Friday, June 20, 2008

Bindi Irwin's 10th Birthday: The Jungle "Girl" (for how long?)

There are more signs of something wrong in the marketing of Bindi Irwin as a commodity than the mere presence of snowflakes in an advertisement for a winter event in sunny Queensland. Bindi has taken on a major role in promoting Australia Zoo, recorded her own television program and launched a clothing line since the death of her father, Steve. There is no doubting that she's popular. She has won a Logie award for Best New Talent. Last week, she even beat out the voice of Elmo for a Daytime Emmy for the most oustanding performer in a children's series for her work in Bindi the Jungle Girl.

Whether Bindi is being exploited has been the subject of some public discussion in the past year. The questions and complications surrounding children in the entertainment industry are surely the same whether a child is a film star, musical prodigy or next-in-line to a native zoo throne. It was other things that got me musing on the subject of Bindi, though. She was purportedly named after the Aboriginal word for "little girl". However, as a Queenslander in my childhood, that term just means prickly-thing-that-grows-in-the-grass-in-summer-and-gets-embedded-in-your-bare-feet. Anyway, as I said, it was other things.

The most significant was walking past her line of children's clothing in a department store. The second, while frivolous, still baffles me. So I'd best deal with that first. The crimped hair. To take the style of a '90s comedian: what's with that? I had no idea whether I'd missed the revival of crimping among children (I still have my '80s crimper, mind you), or whether she was sadly behind the times.

The naivete of crimped-hair-Bindi appears to have disappeared, however, with the arrival of an Emmy and the marketing of her clothing line. The recently-launched line includes ranges named "Urban Cowboy", "Warrior" ["incorporating naive graphics, bright colours and a grunge mix of '70s and '90s meets modern vintage"], "Green is the New Black" and "Jungle Safari". Among the environmental calls to arms printed on a number of the shirts is one that is a little troubling. It reads: "Crikey... What an Adventure".

The use of this definitive phrase seems to suggest the way in which Bindi is standing in as a de-facto Steve Irwin in order to ensure the continuation of the "brand" which her father created. While her mother, Terri, has taken on a significant role in promoting Australia Zoo and ensuring the legacy of Steve and continuation of his good works, she cannot, with her American heritage, be a credible image of "Australianess". Bindi's young sibling, Bob, has been spared this role by virtue of his limited linguistic skill, but we can be assured if he were older than Bindi that he would have been the child in this role--a young double for his father and measure for the continued sale of the idealised, broad-accented Aussie bloke.

While Bindi is often shown with snakes around her neck and a story even circulated that she would venture to swim with the same stingray that killed her father, it will be interesting to see whether she is permitted to wrestle crocs as she enters adulthood or whether she will remain in the safe space of song-and-dance edutainment videos, spreading her message of animal conservation. Bindi is presented as a "wildlife warrior", but the word "princess" often accompanies this phrase in Australia Zoo promotional material. There's even a photograph of her wearing a princess crown on the website. Is she just warming this throne for the ascension of baby Bob?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Age-Banding Children's Books

I had not heard of the plan in the UK to "age band" books for children until today. It seems that the protests of children's book authors are now really starting to ramp up, with no less a luminary than Philip Pullman leading the charge. Or at least leading the online petition. The list of signatories to the petition also includes Quentin Blake, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. But how can the opinions of the likes of these authors and illustrators be considered important when we have marketing statistics to weigh them against. Apparently, the Children's Book Group of the Publishers' Association found that 86% of "consumers" favoured some form of age guidance.

The "No to Age Banding" petition states the case against age-banding so eloquently and logically that it is no use my competing with it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but want to add that the very suggestion of putting books in age-appropriate categories like this, which would necessarily dissuade some child readers, is consumerism gone mad. There are already age indicators on books for children learning to read, picture books, or titles available through school bookclubs, but we don't need to tell parents or children themselves at what age they should read Harry Potter, or the His Dark Materials trilogy, or even Jane Eyre.

If all children acquired reading skills at a standard pace then we could set a universal Western course of study that began with The Cat in the Hat and ended with Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? The reading ability and interests of children are better reflected by their individual maturity and development rather than the arbitrary application of age appropriate banding.

One online comment blamed "helicopter parents", and I thought that was a great explanation for the responses of the "consumers" in the Publishers' Association survey. Is it too hard to know your child enough to know what book they might be ready to read? Couldn't you try out a public library if you're still not sure? Test 'em out on a few free titles and then make your buying decisions from there. How about talking with them and finding out what books they've enjoyed at school? Even take a peek in their library bag and see what they chose when they had to pick something in class?

At the base of this, however, seems to be some kind of parental fear of children being exposed to "age-inappropriate" content. A novel is not a computer game or a film. The imagery generated by a book stems from the child's own mind and imagination and can only be triggered if they possess the literary ability and knowledge in order to create it. As such, it's quite hard, I believe, for a child to read anything that will cause any lasting damage, whereas an age-inappropriate film or game could scare the hell out of a child at night for months afterward because the imagery is external and out of their control. This is within the realm of children's books, of course. I'm not talking about leaving American Psycho or Tropic of Capricorn around with copies of Lemony Snicket.

And perhaps we can entirely phase out interaction with booksellers and librarians if all literature comes in a neatly branded package that tells us who should be reading it and when?

As a precocious child reader, I find this proposal as upsetting as Mr Pullman does. And thankfully he has enough sway with his publisher to be able to demand that age-banding does not appear on his own books. Only a hundred years ago children would read many of the same canonical novels that are confined to university literary studies courses today. The last thing we need is to tell voracious child readers that they can't read particular novels because they must only read books someone in a marketing department deems acceptable for their age-group.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

The Australian Senate is currently conducting an Inquiry into the sexualisation of children "in the contemporary media environment". Environment seems to be one of those tiresome weasel words. Why not just "contemporary media"?

Beyond any controversial exploration of why we fail to recognise the sexuality of adolescents (and even slightly younger children), it's first interesting to see that the term children has been used. The second term of reference for the inquiry is to:

"review the evidence on the short- and long-term effects of viewing or buying sexualising and objectifying images and products and their influence on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, attitudes and beliefs."

Surely we would be hard-pressed to find that many sexualising and objectifying images of boys or men in the popular media. What we're really looking at in the main is the premature sexualisation of girls and the prolific use of images of girls and women in the media and resultant effects on both girls and boys.

The Corporate Paedophilia report produced by the Australia Institute in late 2006 has informed much of the debate on this issue. The three sources of sexualisation defined is this report are: images of children dressed and posed in adult clothing; media targeted at children which advertises products and promotes sexual behaviours; and material intended for adults but accessible to children. Professor Catherine Lumby and Dr Kath Albury's submission very convincingly dispels conservative fears regarding the second point.

Most magazines targeted at children, Lumby and Albury argue, are inherently non-sexual, contrary to the Corporate Paedophilia report, which reads sexualisation into everything from girls gazing downward in photographs to being shown holding "adult looking handbags". Much like the controversy over Bill Henson's photographs, not every naked girl or clothed girl reclining on a couch is intended to excite the viewer sexually.

Where things become stickier, however, is with magazines intended for teenagers, such as Dolly and Girlfriend but which are read by younger girls. Newspaper reports suggest that so-called "tweens" are set to be discouraged from reading these magazines: warning stickers will advise that the content is only suitable for over fifteens. I'd be interested to know how other women recall their own teen magazine reading experiences. From my recollection, magazines such as Dolly were key reading material from around the age of 11 to 15.
Beyond that, there was a process of graduation to Cosmopolitan and other women's magazines as ponderings about whether to use pads or tampons--a favourite topic in Dolly--became irrelevant to girls who had been menstruating for five years. I was blessed with my period at the age of ten. I wanted to read about what was happening to me and the other girls around me, not be directed toward a magazine about Barbie or other "tween" magazines. As much as people like to emphasise their nature as children, many ten and eleven year old girls' bodies are technically ready to bear their own children. Why argue they are too young to read about what this means for them?

The function of magazines like Dolly is to satisfy the curiosity of girls confronting puberty and the initial pressure or desire to perform sexual activities. Do we really want such magazines to go the way of formal school sex education? It's a world of cliches: too little too late; closing the gate after the horse has bolted; I could go on. Information, no matter how informally presented, never sexualised those who weren't already sexual.

A Senator was concerned that these magazines cover topics such as whether oral sex can be performed when a girl wears braces. Let us all close our minds and pretend that no teens of braces-wearing age kiss, engage in oral sex or actually have intercourse. Many girls are already engaging in sex by the age of fifteen. If we prevent them from any exposure to information concerning sex (intended for a girl readership) prior to this, are we "protecting" them or rendering them ignorant and even more vulnerable.
Girls who are ready to know will seek these magazines out, while those who are not ready are likely to continue playing with dolls. We need to allow the choice for those girls who are emotionally and developmentally ready to read accessible information about sex without allowing adult prudery about teenage sexuality to intrude.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Controlling What Girls Drink

The past few weeks have seen two contrasting stories relating to girls drinking. First, was the story of the Olsen twins' coffee being "spiked" with full-cream milk by a Starbucks barista. (Barista: perhaps we could invite a similarly important-sounding term for sandwich hands, or has Subway already done that with its "sandwich artist".) Regardless of the truth of the story or not, it sat in the top five most-viewed articles on The Age website for almost a week. And "story" is perhaps being a little generous, as the article was comprised of about five sentences. One of which was a denial from the Olsen's publicist. A web search reveals dozens of sites that also picked up the story, including Madison magazine who were "inclined to believe that [the publicist's denial] judging by the twins' still-slim frames."

Which is more astonishing? That thousands of Australian readers considered the Olsen twins unknowing consumption of full-cream milk to be among the five most important stories of the week or that a magazine promoted the idea that if Mary-Kate and Ashley had been sipping on the odd bit of regular milk in their coffees that they'd now be migrating from Antarctica with all the other whales. At the heart of both responses is a cruel fascination with the weight of young women. Of course, it's certainly not up to cafe staff to be determining their customers' caloric intake, but in any event the story is most likely a fabrication. The flimsy premise itself doesn't matter quite so much as the strong interest in monitoring the twins' weight. If they were to start downing a few thickshakes, what would the next crop of stories be headlined?

The second issue is related to so-called "alcopops". Whether it's a watermelon flavoured Bacardi Breezer or a Midori Illusion in a bottle, the recent tax hike on pre-mixed spirits imposed by the Australian federal government seemingly has its basis in controlling the drinking of young girls. The clear intent of the tax was to discourage youth drinking, but the alcohol consumption of "teenage girls" was particularly flagged by Prime Minister Rudd. Statistics quoted suggested that 78% of girls prefer them to any other drink, but so too did 74% of boys. Nevermind that it is predominantly young men who are drink driving and bashing one another about when drunk, we must get these fizzy, alcoholic confections away from our girls. They've "gone wild". Yes, there was a newspaper article called "Girls Gone Wild" about the subject of alcohol in the past month. Strangely, it also chose to discuss criminality and the greater population of women in prisons today. This is not to say that youth binge-drinking is not a problem. Nevertheless, the reasoning behind this targeting of girls' drinking seems grounded in a double-standard that does not wish to see girls' losing their faculties and assaulting their bodies. Why aren't the same concerns directed at the drinking of boys? And then the outcry too over "blokes" suffering because the price of their Jim Beam and Coke tinnies also rose. So the drinking of young women is out of control and must be curbed by a tax hike, but we must spare a thought for men who'll now have to pay more. Why are men more legitimately entitled to drink alcohol without monitoring than women? Aren't the health implications the same for all (of course taking into account women's lesser tolerance for alcohol and pregnancy concerns)?

What girls, and girls only, do or do not drink should not be a topic of national and international discussion.