This is Erica. She will be the first to tell you all about the meaning of her name, and how it’s described in various books as the name for a female warrior, with adjectives like noble, strong, fierce, and courageous. Erica’s a great sister. She’s a loyal friend, and a loving daughter.
She enjoys sharing her dreams about super heroes and of one day going to the headquarters of all things cool: Comic Con. Her favorite places to shop are Slackers and V-Stock. She likes the local anime store, too. If given a choice of what to do on any given Saturday afternoon, it would probably be finding a V-Stock or Slackers she’s never visited before. The walls of her room are covered with her own drawings or posters of beloved comic-book characters.
She’s always been proud to share her interests with people, lighting up the room as she describes various comic heroes and Star Wars characters. She loves to draw her favorite heroes and she just got into sculpting them too. She likes to watch videos about creating Star Wars or comic characters. Her favorite Teen Titan is Starfire. Her favorite Star Wars characters are Ahsoka, Shaak Ti, Aayla Secura, and Padme. Her favorite member of the Avengers is Thor.
She dealt with the annoyance of occasional ignorant remarks from kids on school playgrounds about what girls are or are not supposed to play, wear, or like. But she never felt any reason to stop liking what she liked. She never imagined she would be shunned. She never had the notion of suppressing herself.
This past year was tough for Erica. Her family moved to a new house, which also meant a new school. She loved her old school. It was there she’d met another girl who’d play Star Wars and Avengers with her at recess. Sometimes, she’d play Darth Vader or Thor. She had fun, and even if a kid said something stupid, she had at least one good friend who shared — and supported — her interests. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going to a new school.
True to her nature, Erica had a positive attitude. She’d say, “I can conquer any new challenge!”
Erica’s parents made sure they moved to a reputable school district in an educated, diverse community, figuring this would ensure Erica and her brother would have a decent shot at building meaningful friendships in a healthy environment. In spite of positive attitudes and planning, things were difficult for Erica. Fourth grade proved to be a challenge.
The first weeks of school were lonely. She took refuge with her brother, her parents, her comic books, and movies. For the most part, the initial loneliness was chalked up to being the new kid. She persevered and before long, some of the girls were asking her to hang out. As she got to know the other kids, she realized no one at the new school really cared about Star Wars. No one knew most of the heroes Erica cared about, and they weren’t too interested in learning. The girls talked about what Beyoncé wore at an awards show, and if it was still acceptable to think Justin Bieber was cute. One of her teachers appreciated her Wonder Woman and Super Girl notebooks, but the other kids just weren’t interested. Erica was bored and felt alone most of the time. She would complain to her mom, relaying stories of the other girls’ gossip or other activities.
What about the boys? Erica tried to talk with the guys about Avengers and Star Wars characters. Initially, they just used the generic “you’re a girl, so you don’t know anything” bit. That didn’t work. Erica still wanted friends. She deserved to have them and she was determined. If one of the boys knew about the characters she loved, she wanted to know. The boys seemed sincerely confused by the whole situation. As far as they knew, it was unacceptable in fourth grade culture to choose to hang out with a girl during any free time. But this girl would not let up. She kept insisting on starting discussions with them about Star Wars. She kept asking them to play Avengers. And she wanted to be Thor. Most of the boys gave up on telling her she wasn’t allowed to have such an interest. But they refused to hang out or talk about the comics, characters, and films, even though some of them damn well liked these things. Some of them tried to correct her about story lines or characters. She would get so frustrated, telling her mom how she couldn’t believe these guys really thought they were authorities on the subject when she could prove they were wrong by referencing a certain episode or issue.
Halloween came around and Erica had found her costume. She researched her heart out last year to find a Thor costume. She searched and searched because she knew there had to be one. Other kids talked about what they were planning for the school’s costume parade. Girls were discussing cats, mice, witches, and movie stars. When Erica showed up, no one seemed impressed. Some of them didn’t know who she was supposed to be. The remarks swirled around her as she prepared for the parade. “Thor? You can’t be Thor! Thor is a guy!”
By the way, this was before the recent news about Marvel making Thor a girl in the comics. Erica’s story illustrates how making room for a female Thor is important. It also illustrates how the backlash against Marvel’s decision wasn’t limited to the company’s publishing decision. It’s a backlash Erica faced, as a girl who simply wanted to dress up as one of her favorite heroes.
Erica knew her costume was cool, but she was a kid with feelings. She was a kid who wanted to fit in. She wanted to be liked. She knew her mom would be there to see her and Batman, proudly snapping pictures. She still wished at least one of the other kids could appreciate the costume, even if they didn’t know shit about Thor. She was so happy when one of the dads in the parade audience gave her a shout out, saying “Alright, Thor Girl!”
As the school year progressed, she started sleeping in and not wanting to go to school at all, begging for a day off. She liked school itself but was tired of feeling like an unwelcome outcast. She had no interest in what the other girls were talking about or doing. She tried for a while to feign interest, hoping they would at least do the same and give her time to talk some comics. It didn’t work that way. Some of the little boys told the girls that they should be twerking. Erica told them she would rather use Thor’s hammer. Instead of showing any camaraderie, the other girls showed contempt for her answer to the boys’ requests.
Many days, Erica would come home from school crying that she was left out and wasn’t able to make any friends. There were a lot of kids at the school but not even one safe, reliable, supportive friend could be found. A couple of the girls suggested she change her hair or wear different, more girly clothes in order to fit in with everyone. Despite the promise of at least basic company, she just dug herself even more into illustrated artwork of superheroes, anime, and comic stories, finding new characters to study. Thor and other beloved heroes became her refuge and comfort. She found sanctuary in her room surrounded by the books and her sketches. She was no longer an outcast when she got to go to Slackers, V-Stock, or the local Anime store.
The school year was pretty much a bust socially, except for the occasional, almost obligatory party invitation or other outing. So much for building meaningful friendships. She wrote fan letters to Linda Carter and others who’d played her favorite superheroes. When Linda wrote back and sent autographed pictures of Wonder Woman, she enjoyed a resurge of confidence.
The middle of the year, she ran for student council. She wanted to be like the President and help bring change to the school. She said she wanted to be a leader, because she knew she would be a good one. She would make happy changes in her school by working to end all bullying, and all the things that were unfair, like people thinking girls shouldn’t role-play their favorite characters. Of course, this made her parents and teachers proud. That gave her some comfort. But they couldn’t fix the sad social climate for Erica, and they couldn’t be there to make sure recess and lunch hours weren’t lonely as hell, or that someone wouldn’t call her names, kick her, or throw dirt at her for wanting to be a favorite character during pretend play. At the end of the year, Erica was excited about an upcoming wax museum project for her class.
Instead of trying to project a more girly image by changing, she’d proudly dug into her interests even more, finding her own identity against the odds. Instead of listening to what every other school kid was telling her, she decided she was going to be herself. So what if no one ever saw a girl Thor before? So what if none of these other kids liked Star Wars, or were too afraid to play with her because she was a girl. Yeah, it was lonely, and it still sucked at free time. But she was excited that the school year was ending, and the project ahead was one in which students got to pick any character from any favorite book, dress up as the character, create a background scene from the book, and appear in the school hallway’s wax museum. She had an opportunity to educate people about her favorite character and show off her mad artistic skills.
Erica brought home some supplies to create the perfect background scene and started to discuss ideas with her parents about costumes for Thor or another character. When she went back to school with the proposal for her exhibit, her teacher said the Principal had declared the book couldn’t be a comic book. The Principal didn’t deem comic books as having any educational value.
Erica was temporarily bummed. But she poured through all her favorite books at home, flinging this and that around the room. She raised a Star Wars book in the air and declared victory. She would be Padme. She had to be a female character, and it had to be something other than a comic book. Padme would be acceptable to the school and was definitely awesome for Erica. When her mom asked if she was sure this was cool with her, because she may be able to push the issue about some of these guidelines with the Principal, Erica’s response was “Padme is a brave fighter. I’m going to be the best Padme and have the best scene.” She hoped she could change some hearts and minds and create more Star Wars fans.
The Thor costume was still hanging in her closet from Halloween. It was bittersweet, but she did make a great Padme. Her mom was there to snap tons of pictures at the wax museum. Erica posed and had a brave demeanor. Passersby could push a fake button and the wax figure (the student) came to life and told about the character and the scene from the story. Erica probably knew the whole story better than Natalie Portman, who portrayed Padme in some of the films.
But at school, surrounded by kids who didn’t know or appreciate the story or its character, and adults who’d discouraged the original idea, she wasn’t confident anymore, and she quietly mumbled, stumbling through words about the scene and Padme.
The confidence that used to come to light, when sharing what she loved with others, was fading. For all her strength and determination to be herself in a culture which told her to be someone else, someone more girly, someone not into comics, it was evident these messages had gotten to her.
I’m Erica’s mom. I’ve shared this story and the pictures with her permission. I was a bit uncomfortable at first, but I talked with her about it. It also helps that Erica is Julian Darius’s goddaughter, so I know and appreciate Sequart’s work, and I have great respect for its leadership. I was pretty angry about the bullying my daughter went through at school, and by sharing this I hope it can serve as a small step towards building a better culture. I want to see us all walk our talk about acceptance, equality, and a meaningful code of ethics against bullying. My daughter is talented. She has a natural gift for drawing, painting, and other forms of art. She has a keen eye for detail as I’ve observed while she pours through her comics and sculpts clumps of clay into anime or comic characters.
Aside from the fact it’s simply unacceptable, efforts to keep Erica down, or hold her back from her individual pursuits, through bullying and sexism, can rob the world of her potential contributions. The boys she tried to befriend were robbed of having a neat friendship with someone who shared similar interests. If the boys weren’t taught that girls are only to look at or judge superficially, they wouldn’t have had this problem. If they had been taught that girls and boys can be friends, and are allowed to share an interest in comics or superheroes, they would have been free to hang out at Slackers with a cool kid. Instead, a really cool kid cried a lot after school throughout the year, and those who cast her aside or bullied her are now seen as little more than abusive morons.
I understand these problems have deep roots. I understand that change will take a lot of work on the part of thoughtful people. I understand the problems are so enmeshed throughout our society that many aren’t even conscious of their own biases or ignorance. I’ve been reminded of that as I’ve worked with teachers to address some of the problems. I often have to stare in the face of ingrained, backwards attitudes when I share concerns with other parents.
“Bullying is something that all kids just have to go through,” they say. They scoff at the idea that bullying is a valid concern, or that it’s even abuse. How can we tackle this if people aren’t even willing to identify it? Problems of sexism aren’t going away without the realization that boys and girls are treated unfairly. Everyone seems to be living by a severely outdated framework.
Some parents and teachers have said they tell girls who tattle to go talk to the school counselor about their drama. They laugh a little as they tell me they don’t want to hear about the griping between girls who were BFF’s yesterday and are now engaged in a modern-day, elementary-school Cold War. A teacher tells me she isn’t too worried about the scuffle going on down the hallway between groups of boys. Stating what appears to be obvious, she says, “They’re boys. They know how to work it out and move on.” When three boys have held one boy down while another strangles him in the classroom, the boys are made to sit in a crowded hallway for a while and maybe a note will be sent home to the parents. It’s stupid to assume that girls are tattling, whining, or bitching about petty drama when they summon the confidence to address their concerns to trusted adults. It’s a damn near prehistoric notion to encourage physical violence as an acceptable way for boys to work things out and move on.
Like many other parents, I tried to think of what I could have done to prevent the hurtful things that happened to my daughter at school. I also wondered what I could do to stop it in the future. I couldn’t help but remember my own fourth-grade year, which was awful. I didn’t want to compare, and I made conscious efforts to keep those memories from clouding how I would handle my own children’s experiences. I also reasoned that what I went through was so long ago that I assumed many of these problems with sexism, bullying, closed mindedness, and general ignorance had to have changed by now.
None of us can turn on the television or radio these days without hearing about some initiative or program that’s making a difference about bullying, or with issues concerning girls in education. Besides, I reminded myself that we were in an educated, diverse district. My best friend has reminded me over the years to keep my worry in check and allow my logic to prevail. Sometimes, it’s hard for parents to do that. But my friend is right. And during the course of the past year, I did remind myself that my daughter is a different person than me, an individual in her own right. She isn’t destined to experience the same problems. I made it a personal goal not to be an irrational worry wart. And as my daughter told me about the bullying, the ugly social culture of the school, and the sexism, I didn’t fall to pieces and keep her home. I didn’t get all “tiger mom” by embarrassing her and spending the day at school as a personal bodyguard. Honestly, those are some of the things that crossed my mind. I wanted to protect her.
No parent wants their children to experience pain that they have already been through. I think we all want better for our children. Most of us would probably give our eye teeth if it would ensure our children safe, happy, and healthy lives. I had every reason to hope that we’d come a lot further as a society than I realized. But then she would get in the car and cry after school, and I thought of all the bullshit PSAs about girls being treated as equal and abolishing bullying in schools. I couldn’t tell her anything different than what my mom had told me years ago, when I cried to her on the way home from school. I told her to be herself. I told her it’s OK to cry. I told her that none of what was happening was fair, nor was it her fault. I told her I understand the pain. I told her to keep her chin up and her shoulders back. I told her that the people who were being abusive were wrong, and that she should enjoy her interests. I told her that she has every right to be herself and to never let anyone convince her otherwise. I told her that someday she would meet real friends who would appreciate her. I hated feeling helpless to do more.
All I could do was hope my words of love and support would outweigh the abusive crap she would probably continue to trudge through at school, despite our best efforts to talk to teachers, administrators or other parents.
My daughter wasn’t hurting anyone. All she wanted was to make friends. She had a positive attitude about the new school and all the possibilities, even though she knew she’d miss her old one. The things that helped her break the ice and meet new friends were the things that interest her. Talking about super heroes, Star Wars, or comics always brought her out of any temporary shyness or quiet. When she had an opportunity to talk about her interests, she could share a stage or spotlight with anyone.
The things she enjoys are healthy, creative and intellectually nurturing interests. I won’t discourage them. I’m not keen on the idea of discouraging something she loves based on others’ inability to understand it. I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to encourage something else in its place, even if it may seem to make her more easily accepted by the same peers who’d otherwise bully her for her true interests. It made me sad and angry to witness that inner light and confidence dimming as she presented her school project.
I don’t want to see any kid feel as if they should change who they are in order to find acceptance. I don’t want my daughter to feel she has to project a false image in order for others to even talk to her. I don’t want anyone thinking they have to ridiculously conform in order to be safe. I don’t think anyone should want a talented, passionate, potential comics scholar to feel shut out of the refuge and comfort she turned to through a really difficult year. It’s bad enough she had to face the gross, uncivilized truth of sexism at such a young age. I don’t want to see the community she loves and yearns to be a part of, shut her out, and especially not based in the same sexism and bullying attitude that children with ignorant parents have shown her.
I said I encourage Erica’s interests because I see them as healthy, creative, and intellectually nurturing. I mean it. I wish I was half as knowledgeable as she is about some of these characters and stories. I wish I had her gift for illustration. I am proud of her. I want her to be surrounded by other talented people who will appreciate these gifts too.
I always thought the comics community was cool because it seemed to be filled with people who celebrate creativity and all kinds of perspectives. Watching my child grow and develop her own interests, I felt good about it. I felt Erica would be safe and have an accessible outlet for her talents and ideas. I hope she will. I hope as she grows and develops, she never loses touch with her passions and I hope the community of Star Wars, sci fi, anime, super heroes, and comic scholars will embrace her. She needs you. And you’ll be even cooler for including her.
I hope I get to come to Comic-Con with her in the future, snap a lot of pictures, and see her beautiful light and confidence.