The Enchanted Rose
Writing For and About Children in the #MeToo Era
I originally proposed this talk as a panel. I thought it would be interesting as a conversation, a dialogue with other writers, colleagues, about an important and timely subject, a subject for which I had no answers, only questions, and often only the beginnings of questions. I knew why it was important to learn from #MeToo: Because we want a more fair and just and equitable society. I thought that, perhaps out of a panel discussion, some sense of how to go about writing for kids in light of #MeToo would emerge.
So when I was asked to make this proposed panel a keynote speech, my first instinct was to crawl into a hole. My whole body tensed thinking about giving a 45-minute talk on this subject. After all, I am a man—someone who identifies as male—and because I am a man I have been afforded privileges by our society often invisible to me. I thought: Who am I to come up here and give a talk about a matter that has been led and championed by women, courageous enough to speak out? Who am I to give a talk about a matter that, as I said earlier, I had no answers for, only the beginnings of questions?
Doing the Work
I ran an intensive this morning about writing outside your own experiences of race, gender, orientation, religion, ability, and so on, and one of the main points was the importance of doing the work. Of leaning into those uncomfortable feelings, carrying those fears of getting it wrong and seeing them as signals for the kind of learning and conversation that is important and necessary. And I do feel that more men need to speak out #MeToo, as allies, advocates, in support of the work that so many women have done and are doing.
So I am here in support. I’ll be coming at this topic from the perspective of masculinity and how it relates to feminism and femininity, as this is the part of the larger conversation that I feel I can speak to. I’m up here talking for now, but I will be listening, learning. I hope we can discuss these topics throughout the weekend. I hope you’ll call me out on anything I got wrong.
I want to start with a question. It’s a question I’ve come across as I’ve been learning, and that question is:
How can we, as a society, put a complete stop to violence against women and girls?
If we were to think about that question for a moment, we as storytellers, creating story worlds—if we were to try to imagine that world … what would it look like?
There is, of course, a group implied, implicated, in this question: #MeToo is not just about women and girls; it’s about the ways in which men have abused their power and privilege. It’s about gender relationships. It’s about the systems and norms in our society that enable this abuse to happen.
Laurie Halse Anderson wrote recently in Time Magazine about her experience visiting schools to talk to students about sexual assault and her novel Speak. She says:
“Supporting [survivors of sexual violence] is necessary and compassionate. But support on its own does little to reduce the number of people who are attacked every year. Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. According to a 2000 report from the Department of Justice, 96% of sexual assault offenders reported to law enforcement were male.”
In the same article, she also shares (and this is what I think is the real horrifying thing):
“In schools all over the country, in every demographic group imaginable, for 20 years, teenage boys have told me the same thing about the rape victim in Speak: They don’t believe that she was actually raped. They argue that she drank beer, she danced with her attacker and, therefore, she wanted sex. They see his violence as a reasonable outcome. Many of them have clearly been in the same situation.”
I have to take a deep breath every time I read that. If these are beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in our culture, and so early on, how do we as writers and illustrators begin to undo this toxicity, within our realms of influence?
One thing we are doing more of, thanks to #MeToo and to the feminist movement, is teaching consent, in our culture and in our community, in the work that we do for kids, starting at a young age.
There are more and more books being written that teach kids about consent, about appropriate touch. Even in stories not directly about consent, we are starting to embed consent. An example is the popular show Riverdale. It’s normal in the world of Riverdale for characters to obtain consent before being intimate with each other. And it’s through that normalization in our stories that it starts also to become more normal in our society.
But Laurie’s article makes it clear that we have a lot of work to do. And teaching consent is just one aspect of shifting the culture that creates the conditions for that violence—sexual or otherwise—against women and girls. We also have to examine the ideas we have around masculinity that contribute to that violence.
Which brings me to Beauty and the Beast.
As a kid, this was my favorite Disney movie. Beauty and the Beast, of course, is that classic fairy tale about a prince who gets turned into a vicious animal and then holds a girl prisoner long enough for her to fall in love with him and break the spell. Classic tale about Stockholm syndrome.
The reason it was my favorite Disney movie, I chalk up, in part, to timing. It came out when I was eight or nine, and I think I first saw it on VHS a couple years later. Another part was that, as an adolescent who felt at times like an outcast, who was interested in girls but didn’t know how to express his interest, I connected with Beast. I also saw a face that, while not East Asian, was not white. A face that ten-year-old Jack could project himself onto, the same way I could project myself onto Spider-Man. Had I been born a couple decades later, I might’ve had more options, but at the time, this was what I had to work with.
Even though this movie came out in 1991, there was a recent live-action remake with most of the story elements intact. I’d also argue that Beauty and the Beast is the Disney animated feature that is most directly about masculinity and femininity. So I think it’s interesting to look at the original with a critical lens, to see both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.
We start off with Belle in her little provincial French town. She loves books. This is symbolic of her intelligence, and also her independence. We’re told, by the townspeople in song, that she’s so physically beautiful, she doesn’t need to read. Yet she does. From Belle, we gather that it’s good to be smart and independent in a world that doesn’t see a point in that. We’re off to a good start!
A recent poll conducted by Plan International surveyed a thousand children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 about gender attitudes. An article in The New York Times summing up the findings said:
“Girls were as likely as boys to say math or science was their favorite subject, and to have considered running for office. They said they were mostly treated fairly compared with boys.”
But it goes on (emphasis mine):
“Yet when it came to their bodies, girls said they did not feel equal. About three-quarters of girls 14 to 19 in the survey said they felt judged as a sexual object or unsafe as a girl. By far, they said society considered physical attractiveness to be the most important female trait.”
The Times also interviewed a group of adolescents for the piece, and a young woman, Hiree Felema, sums up those attitudes succinctly when she says:
“For me, it’s important to be intelligent and confident. For women in society, I think people just want you to be attractive.” Hiree Felema, Age 13
“Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules”
Belle’s song and sequence at the beginning of the film mirrors this belief. The townspeople sing:
Now it’s no wonder that her name means “Beauty”
Her looks have got no parallel
The film sets up that she’s smart and independent, but at the same time, we are reminded over and over again of her physical beauty. What’s disappointing, to me, about this, is that there is the potential for a really radical story here, but that potential isn’t fully realized. It’s not enough for Belle to be intelligent and independent; she also has to be physically attractive. The story hinges on her physical beauty. If she weren’t beautiful, the story tells us, there would be no pursuit by Gaston.
Gaston. He’s thick-necked, big muscled, cleft chinned. He hunts. Before we even see his face, before he even says a word, he shoots a duck out of the sky. He tromps around in boots, uses antlers in all his decorating. His namesake song features a barfight. And he feels entitled to Belle. “She’s the most beautiful girl in town,” he says. “That makes her the best. And don’t I deserve the best?”
That’s some Disney villainy right there. And it’s clearly a caricature of traditional masculinity! We know from the get-go that Gaston is the villain, and his villainy is tied to his expression of masculinity. His whole song is Gaston literally performing his masculinity after Belle rejects him, in order to shore up his confidence.
Again, there is a lot of potential here. Whereas Belle is shown as beautiful on the inside and beautiful on the outside (at least by traditional standards), Gaston is presented as beautiful on the outside but monstrous on the inside. This seems to set us up for a contrast with Beast, who is monstrous at first on both the inside and outside (or at least monstrous in that furry, cuddly, Disney kind of way) and who we are rooting for to become beautiful on the inside.
Beast or Gaston?
I want to play a game here called Beast or Gaston. I’ll give you a characterization and you tell me if it’s Beast or Gaston. Ready?
- Can’t control his anger.
- Physically dominates his opponents.
- Employs threats, coercion, to get what he wants.
- Surrounded by advisors who plot to get Belle to fall in love with him.
- Won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
It’s, of course, both Beast and Gaston! Even though Beast doesn’t have the performative markers of Gaston, they both exhibit these same toxic qualities of traditional masculinity.
Actually, the last one is also Lumiere, who in addition to acting this way toward the featherduster, also hits on Belle the moment he meets her and, in an extended version of the film, hits on Ms. Potts.
My point is that Beast and Gaston’s toxic expressions of their masculinity are very similar. They are both monstrous in the same ways. In our story: Belle locks herself in her room her first night in the castle, and Beast, egged on by his helpers, tries to get her to come out and eat dinner with him. When she refuses, he screams at her through the door, stomps into his room, smashes things, and creeps on her using his magic hand mirror. This, of course, is already after he’s already locked up her father and threatened to imprison him for life.
But the helpers throw Belle a feast anyway, and at the end of it, Belle, independent and curious as she is, sneaks away into the forbidden West Wing, which is dark and spooky and filled with gargoyles (as we know West Wings can tend to be).
Beast catches her looking at the Enchanted Rose and screams at her again, this time scaring her sufficiently that she finally runs away. But then she gets attacked by wolves and he saves her, sacrificing himself in the process. Here we see the first point of real moral difference between Beast and Gaston: Beast is willing to risk himself to save Belle.
Yet just as we keep getting reminded of Belle’s physical beauty, we keep getting reminded that Beast’s aggression and dominance have a part to play in his winning her over. You still gotta be physically strong to be a man, to win the girl.
The Boy Code
Many of us are familiar with the Boy Code, that set of rules every boy internalizes, that says that being a man means being athletic, powerful, dominant, stoic. That the only viable expression of emotion is anger. In the same Times article I mentioned before, in which the girls interviewed talked about society valuing their physical attractiveness most, the boys talked about the limited ways to be a boy. Twelve-year-old Muyang Yan says:
“Nowadays, if you’re a girl and you act like a boy, it’s considered cool, it’s normal. But if you’re a guy and you act like a girl, it’s different, it’s not as tolerated.” Muyang Yan, Age 12
“Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules”
That reminds me of something that happened to me earlier this year. I was visiting a school talking about my middle grade novel, See You in the Cosmos. One boy who had read the book raised his hand and asked, about the main character Alex:
“Why does he cry so much?”
Here was this sixth grader, who had already begun to internalize the Boy Code, the code that says that boys are not supposed to cry. Boys are supposed to suck it up. To “man up.”
When Boys Become Boys
One psychologist, Judy Y. Chu, spent two years immersed with a group of 4-to-6 year olds moving from preschool to kindergarten, detailed in her book, When Boys Become Boys. Chu found that at the beginning, boys were as emotionally perceptive, articulate, and responsive in their relationships as the girls. But by the time they were six, they were already starting to lose that perceptiveness and responsiveness. In other words, a lot of what we normally consider “boy” behavior—the Boy Code—isn’t innate to boys. It’s learned at a very young age. And as children’s writers and illustrators, many of us also parents, educators, librarians as well, we play a role in that learning.
To that boy who asked the question about why my main character cried so much, I responded: Because I cried a lot as a kid. Because sometimes crying is better than holding it in and bottling it up, and having it come out later as anger, or violence.
But you know, I still could have done better. I could have said that I cry a lot even now, as an adult, which I do. Instead of framing it as some passing thing that I outgrew, I could have expressed to this boy that crying is a natural expression of masculine emotion. I could have done better.
Back to the film. As Belle and Beast start falling for each other, we see Beast engaging in new activities. Reading, being gentle with animals. Again, this is encouraging. He’s breaking from traditional norms.
They have their big ballroom dance. It’s a dreamlike sequence, but we snap out of the dream when we realize that Belle is still his prisoner. Beast shows her the magic hand mirror, and with it, Belle sees that her father is in trouble. She’s distraught. And Beast frees her. He lets her go. He sacrifices himself a second time, this one not physical, but emotional. He’s finally learned to love.
And yet, here is another disappointment, maybe the biggest disappointment of all. We’re told that him learning to love is not enough. It should be enough! But we’re told that she must love him back. He must, in the end get the girl, or it’s all for naught.
The Man Box
One more study, this one conducted in 2017 by Promundo and Axe. It’s called, The Man Box, and it surveyed a random sample of young men aged 18 to 30 in the US, UK, and Mexico. The researchers defined seven pillars of traditional masculinity, similar to the Boy Code:
- Acting Tough
- Physical Attractiveness
- Rigid Masculine Gender Roles
- Heterosexuality & Homophobia
- Aggression & Control
They found that a majority of men who adhered to these seven pillars of “The Man Box” were more likely to:
- Put own health and well-being at risk
- Cut selves off from intimate friendships
- Resist seeking help
- Experience depression
- Think frequently about suicide
As well as:
- Sexually harass women
- Use violence against other young men
- Experience violence themselves
- Binge drink
- Get in traffic accidents (at 2–3 times the normal rate!)
In the study summary, the researchers write:
“Young men reap certain benefits from staying inside the Man Box: it provides them with a sense of belonging, of living up to what is expected of them. Friends and parents may praise them. However, when those same norms [demand] that they pretend to be someone they are not, the resulting life can be violent and lonely.”
We can’t answer this question:
How can we, as a society, put a complete stop to violence against women and girls?
Without answering this one:
How can we redefine masculinity so that men and boys don’t commit violence against women and girls?
And this one, too:
How can we redefine masculinity so that men and boys don’t commit violence against themselves?
Learning from Feminism
The conclusion that a number of these researchers have come to is that we need to learn from the feminist movement, and expand the definition of what it means to be a boy, a man. The keyword here is expand. The goal is not to take away barbecue grills and power tools; it’s to normalize the idea, as we have done and are doing with our girls, that there are totally different ways of being a boy, all of them equally valid. The same way that we are starting to normalize consent, have conversations about consent, embed consent more into our stories, we can normalize a healthier definition of masculinity. A definition that acknowledges the inner emotional lives of boys.
I’d like to highlight, now, a couple examples. Most of these are middle grade, as that’s what I write and tend to read more of, but I welcome your recommendations in picture books and YA.
One that comes to mind is Michelle Knudsen and Scott Magoon’s Big Mean Mike, about, a big mean dog who realizes that he doesn’t have to pretend he doesn’t love cute fluffy bunnies. And more recently published, Pablo Cartaya’s Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, which features a towering, hulking, eighth-grade boy who is … not a bully. I repeat: not a bully. That’s something I haven’t seen before.
I think about Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, featuring a genderqueer prince. This whole time I’ve been talking about boys and girls; I don’t want to leave out the queer, trans, and non-binary kids who are very much a part of this conversation about rigid gender norms, and who are also the ones most likely to be marginalized because of those same norms.
I think about great boy-girl friendships we’re seeing in middle grade: Charlotte and Ben in Erin Entrada Kelly’s You Go First, or Lev and Mikayla—both wrestlers—in Laura Shovan’s Takedown. Or Candice and Brandon in Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance.
I also think about the emotional boy-boy relationships, like Josh and Jordan’s in Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. Or Jerome and Carlos in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys.
In fact, I think that this is something that I don’t see enough: two boy characters being emotionally vulnerable with each other. Maybe I’m ignorant here, but I had a harder time coming up with examples of boy-boy relationships like this than I did with the boy-girl ones.
The Superbad Test
I’d like to float an idea here, inspired by the Bechdel test (to gauge fictional representation of women). I’ll call it the Superbad Test, after the scene in the movie Superbad in which the two heterosexual teenage male best friends are only able to admit their love and appreciation for each other after a night of drunken debauchery.1
To pass the Superbad Test you need a story that has:
- At least one scene with two boy/adolescent male characters
- Neither of them under the influence of drugs or alcohol2
- Being emotionally vulnerable with each other.
One more thing I have to mention, that goes beyond writing and creating stories, is about the ways in which we give kids these stories. How many times have you heard this said?
“Girls will read anything;
boys will only read about boys.”
I’ve heard it a bunch in just my short time as a children’s author. It’s often presented as a fact of life, the way things are. Author Shannon Hale wrote a post about this on her blog a few years ago. At one school she went to while on tour for one of her Princess Academy books, the principal only gave permission for female students to leave class to attend her presentation. No boys were allowed. She writes:
“The belief that boys won’t like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me) when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don’t have to read about girls, that boys aren’t expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world….this belief directly leads to rape culture.”
I have to take another deep breath.
When we say that boys only want to read about boys, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re saying, essentially, that “boys will be boys.” But, as we know, boys will not be boys forever. Boy will become men. And we must do the work to make sure that they do not become the men who commit violence against women and girls, the men who commit violence against themselves.
There’s a moment in the climactic fight scene at the end of Beauty and the Beast when, after Beast has physically dominated Gaston, he is holding Gaston over the ledge. And for the very first time in the film, we see that Gaston is afraid.
And Beast, recognizing that Gaston is afraid, stops. The expression on his face changes. His anger vanishes. He shows mercy. I’d like to think that the reason Beast shows mercy is because he realizes that here is another scared little boy, unable to express how scared he is. Same as him.
There is so much potential in Beauty and the Beast. And so much disappointment in how it falls short of that potential. But that it at least had this potential, in 1991, gives me hope.
Maybe it would also be better to look at the story on the level of symbols, of allegory. Maybe the Enchanted Rose, under the glass dome, represents the way we as a society harm girls by giving utmost importance to physical beauty. Maybe the rose also, simultaneously, represents the way we harm boys by sealing off their emotional lives, leaving these emotional lives to wither in isolation. And maybe the union of Beauty and Beast is the union of feminine and masculine, of women and girls expanding into traditionally masculine domains, and men and boys expanding into traditionally feminine ones, so that each, both, is its own whole.
But allegory, in this case, is also too-convenient an interpretation.3 I don’t think the ten-year-old watching this sees allegory. I think what they absorb is more that for all of Belle’s independence, society still cares about her looks. And for all of Beast’s growth and vulnerability, it’s still all to get the girl.
And I’d like you also to imagine, now, the ten-year-old Chinese boy watching this movie. The ten-year-old Chinese boy, seeing, at the end, this character he so identifies with finally love and be loved, only to have that love transform him …
… into a white prince.
And I hope you’ll recognize that we’re not just talking about white boys and girls. We’re talking about Brown and Black boys and girls, Asian and Native boys and girls. And not merely boys and girls but non-binary, genderfluid—all children. Each with their own experiences, each with their own interior lives, each as deserving as any other child, to not have to seal away parts of themselves because of they do not fit into society’s rigid definitions. Each deserving to be accepted, and to belong.
Additional Notes and Resources
All images are copyright their respective owners, and employed here for educational purposes under fair use. You are welcome to share and distribute this talk for non-commercial purposes. If you have any comments or feedback, please email me.
I was first introduced to a number of the studies mentioned here through the following sources:
- The Mask You Live In (2015), a documentary following a diverse range of boys and young men as they wrestle with America’s narrow definition of masculinity.
- How to Raise a Boy (2019) by Michael C. Reichert, PhD. A recently published book that details the latest thinking and science around boys and masculinity.
Also of interest:
- Raising Cain (2000) by Dan Kindlon, PhD, and Michael Thompson, PhD. I wasn’t able to fit this into the talk, but Kindlon and Thompson have a very relevant bit in the book about wild animals and entitled princes: “Two of the most common [destructive archetypes] we see are those that cast a boy as a wild animal—out of control and incapable of responsible behavior or intelligent thought—or as an entitled prince who isn’t held accountable to the same moral standards as the rest of us.” Interesting to compare with How to Raise a Boy, as Raising Cain is more reflective of 1990s trends in child psychology.
- Deep Secrets (2013) by Dr. Niobe Way, who is interviewed as part of the Hidden Brain podcast episode (below).
- Breaking the Boy Code. A new-ish podcast centered around moving interviews with adolescents. They repost a lot of great links and articles to @boypodcast on Twitter too.
I first came across this description of Superbad in the episode, “Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men”, of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. And whereas the Bechdel test gauges gender representation across all works, this one is more specific to representation of healthy masculinity in stories that have more than one young male character. ↩
Probably more applicable to YA here. ↩