I recently heard an NPR story about a new series of self-published books for young girls called The Guardian Princess Alliance. It was initiated by Setsu Shigematsu, a University of California-Riverside professor of Media and Cultural Studies. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this post are from the NPR story.
Shigematsu looked at the typical “princess” stories available for young girls these days (not otherwise identified, but I assume she means stories in the fairy-tale or Disney mold) and decided they weren’t progressive enough for the 21st century. In Shigematsu’s stories, princesses are
environmentally conscious and not waiting around to be rescued.
Who could argue with this? It’s important to be environmentally conscious in this era of climate change and the approach of Peak Oil, and certainly a feminist heroine who takes her fate into her own hands is to be applauded.
Furthermore, her seven protagonists
are a multi-ethnic group of heroines who each protect a different aspect of nature.
More good news! Diversity is a virtue; each of these young women, going by their looks, names, and dress, seem to represent Africa, various parts of Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania. And if these princesses have specialties in what they protect (Plant Life, The Skies, Lakes & Rivers, etc.), then that could help teach children that our ecosphere is a complicated system requiring defense on many fronts. Very praiseworthy.
The hazards faced by these characters have also been updated:
The Guardian Princesses face no evil stepmothers or dangerous spinning wheels. Instead, Vinnea leads a life of social activism against unnaturally modified foods.
So no traditional villains; rather…wait, what? “Unnaturally modified foods”? That’s what the written transcript says at the NPR website, but it has been altered. I don’t know why the transcript was changed, but no takebacks: in the audio you still hear the reporter say “genetically modified foods” (emphasis mine, of course).
“These fruits and vegetables are not natural,” Vinnea accuses a villainous gulavore in the book. “They contain a dangerous chemical, admit it. … Dolo, you’ve ruined our garden in order to feed the people this unhealthy food.”
Here’s the point where, if I had a weakness for clichés, you’d hear the sound of a record needle being dragged across the vinyl.
Genetically modified organisms (food) are safe. Among people who understand science, there is little controversy about this. Here is an excellent overview by Nathanael Johnson of the pros and cons surrounding GMOs; the pros heavily outnumber the cons. Here is another by Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. These crops are safe, and they carry the promise of feeding more people more nutritiously than ever before in history; in the form of golden rice, that promise is on the verge of bearing fruit.
It’s pretty shocking that a series of children’s books would be so openly hostile to GMOs as to make them the villains in one of the stories, especially since Shigematsu has taken pains to align the stories’ content with the Common Core educational standards:
…[W]e’re designing our books to be fun and visually appealing, but beyond that we want our books to teach important moral and ethical principles. There are the Common Core language standards, but the environmental theme will also help connect our books with the sciences.
She wants the books to connect “with the sciences,” she says, and yet they seem to be, in this area at least, to be openly contemptuous of science, not only in their knee-jerk opposition to GMOs, but also in their reductive pronouncement that natural things are good and “unnatural” things are bad. The world is full of natural things that can kill me (arsenic, chlorine, and viruses, to name just three), and my life is saved on a daily basis by many unnatural things (canning technology, pasteurization, and soap). To condemn anything simply because it’s unnatural puts the Guardian Princess team on the same footing as the worst homophobic bigots, who make the same argument against lesbian and gay people.
But then, no one among the Guardian Princess writers is a biologist, botanist, or food scientist. One has a B.A. in psychology. Most have studied or are studying Media & Cultural Studies at UC-Riverside, like Dr. Shigematsu herself; undergraduates provide a cheap workforce, I suppose.
No one on the Advisory Board is a biologist, botanist, or food scientist. One is a civil engineer.
Despite the obvious good intentions, this project raises all sorts of red flags in my mind. If these authors are trying to subvert the dominant paradigm, why are all of the princesses still conventionally pretty and conventionally feminine? Why are none of them tomboys? Are all of the villains personified as male, like Princess Terra’s adversary King Abaddon? Does pro-girl also mean anti-boy?
Furthermore, why are they “princesses” at all? Haven’t we decided as a society that systems of nobility and peerage are not good things? Male heroes in children’s stories have all sorts of occupations and backgrounds: shoemakers, athletes, burglars, street urchins, detectives. Making all of these young women “princesses” seems to be putting them in the same restrictive cubbyhole as the Disney films.
Still, it’s the anti-science bias in these books that’s the most troubling. Definitely, little girls need a new model of heroine for the 21st century. But with so few girls going into science and math fields, inculcating them with ignorant, fearful messages isn’t good for anybody.
And it’s shameful that the NPR reporter didn’t call out Shigematsu for her casual indictment of GMOs.