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.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Goodbye Horses (and Transphobia): Transgenderism in Film and Literature

In Laurie Frankel’s new novel This is How it Always Is, an American family grapples with prejudice about transgender children. Youngest child of five boys, Claude, in addition to wanting to be “ a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer” when he is older, tells his parents that he wants to “be a girl”.
This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel (2017).
Flatiron Books

The Walsh-Adams family readily embrace his difference, but the world beyond is less capable of processing the gender non-conformity of a five-year-old child. At kindergarten, Claude is permitted to wear dresses, but is castigated for using the boys’ bathroom. After his decision to become Poppy, a school friend’s parent threatens violence in the face of Poppy’s imagined queer contaminating effect upon his son.

Coupled with a transgender woman being shot on a local college campus after a sexual encounter, the family decides that Madison, Wisconsin is an inhospitable environment for Poppy and moves to more progressive Seattle. Nevertheless, they still find it easier to start again without explaining that Poppy is transgender.

Frankel’s novel was inspired by her own experience raising a transgender child. Western culture is currently facing the challenge of understanding transgenderism and the first generation of openly transgender children.

John Phillips, author of Transgender on Screen, suggests that “the crossing of genders will prove to be the most significant single cultural challenge” of our era “because of the redefinition of sexes and sexualities that necessarily accompanies it”. Practical issues such as preferred pronouns, bathroom usage, eligibility to participate in sports, and hormone treatment for young people remain contentious.

A gender neutral bathroom sign. John Arehart/shutterstock
In attempting to reshape our understanding of sex and gender, it is helpful to look back at how we have represented – or, most commonly, omitted – transgender people in popular culture. The historical lack of understanding of transgender people is evident in a cultural tendency to depict them as objects of comedy, or, most often, as freakish or monstrous.

Sensational freaks and psycho killers

Ed Wood’s cult film Glen or Glenda (1953) was designed to shock and is primarily about a man who cross dresses. The film’s final section “Alan or Ann”, comprised largely of stock footage, is more specifically about a transgender (and potentially intersex) character.

Alan was born a boy, but raised as a girl and then served as a man during World War II. While recovering from combat in hospital, Alan learns about gender reassignment surgery and becomes a “lovely young woman”. The “Alan or Ann” section of the film was reportedly added to meet distributor calls for a sensational “sex change” film, implicitly suggesting that transgender people were a freakish spectacle who would increase ticket sales.

While Wood was sympathetic to the practice of cross-dressing, categorising himself as a transvestite, most horror films and thrillers that followed situated transgender characters as villains. The list of transgender murderers is extensive and persistent from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Homicidal (1961) features a murderous woman, Emily, who wears a wig and prosthetic teeth to conceal that she is, in fact, Warren. Nevertheless, Warren was actually born a girl, but raised as a boy by her mother because his father desired a male child and would have harmed a girl. In keeping with the sensational representation of transgender killers, the film was screened with a “fright break” at its climax, in which audience members could leave the theatre and seek a refund if they were too scared.

Hammer Horror’s 1971 film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde makes the famous splintered personality tale more disturbing by motivating Jekyll to concoct an elixir of life serum with female hormones from murdered corpses. The serum transforms Jekyll into an evil woman, who eventually kills girls in order to obtain more hormones to maintain the transformation.

The 1983 slasher film Sleepaway Camp has an infamous final scene in which the serial killer is revealed. The character of “Angela” stands naked, smeared with blood, with her penis clearly visible to onlookers who scream, “Oh my God! She’s a boy!” Angela was originally a boy named Peter, but was forced by his mother to assume the role of his twin sister after her death.

Being forced into a particular gender role is clearly traumatic, as in the well publicised case of David Reimer who was raised as a girl after a failed circumcision. However, the implication of Sleepaway Camp and other films with serial killers who are arguably presented as transgender, such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) (and even Psycho [1960]), is that gender non-conformity is frightening and unnatural. As Phillips suggests, revelations of transgender murderers not only make the killings bizarre and monstrous but also “trade on the otherness of transgender to engender fear and loathing”.

Life in pink: transgender children

It is only recently that transgender children have begun to be overtly represented in literature and film. This is indicative of shift from demonising transgender people to greater attempts to understand them and represent them positively, as in mainstream films such as the award-winning Transamerica (2005).

One of the first representations of a transgender child was the Belgian film Ma Vie En Rose in 1997. It playfully blurs the line between fantasy and reality in order to show the thoughts of a seven-year-old boy, Ludovic, who wants to be a girl.

Georges Du Fresne as Ludovic in Ma Vie En Rose. Canal+

Despite its arthouse aesthetic and the fact that Ludovic, as reviewer Roger Ebert suggests, exhibited “no sexual awareness in his dressing up”, the film was given an “R” rating in the United States. The rating suggests that two decades ago there was still significant discomfort with the idea of a boy who might not “grow out of” his femininity. It also signals that young people should not be exposed to the reality of transgender children.
L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz (1907)

This sensitivity explains why there were only a handful of stories intended for children — usually fantasies — that included characters who might be understood as transgender until very recently.
The most notable of these is Princess Ozma, who appears in every book in L. Frank Baum’s Oz book series (1900-1920) apart from the first. Princess Ozma is born a girl, but transformed into a boy named Tip by the witch Mombi, in order to prevent her becoming the ruler of Oz. Tip has no recollection of being a girl when Mombi is compelled to revert him to his original form as the girl Ozma.

Children’s books have historically been willing to show boys and girls who “play” as the other gender (often categorised as “sissies” and “tomboys”), but the expectation is that these characters will mature into cisgender, heterosexual men and women.
Julie Anne Peters, Luna (2004)

It was not until the new millennium that a young adult novel featured a transgender protagonist. Julie Anne Peter’s Luna (2004) depicts a teenage boy, Liam, who progresses from only assuming his true self, “Luna”, at night to eventually making the decision to publicly transition.

Victoria Flanagan, in her study of cross-dressing in children’s literature , explains that contemporary Young Adult fiction has begun to recognise that “cross-dressing has implications that relate to sexuality and sexual/gender identity”. These ideas were previously cordoned off into the realm of adults only, as culture was largely uncomfortable with children reading and viewing stories about queer or gender non-conforming characters.

The next wave of representation

This is How it Always Is is symbolic of the next wave of representations of transgender people. In novels and films for adults, psycho killers who were forced into the “wrong” gender by a parent, or tragic figures such as trans man Brandon Teena, whose real-life rape and murder is dramatised in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), are being replaced by more positive depictions of transgender people.

We are beginning to see stories of young people who are being supported by friends or parents to live as the gender with which they identify – such as transgender boy Cole in The Fosters – and of teens learning to accept a parent’s transition, as in Australian film 52 Tuesdays.

The newfound ability for transgender children to begin their transition or at least delay puberty means there could be a transgender boy or girl in almost any school classroom. Rightfully, novels for young people are also beginning to represent transgender children.

Nevertheless, as with the continued challenges to depictions of gay and lesbian characters in fiction for young people, transgender characters are still rare and sometimes considered inappropriate.
Now it is not the threat of the freakish transgender monster, but the threat of disrupting long-held ideas about gender binaries that has the most potential to send transphobic people to the fright room
The Conversation

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Ugly History of Cosmetic Surgery

American advertisement for "non-surgical" nose correction
Reality television shows based on surgical transformations, such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover, were not the first public spectacles to offer women the ability to compete for the chance to be beautiful.

In 1924, a competition ad in the New York Daily Mirror asked the affronting question “Who is the homeliest girl in New York?” It promised the unfortunate winner that a plastic surgeon would “make a beauty of her”. Entrants were reassured that they would be spared embarrassment, as the paper’s art department would paint “masks” on their photographs when they were published.

Cosmetic surgery instinctively seems like a modern phenomenon. Yet it has a much longer and more complicated history than most people likely imagine. Its origins lie in part in the correction of syphilitic deformities and racialised ideas about “healthy” and acceptable facial features as much as any purely aesthetic ideas about symmetry, for instance.

In her study of how beauty is related to social discrimination and bias, sociologist Bonnie Berry estimates that 50% of Americans are “unhappy with their looks”. Berry links this prevalence to mass media images. However, people have long been driven to painful, surgical measures to “correct” their facial features and body parts, even prior to the use of anaesthesia and discovery of antiseptic principles.

Some of the first recorded surgeries took place in 16th-century Britain and Europe. Tudor “barber-surgeons” treated facial injuries, which as medical historian Margaret Pelling explains, was crucial in a culture where damaged or ugly faces were seen to reflect a disfigured inner self.

With the pain and risks to life inherent in any kind of surgery at this time, cosmetic procedures were usually confined to severe and stigmatised disfigurements, such as the loss of a nose through trauma or epidemic syphilis.

The first pedicle flap grafts to fashion new noses were performed in 16th-century Europe. A section of skin would be cut from the forehead, folded down, and stitched, or would be harvested from the patient’s arm.

Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery and Nicholas Henri Jacob,
‘Iconografia d'anatomia chirurgica e di medicina operatoria,’ Florence, 1841.

A later representation of this procedure in Iconografia d’anatomia published in 1841, as reproduced in Richard Barnett’s Crucial Interventions, shows the patient with his raised arm still gruesomely attached to his face during the graft’s healing period.

As socially crippling as facial disfigurements could be and as desperate as some individuals were to remedy them, purely cosmetic surgery did not become commonplace until operations were not excruciatingly painful and life threatening.

In 1846, what is frequently described as the first “painless” operation was performed by American dentist William Morton, who gave ether to a patient. The ether was administered via inhalation through either a handkerchief or bellows. Both of these were imprecise methods of delivery that could cause an overdose and kill the patient.

The removal of the second major impediment to cosmetic surgery occurred in the 1860s. English doctor Joseph Lister’s model of aseptic, or sterile, surgery was taken up in France, Germany, Austria and Italy, reducing the chance of infection and death.

By the 1880s, with the further refinement of anaesthesia, cosmetic surgery became a relatively safe and painless prospect for healthy people who felt unattractive.

The Derma-Featural Co advertised its “treatments” for “humped, depressed, or… ill-shaped noses”, protruding ears, and wrinkles (“the finger marks of Time”) in the English magazine World of Dress in 1901.

A report from a 1908 court case involving the company shows that they continued to use skin harvested from – and attached to – the arm for rhinoplasties.

The report also refers to the non-surgical “paraffin wax” rhinoplasty, in which hot, liquid wax was injected into the nose and then “moulded by the operator into the desired shape”. The wax could potentially migrate to other parts of the face and be disfiguring, or cause “paraffinomas” or wax cancers.

World of Dress, June 1905
Advertisements for the likes of the the Derma-Featural Co were rare in women’s magazines around the turn of the 20th century. But there were frequently ads published for bogus devices promising to deliver dramatic face and body changes that might reasonably be expected only from surgical intervention.

Various models of chin and forehead straps, such as the patented “Ganesh” brand, were advertised as a means for removing double chins and wrinkles around the eyes.

Bust reducers and hip and stomach reducers, such as the JZ Hygienic Beauty Belt, also promised non-surgical ways to reshape the body.

World of Dress, April 1905
The frequency of these ads in popular magazines suggests that use of these devices was socially acceptable. In comparison, coloured cosmetics such as rouge and kohl eyeliner were rarely advertised. The ads for “powder and paint” that do exist often emphasised the product’s “natural look” to avoid any negative association between cosmetics and artifice.

The racialised origins of cosmetic surgery

The most common cosmetic operations requested before the 20th century aimed to correct features such as ears, noses, and breasts classified as “ugly” because they weren’t typical for “white” people.
At this time, racial science was concerned with “improving” the white race. In the United States, with its growing populations of Jewish and Irish immigrants and African Americans, “pug” noses, large noses and flat noses were signs of racial difference and therefore ugliness.

Sander L. Gilman suggests that the “primitive” associations of non-white noses arose “because the too-flat nose came to be associated with the inherited syphilitic nose”.

American otolaryngologist John Orlando Roe’s discovery of a method for performing rhinoplasties inside the nose, without leaving a tell-tale external scar, was a crucial development in the 1880s. As is the case today, patients wanted to be able to “pass” (in this case as “white”) and for their surgery to be undetectable.

In 2015, 627,165 American women, or an astonishing 1 in 250, received breast implants. In the early years of cosmetic surgery, breasts were never made larger.

Breasts acted historically as a “racial sign”. Small, rounded breasts were viewed as youthful and sexually controlled. Larger, pendulous breasts were regarded as “primitive” and therefore as a deformity.

In the age of the flapper, in the early 20th century, breast reductions were common. It was not until the 1950s that small breasts were transformed into a medical problem and seen to make women unhappy.

Shifting views about desirable breasts illustrate how beauty standards change across time and place. Beauty was once considered as God-given, natural or a sign of health or a person’s good character.
When beauty began to be understood as located outside of each person and as capable of being changed, more women, in particular, tried to improve their appearance through beauty products, as they now increasingly turn to surgery.

As Elizabeth Haiken points out in Venus Envy, 1921 not only marked the first meeting of an American association of plastic surgery specialists, but also the first Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. All of the finalists were white. The winner, sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman, was short compared to today’s towering models at five-feet-one-inch tall, and her breast measurement was smaller than that of her hips.

There is a close link between cosmetic surgical trends and the qualities we value as a culture, as well as shifting ideas about race, health, femininity, and ageing.

Last year was celebrated by some within the field as the 100th anniversary of modern cosmetic surgery. New Zealander Dr Harold Gillies has been championed for inventing the pedicle flap graft during World War I to reconstruct the faces of maimed soldiers. Yet as is well documented, primitive versions of this technique had been in use for centuries.

Such an inspiring story obscures the fact that modern cosmetic surgery was really born in the late 19th century and that it owes as much to syphilis and racism as to rebuilding the noses and jaws of war heroes.

The surgical fraternity – and it is a brotherhood, as more than 90% of cosmetic surgeons are male— conveniently places itself in a history that begins with reconstructing the faces and work prospects of the war wounded.

In reality, cosmetic surgeons are instruments of shifting whims about what is attractive. They have helped people to conceal or transform features that might make them stand out as once diseased, ethnically different, “primitive”, too feminine, or too masculine.

The sheer risks that people have been willing to run in order to pass as “normal” or even to turn the “misfortune” of ugliness, as the homeliest girl contest put it, into beauty, shows how strongly people internalise ideas about what is beautiful.

Looking back at the ugly history of cosmetic surgery should give us the impetus to more fully consider how our own beauty norms are shaped by prejudices including racism and sexism.

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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

There is no "War on Barbie": Toys, Gender Inequality and Domestic Violence

Uncredited image
Last week  marked White Ribbon Day in Australia, a focal point for the male led campaign to end violence against women. On the same day, a Senate inquiry into the relationship between children’s toys and entertainment and the gender stereotypes that contribute to domestic violence was announced.

Predictably, the inquiry was instantly deemed “a war on Barbie”. It was also an opportunity to label the Greens, who initiated the inquiry, as kooky for linking Tonka trucks with Australia’s family violence crisis.

Both the federal government and the opposition were eager to uncouple themselves from any suggestion that they might begin policing toy boxes. A spokesperson for Labor leader Bill Shorten remarked that any notion of “a clear link between toys and domestic violence is absurd”.

Last year, the Greens supported the No Gender December campaign, which encourages families to be open-minded when choosing toys to place under the Christmas tree. The campaign highlights how toys are marketed in ways that segregate play along gender lines.  Most toy shops erect an invisible Berlin Wall that largely keeps girls in the pink, sparkly zone and boys in the sector of camouflage-toned action.
Sam Humphreys: It's a Matter of Trust project

The suggestion that children’s toys, books, or films might have any connection with the beliefs children internalise about gender and the kinds of adults they become rankles many people. We commonly take exception at the idea that anything that formed part of our beloved childhood could be anything other than innocent and delightful.

It is time that adults “grow up” and stop ridiculing the idea that the cultural products we make for children are influential and can have both positive and negative impacts.

Parents tend to accept that young children might be swayed by advertising for junk food, depictions of smoking, alcohol or drug use as desirable, or TV or movies that are infused with swearing. Children are consistently absorbing cultural cues about how to behave and act. As a result, parents might restrict their children’s exposure to things they see as harmful, or at least help children negotiate what is socially acceptable and healthy for their own wellbeing.

When it comes to the negative influences of gender stereotyping in moulding how girls and boys feel that they can act as kids and as adults, we inexplicably change tack. These are only innocent or trivial toys or cartoons. And children won’t be thinking about adult concepts like the gender pay gap or domestic violence in any case.

The Reducing Violence Against Women and Their Children report, released this month,  demonstrates that young people have already formed views about gender relations and violence. It shows that when presented with hypothetical scenarios, boys as young as ten years old think that female victims of domestic violence are at fault; girls tend to blame themselves. Why would children already blame women for domestic violence if they were not absorbing ideas from the cultural around them?

Individual toys do not transmit troubling beliefs about violence directly, but the gendering of toys is a reflector of, and a contributor to, the gender inequality that produces domestic violence.

Critics of the inquiry propose that Barbie and other traditional toys marketed for boys or girls have been available for decades, as if to suggest that popular practices cannot possibly be wrong. They also ignore the coexistence of gender inequality with these and other superficially innocuous traditions throughout this period.

There is no social engineering in the suggestion that we should examine how the marketing of toys and children’s entertainment might bolster gender inequality. No one is proposing restricting the interests or freedom of children to choose. Rather, we must remove the limitations on children that are deployed through gendered marketing.

Toys that are categorised for girls are often related to domestic chores, fashion or babies, mirroring the ongoing expectation of women’s disproportionate contribution to housework and childcare. While boys’ toys involve construction, adventure, or warfare. Gender inequality is entrenched in the way that toys that are marketed for girls are unacceptable for boys or else they will be mocked because what is feminine is unimportant, frivolous and incompatible with being a “real” boy or man.

The gendered marketing of toys is not the direct reason why one in six Australian women has experienced domestic violence. Yet we cannot expect that “raising awareness” and simply telling men to respect women and monitor each other will make any meaningful difference to the long history of violence against women. It is time we looked seriously at where gendered inequality originates and is cemented to understand how we might shift the power imbalance at the core of violence against women.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Alice in Wonderland at 150: Why fantasy stories about girls transcend time

John Tenniel, The Nursery Alice
It’s 150 years since an Oxford mathematics don published the most important work of children’s literature and one of the most influential books of all time.

The origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a story that Charles Dodgson told 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters while rowing along the Thames in 1862 are well known. What is less understood is why it has become such an enduring cultural touchstone across the globe.

Many popular stories can be distilled to the basic structure of a male hero undertaking a quest. In 1949, Joseph Campbell described the common features of the “monomyth” or hero’s journey that are evident in stories from those of Buddha and Jesus to Luke Skywalker.

In W.W. Denslow's illustrations and L. Frank Baum's
original text, Dorothy is a much younger girl (with 
silver shoes instead of ruby slippers).
Contrary to the dominance of heroic tales of men, there are several iconic narratives of pre-pubescent girls journeying through dream-like fantastic realms that have become enduring phenomena.

Like the ubiquitous Alice, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz has gained a life of her own beyond L. Frank Baum’s books. The Kansas orphan’s journey into Oz is, if anything, better known through the MGM film starring Judy Garland. The film transforms Dorothy’s journey into nothing but a dream— like Alice’s— inspired by a cyclone-induced blow to the head.

The stories of Alice, Dorothy and more recent girl protagonists in popular fantasies, such as Sarah’s encounters with the Goblin King in the 1986 film Labyrinth, are strongly inflected by fairy-tale tradition. Campbell himself later acknowledged that he “had to go to the fairy tales” in order to bring any semblance of female heroism into The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As fairy tale scholar Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario explains throughout her work, fairy tales are most often about girls on the cusp of maturation and marriage.

Alice Liddell photographed as a
"beggar maid" by Carroll
In their original book incarnations, however, both Alice and Dorothy are very young girls: Alice is just seven and Dorothy is estimated to be eight. Carroll was notoriously fascinated by pre-pubescent girls, whom he often photographed in staged poses.

The young ages of Alice and Dorothy free them from involvement in a romance plot. In girls’ fiction from the early twentieth century, it was common for adventurous heroines become hastily engaged in the final pages of a novel.

Even more importantly, as girls, Alice and Dorothy occupy a transitional borderland between childhood and adulthood. This also seems to make them more attuned to crossing the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

Whether this capacity derives from the combination of negative assessments of children and females as less rational in comparison with adults and males, or marks girls out as more perceptive and empathetic, is debatable.

What is clear is that these girl heroines take different paths to characters on the typical male hero’s journey. Even within fantastic literature, where anything is possible, there are clear gendered distinctions for protagonists.

As my Deakin colleague Lenise Prater pointed out to me in an important scholarly dialogue on this topic (a Facebook chat thread), female hero quests in fantasy tend to encompass an internal quest that takes place in a dreamscape. In contrast, male heroes enter into literal fantasy worlds; their adventures are supposed to be “real” with the space of the story.

The dreamy adventures of Alice work through or play with some of her waking interests and anxieties. As in Carroll’s text, Tim Burton’s film adaptation explicitly signals that Wonderland is a purely imaginary place. Alice suffers from nightmares about Wonderland as a child, and her father reminds her that dreams cannot harm her and she can “always wake up”.

Judy Garland in a publicity still from 1939
The MGM Oz film changes Dorothy’s journey into a dream through its casting of the same actors in roles in both sepia-toned Kansas and Technicolor Oz. (Farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke appear as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, while neighbour Almira Gulch proves all dog-haters must surely be green-skinned witches.)

As lone questers, girl characters are the most vulnerable and physically weak. Despite their powerlessness in conventional respects, heroines such as Alice and Dorothy are able to survive the dangers posed by people and supernatural beings who possess advantages that are not available to them (adult authority and magic chief among them).

The lives of both Alice and Dorothy beyond their original books by Carroll and Baum suggest a cultural investment in stories about the most vulnerable of people. Alice and Dorothy experience the most amazing of journeys, in which they triumph over the highest forms of authority and power, from queens to witches.

It is reassuring that these stories about girls, who are often overlooked because of their age and gender, are almost universally known. Nevertheless, imagine the possibilities if our most iconic girl characters did not always have to “wake up” at the end of their adventures.

Michelle Smith will be chairing the Making Public Histories seminar on “Melbourne’s Alice” at the State Library of Victoria on 26 November 2015.

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

Friday, August 21, 2015

Feminism Today talk, 'We are the 50%' seminar series

This is more rightly a talk about anti-feminism, and the challenges faced by feminists in light of the insidious forms that anti-feminism now takes. It was delivered as part of Deakin University's 'We are the 50%' series on 17 August 2015.

Feminism Today - 'We are the 50%' seminar series talk by Dr Michelle Smith, Deakin University from Michelle Smith on Vimeo.