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Category Archive for 'Women and Film'

The following post was co-written with my colleague Nina Funnell. It was originally published by US website Feministing. 

Pointed hats, black cats, broomsticks, cauldrons: Halloween is a night for celebrating witches. It seems timely then to reflect upon our relationship with these complex figures in fiction, and our culture’s recent attempts to rewrite the witch figure as good, wise and strong. It’s a depiction which directly contrasts with traditional narratives where witches are presented not only as evil outcasts and temptresses, but often also as victims.

In the traditional fairytales witches are typically depicted as socially-undesirable interlopers seeking to cast wicked spells and destroy youthful innocence and beauty. In these tales, which often revolve around binary opposites, the heroines are pretty, young and chaste. The witch, meanwhile, is ugly, old, and may seek to seduce. A perversion of the idea of “woman as nurturer” these women engage in attempts to harm or kill children (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) and may even engage in cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel). Unlike the virtuous protagonist, who often aspires to little more than marital monogamy, the witch is presented as unmarried and non-maternal – a direct threat to the traditional family values upheld by the protagonist.

Variants of these stories, and of the role of the wicked witch-like figure appear in many cultures. In Native American folklore, for example, the tale “Basket Woman,” features a giant hag who creeps up on children when they are naughty or up past their bedtimes. After hitting them on the head with her walking stick, she collects the bodies in her basket, and later boils them in her pot for dinner.

Intended as cautionary tales, these stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power.

And in the era when many of these tales were written, the dangers weren’t just theoretical. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, approximately 100,000 supposed witches were put to death across Europe. Women who rejected the rule of the church and other prevailing male power structures of the day were especially vulnerable, and older, unmarried, poor women were most at risk.

At one stage during the 17th century in France, the moral panic became so intense that people also took to burning cats (said to be a witches familiar) and for a period, pets-on-pyres took off as a morbid form of entertainment.

Throughout the early 20th century, witches continued to be painted as monstrous outcastes and villains. They also continued to function as a cipher for moral lessons about female power. In the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy is chased by a woman on a bicycle, who later reappears as the Wicked Witch of the West, now mounted on a broom. With the passing of time, much gets lost in translation. However for an audience in 1939, a woman mounting a bicycle was a well understood symbol of female independence and ambition. There was, at the time, an intense moral panic over women on bicycles, since the mode of transportation enabled women- and poor women in particular- freedom of movement and independence. The bicycle was such an important symbol of female empowerment that suffragette Susan B. Anthony once commented that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

In fact men were so concerned that women might be enjoying their bicycles a little too much, that special grooved saddles were invented to prevent against the possibility of clitoral stimulation. It’s no mistake then, that the virtuous Good Witch of the North, floats around in a bubble: no mounting necessary.

Following on from Glinda The Good Witch, the 1960’s sitcom Bewitched, presented us with another blonde, attractive ‘good’ witch, through the character of Samantha Stephens. Here the witch was domesticated and sanitized, and although Samantha had powers, she viewed them as at odds with her identity as a wife, and would only resort to using them in order to please Darrin, her mortal husband, or to create domestic bliss.

Towards the end of the 20th century, however, we notice a sudden and radical shift in how witches are portrayed. As the Girl Power zeitgeist of the late 90’s took hold, suddenly youthful female power was celebrated, not feared. It’s no coincidence then, that at this exact point in time witches also suddenly receive more sympathetic and even favorable treatment within popular culture.

Shows such as Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch burst onto the scene, depicting witches as young, attractive and fashion-conscious. Through the character of Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also presented witches in a positive, empowered light.

Harry Potter then introduced us to the highly principled and studious Hermione, perhaps the first witch to be held up as an exemplary role model for young women.

All of these later texts allowed girls to tap into different girlhood fantasies through the lens of supernatural powers. Suddenly girls were able to consume these texts and imagine what it might be like to outsmart your teachers (Harry Potter), defeat enemies (Charmed, Buffy) or even rotate through thousands of outfits with a simple snap of the finger (Sabrina). Through these likeable characters, girls could imagine what it might be like to have the power to control their own worlds.

Importantly, in these modern texts witches are no longer isolated outcastes, but crucially, they are connected to other witches through their covens. No longer victims, these witches all survive until the end of the story.

More recently still, Maleficent and the musical Wicked have both retold existing stories about witches (Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz respectfully) only this time around, the witches are painted as sympathetic, complex protagonists. No longer a cliché caricature, the witch has been embraced as a complex, multi-dimensional character.

What’s clear is that as social attitudes towards female power and independence have shifted over the centuries, so too, our depictions of witches have also evolved.

This Halloween there will be those who chose to dress like fairy-tale inspired crones, others who prefer the wholesome good witch look, and other still who prefer to dress as the sultry enchantress.

Regardless of which witch mounts her broomstick and patrols our suburban streets October 31st, what is clear is that our fascination with this evolving figure is enduring.

 

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

 

 

Sorry Batman, Spiderman, Thor, and Captain America but where the hell is my Wonder Woman movie?!

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The only female warriors we’ve been presented with on screen in recent times possess a traditional male version of power. It’s all kick-boxing, weapons, sensible black pants, hair-tied back and hangin’ with the boys. Think The Hunger Game’s Katniss, The Divergent’s “Tris”, Captain America’s ally The Black Widow…

Not that there’s anything wrong with girls who display more traditionally male types of power or chose to present themselves in a more traditionally male manner, and as these franchises have done terrific business we are obviously craving something beyond the damsels in distress that have long dominated our screens (after all, how many times can one watch a charming Vamp rescue a Bella?). But nor is there anything necessarily wrong with power that presents itself in other more traditional feminine ways – as the long-haired, female-loving, all-shiny, truth seeking, WW well knows.

And if films featuring female heroines are rating through the roof, then why aren’t we bringing to the screen a role model that will show there are many ways to be a girl – and many ways to be a powerful person? Even Joss Whedon (famous for creating Buffy and, more recently, writing and directing the Avengers) wrote a script for a movie and the studio canned it. Incidentally, Whedon was once asked why he wrote so many strong female characters to which he replied, “Because you’re still asking me that question”.

WW also has huge widespread appeal; I’m certainly not the only woman to have a major girl-crush on this kick-butt princess who is really the alter ego of Princess Diana of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors in Greek mythology.

Why is it that so many of us devotees to this woman who is said to boast the wisdom of Athena and the beauty of Aphrodite?

Well not only does she rock some amazing star-spangled knickers and to-die for red boots, but she fights crime using possibly one of the coolest super-tools ever, the Golden Lasso of Truth, which compels baddies to speak honestly to her. In the early days of the comics, though, the lasso’s power was broader than that: if Wonder Woman caught you in her lasso, you had to obey all her commands. The writer who created Wonder Woman back in the 1940s, psychologist William Marston, said the lasso was a symbol of ‘female charm, allure, oomph, attraction’ and the power that ‘every woman has … over people of both sexes whom she wishes to influence or control in any way’.

When it came to creating a weapon to put in his super-heroine’s hand, he didn’t just adapt one of the many traditional masculine examples he could have chosen from. Instead, being a man interested in the power of the mind, he recognized the power of femininity and turned it into a weapon itself. Bam! No wonder Ms Magazine made her their first cover girl in their inaugural issue that boasted the headline, “Wonder Woman For President.”

It is the combination of femininity and power that makes WW particularly swoon-worthy – and unique.

The studios may fear that despite the success of the futuristic warrior-girl films we may not yet be ready for a female super-heroine. After all, Catwoman and Elektra were major flops. But perhaps the need for WW goes beyond the need to make money? Certainly the co-star of Captain America, Anthony Mackie, thinks so. In a recent interview he expressed why he thinks it is so important that girls should also feel represented: “There should be a Wonder Woman movie. I don’t care if they make 20 bucks, if there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman… There’s so many of these little people out here doing awful things for money in the world of being famous. And little girls see that. They should have the opposite spectrum of that to look up to.”

So here’s my question to you Hollywood… if you can fund God-awful films like The Hangover III, and Movie 43, and if we can have five Spiderman films in the past decade, and six Batman films since the ‘90’s, then why can’t we offer little girls at least one film featuring the ultimate girls-can-be-anything-and-everything Princess who fights for justice, love, peace and sexual equality?

Because want to know the golden-lasso-style truth?

We need her.

And so do you.

 

WW For The Win!  Me and my all time fave super-heroine.

WW For The Win!
Me and my all time fave super-heroine.

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Nina Funnell and I wrote the following post on Big Brother which was first published at both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on November 5th.

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Big Brother is set to evict his final housemate tonight. Despite earlier laments that the return of BB hailed the decline of civilization as we know it, the most controversial element of this series seems to have been Sonia Kruger’s flamboyant outfits. Oh how threatened some seem to be by a woman over twenty who dares to combine silver and sequins. And oh how fearful we are of this particular television genre. But why?

One of the common concerns about reality TV is that it encourages a perverse level of voyeurism and a sadistic interest in watching others suffer. There is, of course, a long history to both this type of spectatorship and the accompanying cultural concerns. But watching reality contestants duel for immunity pales in comparison to the sadistic spectatorship of past eras, where people would gather in the town square to cheer on public executions. Not to mention what went on in the coliseums when gladiators were placed at the mercy of “the audience vote”. Historically, evictions tended to be far more permanent, and there were no consolation prizes.

Another criticism frequently leveled at shows like Big Brother is that it is not ‘reality’ at all, because the environment is artificial and the contestants suffer from the observer effect (where the act of observing a phenomenon influences the phenomenon being observed). However the genre routinely draws attention to its own constructedness: the contrived situations and the experience of being constantly observed are key talking point within the show, and housemates openly acknowledge and draw attention to the artificialness of situation by waving at the cameras. The audience too are absolutely in on this.

Other critics are scornful of the types of people who appear on these shows, especially those who seek and acquire public status as a result of their reality TV journey. Part of the aversion to ‘instant celebrity’ is that it doesn’t seem to be connected to hard work or talent.

Of course there have always been those who have achieved fame and wealth without it being linked to innate ability or merit, including royals and the children born of powerful family dynasties. And yet our protestant work ethic makes us suspicious (envious?) of anyone who succeeds without the requisite hard yards, and even more so if they make any money out of this.

But we should remember that for every Ryan (Fitzy) Fitzgerald and Chrissie Swan who manage to leverage their 5 minutes of fame into something sustainable, there are plenty who don’t.  Like it or not, there is a real skill in maximizing these opportunities.

And while some truly disturbing incidents have occurred throughout the numerous seasons of Big Brother, including bullying, backstabbing and sexual harassment, the show itself has not authored these behaviors, so much as exposed them. Big Brother holds a mirror up to ourselves and in doing so it generates vital conversations around issues which we may be otherwise loathed to discuss. Often we, the audience, are left self-assessing and recalibrating our own moral compasses.

When Professor Catharine Lumby interviewed teenage girls as part of a research project exploring their media consumption habits, she was “amazed by how eloquently the girls talked about the ethical lessons embedded in [the] show Big Brother. [These included] how do you remain true to yourself and get on in a group? What’s the line between healthy self-interest and selfishness? Under what circumstances is it OK to lie? Should appearances matter?”

“These were some of the questions that defined their interest in the show. What looks like an extended conversation between a bunch of indolent and horny 20-somethings hanging around a house to some of us, is a catalogue of the dilemmas of everyday life to others” writes Lumby.

It’s a fascinating insight which reminds us that young people are perfectly capable of having sophisticated conversations around cultural goods which appear to be anything but sophisticated.

And perhaps that is what is really at stake here: a struggle over taste and the right to determine what counts as legitimate cultural goods. Could it be then, that Big Brother’s ultimate sin is who it appeals to: those who cheer on Reggie’s antics. Those who slap along with Sara-Marie as she bum dances. Those who laugh along at the “dancing doona.” Those who love to cheer on a contestant named “Boog.”

BB is the Bogan’s choice. And it never pretends otherwise.

Whether you watched this season or not, let’s at least be honest about where our objections really come from.

 

This week I want to share three of the videos I’ve watched recently that have deeply moved me.

The first is a TED Talk by Jackson Katz, Ph.D. The YouTube clip describes Katz as:

…an anti-sexist activist and expert on violence, media and masculinities. An author, filmmaker, educator and social theorist, Katz has worked in gender violence prevention work with diverse groups of men and boys in sports culture and the military, and has pioneered work in critical media literacy. Katz is the creator and co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which advocates the ‘bystander approach’ to sexual and domestic violence prevention. You’ve also seen him in the award winning documentary ‘MissRepresentation.’

I felt compelled to share this with all my male friends and was so pleased that they too found Katz’ talk so very powerful; I trust you will also want to share it and use it as a stimulus for some vital conversations.

In a similar vein, Patrick Stewart (the actor best known for his roles in various sci-fi’s) beautifully articulates why violence against women is a choice a man should never make:

And finally, a video that touched me in a very personal way. This was made by teen girl Tanya Shanmugharaj, a student at United World College in South East Asia. I had the pleasure of meeting Tanya and her incredible classmates and educators on a recent trip to Singapore; I presented to all the Grade 6,7 and 8 girls and keynoted at the College’s Middle School Conference. How could one not feel enormously humbled and thrilled to witness these girls’ passion and gratitude for the lessons I was privileged to share with them about empowerment? Wow.

1. Fat shaming.

I have voiced my concerns over channel 10′s “Biggest Loser” in the Sydney Morning Herald before here: The burden of treating girls’ bodies as the enemy and here in a piece co-written with Nina Funnell:Biggest losers from TV obesity cures are gullible viewers.

Sadly, based on an examination of the show’s 2013 season promos, the fat-shaming formula has not changed:


One of my Facebook friends, women’s advocate and activist Melinda Liszewski, nailed it in her post on why she finds this program so very disturbing and harmful:

Do you know what’s worse than eating an entire tub of ice cream? Humiliating a girl on national television and across the internet under the guise of “health.”

Here are just a few comments that this latest post from the Biggest Loser has attracted:

Marc Gliosca says: “This girl is a vile pig.”

Fulvio Cammaroto says: “If people were not negative with their comments on this kind of eating behaviour then the world would be full of fat cunts like this. Sounds cruel I know.. But it’s the truth…. (Lisa Fawcett “likes” that comment)

Sam Voulalis says: FATMOTHERF#@CKER!

This is the language of the Biggest Loser. It’s not health and it’s not ok.

2. Women reduced to their body parts.

In what may well be one of the most ridiculous news report on International Women’s Day ever, Fox News Connecticut decided that women’s achievements were best represented by highlighting breasts. And more breasts. And even more breasts. You can almost see the newsreader cringe.

3. This is why we need Feminism

And of course then there are the issues that always spur me on to work towards equality – not just here, but overseas.

What has frustrated you this week?

 

Me (far right) at The Sydney Opera House with Tara Moss, Geramine Greer and Eva Cox. #FODI 2012.

I was absolutely thrilled to have been asked to join the panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The panel also featured Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss. What a line-up!

With Tara Moss at #FODI.

A video of the session will be ready to view by the end of the month and I shall share it with you as soon as it becomes available. In the interim, I’d like to tease out a few of the more interesting “dangerous ideas” the session raised.

Tara’s arguments are best summed up by a great opinion piece she wrote, published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. Tara writes;

 

“All women hate each other”, or so the saying goes. It is also a view of women many instinctively agree with. From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ”ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ”their own worst enemies”…

Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ”mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…

The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”

Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I found myself needing to challenge.

Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that females are not as good at building networks of support.

As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.

Perhaps the real issue may be whether in fact our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way; many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).

At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to hear from a number of women leaders and when asked about how we might  help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership  being culturally embedded, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most conmmitted. One woman summed up her frustrations thus: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have  allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”

In fact, very few women I spoke to said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues; in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their  family, they often ate at their desks. I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes; women will then have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skilfully, as young girls.

Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent; teen girls are often gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.

Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.

In a previous post on the issue of women in the workplace, I discussed the research that shows that in our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women should be expected to be “nice” and seemed to be implying that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).

Whilst I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.

Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.

Why is it that being “nice”  is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Allan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviors with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it”, “Why should I be nice? He/she’s not”…

My company, Enlighten Education, specialises in working with young women, but the content we deliver in our program on building respectful relationships could just as easily be delivered to young men and, in fact, Cranbrook school has asked me to to deliver it to the young boys in their Junior School later this month.

In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”,  the excellent Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills and our ability to get along with others in particular. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.

Let’s not be mislead into believing “haters” rule.

P.S The full FODI panel session may now be viewed here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

My post below was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 24/3/12.

If sales of the books and early movie tickets for the new teen fiction series The Hunger Games are anything to go by, it seems teen girls are starved for a heroine with real fire. Author Suzanne Collins quite literally dishes up spark with her character Katniss Everdeen; a reluctant leader of a revolution who becomes popularly known as “the girl on fire”.



Comparisons to the wildly successful Twilight trilogy are inevitable, because the heroines in both find themselves torn between two lovers.

But this is where the comparisons should end. Bella and Katniss would have little to talk about. While Twilight’s Bella is the quintessential damsel in distress, Ms Everdeen is far more likely to protect, rather than need protecting.

Katniss kicks butt. Frequently.

After reading the trilogy, I admit I didn’t quite understand the extent of the fervour. When yearning for a female rebel, I prefer the home-grown heroine of the Tomorrow, When The War Began series, Ellie Linton, to the rather emotionally limited Katniss. And while interesting enough, the premise is not particularly original. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic North America where children are made to compete in a brutal, televised fight to the death. The world depicted is incredibly corrupt, the adults all seem absent or deeply flawed.

But it wasn’t written for me, so I’ve asked girls why it resonates with them. The New York Times attributes some of the buzz to the clever use of social media by the film’s marketers. But that alone does not explain it. The answer is more simple – girls are looking for an alternative to the limiting stereotypes our culture keeps dishing them up. And on this point, I hear them loud and clear.

Emily Maguire, feminist and author of the book for teen girls Your Skirt’s too Short, makes this striking observation about how we culturally treat young women.

“About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society … No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.”

If the times we live in are toxic for girls – think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once – then equally toxic is how the media and society choose to engage with young women. We lecture and lament, police and patronise. Rarely do we acknowledge that we struggle with many of the same issues our girls struggle with and many ordinary girls are doing extraordinary things and making sensible, admirable choices.

Katniss is too busy surviving to send provocative messages of herself via text, too committed to leading the revolution to engage in mean-girl gossip. If she goes hungry, it is because she cannot find food rather than because she is dieting. And she is ultimately determined to take down her society rather than let it take her down.

Girls no longer wish to be dished up sugar, spice and all things nice. Nor do they want to be offered faux empowerment via raunch culture.

So what if I found parts of the series laboured and pessimistic? These books have tapped into the real need teen girls have to be viewed as multi-dimensional and fierce and have got them thinking and talking, about leadership and loyalty.

And that’s a win

 

Criticizing the latest film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, is child’s play. As columnist Jordan Baker writes, “I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family and mortal soul – for a man.”

It’s a common concern. And others have raised many more. Are the books and films romanticising stalking and controlling relationships? Why is Bella always in need of rescuing – often by more than one hero at a time? Is this yet another fable designed to teach girls that sex is an inherently corrupting force, where – once again – male sexuality is constructed in terms of the danger and risk it poses, while female sexuality is characterised in terms of deficiency and loss – loss of virginity, innocence and reputation?

Thousands of centimetres of column space have been dedicated to critics bemoaning the insipid and sullen Bella, and this latest film has triggered yet another flurry of exasperated screeds all taking aim at the Twilight franchise and, more specifically, at the fans who are ridiculed as mere “Twihards”.

And therein lies the problem. While the criticisms of the film may be legitimate, the subsequent worrying over teen girls, and criticism of those who enjoy Twilight, is not productive. When we roll our eyes at the cultural goods which appeal to teen girls and when we dismiss texts that manage to speak to them, we miss out on an opportunity to better understand and engage with girls.

As teen educators, we see this all the time. Parents like to repeatedly carry on about the “trash” that their teen girls are into (mind you, these same parents probably grew up on a diet of genies in bottles and Stepford-like domestic witches who both aimed only to please their masters). These same parents then act surprised as to why their daughters might be reluctant to share other parts of their lives. We can hardly expect our children to open up about the things that matter most to them when we dedicate so much energy to insulting the cultural goods they identify with.

As insightful as the critiques of Twilight might be, the problem is that they don’t in any way help to explain why teenagers like it or how it manages to speak to them. Instead of arguing the reasons as to why teenagers shouldn’t watch Twilight, let’s turn the problem over and try and understand why they do.

According to 15-year-old Elena Burger, the appeal of Twilight is that it marries up the fantasy of eternal youth with the fantasy of having access to adult privilieges, minus adult responsibilities:

“Bella gets to stay a ‘child’ forever. She doesn’t need to worry about the adult things that we teenagers know we’ll have to worry about: she doesn’t need a university degree, a car, or a mortgage. Plus, she still gets all the advantages of adulthood: sex, freedom, and a honeymoon. This is the ultimate fantasy for teenagers, and probably what a lot of adults hunger for as well.”

Other girls comment that they like the fact that Bella is decidedly not interested in dieting, cosmetics, fashion or other superficial trappings. Others seem to revel in their power to read resistently and deconstruct the text. One twelve-year-old girl we know leaned over to her mother while watching the latest film and commented, “Um hello? Domestic violence, much!”

The real power of the series is that, like it or not, the film seems to tap into a number of themes that resonate with the lives of young women. It is unsurprising, then, that they would wish to discuss and reflect on those themes.

Twilight presents us with an opportunity to springboard into discussions about some very sensitive issues. Ask a bunch of teen girls what a healthy relationship looks like and they will probably roll their eyes. But say to them, “Edward and Bella: a tale of domestic abuse. Discuss,” and you’ll unleash a passionate and thoughtful discussion as to what a healthy relationship is and how gender and power operate.

The latest film invites discussion on matters including premarital sex, abortion, consent, rejection, crushes, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, male competition, body image and secrets.

Teen films create “teachable moments” where we can connect with young people and engage them in discussions using the cultural goods already familiar to them. It’s far easier to debate the motives and actions of a removed, fictional character than it is to discuss the behavior and motives of your child or one of their peers. Young people enjoy expressing their opinions about the former, but will often become defensive or guarded about the latter.

You don’t have to love what your child likes. But if, instead of dismissing it, you view it as an opportunity to engage with your child, you just might learn something.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald. 

 

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?

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!

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