In a world filled with Barbie's and American Girl Dolls, there is a clear picture that is engrained in every young girl's mind of what they are 'supposed' to aspire to look like. The damage that could come with these impossible societal standards is infinite.
Even when diverse dolls and figures come out, they are not often on the forefront of displays at Toys R Us, Target or any other kid stores. The literal white space and lack of inclusion in children's media is glaringly obvious the moment one walks down a toy aisle or looks at the covers of children's series' in bookstores.
Representation is so important in this ever-changing society and gone are the days where one-dimensional are all girls have to look up to. Ylleya Fields knows this well. As a mother of four girls and two boys, Fields sees first hand the lack of representation of black figures in television, books, toys, and media. That is why she set out to make a change and took it into her own hands to give her daughters the role-model they deserve by writing a series of books called "Princess Cupcake Jones". The protagonist is based on her girls' so a lot of the traits and scenarios have real-life inspiration. The books all have messages and lessons for young girls, and the illustrations each contain the word 'love' hidden inside to show Cupcake Jones fans how loved they are. SWAAY sat down with Fields and got all the details on what's to come for the future of her books.
Photo Courtesy of Princess Cupcake Jones
1. What was the inspiration for "Princess Cupcake Jones"?
The inspiration for the "Princess Cupcake Jones" series is my daughters. Every story is based on something they've done or a feeling they've had. Luckily, I have four daughters, so there's plenty of material to work it.
2. Why is it so important for kids to have characters that represent them?
Representation is important because it helps kids define who they are and even more important who they want to be. When they see strong images of people that they can identify with (through race, gender, etc) they are getting affirmation that they can be and do anything they want.
3. What is the most challenging part of writing children's stories?
I think the challenge of writing any story is making sure that the plot is engaging to your audience from start to finish. Children stories arent as long as novels so you have to get your storyline across pretty quickly. And of course when you write in rhyme that can be even more tricky.
4. Why is the word 'love' hidden in every illustration?
Love is actually my eldest daughters' middle name. So it was my way of acknowledging her yet again in the series. But I think the word LOVE is so powerful and meaningful to people that by finding it with their children it keeps what is most important at the forefront of our readers' minds.
Ylleya Fields. Photo Courtesy of Princess Cupcake Jones
5. You've won a few awards for Princess Cupcake Jones, including the 2013 Mom's Choice Award and 2013 Winner of the Family Choice Awards. What does it feel like to be recognized for your work?
It feels amazing! I never set out to win awards but the fact that our series has been recognized as a great body of work is so fulfilling!
6. What do you think kids will learn from reading your books?
That depends on the book! Each book has an underlying message or value that children reading can apply to their everyday lives. In “Princess Cupcake Jones and the Missing Tutu", children learn that by cleaning up and staying organized, they can find things that are important to them easier. In “Princess Cupcake Jones and the Dance Recital", children learn that practice makes perfect, and doing your best is all that really matters.
Photo Courtesy of Airplanes and Dragonflies
7. Why do you think the number of African American characters is so limited in children's books?
I've touched on this before but the answer remains the same. It comes down to the fact that there are publishers that don't believe that books that feature African American characters sell or worse; doubt that there is even a market for them. Clearly, they're incorrect. The fact that Princess Cupcake Jones is popular and we are even doing this interview counters that notion.
8. What advice do you have for moms who want to help add more representation of black figures?
My advice is to diversify, diversify, diversify. Make sure your children have different kinds of characters in books, music, movies, etc. By diversifying their surroundings, you're actually helping them with representation by simply doing. It sounds cliche but it's really as simple as that.
9. What is the most rewarding part of writing books?
The most rewarding part is having other parents and their children tell me how much they love the series. Even going as far as thanking me for writing/creating her. I never thought that this could be as inspirational as it has become. My original mission was just to create something my own daughters' would be proud of, and in the process, I've created a character that empowers all little girls.
10. What do you see for the future of "Princess Cupcake Jones"?
The sky is definitely the limit! We have a new book coming out any day, “Princess Cupcake Jones Saddles Up", a brand new clothing line, and I just finished writing a new book (as yet untitled).
11. Is there anything you would like to add?
Just a thank you to all of our Cupcakettes for the love and support they've given over the years!
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.