Wednesday, January 3, 2018

From sleeping beauty to the frog prince – why we shouldn't ban fairytales




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The famous kiss scene from Sleeping Beauty. Disney
Recently, an English mother, Sarah Hall, prompted worldwide media coverage in response to her suggestion that Sleeping Beauty should be removed from the school curriculum for young children because of the “inappropriate sexual message” it sends about consent.

It’s not the only time fairytales have come under scrutiny recently. They are increasingly being targeted for “banning” within schools or avoidance by parents because of their perceived sexism, passive princesses, and reinforcement of marriage as girls’ ultimate goal. But can fairy tales actually be harmful as their critics believe?

Fairy tales were once told – and then written – by adults for adult audiences. Early versions of many tales were often bawdy, salacious and replete with sexual innuendo. Since the Grimm Brothers removed these elements to reconfigure the fairy tale for children in the early 19th century, fairy tales have been seen as ideal, imaginative stories for young people. Almost all of us know the most popular stories from childhood reading or Disney films.

Tradition is not reason enough to continue a cultural practice that has become outmoded. Nevertheless, there are a range of reasons why these calls to restrict children from reading fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty are misguided.


Children’s literature needn’t model ‘ideal’ behaviour

Initially, most children’s literature was didactic and preoccupied with instructing children in correct morals and drilling them with information.

Adult readers today would struggle to find any pleasure in children’s literature prior to 1850, let alone today’s kids. In order to provide “delight” as well as “instruction”, children’s books represent a range of behaviour, including, in the case of fairy tales, the attempted murder of children, and punishments such as feet being severed and birds pecking out human eyes.

Charles Perrault was the French author who added the famous motifs of the glass slipper and pumpkin coach to the Cinderella tale. In his version of Sleeping Beauty, after the Princess and the Prince marry in secret and have two children, the Prince’s mother is entirely unimpressed. Unsurprisingly within a fairy tale, the Prince’s mother is descended from ogres and she demands that the two children be killed and eaten for dinner by the whole family, with the macabre detail that the boy is to be served with Sauce Robert.

As in Snow White, in which the Huntsman refuses to kill the heroine and substitutes an animal heart for that of Snow White’s, no actual harm comes to the princess or her children but not before the ogress has prepared a tub full of vipers in a typical last-ditch attempt at villainy.

When we consider the norms of evil and violence in fairy tales – most of which are usually punished – it is bizarre to imagine every detail serving as a behavioural model for children. If we insisted that every character in children’s literature behaved precisely as we wish to teach children to behave then we would likely be presenting bland stories that no child would actually read.


Maleficent’s curse came to pass on the Princess’ 16th birthday…
but the good fairies changed the curse so the Princess would not
die, but sleep ‘til awakened by true love’s kiss.
Flickr CC

Considering plot points in context

If we focus on one plot point, like the kiss in Sleeping Beauty, we can overlook the overall narrative context.

Within the tale, it becomes legend that the sleeping spell that has been cast on the Princess will only be broken after one-hundred years by the kiss of a king’s son. The narrative premise includes a premonition about how the magic will unfold and demands the resolution of the prince’s kiss to “save” the princess who must wait to be returned to consciousness.
While we might critique the emphasis on romance and passivity from a feminist perspective, the idea that the tale is promoting the equivalent of a Steubenville scenario in which an unconscious young woman is sexually assaulted ignores the magical logic of the fantasy world.

By that measure, we might see Prince Charming as a maniacal stalker as he demands all women in the kingdom try on the glass slipper in order to track down the attractive girl who failed to slip him her address before running off from the ball.

In Sleeping Beauty, it is significant that the Prince is told about the Princess being doomed to sleep until she is awakened by a king’s son. The Prince recognises that he is one of few people who can end the curse and resolves to tackle the brambles and thorns that surround the castle in which she is trapped in slumber.

Significantly, in the Grimms’ version, Little Brier-Rose, numerous young men try to push themselves through the thorny hedge and die miserably in the attempt. However the hedge turns into flowers for the Prince and allows him through. Only the right man, with the right motivations, and the one who can release the Princess from the curse – is permitted through.

Rather than being a parallel to a kiss taken without consent, the Sleeping Beauty kiss is akin to a paramedic giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an unconscious person who would most usually want to be revived.


Many versions of every fairy tale

The version of Sleeping Beauty targeted in the UK is part of the “Biff, Chip and Kipper” series designed to teach children to read. These books aim to educate children in the mechanics of reading and, as such, some of the literary nuance, symbolism, and visual artistry present in many fairy tales and picture books based upon them are no doubt lacking.

It is important to recall that there is no definitive version of a fairy tale. Calls for “bans” of a particular tale ignore variations between, say, Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty complete with cannibalistic, viper-wielding ogress and the Grimms’ less violent adaptation.

Rather than eschewing fairy tales entirely, parents and educators would be better placed to look to quality adaptations and retellings by outstanding children’s authors, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, which merges Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

In this tale, the Queen sets out on a journey armed with a sword to save the Princess and is the one who rescues her through a kiss.

There is even a picture book version called Sleeping Bobby in which the gender roles are entirely reversed. Numerous parodies such as John Scieszka’s The Frog Prince Continued, in which the Princess’s married life with the frog is far from “happily ever after”, can also be a way for older readers to begin to question and play with the conventional gender expectations of some fairy tales.


Reweaving old stories into new

Fairy tales have been undergoing a continuous process of being rewoven into new stories for hundreds of years.

Just as many old tales have fallen out of favour and are no longer known, so too might some contemporary favourites eventually stop being told to children, potentially replaced by reworked versions or entirely new stories.

This storytelling method of old wine being poured into new bottles has a rich tradition and does not require our intervention. After all, the people who ban books in stories are always the villains, not the heroes.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Rethinking Harry Potter Twenty Years On

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The Harry Potter series on display in Windsor, England. Anton Invanov/
Shutterstock.
The twentieth anniversary celebrations of the highest-selling book series of all time are now coming to a close. 2017 has been a milestone year for Harry Potter fans in their twenties and thirties, who spent much of their youth in anticipation of the release of each new book or film.

Last week’s Wheeler Centre event Harry Who? The True Heroes of Hogwarts brought together writers, comedians and musicians to celebrate the series. While Harry and his broken glasses predominate at most Potter tourist sites and film screenings, Harry Who? asked the audience to consider who really is the true hero of J.K. Rowling’s stories.

As readers contemplate the long-term legacy of the Potter universe and whether it will endure, it’s also important to consider the overarching messages of Rowling’s series as the most popular example of children’s literature to date.

Harry embodies the key characteristic of some of the most memorable protagonists of classic children’s literature. From centuries-old stories of Cinderella onwards, child and youth characters who are orphans not only foster the reader’s empathy, but are also freed from the expectations and restrictions that biological parents impose.

Melanie A. Kimball explains the twin effects of child orphans in literature:
Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves.
Without the tragedy of Harry’s parents being violently killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry would have had no compulsion to go beyond the “typical” experience of a child with a witch and a wizard for parents.

At Harry Who?, writer Ben Pobjie pointed out that Harry is not exceptional, but that it is his nemesis, Voldemort, who propels Harry to importance. With reference to his dubious celebrity, Pobjie joked that if Voldemort was in Australia, he would “be on Sunrise every morning”. As with the importance of Harry’s lack of parental influence and constraint, the extreme adversity of being Voldemort’s inadvertent nemesis establishes a heroic scenario for Harry to inhabit.

One of the repeated claims throughout the event was that Harry is not much of a hero at all, particularly as he relies on other people to succeed. In the first book of the series especially, Hermione Granger possesses most of the personal attributes and knowledge required to defeat the ever-present threat posed by Voldemort. She is clearly the most intelligent of the Harry, Ron and Hermione trio, and works hard where her male counterparts often attempt to shirk the effort required.

Hermione (Emma Watson) takes the lead in a scene in Harry Potter
and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Warner Bros
While Hermione’s heroism is important, she clearly plays a supporting role to Harry: the series is, after all, named after him. The emphasis on Harry is reflective of the deep gender bias in children’s literature throughout the past century.

A 2011 study of twentieth-century children’s books found that, on average, in each year, no more than a third of children’s books featured central characters who were adult women or female animals. In contrast, adult men and male animals usually featured in 100 per cent of children’s books.

Though the Harry Potter series does depict some strong and beloved female characters including Professor Minerva McGonagall, it is reflective of an era in which protagonists in children’s literature are usually male unless a book is specifically marketed at a girl readership. In addition, the series is also lacking in the depiction of queer characters, regardless of J.K. Rowling’s post-book declaration that Hogwarts’ headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore is gay.

With the rapid changes in attitudes toward social and cultural issues including same-sex marriage and children with non-normative gender and sexual identities, the Harry Potter series — as a product of the 1990s and early 2000s – might not endure as well as some might imagine.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
(1997). Bloomsbury Publishing/Goodreads
Indeed, the issue of changing social norms means that very few children’s “classics” continue to be read by children as decades and even centuries pass. It could be that the series is eventually understood as somewhat outdated and more about producing nostalgia for adults in the same way as the once ubiquitous books of Enid Blyton are viewed today.

One crucial part of the Harry Potter legacy, however, is its effectiveness in encouraging readers, viewers, and now theatre goers with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to embrace fantastic stories about young people once again.

Adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries delighted in children’s stories and made up a significant segment of the audience for plays such as Peter Pan. The dual audience of children’s literature, for both adults and children, was once the norm and one that did not bring any shame or embarrassment with it.

The ConversationTwenty years on, today’s adults are still gathering to talk about and celebrate the Potter novels they enjoyed as children and have continued to re-read. In addition, other series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and Riverdale, show the continuing popularity of stories about young people for adults. In 2037 we will be able to tell if the Potter-effect has lasted or if its magic only worked for a brief spell.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Toxic Beauty, Then and Now

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Beauty is still understood as a process of ongoing work and maintenance.
Shutterstock.com
Throughout history, humans have been willing to try almost any method or product to improve their physical appearance. In response, enterprising businesses and beauty moguls have conspired to sell us almost anything — from water to poison — in the guise of cosmetic treatments. While many cosmetic products have eventually proven to have little efficacy, a significant number have also caused physical harm and even death.

Cosmetics and cosmetic surgery are now subject to more stringent regulation than in the 19th century, when lead-based powders and face creams containing poisons were not uncommon. However, even today there are significant serious side-effects and potential dangers from cosmetic procedures, in particular.

For example, it was recently reported that cosmetic injections, such as platelet-rich plasma injections and facial fillers, are leading to a significant number of patients suffering from chronic, and potentially disfiguring, bacterial infections. While these kinds of non-invasive procedures are common, with over $1 billion spent annually on cosmetic jabs in Australia alone, research suggests that almost one-fifth of patients could suffer from such complications.

Of course, even when the greatest medical care is taken, there are still potential questions about the health risks of utilising Botox (Botulinum Toxin Type A) to combat or stave off facial wrinkles. While a large number of people, primarily women, have embraced Botox and believe it to be safe, in 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration added a warning noting that Botox “may spread from the area of injection to produce symptoms of botulism”, such as muscle weakness and breathing difficulty.

Further reading: Safety before profits: why cosmetic surgery is ripe for regulation

Even the most common beauty products still have potential risks associated with them. Consider lipstick, which is placed directly on the thin skin of the lips, readily ingested throughout wear, and reapplied multiple times throughout the day. Manufacturers are not required to list lead as an ingredient in lipsticks as it is regarded as a contaminant, but most contain lead, and some colours in much higher concentrations. An FDA test of 400 lipsticks conducted in 2011 found that every one contained lead. Nevertheless, the FDA advises that up to 10 parts per million of lead is an acceptable level.

In her book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David explains that lead was a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries “because it made colours even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labour and racial purity”.

In the 1860s, the American face lotion Laird’s “Bloom of Youth or liquid pearl” promised to whiten skin, helping “ladies afflicted with tan, freckles, Rough or Discolored Skin”. The skin lightener, however, contained such a significant amount of lead that it caused “wrist drop”, or radial nerve palsy, in a number of women.

One woman’s hand had become “wasted to a skeleton”, while a St Louis housewife is recorded as dying of lead poisoning after extensive long-term usage of Laird’s and a home-made preparation containing “white flake and glycerine”.

Ad for Laird's Bloom of Youth, or liquid pearl, c. 1863. Wikimedia images.  
In her book, Matthews David tells how she bought a vintage container of the American face powder “Tetlow’s Swan Down” that dates from the 1870s. It had been marketed as harmless and claimed to use whitening zinc oxide powder to replace once common toxic products such as lead, arsenic and bismuth. She had the powder tested with modern methods and found that it contained “a significant amount of lead”, which could be inhaled as dust during application.

Further reading: High amount of toxic metals in some cosmetics

A dark history

The serious regulation of patent medicines and cosmetics did not occur until the 20th century. This lack of government oversight meant that manufacturers could bottle and sell almost anything without having to verify their claims, subject their products to the rudimentary testing that was available, or clearly label the ingredients.

The key way in which American and British consumers made their decisions about products was based on the claims made and reputations built in extensive magazine advertising, which became prolific in the late 19th century. The period also saw branded cosmetics rise to prominence, with long-established and well-advertised brands, such as Pears’ Soap, providing one of the few indicators of likely quality and safety. Most cosmetic advertising emphasised the purity and healthfulness of products to distance them from well-known examples of harmful creams, powders, and dyes.

“Celebrated American skin specialist” Anna Ruppert (Shelton) provides a ready example of the spurious nature of some cosmetic advertising and the reality of dangerous tonics marketed as “natural” and therefore healthful in this era. Throughout 1891 and 1892, numerous advertisements appeared in British women’s magazines, including high-quality publications such as The Queen, for lectures to be held in London by a purported American beauty expert.

The ads mentioned Ruppert’s book on “natural beauty”, as well as promoting various products including a skin tonic. Her signature tonic was originally marketed as “Face Bleach” in the United States, tapping into the demand for lighter skin not only from white women, but also African American women. The tonic is described in one Queen advertisement as harmless and invisible: “It is not a cosmetic as it does not show on the face after application”.

However, the reality was that Ruppert’s product was dangerous. After a chemical analysis, the British Medical Journal revealed in 1893 that the skin tonic included the harmful ingredient “corrosive sublimate (bichloride of mercury)”, and it was implicated in the mercury poisoning of a “Mrs K”. As Caroline Rance discovered, that same year, Ruppert was prosecuted for infringing the Irish Pharmacy Act and her reputation was badly tarnished as a result.

Promotional material for Anna Ruppert. Author supplied.
Cosmetics originated in homemade preparations, with long traditions of women concocting their own skin remedies. However, the advice and recipes given in beauty manuals were no guarantee of safety. One British “Treatise of the Toilet and Cosmetic Arts” entitled The Practice of Perfumery from 1870 included a recipe for one of the first depilatory creams, poudre subtile. The ingredients call for half an ounce of “sulpheret of arsenic”, although the author does warn that the preparation is “dangerous” and that “utmost caution” should be used.

Warnings such as this one indicate that the harmful effects of certain cosmetic products were well known. Another manual, Beauty: How to Get it and How to Keep It, from 1885 advised readers to avoid hair dyes because they “are sometimes injurious to the health; those that contain lead or mercury are especially so, and have been known to cause serious illness.” This fear of harmful dyes is reflected in the many magazine advertisements of the period for “hair restorers” that promise to return grey hair to its original shade without the use of “dyes”.

Dangerous home-spun beautifying techniques were also the subject of warnings. For instance, Toilet Hints, or, How to Preserve Beauty, and How to Acquire It from 1883 strongly advised women not to toy with the use of Belladonna berries to dilate their pupils. The use of an extract from the berries could cause blurred vision or even permanent blindness with prolonged use. This beauty guide offered up another, less dangerous, method for adding a spark to the eyes:
If your eyes look dull, drink a glass of champagne rather than touch belladonna.

A gendered culture

Disgraced skin specialist Anna Ruppert wrote in her A Book of Beauty in 1892 that a woman could never neglect her appearance, as even “[t]he most noble beauty, if unattended, will soon lose its charm”. Her comment has several important resonances with beauty culture today.

First, it is still primarily women who seek out cosmetics and cosmetic procedures. Ruppert’s advice to the Victorian woman was that maintaining her looks was vital to maintain a happy marriage. Our modern, postfeminist view is that women now make the “choice” to follow beauty and fashion norms.

Second, beauty is still understood as a process of ongoing work and maintenance. Procedures like Botox can be used pre-emptively to ward off wrinkles and sagging, but it requires continuous usage over time to maintain its effects.

Third, and most importantly, the gendering of cosmetic use means that women are most affected by dangerous products and procedures. As Matthews David points out, cosmetics and dyes continue to be less stringently regulated than products like shampoo and deodorant, which fall under the category of “personal care”.

Further reading: Health risks beneath the painted beauty in America’s nail salons

Several centuries of lax attitudes toward the composition of cosmetics and now non-invasive cosmetic procedures add up to not only a collection of macabre or grotesque stories.
From lead-filled Bloom of Youth to cosmetic fillers being delivered under questionable conditions, the history of dangerous cosmetics shows us the harms that women have suffered to meet expectations of what is beautiful.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playboy, Brooke Shields and the fetishisation of young girls


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Hugh Hefner in 2001with Playboy ‘bunnies’. EPA/Glenn Pinkerton/LVNB
The passing of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner prompted both positive and negative eulogising. From one perspective, he was a revolutionary who helped to dismantle the long-standing secrecy and shame surrounding sexuality. And from another, he simply popularised the objectification of women for the gratification of men.

The most surprising detail to emerge after Hefner’s death was that Brooke Shields had featured in a Playboy publication called Sugar and Spice when aged only 10 years old in 1975. Photographer Gary Grosse received $450 to take the photographs of the heavily made-up Shields posing naked in a bathtub. The Sugar and Spice series of books in which the images appeared promised “surprising and sensuous images of women” from contemporary photographers, coding them as “artistic”.

The ongoing controversy about the images, particularly once Shields was old enough to realise that she did not want them in the public domain, affected Grosse’s career as a fashion photographer and he eventually became a dog trainer. Yet the fallout from the exploitative images did not significantly tarnish the Playboy name or Hugh Hefner. Shields featured on the cover of Playboy in 1986 at age 21.

Today in the United States it is a felony in most jurisdictions to publish a nude photograph of a model aged under 18. However, laws about publishing images of minors were not as definitive historically and internationally, particularly if a model’s parent gave consent.

As the internet has become ubiquitous, we have become much more aware of the existence of child pornography and of the paedophiles who seek it out. Viewing and trading sexual images of children is not only a criminal act, but one of the most widely reviled behaviours possible. But pornography and popular culture have often exploited the line between girls and woman with the fetishisation of girls or women who look young.

Pornographic magazines and video have often used the trope of “barely legal” to present young women who are dressed and styled like schoolgirls, often in suburban bedrooms or school settings. As US historian Hanne Blank wrote in 2008, the depiction of “cheerleaders, students, babysitters and sorority girls” in this type of porn means that “the immaturity symbolism is insistent”.

While clearly most people are at the peak of their physical attractiveness in their youth, the fetishisation of young boys for a heterosexual female audience is nowhere near as common as the obsession with young girls within culture aimed at older men.

One obvious reason for this difference is the historic value that has been placed on female virginity in a way that it is not for men. This includes older ideas about the importance of a virginal bride for ensuring that all of her children were legitimate, to more recent notions of women with sexual experience being “sluts” or dirty.

Today the vast majority of people in countries such as the United States and Australia have sex prior to marriage. This could be one reason why girls continue to be sexually fetishised, as they symbolise an innocence and purity that most young women are no longer seen to represent.

While some community groups contend that sexualised images of girls might support the behaviours and actions of paedophiles, there is a more pervasive issue at stake here for all women. One of the legacies of Hefner’s Playboy empire and the sex culture it helped to propagate is that only very young women are sexually attractive. The oldest “Playmate” (the women who feature in the magazine’s centrefold) to have ever appeared in Playboy was 35. Few women aged in their 30s were ever featured.

Conversely, at least nine minors, aged 16 and 17 at the time of photographing, have featured in American and international editions of Playboy. In 1958 Hefner was brought before a court after publishing images of 16-year-old Elizabeth Ann Roberts in a feature entitled “Schoolmate Playmate”. Roberts was described as a “bouncy teenager” occupied by “reading and writing and ’rithmetic”, but she looks physically tiny and vulnerable in the images. The charges were ultimately dropped as Roberts’ mother had consented to the shoot.

While they are not generally focused on depicting naked bodies, women’s magazines regularly name men aged in their 40s and 50s, such as Johnny Depp and George Clooney, as among the most sexually desirable men. One of the legacies of Playboy is its contribution to the fetishisation of young women and a porn culture that toys with the depiction of women who are styled to look as if they are school-aged or just over the most minimal line of cultural acceptability (barely legal).

The ConversationThe images of Brooke Shields published in Playboy’s Sugar and Spice series have been widely circulated in the wake of Hefner’s death as an example of why he should not be celebrated. People are certainly right to be alarmed by images that figure a 10-year-old as an object of sexual desire. However, it is important to see the images of Shields as simply the most egregious example of the way that magazines such as Playboy have contributed to a culture that fetishises girls.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Thursday, September 28, 2017

UK crackdown on gender stereotypes in advertising shows up Australia's low bar

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From next year, TV advertisements that play on gender stereotypes, or that mock people who fail to conform to them, will not be permitted by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.

The kinds of ads that have been flagged as inappropriate include those that depict men as incompetent at doing basic household or parenting chores, or that show a whole family leaving a giant mess for mum to clean up.

The authority has said ads that belittle people for not living up to gender norms – such as a KFC advertisement that implied a man suffering from anxiety was not masculine – have “costs for individuals, the economy and society”.

A UK KFC ad from 2014 suggests it’s not manly to listen to your
girlfriend.

Attempts to counter the prevalence of gender stereotyping in the popular media are popularly dismissed as “social engineering” designed to alter “natural” behaviours for each gender. However, the stereotypes we see represented in advertising are already ideologically motivated by centuries of gender inequality.

Gender is a social construct and we have the power to shape and revise what is considered masculine and feminine. And the media we consume – particularly advertising, which we see continuously – are particularly powerful in shaping what we think is “normal” and acceptable for men and women to do.
Think of the ubiquitous television ads in the 1980s for Tip Top bread, with their “good on ya Mum” slogan. The smiling mothers presenting sandwiches to their children conveyed that women are the default parents and that satisfaction for women should stem from caring for others.


Tip Top ad from 1983.

Australia has laws that apply to discriminatory advertising, including the Racial Discrimination Act and state and territory anti-discrimination acts. Apart from this, the industry is largely self-regulated. The Australian Association of National Advertisers has its own code of ethics.
The code forbids any advertisement that:
… discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political belief.
It also marks out “exploitative and degrading” sexual representations as unacceptable.

Australia has largely moved beyond acceptance of extremely objectifying advertisements for products with no inherent connection with sex. A prime example was the seductive “Chiko chick” who promoted the Chiko roll while posed on a motorbike from the 1950s.

However, self-regulated advertising criteria that merely forbid outright illegal discrimination or “degrading” sexual content set the bar especially low.

Other countries, such as Sweden and Spain, have made concerted efforts not only to avoid gender stereotyping in advertising but to counteract it. For instance, toy catalogues produced by Toys R Us and Toy Planet have drawn international attention for their depiction of both boys and girls playing with dolls, trucks and tools.

This kind of gender neutrality is not intended to discourage girls or boys from playing with the toys traditionally associated with their gender. Instead, it aims to make it acceptable for them to choose from any of the available options.

When you consider that debates about child-care costs are still usually framed in terms of whether it is financially worth women returning to work, it is clear the way we socialise children into seeing child care as women’s responsibility flows all the way through to major issues of employment and gender equality.

Gender stereotyping in advertising is not just problematic because of limiting representations of girls and women and the reassertion of their role in the home. In addition, the ways boys and men are depicted as useless at basic domestic tasks makes them out to be simpletons.

There are countless examples of “dumb dads” in ads. Think of the father in a Glade advertisement who is consistently befuddled by an automatic deodorising spray.

A banned Verizon ad from the US portrays the dad as being ‘stupid’.

Part of the strategy of advertisers in their representation of “dumb dads” may be to flatter mothers who do the majority of domestic work and grocery shopping.

However, these ads – which usually have a heteronormative orientation – also reinforce the status quo and culturally absolve men from responsibility to contribute to unpaid household labour, privileging their employment and recreation.

One way to consider advertising and other forms of popular culture is as a mirror that reflects our social norms, beliefs and values. If this is true, then advertising could be absolved of responsibility for reproducing gender stereotypes in that it is as progressive or regressive as the society in which it is produced.

Crucially, advertising and other media are not only reflectors of our culture. They also have the power to produce and influence values and norms.

The ConversationWith this in mind, the sooner we regulate advertising to encourage the depiction of a world we’d like to inhabit, the sooner it is likely to eventuate.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Double Standards and Derision – tracing our attitudes to older women and beauty


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Madonna and fashion designer Jeremy Scott
Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, is a rare example of an older woman in the public eye who has attracted praise for her appearance. At 64, Macron is 24 years older than her husband, but her healthy figure and youthful style of dress saw her described in Vogue as “rock ‘n’ roll”.
Brigitte Macron. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

While Macron is admired for her penchant for leather pants, women regularly face policing of their clothing and cosmetic choices once they reach the age of 30. Ageing only brings about further restrictions, with few older women who cultivate their appearance successfully negotiating the line between looking acceptably young or upsettingly unnatural.

Madonna, who will turn 60 next year, is a case in point; her attempts to retain a sexy image are sometimes described with revulsion. Piers Morgan described her as “50 Shades of Granny” after her 2015 kiss with Drake. Her famous muscles, which keep her skin taut, were called “monstrously sculpted and bloodcurdling veiny corpse arms” by TMZ as the publication had a dig at her “toyboy” Jesus Luz.

In contrast, Cher, at 71, recently wore a replica of a near-nude costume from 1989 at the Billboard Music Awards and was generally praised as “amazing” and “owning it”.

What is Cher doing to invite praise that Madonna isn’t? And where did restrictive ideas about beauty and ageing come from? When did we decide that there was a particular age at which women might incite criticism or disgust for attempting to look beautiful or desirable?

A closer look at women’s magazines from the 19th century — the era in which modern advertising and celebrity culture were born — reveal the origins of many of our hang-ups about older women and beauty.

In the first half of that century, beauty was understood as God-given or natural. Beliefs in physiognomy also suggested that the inner character of a woman might be visible in her face. In 1849, in an article that commented on the process of women’s ageing, the English magazine World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons observed:
Neither rouge, artificial ringlets, nor all the resources of the toilet, can retard the relentless progress of that terrible foe to beauty, Time. But every one must have noticed how lightly his hand rests upon some, how heavily upon others … A good conscience is the greatest preservative of beauty. High and noble thoughts leave behind them noble and beautiful traces, meanness of thought and selfishness of feeling league with Time to unite age and ugliness together.
This dismissal of cosmetics is typical of attitudes that saw beauty as a quality that a woman was either born with or not and its loss inevitable. In the final decades of the 19th century, however, women’s magazines transformed this belief.

With the growth of advertising and beauty advice columns, there was gradual acceptance that fading looks should be combated by almost any means necessary. For older women, being visibly made up gradually became more tolerable, though the degree to which the cosmetics might be detectable was a point of contention. Women who foolishly attempted to recreate the charms of their youth were still harshly judged.

Cosmetics and ageing

The 30s were understood as a threshold for women entering middle age and no longer being considered at the peak of attractiveness. An advertisement for Madame Dupree’s Berlin Toilet Soap from 1890 promises “a return to youthful beauty” and specifies that the soap can “make […] a lady of 35 appear but 25”.

A 1904 beauty manual by Lady Jean, Beauty as a Fine Art, is generous enough to suggest that a woman of 40 “is just entering upon a long summer of useful and enjoyable existence”. Yet it goes on to suggest that “anything that threatens to rob her of the outward sign of youth” could be “combated and defied by all reasonable means”.

A Pears' ad showing a woman who is 50 but
supposed to look 17, from June 1 1888,
Myra's Journal of Dress and Fashion,
p. 325

The rise of advertising and consumer culture in the Victorian period saw the birth of thousands of brand-name beauty products. Many promised readers that they could retain the markers of youth: a full head of luxurious hair with no bald spots or grey, a full set of teeth, a trim waist, and a clear and smooth complexion.
Importantly, an overall distinction was made between products that might “preserve” youth, such as soaps, treatments and baths, and those that attempt to artificially conceal aged skin, such as obvious coloured cosmetics.

There was greater acceptance of certain cosmetics such as powder and rouge in the late 19th century. However, lingering views about natural beauty and the unpleasantness of older woman attempting to present themselves as youthful ensured that cosmetic advertisements denied the artifice involved in their products.

Advertisements for soaps, dyes and related beautifying aids emphasised their capacity to preserve what beauty women already possessed. Advertisements for hair restorers claimed (surely erroneously) they could renew grey hair to its original colour without the use of dye. An ad for Rossetter’s hair restorer from around 1880 also claims to give the hair “the lustre and health of youth”.

In small print at the bottom of an undated advertisement for Blackham’s hair restorer, it is acknowledged that their Electric Hair Stain is a dye – but purchasers are reassured that this “cannot be detected”. In a similar vein to today’s attitudes to cosmetic surgery, this claim signals how women had to ensure improvements to their appearance were seen as natural and, ironically, unnoticeable.

Blackham's tonic ad, c. 1895


Soap was the most acceptable of commercial products for preserving youthful skin. Actresses and famous figures often provided written testimonials or directly featured in Victorian advertising. Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress, regularly appeared in beauty advertisements, including for Pears soap and her own rice-based face powder.

Ageing disgracefully

In contrast to frequent advocacy for soaps and home remedies in women’s magazines, the services and treatments of the infamous cosmetician Madame Rachel, Sarah Rachel Levison, provided well-publicised examples of older women who were imagined as foolish and vain for seeking to improve their appearances.

Products provided at her London salon included Circassian Beauty Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara for removing wrinkles, and Youth and Beauty Cream. In 1863, Rachel published a 24-page pamphlet, entitled “Beautiful For Ever!” It told how she now had the sole right to sell
the Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara, which possesses the extraordinary property of increasing the vital energies – restores the colour of grey hair – gives the appearance of youth to persons far advanced in years, and removes wrinkle, defect, and blemishes, from whatever cause they may arise.

Madame Rachel. Wikimedia images.

The treatment for which Madame Rachel was most famous was known as “enamelling”. This involved the removal of facial hair, cleansing of the skin with alkaline washes, then filling of any wrinkles or uneven facial features with a thick white paste, which sometimes contained lead. This was followed by the application of powder and rouge.
The gullibility of older women in chasing the fountain of youth through cosmetics was amply illustrated in Madame Rachel’s trial for fraud in 1868. Her victim, 50-year-old Mary Tucker Borradaile, was described as an object of pity in the trial.
One of the prosecutors, Montagu Williams, found it hard to believe that Borradaile could have believed she could be made beautiful forever. He later recalled her to be a pathetic figure in her attempts to look attractive despite her years:
She was a spare, thin, scraggy-looking woman, wholly devoid of figure; her hair was dyed a bright yellow; her face was ruddled with paint; and the darkness of her eyebrows was strongly suggestive of meretricious art.
It was recorded that Borradaile had been beautiful in her youth and was particularly noted for her long, golden hair. But, in court, her hair was observed to be unnaturally dyed or artificial. Fellow prosecutor William Ballantine described Borradaile as:
a skeleton encased apparently in plaster of Paris, painted pink and white, and surmounted with a juvenile wig.
According to Helen Rappaport, when Borradaile entered the courtroom to give evidence, there were audible gasps at her made-up face.

‘The absolute loss of empire’

Horror at the cosmetically enhanced older woman continued to be expressed into the early 20th century. In The Art of Being Beautiful from 1902, the supposedly 50-year-old interviewee, the Baroness, advises:
For a woman to try and knock more than ten years off her age is an arrogance for which she is punished by every glance of the passers-by. When she tries as a brunette to make herself into a blonde by the use of unlimited white chalk, she also makes herself grotesque – as unpleasing as a fly that had dropped into a honey-pot. When, as a blonde, she adorns herself with black eyebrows like croquet hoops, frankly she becomes alarming, if not detestable.
The Baroness also remarks that dyed hair does not complement “wrinkled cheeks”, especially when the dye chosen is of an “infantine yellow tint”. Apparently, there were certain signs of youth that older women should not attempt to recapture.

While the Baroness critiqued the older woman who attempted to turn back the hands of time through excessive use of cosmetics, she did advocate for beauty regimens to slow the process of ageing. She described the loss of beauty as “the absolute loss of empire”. “Active preparations” for ageing were encouraged – in the same manner as the fire brigade, army and medical profession might ready for fires, war and disease.

So as women aged, they were confronted with the choice of either accepting the gradual fading of their looks, or being criticised for trying to visibly ameliorate signs of age, attempting the impossible task of trying to stave off wrinkles and grey hair.

Meg Ryan. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


These double standards are exceedingly familiar. Older women in the public eye are caught in a bind between being seen as excessive users of cosmetic surgery who have made themselves look unnatural, or of having aged or “let themselves go” to the point of no longer being seen as desirable and bankable.
Actresses in their 50s, such as Meg Ryan and Daryl Hannah, regularly appear in photo galleries taking delight in “botched” plastic surgery or marvelling at “trout pouts”.

Conversely, magazines and gossip sites pounced on unflattering photographs of Kirstie Ally, now 66, when she gained a significant amount of weight in 2008, and proclaimed her “washed up”.

While a small number of women in the public eye, like Brigitte Macron, are seen to deftly negotiate these expectations of beauty and ageing, most are set up to fail.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We’re Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore: Return to Oz (1985)

Earlier this year I introduced a Cinemaniacs screening of Return to Oz. Here's a transcript of my talk.

Return to Oz is a strange film. It’s a strange film given what would now be accepted as a children’s film. It’s a strange film for a Disney film. And it’s a strange film to follow the overwhelming cultural legacy of MGM’s 1939 Wizard of Oz film.

Reviews that followed Return to Oz’s 1985 release could not reconcile expectations of what a big-budget sequel to the cheery, sentimental musical Oz should be with the dystopian film with no dancing munchkins and no dance numbers but plenty of frightening new characters and a new framing story that placed the beloved Dorothy in a mental institution poised to receive a dose of electroshock therapy.

Roger Ebert: “Somebody should have thought at the very first when they were starting out with Return to Oz, somebody should have had this thought: 'It oughta be fun, it oughta be upbeat, it oughta be sweet, it oughta be wondrous. It shouldn’t be scary'.”

Gene Siskel: “Kids under six are gonna get nightmares from this picture. Kids over six, they’ll just have a bad time at the movies.”
Labyrinth (1986)

The film is typical of a different era of filmmaking for children in the early to mid-1980s, in which darker themes, genuine terror, and traumatising deaths of innocent characters were not seen as beyond the emotional comprehension of young viewers. Think of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and the heart-rending demise of the horse Artax in The Never-Ending Story. But even in this context, the film is unusual, and this contributed to Disney effectively disowning the film by contributing minimal marketing and merchandising effort. You won’t find a trace of some of the most iconic  characters of all time –those from the world of Oz - in Disney parks or products, unlike its treatment of its legacy from the animated Alice in Wonderland from 1951.

So what is the story of Return to Oz? How did such an unusual children’s film come to be made on such a big-budget and then be almost disowned by Disney?
Walter Murch with Fairuza Balk (Dorothy) on set
The root of the weirdness of the film begins with Apocalypse Now, the logical place to start when you want to make a Disney children’s film. Walter Murch was the sound editor and designer on the film; he was developing an impressive reputation and gaining deep respect within the industry. At the same time, Disney was going through a creative lull with a number of commercial failures and was scouting around for new directorial talent. They approached Murch, asking him what kind of film he might be interested in making and he mentioned that he had always loved L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. 
The original Oz book series by L. Frank Baum
In an amazing coincidence, Disney happened to own the rights to 11 of the Oz books and were receptive to the idea of capitalising on these rights before the copyright period on the books would soon expire. Of course, these were the rights to the story as it appeared in the books only, not the visual depictions that MGM had derived for their film. So, for instance, in Baum’s original books Dorothy wore silver shoes but these were changed to ruby for the MGM film to take advantage of technicolour with red standing out in colour. Indeed, Disney had to pay for the right to use the trademarked ruby slippers in Return to Oz. Dorothy’s braids are the only other element borrowed from the MGM film.

Dorothy as she was originally
illustrated with silver shoes
In total there were 14 Oz books, and the series was continued by Ruth Plumley Thompson for a further 21 books, so there was actually no shortage of material that could have been plundered for sequels to the MGM film. Very early on, Baum and others recognised how adaptable the stories were to the stage and screen. The first Oz book was published in 1900, and by 1902 musicals began in Chicago and it was then translated to a Broadway hit. Baum’s first infatuation had been the theatre and he invested a great deal of money in the production of elaborate musicals. He financed the first attempt to film Oz with The Fairylogue and Radio Plays in 1908, which mixed live actors, magic lantern slides and Baum himself appears on stage interacting with the characters on stage and screen. Even though performances sold out throughout Michigan, Chicago and New York, it cost more money to produce than could be recouped.

Baum with the cast of The Fairylogue and Radio Plays (1908)

Baum then founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company to adapt his films and in 1914 released the first silent film version of The Patchwork Girl of Oz.  It was not a financial success and after it failed to live up to expectations when exhibited by Paramount Pictures in New York they refused to accept any subsequent Oz films, or indeed any others from Baum’s company. Baum’s company nevertheless went on to make The Magic Cloak of Oz (1917) and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz/The New Wizard of Oz released after his death in 1925. Baum lost the rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as well as other books in the series when owing money to a creditor due to his numerous failed ventures.



This explains how Walt Disney was able to acquire the rights to 11 Oz books in 1954. He wanted to create an adaptation of The Patchwork Girl of Oz for the Disneyland television show. Disney thought the screenplay was good and wanted to make a feature film using the Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club with Annette Funicello as Ozma, but the film did not eventuate and two of the intended songs were performed on the Disneyland television show.  



Like the 1939 film, you can see the influence of the vaudeville stage tradition on this musical number and how the planned Disney Oz film would have developed in the same way. Return to Oz sidesteps that tradition and returns to Baum’s books for source material. While the absence of the settings and characters from The Wizard of Oz, the film felt like it was departing from what Oz was supposed to be for many reviewers and audiences. However, it actually combines two books from the Oz series, Ozma of Oz and The Marvellous Land of Oz.

Ciudad Encantada: one of the locations scrapped from
the film.
Hadrian's Villa
Return to Oz was going to be a very different film that took advantage of developing special effects technology to reproduce all of the Oz characters- rather than dressing people in costumes- and pre-production took a long time. By Autumn of 1983, $6 million had already been spent. New Disney boss Richard Berger shut down production in November 1983, six weeks before filming was due to start in London as anxiety grew about the film’s $27 million budget and the potential for costs to blow out further. They were even contemplating canning the film despite having poured a lot of money into its development.

Producer Paul Maslansky was instructed by Disney to give an assessment of whether it would be possible to cut at least $5 million from the film’s budget. It is tantalising to consider how the film might have looked if not for this substantial hack into the money available for location shooting, mechanical effects, the creatures and Claymation. The Deadly Desert sequence was going to be shot on location in Sardinia and Algeria. The scene where Dorothy and Tik Tok are trapped by the Wheelers was to be filmed at Ciudad Encantada (Enchanted City) north of Madrid. The Nome King’s throne room going to be shot at Caserta near Naples while Hadrian’s villa outside Rome would double as Mombi's palace. There was also going to be two weeks of shooting in Kansas. With the cuts, all of these locations shoots were cut and 80% of the film was to be shot on soundstages at Elmstree Studios outside London (where Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were filmed). The Kansas scenes from the beginning of the film were shot on the Salisbury Plains near Stonehenge. While shots of the ruins of Oz were created using miniatures.


For those of you have seen the film, it will make sense when I say that it was the characters of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Lion who suffered from the budget cuts. The Lion was one of the first things to be cut. There were supposed to be three heads constructed for close-up, medium shots (the one produced) and a light stunt head. The crew were not allowed to make a duplicate costume, only spare legs and feet. Nevertheless, he’s arguably a more successful look that the Scarecrow who had a minimally articulated cable-operated head that looks unconvincing in close-up scenes. The Tin Man was supposed to be created with a marionette-style puppet and opticals but this was going to be too expensive so they were forced to create something in which a small person could sit inside to perform some basic movements. Deep Roy- who rode the racing snail in Neverending Story and was the Oompa Loompa in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory— operated a rod inside the torso. It was such a crude set-up that Roy’s legs hung down out of the Tin Man’s body and in plain view, which is why he is always seen behind another character in the scenes in which he appears!

How Tik-Tok walked revealed

Nevertheless, regardless of these restrictions, some of the creatures and effects are startling for the pre-CGI period.  More finances and effort were directed into creatures such as the chicken, Billina; and the mechanical man, Tik Tok, who was operated by a full-sized man concealed within the torso. However, they may appear to us now, the Wheelers scared the bejesus out of a generation of 80s kids. Originally ice and roller skaters were hired to assume these roles with the expectation that skating skills would translate to rolling along on wheels taken from wheelchairs. It turned out that no pre-existing ability prepared anyone to move as a Wheeler and so 17 people had to train specifically for the task including a man who had had his feet amputated.

The inexplicable terror of a Wheeler
Special effects designers from The Dark Crystal and Greystoke worked on the film, along with Zoran Perisic who invented the Zoptic method, an in-camera front projection system that was used to make Superman fly in the 1980s films. The Claymation work in the film is extremely innovative in its replication of movement in stone, particularly given that the Nomes as imagined in Baum’s work were traditional miniature men-shaped gnomes. The process of the Nome King transforming into the form of a man was also made extremely difficult by the fact that filming occurred in London but the Claymation studio was location in Oregon.

Return to Oz bubblegum cards
The financial limitations and their effect on the look of the film were not the only major challenge faced during film. After seven weeks of shooting, Murch had a breakdown during the shooting of the scene in which Mombi changes her head. According to Maslansky, Murch was extremely confused and said to him “I don’t know where we are in the picture”. He was lost in terms of how the film pieced together and went to lie down in his office. With 500 people on the payroll, thoughts immediately turned to a list of other potential directors.

Return to Oz comic
However, because of Murch’s reputation and previous work with other industry luminaries, there was an almost immediate remarkable response from within the film-making community. Within an hour George Lucas called from Japan and agreed to come immediately to England to help Murch get back on his feet. Murch had worked on THX1138 and American Graffiti.  According to Maslansky, 20 minutes later Stephen Spielberg called and said he would come to the studio the next day. Shortly afterward, Francis Ford Coppola phoned to say that it was his birthday the next day and that he would be in London. Lucas took over filming for the week, shooting the scenes with the flying Gump until Murch could recover. Reportedly, he urged Disney to keep Murch on the film with the reassurance that he would personally finish the film if it did not work out. While the film has obviously become a cult classic, and was ahead of its time in embracing the type of dystopian vision of Oz that has become more common in TV series such as Tin Man and the novels Dorothy Must Die, the experience of directing was clearly not for Murch. He has not directed another film, although he is one of the most respected sounds designers and editors in the industry.

Japanese Return to Oz figures
Disney had flip-flopped on the film numerous times, studio heads had changed multiple times during pre-production, the budget was slashed, and then on the film’s release very minimal support was leant to its marketing. In an era in which product tie-ins and cross-promotions for children’s films were becoming extremely important, the film has an unusually tiny amount of merchandise associated with it comprising of books, a comic, and a promotion for Smuckers jelly involving  hand-puppets. The only figurines produced were made for the Japanese market. In Disney’s terms it was something of a failure. And for those who came to the film expecting a light-hearted musical, it was also a failure.

I saw the film on its release when I was six years old with my grandfather. I can still remember how odd it felt to have to manage his disappointment as he kept saying “that’s now how the yellow brick road is supposed to be—all broken”. Of the generation that would have seen the MGM film on its release, Return to Oz made no sense and was even disturbing. But to me the darkness of the film seemed more magically real than Judy Garland’s cheerful land of Oz and it has stayed with me in more ways than one.