“But she’s pretty!”

October 21, 2010

The other night, I babysat a six-year-old girl. She wanted to watch High School Musical, so, hiding my resignation, I popped it in. About halfway through, she turned to me and asked, “If you were in High School Musical, who would you want to be?”

“The guy who likes to bake.” He may get little screen time, but I stand by my decision. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an acceptable one. “No, you’re a girl, so you have to choose a girl.”

“Okay…” I considered. “I would be the pianist- the girl who writes the musical.”

“Oh. I would be Sharpay.”

Now, for those fortunate amongst you who have not been subjected to High School Musical, Sharpay is a drama queen in every sense of the word. As the closest thing HSM has to an antagonist, she is a Mean Girl for elementary school kids.

Which would be why I said, “Don’t you think Sharpay is kind of mean to the other characters?”

She nodded. “But she’s pretty!”


At this point, the characters broke into a big song-and-dance number, so we dropped the conversation. But it left me thinking. Here, the kid was acknowledging the fact that Sharpay is mean. That’s good. However, that didn’t stop her from wanting to be Sharpay. Apparently, her physical attractiveness excuses, or at least compensates for, her character flaws.

Do we really put that much stock in beauty? What are we teaching our young girls, if they’re ok with being cruel and manipulative as long as they’re pretty and have boys chasing after them? (Interestingly, Sharpay doesn’t even end up with the guy… she just gets lots of male attention throughout the film.)

I’ll admit, I don’t fault Disney for making the character. Not really. This isn’t Snow White, where the girl is helpless and vapid because “that’s the way girls are.” There are real attempts to make Sharpay unlikeable, and to have the audience root for the “good” girls- Gabriella and her science club friends, and my pianist-compers- girls who (though they’re thinly developed) have more going for them than just their looks.

So why is Sharpay appealing in spite of herself? Sadly, I think it does come down to the messages we send out in all sectors of society. Kids are saturated with media. Every generation does the whole “Today’s youth are going to hell in a handbasket!” bit, but the fact is, this upcoming crop of girls are being fed a potent message. You’re “supposed” to want brains, but the fact is that beauty’s still your trump card. The body is your most valuable asset, and you have to advertise it as such. Your main goal should be to attract male attention, and if you’re not doing/can’t do that, something’s “wrong” with you, and you need to try harder.

Since this is a blog primarily about SF, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some alternative options for who six-year-olds might “like to be.”

Hermione Granger: “Harry Potter,” by J.K. Rowling

All right, this one is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a no-brainer. Hermione is intelligent, kind, loyal, and always tries to do the right thing. And… yes, she is a pretty girl. Just so we’re clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be, or actually being, beautiful. The issues come when it’s your main drive and the dominating aspect of your personality. 

Nita and Dairine Callahan: “Young Wizards” series, by Diane Duane

Diane Duane’s books about adolescent wizards are, in my opinion, entirely too overlooked. They deftly blend science fiction and fantasy into a cohesive whole, and feature remarkable character development. These sisters are self-professed nerds (Nita is an amateur astronomer, Dairine has Yoda pyjamas) and powerful wizards. Strong, smart, and true to their friends, they’re also not afraid of fights, proving that girls can be tough. 

Princess Cimorene: “Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” by Patricia C. Wrede

 So, Cimorene decides being a princess is boring, and sets off to work for a dragon in the first book of this series, “Dealing with Dragons.” She’s up front about the fact that embroidery, dancing, and marrying dim-witted princes just aren’t enough for a strong-willed, intelligent girl. Interestingly, part of the plot revolves around her (female) dragon friend Kazul’s efforts to become the next King of the Dragons. As Kazul explains, “King” is just the name of the job- if the right person can do it, it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.

Holly Short: “Artemis Fowl,” by Eoin Colfer

She gets captured fairly early on, but the resemblance to a damsel in distress ends there. Holly Short is a member of LEPRecon- the Lower Elements Police Reconassiance team. That’s right: she’s a fairy cop. And she is as resourceful and determined as they come. Add in some sass and a decent heart underneath it all, and she’s a fun character to hang out with for a while. One caveat: the Artemis Fowl series peaks around the third book. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Matilda: “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl

Is this one really fantasy? I figure there’s enough of the fantastic in it to make it count. After all, we’re talking about a five-year-old with telekinesis. Matilda is one of the first child geniuses I can remember encountering in books. No matter your age, you have to admire this profoundly insightful, quietly courageous little girl. Despite her oppression by the adults in her life (oppression which frankly borders on abuse), she refuses to let herself be “quashed.” And who can forget Miss Honey, one of the “sweetest” educators to grace children’s lit?

In short, plenty of female characters have made their claims to fame on traits other than their physical looks. Next time I babysit, I’m taking one of these along as a bedtime story.





  1. You’re right. Just look at Nanny McPhee! 😉

  2. […] But she’s pretty! (Intergalatic Writers, Inc.) […]

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