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.

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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.

Why Nipples are not the Test of Freedom

An image from the campaign

An image of a Free the Nipple campaign t-shirt

Nudity was a big part of my life growing up and combined with the weight of the body-shaming Western world I have developed a difficult attitude toward nakedness. While others seem to relish in nude adventures as a mark of rebellion, it merely brings me back to angst over being out of place as the child of a hippy mother. When I came across the “Free the Nipple” campaign that seems to be growing on social media, it brought back childhood memories. Free the Nipple emerged as a response to both laws across America which make it illegal for women to be topless, and rules enforced by a number of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which prevent nipple pics from being shared. A lot of celebrities and other folk seem to be jumping at the chance to rebel against the rules and flaunt as much flesh as possible.

A lot of statues in our house looked like this

A lot of statues in our house were inspired by this Venus

But before I get into Free the Nipple, what of my history of nudity? Well, I was raised by my single mother – an artist at the time – who was really into celebrating female bodies, particularly curvy ones. She was always sketching nudes, and given that I was a child who feared anything to do with “sport” or “the outdoors” I was always drawing and painting, and given ample opportunity to do life drawing with her. She always had strange art projects going. One particularly notable one involved painting vaginas in the bottom of a series of wooden boxes. To my eight year old horror, a rather conservative-seeming mother dropped off her daughter – a friend from school – while my mum was painting them. When my mum explained what she was doing, the other mother’s reaction was unexpected: “Oh!…Can you paint mine?”. Another time, my mum was really into ceramics and she made large statues of fat women, all breasts and thighs, in a nod to Venus of Willendorf. There were also flying breasts (a tribute to women who had them removed in cancer treatment), and most shockingly for me as a teen, our doorstep was graced with a giant ceramic vagina dentata and a penis covered in thorns. Yes, it’s fair to say that nudity was ubiquitous in my youth.

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

But, despite my mother’s best efforts at teaching me body-positivity, the shame of the outside world crept in. I constantly feared having friends over, after a series of parents found my mother’s art too provocative (not everyone wanted their vagina painted). And as my awkward teenage body began to form, I became more self-conscious of all things bodily, which was a terrible mismatch to my mother’s all-out embrace of the female form. I became resentful of the art she would create. In year 11 a friend showed me her own mother’s “secret shame” which was a room full of nude portraits that she had done. I felt embarrassed because all this time our house had been full of life drawings and I had always thought these were the least offensive (to be fair, they were tame compared to the enormous vagina with teeth on our front step). This, and many experiences like it, was all part of learning that in the “normal” world nudity is not really okay. As an adult, I had internalised the self-consciousness of the bodily so deep that I could barely be naked in front of myself, let alone partners and it’s been a slow process to become more comfortable with my flesh.

Another popular image from the campaign

Another popular image from the campaign

All of this means that I find it odd when people gush about walking around naked at home, because it’s just something I could never really get in to. But perhaps because of my experiences I can understand slightly more when people are so adamant to expose their nipples on social media as an act of freedom, because there sure is a lot of shame around nudity to be felt in the Western world (which we can see is actually enforced), and I myself have felt the weight of it. It’s a strange thing when you see that in advertising and popular culture sexiness can be ever-present, but nudity is barely allowed, unless filtered through the production values of Game of Thrones. But while I agree that social attitudes toward female bodies deserve critique, I don’t think we should be going and putting all of our political eggs in the show-your-boobs basket. As a form of rebellion I think it’s very limited, particularly because it can so readily be absorbed under a larger regime of “normalcy”, and end up perpetuating existing standards of beauty, race, size and so on.

Free the Nipple makes fashion

While the core group who started Free the Nipple originally aimed for some diversity of bodies in their images, their main campaign materials involve slim white bodies with perfectly round breasts. Celebrities have jumped at the chance to endorse #FreetheNipple, with models and pop stars alike wearing the t-shirts and getting on social media to flash some skin. Fashion houses have also responded, with “sheer” making a timely comeback. On the runways this season breasts have been pert but unobtrusive. When your tactics are so readily absorbed into the mainstream, so easily sexualised or used to sell products, you’ve got to wonder if you’re on the right track. It seems the nipple reform tactics of Free the Nipple haven’t quite smashed female body norms as hoped.

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

In addition, within a context where Muslim women are constantly being targeted for covering up too much, Free the Nipple’s investment in nudity as the marker of equality par excellence almost reads as an advertisement for a certain form of Western Imperialism. A notable and similarly problematic example can be seen with the antics of Ukrainian group FEMEN. Self-described as “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion”, this raison d’être has amounted to topless protests out the front of mosques and other similar institutions, with flag-burnings and the use of all kinds of anti-Islam propaganda. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN has even formed in response, to call the group out on the racism implicit in their actions. You may be thinking, well Free the Nipple is obviously a different campaign to FEMEN. For one thing, it’s not targeting religious and cultural institutions per say. But it does similarly invest in the idea of revealing your body as a mark of freedom and rebellion. Here the whiteness of this cause is a related issue, as women of colour have historically been marked out culturally as always already more sexual and bodily – arguing that revealing the body is an act of liberation might not ring true for all women.

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

Perhaps one of the reasons that this kind of activity can so readily become problematic, is that it is very narrow in focus, in what it is attempting to change and how. Unfortunately sexism is a much bigger fish than absent nipples on Facebook, though this may be symptomatic of the larger issue and I’m definitely not saying that it’s okay (I once tried to post a link to an artist whose work celebrates breast diversity and Facebook wouldn’t let me, which I found deeply disturbing).

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Image from the Free the Nipple fundraiser

A whole heap of social change with regard to how we see gender in society is needed  – how we talk about and understand gender, how we raise and gender children, how we learn about sex and our bodies. Fundamentally what needs to be targeted are the expectations of gender that are enforced to keep people divided from each other in society. At best, posting nipple pictures online as part of this protest might raise awareness about sexism and double standards in society. At worst, it might promote a whole range of other problems and in fact reinforce beauty, body and cultural norms – issues which deserve more space and consideration than a picture of a model’s breasts on Instagram.

 

 

How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

In Defence of Anger: Taking a Break from the Rational Thinking Man

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An image from the rally at ANU where students took over part of the Chancelry

Recently, I’ve been getting angry. In May this year, the Australian Government announced a federal budget that will see the abolition of free health care, the elimination of the financial safety net for the unemployed and radical changes to the way in which education is funded. Unsurprisingly (since these changes will affect a majority of the population), people have been responding. At my own university campus, there have been a number of actions including a rally on May 21 that saw over 500 students descend on the Chancelry and occupy part of the building. People at the rally were angry – they banged on doors, chanted and held a speak-out where students could express their rage and frustration at the university administration who are in full support of the proposed changes. Since the rally however, there has been a huge negative backlash with students being portrayed in the media as violent, irrational and dangerous. In response, students have been taking to more pacifist actions to demonstrate that their concern is legitimate and debates are being held that request students to engage in “polite and respectful discussion”. It seems anger has lost its currency.

But what might the value of anger be in these circumstances and why should we be wary of the delegitimisation of this form of expression?

1. Anger, if seemingly uncontrolled, is coded as dangerous man or irrational woman.
There is an idea prevalent in society that anger must be controlled – those who don’t effectively control their anger are an unknown quantity, to be feared. This is also seen as something we ourselves should fear, lest we lose control. For example, Roman philosopher Seneca believed that “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it”. Unfortunately this assumption is heavily coded along gender lines and often equates to one of these two options:
incredible_hulk71The dangerous man: i.e. the Hulk. The Hulk represents the threat of a mild-mannered man losing control and become savage to all those around him. He is a destroyer of all that is in his path, sometimes for good, but often for bad – you cannot trust this man to do the right thing as he lacks self-discipline.
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The irrational woman: i.e. the Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Cat Lady is a figure of the terrifying and inevitable evolution of a woman who expresses her anger. Alone, she is isolated from society, treats other creatures with both love and disregard and has lost touch with reality to the point that her speech is unintelligible. The Crazy Cat Lady serves as a warning.

2. Anger’s polar opposite is coded as rational thinking man or passive woman
The corollary to all this is that if we see anger as the ultimate negative, we end up heralding cool-headed, calm and collected as the modes of being par excellence. This avenue cannot escape the clutches of gendered expectations, where sensible debate and discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by men, while women are expected to listen from the sidelines. After all, who is more cool and calm than the rational thinking man?

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“The representation of gender is its construction- and in the simplest sense it can be said that all of Western Art and high culture is the engraving of the history of that construction” Teresa de Lauretis

So thoughtful

So thoughtful

The rational thinking man: i.e. man.  Since Ancient Greece, men have been seen as the ones up for considered debate, nutting out the problems of the world. They are thoughtful, pensive, rational. Anne Cranny-Francis has described the figure of the male thinker as, “self-defining and self-sufficient. Coded as male, he is fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings”. The rational thinking man has evolved from philosopher king to suave and well-dressed man of the year; always well presented, he is James Bond without a gun. Strategic, charming, independent, and not afraid to sit down and play poker with the bad guys.

So sexy

So sexy

 

The passive woman: i.e. woman. In contrast to rational thinking man is the woman underneath him – coded as passive, she listens to the rational man. Entrapped by her own bodily limitations (as she is more body than mind), she must take the role of the quiet seductress as she finds her own power to control rational thinking man through the only thing she has – her body. She learns the difficulty of sharing her own views – being told to be quiet, being talked over, being ignored. If she speaks up she is marked as overbearing – and well on her way to Crazy Cat Lady land, a lonely spinster life.

Of course, that is not to say that women cannot aspire to be philosophical thinkers (I did my honours in philosophy), but the gender coding in this realm is strong and women are certainly not expected to be part of this. Indeed, the discipline of philosophy itself has an awkwardly long history of marginalising women.

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

We can easily see these codings playing out in the media’s depictions of students. Following the May 21 protests in Melbourne, images emerged of a fifteen year old woman being carried away by police (obviously an attempt to save her from the ill-fate of the Crazy Cat Lady she seems destined to become). Unsurprisingly, those in power responded by stating that “if only” the young girl had tried a more sensible route, none of this would have happened. For example, the Herald Sun reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks following the young girl’s protest: “If that young woman had sat down and from her honest perspective written directly to the PM to say ‘here’s what I think about your Budget, here’s why I don’t like it’, I would be much more inclined attention to pay attention to that to see her being dragged away from a protest”. In effect the young woman was told to quietly participate and join in a sensible discussion with those that hold the ultimate power over the fate of her education, within a system where she does not even have the minimum access to democratic expression – the vote.

10286872_10152023438317143_6114163734565687914_oCloser to home, The Canberra Times ran with an image of one of the female students who was leading the rally, screaming as a security guard attempted to stop students entering the Chancelry. The headline below read: “Students hole up vice-chancellor in day of anger”. Through the use of this image, the student was used as the “face” of anger. She spoke directly to the media afterwards, but remained marked as unintelligible and was not quoted in the article. Discussions circulated that students should avoid violence and this front-page image hovered in the subtext of these conversations. Anger we were told, was a violent response.

An image from the read-in

An image from the read-in

In stark contrast in the week following the rally, another student started up an imaginative and radically different form of protest outside of the Chancelry – a read-in – where people could come and study in front of the doors, to highlight exactly what was being threatened in these cuts. Men and women alike gathered every day, united in their vigil for education, sharing political philosophy texts and ideas with each other. However, when power (i.e. the vice-chancellor) entered this realm of debate on the three occasions he visited the read-in, he unsurprisingly promoted discussion that was on his own terms. Students attempted to engage him in their utopian vision of thoughtful debate, but an obstacle remained. He had no stake in actually listening to students apart from appearance, and he brought down his PR person who took photos to make sure it was successful. It quickly became apparent that the VC benefitted from the image of rational thinking man, where we all appear to figure it out together when in fact we don’t (as the CCTV they immediately installed above the read-in demonstrated).

This is not an argument against philosophy or considered thought (or men!). However, we need to be very careful about championing rational thinking man as the figure of success, as this becomes deeply problematic once we enter the realm of rational debate with those already in power. Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.

IMG_1030Obviously there are huge benefits to students having discussions with each other about the ethics of how to tackle issues. But when those in charge come to play, it does students no service to accept the terms of their debate. Students should not accept their idea that anger = worst possible reaction. Why wouldn’t students be angry at being marginalised? Is that not anger-making? As I have outlined, we need to remain radically skeptical about the way in which these emotions are coded along gender lines. We also need to be extremely careful that in our encounters with authority we do not give more power to power, when we accept the figure of the rational man.

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Feminist Hulk has been smashing stuff for years

As for the utility of anger, it seems to me that the Hulk and the Crazy Cat Lady have a lot of potential – after all, things will need to be radically destroyed and a new language created before we can really get on with sensible debate.

 

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.

love-pink-toys-07

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.
lori-then-now-lego-meme-630x416

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?