Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Multicultural Perspectives: Burka Avenger versus Disney

For the latter half of summer, I heard a lot of talk and saw many a screen shot of an emerging star in Pakistan's children's media field: The Burka Avenger. Skipping over the fact that the burka is not a cultural norm in Pakistan (read some insights about that here), this female super hero cartoon topples many of the preconceived notions of heroism and strength by using educational tools--books, pens etc--as her weapon of choice. And the Avenger's day job? A school teacher. One who does not wear a burka, by the way.

What the creators are trying to accomplish is clearly evident: the importance of female education, the power that an individual voice (and superb ninja training abilities) can have, a demonstration of female and child empowerment in general, and a visual challenge to those who would strive for otherwise. Does equating her attire with superhero skills glamorize the potentially limiting uses of the burka? It can, yes, but not necessarily. And what I enjoyed about the cartoon is how the teacher chooses to use it specifically for her own advantage, an important lesson in cultural awareness (that these are choices at all).

The cartoon feeds into the international dialog on Girl's agency too. Last week I shared a link about the merits of paranormal YA, which addressed the explosion of girl-centric YA adventures, dystopias, and science fiction and gave merit to the boom of YA romances. In it, the author did conclude that while a lot of movement has been made, there is still much left to be altered. I couple this with Sophia McDougall's "I Hate Strong Female Characters" to shed light on the fact that young women are prone to be classified as strong but little else. The diversity of their personal character is as sparse as the diversity of their culture. McDougall basically suggests that the sudden explosion of female-protagonist YA has gilded the post-apocalyptic road to serenity with girls whose primary struggle is with troubled romance, apart from having to save the world. Not enough room for character depth.

Of course, there are arguments challenging this. Do I think all female protagonists fall under those clutches? No, and they surely don't need to either. Some would say it isn't a forgone conclusion, and it is important to note that the McDougall focuses on films and television rather than literature. It is quite fair to say, I think, that books allow for more subversive actions, upending of cultural "norms"; they yield a greater amount of charisma for females. Movie adaptations tend to succumb to the aesthetic of visual appeal, and sacrifice story for pretty faces.

Still, even within books, there's a debate about the efficacy of girls' agency. All the more reason that I was impressed with the concepts supporting The Burka Avenger. It is trying quite fervently to place itself as a bearer of empowering thought. It stumbles and suffers from a collection of stereotypes itself, but nothing that impedes the feminine or child's voice. And, as the Huffington Post points out, it teaches Disney six invaluable lessons about heroines.

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