According to Elizabeth Jensen, "A New Heroine's Fighting Words", 9/2/2007, NYT:THERE’S a new superhero on the block this fall, and she might just have the strength (or as she would most likely say, the “fortitude”) to render a big vocabulary cool among schoolchildren.
The weapon of choice for PBS’s new “WordGirl” is words: the more expressive, the better. When the fifth-grader Becky Botsford dons her red cape and spits out mouthfuls like “preposterous” and “bicker” and “cumbersome,” her enemies — from the often-tongue-tied Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy (whose name is a chance for WordGirl to define “absurd”) to the Butcher, who mangles words while hoarding meat — capitulate.
Blah blah blah monolingual dora the explorer for an older age demographic blah blah blah.
Anyway, the stupid comes in where he's trying to work up Teh seXY based OUTRAGE:
Given that pre-adolescents are traditionally in search of ways to feel superior to adults -- not that they ever need to look very far -- perhaps exactly what the nation needs these days is a role model to inspire more fifth graders to become snarky and obnoxious by using big words and correcting the usage of others. I think the idea, though, is just to use the snark as a way to sugar-coat the pill of vocabulary enrichment, not to turn out a whole generation of David Foster Wallaces.
But children's shows are inevitably about symbols of identity as well as about transmission of literal content. (I don't think it's an accident that the generation who grew up with the multicolored fur of the Sesame Street puppets took to dying their hair orange and green and purple in college.) And from the point of view of identity symbols, the role of gender and class in WordGirl also deserves a comment.
WordGirl is presented as the champion of English as a literary language. Her super-enemies are almost all adult males, including especially The Butcher, complete with deep voice, five-o'clock shadow, male pattern baldness, and stereotypical working-class accent. (The Butcher's superpower apparently involves forcing opponents to eat too much meat, but that's a topic for another post.) So I wonder: how long will it take, after the pilot airs at 4:30 this afternoon, before the first schoolboy with an interest in reading and writing is nicknamed "WordGirl" by his classmates? My bet is on the morning recess at school tomorrow, in those areas where the schools are already in session.
Maybe the show's creators have a plan for dealing with this issue, I don't know. But on the face of it, the clips posted to YouTube suggest that this show could have a large and negative impact on the educational gender gap.
I've been vocally skeptical about the genetic and neurological basis that some have claimed for this problem; and it remains unclear whether the problem is that boys are doing worse, or that girls are doing better. But the gap is real, and the way to improve things may not be to associate vocabulary improvement with a 5th-grade female superhero correcting the English of adult male villains.
I keep trying to respond to this but the stupid has left me quite literally lost for words.
If only I'd grown up with Wordgirl to look up to!
I do love his gender education gap post, the whole "I don't have any figures to back up what I'm saying, but if I did, they'd agree with me" logic is wonderful, reel sophistrycated. basically you'll recall taht a while ago someone did a survey in britain about how adult men preferred less sophisticated books - like vonnegut's Slaughter house 5 (because only idiots read sci-fi or something) - and women are all like "romance books from the 18th century are way kewl" thereby proving once and for all that all men are alike, all women are the same, people are born in pods and gender essentialism is a perfectly acceptable thing in teh 21st century.
So anyway, his post on wordgirl gets stupid when he attempts to clarify:
If it's not clear to you why WordGirl is any way problematic, try to imagine the reaction to a show where MathBoy defends the world against villains like Ms. BadAd, a PR consultant who doesn't understand percentages, and CheckoutGirl, who is too dim to make change correctly.
Apparently a female villain, "Lady Redundant Woman", is due to appear in a WordGirl episode next spring -- though her fault, I imagine, will be to use too many words. And according to the wikipedia entry, two of the 30 WordGirl shorts (shown on PBS Kids GO! last fall) featured the villain Granny May, although neither of these appears to be on YouTube -- and it's not clear that Granny has any vocabulary problems. The WordGirl web site identifies her as "a mean, grumpy criminal ... [who] plays the role of a feeble, kindly, hard-of-hearing grandma in order to deceive the city and rob everyone blind".
Perhaps at some point we'll learn that Y chromosomes are also to be found on the planet Lexicon, where WordGirl comes from, and that not everyone who misuses or misunderstands the vocabulary of Standard Written English is male. But as presented in the YouTube clips, the show seems designed to persuade boys that words are for girls.
I suggest that one of the words that Wordgirl uses be Parthenogenesis, preferrably when she explains her origins.
And then one of her enemies can be that tosser from harvard who declared that women's brains over heat when we try to think.
because, you know, women are not routinely told they're unable to do anything, and thus must be given no encouragement lest we harness the power of the split participle and take over the world.