Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Article at The Conversation on Bad Girls and Tricky Women

The new website The Conversation has launched today. It's a collaborative venture by the Group of Eight universities to deliver "an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector." The debut collection of articles looks more interesting than the vision that this description might suggest.

I was asked to write an article inspired by the recent St Kilda schoolgirl scandal about bad girls and tricky women throughout history and literature.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Sexy Pony

This is a chance for another materially deprived childhood recollection. I had always wanted a My Little Pony, which was quite the trend in the 1980s for girls, right up there with Cabbage Patch Kids. While it was only the outright spoiled girl who would tote more than one of those ugly dolls (the same kind who owned the Barbie Ferrari), many a girl had enough ponies to open their own horse stud. I did receive some kind of cheap imitation at one point, whose mane and tail I still brushed and combed, but my heart just wasn't in it, as it didn't have all the signs of authenticity like a cute little symbol on its rump.

I also recall a miniature explosion of outrage by a writer in Bitch magazine a few years ago, in response to the redesigned version of the Pony. The new Pony was much more sophisticated in its look compared with the shy, dumpy original. The author went as far as to say that the new My Little Pony was extremely sexualised, especially as it seemed to be "assuming the position" in the presentation of its rear end. The following edition included a number of letters from readers who accused the author of "reading too much into it"- the common accusation levelled at most people working on deconstructing children's literature.

If My Little Pony for the new millenium was debatable as to its sexualisation, there is no room for doubt with a new horse toy for girls called Struts. With their high heels and excessive jewellery, the name does leave the toy open to an unfortunate rhyme. What is perhaps most disturbing about the Struts is that they no longer only represent a horse, but seem caught midway between animal and human. It's a horse-girl hybrid, with ultra-long legs in gigantic platform heels and the impossibly large eyes of a Bratz doll. Psychologist Dale Atkins calls the Struts' eyelashes "flirtatious".

Unlike My Little Pony, which seemed tailored to the masses of girls who had fantasies of owning and grooming horses, the Struts seem more about mimicking the process of women dressing up in heels, make-up and ultra-feminine pink and lacy clothing. I am not opposed to girls dressing up or playing with make-up, but the Struts seem part of the ongoing reinforcement of girls' need to be sexual, or to learn to be sexually attractive (not just pretty), at a young age. It no longer seems like fun for a five-year-old when even a horse toy has to be sexy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fairy Tales Re-Imagined at ACMI

Today was the first day of the Fairy Tales Re-Imagined symposium at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. This morning I was surprised to find a cinema full of several hundred eager participants.

The first session described a spectacular online documentary project from the ABC called Re-Enchantment. There were two sessions involving the author and director Sarah Gibson- also a Jungian analyst (can't say I've met one before)- who brings amazing psychological insight to readings of fairy tales. I'm now keen to see her three-part documentary series Myths of Childhood.

The second session focussed on the Little Red Riding Hood story, particularly wolves and the idea of devouring and being devoured. I was spellbound by the artwork and history presented by printmaker Jazmina Cininas, who undertook the Girlie Werewolf Project as part of her PhD at RMIT. Her striking images appear in this blog post.

According to Jazmina's research, there were numerous girls and women who rode wolves from the 16th century, which was a crime when practiced by females. These records flowed through to some lesser known examples of purported female werewolves, with Jazmina's own works taking much from the historical circumstances of women's imagined devious relationships with magic (for instance, imagery of particular plants and flowers, such as hemlock, associated with she-wolves and witches). It was a revelation to find girl werewolves almost five centures before the Ginger Snaps films.

The final session concentrated on the Cinderella story and its place in contemporary culture. Meredith Jones from The University of Technololgy Sydney read the tale into contemporary makeover culture, from reality television trainwrecks like The Swan to Michael Jackson and Lad Gaga. I was intrigued by the connection between Meredith's argument that makeovers foreground the process of becoming, just as fairy tales give us pleasure through the process of the heroine becoming the princess (rather than how wonderful the prince might be as a husband, the children that may issue as a result etc.). What happens during "ever after" is not important.

This session also included an absolutely fascinating and rich paper by Peter Mitchell (also from UTS) on the significance of the "light shoe" for women, to shed light on ubiquitous glass slipper. I haven't spared much thought about the evolution and importance of footwear, apart from footbinding and the repercussions of high heels on poor feet and the ability to remain upright, but I was humbled into the realisation that the history of dress has major implications for the construction of gender. I really had no idea that men also wore high heels at court, and that they did symbolise power in terms of adding height to the wearer.

Tomorrow promises sessions on the use of fairy tales in creative works and the enticingly titled "The Forbidden Room: From Bluebeard to CSI". It was suggested today that the contemporary crime drama is a modern way of confronting death in the same way as the fairy tale did in the past, so I'm keen to hear Catherine Cole's paper "Death as Entertainment". I think my enthusiasm perhaps proves the point already.