23 October 2006

For Folks Who Think the World Needs More Smurfiness

A report from last week's Publishers Weekly:

Last year Steve Syatt, a public relations veteran who helped launch children's brands including Bob the Builder, decided to launch a brand of his own called Shushybye, with stories about dreams and sleeping. He self-published the first book, Shushybye: Snoozles Saves the Night, and sold over 3,000 on consignment at Borders stores throughout California.

Last month St. Martin's Press announced a worldwide rights deal for books from the Shushybye brand. . . .

Inspiration for self-published authors? Not really. For one thing, the Shushabye.com webpage says that this company has been around since January 2004, so Syatt has been working on his vision at least twice as long as the Publishers Weekly article implies. And it's clear that the company's goal is to create a brand, not to tell stories. Books are only one part of a product mix that includes DVD, TV show, sleepwear, toys, music, and a concert tour.

Remember how the Smurfs had only one, stereotyped female character when they began? Take a look at the "Meet the Shushies" page. Out of five characters shown and two more named, all but one is male. But don't worry--a little obvious reverse sexism should make that tokenism go away, right?
DOZIE is a girl Shushie, so she has all the smarts (of course!). DOZIE is always coming up with great ideas. She also loves to dance and has a bit of a crush on SNOOZLES. Children can always rely on DOZIE for the most wondrous dreams - and for her sweetness and joy.
I'm not sure I'll sleep better tonight.


Steve said...

JL Bell,

I launched the Shushybybe Company itself in 2004, when I began writing songs ans assembling the book. It was not until 2005 that I launched it locally as the article indicated. However, I actually created Shushybye when my son - now 19 - was about 3 and basically never went to sleep. He loved the stories I made up of the Shushies who make dreams for children - and the stories helped my wife and me prepare him for sleep. Through the 16 years, I kept building the Shushybye universe, and applied my passion for songwriting to compose original songs(in 2004). Shushybye is a family experience and comes from my heart. It is and always will be an expression of love for my son (who today is sudying journalism). On the business side, I own a youth marketing firm and played instrumenral roles in the launch of many major kids' brands. Shushybye is my own dream to challenge myself in terms of sucessfully launching a brand. You are correct there. But my 'brand' is built with intense dedication, and the partiipation of amazingly talented creative professionals. As a result, the Shushybye (from pestigious distributor WGBH Boston) and music CD (from Koch Records) have won several awards and received critical praise (They are high quality and I am particularly proud of the music). I encourage you and the readers to check the DVD and CD out - I am totally confident it will revise your thinking. The quality of Shushybye - the characters, stories, art, music, production of the DVD stage event are what paved the way for me to begin an exciting association with the wonderful people at St. Martin's Press. As for Dozie, she is not the only female lead character, as you will see when the books appear. She is based on my daughter, who has all the brains in my family (kind of like Lisa in The Simpsons).


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the inside information about how the Shushabye world grew. I'm not surprised to hear that some of its strongest roots are in music; that seemed to be an emphasis of the website, with its CDs and concert listings.

I'm still concerned about the number of cartoon and puppet ensembles that still contain a token female character, decades after people started pointing out that pattern. (See my earlier remarks on Sesame Street's new Muppet.)

And that problem isn't completely solved when that one female character is also the smartest, like Lisa Simpson. That can imply that a girl has to be extra-smart just to be included, while a lazy boy can coast in. Lisa Simpson is a frustrated overachiever; Bart Simpson is an contented underachiever. Which sibling launched a million T-shirts?

I think that situation arises because we (especially we guys) unconsciously think of males as the default setting when we create characters. (And in the Shushabyes' case, your son might have preferred males back when he was three.) But many of those characters could just as easily be female if we think about the issue ahead of time.

Now I recognize that it might be harder to avoid negative stereotypes about females in creating simple, comic characters. A fat, silly queen might raise more hackles than a fat, silly king. This Pretty in the City blog entry catalogs feelings hurt by a picture book that suggests that a mother pig is the biggest animal that little piglets know. (Well, wouldn't she be?)

But I like to think the remedy for that secondary problem is a wider range of characters. Two, three, or four females show that there's no one model to follow, no single stereotype being replicated. (And the same would go for males in the rare cases when they might be the tokens.)

So who's the engineer on Conductor McCloud's train?

Lee said...

A couple of points here.

I'm a little concerned at your number-counting in terms of male vs. female characters, the implication being that it is the job of literature to legislate social change. Now I do realise that you're mainly discussing cartoon and puppet ensembles, possibly picture books, but I suspect you may think the same applies to children's and YA novels. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

And I can't help resenting the underlying scepticism about self-published authors, even though blogging a novel is not quite self-publishing. There are some very fine published writers - and heaps and heaps of published rubbish too. Did it never occur to you that some (albeit few) of us actually don't aspire to publishing conventionally?

J. L. Bell said...

Oh, come on! Having more than a single female character in an ensemble is not "legislating social change." It's reflecting a biological reality.

An author or artist is perfectly entitled to create a society that's all-male or all-female, or has only one member of one sex, or is entirely hermaphroditic, or anything else. But observers are also perfectly entitled to point out how such a society might be a poor reflection of reality, or the intended audience. And how it might replicate outdated patterns and norms.

As for "resenting the underlying scepticism about self-published authors," let's please not mix up self-publishing and self-pitying. I originally looked into Shushabye.com because, as I read about it in Publishers Weekly, it was reported as a self-publishing success. I found that it seemed more about building a brand across many types of products rather than about books. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with "blogging a novel"; that's your enterprise, not Shushabye's.

Mother of Twins said...

My children love this stuff, and I'm introducing it to their daycare center and friends.

Anonymous said...

I realize how old this thread is, so my new comment will probably go unnoticed. I came to this page after googling "Shushybye is Sexist." My son watches this show, and I do admire the quality of music and lyrics and its imaginative premise. But it is sexist.
The Captain of the Shushybye dream ship is male, and the land is ruled by a king. The women characters are type cast in feminine roles as teacher and librarian. I am hesitant to allow my son to watch this show much longer because it reinforces stereotypes that I want to undo. Seriously - why isn't there one female character of power in this entire shush world? A second ship with a female captain? A dream quality control overseer? I mean, I don't even work for shushybye and I could think of lots of ways to make female characters less lame; surely you can do better.
NY Mom