“Why do you like 'Doctor Who'?” I asked my nine-year-old daughter. “It’s kinda scary, and the main character is a white dude.”
My daughter’s nickname is Monkey, geek and daughter of geeks: her father is an indie roleplaying game connoisseur, and her mother is an anime fujoshin. She is also part Thai (from me) and part Palestinian (from her father), so we’re concerned about not only giving her good geeky media, but good geeky media that doesn’t completely ignore her heritages.
That’s why my question about "Doctor Who" was so blunt. As geekily historic as the show is, it still rates medium on our unofficial family representation scale.
“I like 'Doctor Who' because it’s scary. It has really cool, different alien monsters. And there are some good women characters, like Clara. Clara is the companion that helps save the Doctor all the time,” Monkey replied thoughtfully.
“What do you think about the Doctor, though?” My leading question was really more along the lines of, does it annoy you that a white British guy saves the day all the time? But my daughter saw through my question.
“He’s a really funny alien,” she responded, and the reply made me chuckle. Good for her to ignore the culturally embedded writing and bring up a canonical response. “I’ve only seen four doctors so far -- the first one, and then the three latest. But I think my favorites are David Tennant and Matt Smith.”
I was one step away from disowning her for her choice of favorite Doctor (mine is seven, my husband’s is nine) when she saved herself: “Mama, am I old enough to watch 'Elementary' yet?”
My daughter’s other diehard just-this-side-of-appropriate fandom is BBC’s "Sherlock." She’s watched all three seasons, including that one episode that introduces Irene Adler. She was eight when she watched the scene where Irene interacts with Sherlock all naked, and she obviously had some questions about it.
It took some deep thinking on my part to properly scaffold the moment for her, and I still don’t know if it’s appropriate for all eight-year-olds -- but I decided that it would be okay for mine, with some discussion.
“Well, Monkey, this is something that grownups do. It’s not okay for kids to play these kinds of games, but in this scene Irene is using her body to cause Sherlock to feel certain things. She wants to keep him from thinking at his best, and she’s distracting him by being naked.”
Monkey cheerfully moved on from the moment, but actually, "Sherlock" bugs me because it is once again too white and too male for my daughter. (I think there was one black woman in the first few episodes -- Sally Donovan? Where did she go?)
There are a few strong women in the show, but even my favorite one, Molly Hooper, is forced to have a crush on the (canonically) sociopathic main character -- why? I’ve seen plenty of arguments for and against this show, but my assessment mainly focuses around its impact on my child.
Do I really want her to learn from a show that once again glorifies the almighty awesomeness of a handful of white guys? In this case, I can guide her, but I can’t decide for her -- and she’s decided that she likes the show despite all of the downsides.
I still bring up my critiques, though, so that she can think it through while she watches.
(By the way, my kid recently picked up the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and she had this to say about them:
"Mama, it's so funny, Irene Adler is using, like, a printed photograph as blackmail instead of a cellphone!"
Oh, kids of the 21st century.)
So when Monkey asked her question about watching "Elementary," I quietly squee’d inside -- but I’m actually still not sure that the show is okay for a just-turned-nine-year-old.
“The show has some moments that are frankly sad. Like, with REALLY grown-up stuff, and not in the same way as 'Sherlock.' The grown-up stuff actually impacts the characters and matters, instead of being presented in a pulpy and fantastical way.”
“But mama, I really like Lucy Liu!”
Here’s where I really wish that there were more than a few Western shows that star awesome women of Asian descent, so that I could have a choice.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll watch the episodes and pick out some that you might like.”
Speaking of awesome Asian women -- I’ve lately been sneaking in some of my own geekdom for my daughter: various types of anime. I had to wait until she was nine before I started hitting her with the good stuff, because it was imperative that Monkey be able to read subtitles easily; like hell was I going to suffer through dubbed anime for her sake.
(Ah, I can already hear the protestations that some dubbed anime can be good. It’s true, it can. I just kind of prefer Japanese voice actors, okay?)
Not that it’s anime, but before Monkey could read, we let her watch all of "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Most recently we’ve also watched "Legend of Korra." If you get me started on the awesomeness of these shows, I won’t stop -- but suffice to say they definitely pass our family’s litmus test (too bad about that live-action movie).
After that, she insisted upon "Sailor Moon." My husband objected to various parts of it -- the eating disorder season, the weird date-rape metaphor season, the fact that it is also about Sailor Moon’s romance with Tuxedo Mask. My argument for it is complicated.
First, romance is not a terrible genre. Yes, it’s limiting to only watch women in romances, but the genre definitely shouldn’t be undervalued simply because it’s a traditionally feminine category of media.
Second, it’s one of the earliest examples of a show that centers around the interactions of young Asian women as they live their badass magical girl lives. My daughter’s favorite character is ChibiUsa (Mini-Moon), who is a grumpily adorable little girl with magical powers, and I see NOTHING WRONG with my child watching all of that type of character that she wants.
After that, we let Monkey watch "Fruits Basket" and "Ouran High School Host Club." These could both be categorized as Shoujo, just like "Sailor Moon," which is a Japanese fiction genre that is about the traditional concerns and interests of girls.
That means that both of these shows contain a light touch of romance, but they also are about complicated and interesting friendships, have thought-provoking back stories for characters, and enough complexity in gender roles (especially in "Ouran" and a little in "Fruits Basket") to make anyone step back and ponder.
For example, the main character of "Ouran" is initially represented as a male, and continues to play the role of a male throughout the story, although she identifies as a female. Her father’s occupation is a professional crossdresser in a nightclub.
Was this show appropriate for my daughter? Absolutely. Anything that causes my child to ponder gender representation while watching Asian women being awesome is entirely appropriate.
My child doesn’t approve of my current anime fixation, however.
I am very sheepish to admit that I’ve been sucked back into the world of Shounen (traditional boy’s interests) anime, especially shows concerning sports. I admit that before Monkey was weaned, I’d sit around and play with her while watching "Prince of Tennis," a show about the trials and travails of a junior high school tennis team.
One of the first things she learned how to say was the team chant for one of the schools: Katsu no wa Hyoutei! (The winner will be Hyoutei!)
This is entirely my fault, although her father did teach her this:
“What do zombies eat, Monkey?”
But, OK, I’ve got to admit that recently, I’ve watched my way through anime about a Japanese high school boy’s swim team ("Free!"), a Japanese high school boy’s volleyball team ("Haikyuu!!"), a Japanese high school boy’s basketball team ("Kuroko no Basuke"), and a Japanese high school boy’s bicycling team ("Yowamushi Pedal").
The shows contain boys playing sports. There are incidental women, but they never get to take part in any of the team activities, and are mainly managers and objects of desire from the boys. I mentioned up above that I’m a fujoshin, and if you googled the term, you’ll probably know part of why I’m watching these shows. However.
“Wanna watch basketball, Monkey?”
“Uh, mama? I’d watch it -- if there were ANY women players.”
Fair enough, young Monkey. Fair enough.