Star Wars and More – London Toy Fair 2016 Round Up

I had never been to a toy fair before. These are industry events where toymakers and distributors, buyers and sellers, meet to find out about the latest toys and trends. It’s a time for writers like myself to find out more too. I also thought it would be a fun place to take the kid to, so we made a day of it.

Some of the stands are very popular and secretive, none more so that LEGO. You have to make an appointment to get taken through to see what they have in store, and no photographs are allowed inside.

New LEGO sets preview

LEGO Kylo Ren BB-8 Rey
The LEGO stand was invite only. Security was tight, with some high profile sentries guarding the entrance

LEGO have pretty much a cradle to grave product – beginning with the most basic Duplo through to the adult fans of LEGO (afol) market. We were pretty excited to get a tour of what they have coming up.

Seeing the whole range, I was struck by how far they have recently progressed in terms of gender representation. So many sets now feature female figures as standard, regardless of theme.

For instance in our tour, I saw the Duplo rocket had a boy and a girl, superhero sets featured Wonder Woman, Katana, Black Widow (with Falcon), and most surprisingly Spider-Girl! This incarnation had a reddish/yellow outfit and long brown hair. Can’t wait to get our hands on that set. Their City range continued to be inclusive (as I have pointed out before).

Even their new Nexo Knights range has female characters – my daughter was lucky to get her very own Macy minifigure (who has a very cool mace as weapon).

LEGO Nexo Knight Macy minifigure
Macy, one of LEGO’s new Nexo Knights line

To me, LEGO Friends has always been problematic from this perspective, but even here there has been progress. The new LEGO Friends sets are far more activity focused than previously. They have just released an Adventure Camp set, and we were shown a very cool and interactive Amusement Park one.

We saw a great new Volcano theme that highlights the science aspects, some nice new superhero sets, such as the aforementioned female heroes, plus a tantalising glimpse at Marvel’s Doctor Strange one (his New York townhouse). There was a line based on the forthcoming Angry Birds movie, and I also spotted some Star Wars sets that I wasn’t supposed to see – so I’ll respect their wishes, and say no more about those…

A Star Wars fan’s delight

Star Wars was unsurprisingly a dominant theme of the toy fair. Thinkway Toys displayed their range of Star Wars remote controlled vehicles and drones, including a preview of their fantastic looking BB-8 remote controlled toy – which will be nearer full sized than a current rival toy.

AMERANG Lightsaber Kotobukiya chopsticks Giant Leia Kenner figure
Some of the Star Wars goodies on the Amerang stand

There were lots of cool stuff in the Amerang stand, who distribute to the adult collector market. My highlights were seeing the giant sized Leia as Boush, plus their Lightsaber chopsticks.

I was glad to stumble upon the Zeon stand. They make Star Wars homewares, and are the company who made our Death Star tea caddy (supposed to be a cookie jar) that my wife & daughter gave me for my birthday. It makes me smile every day :)

My daughter was entranced at the range of Star Wars cuddly toys on display at the Posh Paws stand.

Posh Paws Star Wars Toy Fair 2016
Checking out the Posh Paws Star Wars soft toys

Her Star Wars highlight was probably at Underground Toys.

cuddling BB8 Chewie
She found the Underground Toys cuddly BB-8 and Chewbacca toys irresistible

They make and distribute lots of licensed toys and homewares. While I was being shown round, my daughter kept wanting to go back and cuddle these large sized BB-8 and Chewbacca cuddly toys.

She also left with a mini talking Yoda plush toy, which she was very pleased about.

Underground also have the UK license for FUNKO collectables, and there were some great ones featuring female characters, from the Star Wars and Superhero range among others.

It wasn’t all about Star Wars

Toy Fair 2016 Playmobil Fashion Space
Playmobil’s new Fashion and Space themes

Away from Star Wars, we were shown the forthcoming sets from Playmobil.

The range of themes and sets has made this a popular toy in our house. Of the new ones, there is a cool looking new space theme (including a female astronaut), plus a fashion range that gives the dolls interchangeable clothes.

This starkly illustrates the range of play ideas on offer. My daughter liked both.

Elsewhere, it became a bit of a blur – things that caught either mine or my daughter’s eye were the the return of Stretch Armstrong (just as ridiculous now as the seventies), Tekstra robotic animals, and lots of new Peppa Pig, Ninja Turtles, and the forthcoming Finding Dory and Zootroplois tie-in toys.

The smaller toy companies hoping to make a big difference

A big highlight for us was going to the Lottie dolls stand. We love Lottie, and have featured the brand on the blog regularly, as it is exactly the kind of doll I want for my daughter – who is as happy being a superhero as a ballerina.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and check out the wonderful Lottie range at lottie.com. If you buy anything, enter the code blogambassador at check out for a 20% discount. Happy shopping!

We had an appointment at the end of the day with a smaller comany, Coiled Spring Games, and we were really taken with their Batman Story Cubes – a collection of die that have different Batman elements on them.

Roll them out, and then make a story from what icons lands face up. It’s a cool idea, and I was really glad to see they featured images of the likes of Catwoman and Harley Quinn. So was my daughter :)

Regrets? I have a few…

My biggest mistake in hindsight is not making the time to explore other smaller – and newer – toymakers. I have no idea what wonderful toys they may have had on show, and that is a real shame.

But on our way out, I was happy to stumble upon one such stand. We were drawn to A Girl for all Time for a very personal reason – one of the dolls has the same name as my wife (Lydia).

As I pointed this out to my daughter, the ladies on the stand started chatting to us, and the MD, Frances Cain, recognised my blog name. She explained how these dolls, beautifully made and outfitted, have a brilliantly simple but engaging theme.

They follow a matriarchal family tree, so each doll is part of a social history narrative following one family through the ages. Each doll helps illustrate the role of women at that time – from the Tudor period, right through to the latest contemporary dolls – unveiled at the toy fair – of Maya and Nisha.

Your Modern Girl Maya Nisha
Maya and Nisha are part of ‘Your Modern Girl’ – a proposed new addition to the line. They are hoping to go into production later this year.

What these two dolls also add to this social history is the racial diversity of modern Britain, as Nisha is clearly darker than her ascendents.

Children love narratives in their play, but this line is inspired by research that shows the emotional benefits of children knowing more about their family history. A Girl for all Time is to be supported by a range of books mapping out this story. It’s a premium high quality toy, and is priced accordingly, but it is the kind of toy that could become a family keepsake, the way those Steiff bears that always crop up on the Antiques Roadshow are.

What did we make of our first Toy Fair?

While long, we had a great day out. This was the day after my daughter’s 4th Birthday party, and she did incredibly well to last the 7 hour visit without any kind of meltdown.

It was ironic that in a hall with so many toys, there were so few children – so my daughter got smiles (and toys) throughout the day. Her female superhero skirt was especially popular!

While she got to see and play with lots of toys, I also had many chats and meetings (including bloggers – it was great to finally meet Tom from Diary of a Dad). This was a repeated activity that many 4-year-olds would find too boring to stand for long.

One thing that struck me in these meetings was how often – arriving at a toy stand with my daughter – I was asked if I was just interested in seeing the ‘girls’ toys. Gender categories are clearly still very entrenched within the toy industry. My answer was a (hopefully) polite “No we’d like to see everything please.”

My moment of the day? My Playmobil PR meeting concluding rather abruptly with my daughter exclaiming “Daddy, I need a poo.” Stay classy little one :)

Girls Long to be Princesses… and Superheroes, and Monsters, and More

This week we finally had our daughter’s 4th Birthday party. It was two and a half weeks after her actual 4th birthday because we couldn’t book our hall of choice earlier. But this had been on our minds for a while. For months, our daughter has been very specific that she wanted Hulk and Yoda cakes (she loves green). My wife, the baker of the family, did a great job with that.

The party was the same venue and format as her 3rd birthday party (free play, food, play, songs, play, cake, play…), only this time she wanted it to be fancy dress. For her own costume, she had also spent the past few months insisting she was going to dress up as a fairy, but a few days before the party she changed her mind. She wanted to go as Princess Leia.

She dressed up in the costume she got for Christmas from my parents, and as she often does with her Leia LEGO figures, a lightsaber (also from my parents – who probably can’t believe they’re still buying Star Wars toys) was an essential accessory. Green of course.

What was interesting to me were the costume choices of the other children. The only boy who came wore a pirate outfit, and none of the girls did. But there were a great range of outfits that the girls did wear – there was Tinkerbell, Gruffalo, Cinderella, a Knight, Supergirl, a fairy, Snow White, and our very own Princess Leia.

Every year, I fear that the dreaded ‘Age of the Princess Party’ will fall upon us. People speak of the ‘Princess Stage’ as if it were an actual stage of a girl’s development, as if an obsession with all the trappings of Princess culture is as inevitable as puberty.

A sub-party theme of recent years has been Frozen – which technically can’t be classed as a Princess theme because Elsa is a queen. While that film has a lot of positive things going for it, it is immensely ironic that Elsa’s plea for individuality and freedom of choice (‘Let it Go’), has inspired millions of little girls (or their parents) to dress in the same outfit.

Our daughter has a few Frozen fans among her friends, so I was surprised there were no Elsas at our party. There were also no double ups on princesses either. It was nice to see such a diversity of choices.

Speaking of diversity, of the 3 princess dress ups, while all were white characters, the girls dressing up as them were not. Of the little girls who are white, two opted either for a male character (Gruffalo) or a traditionally male dress up (knight). Another one wore a Superman outfit – but was adamant she was Supergirl. Fair enough.

What does this mean? I don’t know. I certainly wish my daughter knew more boys, but that’s probably more to do with the parents I’ve befriended than anything. But I am really happy my daughter is surrounded by such a diverse group of friends. Not only whose parents are from a variety of cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds, but girls who also have such a diversity of interests – and yet they all have a great time together.

Long may it continue.

Empowering My Daughter via Star Trek and the Supermarket

I had a quiet moment of parental pride this week, and it was over something seemingly trivial.

As anyone with kids who shops at Waitrose will tell you, one of the most important parts of any shopping trip is the chance to pop in the green counters into their Community Matters box.

The supermarket donates £1,000 to 3 local charities or community groups each month, and the amount of counters in each box indicates the proportion each one will get.

What’s supposed to happen is that you choose the one you think should get the money. What I and many other parents of young kids do is give our sprog the counters and let them put them in whichever box they like. I figure they’re all deserving of a bit of overpriced Waitrose cash.

My daughter took her standard five counters, and was going through her process of divvying them up, when 3 older boys bundled over. They had spotted that one of the boxes was for their local school, and were excited to add to the counters.

Upon seeing that my daughter had a collection of counters to distribute, they proceeded to hector her into placing them where they wanted – namely their school.

My daughter has a tendency to back away for any potential conflict. At playground she will usually let anyone waiting to go on the slide ahead of her. In playgroups, if anyone tries to take a toy from her, she will let them have it. When it comes to songs, she will back away from the instrument box until everyone else has taken one (with only crap ones left).

Letting people go first, and have things they want, is in many ways a positive. I’m pretty strict on manners, and when we have playdates or guests, I make sure she realises that their needs come first – so if they want to play with a toy, they can. If they want to do something else, they can. Our role as host is to make them feel happy and comfortable. It’s worked, as she is great when we have people over.

But this is just for when we have guests. In life, she also needs to put her own needs first from time to time. She needs to be selfish.

The dilemma of embracing our ‘bad’ side reminded me of a classic Star Trek episode (geek alert!) when Kirk is separated into good and evil versions.

While the ‘bad’ Kirk was running amok on the ship, acting on his uninhibited aggression, ‘nice’ Kirk was being… nice, like he normally is. Only he begins to realise he needs the aggressive side of him to be an effective Captain of the Enterprise. Sometimes. we need our ‘bad’ side to do good. It’s a story that’s stayed with me since I was a kid.

So while I teach my daughter that being selfish is wrong, for her to be empowered she needs at least a dash of selfishness, ego, aggression, and any number of other less seemingly desirable traits. It’s a nuance that I feared would be lost on a pre-schooler.

So it was with great pride that I saw her stand her ground with the 3 older boys. Under repeated badgering from them to do what they wanted, she simply said “No thanks” and put the counters where she wanted – which included the collection for their school.

Afterwards, she relayed the event to me finishing with “They tried to tell me what to do, but I don’t have to do what they tell me.”

Further discussion emanated from that. Adding to the nuance, I followed up by explaining that it’s ok for them – or others – to try and persuade you to do something. But if you don’t want to do it, then you don’t have to.

It is a lesson that is incredibly important for the rest of her life, encompassing moral & ethical dilemmas, sexual consent, workplace bullying, and more.

There’s a quote attributed to Louis CK (whether correctly or not) that we’re not raising children, but the adults of tomorrow. I want my daughter to grow up to be what sounds on paper like a mass of contradictions – sensitive and assertive, strong and tender, humble and confident.

I have no real idea how to achieve this, but I’m trying my best. In the meantime, I have also learned from writing this that while I adore the thrill and adventure of Star Wars, perhaps I need to show my daughter some classic Star Trek too.

Kirk out.

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STAR TREK™ & © 2015 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Lonely Dad in the Corner

You are there with your child, but you feel alone. You also feel awkward, perhaps a little shy, but try not to show it and smile.

All around you are mothers with their children, who all seem to know each other. You smile as you make eye contact, hoping for a hint of a connection – but nothing.

You try making conversation, but none develops. Your hopes of meeting new people, making new friends, forming bonds with other parents for the sake of your child are dwindling.

You end up sitting alone in a corner, watching your child play alone while all around you a community you long to be a part of continues on oblivious.

I know this dad. Once upon a time, it was me.

Whether in parks, cafes, playgroups, or classes, when we moved to this area gone was our network, our antenatal group, the mothers who didn’t bat an eyelid at the stay-at-home dad in their ranks. Looking back, I realise their unconditional acceptance empowered my self esteem as a father.

Hoping for the same, I found it lacking in my first forays into the local community. While I am more than happy in my own company, for the sake of my child I knew I needed to form new friendships and networks.

And I did. It all worked out fine. I found the right groups. I got to meet mothers and fathers who wanted to engage. We have formed good friendships, and so have our children.

Which is what makes what happened this week so disappointing. Part of my efforts to engage in my new community saw me volunteer to help out at a local playgroup, that a mother with a girl the same age as mine had just agreed to take over. It was the first group I attended where mothers – like this one – talked to me.

However, this group was struggling with numbers, mostly lacking promotion and awareness. It was also the last non-church run group in the area, and for me that was something worth saving.

We changed that, and it is now one of the most popular in the town. So popular, that instead of having time to meet and chat to new people when they arrive, I often only have a chance for a brief hello and explanation of how it works (a very short conversation) while I continue chopping grapes, washing dishes, topping up paint pots, and making sure my now 4-year-old kid is ok.

So when the new dad came along this week, I didn’t have the chance to speak to him. Often new mums arrive with a friend. If alone, and not chatting to anyone, I’ll try and have a brief conversation with them. I usually see them chatting to someone as the morning progresses. But it was particularly busy this morning.

I should’ve talked to this dad, but I didn’t. When it was all over, and people shuffled home while we tidied, I didn’t see him.

It was only later that the image popped into my head. Of him sitting alone. Surrounded by empty chairs. Staring at his child, playing alone.

I had failed him, this dad who had come along – just as I had a couple of years ago – looking to engage with other parents.

I hope that this snapshot memory I have of him was unrepresentative of his morning. That this was simply a brief respite for him from chatting to other parents. But I fear this was not the case.

When I had a similar experience, I stopped going to that particular group. Who could blame me, and who could blame him if he doesn’t return next week. But I really hope he does, to give us another chance.

Next time you see a dad alone with his child, especially at a playgroup or class, please don’t ignore them. Try and chat to them if you can, but at least smile if you catch their eye. It could make all the difference to them, and their child.

The Female Focus of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Was Planned From the Start

As the father of one of the many girls who like Star Wars, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to quiz the cast and filmmakers about the prominence of female characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As much as I love engaging with Star Wars with my daughter, I am always painfully aware that it is centred around male characters. But girls who like Star Wars – like my daughter – deserve to be able to see themselves in these stories too. Princess Leia is great, but it is her father and brother that the story focuses on. Ashoka is awesome, but the stories she’s in are usually driven by others.

No longer. There is much to admire about Star Wars: The Force Awakens – reuniting the original cast, the compelling new characters, using practical sets and effects. But the most glorious new aspect of the movie is the central role of Rey, and the greater prominence of female characters overall.

A new generation of Star Wars women

girls who love star wars, female star wars fans,
Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – she will inspire a generation of little girls

Having previously stated that he wanted to make a movie that “mothers could take their daughters to”, Director J.J. Abrams told me that “the idea was always to have this female character at the heart of the story”.

From the moment we meet her, Rey is the one who drives the story forward and in a way that was surprising and moving. When she had her ‘moment’ I felt like crying and cheering at the same time.

Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, has been a vocal advocate of the Star Wars fangirl community and the need to bring a gender balance into all areas of the Star Wars industry.

She observes that “(Princess Leia) was a very cutting edge character in the 70’s, so we really used that as a springboard to bring in Daisy Ridley and make her such a powerful female presence.”

This intention was echoed by Disney CEO Bob Iger, who made reference to the fact that “Women are heroes too,” so why wouldn’t they have a female Star Wars lead.

Daisy Ridley gives a bright and engaging performance as Rey. She will inspire millions of little girls, and I asked her how that felt. For her it came down to the way Rey has been written.  “J.J. is an incredible writer, especially of females in a kind of male dominated world… if people look up to her, then I’m very happy with that.”

General Leia and Captain Phasma – Star Wars women’s changing role in the intergalactic military

Princess Leia is now of course General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance. It is a logical progression from the character’s more militaristic role with the Rebels in The Empire Strikes Back, and (to a lesser extent) Return of the Jedi. Of the change of Leia’s title, Carrie Fisher quipped that “Women are a lot better than men really, especially in wartime. We look better in the outfits.”

One of the best outfits in the movie is worn by Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma. She was impressed with it from the start. “I Ioved that it was purely practical armour, that it wasn’t sexualised in any way,” she said, adding that “I’m utterly thrilled to wear the costume… It’s very empowering.”

Captain Phasma became a female character very late in the casting process, in part because of internet chatter about the (at that time) low level of female cast members. It’s great that the filmmakers listened, and also looked for other ways to normalise the inclusion of women in a way that had not been done in previous Star Wars movies. JJ Abrams said that “…we have wonderful cast of good guys, bad guys, pilots, stormtroopers – that happen to be female.”

Empowering little girls who like Star Wars

It’s difficult for me to know exactly what characters will help empower my daughter. I have encouraged her to engage with a range of fictional females from Katie Morag to Batgirl. Her interest in Star Wars has been fairly organic, and she naturally gravitated towards Leia, the most prominent of all.

But I have a strong sense that Rey will resonate with her. Daisy Ridley beamed when I told her I bought a Rey figure for my daughter straight after watching the movie. “That is so cool! How old is your daughter?” When I told her she’s 4-years old (which she will be when she sees the movie), her expression changed. “She’s a bit young for this don’t you think?”. I shrugged, and so did Daisy. “Depends on the child I guess?” she said. It does indeed.

Should my young daughter see Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

In this story, set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. there was a girl who never lost hope, who cared about the plight of others over her own, and never backed down from a challenge.

I can’t wait for my daughter to experience Rey’s resilience, her exciting journey, and a defining moment that will bring many a fan close to tears.

Mark Hamill said something quite beautiful, about how much he loves Star Wars fans, and how privileged he feels to have been a part of so many of their lives from childhood to adulthood and even parenthood.

So despite her young age, and questions over age appropriateness, I think my daughter needs to see this now.

I want her to have this new saga woven into her childhood the way Star Wars was into mine. So she can look up to the stars in wonder, and imagine intergalactic adventures involving heroic girls (and villainous chrome armoured women).

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Star Wars © & TM Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review: Bringing Gender Balance to the Force

**This is a spoiler free Star Wars: The Force Awakens review, that reveals nothing new about the plot other than anything officially released prior to my seeing the finished film**

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Unlike the prequels, which I watched for myself, I came to this brand new chapter of the Star Wars saga as a father of a daughter, with whom I have shared my love of Star Wars. Thoughts of gender imbalance and representation were far from my mind when watching earlier entries, but they are now at the forefront as a fanboy dad of a fangirl daughter.

The previous Star Wars movies either had Leia or Padme as prominent central characters – but that was pretty much it. The main story was always that of the male protagonist. Just how bad female characters had it is plain from this compilation from the original Star Wars trilogy:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review: Bringing Gender Balance to the Force

In the hands of Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, and Disney as well, we finally have a Star Wars movie that places women at the heart of the story. This is the kind of shift I had been wishing for since we started the #WeWantLeia campaign – a story that little girls can watch, and see themselves at the center of the galaxy far, far away…

For this alone, it deserves to be embraced by  girls as much as boys – and I sincerely hope that it will. I also hope that the merchandising begins to reflect the shift into Star Wars becoming overtly unisex, and the central role that women play in this story.

Hopefully it should come as no surprise to learn that Rey is essentially the lead character, though as part of a large ensemble cast. She is an engaging and mysterious character. Despite living a harsh life on the desert planet of Jakku, her first instinct is always to help others, even in the toughest of circumstances. Her character displays a stubborn resolve, yet she is always full of hope.

Daisy Ridley is a bright and engaging screen presence, and her performance adeptly balances Rey’s vulnerability and strength. Ridley is confident in her action scenes, especially when wielding her staff. She also has some nice verbal interplay with the rest of the cast, most notably Finn (John Boyega).

As reported, Princess Leia is now General Organa of the RESISTANCE (their caps). While she was portrayed as a military leader in The Empire Strikes Back, this aspect of her character took a back seat in the other movies. Here she is presented as someone who is greatly respected. I am personally glad that the ‘Princess’ is all but eliminated from her character, and she was always one in name only really. While I feel it is immensely important for boys and girls too see women in positions of authority, I would much rather it be seen as a status they have earned rather than were born into.

Over in the FIRST ORDER (formed from the remnants of the Empire), we have Captain Phasma – the female Chrometrooper that is adorning t-shirts and lunch boxes everywhere. Played with icy authority by Gwendoline Christie, Phasma’s role is relatively small, but her presence is keenly felt in every scene she is in.

Elsewhere we have Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI character Maz Kanata who feels like the the kind of creature that inhabited George Lucas’s prequel trilogy.

Additionally, throughout the movie there are a whole host of female actors in minor speaking parts (including pilots) as well as female extras. In terms of gender balance, this is all a vast improvement on previous instalments.

But the key female character is Rey. This is (by and large) her story, her journey that we are following. Once we meet her, it is her actions that largely drive the story, and her mystery that hooked my interest the most. And as far as I’m concerned, she has THE moment of the film.

Rey action figure, Star Wars TFA review, new Star Wars film review, new Star Wars film review, Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review
Rey (Starkiller Base) 3.75-Inch Star Wars The Force Awakens Action Figure

As soon as I left the screening, I headed to a toy shop to pick up a Rey figure to give to my daughter this Christmas. I think lots of boys and girls will want a Rey toy after watching this movie too.

I can’t wait for my daughter to see the film, mostly because of Rey. But am I being to hasty?

Should young kids see Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

I, like many other parents, have been wondering whether this higher rated Star Wars film (12A/PG-13 – as opposed to the U/PG of the original trilogy), will be suitable for young kids.

Having seen it, I think it’s pretty much in line with the original trilogy. The ‘force interrogation’ mentioned in the BBFC notes is quite intense, but relatively brief. While similar in nature to Vader’s force choke, the tone is less playful.

There’s nothing in the film like the worst violence of Revenge of the Sith, but there is a rougher feel to the general tone of the action. There is also a more suspenseful aspect to action scenes, and main characters are regularly placed in jeopardy. Overall, imagine a tone slightly more intense than The Empire Strikes Back, but with a little more humour.

The source of most of the suspense and jeopardy is Adam Driver’s gloriously menacing Kylo Ren. He is a troubled and disturbing character, but never more so when masked and speaking with his lo-fi synthesised voice. He is definitely going to scare a lot of kids – but then that’s what we expect from our villains. If your kid is OK with Vader, Darth Maul, or the Emperor, Kylo Ren should be fine too.

One thing to bear in mind is that even if your child is comfortable with the existing movies, they have likely experienced them on the small screen. The added intensity of seeing this on a big screen, with louder and more dynamic audio, should be taken into account.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review – final thoughts

I was feeling fairly indifferent to Star Wars Episode VII when it was announced, and even while it was in production. Perhaps it was the let down of the prequels. But I recall realising, in the minutes waiting for the first teaser to go live a year ago, how excited I suddenly was. And I know exactly the moment when my expectations soared (with Star Wars fanfare):

Millenium Falcon, Star Wars The Force Awakens Review, Star Wars Episode 7 review, new Star Wars film review, Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

It would be great to be able to watch this movie in a different context. One without all the hype, publicity, and my own vastly raised expectations. Unfortunately I, like most of you, are not in that position, so it is from this place of interstellar high hopes that I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The film feels like a Star Wars film from the first moment, and I was instantly hooked. Like the original trilogy, it doesn’t really try to explain the socio-political fabric of this galaxy far, far away – preferring to let the action tell the story.

It is full of familiar and brand new characters, but perhaps a little to full. A movie this packed with ideas – whether people, concepts, civilisations – requires a juggling act of epic proportions to create a compelling narrative from.

Broadly this has been achieved, but there are too many times where the story lurched one way or another simply because it has to, not because of logical scenarios or character motivated action.

But while the story felt disjointed to me, this could also be due to scenes and plot points playing out differently than I had imagined from watching the trailers.

I also felt that the emotional payoff of some key scenes were not what I had hoped for, while others surpassed my expectations.

The task of making this film is daunting. There are brand expectations from Lucasfilm, commercial ones from Disney, and great storytelling hopes from all. So much pressure to try and find a way to please everyone.

Unlike Lucas, Writer/Director JJ Abrams is of the fan generation, and this does at times feel like a fan film – albeit one on a grander scale. The movie is peppered with references and in-jokes, especially when the original cast are involved.

This happened a little often for my liking, and began to take me out of the film. Yes, it’s great to see the likes of Han & Chewbacca back in action, but too many quips and skits relating to the past can make a scene seem more like a sketch.

There are also moments that feel very JJ Abrams, and again that jarred with this being ‘a Star Wars film’.

I am looking forward to my second viewing of the movie this week (prior to being invited to an advance screening, I had already purchased my opening weekend IMAX tickets). With eyes no longer glazed with expectation, perhaps I will be able to watch the film cleansed of the hype and hope and see it for what it truly is.

That said, I am already speculating about Episode VIII. Will I never learn?

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Postscript: Second viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I saw the film a second time this weekend at a 3D Laser IMAX screening, so I got to see the ‘Escape from Jakku’ scene in all its big screen glory (it was cool!).

As I suspected, I enjoyed the film a lot more this time. After my first viewing, one thing people asked me was where I placed it in relation to other films – my episode order is IV, V, VII, and then VI. I like Star Wars and Empire more, but Jedi less.

I reflected that how in earth can I be disappointed in that? Was I really expecting the film to better Star Wars & Empire – two of my favourite films of all time? I was focussing on the flaws and/or bits I didn’t like, and ignoring the exponentially more great things about it. My previous criticism seems to be that the film isn’t perfect. How ridiculous.

That I feel Star Wars: The Force Awakens is better than Return of the Jedi – the last Star Wars film I saw as a child, is indicator enough of my opinion. It’s quite simply a terrific Star Wars movie. If you’re a fan or the original trilogy, there is no logical reason for you not to love it – which I finally do.

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DISCLAIMER: As I have already done, I reserve the right to completely change my opinion as stated in this Star Wars: The Force Awakens review in the future. In the 1980s I was adamant that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film. Later, I thought The Phantom Menace was really good, and even more embarrassingly that Attack of the Clones was  better. I like to think I am more preceptive now, but I’m probably not.

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Seen the film? Please tell me what you thought of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in your comments below.

The Kano Computer Kit Makes Coding Cool

The Kano computer kit for kids offers much more than merely building your own computer. It’s a gateway for your child – and the whole family – into the mysterious world of coding and a key to unlock the creativity of computing.

It was my top pick in my recent gift guide for girls, and I repeat – if your family get only one present for your child, I urge you to make it this one.

Girls and STEM

Ever since having a daughter, I’ve been aware of the stats around girls and STEM subjects – that girls are far less likely to pursue further and higher education in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, or Manufacturing (STEM).

The reasons are far from clear but everyone has a theory – ranging from girls brains being unsuitable for these subjects, to a range of social and developmental factors driving them away from a very early age.

We have always been keenly aware of the need to inspire an interest and connection with STEM subjects and principles in our daughter. We don’t want to push her into a a life in any of these fields – I merely don’t want her to be put off anything simply because she is a girl.

This has taken many forms, from passing on my love of ‘geek culture’ (people in tech tend to also like sci-fi and superheroes), encouraging an interest in maths and problem solving (which can be as simple as playing with LEGO and jigsaw puzzles), and trying to highlight female role models where we spot them.

For instance, my daughter is keenly interested in Batgirl of Burnside. When I read it to her, I tend to emphasise the fact that Batgirl’s ‘powers’ include a keen scientific mind and incredible computer coding skills.

Batgirl is a programmer, girls in STEM
The latest version of Batgirl has a super-powered mind for coding. From ‘Batgirl of Burnside’ by Cameron Fletcher and Babs Tarr. © DC Comics.

 

Batgirl actually needs these special abilities to defeat that most modern of super villains – a computer algorithm.

‘Coding’, aka ‘programming’, is something we know our kids are supposed to be learning. It has been included in the national curriculum for a couple of years, part of a concerted effort to fill a perceived/projected skills gap in the UK tech sector.

The aim is that instead of simply teaching our children how to use programs, we need them to learn how to make programs. Software, apps, and algorithms govern our lives, and will likely continue to do so. It’s in everyone’s best interests that we understand how they are written.

The implication is clear – if you want to keep your kid’s options open for the future, coding is key.

The Kano computer is a brilliant way to bring a greater awareness of computer science into your home. My daughter is enthralled with hers…

Girl coding using a Kano computer for kids

Coding for kids – not such a new idea

When I was a child, there was the groundbreaking Computer Literacy Project (CLP), which led to the BBC micro computer being a fixture in schools and homes across the country.

While the programming language was it’s very own (BBC Basic), the principles were the same – lines of code that created a program, whether a game, application, or something else entirely. I once created a version of Hal 9000 (from the film 2001), my very own attempt at AI. I like to think he became self aware and still out there in the digital white noise somewhere.

This 1980’s explosion of kids (and adults) learning how to code has been credited in part with the success and depth of knowledge within the UK tech sector. Only, it didn’t last.

The BBC Micro found no place out of UK homes and schools, and the advent of Macs, PCs, and gaming consoles saw home computing move in a different direction.

Since then, computers have rarely invited home users peek behind the curtain in the same way. User interfaces have become increasingly sophisticated to make home computing so infantilised that babies can literally do it. Gone is the exploration and creativity that learning to code inspired.

Computers have become passive tools. We are more likely to use them to consume rather than create. We rely on software and algorithms to navigate our digital landscape.

Our experience with the Kano so far reminded of my wonderful childhood days of learning and exploring via programming.

Building your own computer

Kano Computer kit boxed

The Kano is attractively packaged. A bright orange slipcase reveals a sturdy board case with all the component parts. The case has a magnetic clasp, so it is designed to store and/or transport the Kano as required.

My wife and I were as excited as our daughter was about putting this together. Out of the box, you construct it in almost LEGO fashion – following instructions to slot and snap bits together. This underlines the most appealing aspect of the concept behind Kano, to shed light on the mysteries of the digital devices that are integral to our lives.

The enclosed booklet takes you step by easy step through the construction and initial set up of the computer. When assembled, the ‘computer’ bit of Kano is the renowned Rasperry Pi B+ – themselves doing great work in trying to engage children in programming – in a Kano housing, with a speaker, memory card, and wifi dongle. There are also stickers for your child to customise their Kano.

When fired up, it looks like something you’d find in classic Doctor Who or Blake’s 7, which is a wonderful change from the slick looking tech we surround ourselves with.

kano computer, kano computer review, building your own computer, computer kits, girls in STEM
The Kano all fired up and ready to go (Totoro not to scale)

You will need a compatible screen with an HDMI input, and we used our wall mounted TV. This works ok, but if you have one that’s lower or desktop that would be best. At a later stage you will be able to connect it wirelessly to a tablet or phone screen. The keyboard with mousepad is also wireless – which is great to help fidgety children remain engaged.

Using your Kano computer

In a fashion not dissimilar to my aforementioned 1980’s HAL 9000 program, the Kano screen starts with:

“Hello! I’m KANO. Thanks for bringing me to life.”
(Image from the Kano instruction booklet)

I’m assuming it’s not self aware just yet.

What follows are various set up aspects, such as username, connecting wifi, software updates and the like. The first really fun bit that my daughter enjoyed was creating her Kano avatar character, with different face, colour, and costume options.

This all takes you to the end of the Kano book 1 (make a computer). We’re now ready for book 2 – code powers. Here you will learn about programming languages, binary code, open source, and more.

Now, I don’t know if the following statement is true, but it feels like it is – I learned more about contemporary coding from reading a few pages of this Kano booklet than I had since I left school. So while Kano may be intended for kids age 6-12, it’s perfect for anyone that wants to learn more about computers, which frankly should be all of us.

This also harks back to the CLP of my youth – it was intended for adults as much as children.

Creativity through coding

The Kano computer comes loaded with programmes such as Snake, Pong, and even Minecraft – but with the ability to manipulate the code in all of them. There is also a music generator and apps. You can go online and download more. While coding is at the heart of activities, the theme remains that coding is a skill to unlock creativity.

Kano is a wonderful example of going forward by looking backwards. It embraces the great aims and principles of the CLP, but using tech that deserves as much of a place in your home as a console, laptop, or tablet. Perhaps even more.

This is socially conscious technology that is also a great product. There are plenty of so called computers on the market for children, but for the same price as a potentially crappy kiddy tablet you can get yourselves one of these far more useful and versatile devices.

The Kano offers a way for relative luddites like my wife and I to engage in coding and bring this open source tech into our family home. We can introduce the principles of coding to our daughter while learning about them ourselves. As our knowledge increases, we are better placed to support her in her learning journey whether at school or home.

Despite my early amateur experience with programming, I never pursed it into adulthood. I studied Information Technology at school, and signed up for a Computer Science A level. But I ditched it after a term – because the class had a crappy teacher and no girls. I hope for my daughter’s sake that neither of those things will happen now.

My daughter is 3-years-old, has helped build a computer, and is already engaging in simple coding tasks. She calls her Kano ‘Orange Progress’. That’s as good a nickname as any for this marvellous machine.

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The Kano computer has a RRP of £119.99 ($149.99 USD) – but you can get it for a special holiday price of £89.99 ($99.99) until 31 December 2015. 

It’s available from the Kano website.

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The Kano computer kit:

Kano computer kit, Coding for kids, coding for girls, girls in stem,

 

  • Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, ARM 900MHz Quad-Core CPU and 1GB RAM
  • 8GB micro-SD Card preloaded with the latest Kano OS full of projects and games
  • Kano books, illustrated and intuitive
  • Wireless Kano Keyboard and mouse (USB RF & Bluetooth)
  • DIY speaker
  • Custom case, stencils and stickers!
  • HDMI cable
  • Wifi dongle
  • Mini-USB power supply (UK plug)

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Disclosure: We received the Kano computer free of charge for the purposes of this review.

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Family Fever
The List

Lottie, a Doll to Inspire Our Little Girls

Lottie Dolls, little girl playing with dolls,My daughter has various dolls – Barbie, Cindy, some Phantom Menace Padme Amidalas, a Princess Leia, and a 90’s Storm (that I randomly found boxed at a local charity shop for £2). But I think she has found her favourite one yet – the Lottie doll.

I’ve been aware of Lottie ever since they launched their Superhero Outfit Set in 2014. It was notable to me because a) it was a female superhero doll, and b) was designed by a six-year-old girl, who created ‘Super Lottie’ as part of a global competition. Any misgivings I may have had about the pink, pastel, and sparkles are pretty much wiped out by the fact this outfit was created by a little girl herself. This is exactly the kind of creativity we’re trying to encourage in our own daughter, and the Super Lottie design looks pretty cool anyway.

What’s so different about a Lottie doll?

Stargazer Lottie, Lottie Dolls, Lottie Dolls uk, Lottie Dolls Amazon
Stargazer Lottie

Lottie differs from other dolls in a number of ways. Her body shape is roughly that of a nine-year-old girl, as opposed to the Giraffe like proportions of Barbie. She doesn’t wear jewellery or makeup. She has a wide range of clothes and interests that kids can still relate to. If you want to buy your child princesses and fashion models, you’re already well served by the market. Lottie Dolls offer parents and children wanting something else a delightful alternative.

For this review, we selected a range of dolls and accessories that reflect my daughter’s interests, tastes, or curiosity. Our choices were Pirate Queen (plus accessories), Robot Girl (plus Busy Lizzie Robot), Stargazer (with telescope), as well as the aforementioned Superhero Outfit.

Robot girl Lottie, Busy Lizzie Robot, Lottie Dolls, Lottie Dolls uk, Lottie Dolls Amazon
Robot Girl Lottie with her Busy Lizzie robot

Each ‘Lottie’ comes with their own backstory or scenario, and while these are interesting – such as reading about female pirate Grace O’ Malley – the characteristics of each outfit/persona are really for us to define through play. So, ‘Robot Girl’ likes robots, and this helped us talk about science and engineering; ’Stargazer’ (inspired by a real life star loving little girl) is obviously into astronomy, and again that helps us talk about that. My daughter loves looking at the moon, and enjoys stories set in space, so this reinforces it. ‘Pirate Queen’ inspires adventure, and also supports the idea that all things pirate are for girls as well as boys. And ‘Super Lottie’? Well, my daughter knows superheroes are for girls (and boys too I guess), so again this reinforces our parenting approach in this genre.

Super Lottie, Lottie Dolls, Lottie Dolls uk, Lottie Dolls Amazon
Super Lottie

I get accused, mostly by people who don’t know me very well, of denying my daughter ‘girly’ things, or trying to make her into a boy. That’s not true. I just object to the narrow vision of girlhood that commerce presents us with. While I’m of the mind that any toy is girly if a girl plays with it, these Lottie dolls help with framing different interests as ‘girly’, presenting us with a group of cute little girls who enjoy science, karate, ponies, and pirates! If you ever need to prove to someone that robots, superheroes, and pirates, can be ‘girly’ too – then just show them Lottie.

The thing I really love about this collection of Lottie dolls is that they support and reinforce so well our approach to raising our daughter. Lottie’s cool and quirky collection of clothing reflects my daughter’s own diverse wardrobe. We hope Lottie’s range of interests will also be mirrored in our daughter as she gets older.

Pirate Queen Lottie Doll, Lottie Dolls, Lottie Dolls uk, Lottie Dolls Amazon
Pirate Queen Lottie

What’s our favourite Lottie doll? While I love anything that involves girls and superheroes, my joint top pick is Pirate Lottie. Society still tends to categorise Buccaneer iconography as a boy’s look, and this demonstrates that girls make awesome looking pirates too. My daughter likes dressing as one but doesn’t see many other girls doing that too. By simply playing with her Pirate Queen Lottie, she is reinforcing her confidence in her decision to dress up as a pirate too.

Being interested in science and technology. Dressing as a pirate and a superhero. These Lottie dolls can help inspire a new generation of girls to claim these traditionally boy interests as theirs too, and aspire to reach for the stars or sail the seven seas. Or simply to be happy with whatever you choose to be. In fact, her motto is ‘Be bold, be brave, be you’.

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Disclaimer: While I was not paid to write this piece, we did receive all the featured dolls and accessories free of charge. 

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

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This giveaway is over, but these Lottie dolls and accessories can still be purchased on Amazon (and other retailers)

Top Five Awesome Alternatives to Disney Princesses

When I became a father of a daughter, I quickly became aware I needed to seek out alternatives to Disney Princesses. If you’re raising a girl, there’s no escaping the reign of them over their generation. Frozen’s Anna and Elsa have only strengthened the power that the princess industrial complex wields over their developing cultural lives.

If you’re tired of all the trappings of princess culture cluttering up your little girl’s childhood, or just wish to expose them to alternative female led films, TV, books, and toys – here are my top five Disney Princess alternatives to inspire and empower your little girls.

1. Studio Ghibli

Alternatives to Disney Princesses, Disney Princess alternative, My Neighbour Totoro, My Neighbor Totoro, Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, Disney Princess alternatives, Disney Princesses alternatives, alternatives to Disney Princess,
‘My Neighbour Tototo’, Dir: Hayao Miyazaki, © 1988 Nibariki – G/Studio Ghibli

My search for alternatives to Disney Princesses struck a rich seam in Japan. The animated films of Studio Ghibli, and Hayo Miyazaki in particular, should be a part of everyone’s cinematic childhood.

My Neighbour TotoroKiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart are particular favourites of ours and they boast a wonderful range of female characters, any one of whom is a great Disney Princess alternative. Scarcely a day goes by without my daughter requesting to see at least one of them.

Totoro centres on the gentle adventures of two young sisters in fifties Japan and their encounters with kind hearted forest spirits; Kiki is an entrepreneurial 13-year-old witch who leaves home and earns a living by starting the small courier business of the title; Whisper of the Heart also features a teenage girl, who is an aspiring writer seeking inspiration.

I have seen them all more times than I could possibly count, and I still find them moving, inspiring, and utterly delightful. There is plenty official and unofficial merchandise around. We picked up some Totoro soft toys when we passed through Japan a few years back, and bought the 3yo a much loved Kiki dress up for Christmas.

For other movies, also check out Miyazaki’s pre-Studio Ghibli Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for a wonderful female led eco-adventure, Ponyo for younger kids, and Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke for older ones who can take more intense scenarios. But perhaps save Grave of the Fireflies for another time – it’s possibly one of the saddest films ever made.


2. Wonder Woman 

Wonder Woman, Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinham, Disney Princess alternative, Disney Princesses alternative, alternative to Disney Princesses,
Ms. Magazine issue 1 and 40th Anniversary editions, featuring Wonder Woman on the cover. © Liberty Media for Women, LLC, wholly owned by Feminist Majority Foundation. Wonder Woman ©DC Comics

One of the few female superheroes that non-comic fans know about, Wonder Woman remains a pop cultural feminist icon and an awesome Disney Princess alternative.

Conceived in the forties by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, he wanted to “create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. Hmm.

Anyway, Wonder Woman is a warrior, and – yes – a PRINCESS, but she refuses to let being a princess define her, and it’s something she successfully rebelled against in her very first appearance.

The character’s continued fame goes back to the fondly remembered seventies TV show starring Lynda Carter. The show tied into the popular feminism of the decade, typified by the likes of Gloria Steinham – who had previously launched Ms. Magazine in 1972, with none other than Wonder Woman on the cover.

‘Retro’ Wonder Woman imagery continues to adorn all manner of merchandise today, and this iconic cartoon look is as visually appealing as any Disney Princess.

There is a LOT of merchandise out there if you hunt for it, but be warned – it’s far easier to get hold of a Wonder Woman t-shirt for a woman than a little girl. In addition to Wonder Woman, also be on the lookout for Batgirl and Supergirl gear. DC licensees are much better than Marvel in creating merchandise with their female heroes.

It’s time to “Woman Up” Marvel.



3. The Wizard of Oz

Wizard of Oz fancy dress, dorothy gale fancy dress,
3yo daughter in her Dorothy outfit

While Frank L. Baum’s original book has been eclipsed by the colourful 1939 movie, both feature the engaging Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz with her three male sidekicks.

While the film is wonderful, Dorothy is certainly more proactive and determined in the book, for instance not relying on her male friends to rescue her from the Wicked Witch but rescuing them instead.

However she is an appealing character in both, with an iconic eye catching look that makes a nice change from glittery pastel dresses – and because the book has been out of copyright for a long time there are lots of affordable merchandise out there, ranging from dress up outfits to apps.

Perhaps start with one of the books adapted for first readers, or of course there’s the wonderful film – the technicolour reveal of merry old land of Oz still remains one of the great moments of Hollywood magic, that will leave your little one on awe.

Film & Video:

Books:

Dress up:

4. Katie Morag

Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted, Alternatives to Disney Princesses
From ‘Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted’ by Mairi Hedderwick, published by Red Fox Picture Books

Set on the fictional Isle of Struay, off the west coast of Scotland, this series of books (and now a TV series) feature the independently minded little girl Katie Morag.

Wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, the stories see our young red-headed hero in her trademark white jumper, green tartan skirt, and wellies, on her everyday adventures involving her family and fellow islanders.

The spirited Katie is a great role model for little girls – our 3yo daughter has been inspired by this Scottish girl to be more independent herself. The books offer lots of other great female role models too, from her mother who runs the Post Office while also breastfeeding her new baby, to ‘Grannie Island’, Katie’s no-nonsense dungaree wearing, tractor driving grandmother.

I really enjoy both reading these to my daughter and watching the TV show with her.


5. Star Wars

LEGO, Lego star wars, Princess Leia, We Want Leia, Amidala, Padme, Alternatives to Disney Princesses
From ‘LEGOS Girl Problem’ published on ‘From Bricks To Bothans’

The galaxy far, far away is just as much a place for girls as boys – it just hasn’t been marketed that way since a long time ago. But the female characters offer great alternatives to Disney Princesses.

Top of the list of great female characters (showing my aged bias) is Leia, who is a great Disney Princess alternative. A royal in name only, she is a rebel fighter, political leader, and social activist. She is a central character in the Star Wars universe and there is a ton of merchandise out there – HOWEVER, there currently isn’t much new stuff at all.

Despite Disney buying Star Wars, and churning out all kinds of new Star Wars goodies, don’t go to a Disney Store expecting to find anything much with Leia on it. If that bothers you, please read more here, and complain to them here about that.

For other more recent characters, check out Padme/Amidala from the prequels and The Clone Wars cartoon, Ahsoka Tano also from the Clone Wars, or Sabine & Hera from the new Star Wars Rebels animated TV series.

These are great empowered women for any child to look up to, and a terrific way into Star Wars and the wider area of sci-fi for little girls. Things are looking very promising in terms of female characters from The Force Awakens, but let’s just see how things go with that.

Geek culture is synonymous with the STEM worlds of our children’s future, so if we don’t want to lose vast swathes of the next generation of world builders – because they’re girls who think this is boys stuff – then get them some Star Wars toys. You may even have some in your parents attic. :)

Princess Leia:

Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels:

 

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What do you think about this list of alternatives to Disney Princesses?

What about the princesses themselves? Are they harmful or harmless?  I’d love to read about any additions you have to this (short!) list, or why you think Disney Princesses are fine. Please comment below, join the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

You Baby Me Mummy

“Girls Rule!” (Until They Grow Up)

Girls rule, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Girl Empowerment, Kids clothes, childrens clothes, tshirt, female superheroes, girl power, grrl power, tshirt, asda
“Girls Rule!” t-shirt, featuring Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl. (Photo courtesy of @UKToyCollector)

Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl all on the same kids t-shirt. As a geek dad it’s the kind of item I’m always on the lookout for. I don’t even mind (too much) that it’s pink. What’s troubling is the slogan, “Girls Rule!”. Because “Girls” don’t rule at all.

It’s a phrase synonymous with “Girl Power”, which probably has its origins in the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement of the 90’s. While the progressive message of “Grrrl Power” was diluted when transformed into the safe and snappy commercial slogan “Girl Power” for 90’s pop phenomenon the Spice Girls, at least that version introduced many children to the notion of girl empowerment. However, the band also popularised the far more problematic “Girls Rule!”.

The girls who were fans of the band in the 90’s are now women in their twenties and thirties. What kind of world have they grown up in? Is it one where “Girls Rule”? The gender pay gap remains entrenched, and in the UK is even widening. Only 30% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the UK are women, and just 17% of all professors in STEM are female. Both houses of UK parliament have only 23% women.

Globally, while there are high profile women in leadership roles at a corporate level, boards and executive committees remain 83%-96% male. The recent IMF report Fair Play: More Equal Laws Boost Female Labor Force Participation found that 90% of countries have at least one important gender based legal restriction. The UNDP states that “Gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development.

A slogan like “Girls Rule” seems little more than a lie in this context. It implies that women leaders are respected, listened to, and rewarded for their hard work, talent, and intelligence – when that is clearly not the case. Perhaps the slogan “Girls Rule!” was created as a way of hiding the sad reality of gender inequality.

The empowering messages we convey to our children are important, but they can easily backfire. As American comedian Sarah Silverman wryly observed, “Don’t tell girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. Because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn’t.”

This week new research on marketing to girls, found that when “…girls hit the age of 13 they start to feel less confident and more worried about the world around them.” The reasons are unclear, but this would also be the time they experience the dawning revelation that the reality of being a woman, on the wrong side of the gender bias divide, isn’t quite how they imagined it would be when they were little girls.

Advertisers obviously know the power of a good slogan, and a source for a new girl empowerment one has come from an unlikely place. Always (makers of ‘feminine hygiene products’) found through their market research the same issue of girls suffering a significant drop in self-confidence around the time they hit puberty.

The company tried to address these feelings for an ad campaign, and a new slogan entered the girl empowerment lexicon – #LikeAGirl. They deftly took the former playground insult, and transformed it into plaudit. When you run like a girl, throw like a girl, fight like a girl – you are not doing it badly, you’re doing it incredibly. At least that’s the shift in meaning hoped for.

The fantasy of “Girls Rule!” seems tepid next to the optimistic reality of doing amazing things ‘like a girl’.

All I need now is to get THAT on a kid’s female superhero t-shirt.

Because little girls have big dreams of being superheroes too. #likeagirl

A photo posted by Man vs. Pink (@manvspink) on

I’m not going to pretend to my daughter that she’s growing up in a world where “Girls Rule”. She will have many challenges to face in life, and lying to her about them won’t help her deal with them.

But I’m buying Asda’s “Girls Rule!” t-shirt for her. Three awesome female superheroes, drawn in the classic retro style, on a kid’s sized top in the UK? Sold. I also want Asda to know that female superheroes sell too.

And my daughter can’t read. Yet.

What do you think about the slogan “Girls Rule”? Helpful, harmful or neither? Please discuss by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

The Dad Network

Review: DC Comics Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice

Existing somewhere between a comic and a book, the Study Hall of Justice, is a fun way to explore the characters of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman in an all new setting.

Set in an alternative timeline, this sees a young Bruce Wayne attending the exclusive school Ducard Academy, where he befriends a certain Kansas farm boy and a foreign young woman of royal descent (Superman and Wonder Woman in case you were wondering).

But all is not right in the school, and if you’re a follower of the DC universe in either it’s comic, film, or TV forms, the names of the teachers – and the academy itself – should be a hint at what’s really going on there.

It’s written by Derek Fridolfs and illustrated by Dustin Nguyen, who were the team behind a similarly cute Li’l Gotham. While ostensibly a comic book, this also has tracts of text and graphics as part of the story – such as text messages, letters, articles, diary entires, and more. It’s a book equivalent of a multi-media story telling approach that works really well, and encourages more reading than your usual comic book.

The characterisations are spot on, and close in spirit with their comic equivalents while being a wry commentary on them. While this centres on the young dark knight detective, it’s also nice to see the bond forming (and sometimes cracking) between him and Superman & Wonder Woman.

I liked a sequence when Diane Prince (Wonder Woman) tried to go undercover and get on the cheerleading team, followed by an unsuccessful athletics try-out. There is also a nice nod to her mission in fighting war – by trying to stop Superman and Batman fighting. Plenty of other female characters from the DC universe show up too such as girls called Harley, Pamela, and Talia 😉

This is a fun little book, that’s may be of particular interest to a young reader looking for something a little more relatable to them, while still staying true to the classic characters.

DC Comics Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice, by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen, is published by Scholastic and is available now.

Review: Thunderbirds Are Go Toys

We check out some Thunderbirds are Go toys – Thunderbird 2 (with Mini Thunderbird 4) and Thunderbird 3.

The iconic sixties puppet show has been rebooted as a CGI series on ITV. Remaining fairly faithful to the look and spirit of the original, the famed vehicles remain largely recognisable in their modern form.

The two Thunderbirds Are Go toys we received were the space rocket Thunderbird 3, and the iconic ‘plane’ Thunderbird 2 (with the mini-sub Thunderbird 4).

Unboxing took a while, as there was far too much packaging and tethers holding everything in place. While the toys look the part, they do seem a bit flimsy – made of lightweight plastic (rather than the die-cast metal of the Thunderbirds toys of my childhood). Ours remain intact, but I can’t imagine them surviving too much ‘action’ unscathed.

Thunderbird 3 has a little interactivity, with a set of pop-out grappling arms (that don’t really do very much beyond popping out). Thunderbird 2 has fold out wings, pop-out stilts, and a drop down pod containing Thunderbird 4.

Both toys supposedly have dialogue and sound effects. Thunderbird 3 has rocket sounds and dialogue. I can’t comment on Thunderbird 2’s as despite the packaging stating otherwise, there were no batteries included (it takes 3 small lithium ones).

My daughter thought they were ok, and played with them a little bit. But one thing was missing – she had never seen Thunderbirds. I showed her a couple of episodes of the new version, with plots featuring these vehicles, and after that she was re-enacting scenes of rescue she had just witnessed, and was far more engaged with them.

Overall, I don’t think these are great toys in their own right, but for fans of the show they will provide ample opportunity for imaginative play. These Thunderbirds are Go toys are recommended for young fans, and only for the right price.

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Disclosure: We received these Thunderbirds Are Go toys as part of the Toys R Us Toyologist programme. They send us toys in exchange for honest reviews. You can read the original post here.

 

Family Fever

21 Netflix Movies With a Strong Female Lead

Navigating Netflix via genres and categories is a fascinating way to explore what films are on offer. Beyond the usual Action, Rom Coms, Documentaries you can get specific with Superhero & Comicbook, Deep Sea Horror, or Korean TV Shows.

An intriguing one that popped up recently was a section for Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead, and it encompassed an eclectic bunch of movies with strong female characters.

I enjoyed browsing them. I found some movies I love, others that are renowned, and a few I had never heard of that sound awesome!

So, here are twenty one movies that stood out – the first 10 I have seen and the next 11 I want to.

21 Netflix Movies With a Strong Female Lead

1. Vera Drake (2004)
A powerful 1950’s set drama from Mike Leigh, about a woman who unbeknownst to her family helps local women abort unwanted pregnancies. Imelda Staunton gives a fantastic performance in this moving (and depressing) story.

2. Happy Go Lucky (2008)
Also from Mike Leigh, this film couldn’t be any more different than Vera Drake. Set in modern London, it stars Sally Hawkins as an irresistibly cheerful schoolteacher who remains bright and optimistic in the face of many obstacles – not least Eddie Marsan’s creepy driving instructor. Many fans of Leigh’s other work find this film slight in comparison – but I think it is irresistible.

3. Fargo (1996)
The cult Coen brother’s movie that inspired the current TV series, this sees Frances McDormand as the female police chief who tirelessly investigates a botched kidnap scam – despite being heavily pregnant and an amiable citizen. The black deadpan humour is both chilling and hilarious.

4. Winter’s Bone (2010)
Before she hit the big time in X-Men and Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence starred in this powerful low budget drama about a resourceful teen who looks after her two siblings in the face of poverty and questionable parenting.

5. Precious (2009)
Somehow, this tale of an abused, obese, illiterate Harlem teenager, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is a dynamic and ultimately uplifting movie. Strong performances all round, but especially Gabourey, Mo’Nique as her mother, and surprisingly Mariah Carey as her social worker.

6. Agora (2009)
Set in 4th-century Roman Egypt (Alexandria), this historical fiction stars Rachel Weisz as a female astronomer and  philosopher, working against a backdrop of religious intolerance towards science from the growing religion of Christianity. A fascinating part of history brought to life in a dramatic and eye catching manner, also look for an early role from Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

7. Anywhere But Here (1999)
This film stars Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, as an impulsive mother and a more down to earth daughter trying to make a new life for themselves in LA. This is a slight but engaging film, with two great actresses carrying the movie.

8. Election (1999)
Reese Witherspoon in an early and much admired performance as a politically ambitious teenager, who comes up against her teacher (Mathew Broderick) who is keen to see her lose the school election. This is a smart and witty comedy from Writer/Director Alexander Payne.

9. Clueless (1995)
This nineties classic sees Jane Austen’s Emma perfectly reimagined as a Beverly Hills High School comedy, starring Alicia Silverstone as ‘Cher’. Her co-stars include Stacy Dash (now an outspoken Fox News pundit), Brittany Murphy (who passed away in 2009), and Paul Rudd (currently Marvel’s Ant-Man). The literary source material gives this story a depth of character, heart, and wit that lifts if above its genre peers.

10. Scream (1996)
A knowing homage to eighties horror flicks, directed by one of the genre’s best filmmakers (the late Wes Craven) this stars Neve Campbell as a high schooler terrorised by an unknown killer, who is picking off people she knows one by one. Tense, clever, and witty, the film co-stars Drew Barrymore and Courtney Cox. There is also a Netflix Original sequel.

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Next up, here are movies with strong female characters that I haven’t seen. These are either ones I’ve wanted to for a while, or came across while browsing this section on Netflix.

11. Still Alice (2014)

Jullianne Moore is a brilliant actress, and in this film – based on a novel – she plays a college professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 50. Moore won a slew of awards for the role, including an Oscar.

12. Harold & Maude (1971)
As a film buff since I was a teen, it is pretty shameful I’ve still never seen this one. From renowned director Hal Ashby, this dark rom com stars Ruth Gordon as a 79-year-old widow who ends up in a relationship with a young man (who’s obsessed with death). The premise may sound unappealing, but this has been an acclaimed movie for as long as I can remember, so I really need to check it out.

13. The Babadook (2014)
An acclaimed movie of a different sort, this modern psychological horror has been lauded for it’s story, characters, and creepiness. The plot revolves around a mother, her son, and a mysterious children’s book. This is normally the kind of movie I unsuccessfully suggest we watch, but this time my wife was the one who wanted to see it – though we haven’t had the courage to as yet.

14. Two Days, One Night (2014)
This Belgian drama stars Marion Cotillard as a worker about to lose her job, who tries to get her colleagues to agree to a pay cut so she doesn’t get the chop. Marion has shown she is an engaging actress in her many English language roles, and I have no doubt she would be as good if not better in her native french. I also interviewed her once and she was lovely :)

15. White God (2014)
I had never heard of this Hungarian drama, but the premise sounds amazing – an abandoned dog musters up a pack of 250 fellow stray mongrels to rise up against their human oppressors – but also so he can be reunited with his beloved 13-year old human guardian Lili. Sounds like a must watch.

16. Dear White People (2014)
This satirical drama, set on a US college campus, that takes a swipe at US race relations, with particular reference to the notions of cultural appropriation and white privilege. The leading character is the clearly ironic Sam White, a female student who causes a stir by publicising all the racial transgressions she comes across. I’m always keen to check out a good drama about race.

17. Come Drink With Me (1966)
Another film I had never heard of, and it sounds awesome. A sixties Hong Kong martial arts movie, it stars the then 20-year-old Cheng Pei-pei (who at 69 is still working today) as Golden Swallow, the daughter of a general who is sent to rescue her brother from bandits. It is widely revered, and I love a good martial arts movie. Can’t wait to check it out.

18. Tracks (2013)
Based on a true story, this Australian film stars Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) as a young woman who travels 1,700 miles across Australian deserts, with her dog and four camels. Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) also stars, as a photographer documenting her journey.

19. God Help The Girl (2014)
This is a British musical drama film written and directed by Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle and Sebastian, and that’s basically why I want to see it because they’re a great band.

20. Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
I’m sorry. This film looks terrible, and yet… This is based on a sixties comic book, that became a seventies cartoon, and then a noughties movie. It stars Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie, Tara Reid as the drummer, and bassist/backup vocalist is Rosario Dawson (currently in a pair of Marvel Netflix Originals Daredevil and Jessica Jones). It might well be crap, but it looks like fun.

21. Chocolat (2000)
Set in France, Juliette Binoche plays an expert chocolatier and single mother who moves to a conservative village with her six-year-old daughter. She ruffles some feathers, especially when she opens a chocolate shop at the start of lent. It’s based on the novel by Joanna Harris, who is also outspoken against gendered marketing, and follows me on Twitter – so for that reason alone I should watch this! The movie also stars Johnny Depp.

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So that’s my pick of 21. This list is based on movies available on Netflix in the UK & Ireland, but if you’re elsewhere, you can browse what Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead are available in your region.

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Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam program. Our household receives free Netflix for a year and I post about how our family uses the service.

Please head over to Netflix to check out anything mentioned here.

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What do you think of this list of Netflix movies with a strong female lead? Any to add?

 

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