Collien Ulmen-Fernandes’ new children’s book questions gender stereotypes and rallies for a new beginning – from scratch.
Lotti and Otto are two otter kids who meet at summer camp. While Lotti enjoys running around in the wild, fishing and being loud and outgoing in general; Otto is great at thinking up delicious cookie recipes, or staying in to sew a big, roomy tent you can sit in and tell each other fancy stories. Collien Ulmen-Fernandes’ book Lotti & Otto, lovingly illustrated by Carola Sieverding, addresses gender roles at the root and shows how easily they can be made redundant.
Apart from being very likable, otter pups obviously don’t have gender-specific looks. “The easiest way to address the topic was picking cute animals who have not yet been featured exhaustively in children’s literature,” says the actress. “Both Lotti and Otto even feature the same three spots on their throats. And since my book was inspired by Das doppelte Lottchen (Lottie and Lisa) by Erich Kästner, it made sense to write this story as a fable, so that a comedy of errors between a girl and a boy can be more easily imagined.”
Getting to the root of things
Actress and TV-presenter Collien Ulmen-Fernandes likes to write whenever she feels the urge of addressing a pressing topic that in her opinion does not get enough coverage. She has already written a book about parenting and the mother-role as such and her new project attaches itself to the non-fiction debut almost seamlessly. Having experienced the ultimate change that motherhood means firsthand with the birth of her own daughter in 2012, she is now determined to break with yet another cliché trap: Early imposed gender roles. “Lately, I came to realise more and more how prefabricated girl-boy patterns are detectable already in Kindergarten. Nearing age six, it gets even worse, because at that age, superheroes become a thing. And as everyone knows, they are predominantly male.”
Now you might ask yourself: Is any of this new? The answer is, sadly it is not and what is more, it does not get targeted enough at children’s level, according to Collien Ulmen-Fernandes. She has rarely come across a children’s book that swaps common gender roles. “Even if in the families of nowadays, a lot has changed on the parenting level, in most books it is still the mother who tucks in the child at bedtime and the father who comes running with the toolbox if anything is broken. Small aspects interest me and that is exactly where we should start questioning things,” says the author. “For example, during baby age, it is a given for the mother to swing between both work and childcare. But if the father takes the baby to work for a single day of the week, there is no end to the praise! As in ‘Oh, how fantastic of him to take the baby off her back!’ – I heard that a lot. The wording ‘take the baby off her back’ shows that childcare is still seen as the mother’s job, whereas he, as a very kind and heroic gesture, merely helps out. But I think it is his job as well, so it should be normal.”
She mentions these traps of motherhood because gender-specific patterns are implemented at a very early age. This, in the end, became the strongest part of inspiration for her to write about Lotti and Otto, who are so different from the common idea of girl and boy and, then again, they simply are as unique as every child is from the start.
Yes, you can (do anything)
Getting away from the princess-status does not mean that all girls must start playing soccer, or all boys must learn how to knit (even though there are pretty cool knit hats out there in the – as yet – predominately male skaters’ world). “The key is to be able to detect certain things that seem normal but are actually kind of outrageous.” Collien Ulmen-Fernandes refers to a YouTube video about a school test which recently went viral on the net. It shows how a girl dares to encircle the word ‘courageous’ as a typical girl’s attribute, only to have the teacher tell her that she would get less points, because she was ‘wrong’. So there you go — you not only get scolded for thinking outside of the box, but are even in danger of getting a bad mark, if you dare to imagine things to be a little less stereotypical. The writer also vividly remembers a BBC experiment about cross-dressed infants: “The documentary showed how educators were encouraging the ‘girls’ to play with dolls and the ‘boys’ to play with trucks – even commenting later on how well both sides adapted to the offered toys. Only that the dolls had been given to the boys and the motorcars to the girls!”
The superhero complex
As mentioned above, when girls reach the age of six (and will soon be in school), things are getting even hairier: Even if up to now they may have been accepting any challenge with glee, there are too many books, comics and stories out there that tell them otherwise, says Collien Ulmen-Fernandes. “Suddenly, the girls start asking: ‘But is this and that difficult, or dangerous? In that case I’d rather not…’ This, I believe, comes from the fact that the female in most tales and also in contemporary children’s films and literature is still being praised for being pretty, fearful and passive – so that she can be saved by the male hero. And that is why I wanted to write a book that reaches out to a broad audience and shows small kids that anything is possible and you can swap or at best ignore clichés all the time.”
It all starts at home
Our cultural heritage leaves its traces and we are the ones to change the patterns if they do not make sense. So, in effect, Lotti & Otto also addresses parents. “We should question things from the start, and at home,” says Collien Ulmen-Fernandes emphatically. “For example, when our daughter got a robot for her birthday, people were saying ‘Oh – really? But she is such a GIRL!’ However, we bought her a robot and she is now contentedly playing with it in her pink-coloured room, almost every day. So what I am saying is: You don’t have to be on one side or the other, you can actually just enjoy being you!”
To Collien Ulmen-Fernandes, ‘You can do anything’ applies for both girls and boys – and mothers and fathers – alike. Aside from all the work and balancing her family trio (comprising herself and her husband, actor-producer Christian Ulmen, as well as their six-year-old daughter), there is one thing that Collien Ulmen-Fernandes enjoys most: The sweet moment, when a successful project is done and dusted. “When the pressure is finally over and I can return home with the satisfying feeling of ‘You did it!’ – that’s when I can fully relax and enjoy being with my family!”
A true role model for her daughter, Collien Ulmen-Fernandes wears her multiple hats as actress, presenter and mother with grace. She will keep addressing societal topics on a weekly basis with her column at Süddeutsche Zeitung (‘Familientrio’), voicing topics that concern all families in society nowadays.
TEXT: CORNELIA BRELOWSKI I PHOTO: ANATOL KOTTE