Q&A with Princess Awesome

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Rebecca Melsky and Eva St. Clair weren’t impressed with the limited clothing options for girls, so they made their own! Princess Awesome clothing revolves around the idea that girls shouldn’t have to decide between dresses and dinosaurs or ruffles and robots.


Melissa Seymour: Hi, Rebecca and Eva! Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Eva: I’m a SAHM of four (ages 9, 6, 3, 1), and I moonlight as a web editor for a project in medieval philosophy.  I’m originally from Tucson, AZ, and I have a BA from Stanford University.

Rebecca: I’m mom to two (ages 4 and 2), and I teach third grade full time in DC. I grew up outside of Chicago in Evanston, IL. I went to Brown University for undergrad and got my masters in education from Northwestern University. I’ve been teaching for 10 years.

MS: Why did you create Princess Awesome?

R: When my daughter turned two, she began insisting on wearing dresses every day. We could occasionally get her in a skirt if we called it a two-piece dress. Because she also likes rocket ships and robots and trucks and things, I would buy her pajamas from both the girls’ side of the clothing store and the boys’ side. One day I went shopping for pajamas for her, and, as I headed out of the store with my motley assortment of jammies, I thought, “I really wish they made some of those cute, twirly dresses with spaceships or robots because my daughter would totally wear that.” And then, “Maybe I should do that!”

When I asked Eva if she wanted to work together on this idea, she immediately said yes. Since that first conversation, back in April 2013, we’ve been united in our goal to provide clothing options for girls like my daughter who love twirly dresses, sparkles, and pink and who also love spaceships, dinosaurs, and pirates. And to provide options for the parents, like me, who want to honor their daughters’ feminine fashion choices and also help maintain their interest in science and pirates. We know a lot of little girls out there who fit this profile, and we want them to be able to wear all that they are in one article of clothing.

MS: What do most clothes or toys in our current market tell girls? What do your clothes communicate to them?

R: I think when girls walk through the aisles of most mainstream clothing stores, they are implicitly told that dinosaurs, trucks, cars, space, pirates, and so many other topics are “for boys” because you simply don’t find those things on the girls’ side of the aisle. There is nothing wrong with the rainbows, butterflies, and flowers that are offered to girls – we love those things, too! – but we want our clothes to help communicate to girls that dinosaurs (and trains, spaceships, robots, etc.) are just as much “for girls” as they are “for boys.” We want our clothes to communicate to girls that having feminine style preferences and enjoying hard science (or construction equipment or conceptual mathematics) are not mutually exclusive.

MS: How have people responded to your Kickstarter campaign? 

E: It is so wonderful to hear the stories people have told us about how their girls dress and play – all the same things we’ve observed spending time around children – that kids have a wide range of interests and that they want to wear all of those interests all at once.

R: The response has been so overwhelmingly positive that we’ve been blown away. Parents are clearly looking for more and different options for their girls than what they can find in mainstream stores.

MS: What types of clothing do you offer? What are the prints or themes of your collection?

E:  Right now we are starting with play dresses and skirted snapsuits for infants in five themes: pi, dinosaurs, pirates, atomic shells, and ninja. Our play dresses are made from 100% cotton and are soft, stretchy, easy to move in, and easy to layer with a long-sleeved shirt and leggings.

R: We are also immediately moving our line of Busy Dresses into development. Each of our Busy Dresses features a different form of transportation – trains, planes, or cars – that is attached to the dress which the wearer can drive, fly, or chug around the tracks, clouds, or road stitched onto the shirt of the dress.

MS: What are your dreams for Princess Awesome? 

E: We hope first to change the way people think about girls’ clothes by offering something new and different. We hope our company is just the first of many to offer clothes that reflect everything girls are and do and can be.

R: We hope to continue to grow and expand and offer many different lines of dresses as well as other apparel that feature a range of themes from chemistry to fine art for young girls and up through teenagers. Throughout our growth, we are committed to manufacturing in the U.S. with sweatshop-free labor.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine? 

E: My own mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother have most directly influenced me and given me confidence and courage. Outside my family, my heroine is Judith Martin (Miss Manners), who taught me that being polite and proper does not mean being a pushover.

R: I’d also have to say my mom. She has taught me so much about how to understand other people, how to communicate effectively and clearly, how to understand myself, and how to prioritize what really matters.

MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

E: We are so grateful to everyone who has supported our project!  We are thrilled to be able to make awesome clothes for awesome girls, particularly here in America with sweatshop-free American labor.

R: We have also gotten to know many other companies that are expanding the clothing options for girls (and boys, too!). They were all founded by moms who had experiences similar to ours and couldn’t find clothes that fully encapsulated all that their kids were and enjoyed. Girls Will Be, Jill and Jack Kids, Jessy & Jack, Quirkie Kids, Handsome in Pink, and Princess Free Zone (as well at the current and upcoming Kickstarters Svaha and buddingSTEM) – just to name a few. These companies are doing amazing work.

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Like Princess Awesome on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Princess-Awesome/175354239328989

 

You can pre-order Princess Awesome clothing here: https://princess-awesome.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders

Q&A with Jean Kilbourne: Internationally recognized feminist activist, filmmaker, author, and advertising critic

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Kilbourne! Thanks for speaking with us today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Dr. Jean Kilbourne: I’ve always had a hard time describing what I do because I’m involved in so many different fields.  I basically invented my career and I need to come up with a name for it!  Mostly I say that I am a cultural theorist, a feminist activist, and a critic of advertising. For decades I’ve been studying how advertising and marketing contribute to a wide range of public health issues, such as violence against women, eating disorders, the sexualization of children, high-risk drinking, addiction, and other problems.  Usually when there is a public health problem, there is an industry (or industries) contributing to it and profiting from it, as in the case of the junk food, sugary beverage, and diet industries and obesity, for example.


MS: What was it like working on the first Killing Us Softly? How has your approach or perspective changed?

DJK: I made the first version of “Killing Us Softly” way back in 1979.  It was simply a filmed version of my lecture on advertising’s image of women.  It was done very cheaply, with one take and only one camera.  There was virtually no marketing but, in today’s language, it went viral and has gone on to become one of the most popular educational films of all time.  I’ve remade it three times, most recently in 2010.  Much of what I said in 1979 is still true, but I think my analysis has deepened and certainly the films are infinitely better technically.  Although they are still based on my lectures, we now use commercials and graphics and a range of film techniques – and several cameras!


MS: Your work with gender issues and media coverage is brilliant—especially the concentration on eating disorders. Do you think things are getting better or worse?

DJK: Thank you!  In terms of the image of women in advertising and the popular culture, things are getting worse.  The ideal image of beauty is more tyrannical than ever before, as is the obsession with thinness.  This is partly due to the widespread use of Photoshop to create impossible ideals.  The sexualization of children is worse and images of violence against women are more widespread and extreme.

Alarmingly, pornography has become our nation’s primary form of sex education. On the bright side, however, I was alone when I started speaking about these issues and my ideas were often considered radical.  Now these ideas are mainstream and there are countless individuals and organizations working on these problems.  So this is heartening.


MS: So Sexy So Soon demonstrates how scary our society really is for kids… What can we do each day to try and combat these issues?

DJK: The most important thing we can do as parents and caregivers is to talk with our children honestly and openly about sex and sexuality and relationships (in an age-appropriate way, of course).  Children need at least one adult in their lives with whom they can have authentic conversations.   We also need to lobby to change this toxic cultural environment.  It would be great if we could ban all advertising and marketing aimed at children (as some other countries have done) but,  since that’s impossible in our society these days, let’s at least get advertising out of our schools.  Let’s support organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, SPARK, the Brave Girls Alliance, and others.

I have an extensive resource list on my website (www.jeankilbourne.com)


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

DJK: Was there ever!  I began speaking at a time when some people still believed that women shouldn’t speak in public.  To make matters worse, I was a feminist talking about sexism.  Women are still taken less seriously than men (and there’s a whole lot of research backing up that assertion) but it has gotten better.  I had many jobs before I launched my career as an activist and public speaker.  I was a waitress, a secretary, a teacher, a saleswoman, a model.  And I was sexually harassed and discriminated against in every one of these fields.

MS: What are you currently working on? Is there a specific issue you’ve been drawn to recently?

DJK: I’m still lecturing and working on updating my presentations.  But I’ve begun to think about writing a memoir, maybe something about the making of an activist.  I’ve also been taking more time for personal travel.  In the past few years I’ve been to Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Morocco, and many other places.  My mantra these days is If not now, when?


MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

DJK: I’ve been so lucky to have many people in my life who inspired and helped me in a variety of ways.  Jean Baker Miller, the author of Toward a New Psychology of Women, was a friend and mentor, as was George Gerbner, a renowned researcher and professor.  My mother died when I was nine, so I’ll always be grateful to the mothers of some of my friends who made a bigger difference than they could ever know – especially Inez Emerson, Helen Perry, and Rosalie Cartwright.  In 1968 I had the great good fortune to begin therapy with a brilliant psychiatrist named Paul Russell.  I am not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life.  I’m also inspired and moved by all the people in recovery from addictions whom I’ve met along the way. And my daughter Claudia Kilbourne Lux and her friends give me hope for the future.


MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DJK: I’d just like to say that, although things often seem quite bleak and hopeless, I do think we are making progress.  And I’ve always believed that action is the antidote to despair.

Follow Jean on Twitter: @jeankilbourne
For more information, visit www.jeankilbourne.com

 

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.