Thursday, April 5, 2018

Alice on Screen: Who is Alice? Curious Interpretations of Wonderland

To coincide with ACMI's Winter Masterpieces exhibition "Wonderland", which focuses on Alice's representation in the moving image- from magic lantern slides to Tim Burton's film- I was invited to prepare a video essay on screen Alices. In the video, I talk about Alice from her first silent film appearance, her use in psychedelic counter-culture and anti-drug propaganda, and Dr Pepper ads, through to the fascination with Alice in Japanese popular culture and her darker incarnations in video games.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ding, Dong for the last time! Goodbye to the Avon Lady

With the most iconic beauty brands available via online shopping, exclusive Avon products delivered to your home by a woman who also lives in your neighbourhood are now a quaint relic. Coupled with the embrace of cosmetic emporiums like Sephora, the doorknock and friendly cry of “Avon calling” will come to an end in Australia and New Zealand later this year. 

I haven’t used an Avon product since being hooked on the girls’ “Little Blossom” range of demurely “tinted” pink nail varnish and lip gloss in the 1980s. While younger women may not have continued to use their products in the Instagram era, the Avon lady was once a radical figure who played a pioneering part in women earning their own incomes.

Avon began with a man, David H. McConnell, selling books door-to-door to a captive market of housewives in the 1880s. When he began to offer women a free sample of a custom-made perfume in return for listening to his book spiel, they were more interested in the scent than the books. It was not as simple as ducking down to the shops for cosmetics for many women with no mode of transportation, particularly in small towns.

Persis Foster Eames Albee, the first "Avon lady"
Persis Foster Eames Albee from Westchester, New York joined his California Perfume Company and initiated the famous method of women selling directly to other women door-to-door. While travelling salesmen were common, Albee pioneered the model of a low-pressure “house call” that was as much a socialising opportunity as a sales pitch and opportunity to demonstrate products.

With very few opportunities for most women to work or access welfare, they were largely financially dependent on their husbands. In her twelve-year career, travelling by horse and buggy and train, Albee trained up 5,000 American women to sell cosmetics through the California Perfume Company. She granted them the rare opportunity to generate their own income without neglecting their family responsibilities or breaking expectations of how women should behave.

Inspired by Shakespeare, McConnell renamed his company Avon in 1928, as it expanded well beyond its original “Little Dot Perfume Set”. While the post-war emphasis on family life in suburbia stultified enough mothers to drive them to self-medicate with alcohol and prescription drugs, Avon provided an outlet for women to nurture or regain a professional identity.

Dianne Wiest as Avon lady Peg Boggs
The pastel-wearing Peg Boggs in the film Edward Scissorhands neatly embodies the void that Avon sales filled for housewives in suburbs where the men emptied out in sync every morning only to return in the evening. While most married women were locked out of the world of work that was a car-ride away, through Avon many turned the homes around them into places of business and joined a network of industrious women.

Like Tupperware parties, which were popularised in the 1950s, selling Avon did comply with a culture that wanted to keep women in the home, devoting their attentions to housework and maintaining their looks for their husband. However, the discriminatory workplace practices of the past meant many married or pregnant women could not continue to work outside the home. Regardless of whether women were selling food storage containers or lipsticks, they were still mobilising their business skills and earning money that might not be controlled by a man.

Today, as department stores lose their cultural cachet, more cosmetics are bought through browsing products on websites, in much the same way as women would browse the printed Avon catalogue. What is lost, however, in these transactions is the thousands of women who found a degree of financial independence and personal satisfaction through their own local sales business.

The women of 2017 have more employment opportunities and work rights than those of the 1880s or even the 1950s, many of whom had few options beyond toting cosmetic samples around their suburb on foot. Nevertheless, the perennial problems of household and child-rearing responsibilities continue to plague women and hamper their abilities to build careers and earn their own incomes.

Now some women are establishing their own businesses online that allow them to tread the same fine line between independence and maternal responsibility as Avon ladies of generations past. While the need for Avon’s kitsch ornaments and scented talc may have declined to the point where Australian operations are no longer viable, the need for flexible working options for women has not.

On the surface, they might represent an era in which the ultimate homemaker was glorified, yet the ringing doorbells of Avon ladies also helped to dismantle a system that kept women financially dependent and excluded from the world of business

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/
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.
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

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.