Sisters, Doing it for Them-selfies

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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?

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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.”
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“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?

Judith Butler Explained with Cats

Following hot on the heels of Foucault Explained with Hipsters, here’s JB’s Gender Trouble  explained in Socratic dialogue style. With cats.

B1

B2

 

All page references from Butler, J. (1990 [2008: 1999]). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge.

Got any more ideas for philosophy/sociology/gender theory you’d like to see explained in comic form? Let me know in the comments below.

Spectacular Satire? Seth MacFarlane and Boobs at the Oscars

Seth MacFarlane: practically a Nazi

Seth MacFarlane: practically a Nazi

There’s a lot going around today about the fiasco that was Seth MacFarlane’s hosting performance at the Oscars on the weekend. Most notably this has focused on his “We Saw Your Boobs” opening number that had him sing out a list of all the women’s boobs that have appeared on film. And as salon.com covered today, many of these references refer to films in which women are exposed during rape or other violent scenes.

I had a few mixed feelings when I saw the clip. These included: an initial reaction of confused laughter and OH MY GOD I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS IS REAL*; amazement that the broadcast also showed the uncensored disdain of the women mentioned as they listened from the audience*; agreement that Anne Hathaway’s boobs in Brokeback Mountain were memorably great; and disgust at the likes of Hilary Swank’s boobs being noted considering it was in the context of Boys Don’t Cry. All in all I found the whole thing both upsetting and spectacular for what it illustrated.

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Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron react to the song*

It’s too easy to critique MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy (arguably a whole other kettle of satire or problems depending on how you look at it), as the douche who sang a rapey song about boobs. I’m sure he’s going to cop some hate mail and death threats over this incident (that seems to be the common response to offence in these days of identity politics). But how did this actually happen in the first place? Given the notoriously male-dominated arena that is the Oscars (not to mention the fact that no women directors pretty much EVER get nominated), doesn’t this whole episode kind of say in big blaring letters- Hollywood: Reducing Female Actors to Boobs Since 1929?

Anne Hathaway: wonderful boobs, incredible actor

Anne Hathaway: wonderful boobs, incredible actor

Rather than look at MacFarlane as an individual sexist they just happened to let run the gig why not see it for what it shows up? The women mentioned were clearly not ok with this reduction of their acting to their body parts, and nor should they be. The internet has leapt up and started talking about just how not okay it is.

I’m not heralding MacFarlane as some kind of comic genius, but I think we need to look a bit deeper.  And I don’t give a shit about intention, but clearly whether he intended it to be satirical or not, that song caused a lot of offence and probably on the flip side of that a lot of laughter not based on how absurd the premise is. I’m not saying “lighten up”- the specific references in the songs were horrifying. But surely this means we could be focusing on this aspect: wow, how fucking insane is the idea that women are only good as boobs in films. So insane in fact, we might laugh…

*NOTE: Since writing this post I have been made aware that the segment was not “real” in so far as the song was framed within the context of “imagine if…” (much like movies that end poorly with “it was aaaall a dream”) and that the reactions of Watts and Theron were thus pre-recorded. The points of this article however, stand, particularly considering how easily this material is accessed on the internet out of “context” and the reaction it has garnered as a result.

Babyz in the Hood: Girlhood Aspirations Then and Now

Yesterday I came across this amazing song from the Muppet Babies circa 1984:

I had a dawning realisation that 1984 is getting to be quite a long time ago now (*gasp*) and that the kids that would have watched Muppet Babies would already be in their mid to late thirties. With this in mind, I started to think: do the lyrics of the song give us some insight into girls’ childhood aspirations of the time, and, are these aspirations playing out in the lives of the thirty somethings as we speak?

Baby Miss Piggy sings: I’m gonna be a movie star/ And I’m gonna learn to drive a car/ Gonna be a veterinarian too/ And I’m gonna always love you/ I’ll be the cutest model you ever saw/ Then I think I’ll study criminal law/ And I’m gonna scuba dive too/ And I’m gonna always love you/ I’ll be a doctor for diseases/ And help you with your sneezes/ And practice neurosurgery on your brain!/ Gonna climb the Matterhorn/ But only after all our children are born/ ‘Cause I want to be a good mommy too! / And I’m gonna always love you!

The song conveys the idea that baby Miss Piggy aspires to be good looking, outgoing, have children and a successful career. I couldn’t help being reminded of all of the contemporary writing on the “problem” of the modern woman that thinks she can have it all. There’s a lot of writing on it, so I won’t go into the debate here. Suffice to say that my take on it is that perhaps we need to focus more on supporting shared parenting responsibilities and part-time work arrangements rather than arguing either that: women should be and do everything OR that women should simply choose. While I’m not sure that Muppet Babies are to blame for this particular issue, it did get me wondering what kind of girlhood aspirations are currently being represented on television.

Then I came across this (I suggest only watching two minutes maximum, it is quite painful):

This clip is care of the Bratz Babyz film 2006. The lyrics for the song at the beginning of this are: Put on your makeup/ Fix your hair/ No time to take up deciding what to wear/ It’s now or never/ You can’t slow down/ Gotta get it together/ Cos time is running out/ Final count down/ Get ready now/ 5, 4, 3, 2, 1/ Gotta be hotter than hot/ You just have to rock/ No time to stop/ ready or not/ Gotta look hotter than hot/ Gotta show what you got/ No more time on the clock/ Ready or not

As the lyrics and visuals reveal, girlhood aspirations portrayed in Bratz are heavily tied up with wearing makeup and overcoming the burden of choice, that is, what colour dress to wear (!) Amazingly, the characters in the clip shown are babies, not full grown “Bratz”. The baby Bratz world reveals that even toddlers are concerned with matching their lipstick with their outfit. Now, I don’t want to get all down on femininity. I love lipstick. I do. But babies concerned with being “hotter than hot”? I have to admit this is slightly concerning. Not least because it infuses a focus on consumption even further into childhood. As a member of society well and truly down that rabbit hole, I would only hope that people in their younger years could put this off as long as possible.

A girl showing her Bratz inspired face paint

But aside from capitalist concerns, it also seems to flatten aspirations- sure, baby Miss Piggy wanted to be a hot model, but she wanted to perform neurosurgery on your brain too! On the other hand, while some may say it is precisely toys such as Bratz dolls that contribute to the media’s sexualisation of children, the Bratz movie also reveals an abstraction of femininity from sexuality. No longer is femininity about being a perfect woman for a man, it’s just about indulging in femininity, pure and simple…

By my calculations (considering that the Bratz range came out in 2001), the Bratz generation should be in their mid-late teens/ early twenties by now. In the end, what future do these lyrics foretell for the up and coming generation of women? How will they differ from the Muppet Babies generation before them? Only time will tell…

The difficulty of speaking about “women”

I went to a Women of Letters event yesterday – a fantastic evening listening to some well-renowned women (including the fabulous Melanie Tait and Eva Cox) read out letters on the theme of re-writing history. After the letter-reading session, there was a panel on “divergent ways” hosted by Scissors, Paper, Pen of Canberra. But when one of the curators of Women of Letters, the talented Michaela McGuire (the other being the spunky  Marieke Hardy), was asked a question about letter-writing as gendered, I was surprised at her response. Michaela suggested that perhaps letter writing and the desire to express oneself with pen and paper (or computer and paper!) is more of an innately womanly pursuit. Furthermore, Michaela pointed out that yes, Women of Letters was made up of mostly “female” speakers.

Now, Michaela has stated in the past that she questions whether she calls herself a feminist or not, and has got some flack for running predominately woman-focused events. So given this acknowledgement I wouldn’t want to call Michaela out for her essentially essentialist statement on women. But it did remind me of the struggle that I often personally encounter with talking about “women” versus “men” as well as the problematic interchange I often make between the words “woman” and “female”.

de Beauvoir: espouser of the sex/gender distinction

Simone de Beauvoir famously stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (in the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier). Following de Beauvoir, feminist writers have been keen to highlight the difference between sex and gender (of course not everyone sees it that way). On the surface of things, this argument amounts to the idea that sex is in reference to a determination male vs. female made at birth based on genitalia, while gender involves a process of acculturation, learning the expectations of what it means to be a “real” woman or a man (e.g. real men wear suits not dresses). Of course, then Judith Butler came along and posited that sex is caught up in a similar process, but that’s another story…

The point is that for the most part, much feminist writing has attempted to draw a very clear distinction between sex and gender- i.e. “female” and “woman” carry very different meanings. So while we might want to say that femaleness is biological (though this is questionable and hardly clear-cut as JB points out, and as intersex conditions demonstrate), the category of woman holds the weight of a history of socialisation involving certain gendered roles.

Then again, transgender/trans* came along and reminded us that there is a lot more to gender than just socialisation- some people desire transition from one sex and/or gender to another (or something in-between or outside of). PLUS trans* reminds us that gender isn’t just about masculinity or femininity- e.g. you can be assigned female at birth, become a man, but present as feminine (see Femme FTM). So what does it really mean when we say “woman”, “feminist” or we attempt to categorise what “women” are like? And doesn’t an awareness of the sex and gender distinction render attempts at answering any of these questions really really difficult?!

Academic and poet Denise Riley expresses her apprehension toward identity categorisations, reminding us that terms fluctuate in meaning over time and context. Nevertheless, Riley acknowledges, “While I can’t think why I’d want to utter that chilling phrase ‘speaking as a woman’, I can think of situations in which it could be my lot to cough pointedly from the back row, ‘But what about the women here?’” While I hold many concerns about using the term “feminist” (noting its tricky devotion to the gender binary), I still fill with rage, for example,  when I think about the under-representation of women in the philosophy discipline (see my philosophy women tumblr here, they do exist!- Did you know that a bunch of Pythagoras’ teachers were women? No? Well, they totally were!).

Toilet door symbols remind us that being a woman is about wearing triangle dresses

On so many recent occasions I have found myself struggling to express my feminist sentiments in non-essentialising ways. Certainly relying on the interchangeability of the terms “female” and “woman” is something I trip up on. When talking about even the most general things, such as the difference between dating men versus dating women, I am prone to making the most lurid generalisations that blur the line between sex, gender and “natural” traits. And, while I know I am guilty of this, I still cringe when I hear women speaking about their natural proclivities for sharing, being supportive and caring, etc. While we continue to promote these ideas about innate difference, we in fact produce them.

Are women more prone to letter writing? Maybe. But surely that is not something we are born with.

What Disney Princesses taught me

I came across this today-

A reading of what Disney princesses teach girls

Sure, I have considered the rather un-feminist implications of a lot of the princess story lines before. But I’ve never really sat down and thought about it. My reaction to this picture was to think that I could see how these readings were plausible, but that for me, reinforcing hetero-norms is not the first thing I think of when I see the princesses (which is odd, cos that’s basically all I see in everything).

Okay, on the surface they all want their prince to come, etc, etc. And they’re all feminine and beautiful, and fairly non-diverse (until Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan and Tia cracked the scene). While I distinctly remember adoring little mermaid Ariel growing up, my mum loved Ursula, and was pointed to note that not all short-haired plump women were actually sea witches. Looking at the older princesses (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) compared to the newer ones, there is a marked difference between their representations. Princesses have had a lot more ‘tude since the 1980s.

Totally.

I went back and watched Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas. It reminded me that, wait a minute, these chicks kicked ass in these movies. The prince thing was always just a distracting part of the story line for me, and I barely remember the prince characters. While the princes were all pretty generic (charming, rich, handsome…*yawn*), the princesses had exciting lives, amazing magical friends and, most of all, adventurous spirits. But, I guess that’s why it’s kind of depressing when they all end up “settling down” in the end.

No doubt, you could write a feminist tome deconstructing these animations (I’m sure they’re out there). Still, I can’t help looking back fondly at the Disney Princesses I grew up with. And I’m really not waiting around for my prince to come. Why? Sorry, too busy exploring the shore above, painting with the colours of the wind – I want much more than this provincial life, I want adventure in the great wide somewhere….

David Bowie in Tights: How My Childhood Got Saturated in Feminism

Not even Jareth's sparkly blue hair could detract Sarah from her mission

Something BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS occurred to me today. The Labyrinth is overtly feminist. If you haven’t seen this 1986 fantasy wonder film, stop right now and get onto it (you are literally committing a crime to your brain otherwise). Spoilers ahead, so seriously go rent that thing now!

Seen it? Okay then.

My feminist realisation is a lot overdue, given that I watched this film probably every week of my childhood. Sure, I noted the whole, “you have no power over me” thing, but I always took a very vague feminist reading – that it was simply Sarah’s (played by Jennifer Connelly) affirmation that she is a strong woman that controls her own destiny. Today while riding my bike home, for no apparent reason I suddenly thought, wait a minute, that whole darn thing is a feminist parable! I’m really far behind the times with this one (see here for an excellent feminist de-construction). This film is quite literally the opposite of any James Bond (on that note, see Judith Halberstam’s queer reading of Austin Powers here).

Jareth (played by a spunky David Bowie) says to Sarah at the end, “I have reordered time, I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you”. But Sarah doesn’t stand for it. Jareth may have given Sarah all of the material things in the world (as apparent in the scene with the trash lady) and will even give her “the child” she seeks if she gives into his demands- but she doesn’t owe him anything, she’s a free woman! And she does get the child she wants anyway (a metaphor for the possibilities of single parenting?). The film also sees Sarah become the belle of the ball, the fantasy Cinderella, but she pulls that apart too- she wants something more in life. So, if Jareth and his goblin-man-kingdom represents the patriarchy (who knew oppression could be so hot and androgynous in lycra!), Sarah sure does smash that thing down.

Sarah looking rather bridal at the beginning of the film

But then I started to worry, what about the very end of the film? Sarah might not need a man, but she does need her friends- what to make of this new form of codependency? Perhaps problematically, Sarah’s friends are all male. But then again, Hoggle is not your typical hero-man (he’s ugly and well, gross), Sir Didymus is an effeminate fox, and Ludo is actually pretty non-gendered apart from the masculine beast voice (and everyone’s reference to him as a he). They might be a rag tag bunch, but clearly the end of the film doesn’t leave Sarah as an independent woman. Adding to my concern is Sarah’s loathing for her step mother (cos step mothers are evil, duh), and the use of Jareth turning into an owl- a symbol of protection and intelligence.

Nevertheless, I still love this film, and can’t help thinking that it pre-wired some feminist questions in my brain that have probably significantly affected the way I see the world. Plus David Bowie is ten kinds of awesome, and I’m sure, a feminist too.