Tuesday, July 3, 2018

ACMI Conversation about Alice on Screen: Electric Girlhoods

The "Wonderland" exhibition, a celebration of Alice in Wonderland in visual culture from the Victorian period until today, has been running in Melbourne since May at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Shortly after the opening, I took part in a talk about Alice on screen with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Dr Dan Golding. The event was live streamed and you can watch the recording here. We work our way through Alices from the silent era through to Tim Burton, and there's plenty of focus on showing excerpts from less well-known films.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

New Book Release: From Colonial to Modern

My new co-authored book is now available from University of Toronto Press. It's been many years in the making with two wonderful colleagues, Kristine Moruzi and Clare Bradford (Deakin University), and focuses on dozens of novels and magazines from colonial Australia, Canada and New Zealand that have been largely excluded from studies of children's and national literatures to date.

Here's the book blurb:

Through a comparison of Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand texts published between 1840 and 1940, From Colonial to Modern develops a new history of colonial girlhoods revealing how girlhood in each of these emerging nations reflects a unique political, social, and cultural context.

Print culture was central to the definition, and redefinition, of colonial girlhood during this period of rapid change. Models of girlhood are shared between settler colonies and contain many similar attitudes towards family, the natural world, education, employment, modernity, and race, yet, as the authors argue, these texts also reveal different attitudes that emerged out of distinct colonial experiences. Unlike the imperial model representing the British ideal, the transnational girl is an adaptation of British imperial femininity and holds, for example, a unique perception of Indigenous culture and imperialism. Drawing on fiction, girls’ magazines, and school magazine, the authors shine a light on neglected corners of the literary histories of these three nations and strengthen our knowledge of femininity in white settler colonies.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Electric Girlhoods: ACMI Alice in Wonderland Event

I'll be part of an event to coincide with ACMI's Winter Masterpieces Wonderland exhibition on Tuesday 15th May at 6:30 pm.  The event is titled: Electric Girlhoods and Alices Past and Future

Alice was first brought to life by Lewis Carroll, but she's sparked imaginations and been immortalised on screen many times since.

Join film critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in conversation with Dr Michelle Smith (Monash University) and Dr Dan Golding (Swinburne University of Technology) as they discuss these 'electric' Alices and the unique representations of girlhood across time, space and media, exploring historical significance, contemporary potency and what Alice might mean in the future.

A photo from the event

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.