Hass Dyson on Critical Literacy and Gender

Emily is a Euro-American girl, a preteen, blonde, and quite pretty. Emily does not say much, and she is almost always polite, but she does have some spunk. She has a crush on Rocky, her good-looking, brown-haired neighbor boy, and vice versa; sometimes, however, she is quite disgusted with his tendency to be a macho “show off.” Mainly Emily and Rocky smile at each other and inquire about each other’s well-being. Whenever Rocky so much as glances at Emily, his brothers Colt and TumTum enjoy chanting “Rock-y loves, Em-i-ly,” to Rocky’s dismay. Rocky’s grandfather is teaching him and his brothers the ancient martial arts of the ninjas (which will come in handy against Grandfather’s former student and nemesis, the evil Snyder).

Emily is not real, in the strict sense of the word because she is a character in a movie marketed to children: Three Ninjas … . Despite her young age, she is now, by all accounts, a has-been, no longer a part of the social and narrative life of the school children I observe in the San Francisco East Bay. Even in the original movie, Emily was only a very minor figure. She had few lines—approximately 23, averaging 4.5 words; and she asked a lot of questions: “Hi. You guys ready?” “Rocky, are you alright?” “Rocky, is that you?” But, at one time, in one classroom, Emily played a starring role; that role was a mediational one—she was used by the children to further their social and textual ends, and so I shall use her here.

Given that this is a book on critical literacy, I anticipate that readers would now expect me to explain how the children’s teacher, Kristin, had the children interrogate this movie as a kind of text. That text, with its passive female and active males, its emphasis on the joy and glory of kicking (targeting others only when absolutely necessary) no doubt suggests a fertile textual field for critical uprooting. But this is not what happened, at least not in any simple sense.

Although many of the children were quite familiar with Emily, at first Kristin did not even know who she was. Kristin learned of Emily only because of the classroom literacy practices she initiated, practices that led the children to bring Emily, and other figures from their social lives as children, into the official school world. In fact, [my] … thesis is that Emily became a useful mediational tool for children’s critical reflections in part because of that rootedness in the children’s unofficial (child-governed) social world, as well as the official world of school literacy practices. Through those practices, Emily was dialogized, to use a key concept of the language theorist Bakhtin … ; that is, she was rendered a reflexive symbol whom the children could use both to reflect on and, through writing, to take action within their worlds. …

[C]ritical literacy involves participating in activities or practices in which we use language, oral and written, to reflect on given words and, most importantly, on their familiar relational backdrops … . At any age, critical literacy is always a personal as well as a political (power-related) matter because it entails reconsidering one’s own experience … . And critical literacy is always a local as well as a societal matter because it is something we do in response to others’ words and actions, including their voiced views on the social world. …

None of Kristin’s young students would have been surprised, I suspect, an adult did not like a story about ninjas. In her school, some teachers even banned such media stories from their classrooms, and some children reported that their parents found these stories too violent. The children’s critical engagement with Emily—their consideration of the relational background within which she (and they) were embedded—emerged within, and was channeled by, the official school world’s practices. But their engagement was fueled and given substance by the unofficial world of peer relations—by the children’s desires to play certain roles (although, certainly, not the ‘hooverer’) and by their concern for fairness. The classroom writing practices gave children a means for seeking both access and redress—and that redress included a redressing, so to speak—a rewriting—of a meek figure named Emily.

The writing and rewriting of Emily was documented during the course of an ethnographic study in Kristin’s urban school; the study focused on 7- to 9-year-old urban school children’s use of popular culture, especially superhero stories, in their unofficial social play and their official school writing. … Like many inner city schools in densely populated urban areas, the school was high poverty (i.e., more than half of a school’s families qualify for the federal school lunch program) and, in addition, populated primarily by children of color. However, the school also served a substantial percentage of White students who came primarily from a middle-class community surrounding the school (31%). …

Out on the playground, the children tended to play in social circles marked by the interplay of gender, race, and social class (the boys, with their team games, being less segregated than the girls). In the classroom, however, the children were more apt to interact with others who experienced the social world quite differently. The social structures that organized this interaction were set in place by Kristin, in her role as teacher. She started a free writing period, which included an Author’s Theatre activity; in that activity, child authors chose classmates to act out their written stories; after the performance, the class responded with comments and questions.

A Euro-American woman in her late 20s, Kristin became the teacher of 28 second graders in March and then kept her class through their third grade year. I knew Kristin because she had earned her Master’s degree at the University of California, where I teach. I had gone to Kristin’s classroom for a brief visit but had become fascinated by the ninjas and other popular characters that dominated her daily composing period. And so, shortly after she had arrived in the school, I began observing, and I also returned for (> months in the third grade, observing 2 to 5 hours per week throughout the entire project. Although I came to know all her children, I had focal children who provided me reference points in the classroom drama, one of whom figures into this chapter, Tina; like the other focal children, she was knowledgeable about the media and active in the peer world. …

Ladies hoover and guys battle evil, according to the traditional storylines. Thus, it was not surprising that, in the second grade, Emily’s prospects for textual action seemed bleak. Five of the 11 boys wrote at least one Three Ninjas story (although no second grade girl did). But these boys rarely mentioned Emily in their brief texts: Ninja stories feature good guys and bad guys, not boy friends and girl friends.

Nonetheless, Emily was very much a part of the unofficial social talk during official composing, and, in this talk, the boys used Emily much as Rocky’s brothers Colt and TumTum did. For the boys, Emily’s dominant meaning was the passive but cute girl friend, and, as such, she was useful for peer group fun. Any reference to Emily—and, especially, any attempt by a composer to cast a part for Emily—generated group chanting by the surrounding boys: “Rocky loves Em-i-ly. Rocky loves Em-i-ly.” The chanting was a kind of bonding ritual and an occasion to exercise control over the embarrassed boy and girl who had been offered, or had asked for, the roles of Rocky or Emily. Rocky was a great fighter and karate was fun, but the potential for romantic meaning made even the strongest warriors run.

Given her romantic meaning, most boys never even considered including Emily in their stories. In fact, the absence of Emily could be a point of reassurance for potential male actors in the Rocky role. Nyem, for example, said to a reluctant Patrick, “It ain’t no girl gonna be in it. Emily ain’t gonna be in it.” If the role of Emily was considered, however, the potential actress discussed was either Sarah or Melissa, both of whom resembled Emily in certain ways (fair-skinned, light haired, slim, well-dressed, friendly).

For the girls who wanted roles in ninja stories, Emily also symbolized the cute girl friend. But her social role or meaning was different. For the girls, Emily meant access. There were many boy parts in ninja stories, but just this one girl part. The desiring girls assumed the presence of Emily when any boy began a ninjas story, and, moreover, they campaigned for the part (i.e., they requested the role of Emily, without asking //Emily was going to be in the story). So, for girls, as well as for boys, social authority or power was gained primarily by referencing the original story (i.e., the girls assumed the boys’ obligation to include Emily because the original story includes Emily).

Still, it was among the girls, especially the girls of color, that the boys’ composed ninja stories generated ideological tensions. Tina’s friend Johnetta, both children of color, was quite blunt about her feelings. “What you got against girls?” she asked Michael, a well-known superhero fan. And when Lawrence claimed that only White girls could play another media miss, April of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … , because April was White in the movie, Holly, Lettrice, Johnetta, and Aloyse (all children of color) raised their voices in protest. The conflict led to an explicit classroom rule that anyone could play any role, without regard to sex or race.

So, in the second grade, Emily generated issues of access, not of her own representational stuff (i.e., her identity). The girls acted on their access issues by protesting Emily’s absence, her limited role, or the chosen actress, but not by writing their own Emily. However, this would change in the third grade, when the female admirers of ninja stories began to write poor Emily a place in the action. …

Although the third-grade girls sometimes wrote superhero stories, they wrote mainly rescue stories (e.g., Lena’s Superman saved Lois Lane, and, as just seen, Makeda’s Rocky, TumTum, and Colt rescued Emily). In January, even Tina, who had written second-grade texts featuring female X-men superheroes, wrote a story in which Batman saved “us girls.” She told Kristin that she was not going to write any more “boyish” X-men stories.

But Tina was not of one mind on the issue of “us girls,” and neither were many others in the class. During a class meeting, she sparked an intense discussion with her complaint that “in every story the boys always have to win. And that’s really not fair to the girls…. The boys are always doing things for the girls, and it seems like the girls are weak.” This was an ideologically charged complaint, not about access to a given story, but about the representational stuff of the story itself and, moreover, about the responsibility of the authors (i.e., about whether or not authors were being fair in their stories). Thus, it was not surprising (although certainly it was not predictable) when Tina saw new possibilities in Emily.

In the original Three Ninjas movie, Emily has a moment of physical glory, when she follows up TumTum’s swats to an adolescent bad guy with a swift kick and a punch of her own (“Way to go, Emily!” says Colt). But it is only a brief episode in a movie in which she is mainly a smitten girl and an easy target for bullies, a victim to be rescued. In Kristin’s class, Emily finally had an opportunity to be tough when Tina wrote a ninjas story (in March). And in that story, the usual gender relationships were inverted: Emily became the rescuer:

Once there was a girl named Emily. She was tough. Her and her boy friend was eating pizza. They love to eat pizza. So one day they were going to school. They love school. Emily’s mother walks them to school. She was nice. She love little kids. Kids love her. Then they went into the room. Bad boys, they love to beat up kids…. School is over now. Rocky, Emily, TumTum and Colt. Colt was going away. Emily found him. The bad boys had him. Emily can whip some butt. So she did. So they all ran away. She is tough, 1 said. So they walk home again. The end. [Spelling and punctuation corrected for ease of reading.]

Emily was Tina’s mediational material, her means of participating in—and resisting the dominant ideology of—the community dialogue about gender. Unfortunately, though, Emily as superhero was not able to generate a public response. Tina, who missed a great deal of school, did not bring her to Author’s Theater. However, she did bring her next Emily story, and the resulting event suggested that Emily, Tina, and the community as a whole had, at long last, gained some agency, some responsibility for choosing actions from an expanded range of possibilities.

Tina’s next Emily story was a horror story (meant to be both funny and scary) about a scientist, his wife, and a crazed bat. It featured a grown-up Emily, marked as pretty and married, with no specific occupation. Her husband was Batman (“like in the cartoon,” as Tina explained), but this Batman did not save “us girls”; he studied bats. Moreover, Batman was victimized by girls and avenged by a man-obsessed female bat named Bebe. The original Bebe, whose name rhymes with Tina’s given name, was a girl in a chapter book the class had read, The Sideways Stories … .

Both Tina’s actors and her audience enjoyed her story. Seemingly pleased with their response, Tina incorporated her actor’s improvizations into her oral presentation, exaggerating Batman’s fear and Bebe’s ferocious love. The ever faithful Emily moved further into the background, as she waited at home for her man, and the more active characters took over:

Tina takes her place in the front of the rug and calls her actors. Edward is to be the scientist, Makeda the wife, and Rhonda the baby bat Bebe. Tina begins to read with great expressiveness:

Tina: Once there was a man that studied bats. He loved to study bats. He was married … [‘0::h’, says the audience.] “Her name was Emily.”

Edward: Just like “Three Ninjas!” (Tina grins very widely.)

Tina: She was pretty. So her husband went to the lab and was studying a bat named Bebe. (Tina stops reading and begins improvising but, at this point, stays very close to her text.)

Rhonda: I’m Bebe. I’m a bat. (Class laughs enthusiastically. Edward, apparently responding to the class’s playful mood, gasps, runs off to the far corner of the rug, and stands shaking. Tina then responds to his actions, improvising her next line.)

Tina: He was afraid of her. She lo::ved him…. Whoever messed with him she would kill them. One day the man went back home. He told his wife about the bad day he had.

Edward: I had a bad day! That bat is messed up. She tried to kill me, man! (The audience laughs. Edward may have misunderstood Tina’s text, since his improvisation suggests that the bat was trying to kill him, which was not the case. However, Tina once again picks up on Edward’s improvization.)

Tina: He went back to the lab. And the bat killed him. And he died. The End (audience laughter)

In the fun of a performance, Tina’s relieved Emily, dutiful Batman, and vigilant Bebe had become caricatures (the female vampire, the nerdy scientist, the little woman at home). But it was, nonetheless, a performance in a literacy event in a classroom community in which appropriated heroes—whatever their cultural source—were potentially subject to critical reflection. In the discussion following Tina’s performance, the mood of the class shifted, and they began to wonder about the inner lives of the characters and their responses to their life circumstances. A number of children audibly wondered about Emily and, more importantly, about Tina’s decisions about Emily. Indeed, the first questioner was Emily herself (Makeda), who asked about the motivation of her husband’s killer:

Makeda: Why did Rhonda—no, the bat have to kill um my husband?

Tina: Cause he poked her, and she didn’t like it. And so she just killed him.

Lettrice: How come you didn’t tell that thing you told, that he poked Rhonda?

Tina does not respond to this inquiry about the representation of her story but calls on Jonathan, who has his hand up.

Jonathan: I think you should tell how they [Emily and Batman] met. Tina: The next chapter is where they met.

Jonathan: But if there’s a next chapter—the guy died, so he couldn’t tell that part.

Tina: I know. I’m telling it without him.

Kristin: Could you tell a flashback? Have you ever seen a flashback?

Many assents in the audience, and Tina recalls another horror story:

Tina: Like Jason, yeah Jason. The girl had a flashback to when she was a little girl and she didn’t know her father.

Lena: … Makeda [Emily] could’ve like um write her story about her husband and then start crying [because she was having a flashback].

Kristin: In the beginning of the story, you [Tina] said that Bebe the bat was protecting the man from other people… And then, all of a sudden, she killed him. And I wondered, how did she change from loving him …?

Tina: And so—he didn’t like her. And so he—when he was studying her, and she had rabies in her, and when he was studying her, he poked her, and she didn’t like that…

As the discussion continues, Kristin asks if Tina’s characters ‘had a purpose in life’:

Jonathan: Well, [Batman’s] might’ve been to study bats … to figure out which bats to avoid …

Lynn: Well, one for the bat might’ve been—two purposes, to either be studied and to be sort of an example for other bats on how to be studied and, also, to um—fall in love with [Batman] and to kill him.

Lynn: And [Batman’s]—[Batman’s] wife um, Emily, Emily’s purpose might have been—maybe she didn’t follow her purpose. And it might’ve been that she should’ve gotten there and saved him some way.

Tina had liberated the characters from their usual plots, where actions and motivations were assumed (to get one’s bike back, to defeat the bad guys, to marry the desired). But the characters’ lives continued to be reinterpreted by Tina and others—in the fun of a performance and the serious consideration of the group as a whole. Some community members requested more explicit textual representations; others suggested possibilities that challenged Emily’s silence and her passive relationship to her husband and to Bebe.

In Halliday’s … sense, a text did indeed seem to represent “meaning potential,” a “choice … from the total set of options …”. As for Emily, it seems fair to say that she had been novelized, taken from the absoluteness of her place among the ninjas and brought into “a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the open-ended present),” in which another version, another rewriting, is always a possibility. At least, in this classroom community, it was now possible—it was not ideologically out of the question (or out of the text)—for an Emily to whip some butt, so to speak. And with new possibilities come new responsibilities (for author and for Emily). Perhaps, thought Lynn, Emily missed her chance. …

In U.S. schools, there is an urgent need for teachers themselves to participate in evolving school communities … . In her school, Kristin felt isolated, unable to discuss her own goals and experiences with colleagues. Moreover, to administrators, children (especially urban children “at risk” of low-achievement test scores) engaged in dramatising and talking (especially about the popular media) could seem a scandalous waste of time.

And yet, to Kristin and to me, all that dramatising and talking about symbols drenched with children’s relationships seemed so powerful. Surely that activity furthered children’s skill in interpreting, analysing, comparing and contrasting texts, as well as their skill in writing more elaborate texts … . But most important in the context of this book, it provided children with a participatory forum. Emily was a transitory symbol, but the cultural tensions at the heart of her classroom life were not—the children grappled with gender roles, beauty and race, and physical strength and power. Moreover, those tensions were evident in the responses of individual children, who did not have simplistic, unified selves. It is, to draw once again on Bakhtin … , precisely play with appealing but contradictory voices that allows us all to escape ideological bullies, intellectual kidnappers, and too slick cultural heroes and, thus, to remain open to new ways to tell our common tales.


Dyson, Anne Hass. 2001. “Relational Sense and Textual Sense in a US Urban Classroom; The Contested Case of Emily, Girl Friend of a Ninja.” Pp. 3-18 in Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms, edited by B. Comber and A. Simpson. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp.3-4, 6-7, 8-9, 11-15, 17. || Amazon || WorldCat


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