Monday, December 26, 2011

Lego Makes Sure That Boys Will Be Boys and Girls Will Be Girls

I have an opinion piece in today's Age newspaper on the new Lego 'Friends' range for girls, which was produced in order to attract girls to the Lego brand.

Understandably, there is some debate on the issue in the comments already. Authors do not choose article titles in newspapers, so this would not have been my choice for a headline, but they are written to invite readers in with a bit of controversy. I guess the point of the article is that what we think girls and boys are is really a bit of a fiction.

Maybe a little girl is the best authority on the subject. And this girl's toy store complaints sum it up quite simply.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Childhood and World War One Symposium: Sydney, 1-2 December

When we think of the things that we wish to shield children from, war has to be one of the most concealed topics, right up there with sex. While many boys, in particular, may revel in playing war-based games on computers and in reality, the actual substance of war is something that parents fret about. Especially after 9/11, which was the catalyst for the ongoing "war on terror", there was frequent discussion on talk shows about how to explain or conceal the situation from children, who may be frightened by a world in which people wish to kill others mercilessly.

Yet there is no ability to entirely conceal the reality from children who are located in places of conflict. While most of these war zones today are not within view of children in the West, children in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries were once very much aware of and encouraged to participate in war. If we look to World War One, children's books, magazines and organisations across the British Empire were saturated with the influence of war in a way that did not seek to conceal its horrors, but to use them to bolster children's ideological and practical participation in the war effort.

Last week I attended 'A Game that Calls up Love and Hatred Both: The Child, the First World War and the Global South', a symposium that forms part of a major research project, 'Approaching War: Childhood, Culture and the First World War', involving scholars in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

I co-wrote a paper with my colleague Kristine Moruzi on the war-time trilogies of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce. The illustration above is from Turner's novel Captain Cub and shows the kind of universal admiration for boys and young men who voluntarily enlisted in the war present in texts for young people at the time. We set our discussion of the novels against the Victorian School Paper, which was a monthly magazine that all children in the state were required to purchase and read from the late nineteenth century.

The cover from the February 1916 edition shows not only the way in which the war and Australia's necessary contribution to it where placed at the forefront of children's educational materials, but also how a role was figured for all kinds of people, including women as nurses and maintainers of the home front. It was important to generate a sense that all Australians were contributing to the war effort, even if children could only sacrifice treats and trips to the movies to contribute small amounts of money to various Education Department sanctioned appeals.

Other papers at the symposium showed just how diverse the contributions encouraged from children during World War One were. Branden Little from Weber State University spoke about the Junior Red Cross in the United States, which was so successfully promoted that eleven million American children enrolled during the War. The children not only made and gathered supplies for war victims and hospitals, but worked in 'Victory Gardens' to contribute to the food supply and raised funds to assist Red Cross efforts overseas. (The Junior Red Cross raised almost four million dollars at the time, which constituted 10 per cent of the total of Red Cross funds in the period).

While the Junior Red Cross proved popular with both boys and girls, there were also numerous organisations targetted specifically at each sex that supported particular war-time roles for each gender. The Girl Guides were a standout in this regard, with an international network of girls already in place across the Empire, which Mary Claire Martin from the University of Greenwich discussed. Though in places such as Australia, where Guiding was still establishing itself, the organisation did devolve somewhat into the Junior Red Cross, those groups of girls who did remain as Guides set about working to raise funds for the war effort. Girl Guide training at the time was very much concerned with nursing, and girls supplemented their community work with practice in bandaging the wounded and carrying imagined victims on stretchers to safety.

Christeen Schoepf from the University of New England spoke about the South Australian Children's Patriotic Fund, which, like the Junior Red Cross and the Girl Guides, actually raised quite a substantial amount for the war effort. What was particularly striking, apart from the quirky beauty of some of the events organised by the Fund, such as an Alice in Wonderland themed fair complete with giant mushroom, was the immersion of entire country towns in the war. When the Children's Patriotic Fund held an event or parade, people came from miles to support it. Whether their motivation was strictly related to the war or not, I can't say, but war certainly permeated community life. During talks from representatives from the Australian War Memorial and National Library we heard excerpts of songs sung by young girls who would situate themselves outside the prime location of the town pub to raise funds for the war.

As papers by Kim Reynolds (University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Jessica Gerrard (UTS) on pacifist movements for children, including socialist Sunday schools, noted, however, there were voices who opposed the war and sought to send children a different message to the mass of war-time propaganda. Nevertheless, their papers largely related to the UK, so how much these alternate voices permeated Australian culture during the war remains uncertain.

What seemed to come out across the papers was the sense of duty associated with the war. It is hard to conceive of children having any sense of nationhood beyond sporting events today and the concept of owing a duty to that nation seems so far removed from the ideas circulated during World War One that encouraged every child to "do their bit". Obviously, Australia is not as fixated on its relationship with Britain today, and we see war in a different light after the horrors of both world wars, Vietnam and endless fighting in the Middle East. So, in one way, the distancing of children from our involvement in war partially reflects our changing idea of conflict and greater reluctance to participate. But, also, we can see a sharp change in childhood expectations and the dissipation of the idea that children need to be part of important social changes and causes. While people do suggest that children are "losing their innocence" in the internet age, when it comes to war, children in the West are definitely more oblivious and shielded than they were a century ago.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Women in Australia's Military: On the Front Line of the Gender War

I had an article published at The Conversation to coincide with Remembrance Day. It's called "Women in Australia's Military: On the Frontline of the Gender War", and was inspired by the news that women will be permitted to serve in armed combat roles in the future.

In response to the article, I received a lovely email from a woman who has served in the defence force, but who was prevented from pursuing her preference to be a helicopter pilot because she was a woman. Her daughter also wishes to enter the military- in the SAS, no less. Regardless of what some of us might think of military campaigns, I am please that this young girl will not be told that there is something she cannot do simply because she is female.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Our Australian Girl: Imagining Colonial Girls

At the moment I'm preoccupied with colonial girls, or at least I should be. I'm currently reading some novels published by Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce for an upcoming conference, 'A Game That Calls Up Love and Hatred Both', about childhood and World War I. On a related note, I've been trying to think about why Australia does not have an equivalent of Little Women, Anne of Green Gables or The Secret Garden. There are not really any Australian girls' books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that have achieved "classic" status, or which even remain in print. My Brilliant Career, perhaps, but it is not really read by today's girls in way that these canonical American, Canadian and English novels might be.

What today's Australian girls might read is a new series from Penguin, 'Our Australian Girl', which assembles a range of authors to imagine the lives of historical girls. Five years ago, an equivalent series, 'Our Canadian Girl', began publication in Canada, following the 'Dear Canada' series by Scholastic in 2001 for older readers. (Let us not even ponder the significance of the girls' series title evoking the idea of girls writing a letter to their nation, while the 2010 series for boys is titled 'I Am Canada'.). All of these books perhaps owe something to the success of American Girl merchandise. In 1986, the blandly named Pleasant Company began manufacturing dolls inspired by historical events, and in the ensuing decades, the cross-media franchise, which includes multiple books depicting the life of each historical doll, has become a phenomenon (albeit one in which the historical aspect has been somewhat subsumed by 'My American Girl' dolls that are contemporary in their dress and stories).

Both the Australian and Canadian series are aimed at girls from 8-11 and seek to bring "history to life". To support its take-up in schools, both series are supported by teachers' guides. For the Australian series, these classroom guides were prepared by Dr Pam Macintyre in the Education Faculty at my own university. The academic seal of approval and connection with "real" aspects of history were obviously important to Penguin.

Marnina Gonick has already researched the Canadian series and its representation of Canadian national identity, especially how the historical girl is used to consider contemporary questions of gender and nationality. (Her paper on this topic will hopefully be part of the Girls, Texts, Cultures anthology being edited by Mavis Reimer and Clare Bradford for Wilfrid Laurier University Press.) I am keen to find out how the Australian equivalent represents colonial girls in comparison with their representation in colonial books- though I'll need a cool $250 to buy all the books to date.

While Scholastic has published My Australian Story since 2000 (with a similar connection to the classroom and some high-profile children's authors), Our Australian Girl seems to be the first gender-based historical series of this type to appear in Australia. I first saw it in a bookstore in a large purpose-built display with all four volumes of each characters' story available. The cover artwork is very appealing, and avoids the obvious "this is a book intended to teach me something" look of the Scholastic titles, especially its use of a different charm bracelet motif on each of the characters' titles. The Grace books are about a London orphan who is transported to Australia in 1808 for stealing apples; the Letty books about a free settler who travels to Australia with her sister in 1841; the Poppy books about a girl with Indigenous and Chinese heritage living in a mission during the goldrush in the 1860s; and the Rose books are situated in the early 20th century and focus on the restrictions on girls and women (brought to a head by Rose's suffragette Aunt moving in with the family in Melbourne).

The series website encourages girls to document their own stories of becoming an Australian girl, to fashion their own book cover and learn to do activities enjoyed by the characters (including drawing horses and baking damper). The site recently held a competition where girl readers were invited to describe the kinds of charm they'd like to put on their own charm bracelet. The winning entry is not too far from the kinds of aspirations to be found in girls' magazines of a century ago, including to travel, care for animals, take care of babies and to knit and make things (with an aspiration toward lace making).

Like The Daring Book for Girls there could be an element of parental and grandparental nostalgia here hoping to inculcate old-fashioned values about femininity. Though there's still an element of heroism in the extracts published on the site, with Grace unperturbed when attacked by rats and lice while shackled to the convict ship, the initial signs are that these contemporary versions of colonial Australian girls might just be a little less adventurous than those in the stories real colonial girls read.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Diva Controversy: Binning the Playboy Bunny for Girls

What is wrong with a store selling Playboy merchandise? I’ve seen Playboy car seat covers in auto stores and lighters and keyrings in novelty stores for years. The world’s biggest adult entertainment/porn brand has well and truly emerged from magazine racks and sex shop DVD displays. Diva, a chain of Australian budget jewellery stores, took the prevalence of Playboy accessories to what they thought was its logical conclusion by stocking a range of Playboy jewellery, including the iconic “bunny”, a plastic bow-tie necklace, and pendants proclaiming the wearer to be “Miss February”.

What Diva failed to consider was their responsibility to their customer base, which includes a significant proportion of pre-teen and young teen girls. If we’re in any doubt that the chain markets its accessories to girls, consider the following points. The chain’s logo is a pink heart. They stock Twilight jewellery (including an “I Heart Vampires” rubber bracelet). They also sell replicas of celebrity engagement rings, such as the “Katy Perry” for $7.50. This is an affordable store, selling accessories that are appealing to, and within the budgetary reach, of girls aged from 9-13. The following photograph shows the Playboy range shelved immediately next to the “Young Divas” range of plastic colourful accessories for girls.

The range was heavily promoted by the store, including large “Diva for Playboy” banners displayed in store. A campaign led by Collective Shout mobilised hundreds of Facebook users to complain on the store’s official Facebook page. Sadly, many older girls expressed their upset at their discussion of accessories being interrupted by concerned parents, to the point where a number proclaimed their love for the Playboy merchandise and others abused concerned women as sexless, ugly hags. Diva was oddly silent as the war played out in social media, but were busy behind the scenes deleting comments with which they did not agree, especially those who posted a clever ad parody featuring a girl wearing rabbit ears with the caption “When I grow up I want to be a porn star”.

A petition with over 6,000 signatures calling on Diva to remove the Playboy line from its stores was variously rejected when presented in person to several outlets. Diva really did not want to publicly engage with parents who were labelling their store as an aid to paedophiles and facilitator of the sexualisation of children in the name of greed. Instead, it seems that the chain has silently conceded that despite their claims that Playboy was a ‘fashion’ brand with no connection to porn, that the thousands of parents and concerned adults pounding their Facebook page with comments could not be entirely ignored.

Remaining stock has been removed from display, and according to reports on the Collective Shout Facebook page, boxed up for return to head office. The Diva website has removed all but one item from the Playboy range: the diamante bunny head ring that is “a must for all Playmates”. If the range has been such a good seller, as has been variously claimed, then one would expect the stores to be ordering in more products and new stock, rather than returning them to headquarters. Clearly public pressure has made it untenable for the store to continue to sell the Playboy range.

The Diva controversy is an intriguing example of contemporary corporate attitudes to public opinion in which businesses invite comments, feedback and interactivity, but only wish to preserve a culture of compliments and remove any trace of criticism. It also shows the utter failure of such businesses to practice corporate responsibility when their livelihood depends on the spending of children. Perhaps McDonald’s could make a few extra bucks if they installed a bar adjoining the playground at each restaurant? Heaven knows most parents being nagged into eating there could do with a drink. But perhaps, despite their unhealthy options that are marketed to children, McDonald’s has to draw some kind of line because of their major appeal to
children and young adults.

In addition to these things, Diva’s attempts to justify Playboy jewellery as appropriate for marketing to a primary audience of girls under 16 is a further demonstration of the creep of pornified expectations of women to a younger and younger audience. Whether or not we believe these expectations are harmful to women, it is harder to make the case that a 12-year-old should have the freedom to publicly declare herself a “Playmate”. There was a report of one girl of this age purchasing a bunny necklace because she simply liked the look of the rabbit. While this girl was clearly not ready to know about the Playboy empire and what it means for women, the adult world around her would take very different meanings from her display of this symbol. (Thankfully, she never got the chance to find out what the reaction might have been when her parents saw what she had bought at the mall that day.)

The ideal Playmate focuses on making her appearance pleasing to men. She is readily sexually available and happy to not only put herself on display, but to meet any request that a male might have, including to share a man with a bevy of other attractive women. After all, this is the fantasy of the Playboy Mansion, in which the now elderly Hugh Hefner maintains an entourage of young women ready to meet his sexual needs (even if they must be in decline these days). The very thought that girls who are still forming their identities would feel these pressures is disturbing and shameful when peddled by retailers who rely on girls for their business.

That Diva could not even make a simple public admission that marketing Playboy merchandise alongside Winnie the Pooh jewellery was wrong is a sad sign that businesses are not concerned about the exploitation of girls, but merely their bottom lines. While this is seemingly one battle won, the overwhelming force of sexualised images impacting on girls is a much larger war with no sign of a truce in sight.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Girl Museum: The World's Only Museum About Girls

It's been heartening to see so much interest in girlhood lately. The 'Colonial Girlhood/Colonial Girls' conference call for papers had a massive response from scholars around the world to the point where the event will be larger than we anticipated, even when trying to restrain its size as much as we can. It will be intriguing to see what the blend of literature scholars, cultural historians, art historians, garden variety historians and even anthropologists will produce.

In the course of organising the conference, I was alerted to the existence of the Girl Museum, which will now contribute to an exciting (and, as yet, secret) event at the conference that will relate to our theme. The virtual museum resembles a traditional museum in that, alongside research, it focuses on preparing exhibitions. Visitors can browse exhibitions on Girlhood in Art (currently featuring Girl Saints and Across Time and Space, a collection of images of girlhood from the beginnings of civilisation) and the Art of Girlhood (which concentrates on material culture, and at present reveals the fascinating customs associated with Hina Matsuri- Girls' Day- in Japan).

These more traditional exhibitions are complemented with unique ways of representing contemporary girlhood. For instance, the Girl for Sale exhibit examines the disturbing subject of trafficking in girls, combining poetry, some written by survivors of trafficking, historical and contemporary art images, and resources for learning more about the facts of trafficking. In its collaborative, interactive spaces at the moment you will find the Heroines Quilt, composed of images of 31 diverse girlhood heroines submitted by members of the public (each was accompanied by a short essay on the Girl Museum's blog), and Becoming Girl, which collects together visual art by Chaya Avramov (complete with an article from the Museum curators that gives a Deleuzian perspective on the Museum and its work).
More news about the collaboration with this unique site soon!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Bert and Ernie Should Come out of Sesame Street's Closet

I had an article published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers today responding to the debate that has ensued about Lair Scott's petition for Bert and Ernie to get married on Sesame Street. While almost 10,000 people have signed the petition to date, the very concept of gay characters on a children's TV show has sparked tens of thousands more to express their opposition to the idea of "inserting sexuality" into children's viewing time. Even some gay commentators think the whole concept is misguided.

Nevertheless, I thought the reactions that this little petition provoked were a good chance to think about why the representation of gays and lesbians in children's books and television is still considered so problematic.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Thylane Blondeau and the Ideal Woman as Girl

Do you know of Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau? She’s not an arthouse film actress, as her name might inspire in your mind, but a 10-year-old fashion model. She’s also not the kind of girl you would find wearing a tracksuit in a Kmart catalogue or even sashaying on a catwalk in a glitzy beauty pageant wearing a taffeta dress with enough puff to envelop those in the front-row in a cloud of gauzy pink. Thylane has appeared in the pages of Vogue Paris with the make-up, clothing, hair and provocative pose of a woman. Photographs of her draped over animal-print throws and cushions wearing stilettos that most women would struggle to walk in have drawn so much attention some months after the magazine was originally published that Thylane’s mother has closed the girl’s small Facebook group.

As Jezebel has pointed out, the offending photos probably owe more to a parody of the fashion industry than any actual attempt to market clothing to women. Magazines such as Vogue exist because of the advertising of fashion houses that is designed to appeal to women readers. Most women would not be enticed to buy dresses and heels after viewing them draped around a child. And Thylane, despite the lipstick, is very much a child. The low-cut gold lame top she wears in one photograph is cut down to her navel and reveals her flat chest. That we have not seen other examples as extreme in terms of the girl’s age and sophistication of her dress suggests that there is no broader trend to use pre-teen girls to market clothing to women.

Lauren Rosewarne, a fellow University of Melbourne lecturer, wrote on ABC’s The Drum about the Thylane debate. (I’ve just realised Thylane would be a great name for a patent medicine.) In part, I agree with her perspective that part of what makes us uncomfortable about the Vogue images of Thylane is that they remind us that children do possess a sexuality. Nevertheless, I would make some distinctions from Rosewarne’s dismissal of opponents of these photographs as “twin-set, crucifix-wearing mothers”. She writes:

“The girl is 10. Ten years old today means something substantially different than it did when the Mothers Union folk were making daisy chains and singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus in their youth.

Like it or not, Blondeau is either menstruating or will start pretty soon. With puberty comes all those things we're culturally so reluctant to think about, let alone talk about: arousal and sexual activity and condom vending machines in schools.”

The lives of girls do indeed change over time. Girls might once have been married off as soon as they reached menarche, and, indeed, they still are in some parts of the world. The culturally accepted view in the West, however, is that pre-teen girls still occupy some form of childhood, rather than adolescence. Debates about the sexualisation of childhood do not tend to centre on adolescents, who we accept will begin to experiment sexually. One prominent view of the history of childhood, espoused by Phillipe Aries, is that children were once seen as miniature adults and that the kinds of beliefs we have about childhood as a separate stage did not come into being until the seventeenth century. While the construction of childhood as a place of ‘innocence’ and freedom from work and adult concerns is a cultural creation, I don’t believe it has yet been dismantled by the superficial differences of the 'information age'.

I am not sure why a desire to shield girls from a consumer culture that is infused with sex need be equated with some kind of Christian naivete, as Rosewarne seems to do. I am an atheist (who admittedly did make the odd daisy chain in the playground) and I am not under any pretensions about the fact that many children masturbate, but I am still opposed to the use of girls to advertise products in a way that sexualises them. A girl getting a crush on a boy is not the same as adults posing the girl topless, pouting into a mirror. Similarly, puberty does not necessarily equate to sexual readiness. Indeed, first menstruation is often dreaded as girls experience the more uncomfortable and painful aspects of the process of sexual maturation without full development or understanding of sexual desire.

Yet I am not under the assumption that Thylane represents an actual transformation in the fashion industry, even though some of her other shoots similarly see her seduce the camera with 'come hither' looks, tousled hair and in poses that would be at home in a Playboy feature. What is prevalent, however, is young teenage girls modelling women’s clothing. Girls between thirteen and fifteen are often the much-vaunted future faces and bodies that women should learn to admire. Of course, it is impossible for a woman to maintain her teen figure, and especially to retain an unlined and unmarked face. While one in a million women might look like Claudia Schiffer, not one adult woman can look like a fourteen-year-old girl. We can argue, perhaps, who would want to? But if it is possible to worship youth to the point where a young teen girl is the ideal then women will never be satisfied with their appearance. It truly is an impossible goal. Even endless surgery cannot bring back youth, where it may be able to recreate a simulation of beautiful woman’s face.

As Zygmunt Bauman describes in 'Consumers in Liquid Modern Society', consumerism is not about satisfying desires for goods, but arousing desire for more and more desires. The most preferable desires of all to awake in the consumer is one that cannot be fulfilled. For instance, he mentions the concept of 'fitness', whereby you can achieve ‘health’ but you could always be ‘fitter’ than you are currently, leaving your desires perpetually unsatisfied. Marketing young teenagers as the ultimate examples of what is attractive about women similarly create a desire that can never be satiated, fuelling an endless quest for beauty and fashion in a fruitless attempt at satisfaction. In addition to avoiding the sexualisation of young girls in advertising, we should also be thinking about the well-being of women. While we can tell that ten-year-old Thylane sprawled on a tiger’s skin is wrong, albeit an isolated example, the cult of girl as ideal woman remains normalised and prolific.