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.