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Author: Danni Miller

Wonder Woman — the idol girls need right now

Holy anticipation! Has there ever been more patient fans than Wonder Woman’s legion of loyal supporters?

They have had to sit through no less than 10 Superman films, nine Batman movies, two productions dedicated to an obscure DC character known as the Swamp Thing and a stand-alone feature for Justice League lightweight Green Lantern before finally getting to see Princess Diana of the Amazons strut on to the silver screen in her iconic red boots on June 1st.

And frankly, the timing couldn’t be better.First marketed in the 1930s, comic books became a national obsession with children yearning for escapism from the economic bleakness and political instability that defined the world they lived in. And yet, as with most things beloved by young people, by the 1940s there was a backlash by those who considered comics to be guilty of the moral panic double-whammy: promoting violence; and inspiring inappropriate sexual thoughts.

In response to these concerns, All-American Comics hired William Marston, a highly regarded psychologist, to bring some credibility to their publications. And it was he who created the raven-haired, star-spangled pant-wearing yielder of the golden lasso of truth.

From the outset, the agenda was clear. A press release issued when the character debuted declared that, “Wonder Woman was conceived by Dr Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolised by men” because “the only hope for civilisation is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity”.

Who said men can’t be feminists?

Lynda Carter appeared as Diana Prince, a true Amazonian with special powers in the Wonder Woman TV series in 1975. (Pic: News Corp)

And while Wonder Woman may have the power to compel baddies to speak the truth to her, and to deflect bullets with her bracelets, her real power has always been in the girl power she personifies — hence the women’s movement has had a longstanding affiliation with her (Ms. magazine even had her adorn the cover of their launch issue, calling for her to be President).

The symbolism seems to have gotten somehow lost more recently when, to celebrate Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday, the United Nations announced she would be made an Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Previous honorary ambassadorships have been given to fictional characters such as Winnie the Pooh (for friendship) and Tinkerbell (for the environment). In a bizarre case of your-skirt’s-too-short shaming, an online petition branded WW as too sexy for the role. She was quietly loaded back on to her invisible jet and sent flying.

Yet ask any little girl and they will tell you that there is much more to Wonder Woman than any sexualised interpretation.

Gal Gadot will grace the silver screen as Wonder Woman from June 1. (Pic: Warner Bros Pictures)

Eight-year-old Geli says she loves her: “Batgirl and Supergirl were just sidekicks. Wonder Woman is her own person and the most epic ever.”

Then there’s six-year-old Saskia who believes: “She is the strongest of the DC Superheroes. But what I like best is that she is super kind, like my mum.”

Three-year-old Ivy notes that “Wonder Woman is good because she doesn’t care about pretty dresses, she just wants to kick bad dudes’ butts”.

Devoted fan five-year-old Samantha chose to go as Wonder Woman for her school dress-up day last week. Why? “Because she is fast and strong to look after everyone. She’s the strongest Princess in the world!”

If this week and the horrific events in Manchester have shown us anything, it is that little girls desperately need a symbol of female strength, love and justice.

And they need an escape from the uncertainty that defines the world they now live in too.

This article was first published by The Daily Telegraph, May 27th, 2017 and online at RendezView. 

We need to equip our teens with strategies to deal with sexting

If you have a teenager, it’s highly likely that at some stage they have been sent a nude image.

There’s also a strong possibility that they’ve sent a nude image of themselves to someone they trust.

And it isn’t just the teens who engage in other high-risk forms of behaviour, such as drinking and experimenting with drugs, who are sexting. Writer and women’s advocate Nina Funnell believes that the practice is in fact, now normalised among teens.

“Having spent several years investigating the phenomenon of what motivates nude image sharing, first in an academic setting and then as a journalist, I can tell you that it is more prevalent than ever. Educators and police have been preaching to teens about the dangers for almost a decade now, yet the words of warning just aren’t resonating,” she says.

These warnings may be going unheard as they rely on scare tactics; the messages often present young people as either callous criminals, or vulnerable victims. While it is important to be clear that sending, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit photos of underage photos of an underage person is a criminal act (even if that person is you) there is a wide body of research that shows campaigns that rely only on fear as a motivator are both counter-productive and ineffective.

It’s important for teenagers to know that being caught up in a sexting situation doesn’t mean they’ve destroyed their future. (Pic: Supplied)

The doom-and-gloomers also lose credibility quickly with teens who see such messages as alarmist, and possibly out of step with their own often more complex experiences.

What approaches do work? Acknowledging that at some stage our teens may be sent an unsolicited nude image, and providing scripts on a range of ways in which they can deal with this (everything from delete and block, to reporting the sender, to using humour — the mother of a 16-year-old girl recently shared an image her daughter automatically sends to any guy she knows who send her a “dick pic.” It shows a sharp knife next to a sliced cucumber).

Allowing teens who have sent nude images a safe, shame-free space to discuss why they sent these, and how they felt about this afterwards (especially if they were coerced into sending the image) can also be illuminating.

Blogger Jae Schaefer reflected on why she sent nude photos of herself at sixteen, and how she felt when these were then distributed around her school and workplace. “I had total strangers tell me I had ‘destroyed my future’… (but) life goes on. I don’t share naked photos anymore. Not because I think it’s immoral or dangerous, but because I don’t crave the attention like I used to. I got really honest about why I was doing it… now the exhibitionist within me is expressing herself in a more conscious way (through writing).”

It’s important too that when we talk about sexting we don’t present it only within a cyber-world framework. The discussion needs to also cover broader real-world issues such as what a respectful relationship looks and feels like, why it is that female nudity in particular is so often associated with shame and loss of reputation, on how we can be ethical bystanders, and on how we can always move beyond any mistakes we may make.

When adolescents are only ever told about possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, any opportunity for an open dialogue with them is shut down.

And we urgently need to not only continue talking, but to listen. Because when it comes to the relationship teens have with sexting — it’s complicated.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, and was shared online by RendezView 8/4/17 

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

Your online behaviour says a lot about the person you are

The Waiter Rule was first proposed by newspaper columnist David Barry in the late 1990s.

It preposes that a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat serving staff.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can’t help but wonder what Barry would think about the comments left on both social media and mainstream media platforms, and more to the point about what these reveal about the nature of those who chose to log in, and let rip.

The internet has become so increasingly aggressive and hostile that it is now considered wise to refrain from reading the comments section, to take regular digital detoxes, or to consider leaving particular social media platforms permanently.

Actor Leslie Jones left Twitter in July of last year after receiving a barrage of online racist and sexist hate for daring to star in the remake of the film Ghostbusters.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti followed suit the same month after tweets were sent threatening to rape and kill her five-year-old daughter.

Writer and activist Lindy West deactivated her account recently, declaring Twitter “is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators”.

Leslie Jones (far left) was subjected to racist abuse for her role in the new Ghostbusters film. That says a lot about the character of the people trolling her. (Pic: Ghostbusters)

It would be tempting to reassure ourselves and think that only a small minority choose to badger, belittle, and bully. Yet research from the US shows that 28 per cent of online users admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.

Some don’t even seem to be embarrassed by this behaviour. A 2016 study on online firestorms concluded that non-anonymous individuals are actually more aggressive compared to those who remain anonymous.

How do the people who throw these word-missiles reconcile their online behaviour with the self-perception many surely hold to be true — that they are decent, reasonable people?

Perhaps they do so by reassuring themselves that although they just sent a message to a journalist they disagree with, threatening to sexually assault her with a rusty knife, earlier they had offered to make their wife a cup of tea.

Although they did just post a cap-locked string of expletives on Facebook telling someone they find annoying why they don’t deserve to live, they had put their hand up to help at the school canteen next week.

The internet can sometimes seem a cesspool of hatred. (Pic: iStock)

Or perhaps they simply choose to ignore the fact that the mark of any person is not how they treat those they like, but rather how they treat those they find challenging and those from whom they have little to gain.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller argues that although even the kindest of us can have bad days and be rude, or unnecessarily hostile, “We have a responsibility to recognise that we are capable of belittlement and rudeness and to remedy it as soon as we feel we may have been out of control.” We need to learn to regulate our emotions, he says. Both in our face-to-face interactions, and in our virtual ones.

The modern-day litmus test of a person’s nature should be how they engage with others in the cyber world. Just as most of us would recoil from a blustering fool who chose to bark demands or attempted to demean the staff at a restaurant, so too will we start to move our seats away from the online haters.

Because whether the trolls would like to acknowledge it or not, their comments reveal far more about them than they ever do about those they are hoping to intimidate or discredit.

 

This post was originally published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView  20/1/17 

Finally, Girl Power being used for the right reason

In the early 1990s, prominent feminists argued there was a media-driven backlash against the women’s movement, and it risked losing some of the momentum gained in the 1970s.

Then along came the Spice Girls to make “Girl Power” fun, and palatable, again.

“If you want my future, forget my past,” sang Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty.

It turns out it wasn’t just their predominantly teen-girl fan base who thought the way forward was through exclaiming “You go girl!”, it was marketers looking for a fresh take on how to sell the same old stuff, with a new pro-female spin.

So addicted have advertisers become to using the rhetoric of empowerment that it is now used to sell everything from cleaning products (“Get the power — the power to clean anything”) super-elastic, stomach-sucking knickers (“Spanx — Power Panties”, insert pictures of svelte women posing with arms on hips), cosmetics (Bobbie Brown’s “Pretty Powerful” range) and even workshops for teen girls that claim to want to empower teens via fashion makeovers.

Because nothing says equality quite like learning what colours best suit your skin-tone, or how to dress to maximise those socially acceptable curves, and to minimise the male gaze’s exposure to others.

Yet when marketers tackle sexism convincingly, their campaigns become viral sensations.

The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign has been running for more than a decade and is considered the industry leader in this genre; their 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial remains the most watched video ad of all time.

Feminine hygiene company Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign exposed the destructive impact messages we give to tweens about what being a young woman means can have on self-esteem; it has had more than 63 million views on YouTube.

Although many find it hard to believe Dove’s parent company Unilever is genuine in their commitment to fostering positive body image (they also sell slimming products, skin whitening creams, and run the notoriously sexist Lynx advertisement campaigns for boys), and some question how Always pushing panty liners is compatible with moving beyond limiting stereotypes about girls, for many of us it seems it is at least easy to get behind messages that build women up, rather than tearing them down.

The new “I’d like to see that” advertisement for the AFL women’s competition harks back to the popular 1994 AFL men’s campaign of the same name, but the female creatives behind this version have ensured it kicks a goal not just for one of the fastest growing sports (the recent television broadcast of an women’s AFL exhibition match reached more than one million viewers), but for team feminism.

The ad features female AFL players in action alongside prominent Australian sporting figures such as Turia Pitt and Cathy Freeman. They tell us they would like to see “girls who never give up” and “more women making Australian sporting history”.

It is incredibly inspiring (only the most hardened misogynist could fail to be moved by the shot of Melbourne captain Nathan Jones holding his giggling little girl in his arms and declaring: “Our daughters wearing our numbers one day? I’d like to see that”).

But what makes it unique is that it isn’t selling pop music, lotions or sanitary pads. It’s selling female participation in sport and their right to be taken seriously.

In the week since the ad was launched it has racked up more than 300,000 views online. Last weekend the millions who participated globally in the women’s marches proved the push towards equality has well and truly regained momentum.

Feminism is alive, hitting the streets and demanding more. What more would I like to see the women’s movement do? For a kick off, I’d like to see us move beyond messages of faux empowerment.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper 27/1/17 and online at RendezView.

Ladies, teach your daughters to say ‘No!’

What’s the one word we need to teach our daughters to be more comfortable saying? “No”.

While most of us would agree that teaching what defines active consent when it comes to sexual relationships is vital work (both how to say no, and how to accept it when one hears it from someone else) we are less likely to provide opportunities for our little girls to flex their freedom-to-choose muscles in social situations.

We tell them they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like, often without even first asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person (“You should be friends with everyone”), hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

They are encouraged to be seen (ornamental) yet rarely heard (sugar, spice and passively nice).

As women we may think we have moved beyond being girls who just can’t say no, and fought to finally find our own voices. But how often do even the most empowered of us still actively avoid difficult conversations?

To avoid telling the guy we met online that we’ve decided we don’t want to meet, we simply delete his profile and disappear like ghosts. When friends we no longer have anything in common with ask us out for drinks, excuses are made and we wait for them to get “the hint”. We silently sulk when we are unhappy with a decision our partner has made, hoping they’ll read our minds and change course.

It can certainly be difficult to set boundaries, those of us who are hard-wired for connection may be burdened afterwards with guilt. And there can be a backlash – women who say “no” may be  labelled as bitches or ball-breakers.

Yet if we can find the sweet spot between passive and aggressive, in my experience assertiveness and honesty are both ultimately not only respected, but viewed as refreshing.

If we can start by being honest with ourselves, surely then we’d see too that all the people pleasing we do isn’t really pleasing anyone. Women often feel overworked, over-committed and frankly exhausted. Those closest to us can usually tell when we turn up looking tense, stressed and resentful. 

As with most skills, practice makes perfect and starting off small can help build competence and confidence.

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The next time you are at the shops and someone pushes in front of you, calmly explain the line starts behind you. When a family member assumes you will be happy to do something you don’t want to do, offer to show them how to do it themselves instead. If a colleague asks you to do a task that goes beyond your job description, explain this makes you uncomfortable and tell them why you don’t feel able to do it, or, if it suits you to complete the work, ask for the support you will need to get it done.

The key is to delivering an effective “no” is to be brief (long winded explanations only open up points for disagreement) and breezy (by staying calm and controlled, you will defuse the potential for the exchange to be seen as confrontational). Finally, don’t play at regrets afterwards.

When we say yes to more balance and to more authentic connections, we not only help ourselves but say to the little ladies in our lives who are forever watching us, “See, you can speak your truth too.”

We are vaccinating our girls against the disease to please. 

This post was originally published by RendezView, 24/12/16. 

 Everybody makes mistakes

What do a cage fighter, a quantum physics professor and an award-winning crime novelist have in common? They’ve all messed up – and learned a lot in doing so

“It was like I was in a nightmare. I just froze in front of millions of people. I was in the cage, fighting, and I could see my opponent throwing punches at me, but I couldn’t move; they were just slamming into my face. In between rounds my coach was talking to me and I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I went from being the biggest thing to come out of Australia to fight in Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC], to being the worst fighter ever.” 

In 2007, Soa “The Hulk” Palelei, a mixed martial artist who competed in the heavyweight division for the UFC, lost his first major fight against Eddie Sanchez in the third round by a technical knockout. His fighting contracts with the promoters were cancelled immediately afterwards. 

“Before the fight my hotel room had been filled with people. Hollywood celebrities like Adam Sandler and Kevin James had been high-fiving me, telling me I was the man. Afterwards, I sat in my hotel room all alone; I thought, “Well, now where is everyone?” No one would even answer my calls, so I had to make my own way to the airport and fly home by myself. The whole flight back to Perth, there were so many things in my head. I was abused as a child, beaten up. I was homeless for months as a kid. And now? I felt even more ashamed and useless.” 

Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat
Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat

Why is it that the feeling of shame that so often accompanies a mistake can be the most destructive of all human emotions? “It can damage a person in ways that no other emotion can,” explains Dr Natalie Ferres, who has a PhD in psychology and researches emotional intelligence, resilience and self-management. “Guilt or regret can be fine if you acknowledge lessons, take accountability and move on, but if someone experiences enough shame? They can become self-loathing to the point that they become self-destructive. It can even cause neurobiological damage. We know some of the neurochemical correlates of shame and how it literally gets stuck in our brain circuitry.”

For Palelei, his initial response to failure was to compulsively both read the online hate directed towards him. Oh, and to eat. “At one stage, I was up to 160kg.” 

Crime writer Candice Fox says the years of rejection she experienced when first trying to find a publisher for her four books led her to being “in the biggest hole ever. I had been writing since I was 12 and had written many books, but there were four that I properly pursued publication for and I was rejected by everyone in Australia and worldwide. The rejections felt very personal. My mistake was in how I responded to this. I was so angry, and jealous of other published authors. I saw myself as nothing. Because I only felt powerful when I was writing. 

“I had a strange childhood in which I had no real power, which is why I escaped into these imaginary worlds I created through my writing. My mum had six kids of her own and would also foster kids. So there’d be 12 or 13 kids in the house and you’d sometimes want to go and hug your mum and you just couldn’t, as there’d be some traumatised kid upset as their parents may have just been arrested and they needed her more. It made high school rough. These kids would bring in not only their own life traumas, but as some had been neglected they might have lice, or ringworm or hand, foot and mouth disease. I’d get all this, too. So I was this weird kid with nits who came to school in a minibus filled with children, who just liked to sit by herself and write stories. And I thought, ‘But if I can’t get published and become a writer, then who am I?’ I definitely felt shame.”

The waiting game - Author Candice Fox didn't cope well with rejection
The waiting game – Author Candice Fox didn’t cope well with rejection

During his time at a top-tier management consultant firm in the US, Michael Biercuk, a quantum physicist who is now an associate professor at The University of Sydney, says he looks back “with self-disgust” at how he interacted with his colleagues. “My mistake was profound. I did what [someone with] a PhD in science would do; I spoke honestly about our organisation’s shortcomings and provided potential solutions that I thought would improve the business without any kind of radical restructure. But I completely failed to understand either the local workplace culture or how my comments might be perceived by others, especially peers and supervisors. It became me parachuting in with the solution in hand and effectively saying, ‘All of you have been wrong all along.’ And that was exactly what my failure was. Despite education at some of the best universities, I was never taught the basics, the fundamentals of business interaction or social psychology. My peers and some managers saw me as a troublemaker and some even considered me a traitor to the firm.” 

Like so many who look back at their mistakes with newfound clarity, Biercuk says that he eventually gained some clarity from choosing to see what had happened from his colleagues’ perspective, and from reframing it as a learning opportunity. “Over the course of many years developing as a professional, I’m continuing to refine my ability to mitigate my natural tendency to just give an answer and think more about how I can build consensus.”

For Palelei, shame was eventually replaced with grit; with hard work, optimism and a goal: to return to fighting for the UFC. 

“One day I woke up so heavy I could hardly breathe. And I thought, ‘You will die like this, dwelling on that mistake.’ So I snapped out of it. I knew I had to get back to the UFC. I knew if I could just get back there I would know exactly what to do this time and how I was going to do it. I never crawled my way back. You know how some people say you have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run? I was sprinting. I would walk into the gym and just demolish everything. I was pushing, hustling, grinding. And every night I would visualise what would happen when I stepped back into that cage. 

“I was single-minded; although I was winning title belts in other competitions, they were just something to pull my pants up with. It was all focused on being back to the UFC. After I won three fights, they still said, ‘No way!’ After five, six, seven more wins, they said, ‘No.’ And I thought, well at least they didn’t say ‘no way!’ this time. Just a no is better. After my tenth win, they said, ‘OK.’” 

Palelei stepped back in to the Octagon in 2013, six years after his initial defeat. This time, he won. In total, Palelei has won four out of his seven UFC fights (including one where he fought with a fractured rib he’d suffered during training beforehand).

Paradoxically, it’s the more exacting world of science that may provide a model for how we can best foster cultures where it’s not only OK to make mistakes, but valuable to discuss them openly. In discussing his work in academia, Biercuk explains, “There is a huge value placed on very transparent, brutally honest discussion. Everybody is trying to work to the solution of some technical problem; somebody puts up an idea, somebody else says no that’s wrong for the following reason, and everybody is kind of OK with that. If I say something at the whiteboard in a discussion with colleagues that’s not correct, somebody will show I’m not correct and I’ll just have to accept it, move on and know this happens to everybody.”

In other words: we all make mistakes. One of the ways in which we can move past these is through the sharing of our less-than-positive stories. These not only act as instructive, by helping others from making the same errors, but as protective, by minimising the dark shame that can make a person feel like they’re bad or worthless when, really, like us all, they’re only human.

Like Palelei, Fox also used movement to push through the feelings of failure. “I got into the gym and started running. That was so good for my mental health.” Like Biercuk, she was adaptable and willing to learn: “I went to TAFE to study creative writing, and then later to uni; I did an honours and a masters.” She also shifted her perspective: “I went from picturing this great big club of writers that I was excluded from and watching them from a window outside, to thinking, ‘How can I get better at learning this craft?’” 

Fox secured an agent and within days had two major publishing houses fighting over her books. She is now published by Penguin Random House and in 2014 won a Ned Kelly Award (honouring Australian crime writing) for her debut novel Hades. Her second title, Eden, won another in 2015, and she was shortlisted for this year’s Ned Kelly for her third book Fall

Ferres argues, however, that it’s not so much the ultimate moments of triumph that make stories like these appealing, as it is the sharing of vulnerability. “Our big mistakes, aired to others, can make us appear more human, particularly if we show that we’ve learned from them. We can also be inaccurate when guessing other people’s reactions – many people respond positively to those who admit mistakes. Presenting an idealised version of ourselves separates us from others and we miss out on true connection.”

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This was originally published in Stellar magazine, which appears inside The Sunday Telegraph (NSW), Sunday Herald Sun (Vic) and The Sunday Mail (Qld). Although it is not directly related to the topics I usually post about here, I think there is much to be gained from sharing stories around resilience and perseverance – especially with young people. 

Take a bow, class of 2016. You’ve made it

This week the HSC exams finished for another year and, as an educator and the parent of a teenage girl who sat her last test on Monday, I can’t help but reflect on this time.

Not so much on the historical dates and quotes from literature she may have memorised, but on what I hope she and her peers have really learnt from surviving this academic rite of passage.

At some stage during these gruelling last years of high school (years one girl ­described to me as being like The Hunger Games “where kids battle it out against other kids and feel like they could die at any moment”) many teens will want to give up. Some on a weekly basis.They may fantasise about opting out and running away, of getting a rare illness that will leave them unable to do school work (yet strangely still able to watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and hang out with their mates), of doing anything other than write yet another essay.

But they back up again the next morning, pack their schoolbags, and get on the school bus. Many will think no one understands what they’re going through.

If they read any of the more negative media reports that ­eagerly brand them whingers and wimps, they may even think others are relishing their struggles.

But then they’ll have a debrief with their mates at lunchtime, or find virtual kindred spirits via social media, and ­realise everyone else is just as anxious, stressed and unsure as they are.

They’ll learn that there is a deep comfort in this connection and find relief through using humour (even at times dark humour) to vent.

They’ll learn, too, that those who can see the funny side are highly valued. How else to ­explain why a student named Kelvin who loves “photography, chess, memes and math” developed a cult-like following among the 60,000 students who were members of the Facebook page for 2016 HSC students he helped moderate?

At times they may despair that each failed assessment will have ruined their future life plans.

And yet in the next task they complete they will have performed better than they had hoped for, or their plans will suddenly take on a different shape and they will realise there are still possibilities; that there are always possibilities.

Make no mistake, I don’t think for one minute the current system does our kids any favours by teaching them more about perseverance, camaraderie and resilience than it does about learning.

But I have taken enormous pride and solace in seeing my daughter and her peers realise they are stronger and more ­determined than they had ever realised they could be.

Class of 2016, I’d love to tell you that you will never again be put under such huge pressure, or have your worth sized up by a rank, or be asked to do tasks that seem to have little real world relevance.

The reality is, you may have to face all these demons again.

But if you do meet them again, you will know them. And, more importantly, you will know that you’ve got it.

Feel free to celebrate by burning your books, and gleefully forgetting your math equations. But don’t ever forget what you have learnt about you this year.

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This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 5/11/16.

Do real men cry? How redefining masculinity can save lives

I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.

Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of  our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides. 

BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.

Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.

“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”

The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.

Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.

Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.

I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”

Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.

“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.

“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”

Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”

Gus Worland says crying can be a show of strength for men.

At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.

“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.

“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.

“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.

“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”

“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.

“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”

That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.

Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.

Ben Barber was shocked at the impact of a 45-minute cry.

“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.

“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”

Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”

“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.

“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”

While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”

Andrew O’Keefe: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us.” Picture: Darren England

If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”

Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.

“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.

Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

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