Thursday, 19 November 2009

Follow Your Heart - to Princess Syndrome

You are a pretty, pretty princess! But which one? Disney will tell you! All major credit cards are accepted.

When you are little, the Disney Princesses seem like the perfect role models. What little girl doesn’t want to be beautiful and utterly lovely when she grows up? These are women that have whole stories based around their dreams and desires – they are main characters in the films that have become ‘traditional’, essential viewing for young girls across the world. Yet there are so many things that are simply wrong about their characters, and they have caused much controversy amongst feminists and media critics.
Much of the controversy stems from the oppressive female stereotype these princesses proliferate to young girls: that superficial beauty is everything, and that their ultimate goal in life should be marriage to a handsome prince.
Of course, the cultural fascination with princesses has been around for ages: many of the Disney films are based on traditional fairy tales and Brothers Grimm tales. But it is Disney’s watered-down, consumerist twist on these tales that makes the contemporary Princess Syndrome so dangerous. As Angela Ndalianis, associate professor of cinema studies at Melbourne Uni has said:
‘Not only are the films fostering the little-princess aesthetic, but they also breed cross-merchandising that’s earning a bundle for entertainment companies who have rights to princess tales. From a historical perspective, the little girl/princess parallel has been there for centuries – but the merchandising associated with conglomeration has amplified its effect; now our little girls can be like their favourite princesses.’
And it’s not just Disney that’s jumped on the princess-bandwagon. Hundreds of other toy-brands, television shows, films etc. have princess themed plots/merchandise. Disney’s Princess range alone covers books, stationary, play castles and toy make-up kits; Barbie has an extensive Princess range too (and several puke-tastically terrible films!), and even supposedly more ‘contemporary’ dolls like Bratz have clear princess-influences in their tiara-bedecked formal dress range. Young girls can of course also buy entire princess costumes, complete with gown, tiara and jewels, so that they can be just like their role models! Even from such a young age, girls are being submerged in the ‘I consume, therefore I am’ culture as they are shown that part of the princess experience is materialistic: ‘getting’ pretty clothes, jewellery, make-up etc.
The princess syndrome prevails in the more up-to-date teen movies of today. The princess syndrome article lists Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, The Prince and Me, Princess Diaries, A Cinderella Story and Ella Enchanted. Even a supposedly more ‘open minded’ film like Mean Girls, in which the main protagonist Cady overcomes the reign of the superficial Plastics and realises her own inner happiness as ‘herself’, the princess image is proliferated. The ‘Queen Bee’ of the story, Regina (subtle!), is shown to have a glamorous lifestyle (the word ‘PRINCESS’ is actually emblazoned across her bedroom - again with the subtlety!) and although this is shown to be not as enviable as it would at first appear by revealing its superficiality, the film is still all about getting prince charming.
But what alternative role models do young girls have? These movies mostly have a female lead. At least these films give the message that, in a world where only 1 in 4 movie roles is female (the same % as the number of female leads) little girls can still be the main character, and events in their lives can revolve around their needs and wants.
And Disney isn’t completely sexist, to be fair. More recent characters like Mulan, Pocahontas and even Belle are far more progressive than their predecessors (completely limp bimbos like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc.). They are by no means perfect – each of these films still results in the princess winning the ‘handsome prince’ – but at least the characters have some spirit. Mulan even tackles some equality issues, as the idea of women being inferior to men is shown to be defunct by the country-saving cross-dressing heroine – who, although at first is ridiculed and disgraced when it is revealed she is a woman, eventually wins the respect and honour of her entire country. This, I feel, is a more respectable role model for young girls.
But does Disney think so? It would appear not. Girls are not encouraged to look or act like these princesses – the only girls’ fancy dress outfits sold by Disney are for the traditional princesses - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella (plus Belle, though only in glittery ball gown version) – and for fairies, like Tinkerbell. The amount of merchandise available for the more respectable princesses is extremely limited compared to that for the others. Now this may also have something to do with the racial aspect of the characters – Disney is a notoriously racist enterprise – but I think it’s also linked to the gender stereotype Disney perpetuates, which these few characters do not fit exactly into.
But from Snow White (1937) to Mulan (1998), Disney has come a long way, and the gender stereotype has faded slightly – but not enough. Come on, Disney, end the corporate FAIL and start showing young girls that they can follow their hearts to something other than becoming consumerist royalty.

* * *
See this article shown on for further views on the Disney Princesses.
And... Happy Transgender Awareness Week! :D

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Terra's Winter Playlist

Here's something to distract me from the apocalyptic disaster that is my personal statement...

The season is changing. My breath makes little crystallised clouds in the air every morning, my radiator is on full-blast, and everywhere you go there are huge piles of leaves just begging to be jumped in. So, to celebrate the season, here is a collection of songs that remind me of winter to get you in the wintery mood - before things start getting Christmas-y.

* * *

Weekend – The Birthday Massacre
For me, this is the definitive winter song. You may remember this one from my top ten tunes post, in which I said that this was ‘a song that reminds me of autumn leaves, shiny wrapping paper and the colour purple’, and that it never fails to make me smile. This remains true. This is an adorable and meaningful song; one of TBM’s best.

Scin – I:Scintilla
I really have no idea why this reminds me of winter, but it is another great industrial sound. For me the best thing about this song (other than the awesome tune, guitars and synths!), is its message. Here’s the chorus:

Detach from crippling divisions
Feel outside your skin
Find empowerment and illumination
Taken entirely from within

Girl on the Floor – Ayria
This is very much a ‘final-song-on-the-album’ song; you can tell as soon as you hear it. But it’s good. I especially like the eerie piano ending. The lyrics relay quite a depressing story, for Ayria, but it’s one that I can relate to, and I guess that’s why I like it. Plus, it contains some good advice:

All you get from this moment
Is all you gave to your past

So make the most of the time you’ve got, and never compromise the future. Maybe the world leaders who are still unable to make a decision on climate change should listen to this song...

House of Ill Trepidation – Jakalope
OK, so the beginning of this song is annoying. Muted-crowded-room sound is not really the most tuneful intro. But one and a half minutes later, when the beat kicks in, this becomes a great tune. And since industrial seems to be the sound of winter, there is really no better way of getting in the wintery mood than this song. Katie B’s voice is eerily beautiful, and I love the harmonies.

Symphony of the Living Dead [Part ii] – Zombie Girl
Part ii is infinitely better than part i, may I just say. Another great industrial song: my favourite instrumental by Zombie Girl. Though this is really more suited to Hallowe’en than winter, as the title suggests, there is a ‘colder’ edge to this that makes you think of blood in the snow, and mysterious handprints on fogged glass... I like the creaky-floorboards effect at the end! Spooky...

Apathetic – Lunachicks
‘Apathetic’, believe it or not, is in the thesaurus under cold. I shared that fact with the Creative Writing Club that I’m currently leading the other day. They were suitably, er, apathetic, to hear it...
Finally, something non-industrial! The whole ‘Binge and Purge’ album reminds me of winter, for some unknown winter. This is the opening track, and it’s awesome: because it tells you some of the key situations in life in which it’s ok to be apathetic. The Lunachicks are always cool, witty, and suitably gross (it is riot grrrl/gross-out punk, after all!), and this is certainly not exception to the rule – plus it has a Squid-section (Squid is one of the most awesome people ever, as is Theo Kogan). A great song and a great album!

Everything’s Brown – Jack Off Jill
This is a killer – an eerie, skeletal-trees kind of song. The discordant chord progression on the guitar is amazing, and Jessicka’s screaming is so emotion-packed. It’s the kind of song that forces you do listen to it, however preoccupied you are, and make you think ‘wow’. Not really sure why it’s really wintery, but it’s one of my recent finds, so it made the list anyway.

After Dark – Le Tigre
And last, but not least, there’s this little feminist dance-punk gem. Everyone knows that Kathleen Hanna is epic win, and so is Le Tigre. It was a toss-up between this and ‘TKO’ for the last spot on the playlist – this song won on catchiness. I guarantee it will having you singing along! This is lo-fi retroclash at its best.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed the playlist! Like last time, I’ve made a playlist on my page for your listening convenience.

Happy winter!

Monday, 9 November 2009

What the...

I am a firm believer in embracing your feminine side, feminine meaning what it is that makes you a woman, whatever that may be (not the whole culturally-constructed idea of ‘feminine’ which, let’s face it, basically equals the colour pink). I also identify strongly with myself as a feminist. I see nothing in these two statements that contradicts.

And that’s why when I read articles like this, they make me so, so angry.

There are so many things wrong with this article, I have no idea where to start. Perhaps with the title - ‘Are you a Feminist or a ‘Feminine-ist’?’ – because obviously you can’t be both! Being a feminist and wanting to be in any way pro-feminine would just be ridiculous and obscene: everyone knows that all feminist are ‘tough, overworked and unattractive’; ‘a woman who’s unattractive in both looks and spirits’! Contrast this to feminine-ists, who embrace their ‘feminine sexy and loving side[s]’, the epitome of which is, in this article, ‘a beautiful, leggy, sexy woman’. All of these terms are ones on which a woman is graded from a heterosexual patriarchal point of view, and are thus demeaning. But being the epitome of physical attractiveness is what it’s all about, right – oh, and being ‘powerful’ (she adds, hastily) – so this one-dimensional stereotype is what all womankind should aspire to be.

Karen Salmansohn states that her goal is:

To inspire women to embrace their fullest potential selves – feminine, sexy, warm, loving – everything the word ‘feminine’ stands for, alongside strong qualities like powerful and successful.

There are several things wrong with this, and her whole argument:

1. Where do characteristics like ‘intelligent’, ‘creative’ and ‘happy’ come into the feminine norm? Nowhere is the answer: they’re not ‘feminine’ characteristics. And neither are ‘strong qualities like powerful and successful’. ‘Feminine’ and ‘strong’ don’t really mix, and they are definitely not the same thing; you just get one plus the other.

2. Salmansohn notes how so many women today are ‘not being their fullest, best feminine selves’ because they’re ‘rushing around trying to do it all ... being tougher than they’d like to be as well as more exhausted, strident and irritable, thereby feeling unattractive inside and out.’ Being exhausted and emotionally depleted is all the fault of the woman, of course, neglecting her inner femininity. Salmansohn fails to address the real reason for this: that women in a men’s world must constantly over-perform in order to combat the effects of discrimination, especially in employment.

3. Salmansohn claims that she feels her most powerful when she takes the time to tap into ‘feminine-ism’ – i.e. when ‘indulging in a meditative and self-nurturing manicure, a facial or a hot bubble bath’. Salmansohn has obviously not been watching any Target Women lately! These ‘indulgences’ are exactly the kind of thing that patriarchal companies target women with. Nobody is 'powerful' when having a bubble bath, however much you might enjoy it. And by listing these things off as typical ‘feminine’ pastimes, Salmansohn simply falls into the trap of succumbing to the culturally-constructed ‘feminine’ norm.

4. Then, there’s Salmansohn’s annoying overuse of the word ‘sexy’, meaning ‘attractive to the average heterosexual male’. Feeling sexy in this sense is not empowering, as she claims. It is feeling happy in yourself, as yourself, that is empowering. And though this may include feeling confident about your sex appeal, you cannot conflate the two ideas.

5. Men can be and are feminists, and any man who is put off from calling himself a supporter of women’s equality because ‘it might sound like he was admitting to supporting a group of controlling, bitchy women’ is not someone who believes in female empowerment at all, really, is he? No, he’s just ignorant, close-minded and sexist to boot. But that’s OK, in Salmansohn’s point of view, because it’s generally agreed that men don’t really go in for that kind of thing. But something that’s ‘pro-sexiness, pro-sweetness [and] pro-balance’ (excuse me while I puke) like ‘feminine-ism’ – well, a man can be proud to support something like that!

And why is this? Because it’s cool for a man to be in touch with both his feminine and masculine sides (though he is, of course, predominantly masculine if he is straight). But hang on – when can we get in touch with our masculine sides? Oh, that’s when we embrace our ‘strong qualities’, like powerfulness? But then aren’t we meant to feel our most powerful when indulging ourselves in feminine activities like facials? I’m confused, which is unsurprising, as Salmansohn’s argument makes no sense at all with its narrow-minded categorisation of the masculine and the feminine.

6. And finally, please, please do not try to personify and thus stereotype your country. It’s just wrong. Especially if you’re going to be sexist about it too. America, the ‘real guy’s guy’ (in other words, ‘the very masculine man’) is described as loud and active. India, on the other hand (a country that is in reality torn by its desire to Westernise and achieve Western ideals of perfection – which for woman generally means pale and submissive), is described as embracing its feminine qualities. And it is passive, passive, passive.

Being a feminine woman should not be about self-indulgence in facials, being ‘sexy’ or god-forbid being passive. It should be about being yourself, whoever that may be. So if you’re going to preach to women to embrace feminine-ism, don’t just tell them to subscribe to the culturally constructed feminine norm. Because that’s not empowering; not at all.
For a better-written take on the stupidity that is feminine-ism, see this article on The Frisky.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Plath, Rihanna and Domestic Violence

Recently in English class, we have each been asked to lead a discussion on a poem of Syliva Plath's. I was given the poem 'The Jailor' - a poem in which Plath depicts a male/female relationship, with the man as a dominating 'jailor' figure, and the woman his abused prisoner. Despite his constant physical and emotional violence towards her, the persona of the poem realises they are dependent on one another, and that she cannot escape.

So, with this poem, I have based my discussion points around patriarchal domination/rebellion, the formulation of identity/mental instability, and ambivalence/victimisation.

Here, the most interesting theme for me is that of the persona's ambivalence: why, despite suffering so much, does she feel drawn to the abusive jailor figure? She has been 'drugged and raped', burnt with cigarettes, and reduced by forced starvation to a feeble, feverish state by this man - whom the reader assumes to be her partner. Plath spends the entire poem setting up the character of this persona as 'the victim': that is her identity. She is literally crushed, killed over and over by her relationship: 'hung, starved, burned, hooked.'

So why does she remain with the jailor, allowing herself to be his 'indeterminate criminal'?

There are two possible answers for this.

Firstly, she is a character entirely defined by her victimisation: part of which even she admits is, if not self-inflicted, self-cast - hence the movie-set like setting of the poem ('the same placard of blue fog is wheeled into position / with the same trees and headstones) and the fact that it is her 'red and blue zeppelin' that drops her 'from a terrible altitude'. She is defined solely by her relationship with the jailor. And in turn, he is defined by her. He can only be the jailor with a prisoner; thus he relies on her equally for his identity. 'What would he do, do, do without me.' is the final line of the poem, phrased not as a question, but as a statement, through which she directly reasserts her importance to him (and thus her power over him).

Secondly, there is the fact that, as far as the persona of 'The Jailor' is concerned, the codependence on which her relationship is founded equates with love.

So where does this link in with Rihanna? Well, when my Lit. group were discussing 'The Rabbit Catcher' (a poem with a very similar message to 'The Jailor'), several people were annoyed at Plath. They claimed she was self-obsessed, self-indulgent and pathetic: if her relationship was really as bad as she claimed, she should have just ended it. "She should just get over herself." someone said.

I think this point of view totally underestimates the ambivalence that people in a position such as the persona of 'The Jailor' are subjected to. They are genuinely torn.

And this is something that Rihanna discusses in her latest interview on her relationship with Chris Brown. She expresses the suffering of her ambivalence with painful honesty, which just goes to show the courage it has taken her to get out of that relationship and to now talk about it in front of millions.

So I think it is important to look at Plath's 'domestic' poetry in context: whether or not it is exactly based on her own relationship with Hughes is largely irrelevant. 'The Jailor' is a poem with a message about a woman who is in an abusive relationship. And the emotions she expresses are true to life, and are incredibly painful and difficult to overcome. It is not something that you can just 'get over'. As Rihanna said:
I am strong. This happened to me. I didn't cause this. I didn't do it. But it's happened to me, and it can happen to anybody.
Not everyone in the same position is as strong as Rihanna, who was able to face up to the situation and get herself out of it. The feeling of entrapment is not something we can underestimate. 1 in 4 women will be subjected to domestic abuse in their lifetime. This is a problem that we should be united to end, not something to ignore or underestimate.

No one is able to speak for all womankind, or for all abuse victims, or for all of any 'group' of people: everyone is individual. But every voice is relevant. And this is why we cannot ignore the words of someone like Plath, however self-obsessed and 'pathetic' she may appear, whether her poems are based on fact or are simply fiction. Her voice has a relevancy today, and her poems make a point that we shouldn't ignore.