Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ms. Prime if you’re nasty

Apparently Autobots and Decepticons are still a thing that kids are into, if we assume that the toys found in a McDonald’s Happy Meal generally tend to be vaguely zeitgeist-y. I know the last Michael Bay Transformers movie was in theaters a mere year and a half ago, but my impression (formed from a distance, as I find the overall vibe in the trailers for those flicks really offputting and as a consequence I’ve never seen any of them) is that those are action movies for adolescent-or-older audiences, not necessarily reflective of the continued existence of toys marketed directly at elementary school kids like the ones I remember from my misspent youth. But the kids spent an afternoon with their grandparents recently and the little guy came home with an Optimus Prime figure from his Happy Meal, which makes me think the robots in disguise are not entirely confined to the nostalgia heap of Gen X.

And that in turn makes me happy. I was no longer really playing with Transformers by about the time Hot Rod became Rodimus Prime, and I gave up completely on even keeping track of the complex continuity of the franchise when Beast Wars was the new name of the game. But if things come full circle and my son ends up playing out his own Optimus Prime led adventures, I’d be pretty down with that.

It seemed like things were getting off to a rocky start, though, when my son kept insisting that Optimus Prime was a girl. I’ll straightaway dispense with the fact that yes, I know, it does not really matter whether or not my offspring correctly identifies the canonical gender identity of a fictional asexual machine. But of course once we get past that, all sorts of questions come up. My kids have never seen the Transformers in any media, or heard Optimus Prime’s unmistakable voice, so the little guy has only the toy itself to go on. What about it would evoke the feminine association? Is it the fact that he transforms from truck to robot, and trucks are vehicles, and vehicles (our family cars certainly included) usually get referred to as “she”? Is it the updated design of Optimus Prime’s body, which is less boxy and, to be perfectly frank, has a tiny little waist and a prominent chest?

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with female characters as playthings for boys, or even role models for boys, not in my book. I know it’s objectively inaccurate to refer to Optimus Prime as a girl, but I didn’t think it was inherently terrible for the little guy to think that. I just had to know why.

So finally I asked him point blank. And he answered with absolutely no hesitation: “Because ‘Miss’ is what you call a girl. Her name is Opta … MISS … Prime.” Well, all right then. I made a bit of a stab at really emphasizing the pronunciation of that final U and informing the little guy that Optimus is all one word that means “the best” but there’s only so many times you can say “Opti-moose” before it starts to sound exceedingly silly. So we may very well end up with a toy box full of Transgendered Transformers in our house at some point, but as long as everyone’s happy with the state of play, I can’t complain too much.

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