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Category: Women and Film

Teens aren’t sheep – they can formulate their own moral codes

Kendall Jenner posting a picture of herself naked and draped over a tabletop wasn’t what caused controversy last week. It was the fact that she was holding a cigarette that ruffled feathers.

Ms Jenner may have added a Clinton-style disclaimer to her Instagram post telling her followers she never inhaled, but she’s far from alone when it comes to being a celeb who loves to pose brandishing a cancer stick.

Forget Prada — it seems the latest must-have accessory for celebs is the cigarette. In fact at the recent Met Gala, more celebrities took selfies of themselves smoking in the bathroom than prancing on the red carpet.

While the beautiful people are free to make whatever choices they desire with their own health, the real concern is whether their behaviour influences the choices of the hundreds of thousands of young people who look up to them.

Worrying about the impact celebrities might have on young people’s decision making is nothing new (although the 24/7 access young people have to the lives of those they admire is revolutionary).

 (Pic: Instagram)

In the 1920s Hollywood silent film star and the original “It” Girl Clara Bow may have been the darling of the young flappers who admired her hard partying ways, but the media were obsessed with wanting to discredit her and published rumours that she was involved in everything from bestiality, to wild sexual orgies. 1950s pearl-clutchers worried that Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips would see an increase in juvenile delinquency and a decline in morals.

It would be naive to assume the choices celebrities make don’t have any impact on their fans. The stars themselves literally bank on the fact they can shape minds, which is why they are paid millions of dollars to endorse particular products. Study after study shows too that seeing those we admire engaging in a particular behaviour (whether it be smoking, drinking or dieting) helps normalise this, and indeed may glamorise it.

It seems reasonable to expect that along with all the fame and fortune bestowed upon celebrities, there might also be a sense of social responsibility.

However, we do need to acknowledge that many young people are able to make discriminating choices about who they choose to follow (note that “liking” a celebrity doesn’t necessarily equate with approving of their behaviour either. Many teens tell me they follow particular celebs because they are fascinated rather than impressed by their lifestyle: ‘It’s a little like watching a car crash… ugly, but I can’t look away”) and indeed many young people express very little interest in the antics of the Kardashians, Jenners or any of their ilk.

Clara Bow, an early “It girl”, scandalised 1920s society. (Pic: News Corp)

Celeb Youth, a UK collaboration between Brunel University and Manchester Metropolitan University examining celebrity’s significance in the construction of young people’s aspirations, have identified that many of the beliefs we hold around young people and celebrity culture simply aren’t true.

For example, a young person’s interest in a celebrity doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be like them — they may instead be talking about that person in order to demonstrate they have cultural knowledge, or to use in order to frame their own ideas around values and morality, or to feel a sense of belonging with a certain friendship group.

The researchers also found that young people are no more likely to be influenced by celebrities, or to be less critical of the celebrity industry, than adults are. And despite the increased concern that teen “fangirls” will be more swayed by celebrities than young men might be, neither gender is more easily influenced than the other.

It seems too that while we are quick to attribute influence to a VIP, we are less likely to own that we have just as much power to shape our children as any reality TV star may have. Suggesting otherwise? All just smoke and mirrors.

This post originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 4/8/17. 

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. 

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 

Hollywood finally realises women have stories to tell too

The following post was first published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView, 26/12/15.

Is it any wonder that after overeating, overspending and feeling over the in-laws, so many of us escape between Christmas and New Year to the movies?

The December holiday period is in fact one of the most lucrative for cinemas, as evidenced by the unstoppable box-office performance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which set a new record for worldwide ticket sales on its release.

But as much as I love tales of underdogs defeating dark forces, this Boxing Day I’ll be lining up to see a different set of fighters bravely putting their lives on the line and challenging existing power structures.

Bring on the suffragettes.

Opening in Australia today is this historical period drama Suffragette, which tells the story of the “Mothers, Daughters, Rebels” who risked everything in their battle for the vote.

It won’t necessarily be comfortable viewing. I suspect many cinemagoers may be shocked at both the plight of women in 1912 (when the film opens) and the brutality of the British government’s response to their campaign.

But how vital it is that we learn more about women’s stories; particularly considering much of what we learn at school in history is often so very male-centric.

Back when I was a high school history teacher I was frustrated at just how difficult it was to access quality resource material on the role women played in various historical periods. During wartime for example, most textbooks reduce the role of women to either waving off their sons to war, or to nursing; to narratives of motherhood and sacrifice.

In reality, female contributions were far more diverse, from women taking on traditional “men’s work” outside the home, to serving as special agents in World War 2 (Australian educated Nancy Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person for the work she did with the French Resistance and remains this country’s most decorated servicewoman). Why have there not been more films telling their tales?

In a recent New York Times Magazine article on sexism in cinema a top entertainment executive, who insisted on anonymity, offered an insight into why so few women’s stories, historical or otherwise, reach an audience, “ It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color (sic), no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys’’.

Slow indeed. According to Screen Australia, here women account for only 32 per cent of the producers, 16 per cent of the directors and 23 per cent of the writers.

Suffragette is, therefore, a rare cinematic gem as it not only sheds light on a crucial period in the history of the fight for gender equality, but has two women at the helm with both a female director and screenwriter.

So today I will grab my popcorn and head to the movies, not only to honour the memory of my suffragette sisters, but also to support the work of women in film.

Yes, we have come a long way. But it’s clear the fight continues.

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Does Cinderella’s tiny waist really matter? You bet it does.

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague Nina Funnell. Nina is a freelance writer, social commentator and author. This post was originally posted by RendezView.

Nina Funnell

Well this is depressing.

Lily James, who plays Cinderella in the latest Disney remake of the film by the same name, has admitted that she had to go on a liquid-diet in order to fit into the corset she wore for the part, adding that the outfit was so physically constricting that “if you ate food [while wearing the dress] it didn’t really digest properly”, causing her to burp continuously while trying to deliver lines.

Disney has already defended itself against claims that the actress’s waist had been digitally manipulated to appear smaller, stating that “Lily’s waist hasn’t been altered – she’s wearing a corset.”

Yes, indeed. A waist altering corset. A corset worn so tight that not only does it change its owner’s normal physical appearance, it also interferes with the functioning of her internal organs too.

In response to criticisms about the depiction of her character’s tiny waist, Lily James has hit back saying “why do women always get pointed at for their bodies? … I feel like I’ve got to go: ‘I’m sorry I’ve got a small waist’”.

And you know what? Ordinarily I’d be right there with you, Lily. It sucks that women’s bodies get scrutinised and judged so mercilessly by the media and others. And it sucks that actresses of all different shapes and sizes are subjected to such endless criticism about their looks.

But right now people aren’t talking about Lily’s body as it naturally exists. They are talking about what’s been done to her body. By Disney. By the wardrobe department on the film. By the dress itself. And what’s been done sucks the big one.

Because while I agree that we should all take care not to skinny-bash celebrities, it’s not skinny-bashing to point out that an item of clothing which is so restrictive that it stops a woman from digesting food properly is not something we should be parading around in front of small children and holding up as the defining standard of beauty.

This issue hits close to home for me. Over the past couple of years five of my friends have given birth, all to girls. And while it delights me to no end to think that pretty soon we’ll have enough to start our own junior girls soccer team, I also know that what I want for those girls is for them to grow up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

I want them to grow up feeling strong and happy in their bodies. And I want them to grow up seeing a wide range of female bodies being positively portrayed in the films that they watch.

Because I was six years old when The Little Mermaid came out at the cinemas and I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember catching the 506 bus into town. I remember going to George Street Cinemas in Sydney. And I remember sitting in my seat and staring up the giant screen. And what I saw – and what I yearned for in that moment- was the skinniest waist I had ever seen.

In fact Ariel’s waist had such a profound impact on me that when my brother later teased me that if I ate a big meal, my stomach would look like I swallowed a soccer ball, I had to hold back tears of despair. And I remember everything about that moment too – where I was, the exact words that were used, and how I felt at the time.

And no matter how much we might talk to girls about image manipulation and corsets and photoshop, nothing can ever truly erase the power of an image.

Perhaps the images we should really be showing to girls are those which capture the disfigurement which results from extended use of a corset. (While we’re at it, we could also show them the disfiguring results of foot binding, since the story of Cinderella was originally adapted from a Chinese tale about maiden who slides her foot into a tiny slipper, thus proving she has the smallest foot in the land, and is therefore the most virtuous and kind woman for the Prince to marry.)

And we could also show girls these images of Disney princesses with realistic waists and hair.

But what we shouldn’t be showing them is complacency in the face of Disney unnaturally shrinking down its female stars, through any means, including the old fashioned ones.

 

What is it with witches?

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.

 

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Big Brother merely holds a mirror up to our society

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.

 

Videos that move

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.

Things that make me go Grrrrr…

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?

 

All Women Hate Each Other

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

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