Everyone needs more women in fiction

Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

This quote is from a great article by the mother of a kid who insisted that Bilbo was a great, female character. The mum has written a great article about how she, faced with this insistence, eventually gives in and starts mixing up the characters in her kids’ books so that she reads a roughly equal number of clever, adventurous, curious characters of both sexes (roughly how it is in real life, then). It’s a sharp contrast to the characters in kids’ books on the market, where there are only one in three characters who are female.

A similar idea that has me excited right now is Julie Dillon’s Imagined Realms sci fi and fantasy art showing a diverse range of women having all sorts of adventures, from the dramatic to the archaeological to the scientific.

'Fortune's Favoured' art piece of a dark-skinned woman swinging from a balcony by a rope in a fantasy setting.

(If you’re interested, Dillon’s got a beautiful book of art available on Kickstarter)

This portrayal of women as heroes in their own right really, really matters. It’s hard for girls to see themselves as the heroes (especially as forthright, proud or bold heroes) when they don’t see themselves in stories as such. I’m constantly grateful for the people who showed me stories about strong women, since they’re a big part of what’s got me writing, arguing and being the bold(ish) person I am today.

But it’s also important that people share female heroes with boys. Boys pick up on stories’ undertones about women’s roles just as much as girls do, but it seems like they’re less likely to be told stories about female heroes, making it less likely that they’ll get the message that girls are forthright, clever and bold, and more likely they’ll pick up on other cultural messages about girls – that they’re weak, silly and vain.

So share these great stories about girls along with the great stories about boys, and share them with both boys and girls alike. It makes it that much more likely that we’ll achieve a future where everyone can give their best no matter what gender they are, and that builds a better future for everyone.

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Beauty isn’t universal

What does a beautiful woman look like? It depends on your cultural conditioning.

Esther Honig, Journalist, blogger and an extraordinarily brave person, sent her photo (the unlabelled photo below) to nearly 40 freelancers from 25 countries with a simple brief: “make me beautiful”.

The images she got back say a lot more about the designers than the do about Esther – it’s fascinating to see how many of the artists chose to change her skin colour, put makeup on her, fade out the contours to her face , put jewellery on her while continuing to show her without clothes and, in the case of the US designer, change the entire shape of her face. Which is a perfect example of the way that the collection as a whole also tell an extraordinary story about cultural norms of beauty.

Esther’s write-up and full collection of the photos are at http://www.estherhonig.com/#!before–after-/cvkn

Disney: weirder than you thought

This evening I came across a film of Walt Disney in 1957 explaining his new invention, the multiplane camera. This camera allowed studios to animate on several layers at a time, giving the impression of depth and changes in the field of vision beyond what was possible. It was fascinating, but had nothing on the related videos in the side bar.

It appears that as a relatively established American studio in the 1940s, Disney did what any good patriotic film studio would do: they taught people to hate Nazis. There’s a range of brilliant (and terrifying!) anti-Nazi propaganda videos from Disney that you can see on Youtube, including my favourite one below, which squeezes in four ‘negative’ stereotypes in the 6 seconds from 1:02. The Nazis shown are a range of gay, Asian (which references yellow fever and divided loyalties), fat and stupid.

Stunning stuff, Disney.

After the war, it looks like Disney had to diversify to survive a post-war slump in the entertainment industry, taking contracts from companies like Kotex. This video has far less propaganda (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say no propaganda – apparently good girls play with blocks, dolls and books as they grow up), but is equally fascinating for its insight into a rarer side of Disney.

Drop me a link to other great old Disney pieces in the comments – I’d love to see how much wider this goes.

Gender-based virtual reality?

danah boyd, a favourite tech thinker/creator, has raised some interesting concerns about the potential for people to experience virtual reality (though the Occulus Rift in this case) differently based on the person’s gender.

Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax.Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

The article goes into the specifics of the problem (which hasn’t been sufficiently researched yet to be a certainty), but I found this interesting to compare to my experience with the Occulus Rift at PAX Aus last year. While I only used it for a few minutes, I found three things were obviously different from viewing real life in a way that left me nauseous and disoriented:

  1. I could see the pixels. Definitely a hint that it’s VR, though not a big problem for adapting.
  2. The picture didn’t move as fast or quite as far as my head did. Often the picture would take a moment to catch up with the movement of my head (a familiar experience from uni pub crawls, and just as nauseating), and sometimes it would never move as far as I’d moved (e.g. when I turned my head 90 degrees, the picture would only turn 70 degrees).
  3. My eyes didn’t feel like they were focusing in the right place. While every object had the right perspective, my eyes were straining to understand how they were meant to see the things ‘in the distance’ that they could only focus on by looking at a surface a few centimetres away. I’m not sure if this contributed to the nausea, but it was definitely a bit tough on my eye muscles.

From boyd’s article, it sounds like these shape-from-shading cues could be a serious long term issue for virtual reality. Speaking as a likely (and excited!) future customer, I’ll be adding them to an already-long list of things they need to fix before I can justify forking out my savings. I hope the Facebook purchase of Occulus Rift will give them the backing and manpower to get these issues sorted soon!