt Joker, but she’s become a better character for it having happened. That event isn’t remembered as being about Batman, it’s remembered as being about Barbara.

And that’s the key point here. Women are people too and their motivations and hopes and dreams are their own. Yes, just as men are motivated by what happens to their wives, girlfriends and mothers, women are motivated by what happens to their husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. Female heroes rarely have family members stuck in refrigerators. And when the men do, it’s often forgotten after a few issues (Ralph Dibny may have morned his wife until he joined her in death, but more often it feels like the writers have forgotten the incident even happened a few issues later).

If a woman is her own person, even if she’s just a background character we never got to know, it can never be the “ultimate praise” for her to be killed to show that she’s the most important part of someone else’s life. Yes, it is possible for someone’s death to be the most meaningful thing that ever happened to them, but that involves them owning their death. It’s not that the person has to exactly choose to die, but they are personally ascribing meaning to their own deaths when they die (think of saints, dying for their beliefs with God’s name on their lips). These women aren’t given the chance to do that and have no ownership over their fates. They are victims, period.

Think about the way that sentence is phrased. How she feels about him is irrelevant. It allows for a woman to be killed for a man who adores her and considers her the most important part of her life, thus making her death the “ultimate praise”, when she doesn’t even like him or know who he is. Obviously, this isn’t the typical case. But the meaning of someone’s life, even a fictional character’s life, can’t be what they mean to someone else. What do they feel? What do they want? They must have dreams, ambitions, wants of their own. They are people and even the most minor of characters should be assumed to be the center of their own story.

Again, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be attacked or provide motivation, but it does mean that we can’t treat their deaths as existing only for the hero who is left behind. Every character has the potential to act, not just be acted upon, and suggesting that the best a woman can hope for is to be loved best by someone else takes all of that away from her. Even if we never see her own life, never see her act individually, it should be assumed that she can and does do so. She must have other people in her life, other things she does (a job, hobbies, etc.). To do otherwise is to draw a paper cut-out, not a character, and that is a disservice to our hero.

I would say that this attitude is pretty disturbing, and when only female characters are seen this way, it is indeed sexist. But it doesn’t have to be. This would be just as bad were it applied to male characters being killed to prove that they’re the center of someone else’s world, too. And if it were only applied to male characters (as it appears to be only applied to female characters here, although I don’t think the author means it that way), it would be sexism that way. But sexism isn’t the problem here, it’s lack of allowing for human agency and understanding that no one can exist solely to be part of, even the center of, someone else’s world and be considered a fulfilled human being. Being loved is important, but you need to be a person and have some kind of agency too. Otherwise you’re a doll.

Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week Meme

Headache1It’s just about the end of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week (September 14-20) and since I have one, I thought I should participate. I found this kind of interesting meme on a migraine site and it seemed an appropriate and kind of fun way of posting about my headache without getting all depressed about it (especially since this past week has been particularly hard in that respect).

1. My illness list includes but is not limited to: a headache that I can best describe as being sort of like a migraine but not quite that I’ve had every minute of every day for over ten years now (ten years and twenty-four days, actually).

2. I was diagnosed with: New Daily Persistent Headache

3. But I had symptoms since: It started pretty definitely on August 26, 1999, although now I think that I might have had auras as a kid and never had it diagnosed because I just thought everybody saw things like that.

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is: Learning to slow down and deal not being able to do everything I want to sometimes

5. Most people assume: “It’s just a headache.” I’ve come to hate the word “just” with a burning passion.

6. The hardest part about mornings are: Every morning there’s a moment when I first wake up when I realize that the pain is still there and even after ten years it’s still incredibly disappointing every time.

7. My favorite medical TV show is: I don’t really like medical TV shows. Not for any particular reason, I just tend to find them boring. The everyday workings of hospitals and the love lives of the people who work there just aren’t that interesting to me. I think there was a medical show with Dick Van Dyke at one point (Diagnosis Murder maybe?) that was a mystery show and I remember enjoying that, but it’s not on anymore as far as I know.

8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is: I don’t know. I’m not actually big on gadgets. Maybe my computer, if that counts as a “gadget”?

9. The hardest part about nights are: Falling asleep in the first place. I’m terrible at that. I can lay awake thinking about things forever. I’m totally a night owl!

10. Each day I take: two medications at bedtime and sometimes extras if the pain is bad.

11. Regarding alternative treatments: I haven’t had a ton of luck with alternative treatments, but I have found things that help a little (and, like most headache sufferers, I’m willing to try most things). Yoga (structured around and to help the headache) can help a little, but only if it’s already pretty good, the smell of peppermint takes the edge off the pain when it’s really bad and often makes it bearable until the medicine can kick in, head massages can reduce the frequency of the bad spikes, but are expensive. Nothing else has made a big difference for me.

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible I would choose: Well, I’d rather neither. That’s hard to say and I’m not sure I actually can choose here. I think they both suck equally for different reasons.

13. Regarding working and career: My headache has definitely changed how I went about following what I want for my career, but I’m still hoping to get there eventually. It also made working really, really challenging, both while being at work some days and in trying to justify sick days when I didn’t seem sick to the managers. And fainting in front of customers is generally a bad idea, but not something I could avoid at times. So it’s absolutely affected my work and jobs. It affected where and how I worked too, but that’s an even bigger mess.

14. People would be surprised to know: I can see some uses for some of the effects of my headache and I’m thinking about writing a story with that in mind.

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality is: having to realize that I have to slow down and pace myself all the time, that I have to think about everything – what I put on in the morning, what I choose to eat, where I sit in a room, etc. because it all affects what happens to my headache and the headache affects it.

16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was: Work up to a leadership position in my previous job. Given how hard it was just to work full time and how much I frustrated the managers by having to go home “sick” with a headache sometimes (and being sick longer than anyone else when I did get a cold because my body is also always fighting off a headache), I never thought they’d trust me as a lead, but they did. And, even better, I was good at it.

17. The commercials about my illness: Technically, there aren’t any, but the commercials about headaches and migraine are dreadful and I hate them a lot. I’m sure some of them will be featured on An Ad a Day at some point.

18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is: Crying without feeling bad the whole time that I was making my headache worse by crying (or by trying not to – it’s pretty much a lose-lose).

19. It was really hard to have to give up: Reading late into the night. I loved being able to do that. Loved, loved, loved it. Not that I wanted to do it every night, I’d outgrown the need to do that, but I loved that I could do it sometimes. It was a wonderful luxury that I’m not sure I ever really appreciated fully. Now I really can’t do that because if I do, I’m going to be in a ton of extra pain the next day that I didn’t need to be in, so I really don’t do it. I read a little late sometimes, but never like I used to.

20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is: I’m not sure that I have a new hobby, just more nuanced relationships with old ones. I game in new and different ways than I used to. I’ve started drawing and sewing more seriously, but both were things I did before. I’m sure there must be one (it’s been ten years), I just don’t know of it in particular at this moment. Sorry.

21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would: Throw a party (and probably spend the day second guessing it).

22. My illness has taught me: That I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was and that It’s important to slow down and pay attention to yourself. And that the world is full of weird smells.

23. One thing people say that gets under my skin is: “I couldn’t do that.” Yes, you could. When you don’t have a choice, you can do it. Trust me. And saying you couldn’t doesn’t make me feel better, it just makes me wish you thought more of yourself.

24. But I love it when people: manage to respond to my needs or help me without making me feel like an invalid or a freak or a china doll that will break as soon as you look at it.

25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is: “Tomorrow is another day”

26. When someone is diagnosed I like to tell them: Remember that it’s not just in your head, and it’s going to be ok.

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is: how much it affects not only every element of my life, but every element of my husband’s life as well.

28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was: My husband brought home flowers for me one day when he knew I was hurting a lot. They were just grocery store flowers he’d grabbed when he was there getting other things, but they meant a lot and made me feel so loved and happy. They weren’t the most important thing or the thing that made the most impact on my life, but they were a simple thing and it’s those simple things that make getting through day-to-day bearable.

29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because: Being invisible sucks. People think that just because they can’t see something it must not exist (with the exception of God, who for some reason gets to not have to follow this rule even in people who otherwise live by it). But you can’t always see things, even when they are real and so those of us who can “see” them should talk about them to give them more credibility. Headaches aren’t “in our heads” or minor or “a women’s problem” or anything else. An enormous percentage of the population suffers from them, so it’s incredibly stupid that they get so little respect and have so little research done on them. They matter and those of us who suffer from them, whether we talk about it or suffer in silence, matter too.

30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel: hopeful and happy. Thank you.

Katie Zenke, Headache Sufferer

Little Women: Jo the Feminist Wife

Like most girls in America seem to do, I read Little Women when I was growing up. For whatever reason, it spoke to me just as it seems to speak to most women who read it (making it the enduring classic it has remained for nearly one hundred and fifty years), despite the fact that I didn’t think I liked it the first time I read it. It’s hard to say I didn’t like it when it stuck with me so fastly and I remember the characters so well and so fondly in ways that I remember few other fictional characters. And like most girls, it seems, Jo was my favorite (although this opinion is slightly less universal than the appeal of the book generally, since many women do find other characters more appealing). I started thinking about Jo March again recently because of the introduction written by Linda Medley that appears at the beginning of the book Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming.

Medley discusses Jo and her ultimate fate at the end of Little Women quite a bit in this introduction. She states that while Jo is set up as a feminist character, her marrying a “stodgy old dope” like Professor Bhaer is a particularly unfeminist thing to do. She even goes so far as to wonder if some of “modern feminist literature has sprouted from… deep-rooted adolescent disappointment in Jo’s fate”. She begins all this musing by quoting her mother as saying (in “a tone of bitter disgust”) “Jo should’ve married LAURIE. Not that – that OLD MAN!”, to which she replies “Right on.”

This got me thinking. Was marrying Professor Bhaer a particularly unfeminist thing for Jo to have done? Was it unfeminist at all? The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was. In fact, the statement “Jo should’ve married LAURIE” feels far more unfeminist to me. So I dug out my copy of Little Women (which is dated 1911, so I’m guessing it’s the later version that we’re still all reading today).

I really couldn’t find any evidence that Jo ever wanted to marry Laurie, nor is she upset at all when he marries someone else. So why is the opinion that she should have so common (because it really is)? Do we feel so strongly that she needs to be married to someone that we have to pick who we think is the most appropriate partner for her, even if she doesn’t agree? Jo and Laurie have a great friendship that stays strong right up through the end of the book. Laurie clearly fell for Jo, but Jo never expresses any romantic ideas or feelings about Laurie. She also states a couple of times that she doesn’t want to be or marry rich, which makes sense. She has ambitions of her own (she’s a feminist, remember?), and rich mens’ wives couldn’t really spend their times writing books and things when they should be maintaining a large household of servants and keeping up appearances.

Can you really see Jo in silk gowns with bustles every day attending balls and giving instructions to nannies? It doesn’t sound like her, but it’s what Laurie’s wife would do. Amy can paint as a rich man’s wife because painting can be excused as an “accomplishment” when necessary, but you can’t do that with writing. Not to mention the kinds of things Jo wrote (remember, her stories were full of scandal and melodrama)! So, in the absence of romantic love and faced with a lifestyle that doesn’t match what she wants for herself, there would be no sense in Jo’s marrying Laurie. I can only conclude that we, as modern readers, want her to do so because he is young and handsome and rich and those are the qualities we have deemed most desirable in a husband (particularly a fictional one).

Jo knows what she wants and needs much better than we do, though. She meets Professor Bhaer halfway through the second part of the book (which was originally published as a second, separate book). They don’t fall in love right away. They develop a friendship through sharing interests, having great conversations and just generally getting to know one another. This is clearly an adult friendship, whereas Laurie’s friendship with Jo is one of those “we’ve been friends since childhood” friendships. There’s a different quality to it. Friendships in adulthood usually grow because of common interests or activities, whereas childhood ones are often started because of proximity (you make friends with the kid next door even if you don’t really have much in common, because it’s convenient and you’re too young to travel to find someone who shares your interests). This doesn’t make one type better than the other, but it does make them different.

Not only do they develop an adult friendship, but Jo and Professor Bhaer both actually develop romantic attachments to each other. Jo pines for him when she is separated from him, even though she doesn’t believe (or even imagine) anything romantic will ever come of their relationship and clearly Professor Bhaer dreams of Jo. The professor’s proposal isn’t particularly romantic in a conventional sense, but the whole scene with them discovering that they love each other as they stand in the rain is marvelous. Clearly this is a happy match for both. Even better, it is a match that will make both happy – they understand each other and will be able to support each other in their dreams and their work. Not only will Jo be able to keep writing, but she will have a husband who understands, encourages and supports her along the way (a rare thing for the time period).

I think that in choosing to marry the man that she loves and who will understand and support her in her dreams, Jo is doing something very feminist. It is not unfeminist to get married, just to get married to someone for the sake of being married (because you’re supposed to be a wife). Jo makes her decision for all the right, feminist reasons and, in the end, everyone is happy. I think that the reaction women have today of being disappointed that Jo married the professor instead of Laurie has more to do with our romantic ideas about love and marriage than about feminism. We look at Jo and the choices we believe her to have had and our cultural teaching tells us that you choose the man who is young, handsome, rich and romantic, not the man who is older, maybe not so classically handsome and not rich at all. Ideas of who you are actually in love with or who might make you happy don’t really enter into it (it’s generally assumed you will fall in love with the former anyway). But they should, a feminist examination would say that you look at the person for who they are, not what they look like or how rich they are.

I honestly believe that Jo is a great feminist character and that choosing to marry Professor Bhaer is one of the most feminist decisions she makes in the whole book. Little Women is a realistic story. The characters are supposed to reflect life. I’m glad that one of the most important fictional icons for girls in this country since the mid-1800s has been one who made decisions based on what she wanted and needed and, in following her heart, managed to find love. She may not be perfect, but no one is in real life either, so perhaps her very imperfections are what make her such a great icon. And if you need more proof that she made the right choice of husband, Louisa May Alcott wrote two more awesome books about Jo and Professor Bhaer and their lives together: Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both are well worth reading!

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