Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Case for Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom

Image: State Library of Victoria
This piece was originally published at The Conversation as part of the site's "The case for" series on Australian books.

From David Copperfield to Holden Caulfield, most canonical coming-of-age novels depict boys becoming men. Jane Eyre’s traumatic journey to adulthood is considered a female version of the Bildungsroman, or novel of development. Yet books about girls are most commonly seen as only weighty enough for girls themselves to read.

Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom is remarkable because it is one of few novels about a girl’s maturation that has come to be understood as a “classic” and also because it is ultimately a girls’ school story. HG Wells, who described the protagonist Laura Tweedle Rambotham as “an adorable little beast”, considered the book to be the best school story he’d ever read.

But was Wells paying Richardson a great compliment? The genre of school stories is maligned and rarely considered as literature. The school story is often seen as originating with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), but actually has a significantly longer history, providing moral instruction to girls from the mid-18th century.

Henry Handel Richardson
Set in the 1890s, but published in 1910, The Getting of Wisdom defiantly flouts the conventions of the British girls’ school story that were established by the first decades of the 20th century. Typically, a “new girl” confronts a school community in which she does not fit; after many trials she conforms to the system of rules among peers and teachers and is finally accepted. The once unruly or misunderstood girl caps off her first year with a victory for the school in a tennis tournament, or by acing her exams.

When Richardson, a female writer who wrote under a man’s name, transports a new girl from the country to the Ladies’ College in Melbourne, she sets about undermining the very concepts of unity, friendship, honesty, and diligence on which girls’ school stories depend.

Laura learns little from her own mistreatment at the hands of others. After her tumultuous introduction to the College, Laura rejoices “in barbarian fashion” when another new girl, the daughter of a millionaire squatter, is similarly snubbed by other students.

Her crimes are many. Torn between a desire to belong and ambivalence about several of the girls around her, Laura concocts an enthralling tale about the happily married curate’s romantic interest in her. Desperate not to devastate her widowed mother, who has laboured and sacrificed to fund her daughter’s education, Laura seizes the opportunity to stuff a history book down her dress and cheat in one of her final exams.

Her punishments are few. While Laura is ostracised after her most flamboyant lie, there are no lingering consequences for her deceptions. She enters school at the age of 12 as a “square peg” and leaves after several years without her edges having been rounded in the slightest.

Sydney schoolgirls of the 1890s
At the novel’s outset, Laura’s mother cautions that schooling heralds the end of childhood and that Laura must now “learn to behave in a modest and womanly way”. Girls of the period were socialised into traditional feminine expectations of marriage and motherhood.

But, as critic Sally Mitchell shows in her book The New Girl, some Victorian and Edwardian fiction presents girlhood as a liminal state that brings with it freedom from gendered restrictions. There are many things that a girl can get away with without being seen as unfeminine that a woman cannot.

The novel encourages the reader to value Laura’s minor acts of rebellion, such as when she refuses to eat an apple foisted upon her by a condescending woman during her first journey to school. Laura subsequently hurls the despised apple out of a train carriage toward a telegraph post.
Likewise, her lack of interest in boys a not represented as a failing. When the attractive Bob is unexpectedly “gone” on Laura, she is irritated that she now has to “fish for him” and fails at her feeble attempts at flirtation. A number of the older girls have men waiting for them to finish school and have already “reached the goal” of womanhood that seems strange and distant to Laura.

Australia’s most celebrated literary girl rebel, Sybylla Melvyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), flees expectations of marriage to follow her writing dreams. Laura remains too young to receive marriage proposals, but Richardson briefly reveals that the end of girlhood can promptly close off the excitement of a future of seemingly infinite possibilities. Laura’s friend M.P. aspires to take several degrees, but soon after leaving school she has returned to her home town, is married, and has been “forced to adjust the rate of her progress to the steps of halting little feet”.

The Getting of Wisdom grants Laura, like Sybylla, an ambiguous ending. The reader does not witness the death of girlhood freedoms, but watches Laura run without care, as she departs school for the final time, down a straight path and then around a bend, out of sight.

We know little about her future, other than that “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

“For the Sake of the School”: The History of the Girls’ School Story

Frontispiece of The Governess (1749):
The girls have their
covetous eyes on the apples
A few months ago, Routledge published a six-volume anthology set of girls’ school stories that I prepared with Kristine Moruzi. The books aims to represent the history of the genre from 1749 to 1929, by setting some of the most notable and popular examples alongside lesser known, but interesting or unusual stories. We also wanted to show that girls’ school stories were not purely a British phenomenon, even though some people have argued that American stories don’t quite fit the British model and despite Australian novels being almost entirely ignored.

We began with an extract from Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which is usually accepted as the first girls’ school story. It’s painfully didactic to the modern reader, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it to the end of the novel. I just did not care that the girls were selfish in each wanting to take the largest apple out of a pile offered by a kind teacher. Frankly, they seemed quite deprived and they'd no doubt worked up a hunger learning all about their character flaws.

Nevertheless, Fielding is writing in a period in which the moral value of children’s literature was a crucial consideration. The Governess was published more than a century before Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which is rightfully described as a watershed moment in the history of school stories. Yet the critical emphasis upon Tom Brown, rather than an earlier girls' example like The Governess, also reveals the way in which boys’ school stories have overshadowed girls' books.

Education itself was a different beast in the eighteenth century. Only a small proportion of girls had the benefit of education at home with a governess or at an expensive boarding school. And the education they received was vastly different to that of boys, with a focus on womanly accomplishments like painting and embroidery.

As a result, school stories in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not radical in their attitudes towards women’s education, but encouraged religious faith and moral values such as honesty. During the nineteenth century, the quantity of amusement and humour in girls’ school stories increased, generating fun-loving character types such as the “madcap”. Yet didacticism, particularly with respect to honourable behaviour, remained important.

The genre flourished after major shifts in girls’ and women’s education, notably the beginning of formalised girls’ schooling in the 1850s, the foundation of women’s colleges in the 1860s, and the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which introduced state-funded education for all children up to the age of 12. It is no surprise that the golden age of the girls’ school story begins in the 1880s, a time in which more British girls than ever before are literate and the experience of schooling has become an almost universal one.

A later edition of Meade's 1886 novel
It is from this point onward that the celebratory “world of girls” (as L.T. Meade titled her novel of 1886) defines the girls’ school story. Protagonists are now adventurous, heroic and athletic, with sports firmly embedded in rhetoric about every girl striving for the sake of the school. As the stories reproduced in the anthology show, plots varied from girls uncovering a German spy (“Vic and the Refugee” (1916) and an untameable Irish girl who knocks a boy out with a punch (Meade’s Wild Kitty [1897]) to more traditional examples of feminine self sacrifice, as in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Six to Sixteen (1875)  in which two girls nurse their sick friend each evening.

Many British writers of girls’ school stories were prolific, which helps to explain their marginalisation and denigration. Once series set in the same girls’ school became common in the early twentieth century, a number of writers could be counted on to produce a new title almost every year; this meant that a girl could continue to follow her favourite characters as she grew up. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s the Chalet School is the most exceptional case, with more than 60 books in the series published between 1925 and 1970.
Empire Annual (1909)

If you scour second-hand stalls at markets or fairs, you’ll inevitably find girls’ annuals among the piles of books.  Annuals were evidently massively popular and a key way in which many girls read school stories, yet there is little record of their circulation figures, or even precise years of publication in some cases. As we note in the anthology, some annuals were circulated around the British Empire, sometimes with a different cover for the Australian and Canadian markets.

The ready availability of British school novels and annuals around the empire  meant that locally authored school fiction was comparatively uncommon. We uncovered only a handful of Canadian girls’ school stories, for instance. (American stories would have also been readily available in Canada.)

Louise Mack's Teens (1897)
Yet Australia has a significant school story tradition beginning just before the turn of the twentieth century with Margaret Parker’s For the Sake of a Friend (1896) and Louise Mack’s Teens: A Story of Australian Schoolgirls (1897). Australian authored school series, however, did not emerge as in Britain and the United States.

Jessie Graham Flower [Josephine Chase] wrote
several US school and college series.
This title is from 1911. 
Uniquely, many American series followed girls from high school through to their college years. Josephine Chase’s Grace Harlowe books, for example, include “The High School Girls Series” (four books published in 1910 and 1911) and “The College Girls Series” (seven volumes published between 1914 and 1917). The publishers of these American series commonly released several books in the one year—four of the Grace Harlowe college books were published in 1914— indicating an aim to capitalise on interest quickly before girl readers grew up, rather than spreading out volumes at yearly intervals and building an enduring following.

The United States also produced a greater amount of women’s college fiction, which became popular from the 1890s, as an increasing number of women began attending university. Britain only produced a small number of college novels in comparison, and by the 1920s, when women university students had become unexceptional, the genre faded while the school story continued to capture girls’ interest.

Though the concept of girls receiving a formal education had once been controversial, the school story genre is fairly consistently apolitical across the period we explored. We included a few examples of stories that discussed women’s suffrage and careers, but largely the girls’ school story champions the concept of girls learning without emphasising what might happen to them once their school years have drawn to a close. In this way, as Sally Mitchell points out, the girls’ boarding school story in its most popular manifestation between 1880 and 1930 is often more of an escapist fantasy than any kind of mirror of the real lives of actual historical schoolgirls.  

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cultural Cringe and Ja'mie, Private School Girl

Lilley described as “a skinny, long-faced guy in his late 30s
flouncing around with what looks like a horse’s tail on his head”
in the role of Ja'mie. 
Originally published at The Conversation.

Australians love to know that we’ve been noticed overseas. When floods and fires strike, news broadcasts frequently ensure that excerpts from CNN or Fox are shown. It doesn’t matter if the event is a naturally occurring catastrophe rather than any form of achievement, we need to see that other countries registered our existence, especially the United States.

This need for external approval is related to Australian cultural cringe. When A.A. Phillips first used the term in 1950, he referred to the tendency to perceive Australian literature, music, theatre and art as inferior to British and European high culture.

Since then the need for overseas recognition in order to prove the worth of Australian creativity has extended to include all kinds of popular culture, including film and television.

In the past week, it has become national news that several American critics panned Chris Lilley’s current mockumentary series Ja’mie: Private School Girl after its debut on US television.

The AV Club gave praise to the work of Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, but described Lilley as producing “sloppy, transphobic drag” in his performance as teenager Ja’mie King. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter complimented Lilley’s oeuvre in general, but found the new series “almost unbearable to watch”.

While the involvement of US network HBO in Ja’mie’s production gives a partial explanation for local interest in these negative American responses, cultural cringe is also a significant factor.

We can readily criticise one of the plethora of American television programs included in Australian TV schedules without it being seen as a reflection on American culture overall. Yet when one of our own productions achieves the rare feat of an international release, it is seen to bear the weight of representing us on the world stage.

Comedy induces far greater anxiety than any other genre. It reveals a great deal about a culture’s preoccupations, prejudices, and character—it tells viewers who we’re laughing with and who we ought to be laughing at.

We generally accept that there are national differences in comedy. For example, American humour, as reflected in its film and television, is seen to differ substantially from British humour.

Australians continually express cultural cringe about how our own comedic inflections, especially in programs such as Lilley’s, as well as Kath & Kim, give an impression that we are unsophisticated, racist, sexist and homophobic.

When news of Hey, Hey It’s Saturday’s “blackface” skit drew international attention in 2009 due to the outrage of guest Red Faces judge Harry Connick, Jr., the rightful embarrassment that this kind of humour would have otherwise gone largely unremarked about in Australia was palpable.

Lilley’s previous series Angry Boys also prompted debate in the US, especially given his use of blackface to portray rapper S.mouse. Australian site The Vine interviewed US hip hop artists to collect their largely condemnatory comments about the appropriateness of a white actor playing an African American character and the show’s use of racist terms.

Lilley’s adoption of blackface and “yellowface”, with character Ricky Wong in We Can Be Heroes, can be understood as more complicated than expressions of outright racism than these American responses identified.

As Lisa Bode shows, We Can Be Heroes made “ visible tensions and contradictions within contemporary Australian national identity, as well as the truth of white economic and cultural privilege within a dominant discourse of celebratory multiculturalism that seeks to mask it”. Though there is nothing to prevent racist or non-PC celebrations of some of Lilley’s characters, several of his series also work to expose the racism that lies at the core of supposedly upstanding and accepting Australians.

Ja’mie is a prime example of this tendency in Lilley’s creations. She brings a Ugandan boy, Kwami, into her palatial family home for the sole purpose of appearing charitable in order to receive a prestigious school medal. Yet her performance of tolerance and racial equality is just that. She is mortified when he expresses affection for her, telling Kwami “no offence, but you are really povvo, you live in the western suburbs, and you’re black, and I am… this”.

While the politics of drag, blackface and yellowface are highly fraught, we should not base our anxieties about Lilley’s programs on international perceptions of what is and what is not funny.

Our television comedies often mirror unique aspects of Australia’s cultural make-up and shared history that are largely incomprehensible to those outside of it, in a way that US and British comedies are not unintelligible to us, with our large quota of foreign programming.

When some programs mysteriously find a niche despite their idiosyncrasies, as did a dubbed version of Hey Dad! in Germany, it’s a positive thing for our television industry. Yet we shouldn’t seek to iron out elements of Australian humour because of perceptions that our culture is inherently not good enough.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Boobs vs Brawn: The TV Debut of "Lingerie Football"

Originally published at The Conversation.

7mate will broadcast the first season of the new Australian Legends Football League beginning in December. While the name might make you think that retired footy greats are strapping on their boots again, it’s actually the less overtly sexist guise of what was formerly known as the “Lingerie Football League”.

After exhibition matches in 2012, Australia now has its own league of female gridiron players who only just happen to be wearing uniforms that resemble bras and underwear. The garter belts and lace that were part of the “lingerie” uniform have been dispensed with, but the promotional images suggest that lashings of baby oil and spray tans remain.

There is no doubt that many of the women who have been recruited for the teams are extremely fit and athletic. One new Australian LFL recruit, Elise Chapman, who wrote a letter in defence of the league, played state-level volleyball, for instance.

Looking through promotional photos of the LFL on various sites sees few compliments on the players’ skills, but many references to how “hot” or “beautiful” they are. None of the women have stockier, muscular builds that are common in women’s rugby teams selected purely on athletic suitability for a contact sport.

It is not surprising that 7mate, a free-to-air channel aimed at male viewers under 50, has signed up to air the LFL.

The concept originated in “Lingerie Bowls” that were broadcast against half-time Super Bowl entertainment. Assistant Coach of one of the new Australian teams, the Queensland Brigade, Regan Webb, described the original incarnation in 2004 as “a half-time gimmick. Mitch [Mortaza, LFL founder] teamed up with Hugh Heffner [sic] and had the playmates dress up and pretend to play football”.

The sporting credentials of the players has improved since the first experiment with combining two hallmark interests of stereotypical masculinity: football and looking at scantily-clad women. Yet the commercial attention afforded to officially recognised women’s sports has remained dismal.

The sport played by the greatest number of Australians is netball, with 1.2 million participants. Yet netball is not a popular spectator sport in the same way as the two major football codes. This disparity, and the resulting lack of media attention and sponsorship, no doubt owes something to netball’s comparatively lesser status as a sport that primarily women play.

Where sponsor dollars, broadcast rights, and ticket prices rise exponentially in the major football codes, the trans-Tasman netball league was this year dumped from Channel 10’s schedule. These netball games are now shown on Fox and a “match of the round” live on SBSTWO. There is not room for even one women’s team sport to receive commercial airtime.

Inevitably there are arguments that women’s sport is uninteresting, slower, and less spectacular than clashes between Adonis-like men. Yet for sports that are regularly televised in somewhat equivalent fashion for both sexes, such as tennis and Olympic events including swimming and athletics, these alleged factors don’t seem to hamper public interest to the same degree.

It is therefore disappointing, but predictable, that a sports oriented station like 7mate has chosen to make its first ever female “sport” the LFL. It is a variation of football that was invented as something of a joke, has no established body of players in Australia, and which requires a uniform that is totally unsuited to the game.

Chapman, a WA Angels player, claims that in her years as a state-level volleyball player that there was little commercial or media interest in her sport. The LFL, she argues, is a chance for female athletes who have financed their low-profile careers to enter the spotlight and for their sporting prowess to be beamed across the country.

Regular television broadcast plays a significant part in popularising and maintaining public interest in individual sports. When the National Basketball League lost commercial coverage from the late 1990s to 2007 it had a major affect on its profile and commercial viability.

Televising the LFL will do little to promote recognised women’s sports and nothing to increase the likelihood that they will be picked up for broadcast. It will only reinforce the small-minded view that women’s sports are uninteresting for viewers unless the competitors look like they could pose for a men’s magazine.

While there can still be a place for “hot” female footballers on television, why can’t we also see women’s netball, AFL, cricket, and hockey games on commercial television? And how about regular reporting of results on the news and panel shows devoted to analysing them, as for the AFL and NRL?

Stations might suggest that they’re only working according to audience demands, but this ignores the role the media plays in contributing to perceptions about what kinds of sports, and which kinds of athletes, are important and worth watching.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

TV Presenters, Sexism and the Attractiveness Double Standard

Originally published at The Conversation.
Can you think of a female equivalent of political reporter Laurie Oakes on commercial television?

She would be aged over 60 (or 70 is Oakes’s case) with extensive knowledge of the area on which she reports. She would also not be conventionally attractive, likely with thinning hair and carrying excess weight. But she would keep her job because her intelligence and experience were trusted and respected by television viewers.

I’m assuming that you can’t answer this question because there is no equivalent to the older, trusted male television presenter when it comes to women. While dramas and sitcoms can reflect a more diverse range of women in terms of age, size, and even racial background, the female hosts and reporters of commercial television’s news and morning programmes, all largely fit a narrow mould of young, white, and thin.

The bias toward young female television presenters is not confined to Australia. A recent study of major broadcasters in the UK found that of all presenters aged over 50, only 18%t of these were women. Yet 39% of presenters overall were women, indicating that there is a firm “use-by” date for women that does not apply to men.

The use-by date applies because ageing women often cannot maintain the standard of youthful attractiveness demanded of them, but not their male colleagues. If nobody wants to see “old people” on television, why aren’t grey-haired male presenters also replaced when their jowls start sagging?

Last year journalist Tracey Spicer wrote about her treatment after the birth of her first child. Spicer was allegedly told that she was “getting a bit long in the tooth” and that she might want to make way for “some of the younger girls”. After the birth of her second child, Spicer was fired at the age of thirty-nine, though her employer, Channel 10, denied age or sex discrimination

In her Andrew Olle lecture, given just over a week ago, co-host of Channel Nine’s Today, Lisa Wilkinson, pointed out that the age of female journalists is usually mentioned immediately in media profiles “as if it is a measure of her sexual currency and just how long it will be before it expires”.

Her comments on the inordinate attention given to the dress of female presenters have also proven timely. Wilkinson remarked that as a woman on breakfast television “you quickly learn the sad truth that what you wear can sometimes generate a bigger reaction than any political interview you ever do”.

Just a few days after Wilkinson’s lecture, political journalist Annabel Crabb wrote about the laborious hair styling and make-up required for women to appear on television unless they wish to attract “howls, boos and vicious letters from members of the viewing audience”. Yet too much make-up can also elicit similar responses. Crabb mentions a recent email from an ABC viewer who disliked her make-up enough to liken her to a “two-bit hooker ready for a bit of business”.

We can acknowledge the sexism of television game show hostesses of the past, who were only allowed to silently smile and wave their hands around coveted prizes, while the male host did all of the talking. Yet the remains of this kind of sexism, in which women’s role relies on their conventional beauty, are still with us.

Advertisements for commercial news bulletins repeatedly use words like “experience” and “trust”. The camera usually focuses in on a male newsreader who has had a long career in the industry, such as Ten’s Mal Walden who is soon due to retire after a forty-year television career. Age is an asset for these male newsreaders, who acquire authority with the passing of years and the acquisition of more wrinkles.

On SBS, newsreader Lee Lin Chin, whose career began in the late 1960s in Singapore, is a rare exception. She is a woman over 50 who is valued for her experience and knowledge. However, the ratings-driven networks do not seem willing to allow women to enjoy long careers that are similarly based on their expertise, rather than physical appearance.

Some people will suggest that television is a visual medium and that men are also often selected for presenting roles based on their appearance. Indeed, television, like film, is not a representation of reality and there is no particular reason why, as with models, a particular subset of “attractive” people should not be hired.

What differs with TV presenters is that men regularly do not conform to what is considered attractive in terms of youth and weight, but are valued for their intelligence and an aura of reliability. This is not to say that the young women who are working in television are not equally capable or skilled, but rather to condemn the fact that they’ll never be afforded as many years in which to develop — and to earn a living — as their male colleagues.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Boo! What's So Scary About Halloween Costumes

The following article was published at The Conversation on 31 October 2013.

As October inevitably draws grizzling about the premature appearance of mince pies and puddings on supermarket shelves, so too does it prompt laments about American cultural imperialism and consumerism.

Halloween is now a fixture in the Australian calendar. Spooky decorations and themed confectionery are a familiar sight in shopping centres and around 100,000 Halloween pumpkins are grown out of season for carving into Jack-o-Lanterns.

Halloween has its origins in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which coincided with the end of the harvest season and heralded the beginning of winter. While there are many Celtic and European traditions that precede Halloween’s commercialisation in the United States—try carving a face into turnip instead of a pumpkin, as is believed to have been the practice in Ireland— its adoption in Australia has largely followed American customs absorbed from film and television.

Groups of Australian children circulate suburban streets in costume on Daylight-Savings-lit Halloween evenings “trick-or-treating”. Their quest for sweets prompted a 30 per cent increase in confectionery sales in 2012, according to a study of Halloween’s contribution to child obesity published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Adults from Generation Y, and to a lesser extent X, are also embracing Halloween more warmly than their parents. Halloween parties and nightclub events are common.

With the growing celebration of Halloween by children and younger adults, the practice of wearing costumes has followed. If you hear knocking at your door on Halloween, you’re most likely to encounter pint-sized witches, vampires and  ghosts (the last-minute sheet with eye holes cut out).

However, in North America, and  also among the growing number of Australian adults who participate in Halloween, costumes are not necessarily tied to supernatural or “scary” characters. Costumes are just as likely to mimic iconic film and television characters, celebrities, and politicians. For instance, the most searched-for costumes this year include Miley Cyrus, Minion from Despicable Me 2, Walter White of Breaking Bad and musicians Daft Punk.

For young women, “sexy” costumes comprise a sizeable proportion of the commercially made designs available in a way that is not replicated in similarly themed costumes marketed to men.

There are “sexy” women’s versions of common costumes, including animals, pirates, devils, fairy tale characters, and military personnel. But there are also extremely objectifying women’s costumes, such as the “sexy slice of pizza”,  “sexy bucket of hot fries” and dozens of other combinations of “sexy” with types of food. By way of comparison, a male slice of pizza costume is decidedly unsexy.

There is an entire branch of racially problematic sexy costuming, notably of “geishas”, Native American, Inuit and Middle Eastern women.  The racist stereotyping across costumes for both men and women has been cleverly countered by the “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” campaign originating from students at Ohio University.

Costumes have the potential to permit  the permit the wearer to subvert ordinary social expectations. Nancy Deihl, a scholar of costume studies, points out that “Any time you’re allowed to wear a costume, you’re also allowed to engage in activities outside your normal behaviour.”

Historically, as Valerie Steele observes, women’s sexy costuming at masquerade balls from the eighteenth century onward transgressed conventional expectations of feminine propriety. Today, in the West, where girl and women are encouraged to prioritise sex appeal, sexy costumes do not readily permit the wearer to step outside the norm, but instead to remain firmly within it.

There is nothing wrong with the existence of sexy Halloween costumes for women, or with women wanting to be found attractive. (Even despite the fact that popular demands for men’s costumes rarely call for “sexiness”.)

What is problematic, however, is when the options available for women become so narrow that there is little choices to be anything else. The changing nature of girls’ Halloween costumes shows the requirement to be sexy is now transforming how girls dress up too.

In past decades, girls’ costumes were designed to recreate a particular thing or being, such as a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The emphasis in these same themes in modern girls’ costumes is on short dresses, stockings and even thigh-high boots that are then accessorised to faintly resemble a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The word “naughty” recently slipped across from the plethora of “naughty” women’s costumes to a Walmart “Naughty Leopard” costume intended for toddlers.

As Halloween gradually weaves itself into Australian culture, commercially made costumes are also finding their way on to our shop shelves. While cultural differences mean that we’re not likely to see the racism of “sexy squaw” costumes or a local equivalent gain acceptance, it is hard to imagine that the overwhelming trend of sexy women’s costumes won’t also be imported, along with the inedible pumpkins.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Miley Cyrus, Sinéad O’Connor and the future of feminism

This article was published at The Conversation on 8 October 2013.
Since her tongue-poking and “twerk”-filled performance at the American Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus has been the subject of intense media discussion. This has only magnified in the past week, after Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus, imploring her to “refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you".
Cyrus did not react well to being chided by one of her idols andher tweets in response have provoked two further open letters by O’Connor. Fellow musician Amanda Palmer has appointed herself as intergenerational umpire, offering an open letter to O’Connor in which she maintains that Cyrus has orchestrated her own plan to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot".
Some people have been left wondering why one young, white American female pop singer is generating this much attention. Certainly, Madonna deliberately pushed the boundaries with controversial video clips and an erotic photo book, Sex, before Billy Ray Cyrus’s “achy breaky heart” had even settled on Miley’s mother, Leticia.
One of the tensions driving the international debate about Cyrus is the now-entrenched difference between second- and third-wave feminisms. In 1963, prominent feminist activist Gloria Steinem went undercover to work as a Playboy Bunny. The resulting exposé of the harmful aspects of women’s work in the New York club exemplified how feminists once largely agreed that there were exploitative practices inherent in women’s employment in industries connected with sex.
The movement fractured as some women came to disagree with views of pornography and sex work as oppressive. From the 1990s, third-wave feminist rhetoric about “choice” has challenged the idea that stripping, pole dancing, or posing naked are enforced by a male-led – or patriarchal – society.
Michaele L. Ferguson, a political scientist, explains that “choice feminists” see anything a woman says she has chosen to do as “an expression of her liberation". It does not matter whether a woman elects to run for parliament or to ride naked on a wrecking ball — as does Cyrus in her video for her most recent single — as a woman cannot freely choose to be oppressed.
Third-wave – or choice – feminists have been critical of O’Connor’s initial letter. They have suggested that it exhibits“slut-shaming”, which refers to the denigration of women who transgress sexual expectations for their gender. Like Amanda Palmer, third-wave opinions contend that O’Connor denies Cyrus’s “agency” or control over her career. Finally, they also criticise what they see as O’Connor’s misguided assumption that she can judge what is and what is not “empowering” for another woman.
In contrast, women who uphold second-wave feminist ideals haveexpressed admiration for the way in which O’Connor’s letter draws on her own experience as a successful female musician to caution against the workings of male-controlled music industry that markets sex appeal. This week, former Eurthymics singer Annie Lennox has also highlighted the impact on young girls of an industry “peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment".

Second-wave responses also agree with O’Connor’s questioning of the long-term effects of Cyrus’s “choice” to cultivate a highly sexual persona. O’Connor emphasised that at 46 years old, she has not found herself “on the proverbial rag heap” as do many middle-aged female artists “who have based their image around their sexuality". Shaping a career around sexual desirability in a culture that fetishises the appeal of young women means accepting a built-in expiry date.
The third-wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a “raging, naked, twerking sex-pot” rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?
In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American journalist Ariel Levy proposes that women’s “choices” to express their sexuality through exhibiting their bodies for men are created by selling them an extremely limited model of sexuality in the guise of sexual liberation. Levy’s view is approximated by O’Connor’s plea to Cyrus:
They [the music industry] will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its [sic] what YOU wanted.
Third-wave feminists would argue that O’Connor’s statement suggests Cyrus possesses a false consciousness. Cyrus only thinks she wants to lick sledgehammers and simulate masturbation with a foam finger because she has internalised patriarchal ideas about women. However, a second-wave orientation would counter that it’s impossible to talk about free choices in a world where gender inequality persists and women’s options are overtly and unwittingly constrained.
A war of words among privileged entertainers seems a trivial story in comparison with the major political and social upheavals of the present moment. Nevertheless, the stoush between Cyrus and O’Connor attracts page views, not only because of our thirst for gossip. We are also interested in this debate because we remain uncertain about the rights and freedoms of women and how best to foster them.