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.