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Category: Gender stereotyping

The Blame and Shame Game

This week I have noticed an alarming trend on Facebook. Many of my teen girl “Friends” have been liking sites that make jokes about “sluts”. I don’t want to give these sites anymore oxygen here but there does seem to be a fresh wave of pages dedicated to this. I became so concerned I immediately sent out a message via our Enlighten Education FB page:

Amazons – here is the deal. I am friends with loads of teens and I notice many are “liking” sites that refer to girls as sluts or make jokes about sluts. Man – this makes me sad! There is NO excuse ever to call another woman a slut or make assumptions about her sexuality. By joking like this, and labelling, we give others permission to do the same…Love, Light and Laughter , Danni xxxx

I was reassured when within the space of 20 minutes, at least 45 girls had agreed with me and a number said they were sharing this as their status too.

EMsigningI thought it timely too to publish a guest post by one of my favourite young Australian feminist writers, Emily Maguire which further explores the dangers in defining women, and teen girls, by their outfits.

Emily is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.” I am thrilled to share an extract from “Your Skirt’s Too Short” and hope it will illicit debate and discussion. I’d also like to add another argument here in defence of teen girls; whilst we are often quick to judge, we forget it is the culture that surrounds them (which is largely adult created) which tells them at every turn that their currency is their looks, and their capacity to be sexy. How can we condemn girls wearing short skirts when we have brought them Bratz dolls dressed in exactly the same attire since they were toddlers? Why wouldn’t a young woman want to dress like the role models popular culture presents her with? And if we are so quick to judge, why are we not surprised when they judge each other so harshly too?

Let’s not allow ourselves to get caught up in the blame and shame game, nor turn a blind eye when we see teens engaging in versions of it that are masked as being merely for LOL’s.

The meaning of a miniskirt

A good friend of mine was told by a senior co-worker that she should ‘rethink her clothing’. She asked for clarification. ‘You tend to dress like a slut,’ she was told. Note the accusation was not that she was a slut, but that she dressed like one.

If we agree that the term slut means to have more sexual partners than the user of the term finds acceptable, what does it mean to dress like one? Amongst the women I know there is absolutely no way you could guess who has slept with the most men simply by looking. Hell, look at me in my baggy jeans and overcoat and try and guess my sexual history.

Anyway, back to my friend who was told she dressed like a slut at work. I started to describe what she was wearing when this comment was made, but I went back and deleted it. Because, however much I want to defend her by explaining why her outfit wasn’t ‘slutty’, doing so would imply that, had it been skimpier/shorter/tighter/different, then she would have deserved the label.

I know a woman who had the phrase ‘Muslim bitch’ thrown at her as she passed a group of young men outside a convenience store. Her reaction, and that of all of us who heard about the verbal attack, was to label those young men ignorant, bigoted pigs. The idea that she somehow brought this on herself because of her clothing is frankly offensive.

Yet my ‘slutty’ friend looked immediately to herself to discover why she had been insulted, and almost everyone she told about the incident asked her to describe what she was wearing at the time, as though the answer would somehow excuse or explain the insult. Why do women, who would not dream of blaming the victim of racial or religious vilification, automatically move to check what they might have done to ‘incite’ sexist insults?

The comparison with my hijab-wearing friend is apt and I want to explore it a little further. Some people would argue that she did indeed incite the thugs by dressing in a way that advertises her faith. As this well-rehearsed argument goes, women who wear the hijab know that they stand out in the community and so can’t complain when they are abused or discriminated against because they are choosing to draw attention to themselves.

There are plenty of problems with this line of argument, but two in particular are relevant to our discussion about my allegedly slutty-clothed friend. First is the assumption that women’s clothing is a costume meant to signify to our audience what role we are playing, and that we should not complain when our audience responds accordingly.

Of course clothing is a social signal. Many people dress to signal their rejection of mainstream aesthetics or their identification with a sub-culture, for example. Adherents of certain religious groups do the same thing. Even those of us who don’t dress to express membership of a specific group, do adjust our attire depending on the location. We do this because we understand that jeans and sneakers ‘say’ something different than a suit or a bikini or a cocktail dress.

But recognising that clothing is a social signifier is not the same as saying that it invites a specific response. You see a woman in a dress that reveals a lot of skin: maybe her choice of clothing signifies a desire for attention. Maybe it signifies that she is part of mainstream fashion culture. Maybe she loves the colour or fabric. Maybe she wants to keep cool while out dancing. It’s not the right of others to pass judgment on what a woman is ‘saying’ or ‘asking for’ by dressing in a particular way.

The other problem with assuming that women in hijab or short skirts or whatever are inviting a particular kind of attention is that it’s impossible to anticipate how a random person will react. You might think your mid-calf skirt and long-sleeve blouse is modest but that Taliban wannabe at the bus-stop could become inflamed by your naked ankles. And the woman who was abused for wearing a hijab may leave it off next time and be insulted instead for her form-fitting skirt.

Certain ways of dressing may attract more attention than others, but some men will continue to insult women on the street no matter what the women are wearing. The office creep who stares at his colleague’s breasts or legs will do so regardless of how she is dressed, and there has probably never been a rapist who has let a potential victim walk on by because her dress was ankle length.

The subject of slutty clothing becomes particularly fraught when it is concentrated on teenagers. Most have heard their mum or dad utter the timeless classics: ‘Your skirt’s too short!’ or ‘You’re not leaving the house dressed like that!’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard men—nice, progressive, liberal men—make comments along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter dress like [Paris Hilton/catwalk model/random girl standing at a bus stop] because I know how teenage boys think.’ It’s not sexist to suggest teenage girls cover up, they argue, because it’s a biological fact that teenage boys are obsessed with sex and will think about, if not try to initiate, intimate acts with said innocent but skimpily dressed young girls.

Let’s get real: teenage girls do sometimes wear skimpy clothes. You can sort of see how some older people might make a comparison between the tiny skirts and skin–tight tops of teenagers and those of street-walking sex workers. But I bet that if those same critics opened up their teenage photo albums they’d find the same so-called hooker-wear proudly on display. I’ve seen photos of my mum and her sisters as teenagers and they’re wearing skirts so short that I can’t believe someone didn’t write an editorial about the improper influence of Twiggy. Chances are your parents have similar pics stashed in a drawer somewhere.

See, the clothing of ‘young people today’ is exactly the same as the clothing of young people yesterday (every yesterday) in that it is designed to: a) differentiate their generation from the one previous—whether Mum is a right-on feminist or a traditional homemaker, dressing like a burlesque dancer will work nicely to show the world you are not your mother; b) identify with a culture or sub-culture; and c) display sexual awareness and interest.

Obviously it’s the last one that agitates parents and excites the commentariat into a scarcely concealed sexual hypocrisy. The Australian current affairs magazine The Monthly illustrated an article about ‘sex and power in the age of pornography’ with a full page photo of teenage girls in very short skirts. The Sun-Herald’s feature titled ‘Sass to sleaze: the new girl power’, worried that raunch culture has ‘gone too far’ and then went rather far itself using three close-up photos of starlets’ breasts, another pic of a singer’s bare thighs and one of a pole dancer. The presentation of these two articles is representative of the mainstream media’s approach to the subject: young women are perved on, photographed, used to sell papers and then told to stop being so damn sexual.

But teenagers, whatever they wear, are sexual. We seem to have no trouble accepting this about boys: think of modern pop culture classics like American Pie or Superbad in which the quest for sex is an integral part of male bonding and coming of age. The fact that male sexuality is not feared and restricted like female sexuality is evident in the way our culture looks at teenagers. Adults may roll their eyes at boys with their pants half fallen down but there’s no panic about boys showing their bums in order to attract sexual partners.

Yes, clothes for teen girls do tend to reveal more flesh than those for boys, but that’s a reflection of a culture in which women are always provided with less fabric than men (think tux compared to evening gown; men’s business shirt compared to women’s), rather than a signal that they’re up for an orgy. They may well be up for that or anything else, of course, but their outfits aren’t going to tell you that. Clothes do communicate messages, but you have to understand the language to read them properly and, when it comes to teen culture, most adults don’t have a clue.

Teenage boys, on the other hand, do. Many of them are also, it is fair to say, preoccupied with sex, but that fact has no connection to what the girls around them are wearing (just like teenage girls think about sex no matter what the boys around them are wearing). A heterosexual teenage boy is capable of being turned on by anything even resembling a woman’s body. If a girl goes to school in a shapeless sack, teenage boys will spend all day imagining what is under it. Does anyone think boys in the 1950s didn’t have fantasies about what the girls hid underneath their pleated skirts?

Be aware of your dreams . . . they just might come true!

A couple of weeks ago I talked about research that proves that gender stereotypes are alive and well in Hollywood. Now a friend has sent me the perfect antidote: “Plastic”, a beautiful, clever short film written and directed by an award-winning young Australian woman, Sandy Widyanata.

As the film begins, we see Anna nervously preparing for a first date with Henry, a man she has secretly loved for years. She has nothing to wear, there’s a huge pimple on her nose and she feels fat. If only she could change a few things and look a bit more like those girls in beauty magazines . . .

Anna discovers that she can do the impossible and can sculpt her body to look just the way she wants. Would you do the same if you could? And how far is too far?

I don’t want to give too much away — it really is worth spending the 6 or so minutes to see how the story unfolds. The film is a great discussion starter for teen girls. It raises interesting questions about what real beauty is, what we really need in order to be happy and what it means to be true to yourself. And best of all, it is also simply a great film, so girls are just entranced. Enjoy the film, and then take a look at the suggested lesson plan activities below.

Plastic – Short Film from Plastic the Film on Vimeo.

Classroom Activities
A big thank you to Kellie Mackerath, who told me about this film. Kellie used to be a teacher and an Enlighten presenter, and now works full-time at NIDA and directs theatre. She has these great suggestions for classroom activities after screening “Plastic”:

— The film opens with an image of a moth. Like a butterfly, a moth can symbolise transformation. As you watch the film again, plot the journey of the moth. How does its journey relate to Anna’s story?

— What are the images that Anna surrounds herself with in her flat? These images assist Anna to make some important decisions in the film. Which images encourage her to make positive decisions? Do an audit of your environment (including your bedroom, the places you study and your virtual spaces). What images/messages are you surrounding yourself with? In the classroom, create a wall of images and messages that inspire you.

— The magazine in Anna’s bathroom is called Real Beauty. In your own words, define what you believe “real beauty” is. As a group, create your own “Real Beauty” magazine.

Thanks also to Sharon Witt, author of the Teen Talk books,
for these valuable discussion starters:

— If you had the power to mould your body into the ideal you believe in, what parts would you change and why?

— Do you think changing these parts of your body would make you any happier?

— Towards the end of the film, when the moth lands on the side table next to the photograph of Anna, did you feel she was more beautiful in the photograph? Why?

Girls on film

It’s three minutes till the end of the world. If you’re a guy, sweat is trickling from your brow as you defuse a bomb or outwit the leader of an intergalactic army. If you’re a woman, you undo the top button of your blouse and look alarmed yet sexy . . .

Photo by Oreos, Creative Commons licence

Do you feel as though every time you go to the movies you’re seeing the same old story unfold? You’re not imagining it. A study was done recently that showed in Hollywood movies, guys talk and get stuff done, while girls are eye candy.

Men get 67 percent of the lines, leaving just 33 percent of the talking to women. Forty percent of women wear sexy, revealing clothes, versus fewer than 7 percent of male characters. I just don’t think it would fly if I spent 30 percent of my waking life partially naked, yet that is exactly what women do in blockbuster movies. Men are shown partially naked only 10 percent of the time.

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the 100 top-grossing movies of 2008 for the study. They confirmed what many of you will already suspect: 13 to 20 year old girls are being hypersexualised in Hollywood movies. The characters most likely to be shown provocatively are teenagers, at 40 percent of the time.

Disturbingly, other research has shown that the effect is just as pronounced in movies and TV shows for children 11 and under. Watching TV with her young daughter, Hollywood star Geena Davis became so concerned about gender bias that she set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her institute’s research showed that for every female character, there are three male characters; in a group scene, there are five males to one female.

To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. — Geena Davis

When women are involved in writing a script, the percentage of female characters jumps by 14.3 percent, according to the Annenberg study. But Hollywood is still dominated by men. On the top 100 movies, women made up only:

  • 8 percent of the directors
  • 13.6 percent of the writers
  • 19.1 percent of the producers.

I asked my friend Jane Manning, a filmmaker, whether she thinks it is as bad here in Australia.

My hunch is that we would have a better result. The film industry here didn’t really get going until the 70s, and more women were participants from the beginning compared to the US. Australian television has many female key players, and female viewers wield substantial power. Many of the most successful TV programs — Seachange, The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Paper Giants — have had strong female roles and key women on the creative team. — Australian Filmmaker Jane Manning

There are more women working in film here, according to Australian Film Commission research — though we still have a long way to go toward equality. Here women make up:

  • 15 percent of the directors
  • 21 percent of the writers
  • 35 percent of the producers.

Jane has been making films and TV programs for 15 years and recently directed episodes for Who Do You Think You Are? on Christine Anu, Cathy Freeman and Tina Arena. She has also just finished directing a number of the episodes in the brilliant new television series “In Their Footsteps”.  Jane says she has never encountered extra challenges in making programs about women but she has seen the patterns described by the US research arise here:

I worked on a TV series where the head writer was an old-fashioned male, and the female characters tended to be confined to the love interest / subservient mould. Incidentally, the series failed to get an audience, and when the TV station conducted focus groups to find out why, they discovered women hated it. This kind of thing is becoming rarer, because more women are in key writing roles in Australian television.

Stories — and their slant — always arise from who is doing the storytelling. The only way gender portrayals on screens will ever be balanced is when the number of female writers and directors is on a par with men in the industry. This is probably a way off yet, but the gap seems to be closing in Australia. I don’t believe any externally imposed guidelines to influence gender portrayal would ever work. The best, truest stories always break rules and guidelines. — Jane Manning

I am always saying that girls cannot be what they cannot see, so I smiled when I saw this quote from Geena Davis:

We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they’re much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it.

We might not have the power to change the film and TV industries overnight but we can celebrate great movie-making that shows girls they can be so much more than the breathless, scantily clad ornament by the hero’s side. Here are some of my favourites for teens: Hairspray, Whale Rider, Bend It Like Beckham, The Piano, Matilda…

I’d love to hear yours!

Pink Princesses vs Action Heroes

Enlighten’s Catherine Manning, one of our Melbourne workshop presenters, was in the toy aisles at K-mart last week with her two daughters and two nieces, ranging in age from 8-12. In the girls toy section, Catherine was appalled to see a whole row of “My Cleaning Set.” Inside the glossy pink packaging was a mop and bucket, broom and—hold on, don’t get too excited—even a dustpan and some cleaning spray!

Holy Peanut Butter Cups, Batgal! Can you think of a more boring toy? Catherine says—and really, I have to agree—that the girl pictured on the box “looks to me like a little girl destined for a life of misery.”

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Just as Catherine was contemplating buying one so she could discuss it with teen girls in her Enlighten workshops, something awesome happened that has got all of us here at Enlighten smiling: Catherine noticed that her daughters and nieces were standing further down the aisle, holding toy irons, with indignant looks on their faces.

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Left to Right: Mietta, Eden, Sasha and Lucinda.

The girls were incensed by the stereotyping they found in the boys and girls toy aisles, so she encouraged them to each write a letter to K-Mart. Here is a sampling from their passionate and articulate letters:

When you look in the girls aisle it’s all just pink, princess stuff, and boring cooking and scrubbing products, but the boys get fun building stuff, and puzzles and cars.  I still don’t know why marbles, puzzles and mighty beans are in the boys aisles.

The girls toys make little girls think they are the maids and they’re in prison and they serve the boys their food, massage their smelly feet and look after them and serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner!

. . .

You might think that black, blue and all dark colours are for boys but to me they are girls colours too.  Just like pink and yellow and red aren’t just girls colours . . .  There are just things in this world called ‘colours’ and they don’t belong to anybody and they are all different just like no person or people are the same, they’re all different! —Lucinda, 9

It isn’t fair that boys get all the fun, and we get all the house jobs.  When I think about being an adult, I definitely would like to think that my future partner would think that they’re NOT just jobs for girls! I would love to see some girls toys that lets girls be creative and constructive.  This could be like building something like a dolls house, or a billy cart, or just other fun stuff.

It is unfair how girls have, like, toys that they’re ‘meant’ to play with as though it’s wrong to play with the boys stuff. —Eden, 11

The dolls are always dripping with makeup.  It makes me feel like I’m supposed to look like them, and it makes me feel a bit sick.

I think that girls are being taught that they should ‘prepare’ for when they are older, because ladies do cooking and cleaning for their families while the men go outside and actually do FUN stuff!  I think the boys are laughing at us because they think that’s how it’s gonna be too!

Lego is soooo fun!  I love building random, weird stuff! Me and my younger brother recently built this MASSIVE skyscraper thing!  If there are any toys that are girls or  women, they have hardly any clothes on.  My brothers dressed up as fairy princesses last week—have you stopped to think that they sometimes like to play ‘girl’ stuff too!

Why do you even need to have a ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisle?  Why don’t you mix them up so we all get to look at different toys and decide ourselves what we should play with?  — Mietta, 12

I think it’s very interesting that all the girls feel that girls and boys should be allowed to choose what they want to play with, not have it foisted upon them because of their gender. Indeed, the problem isn’t inherently that there’s anything wrong with playing with a mop or an iron, but that thanks to marketing, packaging and the way the store displays its merchandise, kids and adults alike get the message that girls should clean and boys should build stuff. Look closely in the background of that picture of the Amazons brandishing those plastic irons and you’ll see that Catherine’s son Jem in fact looks pretty interested in something in the “girls” aisle.

Catherine notes, “Maybe if there was more equality in the toy shop, there would be more equality in the workplace.” In 2011, women still earn only 84% of what their male counterparts do and make up only 20% of company board positions. Justine, on Enlighten’s Facebook page, makes a similar point:

I have known kids to enjoy playing with these toys but only because at a certain age they like to imitate adults . . . it wouldn’t have killed them to put a boy on the packaging as well, but the reality is probably that it is mum kids see doing the housework most often = THAT’S the problem!

Girls show us time and again that they are perfectly capable of using their brains to decide what is fair and what isn’t. And there are plenty of feminists around today who survived playing with Barbies and toys such as the astonishing “Perfect Wedding” that Irin Carmon writes about at Jezebel. But still, I think that our toy aisles aren’t merely reflecting our unequal gender reality, they are actively helping to create and reinforce it. If you were in any doubt about the messages marketers are sending boys and girls about who they’re meant to be, take a look at these “word clouds” that The Achilles Effect did, based on an analysis of the words used in toy advertising aimed at boys or girls. Sadly, I don’t think I even need to caption them for you to work out which is the boys’ and which the girls’:

Toy companies and stores would be smart to take notice of girls such as Lucinda, Eden, and Mietta, though—because we’ve all had enough of gender stereotyping. With that in mind, I have a fun activity challenge for you this school holidays: encourage your daughter to design a toy that will accurately prepare girls for life as a successful woman! I would love to post the results here on the blog. She can make a drawing and scan it, or even build a model then take a photograph of it. Then email me the scan or the photo, and I’ll publish it here! My email address is: danni@enlighteneducation.com. Entries close 20th May. The most creative entries we receive will win copies of our inspiring Enlighten posters so do make sure you also forward your contact details.

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