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Education Matters: Comic-Con Special Edition’s education focus, from toys to teachers

The list of toys audience members thought were targeted for girls and which for boys was disheartening.

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

At Comic-Con Special Edition, held Nov. 26-28 at the San Diego Convention Center, the “Dinosaurs vs. Unicorns” panel, which included two articulate young teens, revealed how manufacturers, retail outlets and consumers tend to segregate toys based on gender stereotypes.

In the list of common boy toys were guns, G.I. Joe, science kits, action figures, construction, dinosaurs, tools and hot wheels. The list for girl toys included dolls, nursing, cooking, dress-up, ponies, princesses, anything pink and, of course, Barbie.

Moderator Tony Bianca suggested that toys often reflect how children see their future roles in life. The toys reinforce the notion of what they are supposed to be when they grow up, which is limiting – and will continue to be until what each child is naturally interested in becomes the primary focus.

Charlie, age 13, said the media could expand, even double, their market by advertising to any gender, also adding, “It’s really the people who gender the toys, not the manufacturers.”

It’s easy to blame the companies, but they change when they hear from the public, Bianca said.

Panelist Laura Todd said retail stores often segregate toys in the aisle layouts. How to rearrange toys in a way that doesn’t specify boy-girl distinctions was discussed.

Bianca noted that it’s more socially acceptable “for girls to play with construction toys than for boys to play with dolls,” and society needs to get beyond the inclination to sort children into pre-determined categories.

Making the point visually, the two young teens could have been either gender.

“Confusing people with your gender presentation is the best,” said Charlie, smiling.

Bianca said he sometimes would wonder whether a child was a boy or a girl. And then, he said, it occurred to him, “What does it matter? Why do I care?”

On a positive note, he closed the session by saying, “This conversation would not have happened 20 years ago. So when it feels like it’s taking forever, keep that in mind.”

Conspiracies

Are comics fans more susceptible to conspiracy theories?

A packed room listened to five panelists in the session “Conspiracy Theories and Propaganda Through Pop Culture” as they gave multiple examples of propaganda in movies, books, comics and on the internet.

“A good conspiracy theory needs solid propaganda,” said one panelist.

The movie “The Matrix” revealed a global conspiracy in which humans were unwitting slaves to machines. In high school, students who read “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” recognize how dystopian governments such as the one in “The Handmaid’s Tale” can warp rational thought.

“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” Mottos in George Orwell’s “1984” turn common sense on its head.

In Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” with no free thinking allowed, a backward dystopia has firefighters burning books instead of putting out fires.

But the internet and posts on social media dominated the discussion.

Because the internet has no gatekeepers, said one panelist, it’s a breeding ground for fake news, asking why people trust random posts when it’s widely known that people are paid to post false information.

Still, false conspiracy theories are embraced by far too many among us: QAnon, microchips in vaccines, Covid as a hoax, the JFK murder, the moon landing, evolution, flat earth believers, Holocaust deniers, Jews controlling the world, distrust of science.

But many citizens are justifiably uneasy because there have been real conspiracies: the CIA used LSD as a weapon, the Tuskegee experiment on Black males, Iran Contra, big tobacco knew smoking causes cancer, forced sterilization of women of color.

Panelists said Wikipedia is a good source, but truth-seekers should corroborate news through other valid sources.

A slide titled “Tricks to Avoid Fake News” listed ways to verify information, including: find independent confirmation, don’t get attached to your own hypothesis, be skeptical, and use quantified data.

Also, consider the source, check the author, check the date, check your own bias, read beyond headlines, and ask a trusted expert.

Censorship

Algorithms written to flag disturbing, violent or hateful words or images often result in automatic censorship of sophisticated editorial cartoons and other satirical works through an inability to detect nuances and irony.

Without the presence of living human beings, bots often censor the opposite of what they are designed to protect.

In the “Algorithms and the New Digital Censorship” panel, experts said cartoons holding up hate speech to ridicule or poking fun at fake news get removed for actually being fake news, because algorithms are not smart enough to discern the difference.

Panelist Jeff Trexler led a discussion about the danger of allowing automated programs to decide what’s “fit to print” in the comics industry, particularly editorial cartoons.

“All the algorithms are created by people who come with their own biases or reflect their corporations’ demands,” said digital editor Jordan Smith.

In the “Comics in Education” panel, surveys conducted by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund indicated that censorship in the last few months was up 60% from the previous year.

In these cases, the CBLDF surveys were based on books used in classrooms rather than automated algorithms.

Reasons included: school boards that don’t support intellectual freedom, intimidation from various organized groups (Proud Boys were one), criminal complaints, calls for teachers to be arrested for using controversial literary works, political agendas, organized social media campaigns, and legislation targeting so-called “divisive concepts.”

CBLDF has even reported hearing calls for book burning, which should terrify everyone on both sides of the political spectrum.

Taking censorship to its extreme, CBLDF coalition director Betsy Gomez said CBLDF “is not doing our job if we don’t defend” the right for books of all sorts to be free from censorship, even those that present well-documented false information.

She emphasized that kids should not be forced to read such material and parents have the right to object, but banning books altogether denies the rights of other students and parents.

Reasons for challenging comics and graphic novels include such alleged charges as: LGBTQ content, sex, nudity, pornography, pedophilia, one-sided political views, violence, obscenity and religious overtones.

Surveys of teachers who use comics in the classroom, from an admittedly small sample, indicated that 37% encountered resistance, mostly from colleagues who said the content was not rigorous enough, not academic or too juvenile.

One tactic to counter that resistance is demonstrating how comics can engage reluctant readers who may gain a greater interest in reading.

Convincing both educators and parents that comics and graphic novels have a valid purpose in the classroom remains a challenge.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com


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