Sunday, September 6, 2009

The history of children’s literature and girls’ books

Comment on Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter from a girls’ literature perspective

I remember stumbling upon Seth Lerer’s at-the-time new history of children’s literature in a library catalogue search last year. I have since read critique of the book that asks why those outside the field of children’s literature feel that they possess sufficient knowledge and authority to attempt to write definitive histories. I believe Lerer is both a Medieval and Renaissance literature scholar, which cannot alone discount the value of his contribution to the field. One of the most renowned children’s literature scholars, Professor Clare Bradford, was a medievalist originally. Until children’s literature is well entrenched at undergraduate and postgraduate level at more universities, it’s going to be a common occurrence for some scholars to traverse from other areas to children's books. Professor Mavis Reimer and Professor Perry Nodelman began as scholars of the Victorian era, just as I have begun my foray in the field looking at books largely no longer read, and unaware of the wide reach of the discipline in contemporary texts.

While it is perhaps impossible to imagine a children’s literature scholar doing an about-face and setting out to write a history of Renaissance literature mid-career, some part of me was pleased that a scholar in “serious” literature would enter the realm of children’s literature. In my fantasy of it all, while there are methodological specificities to children’s literature and generic conventions to children’s texts, it should be no different to move between Romanticism and Victorianism as from Modernism to children’s literature. You’re going to be beginning behind the eight-ball with the switch, but we’re not talking a move from geology to social work.

And so I went to Lerer’s book, taking no offence that he was willing to swan in to the field and publish a history of children’s books that probably outsold the works of the best-known established children’s literature scholars.

I have spent several weeks revising a book proposal based on my PhD thesis on girlhood and the British Empire. The motivation behind this research was further galvanised upon reading Lerer’s history. In the time period relevant to my own work, he refers to boys’ periodicals, including The Boy’s Own Paper, boys’ school stories, the Boy Scouts and has a dedicated chapter on Robinsonades. None of the girls’ equivalents of these aspects of print culture are mentioned.

Actually, there was a little white lie in that last sentence, because The Girl’s Own Paper is mentioned in the chapter devoted to “female fiction”. It comes up because Harry Potter’s Hermione “owes” much to the Paper, but we’ll never now why, as we hear no more detail about what the girls’ periodical actually contained. That the chapter begins by discussing a book that celebrates male achievement is not a good start (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) even if Lerer uses it to make the point that Hermione is not central to the action and only becomes so in the filmic version.

The core argument of this chapter is that “girls are always on the stage; that being female is a show” (228-229) and that girlhood produces a tension between this external staging and finding “inner virtue” (229). I wouldn’t disagree with the ideas of femininity as performance, but conceptions of hegemonic masculinity no doubt identify performative aspects to masculinity as well. The feeling that some of the ideas in Lerer’s book were familiar, and have been much further developed elsewhere, came over me several times. While Lerer does cite many sources in his notes, the weight of the body of children’s literature scholarship does not seem to impact substantially on the content. He writes on fairy tales: “It is as if the girl’s body is itself a kind of forest for the fairy-tale imagination: something dark and inexplicable, something in need of management, of clearing, of cleansing”. While neither masculinities nor fairy tales are within my area of specialisation, ideas like these seemed to present well-worn ground as new observations.

I was surprised to see a book from 1851, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, described as the first “work of literature (not simply of advice) designed for readers in their girlhood...” Now perhaps the word “literature” is what might save this assertion, but, while it’s earlier than the period I ordinarily work in, there are definitely novels written for girls prior to 1851 that are not simply conduct manuals. The next section of the chapter is devoted to Anne of Green Gables, leaving behind the entire development of girls’ literature in the late nineteenth century in Britain, with only the abovementioned work on Shakespeare’s heroines rating a mention. While Lerer is telling a tale about performance, and selecting texts that best suit his study of girls as actors, his book seems to continue the trend of dismissing girls’ literary genres as unworthy of mention. After four pages devoted to Anne, we move to the American Little Women, and finally back to Britain with the canonical The Secret Garden. Wonderful Wizard of Oz rates a mention for the theatricality of Oz, but I find it strange that a book that has a girl protagonist but is not specifically a work of girls’ literature enters into this dedicated chapter. Oh wait, outside of fairy tales, books with male protagonists are “children’s literature” and ones with girl protagonists are “female fiction”? The history of girls’ literature is summed up in six books. The chapter closes with an analysis of Charlotte’s Web. Clearly not a lot happened in the world of girls’ reading in almost half a decade until then.

While Lerer’s book seems more useful for pleasurable reading than research purposes, I am in some ways glad that girls’ books are given short shrift once more. That there is an entire chapter on Robinsonades that does not mention girls’ versions; that boys’ adventure novels and periodicals warrant discussion while girls' equivalents or alternatives are not; that boys’ school stories are analysed in ways that make the schoolboy out to be a Crusoe-figure and we'll never know about what girls' books do beyond the six, questionably "girls'" books that are included. These omissions leave a little space for me to flesh out at least one aspect of children’s literature that is glossed over all too often.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Embarrassment of Children's Literature

We hide things because we are ashamed of them. Because we know that the norms of our culture will say that there is something embarrassing about a particular act or belief. And so it is a welcome thing that we do not have to hear about the health benefits of adopting a nudist lifestyle from the person we happen to sit next to on a long-haul flight. The bounds of the cultural norm serve some function to keep the majority comfortable. There are nonetheless areas where the cultural norm inexplicably relegates something outside the realm of acceptable adult behaviour. Neither breaking sexual, religious or political taboos, children's literature nevertheless must be discarded as we reach adulthood or our enjoyment of it concealed. Beyond the perils of the train commuter who feels compelled to buy an edition of Harry Potter with an "adult" dustjacket, in the academic realm, children's literature is flat out even convincing scholars of literature more broadly that it is a valid area of academic inquiry.

If you would accuse me of being overly-dramatic, I would direct you to an article in the English Telegraph about the release of the most recent Harry Potter film. Bryony Gordon, who has tired of the series' marketing hype, extends her criticism to adults who might enjoy reading children's books: "Anyway, it won't surprise you to learn that I don't understand grown adults who like Harry Potter, especially when there are so many other great books out there. It's a bit sinister, actually. In my mind, you may as well sit on the tube reading a Thomas the Tank Engine picture-book making choo-choo noises."

This is meant to be a blog on girls' literature and culture and Harry Potter isn't an exemplary text in its portrayal of girls, with an unattractive, annoying swot as its leading female character (in the first book especially). The assumption that Gordon makes, however, is that adults are wasting their time reading children's books because children's books cannot be "great books". While Harry Potter may not constitute the most innovative or brilliantly written series of books, it's a very wide sweep of the critical broom to discount an entire genre of literature with centuries of history as devoid of literary merit. Her final sentence touches on the perceived need to strictly separate adulthood from childhood. Any dalliance with children's books, films or games might reverse your intelligence to the point of pre-literacy. Or before you know it you'll be erecting a statue of Peter Pan in your sprawling ranch, just a moonwalk away from your replica of a Disneyland train station. The "sinister" aspect is the idea that there is indeed something perverted and warped about adults still finding entertainment in books written by adults for a child audience.

The comments in response to the article also bear out the idea that there is something wrong with adults who read children's books: "Why would an adult raed or attempt to red a book such as Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter. They are childrens' books." Ignoring the assaults on grammar in those sentences, the sentiment is clear, children's books should only be read by children. There is no benefit to be had in reading Neil Gaiman, Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak or Philip Pullman. And what did anyone ever get out of young adult fiction like The Catcher in the Rye? It's clearly more adult to have a copy of a gossip magazine in hand that poses such elevated intellectual questions as "has Jordan had her breast implants downsized?" than to read works that might also be enjoyed by children. I suppose this is why all of the thirtysomething men who are obsessed with Star Wars films are also labelled "sinister"? Despite some disturbing uses of lycra on middle-aged spread, I don't see too many articles in major newspapers suggesting that men in Storm Trooper outfits are reverting to toddlerhood.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Farewell Terri, Kerry, Frances and Leigh: Trend Against Unisex Baby Names

How do names suddenly catch on? Why are kindergarten teachers wiping the noses of Brittanys and Mias, Coopers and Rileys, yet nursing homes accommodate women named Mavis and Edna and men called Theodore and Cecil? I'm not sure why names fall in and out of favour so quickly. Perhaps each generation wishes to separate its identity from that of its parents, and may even seek to reclaim the identity of the generation that was cast off before that. "Old-fashioned" names can magically transform into hip originality.

A research company in Australia has released details of the top baby names in Australia in 2009. What interested me most about the results, more than the return of once-dated names like Isabella, is McCrindle Research's observation that "Australian parents are consistently registering baby names that are undoubtedly gendered." The trend they identify for "soft-sounding" girls' names, versus "firm-sounding" boys' names is I think well-known. A good example given by linguist David Crystal is the fact that "Marion Morrison" would not have made a masculine-sounding cowboy while "John Wayne" was short, sharp and strong.

What is seemingly new is the disappearance of unisex or gender-neutral names. The researchers involved have proposed that this change reflects the "conservative side" of Generation X parents. Just which names would Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke choose for their children? Well, actually, short-haired, almost-forty Winona has yet to reproduce, and Ethan Hawke has three children, including a darling daughter, Clementine. From the researchers' assumption it seems that Australian parents wish to more firmly locate their children as feminine or masculine right from the get-go. Coupled with the proliferation of "Jacks" and "Williams" you could wonder whether we're carrying misplaced nostalgic for the gender ideals of more than a hundred years ago, when the sexes were generally confined to separate spheres of home and public work.

Is it also part of the backlash against feminism that parents feel that the blurring of gender roles- and names with blurry genders- are just too complicated? Wouldn't it be easier if lines were redrawn as they once were so everyone knew where (and how!) to stand? Mia (proud owner of the most popular female baby name in 2008) will be at her plastic replica ironing board with wrinkled clothing in hand, while Jack (similarly popular for males in 2008) will be working on a woodwork project with his miniature tool set.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Lack of Cheer in Cheerleading

There's no doubt that US cultural influences formed the bulk of my childhood entertainment. My family rarely watched Australian public broadcaster ABC, with its mix of documentaries, British dramas and newscasts that were delivered in what we (being a family in which no one had yet completed high school) perceived as "snobby" accents, but which I now recognise as the mark of education and travel. Heaven forbid someone had actually lived in another country for a year or two: we never even travelled interstate!

What I could access through our small-screen television became a cultural junk food diet of sitcoms, teen films and "dramas" such as Beverly Hills 90210. With a predominantly American intake of films and television, the figure of the cheerleader was an easily digestible sign of successful femininity. She stood in contrast to bookish and unattractive girls. Not only was the cheerleader good looking, she was athletic, popular and considered successful, but in a way that supported men, rather than overshadowing their sporting "achievements". Recent films such as Bring it On emphasise the backstabbing and bitchiness inherent in any all-female competition, and also its sexualised nature as one tag-line proves: "A Comedy About The Crazy Things Girls Do To Be On Top."

I remember an older high-school girl who travelled on my school bus. She had become a cheerleader for a new Australian Rules football team that had been established on the Gold Coast. I stared at her spiral-permed hair, heavy Cover Girl pancake makeup (masking a reasonable dose of acne) and the pom poms that she once carried on the bus in awe. She was the living embodiment of everything that I had seen via American culture. She was the peak of what a girl could achieve within that realm of thinking. Several years later, I saw her at a fleamarket stall with her friends, clearing out belongings they no longer wanted or needed, and the pom-poms were among the items for sale. I knew that I could not simply buy them and transmogrify into a cheerleader. It would take a certain type and look of girl to become one, and even possession of the coveted bunches of plastic were not going to make it happen.

These reflections were sparked by the suggestion that the National Rugby League should ban cheerleaders from its games due to numerous recent controversies relating to a sexual assault and the omnipresent objectification of women. How could football players be asked to treat women respectfully- to not abuse their position and status as the ultimate Australian male- when the very system of football itself placed women on the sidelines as entertainment based on their physical attractiveness for the enjoyment of male spectators? General opinion on discussion forums did not seem to locate a connection between women treated as entertainment (it's just for fun!) and situations that spiral out of control like the 19-year-old woman who consented to sex with two football players and wound up in a room with five times more men masturbating and rubbing their genitals in her face.

Researcher Catherine Lumby said that the problem did not lie with the cheerleaders: "I take a strong view that how women are dressed has nothing to do with it. I refuse to condemn women for cheerleading or for dancing as ballerinas in skimpy tutus for that matter." Of course, she is right that the mere presence of a scantily clad woman does not authorise sexual assault (witness a Brisbane man this week claiming he raped his 14-year-old stepdaughter because she wore shirt skirts) or even Neanderthal attitudes to women in general. The Minister for the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek, put her suggestion for the NRL to change to alternative forms of pre-match entertainment (such as drummers) in terms of needing to please mothers to ensure that the the NRL appealed to "the next generation of football fans". So, in short, the only reason you might want to remove the barely-clad women from the football field on a winter's evening is because mothers might be upset and not want to encourage their sons to participate further in the sport. We wouldn't want to try something else for the simple reason that many women might not like or enjoy it, full stop.

The only serious calls I have seen for the banning of cheerleading are in India, where its recently developed IPL cricket series has brought Americanised cheerleading to a different cultural context. There are other faint murmurs about overly-sexualised routines in other parts of the world needing to be toned down. I'd like to hear more about how women could be recognised publicly as more than than celebrators of male achievement. It's not simply about sexualisation, but creating heroes of men and ornaments of women. So long as a school girl on a bus like my eight-year-old self might see a cheerleader as a successful woman, there is a problem with all-female cheerleaders at football matches. And the masculine terrain of football is just the place that needs to break down stereotypes about women as mere accessories to successful men.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

16-year-old girl to sail around the world

There are not many firsts left in this world. We've had men climb Everest. Women climb Everest. Blind men climb Everest. Blind women climb Everest. Father and son climb Everest. Mother and daughter climb Everest. If you're hankering to be the first "something" to climb Everest, your options are now rather narrow, as people of almost every background, including some who have overcome substantial physical challenges, have now forked out the dough to risk death in order to say that they "made it".

While almost anyone who can walk, abandon work for months and pay for the substantial expenses can set out to climb the world's largest mountain, not as many are able to circumnavigate the globe unassisted in a sailboat. Australian Kay Cottee became the first woman to do so in 1988. Ten years later, Jesse Martin set sail at seventeen years of age and completed his journey by the age of eighteen to become the youngest person to do so. His adventures prompted a book entitled "Lionheart", no doubt with reference to the courage and mental strength required to survive in isolation for almost a year on the sea, as well as being the name of his craft (well, minus the sponsors, Mistral who he also had to name the boat after).

With women and boys having achieved this feat, it only remains for a girl to take on the unforgiving seas. The girl who is very likely to be the one to have her name entered in the Guinness Book of Records is called Jessica Watson, and she's recently announced her intention to work towards her attempt to sail around the world non-stop without any help. Jessica has her own blog and website. As a sign of how series this attempt will be, her parents have quit their jobs in order to prepare for it. Jessica plans to begin the attempt in September, shortly after her sixteenth birthday which she celebrated this month and which finally rendered her eligible to obtain a boat license. If she completes her journey as scheduled, she'll shave a year off Jesse Martin's record and will have circled the globe by the age of seventeen.

According to a newspaper article, some have criticised Jessica's planned journey because she is too young and the trip will be dangerous. Jesse Martin was only seventeen when he began his journey, but I don't recall public concerns about him being too immature to deal with the risks. In fact, Martin has gone on to be championed as an exemplary human being by everyone from the United Nations Director to the Prime Minister and even musician Ben Harper. Bill Clinton remarked that Jesse's "courage and determination are an inspirational example".

Clearly we're not looking for these same attributes in girls, as they must be protected rather than courting danger at sea. Good luck to Jessica! I'm sure they'll be grooming a boy in utero to break her record the moment it's set.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Up-Ageing" Girls Ditch their Dolls

For a start, I feel old because I did not know there even was a "Generation Z" until I read the newspaper today. I'm also supposed to feel old because an article in it describes the way that women of my generation packed their dolls away aged about 10 or 11, while girls are now tiring of brushing knots out of polyester hair at an average age of 6 or 7. The study cited in the article suggests girls are moving on to technological play a lot earlier, preferring to spend their leisure time on gaming systems, iPods and PCs.

The researcher, Mark McCrindle, argues that "they're [girls] moving into a technological world much earlier and it's partly coming from their peers … but it's also partly coming from parents who are pushing their children towards more structured educational toys," he said. This all sounds feasible, but why is this specifically problematic for girls? It is discussed here as a sign of childhood being "eroded" and as a follow-on effect of the premature sexualisation of girls.

Strangely it seems like it's a problem for girls to move on to gaming and electronic gadgets (even an iPod is mentioned, which hardly seems gendered in that surely boys and girls enjoy music). Did the study consider at what age boys are giving up action figures and cars? Might it not be that they are similarly developing a penchant for electronic goods at an early age? And perhaps if there has been a time-lag for girls up until now it has been part of the gendering of toys and computers. Would it have been sufficiently "girly" for an eight-year-old to be into gaming ten or twenty years ago? (Not to deny any exceptions, as I was particularly enamoured of my Commodore 64 in 1987.) How is the context different now when almost every Australian home has a computer (or two), internet, and a substantial majority have a gaming console as well?

Play with dolls fulfils a kind of preparatory function for mothering. Girls toys include ovens and irons because these are jobs it is imagined that they will one day perform. For boys we manufacture imitation power tools and lawnmowers because these tough jobs are male. Mums and Dads are probably not sticking to these gendered norms as represented in the toy aisle as firmly as in the past. Maybe girls ditch dolls earlier because they see Mum taking her laptop to work and want to emulate her in the same way that girls of previous generations wanted a replica kitchen to model Mum's daily routine?

And if dolls are waning in popularity then someone better tell the people behind the new Australian Girl doll. These dolls are meant to resemble their girl owners in age and are presented as thoroughly Australian in their netball uniforms and beachwear. The creator of the doll, Helen Schofield, was also motivated by the sexualisation of girls and wanted to counter "the negative impact of popular culture on young children". I'm interested to know whether a range of non-violent boys' toys are being developed at the moment to stem the negative impact of popular culture on them. Or is that less exciting than stemming the tide of pre-teen g-strings?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Girl Scout Cookie Controversy

The controversy in question is one of those not particularly controversial "controversies". It's the kind that only exists within the space of the morning talk show. The Today Show in the US has featured an enterprising young Girl Scout, Wild Freeborn, who sought to sell 12,000 boxes of cookies by channeling the power of YouTube. There are two small amusements to be taken from this before we arrive at the reason why Wild was thwarted. First, the headline on MSNBC is "Her Girl Scout Cookie-Selling Scheme Crumbled" (boom tish). Second, the child's name is among the most unusual I've ever heard. Not only is she "freeborn", she's "wild" into the bargain. Perhaps there is some etymology for this name that I'm not familiar with, but how refreshing in any case that parents would wish to name their girl "wild". It's not an attribute that has ever been desirable in a daughter. Late-Victorian stories like "Wild Kathleen" were about girls who needed to be tamed.

Now the controversy is far from one because the girl's appearance on Today came complete with a representative from the Girl Scouts of America and some artfully positioned boxes of cookies on the coffee table on-set. Wild's father assisted her in producing a video to promote her cookie sales in her home town, which she personally delivered to each customer. Selling cookies online is against Girl Scout policy and thus after hundreds of sales, poor Wild was dobbed in for her rule violation. While technically Wild was not selling online, it was nonetheless close enough for the video to be pulled. Let's not tell Girl Scouts of America that I see cookies for sale on eBay all the time! I would have bought some already if not for wondering how they'd fare on the journey half way around the world.

It was a little disappointing to hear the reasoning for the cookie promotion ban from Girl Scouts of America. Their website strikes me as heavily rule-oriented, with more sub-sections on correct use of the official logo than points in the US constitution. There's no such marketing overkill evident in the British Guides. First, the spokeswoman suggested that it was necessary for the actions of the Girl Scout to fit with her programme. Lumbering cookies around door to door: builds fitness, increases risk of abduction, gets girls out in the community. Advertising cookie sales online: frightening use of internet, potential paedophiles worldwide set to converge, not part of the programme. The spokesperson claimed all girls selling door-to-door were accompanied by adults, but although Wild was protected by her father in her online activities, she could not guarantee all parents would do this, so online selling and promotion had to be forbidden.

Strangely enough, a YouTube search reveals some TV ads from Girl Scouts Nebraska encouraging cookie sales. There are a few shorter, more positive variations, but this one lays on the guilt by showing a crying little girl who fails to sell a box of cookies to an uncaring clod. I'm guessing Wild Freeborn's approach may have been more subtle and possibly more effective at motivating sales. Perhaps they could put her on the Girl Scout marketing payroll?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Church Condemns Abortion for Nine-year-old Girl

The nine-year-old Brazilian girl I last wrote about (was about to say "blogged" and didn't feel happy about "verbing" it- yes, I just "verbed" verb) has now had her twin embryos aborted. It is perhaps no surprise to hear that the Catholic church did not support the abortion. What is astounding is that the Brazilian regional archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, has announced that the mother of the girl and the doctors who performed the procedure would be excommunicated from the church.

There are a couple of ironic aspects to this antiquated response. First, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a Vatican cleric, has defended the Brazilian archbishop's decision with a statement affirming that "Life must always be protected." Does this mean, then, that the girl's life is irrelevant? Somehow worth less than the potential lives of the two embryos? Doctors warned that it was unlikely that the girl's small body could withstand the pregnancy. I suppose it only reflects the usual religious stance on abortion, even in cases of rape, but when the victim is a child, it makes the trivialising of the woman's/girl's life pointedly obvious.

The second is that the perpetrator of the rapes will not be excommunicated from the Catholic church. His acts of child rape are less heinous than that of the girl's mother and doctors (attempting to preserve the life of a girl who has been abused) in the church's eyes.

On International Women's Day, stories like this one are a timely reminder that the actions of men, such as those with authority in this major church, continue to have an extremely negative affect on women in developing countries. While there is a very real gender divide in countries like Australia, it is a sad thing to write that it would be something of an achievement if we could proclaim that all the women of the world were only subject to the kinds of discrimination and oppression that we are.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nine-year-old Pregnant with Twins

Today's news brings a sobering reminder that the evils of unrealistically buxom dolls and bras for the breastless are not the worst that could be inflicted upon girls. A nine-year-old Brazilian girl is reportedly now four-months pregnant with twins, the disturbing result of sexual abuse by her stepfather. The abuse began when the girls was only six, and the cretin saw fit to give her less than one Australian dollar (a Brazilian Real) each time he sexually assaulted her.

The major problem, apart from the psychological horror of a child raising children born as a result of sexual abuse, is that the girl's small body is likely to be unable to carry two embryos to full-term. One doctor commented: "We don't know if she will develop the pregnancy up to the end because of the structure of her body. It is a big risk for her."

Now, I understand that abortion is not commonly practiced in Brazil except for instances of rape or danger to the mother's health, but surely this case is one where both rules should come into swift effect. The tone of the responses of some of the doctors involved does not rule out that the girl might be expected to try to carry the twins to term, even though it would be an extreme risk to her survival. Surely the girl, a decided victim, too young to find any way out of her abusive family life, should be the first priority and the abortion conducted immediately before the pregnancy progresses any further?

American Girl Takes on the Aw-Sees

I am totally fascinated by the idea of the American Girl dolls. Not only does the range include contemporary and historical American Girl dolls, but there also accompanying books that tell the stories of each "girl" in her relevant time period. I'm sure these books do not contain literary gold, but I'm interested to see how this large and profitable company thinks historical girls should be presented to contemporary ones. I'm also guessing that real girls are more interested in the modern dolls and that it's adult crackpots like me who are interested in the likes of "Kirsten", the Minnesota frontier settler from 1854. Then again, the recent American Girl film, Kit Kittredge (starring Abigail Breslin), was set in the Great Depression in 1934.

When playing on the American Girls site (it took me several times to get a perfect score on the pop quiz, humiliatingly), I discovered it was possible to travel (virtually, and perhaps not even necessarily since I'm already here) to Australia. I loved the facts about Australia section. I had to laugh as some slang was given a pronunciation key that would have the speaker come out with the most American-sounding accent for supposedly ocker terms like "aw-see" for Aussie (more likely "oz-ee" from Strine mouths). Others replicated the British sounds that were adopted in that bizarre Simpsons-come-to-Australia episode, such as "gid-dye mite" (g'day mate). "Lolly water" was listed as the equivalent for "soda pop". I can't say I have ever heard anyone call it anything other than "soft drink" in my life. "Lolly water" has only ever arisen in the context of someone drinking a sweet alcoholic drink (in contrast to a "man's drink", like VB!), but that may reveal some now uncommon, earlier use for sweetened carbonated drinks.

The one that surprised me most was the phrase "See you in the soup!", which apparently means "See you around!" Again, I must not be getting out enough, and I'd have thought having a father who is the embodiment of the Bruce Ruxton skit from Fast Forward and Alf Stewart from Home and Away would have qualified me to know these things. I had to do a Google search to see where I was going wrong, and most of the results for the phrase were links to travel dictionaries, explaining to poor holidaymakers what funny (both ha-ha and strange) language they might encounter on their journey to the land where the water swirled down the plug-hole the "wrong" way. What has Hugh Jackman been telling them all?

Friday, February 27, 2009

My Little Red Book (Unrelated to Mao)

It can be a moment of disturbance, fear, irritation or relief. It can even be supremely terrifying if you're Carrie White, in Stephen King's first novel, who, screaming like a banshee in the school gym shower, had no idea whether it meant that she was about to die. But, regardless of the precise response, a girl's first period will always be memorable. The first brush with the inconvenience of it all, the avoidance of white shorts (perhaps a rule best followed all-month long), the sometimes excruciating cramps, and the embarrassment of family members having to be told leaves a mental imprint deeper than most other life events, particularly when stamped so close to, or often in, childhood. I was only ten, almost eleven, when my period arrived and what I was deeming an innocuous smudge on my underwear was something I hoped to write off as mistake that would correct itself and never have to be thought of again. Over two hundred cycles later, I can reflect that it was going to be a long time before this thing was resolved.

Every woman has her own story of this event, but it's not something that is ordinarily shared amidst polite inquiry about how work is, how the children are going, (how'd you get your first period), and how's your ankle holding out. In fact, it's not something I'd thought of considering until I heard about My Little Red Book. Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who is not far out of school and is set to attend Yale, collected the stories of almost a hundred women recounting their first surf of the crimson wave (a metaphor that mistakenly attributes a sense of achievement the greater the swell). You'll even find the recollections of Cecily von Ziegesar and Erica Jong in the book. The same cannot be said for Glenn Close, who was reportedly bemused when bailed up in the street by Nalebuff and confronted with a request to disclose her own experience of menarche.
Some have suggested that the book is symptomatic of a trend for "oversharing" or girls as "gross-out merchants", catching up with men's propensity for scatalogical and any other excretable humour. As a source of supreme anxiety and often embarassment for young girls, I'm pleased if people are oversharing on the subject. For some families, menstruation is not talked about at all. My mother couldn't even discuss the subject with me, but, upon purchasing the new innovation in feminine hygiene products of the time (pads with "wings"), she left a demo model (a pair of underwear with one of the technological marvels stuck on) in the bathroom cupboard for me to discover and take the hint as to how to use them. If girls can talk about the moment or read other people's recollections of it, rather than battling to hide it from friends and the world in general, the better for it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hot Girls in Scary Places. Jinkies!

I can't imagine ever having invented the title of this blog post myself. E! television kindly stepped in with their creative wizardry to save me from having to devise my own. They've developed a new concept for a reality TV show and we're not going to need to bring in a cryptographer to decipher the premise from the title: Hot Girls in Scary Places. At least we knew there was meant to be humour in the obviousness of Snakes on a Plane.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the pilot of the show will star "three University of Southern California cheer squad friends challenged to spend the night in a supposedly haunted abandoned hospital and compete for a $10,000 cash prize." Now I'm guessing the girls must be enrolled at the University in order to wave pom poms in celebration of males fighting over a ball, but the show's press release stresses that the girls will not be bringing any scholarly brainpower to this mental duel with the unknown: "Most who dare take on the spirit world are experienced paranormal warriors, who have prepped, studied and armed themselves for battle with the nether world. Enter the HOT GIRLS armed with the latest in scientific paranormal equipment (and the hottest new shoes.)"
I'm not exactly sure what constitutes the "latest in paranormal equipment". Has the technology really moved on that much from the ghost-sucking vacuum cleaners that the Ghostbusters used? Anyway, how interesting to see those who have previously "battled" the supernatural are coded as male ("warriors") and used the masculine weapon of reason ("prepped, studied") to do so. The unnecessarily-capitalised "HOT GIRLS" will have this unspecified "equipment" to wield, but how on earth will they know how to use it when they're going to be preoccupied with their sexy footwear?
And the show's catchphrase? "Their mission a simple one: Investigate and look Fabulous doing it." Please bring back Scooby-Doo's Velma, her thick black glasses, and that shocking orange turtleneck sweater!

Twilight (Without the Penetrative Puns)

Within the children's literature community, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series is decidedly old news. Apart from noticing the recent film at the cinema or the unusual range of "Edward" merchandise in shops, all those who do not inhabit the body of a teenage girl, however, are probably unaware of the reading phenomenon that the series is. Given my interest in girls' books and the gothic, I had to belatedly read this bestselling account of human-vampire love. It took someone else to lend me the whole series (thanks Dr Kristine!), and lots of cryptic discussions about **spoiler alert** the violent birth of a parasitic mutant baby, to place the first book in my hands.

I was disappointed to find that I was not one of those people who was going to be able to spout the "I know it's tripe, but it's so addictive" line. I have concluded book one and I think this will be as far as I can make it. Many people deride Stephen King's writing. I think he writes very well (apart from when he produces something like the sleep-inducing Insomnia), but even he, a man who had his literary initiation via dime novels and horror magazines, has spoken publicly about Meyer's shoddy writing. Sometimes frustrating books can be enticing to read from a critical perspective, but I couldn't even drag that much from the first book.

It is fascinating to read the discussion that the books have prompted, though. Even the fans of the series who were bitterly disappointed by the final title (almost half as many as the 2,000 who have left five-star Amazon reviews) have felt sufficiently aggrieved to write thousand-word explanations expressing their disgust. Feminists have found plentiful examples of Bella's passivity to fuel dozens of blog posts and hundreds of comments. Devoted fans have jumped to Meyer's defense (King's comment provoked more than 1400 online replies, a number from outraged girl readers), and there's currently a poll on the same site with more than 5000 related remarks about whether Twilight is superior to the Harry Potter series. I'd like to champion girls' fiction and speak about how boys' books are universalised while girls' books are ghettoised, but this would be a poor example to choose to champion the merits of girls' fiction. That said, I was still aggrieved by one blog comment that remarked "these are girls' books", as if that explained the myriad gripes that critics have levelled at the series. Even Harlequin Mills and Boon novels do not necessarily have such frustratingly male-obsessed heroines.

What is interesting to me is not whether Meyer's Mormon faith is infused in her choice to depict a chaste-till-marriage turned teen-mom heroine, but why these books have had such a cultural resonance. Vampire stories have been popular at various times and for various cultural reasons throughout the past century, but in Twilight the supernatural serves as a vehicle for, as King has suggested, allowing the safe exploration of thwarted sexual feelings for girl readers. My favourite blog comment had the alias "Dubya": "Twilight is why I was president for eight years." I wonder whether there's more to be drawn out there about the American political climate during the years of Twilight's publication (one in which religious influenced abstinence-focused sexual education seemed to proliferate). This does not entirely explain Twilight's popularity outside the US, however. But something must explain it!

For anyone who has not read Twilight, I would instead recommend this 1718 word summary that is a useful substitute for the novel. The humour in it is also partial compensation for those who have suffered through the book.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Girl Power" Turns Ugly

I was never quite sure about the concept of "girl power" in any event. The only demonstration I could readily recall of any such thing was Geri Halliwell randomly yelling the phrase on stage when performing with the Spice Girls. She was always wearing the hand-towel sized Union Jack dress at the time. Books such as Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, however, let me in on the fact that there were more pervasive examples of exploitation being cast as empowerment, sometimes under the banner of "girl power".

While the merits of pole-dancing as liberating and powerful perhaps leave some room for contestation (a brilliant PhD candidate I know currently takes pole dance classes), there is apparently a new strand to girl power that is in all respects disurbing: violence. While part of the supposed trend may well be unsubstantiated (relying on the highly reliable statistical tool of the participants on reality TV show Ladette to Lady and whatever travesty Amy Winehouse is now involved in for source material), Criminologist Paul Wilson says that about ten to twenty percent of "glassing" incidents in nightspots are now perpetrated by women. Eruptions of violent stiletto attacks (I jest not) are popping up regularly in a way that Wilson argues rarely happened four or five years ago. Part of the "trend" is wanting to fight "like a man" and also have sex "like a man". I'm just wondering precisely who is suggesting that this kind of violence is perceived as empowering in the same way that sexualised displays are being considered. If the power of these displays is in their attraction of and control of men, what power does rampant hair-pulling and eye-gouging confer?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Indigo Magazine- Adult-Approved Girls' Culture

There is now an Australian magazine aimed at "tweens" that seeks to counter perceived sexualised portrayals of girls found in teen magazines. It's called Indigo. It is now in its fifth edition and it seeks to present stories and images of "everyday girls", as opposed to those disturbing skeletal giants (read: models) who are sent off to earn millions of dollars in New York upon hitting puberty. A prominent feature of the marketing associated with the magazine is that the photographs of the models are not airbrushed. One of the editors, Natalia Morelli commented: "I was seeing my daughter, Molly, in an environment where she's exposed to a lot of stimuli all at once and judging herself based on that. I felt it was really important to give her something that gave her choice and really empowered her."
It's refreshing to see a magazine that attempts to present images of girls without Jolie-esque trout-pout lips nor sporting grill marks from the solarium. Indigo's website delves beyond "does he love me or not" polls and style tips (although it does have some emphasis on fashion) to encourage girls to be creative and develop their bodies for their own health, not because they want to look good in low-rise jeans. Nevertheless items like the "10 Things I Like About You" game featured on the website-- it promises to help "jettison girls into the joy bubble of high self-esteem"-- suggest that the didactic elements of the magazine may be a little too overt to ensure the magazine's survival if much of its intended audience is beyond primary school.
And schools may be where the continued survival of Indigo resides it seems, as 450 schools already subscribe to the magazine. I'd imagine this is because they believe they are assisting in countering the pressure on girls to confirm to a particular body image. This was seen as a marked problem of girls' teen magazines during last year's government inquiry. As Professor Catherine Lumby comments, however, there is more to solving the problem of raising unrealistic expectations in girls than countering images in print magazines: "There's no question that girls were very aware of pressures on them about appearance but they felt this didn't just come from the media, it also came from things like behaviour modelled by their mothers … To isolate magazines is really to miss the broader social context: that we still live a very gendered society that puts pressure on women of all ages."
Lumby is also "with it" enough to recognise that far from being ignorant of Photoshopping in magazines, most teen girls are able to manipulate their own photographs for use on social networking sites. Whether Indigo is underestimating the capacity of its audience to navigate a real and virtual world of altered images or not remains to be seen, but will the magazine grab girls' attention sufficiently to survive amidst the flashier attractions of the sexualised culture it seeks to counter?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Facebook Breast Ban: When Does a Girls' Body Become "Indecent"?

While teen girl cleavage and bathroom-mirror-pouting has been a fixture on MySpace for years now, the more "mature" social networking site Facebook has recently ruffled a few maternal feathers by removing photographs from its site that violate its terms of service. The images in question are those which show breastfeeding in which part or all of the mother's nipple or areola are revealed. While breastfeeding photographs in general are not problematic according to Facebook, those which do not have a baby neatly latched on to the breast so as to conceal any potentially offending flesh will be removed.

A spokesperson for the site, Barry Schnitt, explained that some images were removed to keep the site "safe" and "secure", including for children: "Photos containing a fully exposed breast - as defined by showing the nipple or areola - do violate those terms on obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit material and may be removed...The photos we act upon are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain."

The decision has sparked a full-scale debate not only about whether breastfeeding images are appropriate on social networking sites, but also about whether revealing the breast while feeding a child in public is appropriate and whether it constitutes "exhibitionism" on the part of the mother. The comments on one blog portray the idea that mothers who feed in public should shroud their chest and feeding baby in a blanket or trudge out to the privacy of their car. (Let's not even think about those poor mothers who don't have a car to conceal their feeding. These ones should just stay home.)

Other commentors take up the idea that Facebook spokesperson Schnitt makes: the presence of pictures of mothers feeding online where part of their areola or nipple is showing could be viewed by children. I'm not sure why the unlikely event of children seeing photographs on Facebook of mothers feeding babies is so problematic. It only becomes this way when we carry over our adult sexualisation of breasts to children themselves, bringing our own understandings of pornography and a body-obsessed popular culture to what is an essential aspect of raising a child (unless medical reasons preclude it). Still others commented on those who may find breastfeeding sexually arousing gaining pleasure from some images. I once met a man who worked at a "rehabilitation" centre for sex offenders (he incidentally said child sex offenders were never actually rehabilitated). Part of his job was to go through the TV Guide and ensure all children's programmes, including Humphrey B. Bear and Hi-Five, were struck from it and unavailable to be viewed by them because the sight of any children could be arousing to them. We cannot more broadly remove every image of children or babies that someone, somewhere may find arousing.

What intrigued me about the discussion was when a few posters, who could not see the offense in the female breast performing its essential function, homed in on the offending nipples and areolas themselves: what about the nipples of men and girls? Male nipples we know have no apparent function in the same way as female nipples do for feeding, so perhaps we can exclude them from consideration. Nevertheless, the Facebook policy appears to dwell on nipple exposure rather than the actual swell and volume of the breast which is part of what differentiates the female's chest from the male's. That aside, it was interesting to consider that the nipples of girls can be spotted on beaches and pools across Australia almost up until the point of sexual maturation. If it is female nipples themselves that are the most sexualised object in a breastfeeding photo, why do young girls swim publicly with them visible?

Now I shouldn't be trying to find logic in these ideas, so these questions may be unanswerable, and I also could not believe the way in which many posters likened public breastfeeding to public acts of defecation, urination, vomiting and sexual intercourse. These hang-ups about the female body performing its designed purpose are so deeply ingrained that is no wonder that some people reach adulthood in ignorance of the fact that breasts exist to feed babies. Also no surprise that girls themselves are getting the message that sexualised MySpace breasts show their attractiveness but breastfeeding is an abject act that will ruin her desirability. One poster discussed the "blue veiny" lactating breast with horror. The silicone breast is more natural and appealing than the reality.