I have two daughters who love books, and I’ve been very interested in finding stories about girls who aren’t simply damsels in distress, needing to be rescued by (usually) some boy. And as much as I love the Harry Potter series, it does get annoying sometimes feeling like Hermione just doesn’t get much credit for being really smart and good at what she does, and Harry gets credit for, well, not dying — something that, when it comes right down to it, he wasn’t even responsible for.
Let me be clear: I’m not against traditional fairy tales, either. I want my kids to know their classics like Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White because those stories are part of our cultural heritage. If your child has only experienced funny spins on The Three Little Pigs but has never heard the original story, then they’re missing something there, too. That said, I want to find stories that feature girls as protagonists, girls doing cool things, and that’s what prompted my Stories About Girls series of posts last year.
Carolyn Danckaert and her husband Aaron Smith built a website collecting books and movies that featured strong girl characters, and it’s a great resource for anyone looking for something to share with their kids. I did a short Q&A with Danckaert about the site, A Mighty Girl.
Liu: So, tell me about A Mighty Girl. What is it, in a nutshell?
Danckaert: A Mighty Girl is a new website with the world’s largest collection of books and movies for parents, teachers, and others dedicated to raising smart, confident, and courageous girls. It was founded on the belief that all children should have the opportunity to read books and watch movies where girls are not relegated to the role of sidekick or damsel in distress, where they are the leaders, the heroes, the champions that save the day, find the cure, and go on the adventure.
Liu: What was your inspiration for starting A Mighty Girl?
Danckaert: My husband and I have four young nieces and that’s added up to a lot of birthday and Christmas presents over the past twelve years. We’ve always been frustrated by the one-dimensional nature of many of the products marketed to girls as anyone who has walked into a chain toy store in recent years and been engulfed in pink princessification can understand. We searched online for sites with girl empowering product recommendations and didn’t find anything very comprehensive although there did seem to be a lot of people also searching for this sort of information. Given there was an unmet need and it was an interest of ours, we decided to create a site for others equally interested in supporting and celebrating girls — thus, A Mighty Girl was born.
Liu: What are your hopes for the site? What do you hope people will do with it?
Danckaert: A Mighty Girl is all about honoring the diverse capabilities and interests of girls. And, it’s our greatest hope that these high-quality books and movies will inspire a new generation of girls to grow and pursue whatever dreams they choose — to truly be Mighty Girls.
To that end, we launched last month with a database of about 1,000 girl-empowering books and movies and have been adding steadily to that number. In the near future, we hope to expand the site’s girl empowerment potential by adding toys, parent resources, and a directory of girl empowering organizations. We see A Mighty Girl evolving into the one-stop girl empowerment center on the internet and, based on the tremendous feedback we’ve been receiving from parents, we think there’s a lot of support for this kind of resource.
Along those lines, our other hope for A Mighty Girl is that it becomes a sustainable venture. A Mighty Girl is our labor of love but it’s also become nearly a full-time job. If supporters purchase books or movies at Amazon.com through our site, we receive a small commission at no added cost to the buyer. This is an easy and free way for people to support A Mighty Girl and help us maintain and grow the site.
Liu: What sort of a background do you have in terms of children’s media (and girl empowerment)?
Danckaert: I’ve been an avid reader since childhood and studied English literature (and biology) as an undergraduate. This contributed a great deal to my interest in starting with the book component of the site and we decided that movies were really a natural extension. My professional background is largely in advocacy and public policy and I’ve had a long-standing commitment to women’s issues. Aaron’s background is in information technology and he shares this interest in women’s issues – he even fell just a few credits shy of a minor in women’s studies back when he was an undergraduate.
Since graduate school, we’ve been exploring the possibility of creating a site together that would combine our mutual interests in technology and social entrepreneurship, and when we discovered the absence of a comprehensive site focused on girl empowerment, we realized that A Mighty Girl was the perfect fit for us.
From day one, we’ve also encouraged a lot of participation from our online community. A Mighty Girl has been growing quickly and people are very enthusiastic about the site. As a result, we’ve been getting tons of great recommendations for books and movies to evaluate for inclusion in the site – essentially, A Mighty Girl is becoming better every day due to crowdsourcing the collective wisdom of the supporter community which includes mothers, fathers, teachers, librarians, and others who really care about our girl empowerment mission.
Liu: When I did my series of Stories About Girls, I did get some pushback from people who complained that boys are the ones who aren’t reading these days, and that there are actually a lot of stories about strong girl characters but boys are getting short shrift. What do you have to say about that? Do you think it’s true, and if so, how should we address that? In short, what about boy empowerment?
Danckaert: Having compiled the database for A Mighty Girl, I’m pleased to say that there are many fantastic books featuring strong girl characters and I’m learning about new ones every day. However, when it comes to children’s books, we’re a long way from gender equity in terms of the types of characters portrayed as the leaders, the doers, the adventurers, and this is especially the case in the “classics” found on school reading lists. From Tom Sawyer to Harry Potter, boys are still overwhelmingly the leading characters with their trusty girl sidekicks in tow.
Girls deserve a chance to see themselves in that main character role and not just in a passive, traditional fairy tale sort of way, but as the heroes out there saving the day, solving mysteries, and otherwise being proactive. And, it’s not just about fiction; a few prominent exceptions aside, children generally learn very little about famous women in their history classes. Even the suffrage movement is often just a textbook sidebar. History is full of amazing and interesting women, and girls need role models who can demonstrate that they too can aspire for greatness.
And, all of these reasons that I just laid out as to why stories featuring strong girls are important for girls equally hold true for boys. It’s not just girls who often aren’t being exposed to these types of stories; it’s boys as well. Beyond the simple fact that many of the books on A Mighty Girl are just great stories that many boys would naturally love, we believe it’s important that boys read books and watch movies where girls and women are in leadership roles and aren’t simply passive princesses or eye candy. If you want to talk about short shifting boys, continuing to perpetuate a girls as “damsels in distress” or “pretty princess” mythos is really ill-preparing boys for an adulthood that will require them to respect women and view them as equals (or at least their future bosses, colleagues, and spouses might think so). When boys have more exposure to images and stories showing girls and women as being equally capable as boys and men, and gain an appreciation of the fact that one’s interests and abilities are not gender-limited, that will be true boy-empowerment.
Liu: Do you feel there is room for stories about damsels in distress? For instance, should I avoid reading Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty in some closer-to-the-original form simply because it’s about a princess who needs to be rescued? Or is there room for both? I ask because in some books it’s simply a matter of putting the boy in distress and having a girl rescue him — but surely empowering girls shouldn’t simply be a matter of disempowering boys, right?
Danckaert: This is similar to the question we’ve been asked before of whether we dislike pink because it’s become the de facto official color of girlhood. For us, it comes back to the issue of choice – we like pink along with green, yellow, and the whole spectrum of colors but not the marketing efforts that flood toy store’s “girl” departments with endless seas of pink and narrow the choices that girls think they have regarding color to such a miniscule range. We recently featured a poem that poet Sarah McMane wrote for her daughter and this excerpt sums it up perfectly:
Never wear only pink
when you can strut in crimson red,
sweat in heather grey, and
shimmer in sky blue,
claim the golden sun upon your hair.
Colors are for everyone,
boys and girls, men and women—
be a verdant garden, the landscape of Versailles,
not a pale primrose blindly pushed aside.
It’s the same thing with the many of the classic fairy tales which generally feature a passive princess or damsel in distress awaiting rescue by her prince. These stories are beloved by many and, you could argue, they are an important part of our cultural and literary heritage. But, like pink, we just don’t think they should be the only game in town which is why we created our Independent Princesses feature and offer a sizable fairy tale/folktale section. While some of the stories we feature invert the dominant princess narrative so that the princess rescues the prince, many go off in totally different, creative directions, often not involving a prince at all. In these stories, princesses rescue themselves, befriend dragons, negotiate peace treaties, start their own businesses, and go off on adventures. And, from our perspective, there’s nothing intrinsically disempowering to boys in the “princess rescues the prince” storyline, depending of course on how it’s approached. Both boys and girls are exposed to so many stories of the traditional “prince rescues princess” variety that it’s healthy for them to realize that rescuing can be an equal opportunity endeavor.
For us, it ultimately comes down to the recognition that children are not as one-dimensional as many of the products marketed to them would make them out to be. From our perspective, what’s most important is that all of these different paths of exploration are open to girls – that they can embrace all of the color and richness of life. It’s our hope that A Mighty Girl will help girls explore beyond the narrow interpretation of girlhood that’s often presented to them by celebrating the diversity of their interests and talents and inspiring them to pursue whatever dreams they choose.
Liu: What are some of the features of A Mighty Girl that GeekDad fans would especially like?
Danckaert: I think many GeekDad fans would appreciate our growing collection of science fiction and fantasy books and movies starring girls. These sections have been among the most popular ones on the site and we’ve been getting lots of terrific recommendations of new items to add from A Mighty Girl users.
Along those lines, you may have heard that Disney recently held the first ever annual “Princess Week.” At A Mighty Girl, we’re fans of princesses too, just not the traditional shrinking violet variety, so we created “The Ultimate Guide to the Independent Princess.” We sought out stories of princesses who were smart, daring, and weren’t willing to wait around to be rescued and were pleasantly surprised to find more than fifty great ones.
Since many GeekDad readers are interested in STEM education, they might also like our science and technology section and our selection of children’s biographies on female science and technology role models. And, of course, since many readers are dads, they should check out our collection of stories where father-daughter relationships are a prominent theme.
Of course, all GeekDads are different so we really recommend that they spend some time browsing the site to see what would interest their daughters or explore it together with them. The site has many thematic categories covering everything from the creative arts to sports to humor and each category is filterable by recommended reading age, price, and award winners.
I’d also note that we’ve developed a really vibrant Facebook community. There’s a lot of great content on everything from STEM opportunities for girls to analyses of Lego advertising campaigns over the past fifty years, along with our weekly feature on ‘A Mighty Girl Top Picks’ of books and movies. And, for the pinners in your midst, we have a pretty awesome Pinterest page.
Please note: The URL for A Mighty Girl is AMightyGirl.com – not MightyGirl.com, which goes to an unrelated blog.