Why “woman” doesn’t equal “feminist”

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Emma Watson, the UN’s “He for She” spokesperson

It seems that every week there’s a new feminist celebrity in town. You definitely know the drill by now: Beyoncé dancing in front of a flashing “FEMINISM” sign, Taylor Swift insisting her girl gang is 100% feminist, or Emma Watson being the poster woman for male feminists. The reaction always falls along the same lines: feminist celebrities are either defended (“hooray at least someone’s talking about it!”) or pilloried (“these women don’t know the first thing about feminism!”). Many commentators also worry that celebrities identify as feminist in order to get attention, or just to appeal to their female audience. However, the key issue for me is not whether they truly and authentically hold feminist ideals, but how the debate fosters a more worrying trend…the idea that if you’re a woman, you’re naturally a feminist.

I’ve been trying to articulate the problem with equating woman with feminist for some time, but it wasn’t until I read an article from feminist theorist Sandra Harding that the heart of the issue became clear for me. Harding says:

“It is an achievement, not a ‘natural property’, of women to develop a feminist standpoint, or a standpoint of women”

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Miley Cyrus has been vocal about desiring “equality”

Harding is talking about something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which is about valuing women’s perspectives as key to understanding women’s marginalisation. At the centre of the theory is that it is important to consider the views of oppressed groups. Because the views of the oppressed are traditionally silenced, attending to their perspectives may spark questions that would never come to the mind of those in power and indeed, questions that those with more power may have an interest in suppressing. According to this theory, if you’re talking about women’s liberation, this should involve listening to women’s experiences (of domestic and workplace expectations, for example) because this helps provide a map of how women are being treated unfairly.

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Beyonce performing in 2014

However, this is not to suggest that women will naturally be able to provide an analysis of why they are being treated poorly, or what ought to be done about it (or, that they will even identify a particular experience as “unfair”). A distinct feminist analysis that says “this is happening because of sexism”, “we should fight back” and “what’s happening is unfair”, is something altogether different from just recounting one’s experience. In this way we see that feminist analysis relies not only on attending to the lived experiences of the marginalised, but stepping back and looking at the whole picture of oppression to see what needs to be overcome.

Of course the difficulty for feminism is that it has historically only provided an analysis that fits the lives of some women. Only in relatively recent times has feminist theory come to grips with the fact that it is important to bring more nuance to analyses of lived experience, to  acknowledge that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other factors may also be at work.

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A key slogan from the second wave

However, I think the point to take away from this is that political analysis isn’t inherent to identity. The idea that identity is the key to doing politics is termed “identity politics”. This basically just means that identity is seen as inseparable from politics in such a way that the politics flows from the identity in itself. Really this idea is founded in the promotion of the phrase “the personal is political” in feminist activism in the 1960s/70s. The idea in feminist organising at the time was to bring so-called personal issues, such as feeling unhappy as a housewife, to the forefront of feminist consciousness, to show that these “personal” things ought to have “political” ramifications. However over time this idea of the personal as political has collapsed into identity itself, with the idea that identity (rather than specific issues and the analysis of them) = politics.

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People in Sydney rallying to save Safe Schools

We see this belief that politics is inherent to women fail time and time again. This was recently demonstrated with Cate McGregor stating “I am transgender. And I oppose safe schools“. Cate identifies as  a transgender woman, but this doesn’t mean she inherently possesses the best political analysis of transgender women’s liberation. While there are plenty of transgender people speaking out and saying that Safe Schools is utterly important to the LGBT community as a whole, they don’t have the same platform as Cate.

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Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard

This brings me back to celebrity feminism. The problem with celebrity feminism is that it often involves conflating “woman” with “feminist”. For example, when Leighton Meester says, “I don’t know if anyone would ever deny being a feminist” she is implying that all women are feminists because they have a vested interest in fighting gender inequality. Or when Taylor Swift says, “So many girls out there say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining”, she’s suggesting that feminism is not about being critical and assumes that inequality is self-evident. Or when Zooey Deschanel says feminism is just about “being myself”, she’s locating feminism in self-expression as a woman. All of these celebrity feminists do have things to say about inequality, but they all treat this understanding as so obvious that it is basically incomprehensible to see how being a woman does not necessarily mean being a feminist.

It’s a perspective also adopted by some feminists who aren’t celebrities. It’s dangerous not only because it risks condemning women who say they aren’t feminist rather than convincing them why they ought to be, but also because it locates politics in women. There are many negative consequences to this view, but particularly problematic is celebrating female leaders for being female, even if they are materially making conditions worse for many women in society (I’m thinking here of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cutting the single parent payment, for example).

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Actress Zooey Deschanel

Seeing politics as inherent to women is also bad for feminism. What emerges is the view that feminism can be utterly pluralised, because each individual woman has her own individual feminism. The sum of these fragmented parts is often a feminism that reaches for the lowest common denominator, such as the encouragement of a vague notion of “equality” that we see in celebrity feminism. In Hollywood “equality” might just mean getting paid as many millions as your male costars. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what feminism should be, I do think that a sharper political analysis is needed that calls for liberation in a much much broader sense than rich women gaining equality with rich men.

Suffragette Comic: Christabel Pankhurst and Her Tiny Dog

Yesterday a friend told me some pretty bleak stories about the famous suffragette family, the Pankhursts. The head honcho of the Pankhurst bunch was Emmeline, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain, and was a key figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She had a bunch of daughters who also grew up into activists of various kinds.

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst in action

One of the Pankhurst offspring was Sylvia, who was pretty radical. She rallied against the first world war (when so many were in favour of it, including her family), and, like her mother was part of the WSPU fighting for women’s rights.

 

But while Sylvia was trying to broaden the struggle, her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel were taking the women’s suffrage movement in a different direction. Emmeline stated that members of the WSPU should focus on fighting for women’s rights alone and not be distracted by other social issues.

NPG x32608; Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Record Press

Christabel Pankhurst

In 1912 Sylvia started the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as part of the WSPU, specifically targeted at empowering and fighting for the rights of working women. Much to Emmeline and Christabel’s dismay, the East London group also supported broader trade union struggles and the fight for Irish independence. During this time, Sylvia was arrested on a number of occasions, often subject to the “Cat and Mouse Act” where police officers would release suffragettes who were on hunger strike, wait until they were healthy again, and then arrest them once more.

Fed up with her sister, Christabel summoned Sylvia to visit her in Paris in 1914. Sylvia had a bad time. This is pretty much exactly how the scene went down:

FullSizeRenderChristabel told Sylvia that working women ought not be involved in the fight: “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!” Sylvia later commented that the expulsion left her feeling “bruised, as one does, when fighting the foe without, one is struck by the friend within”.

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Sylvia at the ELFS headquarters in London

Eventually Sylvia was vindicated in her views on working women, who were key. In 1914 the WSPU stopped fighting for the vote, and instead turned their efforts to campaigning for the conscription of men in the war. However, the ELFS continued the fight. In 1928 full suffrage for women was won in the UK.

 

Sylvia kept up her activism and was involved in various anti-fascist and anti-imperial campaigns, and eventually moved to Ethiopia. Christabel campaigned against men spreading venereal diseases, and became a televangelist in California. The Pomeranian was sent to live with Emmeline, and things did not end well.

The Trouble with “Natural Beauty”

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An image from the Tree Change Dolls’ tumblr site

Today a friend sent me a link to a new trend that basically caused me to have a rage blackout: dolls that have been “made-under”. Labelled “Tree Change Dolls“, these are generally hyper-feminine styled dolls (such as Bratz) that have been found at op-shops and transformed through changing their hair, shoes, makeup styles and clothing, to look more normal and natural. In the words of their creator, Tree Change Dolls involve “swapping high-maintenance glitz ‘n’ glamour for down-to-earth style”.

But before you all rush off to procure a Tree Change Doll of your own, it’s worth unpacking what it means to “make-under” a doll. Is it more ethical (as the subtext of the Tree Change Dolls website would suggest) to have a doll adorned with the natural beauty look, rather than the hyper-feminine aesthetic more commonly seen? And why is a make-under really any different to a make-over?

Firstly, let’s look at one before and after image from the site and what a make-under involves:
tumblr_nianihXYdz1u8oyeuo1_12801. Reducing prominent and cartoonish features such as the eyes and lips
2. Removing signs of obvious makeup
3. Conditioning and relaxing the hair which is worn out rather than having it styled up
4. Starting with a naked doll and finishing with a clothed one
5. Maintaining a clear complexion one the face of the doll free of any abnormal markings

Here we can see that the effect of “stripping back” actually mimics a “putting on” of layers. Quite literally the features of the dolls are transformed to conform to a different standard, that of “down to earth style”. In effect, the dolls are not made-under, they are made-over, with the same dramatisation of before and after we would expect from any other visual representation of stylistic aesthetic change.

Another Tree Change Doll, so liberated

Another Tree Change Doll, so liberated

Rather than radically challenging or interrupting expectations of femininity, the Tree Change Dolls set up a new system of signifiers in hyper-femininity’s place: the end result being a set of dolls that all look remarkably similar. The dolls featured on the site all have similar “natural” faces, wear knitted jumpers and 50s-style feminine skirts or alternative-style dungarees, creating an overall effect that looks like the dolls have stepped right off the pages of an alternative women’s magazine (such as Australia’s Frankie), which fetishises the domestic, the home-styled and the “real”. This styling supports a fantasy that one can retreat into a more authentic world of natural beauty, eschewing the limits of oppressive gender norms and escaping the fakery epitomized by the glamour of the pre-made-under dolls.

The pre-made-under dolls have a striking resemblance to drag queens

The pre-made-under dolls have a striking resemblance to drag queens

But, I hear you ask, isn’t a “stripped-back” simple style a less problematic norm than the make-up caked faces of the pre-tree-hugged Bratz dolls and Barbies? Perhaps not. The idea that we might adopt styles of self-presentation as if in a cultural vacuum, supports the circulation of more insidious gender norms. It presents us with the idea that there is a way to look like a “real” girl: and it certainly doesn’t involve wearing visible makeup.

Me playing drag queen at home in my 20s

Me playing drag queen at home in my 20s

When I was a child one of my favourite party themes was “make-up”, and on three separate occasions I held parties where my friends were expected to do-over their own and other’s faces – the only thing being that it was about being crazy, drag-queenish and fun. On my eighth birthday I ended up with green sparkly leaves coming out of my nose, purple fangs and giant blue eyes. The point of this story is that make-up can be about repeating expected styles of beauty, but it can also be very fun. While Bratz dolls might present a beauty style that is over-the-top and homogenous across dolls, the Tree Change Dolls also opt for conformity over experimentation.

As I have written previously, Bratz dolls encapsulate a sheer excess of femininity that is an indulgence rather than a necessity to attract a male gaze. Indeed, with the cult of natural beauty comes a sense that you can’t play around with beauty products or clothing if you want to – you’d just be reinforcing an always-already-oppressive style.

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Monster High Dolls: similar yes, but experimenting with the limits of acceptable presentation

The reason to be deeply concerned about these Tree Change Dolls is that they represent a broader trend toward securing a fixed sense of what a real girl looks like – rather than disrupting the normal when it comes to gender. In fact it seems that Bratz dolls have evolved in recent years – into the now popular “Monster High Dolls”, which, though shiny and long-haired and “pretty”, adopt quirky, strange, monstrous stylings, transforming previous limits around normal looks. While there could be a lot more diversity of styles of gender presentation in these kinds of toys, the worst thing we could do is try and offer a “stripped-back” look that returns us to some kind of original “natural” point. Sometimes the natural might actually be the most fake of all.

No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

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De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

Judith Butler <3 <3 <3

Butler ❤

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

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Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.

Revisiting International Woman’s Day

IWD: what's it really about?

IWD: what’s it really about?

Every year on March 8 International Women’s Day rocks around and each time I find myself deeply troubled by events being held in its name. I’ve written about IWD before (which, upon re-reading led me to the awkward realisation that keeping an academic blog means that any early or continuing naivety is laid bare before the world). To save you from reading it: I had attended a luncheon being held in my city that I found irksome for its ethnocentric focus on the foreign woman as “Other” – the (apparent) victim of sisterhood’s failure to go global. I also had a problem with the speakers’ general reinforcement of the binary man/woman given that there was no critical discussion of the concept of gender. Then (and this is the bit I feel retrospectively weird about) I went on to lament how bad it is to exclude men because we’re so busy shoring up women’s rights.

Successful old white guys: usually the best feminists?

So a few of those qualms hold true: I still find the championing of “look how far we’ve come, let’s go save those women over there!” problematic, and I wish that there were more focus on debates about gender on this day. But I feel strange about my “what about men too” plea because I think that really missed the point of what I was trying to say – and it took an IWD event planned for 2014 to make me realise this. I won’t name the event, or who’s organising it, but basically they’re holding a IWD talk with two notable and powerful men and one less notable but still “successful” woman as the key speakers (does this not remind anyone of that episode of Parks and Recreation where Lesley Knope creates a committee for women and all of the people elected to it end up being men?).

Not wanting to prematurely judge this lineup, I called the event organiser to see what the reasoning was for these keynotes. The organiser told me that originally they had planned to have just one woman and one man, and then another prominent man had contacted them and they couldn’t say no. They told me that ultimately it was a great thing, because they are big names and are attracting lots of people for the event. I was also reminded by the organiser that men should be champions of gender too, and that the burden of change for women should be on everyone’s shoulders.

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Now of course I agree that far too often in history the question of gender has been imagined as solely the domain of women. But let’s not forget that the women’s movement (at least in its second incarnation) emerged in part from men in the 1960’s New Left dismissing “women’s business”. For example, when Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman proposed that women be equally represented on the committee of the National Conference for a New Politics in Chicago in 1967, they were told to “cool down”. In other words, women became the spokespersons for gender issues because nobody else would take them seriously. So of course it’s great that men are taking it on board now, but does it not seem absurd that as part of this men would actually be allocated a greater amount of time to speak on a day when we should be challenging norms of representation?

The "successful" woman: is this what IWD is about?

The “successful” woman: is this what IWD is about?

And I’m not suggesting that this conundrum would be fixed by a 50-50 split: the problem is much deeper than that and at a fundamental level involves (from what I can see) a dominant picture of IWD as a day to celebrate “successful” women and consider how we can make other women “successful” too. The problem with this narrow raison d’être is that it then seems reasonable that men are the notable speakers – hell why not an entire panel of men championing women? If all we care about is promoting women to be successful, it doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing from women. It doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing about the lived experiences of gender from people in community. It doesn’t matter that the panel is all white, all straight, all “successful”. Who cares – all we want to talk about on IWD is getting women up that ladder.

What could we do instead of this same-old neoliberal IWD claptrap? Well, we could hold a range of talks or events that would actually apply some ideas from gender studies to IWD. Basically my ideal IWD would include discussion of these kinds of topics:

– The colour of feminism: intersectionality and feminism’s blindspots (e.g. different women of colour talking about their experiences)
– Queering feminism: where does LGBTQI fit in to the feminist movement? (e.g. LGBTIQ people talking about feminism)
– Why feminism is a radical idea (e.g. some second wavers and some young feminists talking about their perspectives)
– Genderism vs. feminism: how should we talk about gender? (e.g. some academic and/or community perspectives)
– Gender in the everyday (e.g. single mums speak out)
– Embodiment: how do bodies matter to gender? (e.g. trans women talking about their experiences)
– Gender roles vs. expression: what are masculinity and femininity? (e.g. trans people, femmes, academics, etc talking about different ideas)

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

This could include people of all different backgrounds and notoriety. You could have people with fiercely different ideas about what gender means, what being a woman means and what feminism should hope to achieve. The day would probably be full of severe debate as we realise our radically different perspectives on these issues and listen to people’s lived experiences. It may sound arrogant to propose involving people from across the community in some discussions which would be quite academic – but don’t forget, feminist writing has always straddled the popular/academic divide. And why not invite people from the community to speak instead of just women who have “made it”? Usually we only consider women who are earning lots of money and are well-known names to draw a crowd. And while men would be involved for sure, these might be trans men, gay men, young men in a new age of masculinity…men with diverse experiences of gender too. One thing’s for certain, the event would not be 2/3 old white guys. 

Rethinking Pink

earplugsEvery week there seems to be a new story about how offended we should be about a new product marketed especially to women. You know the deal, it’s usually a rather ordinary object (like a pack of pens) that is selling itself as:

– PINK!
– FOR HER!
– GLITTERY!
– JUST FOR GIRLS!

And of course, this is deeply annoying. It seems to reinforce the idea of woman as the “marked” gender and man as the “normal”, natural state of things. It feels patronising and seems to reduce women’s interest to a colour, as if the marketing executives are using Elle Woods from Legally Blonde as their model woman.

elleAnd you know, I love Elle Woods. My phone case is pink. I like the idea of wearing pink on Wednesdays (though I always forget). But I don’t want my interest in the world to be reduced to pink. On the other hand, if I want a pink version of something, so be it. Sometimes I like pink.

Venturing into the land of children’s toys however, presents a more complicated problem. Girls’ sections are a pinkwash of epic proportions. Understandably, this upsets a lot of parents.

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In her book Living Dolls (2010) Natasha Walter argues that this “pinkification” of girlhood is in part responsible for contemporary raunch culture in so far as girls aspire to be like the dolls they play with – sexy, passive and plastic-looking. Others are also on the “kill pink” mission: UK site Pinkstinks states “We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend.”

Challenging traditional roles and stereotypes (and not just for girls) sounds great. But when you look at what exactly gets targeted in this, a lot of what’s being lumped under problematic “pinkification” is literally just pink stuff, as this screenshot from their front page shows:

pink

Now, I get that the fact if girls stuff is always pink that’s super boring; just as I described with the case of adult women, girls shouldn’t be reduced to a colour. I also understand that a lot of the stuff that these sites campaign against are things marketed at girls to encourage the to be homemakers or princesses or beauty-obsessed people. Obviously the problem is that there’s not a diversity of options being put on the table for girls. Like we tend not to tell girls: you could be a mother AND/OR a builder AND/OR an engineer AND/OR a makeup artist (though I have to say, Barbie has done a good job of having a lot of different occupations). 

But I think one thing that often gets missed in all this is that a lot of toys marketed to girls are just sometimes boring compared to what boys are encouraged to play with. The much heralded Goldie Blox came along last year to try and introduce engineering concepts to girls. Again, pink became a signifier of all that is problematic about how toys are gendered, as we see in this opening shot from one of their ads (kids on screen dancing around in pink, girls watching super bored):
goldieNow, I should note here that in the actual Goldie Blox product, there are a few pink pieces (like a ballerina dolphin – rad). But the point is, clearly the rhetoric of Goldie Blox is trying to tap into anti-pinkification sentiments.

And the thing is, it turns out Goldie Blox itself is really boring for a lot of kids. It doesn’t have the imaginative radical potential of other toys, like Lego, that also teach principles of engineering. The problem isn’t pink, it’s the actual toys.

Speaking of Lego, this recent article reflects on how Lego has changed its marketing to girls over the years, with the girl from the 1981 “What it is is beautiful” ad showing how boring Lego “for girls” has become.
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There is a great point here: going from blocks that can become anything, to already-built pieces that have pre-determined (and often gender stereotypical) story lines is lame-o-rama. But so much of the article focuses on pink – for example they point out several times that in the original ad the girl is “without a hint of pink”. Pink has become symbolic of all that is wrong with the gendering of toys, and as a result pink is often one of our main targets, rather than judging toys on their capacities.

lesbian-barbiesWhen I was a kid I had to beg for a Barbie doll. When I eventually got one, it had blonde hair and this AMAZING pink disco outfit with a light on her belt that would flash on and off when you turned it. She had permanently bent elbows, which annoyed me because she was kind of hard to move about. I then obtained a second Barbie and a Ken Doll from an older best friend. I cut Disco Barbie’s hair short and she shacked up with new Barbie, who liked to wear ballgowns. They lived with Ken in a suitcase apartment that I made, with a white plastic cat. They had good queer times together.

Cool truck

Cool truck

There were lame aspects of pink Disco Barbie, like her immobile limbs (perfect for cuddling other Barbie though), but the pink wasn’t the issue. I was still inventive with my Barbies and though they never taught me about structural engineering, I had fun with them. Some of the “girly” toys I wanted in childhood were really inert and useless, like Fairy Winkles, but they weren’t bad because they were pink. I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day I was just subject to marketing and a desire for “status” like all the other kids (like, when I got connector pens I thought I was so cool).

I think we should promote kids to be interested in a range of dynamic stuff. But at the end of the day it’s not pink that stinks, it’s our attitude to gender that matters.

My Struggle With Feminism

This lovely print from dothandmade really sums it up (check out her etsy page)

This lovely print from Michelle Scott of dothandmade really sums it up (check out her Etsy page)

Feminism and I go way back. For one thing, my grandmother used to write STEREOTYPE in big, bold letters underneath problematic pictures in my colouring-in books, such as wart-nosed witches, or coquettish Disney Princesses getting married off to their rather dull princes (if nothing else, this instilled in me a fervour for cultural criticism at a young age). I also had my mother, less the radical-separatist type, more a non-identifying new third-waver, which largely explains that my first tape at the age of four was Madonna’s Immaculate Collection (which I have to say ensures some rather awkward conversations, like when you jump around the lounge room singing “Like a Virgin”, which leads your mother to ask, “Do you know what that word means?”, a series of lying nods, and “the talk” before you’ve even got this Kindergarten thing down pat). I read The Paper Bag Princess, played with Motherpeace Tarot cards, and went to all number of Reclaim the Nights, and pro-choice rallies.

This is exactly the kind of style I would go for

This is exactly the kind of make-up style I would go for

Of course with this kind of upbringing, I didn’t identify explicitly with feminism. That was just assumed, background information, something everyone was au fait with (I thought). In fact, I actively rejected many of the feminist critiques I was exposed to. Much to the chagrin of my family, I demanded to wear dresses. I loved pink. Fairies. Ballerinas. Makeup. In my lifetime I have managed to have not one but three makeup-themed parties (though, on all occasions I was less interested in beautification than I was drag-queening).

Later, despite choosing university majors in psychology, political science and philosophy, I managed to write about sex, gender and sexuality whenever possible (a trend unfortunately only evident in hindsight). But it wasn’t until I began my honours in philosophy, that I finally read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – which was a revelation. After that I took a giant leap straight into Judith Butler territory, sparking a rather dense love affair with her textual genius. But theoretically, I jumped from a foundational second-wave text to a pretty intense critique of all things gender. I’ve spent the years since then catching up on a lot of the feminist texts in-between and since the great Gender Trouble, but it’s fair to say I’ve taken the queer theory path rather than the recuperative one you see feminist writers like Angela McRobbie taking now (in Aftermath of Feminism McRobbie levels that the work of JB contributed in part to feminism undoing itself). 

This for example, is some crazy bullsh*t

This for example, is some crazy bullsh*t

The point is, a lot of the time, I find myself challenging many of the encompassing explanations of oppression presented by feminist writers and thinkers, instead proposing sneaky little queer readings of things that might otherwise be held up as extremely problematic and supportive of the patriarchy (for example, the much condemned antics of Gaga, Miley, Britney, Katy – I just can’t help falling in love with these women and I will defend them to the death god dammit!). But then at odd and unexpected times, I find myself confronted with street harassment, anti-abortion preachers, or even just vaguely misogynistic comments on social media, and I am reminded hey wait a minute, feminism isn’t always perfect….but it’s still pretty tops. After all, feminism doesn’t mean just one perspective – for me at least, laying claim to feminism in part just means caring about questions of gender.

It sure is

It sure is

As Butler put it herself in the 1999 preface to GT, “I was writing in the tradition of immanent critique that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs”. In other words, one can write from a critical space that is also ultimately founded in feminist thought. And while I can’t help agreeing with some authors like Janet Halley, that it can be productive to “take a break” from feminism sometimes, I can also never forget my feminist roots.

Girls, Girlhood and Feminism

i-am-a-girl-poster-file-edited2Last night I was lucky enough to be asked by the YWCA of Canberra to speak at a film screening of the documentary I am a girl. Below is a transcript of the speech I made following the film.

I am a Girl
In light of the remarkable documentary I am a girl, and as we come up to the International Day of the Girl Child, I thought today it might be interesting to look at some of the ways in which the concept of the girl has been considered in an academic context, and how we might see this film as doing work in contributing to this conversation. So briefly I want to talk about three things:

  • First, what has been said about the girl in academia, specifically, feminist writing?
  • Second, how might we see even the title of the film I am a girl functioning as a powerful statement and intervention in conversation about the girl?
  • Third, why should we care about the girl in academia and feminism?

Second_Sex-20100831

What has been said about the girl?
At face value, girlhood implies a period of flux, of change. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (283). And in de Beauvoir’s account in The Second Sex, the girl is but one step in this process of becoming. However, for de Beauvoir girlhood is not a stopping point – the girl is always caught up in being compelled toward her future state, woman. As de Beauvoir explains, “She is already detached from her childhood past, the present is for her only a transition; she sees no valid end in it, only occupations. In a more or less disguised way, her youth is consumed by waiting. She is waiting for man” (341).

Germaine Greer takes a similar perspective to de Beauvoir in The Female Eunuch, insofar as she acknowledges the weight of expectations imposed upon girls, but she writes, “I would not be doing justice to girls if I were to imply that they accepted their enculturation without struggle” (78). Greer goes on to state that, “the pre-pubescent girl, however sluggish and confused she may seem to the disenchanted observer, is a passionate creature” (80).

the-female-eunuch-germaine-greer-feminism-books-270611-large_newThis conflict between identifying the structural limitations imposed on girls, while at the same time acknowledging the agency of girls themselves, continues to be a persistent tension in feminist writing.

Furthermore, often feminist writing has not settled on the girl as a focus for attention – often the girl is only discussed as a marker of transition on the way to what is often given more significance- the question of woman. However in very recent times we have seen the rise of “girlhood studies” which is attempting to give questions of the girl centre stage.

Theorists in this new field of study, such as Jackie Kirk, Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, have attempted to provide a map for understanding discussions of the girl in a contemporary global context (16). Three dominant themes that have emerged from this research are that:

  • Girls are often pathologised as victims of material deprivation and restrictive gender roles, particularly in development contexts (20-22);
  • Girls are seen as problematic consumers of “tween culture”, particularly in Western contexts (22-23); and
  • Given these restrictions, girls are seen to be already coopted and lacking the agency to have their own opinions or speak for themselves (24).

unfinished-business-anna-goldsworthyWe might note that even with the best critical intentions, sometimes discussion of the girl can carry a heavy weight that reduces the girl to a dupe of systemic oppression. Take for example, Anna Goldsworthy’s recent piece for the Quarterly Essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny. In part, Goldsworthy considers the dangers of girlhood today, framed as young womanhood, particularly the self-objectifying practices girls are taking part in online, as she writes, “the young woman is the celebrity at the centre of her Facebook universe, which might look like self-esteem but is ultimately a form of self-effacement” (37). That is to say, Goldsworthy argues that girls may be in charge of the creation of their self-image, but these are images that are in fact erasing girls. She asks, “is it only by photographing herself that she knows she’s real?” (38).

Now, this might be a compelling argument for some people, but I think it is vital that we pay attention to how these accounts are framing girls. Though there may be processes operating whereby girls are disempowered at one level, simultaneously these same girls may be empowered in other ways. Complexity should not be brushed over in favour of more simple explanations when it comes to investigations of the girl. We need to hear from girls about their own experiences- when we do, often extraordinary things are revealed.

How does I am a girl intervene in this discussion?
The title of this documentary alone provides a fascinating entry into this discussion of the girl. The power of the declaration “I am a girl” becomes ever apparent with comparison to the perhaps more prolific statement – “it’s a girl”.

cat-photo-gallery-payton-21274560As gender theorist Judith Butler has pointed out, we are “called into being” by identity statements – the phrase “it’s a girl” at birth enmeshes us in a process of being “girled” (xvi). That is to say, being labeled a girl is involved with a whole set of role expectations and bodily styles of the “feminine”. As Iris Marion Young argues in Throwing like a Girl, assigning the marker “girl” functions as part of creating less powerful bodies; she writes: “The girl learns actively to hamper her movements. She is told that she must be careful not get hurt, not to get dirty, not to tear her clothes, that the things she desires are too dangerous for her” (154).

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Of course Young’s work plays on the idea that often the statement “throwing like a girl” is used as an accusation or insult. To call something “girlie” is to emphasise that it is underdeveloped or infantile. With age, the proclamation at birth of “it’s a girl” transforms into the charge that one is “just a girl”.

But the title of this film, I am a girl refigures these notions – girlhood is claimed as a position one can be proud to occupy. To say “I am a girl” is to erase the “just” and proclaim this subject position as something to take ownership of. Importantly, the title is not “Nearly a woman” or “I am a young woman”- it marks girl out as a category that might carry a weight of social implications, but that deserves special attention in itself.

And further, the title implies an idea of the girl speaking for herself, but that this is a subject position the viewer can also relate to. Here the “I” functions as the voice of the girl, but also as a space of empathy- it calls for us to put ourselves in the place of the girl as we hear her story.

So from this perspective, we can see the documentary as making an intervention on the topic of the girl, in that we are encouraged to consider:

  • What possibilities are imaginable for these girls; what kinds of women are these girls compelled to become?
  • And, how can we acknowledge these difficulties without making girls victims?
  • But also, where can we see small points of resistance emerging from the girls themselves, and how can we work together across different cultural contexts to make sure these girls are supported to transform boundaries and limitations imposed upon them?

Why should we care about girls?
9780231119139The final point for consideration today is why the girl is important? Why should we care about girls in feminism and academia broadly? As a leading theorist in the field of girlhood studies, Catherine Driscoll, has commented: “As a future-directed politics, as a politics of transformation, girls and the widest range of representations of, discourses on, and sites of becoming a woman are crucial to feminism” (9). Driscoll implores us not to erase girlhood in the question of becoming woman which is central to feminism.

But Driscoll also notes that the question of the girl is not only relevant because it refers to a developmental stage prior to the “independent woman as feminist subject” (9). We need to make sure that while we acknowledge the importance of the girl in relation to the question of woman, the girl does not get lost in this discussion.

652cf38361a209088302ba2b8b7f51e0_500x735It is vital that we hear from girls themselves – as I am a girl implores us to do. And while identifying limitations that are socially placed upon girls, let girls tell these stories so as not to erase their voice in this process, but also so that a diversity of perspectives might ring out. After all, we cannot expect that the needs of girls should be the same across all contexts, or that all girls will share the same experiences. In acknowledging the category “girl”, particularly across cultural boundaries, we need to make sure that difference is held as key.

On the one hand, it is crucial that we see the girl within a future trajectory – what are her possibilities of who she might become? And to this point, a sense of hope is important for imagining different futures. But by the same token, the girl in the now needs to be considered- not just who she will become or who she might be, but what she has to say in this moment. Because it is only in this acknowledgment – that the present is actually the future – that we can hope to come together not to rescue girls but to amplify their voices as they mark out their own space in a changing world.

References
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex, Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010 [1949].

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London; New York: Routledge, 2011 [1993].

Driscoll, Catherine. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Goldsworthy, Anna. ‘Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny’. Quarterly Essay. Issue 50, Collingwood: Black Inc., 2013.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Granada Publishing Limited, 1970.

Kirk, Jackie, Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. ‘Toward Political Agency for Girls: Mapping the Discourses of Girlhood Globally’. Girlhood: A Global History. Ed. Colleen A. Vasconcellos and Jennifer Helgren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Young, Iris Marion. Throwing like a Girl and Other essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Sisters, Doing it for Them-selfies

WDN_18-04-2013_ROP_01_WAR170413selfie_t460

A “typical” selfie pose

Recently an article, Dark Undercurrents of Teenage Girls’ Selfies, has been doing the social media rounds. Selfie literally refers to taking a photo of yourself, and as the papers would have it, this is a dangerous trend being taken up predominantly by girls. While the author – a grade eleven student – admits that “There isn’t anything inherently wrong with uploading self-portraits”, part of this piece also claims that the underlying motivation is popularity, ultimately judged by men: 

Who do we blame for this moral mess? As feminists, we correctly blame patriarchy because boys are securely at the top of the status game. Boys end up with the authority. They have their cake and eat it.

On the weekend The Observer also jumped on the bandwagon with an ominous appraisal over this “global phenomenon”. Journalist Elizabeth Day argues that even though the selfie allows for a modicum of control over images, “once they are online, you can never control how other people see you”. And as Anna Goldsworthy recently remarked in her piece for the Quarterly Essay:

And so the young woman photographs herself repeatedly, both in and out of her clothes, striking the known poses of desire: the lips slightly parted, the “come hither” eyes, the arched back or cupped breast.

tumblr_mfobi2itwF1rm5ngbo1_500By all accounts, young girls today are not just in big trouble, they are trouble. Unlike every generation before them, these girls are the lewdest, excessively raunchy, most aggressively hypersexual… What we have on our hands is a moral panic that combines two things we love to fret about: technology and women’s bodies.

I think that whether or not selfies are ultimately empowering vs. disempowering is actually a moot point. After all, this line of questioning can only really disseminate along two opposing lines:

  1. Empowering – Girls are in control, and the elements of choice and agency involved in self-constructing images is key. This perspective necessitates extrapolating individual claims out to the whole.
  2. Disempowering – Girls may think they have control when they produce a selfie but really as outsiders we know better: they are the victims of a patriarchal culture that compels them to auto-objectivise. This perspective necessitates making generalisable structural claims to the detriment of considering individual experience.

Both of these lines of argument involve making wide-spread claims to provide a definitive evaluation that the practice of taking selfies is either good or bad. From this black and white approach, the possibility that something might be at once empowering and disempowering, is obscured. But – let’s take an imaginative leap here – what if we decided that actually, the answer to the empowerment question is actually kind of fuzzy…

It's not just young people that get in on selfie action...

It’s not just young people that get in on selfie action…

It is almost certain that, as Olympia Nelson claims, many young people are playing popularity games through selfie posts. But what if we considered the ways in which online environments are opening up new avenues for exploration of identity and selfhood? Capacitating the formation of new communities? Creating space for young people to experiment with different modes of self-expression? Selfies are just one more form of image being produced and reproduced in this world. But why flatten girlhood through this story of the scourge of selfie, and miss the other aspects at play in this question of growing up in an era where online expression is the norm?

Frida Kahlo: doing selfies before it was cool

Frida Kahlo: doing selfies before it was cool

Nelson herself admits that “The real problem relates to conformity” – but unfortunately her morality-tale (clearly sensationalised by the paper, e.g. the byline “a cut-throat sexual rat race”) doesn’t leave room for a more in-depth look at how she herself engages online aside from her general, mostly generalised, examples. It seems to me that there are more interesting questions to ask about being a young person on social media if we can put aside our immediate reactions, dry our sweaty brows for a minute and calm our anxiety over the “youth of today”.

The point is, why not suspend judgement and condemnation of these girls and their online practices? Let’s think of some new ways to engage with questions of technology, sexuality and gendered bodies…without all the panic.

Makeovers and Mistakes: What Does Bravery Look Like?

Princess-Merida-before-an-009

Merida “before” (left) and “after” (right)

The recent controversy over Disney’s “makeover” of Brave character Merida, has been troubling me. CGI-Merida, hero of the 2012 the film, was stylistically re-designed as part of a re-branding of many of the Disney Princesses. Last week, website A Mighty Girl started a change.org petition to have Disney revoke Merida’s new look. The content of the petition gives a sense of the kind of reaction the new image garnered. It states:

The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction to the Disney Princess collection does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model who speaks to girls’ capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired. Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value — to be recognized as true princesses — they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty.

What is perhaps more concerning than the "new" looks is how their heads each differ vastly in size. Snow White looks like she could literally eat Cinderella.

What is perhaps more concerning than the “new” looks is how their heads each differ vastly in size. Snow White looks like she could literally eat Cinderella.

As it is, the campaign quickly gained over 200,000 supporters and Disney have apparently withdrawn the new Merida concept from their website (though they have manufactured a doll version that people aren’t happy about either). I first heard about Merida’s new look through my university women’s department, and my response was (literally, a Facebook comment): “Brave can be sexy too?” But it seems I was in the minority with this viewpoint. And while I can support the argument that representations of princesses should perhaps include more diversity in general, I have found most of the reactions deeply troubling and indeed to be inadvertantly reinforcing gender stereotypes. Let’s consider what people have been saying about Merida and the “makeover” (I’ve highlighted some of the more troubling bits):

  • The Mail Online writes: “Unlike most other Disney heroines, the animation character of Princess Merida looked like a real girl
  • The LA Times writes: “Among the modifications: Merida’s long mane of red curls has been defrizzed, her neckline has plunged, her waistline has narrowed and her wide-eyed, round face has been angled. She’s also got eyeliner.”
  • The Christian Science Monitor writes: “Let’s review the chief problems:They took a strong character and weakened her; They took a natural beauty and glamorized her; They took a youthful 16-year-old and made her look like she’s 22; They disrespected the fact that Merida is a princess who goes against the grain, eschewing the trappings of being a princess in favor of being an individual.”
  • Jezebel writes: “As you can see, her eyes are wider, her waist is smaller, her hair is sleeker, and her dress is sparkly as shit.”
  • Brave co-director Brenda Chapman has also been reported as saying, “‘When little girls say they like [the new toy] because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy “come-hither” look and the skinny aspect of the new version.”
towardthestars

“Keep Merida Brave!”: one of the most problematic slogans of the campaign

However, there was one voice that went against the grain. Disney. Executive Catherine Connors writes: “It doesn’t matter what iterations of Merida are out there in the culture – Merida is Merida, and the essence of who she is is defined by the girls who embrace her”

While I remain skeptical about the intentions of any big-wigs intent on selling things to people, I can’t help but agree with Connors. Aside from the fact that I think a lot of the descriptions sensationalised how different the new image is (“plunging” neckline?!), much of the backlash focused on how the image of “new” Merida somehow inherently contained messages that:

  • There is such a thing as looking like a real girl (and it’s not “new” Merida!)
  • Things like wearing makeup and being sparkly/glamorous signify weakness (never bravery!)
  • This is all part of the sexualisation and brainwashing of children (let’s not teach our children critical thinking skills, let’s try and eliminate these kinds of representations!)

As someone who cares a lot about the possibilities of “femme” and subverting expectations despite “heteronormative” appearances, the language and assumptions of the Merida petition concern me. When we suggest chucking out one representation for another, what other norms are we in fact supporting or reinforcing? What limits are we too putting on expression?

My Little Ponies have changed a lot over the years... yet they are still just as awesome (if not awesomer) than ever

My Little Ponies have changed a lot over the years… yet they are still as awesome as ever

I love this post from The Afictionado that argues for acknowledging that all kinds of different “types” of girls can wield power. They write: “You can be a tomboy or a girly girl, or a hard-working student or a lazy scatterbrain, and it’s all okay. And any of these qualities still allows you to pick up your wand and save the world.”

So, when Disney says, “Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident, and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world” maybe we should listen. Maybe we need to take a look at the kind of assumptions we are making about what a “typically” feminine appearance can versus cannot possibly signify. After all, isn’t courage about being, not looking, brave?