Q&A with Maria Nikolajeva: Author and professor at the University of Cambridge

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Hello, Maria! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research.

I am a professor of children’s literature at the University of Cambridge. I have worked academically with children’s and young adult literature more than thirty years and published a dozen books and hundreds of articles. I do not work on any specific historical periods, nor authors, nor genres, but I am interested in “big questions”, such as what makes children’s literature distinct from other kinds of literature. So perhaps what I do can be best described as philosophy of children’s literature.

How are female protagonists represented in children’s literature today?

Contemporary children’s and young adult writers cannot but be acutely conscious of gender issues. However, these can be dealt with in various ways. Replacing a male hero with a female in a conventional masculine heroic plot is not a good strategy. In fact, such pseudo-strong heroines frequently despise their less heroic sisters, which cancels the feminist thrust of the story.  Portraying a temporarily empowered heroine who falls for an attractive male the moment she meets him isn’t particularly radical either. A writer who really wants to be subversive must find ways of providing a female protagonist with agency and visibility, without withdrawing it at the end, and it must be plausible within the framework of the fictional world, be it realistic or supernatural.

How are children affected by what they read?

There is today reliable scientific evidence that reading fiction affects our brains, enhancing our understanding of the world, society, ourselves and other people. Young readers develop their cognitive and social skills through reading, using fiction as a training field for dealing with real-life issues and relationships. Most works of fiction place their characters in situations that readers are unlikely to encounter in real life, but can experience vicariously through the characters. For female readers such proxy experience can be particularly liberating.

You’ve written about the Twilight series and how damaging it can be to young girls. Can you expand on this? What are the big problems with this series?

Twilight is about rape and sexual abuse, which we normally perceive as socially and morally unacceptable, but which is in the series presented in a seductive way. Bella is easy for young girls to identify with, because she is such a nonentity, such a “just-like-me”, and it is a pitfall, because if readers align with a character they are unable to judge her, to see how erroneously she is thinking and acting. Young readers may not be able to liberate themselves from this immersive identification; in plain words, say to themselves: “I know that Bella is an idiot, and this is exactly why I am curious to read about her, since fortunately I will never be in this situation myself, because I am smart, and if I happen to meet a vampire, I will not be tempted”.

Could you provide us with some good example of books with strong female characters?

Two great recent examples are John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Marcus Sedgwick’s She Is Not Invisible. In the first, the protagonist is a cancer victim, in the other, she is blind. Neither book is “about” cancer or disability, but both portray young girls with strong personal integrity, powerful agency and voice. They don’t fight monsters, at least not in the conventional sense – they certainly fight their inner monsters. They are not “just-like-me”, and you don’t want to be like them, but you want to know everything about them because they are awsome.

What makes a female character “strong” or “weak”?

Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is doubtless a strong herione, but she is not flawless and has much to learn. This ambivalence makes her a compelling literary character, as opposed to, for instance, Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent who may seem strong, but is manipulated, which a young reader can easily miss, enchanted by her superficial strength. Katniss in The Hunger Games is a strong character precisely because she has weaknesses, doubts, ethical concerns; but if the reader is only interested in action and romance, this complexity may go unnoticed. A female character who emulates masculinity is not strong. A female character who is one of a kind and disdains other women is not strong. A character who can both maintain her agency and affirm her femininity is strong.

How do you feel about the statement, “Girls will read books with female or male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

It is true and has been repeatedly confirmed in various empirical projects, although it is of course a generalisation, and there may be many concrete examples of the opposite. Cognitive psychology has shown that girls develop empathy, that is, ability to understand other people’s emotions and states of mind, on the average two years earlier than boys. Therefore a young female reader is more likely to engage with a male protagonist. Nowadays books are very clearly marketed toward a particular audience, and there is strong peer pressure, so a boy wouldn’t like to be caught reading a book with a girly cover, even if it may be of huge interest for him. (Ebooks are good because they don’t betray what you are reading). But this tendency certainly continues into adulthood: men typically don’t read books or watch movies with female protagonists, and generally men read less fiction than women. This is why women on the whole have more imagination and empathy, since reading fiction stimulates these qualities.

Who is your hero/heroine?  

Snufkin in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

Q&A with filmmaker Megan Griffiths: Director of “Lucky Them”

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Melissa Seymour: Hi, Megan! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Megan Griffiths: I am a filmmaker based in Seattle, WA. I have made four feature films (LUCKY THEM, EDEN, THE OFF HOURS and FIRST AID FOR CHOKING) and ten short films. I also spent ten years working in various crew positions, including cinematographer, editor, first assistant director and producer. I got an MFA in film production from the Ohio University School of Film in 2000.

MS: Which of your films are you most proud of? Why?

MG: I have made such different films with each outing that it’s difficult to compare them to one another, and I’m proud of each for very different reasons. FIRST AID FOR CHOKING was my first feature and it taught me so much and really helped me to begin to understand my specific point of view as a filmmaker, which is a critical lesson for any artist to learn. THE OFF HOURS was a film that came from a huge amount of personal passion and focus, the hard work of some amazing and dedicated producers, and the support of my community, which makes it very special to me. EDEN addresses an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention and I’m proud of the conversation that it starts, as well as the technique that was utilized to tell the story in an engaging way and make it more than just an “issue” movie. LUCKY THEM was an opportunity to stretch into comedic territory, and I’m proud of the response it elicits from audiences, both the laughter and the real emotional connection people have with the characters.

MS: You often shed light on social issues in your films. Could you explain why you focused on human trafficking in Eden? What drew you to this problem?

MG: EDEN was a project that came to me after it had already been in development for several years. I was truly blown away by the fact that it’s based on true events, and that the woman whose story it tells was involved in the writing process. I also really loved that it is a story of a woman who is never “saved”—she has to utilize her intelligence and tap into her survival instincts to transcend her circumstances. So many films about similar topics include some hero swooping in to save the day, but the unfortunate reality is that most people in these situations are never rescued. There are a lot of complicated moral questions raised and difficult relationships that are formed within the film, and I’m always very interested in wrestling with complexities.

MS: Tell us a little bit about Lucky Them. Why did you want to tell this story?

MG: When I read this script, I really felt like I recognized the characters. They all felt so specific and real. I’m often drawn to stories about people who are stuck, and Ellie (the main character in LUCKY THEM) has been frozen in time, emotionally and psychologically, since the departure of a person who really shaped her whole lifestyle, career and sense of self. I really responded to the idea of a character having to shed that old skin and move forward.

MS: What challenges have you faced in your career?

MG: I think the main challenge is trying to take something I love to do and turn it into a viable career. Making films independently is incredibly rewarding and offers you a lot of creative freedom, but it’s not a lucrative path. Branching into larger budgets, there is more financial reward, but often more creative voices and roadblocks to retaining your singular vision. Learning to navigate these issues and continue to create and pay rent all at the same time is something I’m still trying to figure out.

MS: What frustrates you most about the media or the film industry?

MG: I think at the root of any frustrating issue, there’s always an explanation that makes it at least understandable, even if it doesn’t really make you feel better. For example, I find it frustrating that character-focused films are being made with smaller and smaller budgets (or not at all) while effects-driven blockbuster budgets are inflating to a ridiculous degree. While I understand that there must be piles of box office data that are driving the studios to focus their efforts on tent-pole fare, I still miss the complex and intimate stories that once were made and promoted with the same ferocity.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

MG: Probably the person whose career I admire most would be Soderbergh.  I really appreciate how he has been able to move between genres and budget levels and bring such thoughtfulness and intelligence to every project. He’s also a filmmaker who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and in someone so talented and prolific, that’s refreshing. I also have huge respect for Meryl Streep, who has done so much work all over the spectrum and still manages to push herself creatively. Even when it seems she’s reached her pinnacle she manages to raise the bar with each successive project, which is incredibly inspiring.

MS: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be producers, writers, directors or actresses?

MG: Understand who you are and what you bring to the table. You are nothing without your instincts, and in order to trust yourself you have to know who you are and what makes you special.

Q&A with Lois Lowry: author of THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Lois! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Lois Lowry: I am a writer who does primarily books for young adults and middle-grade kids. It is my full-time job. I started doing this when my own children were teenagers.  Now, many years later, they are grown…and I have a 30-year-old grandson.  So I have been at this for a lot of years. My first book was published in 1977.

MS: Why is it so important for children to read? Did you read a lot as a child?

LL: Yes, I loved reading, as a child. In those days we had no TV!  Books, for me, were a primary pastime. It’s harder now for kids, with so many choices of how to amuse themselves, how to learn, how to spend time, to focus on books the way I did.  But I do think it’s important that kids read in order to develop their own imagination and creativity.

MS: You create very realistic characters… What’s your process for character development?  

LL: I don’t have any formal process. Characters appear, almost fully formed, in my imagination; and they continue to develop as I write the story.

MS: Your female protagonists are strong characters and great role models for girls. Is this intentional? Do you feel it’s important for children to have strong female role models?

LL: The fact that I am female accounts for the fact that most of my books…not all…have female protagonists. The fact that they are “strong characters” is because such it is necessary to the story always. The protagonist is the one who makes choices, who faces obstacles, who battles through to achieve a goal.  Male or female, that character has to be a strong one to engage the interest and empathy of the reader.

MS: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LL: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.

MS: Was there ever a time in your writing career when you weren’t taken seriously?

LL: Probably when I was a housewife and the mother of four young children…and trying to write….very few people took my aspirations seriously. The important thing is that I did, always.

MS: How much time do you put into world building before you write a novel? How long did it take you to create your world in The Giver?

LL: Not much.  It builds as I write it…and as I go back and rewrite it.  The rewriting and revision is the important element. I discover the world as it creates itself. Then, as I begin to know it, I can go back and flesh it out.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

LL: Stuart Little. I love his indomitable optimism.

MS: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be authors, directors, producers or artists? 

LL: My advice would be to take oneself seriously and to focus on the craft. Not to think about achievement or success but rather the work itself, the joy one can take in it….and the joy one can give to others.

Q&A with Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: Author of the Lolita Effect

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: I’m a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa; my research specialization is feminist media studies, and I study and write about representations of gender and sexuality in the media.

MS: Why did you write the Lolita Effect? When did you become aware of these problems? Was there a specific moment?

MGD: I wrote the book for a few reasons: to draw attention to the issue of the sexualization of young girls in the media and the social repercussions of that phenomenon; to make a distinction between “sexualization” and more progressive, open, healthy conceptions of girls’ sexuality; and to translate my research and that of other feminist scholars into a form that was accessible and available to general audiences. I’m not sure I can identify a key moment when I became aware of the issue – it developed gradually, especially during the mid-1990s, when a number of studies were recognizing some of the complications and problems associated with girls’ adolescence in American culture. I began to wonder how the media were implicated in these problems.

MS: What’s the most important thing a parent can explain to their children about the media?

MGD: First of all, that the media, especially the entertainment media, are filled with myths — media images and messages are not “reality” but constructions that seem real, so they should be recognized as something close to fiction; and second, that these constructions of reality are tied to profit motives, so the representations are designed to maximize advertising revenues for the media industries and are not at all in the best interests of the audience members.

MS: Do you think that the media is changing? For better or for worse?

MGD: I can’t say I see any great changes, as the underlying structures — the dependence on advertising, the commercial motivations, the circulation of myths of femininity and sexuality — have stayed the same for decades now. But if anything, it’s getting worse: the media industries are targeting younger and younger children with sexualized and retrograde messages, and the constructions of “ideal” femininity have become even more unattainable and narrowly defined.

MS: Should we try to censor children from the media? Is this possible?

MGD: I’m absolutely not an advocate of censorship. I am much more in favor of open public discussions of important issues that could lead to pro-social change. But some form of regulation might be helpful; this is the case in Scandinavian countries, which are havens for free speech but which also recognize the developmental differences between children and adults.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

MGD: I’m currently writing a couple of academic articles about sexual violence against women and girls. After that, I’m hoping to begin work on a book of essays about media and contemporary girlhood.

MS: How can people take action and try to change the media or advertisements?

MGD: Expressing your views directly to media corporations can be effective. Monitoring your media environment, as well as your child’s, to try to avoid misogynist and harmful media content is another step you can take. Boycotting products that use sexist advertising, and publicizing the boycott, is a good way to challenge sexism in popular culture. I’m also an advocate of media literacy programs that help people develop analytical skills so that they can be active media consumers rather than passive audiences.  I think media literacy should be part of every K-12 curriculum: in today’s media-saturated environment, it’s as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

MGD: That’s a really hard one! There are so many amazing women — and men — whose activism and brilliant social critiques have changed the world. If I started listing them, it would take all day! But my work is indebted to the work of all the feminists who have gone before me.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become writers, directors, producers or activists?

MGD: I’d say, let your passion guide and inspire you, and find ways to combine your energy and emotion with articulate analysis. Forge strong bonds with others who are working to change the world — coalitions and networks are important, not only in terms of making a difference, but in terms of emotional and moral support. Read the work of feminist activists whose insights offer depths of understanding as we try to tackle the world’s problems; the brilliance of our feminist foremothers will enrich your own work.  Get involved with grassroots groups in your communities, and start creating the work through which you want to share your vision: short films, essays, plays, dance performances, whatever. These days you can post your videos to Youtube or blog or submit your writing to local literary journals; eventually, you will gain a wider audience. Above all, keep striving for change — there’s so much to be done!

photo credit: Overlook Press