Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Toys Matter: The Doll and Oven Debate

The new model of Hasbro's Easy-Bake Oven
Even if the end of the Mayan calendar cycle doesn't bring forth the apocalypse, a shopping centre in the days just before Christmas resembles something close to the end times. Many poor souls are buying up toys for their children or child relatives, the happiness of their innocent hearts depending on the right purchase. The world toy market in 2010 was worth over 83 billion US dollars, with 2.6 billion spent in Australia alone. 

Last month I gave a talk at Melbourne Free University about sexism in popular culture. In one brief sentence I mentioned the popular Lego Friends range for girls. The question time of almost half an hour afterwards was almost entirely consumed by debate about the girls' Lego. I talked about Prime Minister Gillard's media representation and popular culture's fixation on women's appearance and sexual desirability, but the audience was most fascinated by toys. We  have all played with toys as children and continue to interact with them if we have our own children or grandchildren: toys are ubiquitous. They are also often seen as having no broader significance or importance (i.e. not important enough to warrant serious discussion). Yet attempts to influence the kinds of toys that are sold, their colours and marketing so as to minimise gender stereotyping always attract negative responses about social engineering that seeks to upend innate gender differences.

The 'old-school' Easy-Bake Oven in its Betty
Crocker incarnation
In the past month, an American girl named McKenna Pope has petitioned Hasbro to manufacture an Easy-Bake Oven that her four-year-old brother, Gavyn, who likes to cook, can use without feeling like a traitor to his sex. The Easy-Bake has been sold since the 1950s and enables children to actually cook small treats, formerly through a light bulb that generated heat and now via an electrical element inside. Though it has always been explicitly marketed to girls, as advertisements and packaging from past models make clear, the oven used to look much like a regular household oven. The new model gives up verisimilitude for pink and purple colouration, giving off the signal, along with the girls featured on the packaging, that this oven is not a toy for boys. McKenna's petition now has 43,000 signatures and some leading chefs have put together a video in support of the cause, all championing the idea that cooking is something that both boys and girls should be able to enjoy. And so should Gavyn feel able to whip up some cookies, but the total saturation of male chefs featured in the support video suggest that perceptions about home cooking being a role for women has not impacted upon the prevalence of men in the more respected realm of professional chefs. With this employment reality in mind, the pinkified Easy-Bake Oven seems more about hemming girls in than stultifying the ambitions of boys.

While many seem supportive of the idea of toy ovens for both sexes—after all most chefs are men, and many celebrity chefs are quite coarse, like Gordon Ramsey, so it's not as if cooking is seen as inducing effeminacy—a Swedish toy chain's recent gender-neutral catalogue has been reported with a greater degree of scepticism. Sweden is the model nation with its aims to minimise the effects of gender stereotyping, and not to mention its progressive laws on prostitution, which criminalise the buyers of sex, not the sellers. The Egalia pre-school in Stockholm caused an international fuss when news of its aims to reduce the effects of social expectations of gender were reported in the media.The school encourages children of both sexes to play with all kinds of toys and the teachers do not use gender-specific pronouns, but refer to children as "friends" or use a gender-neutral term borrowed from Finnish, "hen".
A page from the Swedish Toys R Us catalogue
Top Toy, the franchise holder for Toys R Us in Sweden, was given training and guidance by the country's advertising watchdog for the gender discrimination it perpetuated in its catalogues, which replicated the standard segregation of toys along gender lines. This nudge encouraged the chain to produce their latest catalogue with a girl shown deftly working a Nerf gun, a small boy nurturing a baby doll, and both a boy and girl playing with a doll's house (though the boy is perched precariously near the end of the house where a male doll appears to be luxuriating in a spa). When the UK's Daily Mail reported on the catalogue, it placed "gender-neutral" in scare quotes, presumably to emphasise the ridiculousness of such a concept, and described the toy retailer as "forced" to show boys and girls playing with all kinds of toys, as if such representation went against all that is logical and natural.

Unlike the Easy-Bake Oven, which may prove a gateway to an acceptably male career in the male-dominated restaurant industry, boys cuddling baby dolls and rearranging the furniture in a doll's house were presumably seen as perverting the natural order, in which girls are meant to desire these things because they will become mothers and homemakers. Though young boys seem equally attracted to dolls, as Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender explains with reference to studies that have measured young children's reactions to them, they are taught that it is only girls who may play with them. "Action figures" like G.I. Joe are distinguished from "dolls" that are about fashion and make-up, like Barbie and Bratz, and mothering, like Baby Born and Baby Alive.
'Lottie', Arklu, 2012
'Black Barbie', Mattel, 1980
As  Dolls are understood as central to girls' play alone, and hence some parents and professionals are concerned by the unnatural proportions of the likes of Barbie, who was modelled on the German Bild Lilli (an adult novelty, moreso than a children's toy). A new doll named Lottie, who resembles a nine-year-old girl, rather than an adult woman or a baby, has been released by a UK company, Arklu, and has been praised as "a healthy alternative" to Bratz, Barbie and Monster High. Lottie has a flat chest, does not appear to be wearing make-up, has normally proportioned legs and wears typical girls' play clothing, rather than focusing on high fashion or a sexy appearance. Lottie is probably not the type of nine-year-old who is going to grab hold of a Nerf gun, however. In addition to two dolls dressed for playing in the garden, two of the incarnations come clothed in ballet and horseriding outfits, while another is wearing a party dress to wear to a masked ball. "Lotteville Festival Lottie" has black skin, though as with Barbie's "Colored Francie" who debuted in 1967 and "Black Barbie" of 1980 and onward, her features are still those of a white girl. (Colored Francie was made using the head mould of the regular white Barbie.)

As the examples of the Easy-Bake Oven and boys playing with dolls show, we place great strength in the idea that what kinds of toys that children play with helps to determine the kind of adults that they will become, especially in terms of how appropriately masculine or feminine they will be. Another clincher for this argument is the recent release of "Breast Milk Baby", a doll that enables girls to play at breastfeeding and which comes complete with a function that enables it to make suckling sounds. Predictably, some have seen the idea of breasts being used for their primary function of feeding children through doll play as "sexualising" girls while others have emphasised that we should be normalising breastfeeding to girls to ensure that breastfeeding rates do not continue to fall.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Interview on "The Project" about women in combat roles

Last year I wrote an article for The Conversation about women in the Australian military after the announcement that the remaining male-only combat roles would be opened up to women. On 28 October, after an Australian Defence Force document listing the perceived risks to the ADF of women entering these roles was made public, I was interviewed on Channel 10's The Project.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Age article: Girl Power Eroded

The following article was published in The Age today.

In the series Arrested Development, there is a parody of the Girls Gone Wild series of DVDs called Girls with Low Self-Esteem. In the original videos, which have been produced since 1997, American college girls are filmed flashing their breasts and kissing each other at parties or during drunken festivities on spring break.

The joke suggests that, despite all the postfeminist claims about girls exposing their bodies being ''empowering'', striving for approval from men through these kinds of performances is more likely to lower their confidence.

As another group of students concludes year 12, a series of Victorian nightclub events has begun to target graduating schoolgirls as prime candidates for raunchy display. A muck-up day event that was to be held at Universal on McCrae nightclub in Bendigo was set to include jelly wrestling matches between girls from two local schools, including a Catholic college, until media attention forced its cancellation.

The most recent nightclub event to attract controversy is the Pens Down event that was hosted at CBD nightclub Roxanne Parlour before the VCE exams began. Several girls posed for photographs in their school uniforms, with their dresses pulled open and bra-clad breasts, sometimes squished together provocatively for the camera, on display.

When these photos were uploaded to the event's Facebook page, several girls requested that the images be removed. Some were reportedly embarrassed about their sexy poses being circulated online, while others were worried because they were underage and should not have been drinking in a licensed premises.

Unbelievably, the event promoter became disgruntled with these requests by concerned girls and did not spare a thought for the potential repercussions in their personal lives or future careers. Christian Serrao responded to the girls' pleas by posting the following message on Facebook: ''I just love how these year 12s are happy to get their tits out for photos, then send threatening messages if they're not deleted off our Facebook page. Kill yourself.''

While Serrao maintains that the ''kill yourself'' line is simply an internet meme with no ill-intentioned sentiment behind it, his comments are especially ignorant in light of the suicide of 15-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd on 10 October. When Todd was an insecure 12-year-old, she flashed her breasts to a man in an internet chat room. The man captured a topless photograph of Todd and then threatened to circulate it to her friends if she did not perform a sexual show for him.

He did distribute the photo online and even went to the extreme of creating Facebook profiles displaying the topless shot as Todd enrolled in new schools to try to escape being continually shamed and bullied by her classmates. The malicious distribution of this image was integral to fuelling Todd's depression, anxiety and panic disorder and is thought to have contributed to her death.

Some people argue that girls should be free to express themselves sexually, yet it is important to remember the ramifications of topless images in the digital age, especially when girls have posed for them when they are underage. While boys and men may be eager to view such images of teenage girls and the girls may feel valued when they receive compliments in response, the photos can have detrimental consequences when distributed widely.

Twenty-six-year-old American Lindsey Boyd is suing the producers of Girls Gone Wild. She flashed her chest as a 14-year-old to two men with a camera with no knowledge that the footage would be used in the series. Her image was even used on the cover of one of its releases, College Girls Exposed, and her high school years were marred by embarrassment.

Vanessa Williams was crowned the first African-American Miss America in 1983, but was pressured to resign in 1984 when nude photos surfaced and were published in Penthouse. She had posed for the photographs as a 19-year-old photographer's assistant, but believed that the images were private and did not sign a release consenting to their use. Though Williams was awarded the title because she had a beautiful face and body, the naked images were still considered to tarnish her ability to represent the pageant.

As the Amanda Todd case shows, once an image is placed on the internet, it is infinitely reproducible.

While a jilted individual can also post sexual images of their ex-partner online without consent, there are penalties for doing so. Earlier this year, Sydney man Ravshan Usmanov was jailed for six months for posting six sexually explicit images of his ex-girlfriend to Facebook.

When photos are willingly taken in a public location like a nightclub, notions of consent and privacy may be confused. Venues that seek to capture the school-leaver market, however, should show responsibility.

Such responsibility means not only being lawful in their service of alcohol, but also in how they conduct and promote their events with respect to girls who are underage, or who have only just turned 18 and may be subject to peer pressure while under the influence of alcohol.

As girls are increasingly willing to participate in their own objectification, adults should not exploit them, especially when they are underage.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Upcoming Talk: "What if Popular Culture Wasn't Sexist?"

I have another public talk approaching on 13 November. With Julia Gillard's recent misogyny speech in parliament, the Destroy the Joint campaign's success,  and the debate about women's freedoms in response to Jill Meagher's rape and murder coalescing to produce renewed discussion about sexism, it's an ideal moment to consider why sexism is still endemic in a country with formal equality. I want to think about how popular culture not only reflects cultural beliefs about how men and women should be, but how it helps to socialise us into accepting sexist limitations as the natural order of things. In particular, I'll be talking about how popular culture for young people contributes to producing sexist attitudes and beliefs. Can we expect sexism to be eradicated without changes in film, television, fiction and social media?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Video: Girls, Sex, and Popular Culture Talk at the Wheeler Centre

From Prim to Pole Dance: Girls, Sex and Popular Culture

'Girls on Show', A Current Affair, 31 July 2012
The text of my Wheeler Centre talk today.
And a link to an article at the Age online about it and another at the Daily Telegraph and the same piece at the Herald Sun.

Girls' bottoms are a major problem according to several media stories this year. Specifically, girls are revealing too much of their behinds and their wanton disregard for modesty not only puts them at risk of catching a chill during winter, but of luring paedophiles, sex offenders and garden variety guys-who-are-only-after-one-thing out of hiding. The first example of such a story, called "Girls on Show", appeared on A Current Affair at the end of July. As this screen capture shows, the camerawork in this tirade against girls wearing skimpy clothing when nightclubbing, lingered fetishistically over the girls' legs and bottoms, many of which were only barely covered by mini-skirts or hotpants. Celebrity women Ita Buttrose and Charlotte Dawson offered comment on the girls' dress, making some telling observations that likened the girls to "hookers", "tarts" and prostitutes. Dawson, for instance, said "the girls actually selling themselves on the street are much more tastefully dressed than some of these young ladies." While Buttrose explained that provocative dressing was not likely to attract a potential husband: "They might flirt with a tart. They might have sex with a tart. But it's often not the tart that they take home to meet their mother."

This story is not unusual. The language of sex work is frequently applied to what girls and young women are wearing today.  In the UK, Joanna Lumley also recently expressed dismay at young women "dressing like lap dancers".  The most notable recent Australian example was the online following that developed around a mother's complaints about Target's clothing range for girls. Ana Amini wrote on the retailer's Facebook page: ''Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps … You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.'' These leopard print numbers, as well as a pair of denim cut-off shorts, were the most common images circulated as evidence of Target's inappropriately sexual, or 'trampy' clothing range for girls.

The focus on how much flesh both pre-teen girls and young women are exposing is understandable in a culture where sexy images of women are visible on every magazine stand, on many billboards, buses and trams, and in popular TV and film. We are ultimately very uncomfortable when the ideal sexy woman crosses paths with the developing girl. Just where is the border between sexual innocence and knowing construction of a sexy appearance? This is a particularly thorny question in a culture where fashion models—the ideal representation of how women should look—as well as the young women who feature in pornography, are often teenagers. The use of 10-year-old model Thylane Blondeau in Paris Vogue posed and dressed as a woman threw some into despair at the crossing of this line, but also highlighted the systematic use of girls as young as thirteen as fashion models for women's clothing and cosmetics.

Where the boundary between girl and sexual woman lies is also problematic when we attempt to divorce activities, such as pole dancing, from their adult connotations. In Canada, the Twisted Grip pole dance studio attracted international media attention in the past month for its "Little Spinners" pole dance classes for girls. The classes were supposedly created in response to requests from mothers with their own poles at home who wanted their daughters to learn to perform on the pole safely. The studio operators emphasised that the classes were about "fitness" and "athleticism" and contained no "sexual moves". But just as the studio's logo on the poster shows a woman in a bikini or her underwear spreading her legs apart on the pole, for most people commenting online, it was impossible to divorce pole dancing from any kind of sexual association when it came to girls as young as five taking the classes.

The awkward tension between what is seen as desirable in women and parental and social expectations of girlhood innocence are  aptly summarised by a routine from comedian Chris Rock. While his jokes occasionally mention his own visits to strip clubs, Rock had a new perspective on the adult industry when his baby girl was born. He comments about gazing down at his daughter in her pram: "My only job in life is to keep her off the pole. Keep my baby off the pole! I mean they don't grade fathers, but if your daughter is a stripper, you fucked up." While, as a society, we seem to want women to be sexually ready and available, we don't want our own daughters launching a career in porn films or taking up a slot at Spearmint Rhino.

No wonder the situation is confusing for girls. The contemporary media landscape condemns them for being too sexual, for wearing revealing clothing and intentionally seeking sexual attention from men. It also manifests worries about younger girls, such as tweens dressed in Target clothing, who might unintentionally convey sexual readiness (although I am careful to caution that what girls or indeed women wear provides no justification for sexual assault). While much of this debate seems new, born out of a hyper-sexualised internet-enabled culture, I want to show that similar anxieties about girls' sexuality were also prominent in the media in the Victorian period in Britain. What I would argue is these concerns about the transition from girl to woman in relation to sex are very consistent across the past century and a half. While the messages we give to girls directly are similar, the key difference today is that sexual images of women surround us where they were once concealed from girls. The messages about sex that we provide to girls are more contradictory than ever, as they are branded "tarts" and "hookers" for dressing in a way that reveals their bodies, but are immersed in popular culture that presents being sexy and sexually available as the foremost qualities of the ideal woman.

The Victorian period spans the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. It is a crucial era for thinking about how girlhood has been shaped because during this time it began to be considered as a distinct stage between childhood and womanhood. Being a girl meant being in a state of transition. Girls also began to be universally educated later in the century, so girls' books and magazines became publishing phenomena, with newly literate girls looking to read stories and articles aimed especially at their interests and publishers and editors seeking to direct girls in the right ways to behave, read, exercise and fulfil their family duty.

The most popular magazine from 1880 was the Girl's Own Paper, which more than 100,000 girls, aged from around 12 to 24, read each week. Its resident Doctor, "Medicus", a pseudonym for Gordon Stables, a former army doctor, regularly wrote on the topics of beauty and clothing, especially corsets, as they related to health. Like most commentators of the era, Medicus thought that being healthy was the route to being beautiful and that cosmetics had negative moral connotations for girls. In 1888, he wrote in a column on beauty: "Well, I declare to you that when I meet young ladies rouged, powdered and pencilled, I wonder if the world is getting worse. For deceit thus carried about openly can have no good effects on the moral character. Many girls moving in what is called good society... are little better than walking frauds, perambulating fibs."

This view in a girls' magazine mirrors a controversy provoked twenty years earlier, in March 1868. Journalist Eliza Lynn Linton published an anonymous article in the Saturday Review called "The Girl of the Period" that caused a stir in other papers. Fascinatingly, "The Girl of the Period" has major parallels with the Current Affair "Girls on Show" story I mentioned earlier. Amid a broader tirade against feminism, Linton expressed disgust in girls who were using clothing, such as tight skirts, as well as cosmetics to emphasise their sexual beauty to attract men. "The Girl of the Period", she wrote:

 is a creature who dyes who hair and paints her face...a creature whose sole idea of life is fun; ...and whose dress is a chief object of such thought and intellect as she possesses. No matter if, in the time of crinolines, she sacrifices decency; in the time of trains, cleanliness; in the time of tied-back skirts, modesty; no matter either, if she makes herself a nuisance and an inconvenience to every one she meets; — the Girl of the Period has done away with such moral muffishness as consideration for others or regard for counsel and rebuke. It was all very well in old-fashioned times, when fathers and mothers had some authority and were treated with respect, to be tutored and made to obey, but she is far too fast and flourishing to be stopped in mid-career by these slow old morals...

Where the modern girl was going wrong, according to Linton, was in her similar "aims and feelings" to "women of the demi-monde", effectively mistresses kept by wealthy lovers. Here is our precedent, 140 years ago, for comparing fashionable girls in the pursuit of fun and entertainment, to prostitutes. "The Girl of the Period" also connects with the idea Ita Buttrose presented about sexy girls not making good wives, but only being suited to one-night-stands. Linton proposed that "the Girl of the Period does not marry easily... [Men] may amuse themselves with her for an evening, but they do not readily take her for life." And let's not forget the resonance of timeless complaints about girls no longer listening to the advice of their parents about modesty.

"The Fast Smoking Girl", The Girl
of the Period Miscellany
, 1869
The uproar Linton provoked about the "girl of the period" spawned a short-lived magazine edited by men called The Girl of the Period Miscellany in 1869 that satirised the latest fashions for young women. This caricature of the fast-smoking girl describes her desire for a frivolous existence at dances and concerts, while wearing the latest clothes and doing "a mild weed on the quiet" as smoking is referred to. Crucially this new type of girl who followed aesthetic pleasure, didn't see herself as one day taking up a subordinate domestic role, but rather, in this poem wants to hook "a rich stupid old husband" who will be the one who "shall obey" her.

Linton's views about girls were widely criticised -- this cartoon from the paper The Tomahawk, for instance, ascribes a degree of jealousy and transgression to the author. Linton's was by no means a consensus opinion. Indeed, when reflecting on the Victorian period, while girls were certainly eager to be modern compared with those who came before them by gaining new freedoms such as higher education and employment, there is no major apparent transformation in morality:

most girls conformed to family and church expectations. In other words, there was no actual crisis of prostitute-like girls in Britain, but only a perception brought about by observation of a minority, or of speculation about morality based on changing fashions and transforming social norms.

The teenage girls condemned for wearing revealing clothing today reflect a long history of young women dressing fashionably and sometimes provocatively to the alarm of adults. So if girls have been criticised for wearing make-up and 'inappropriate' clothing because of their sexual connotations for at least 150 years, why are we seeing such a particular anxiety about this topic in the present moment? And why are younger girls now coming under such sexual scrutiny? Why does a discussion of short shorts for girls even lead to questions of whether such clothing might lure paedophiles, for instance?

'Fatima's Hoochie Coochie',
Thomas Edison, 1896
My answer is that the culture around girls has changed. While today's girl and the Victorian girl have both been exposed to encouragements to avoid too much make-up or wearing revealing clothing, the Victorian girl was almost entirely shielded from sexual images of women. Advertising would not even depict a line illustration of a woman wearing a corset, an item of underwear, until the 1880s and 1890s! While erotic images did circulate among men, they were too risqué and marginalised to influence mainstream popular culture significantly.The first erotic films were not produced until around 1896, and even then the gyrating hips of a belly dancer or a kiss were regarded as scandalous and worthy of censorship. This slide shows a still from the kinetoscope of 'Fatima's Hoochie Coochie' dance from 1896, as shot by Thomas Edison. Though she is fully clothed, Fatima's swivelling hips and chest are intentionally covered with a white picket fence.

In her book Promiscuities: A Secret History of Female Desire, Naomi Wolf suggests that girls become women through the work of two kinds of pressure: "the external—what their culture tells them it means to be an adult sexual female—and the internal—the development of sexual desire itself". If we accept that not much has changed in girls' internal development in a century, apart from the earlier onset of sexual maturation, then we ought to focus on what has changed in the culture that surrounds them.
We continue to insist on girls remaining sexually innocent, through criticism of girls who wear revealing clothing and shaming of teen mothers and sexually active girls as "sluts". But we conflictingly surround girls with messages that suggest being a sexual adult female means being on constant sexual display, being sexually available and compliant, and putting personal sexual fulfilment and comfort  second to meeting a porn-influenced ideal.

These are the messages embedded in music video clips where women are often gyrating in lingerie –without Fatima's white picket fence to shield them. In film and television, where fictional worlds are largely populated by women who are young and attractive (and who may have had surgical intervention to increase their bust size or plump their lips). In advertising, where women's sex appeal is used to sell everything from clothing to ice cream, and in which topless pole dancing mothers who have money shoved into their g-strings by men, as in the infamous Nando's chicken TV ad, are deemed by the Advertising Standards Board as "not incompatible with family values" and by the company itself as "a forthright display of empowerment". In magazines, where female perfection comes courtesy of Photoshop, and, most pervasively, on the internet where millions of pornographic images and videos of women are readily accessible to anyone, including children. Even online criticism of our nation's first female leader often contains jokes about her sexual prowess and attractiveness. According to this logic, there is not a sphere of life where being sexy is not the ultimate achievement of a woman, nor a place where how she looks is not the most important thing about her.

The past century has thankfully seen positive developments in how women's sexuality is regarded and understood. We have learned to acknowledge and accept that women feel sexual desire too, in a way that has made for more enlightened attitudes to sex. Yet, when it comes to girls, the fallout from the sexual revolution has merely left them torn between competing ideals. Our thinking about girls and sex is not as progressive as we'd like to believe. As I have suggested, a number of the major criticisms levelled at today's girls are reminiscent of those expressed about girls in the Victorian era. Though it is now usual for girls to form sexual relationships outside of marriage, our expectations of girlhood sexual innocence still share some of the same ideas at their core about sexual display being akin to prostitution and demure girls making good wives.

However, the culture surrounding girls could not be more different. Victorian girls received a consistent message that virtue was of supreme importance, and the stories and articles they read, as well as the advertisements they saw, reinforced this idea and used morally restrained women as exemplars. Today's girls are being held to account to ideals of sexual innocence while immersed in a culture of examples of adult women who are admired because they are sexy. While there is nothing wrong with girls developing healthy sexual lives and a sense of their own attractiveness, contemporary media and popular culture creates a fraught environment in which they might do so. Being sexy is sold as the path to "empowerment", but also one that only "tramps" and "hookers" choose to take. For as long as we are showing girls that the most important thing about women is their sex appeal, we shouldn't shame them if they try to emulate what our culture tells them is most valuable.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lunchbox/Soapbox Talk: From Prim to Pole Dance (4 October)

I'll be speaking at the Wheeler Centre, at the State Library of Victoria, on Thursday 4 October in the Lunchbox/Soapbox series. The program for the rest of the year includes Clementine Ford and Catherine Deveny. My talk is entitled "From Prim to Pole Dance: Girls, Sex and Popular Culture." I'm attempting to inject a bit of historical context into recent media discussion about the "sexualisation" of girls. So let's see what happens when we juxtapose the Girl's Own Paper with A Current Affair exposés about girls out on the prowl in skimpy dresses.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Forgotten History of the Babysitter

Some people think that the study of girls' literature and culture is somewhat frivolous or pointless. Others, including one grant assessor I recall, feel that researching girls reveals nothing that we don't already know from studies of women. Babysitter: An American History by Miriam Forman-Brunell (New York University Press, 2009) is a compelling counter to such ideas. It takes the topic of the teen girl as child minder and, in turn, unravels the history of girls' employment (including their formation of babysitter unions), the development of youth consumer and print culture, theories of child development, and the tension between competing discourses of sexual "threat" in the home and girls as victims of sexual harassment. The book  explores both the lives of actual girl babysitters, who contribute their own little-heard voices —often with indignation about their working conditions—cultural imaginings of the babysitter in film, television and literature.

Forman-Brunell approaches babysitting as "a cultural battleground where conflicts over girlhood—especially regarding sexual, social, cultural, and economic autonomy and empowerment—are regularly played out" (4). She shows that adults were uncomfortable with "modern" girls from as early as the 1920s, when babysitting was a only new concept. In this period, girls were redefining female adolescence, especially through their part in the burgeoning youth commodity culture by wearing make-up, reading magazines, and going to the movies, amusement parks and ice-cream parlours (often on a "double-date"). Girls' new-found independence and interest in socialising at night made the task of caring for other people's children less desirable. Babysitting therefore held little appeal to many American teens at this time. Child development experts also advised parents to be cautious about babysitters, describing these "flirtatious girls" as posing a threat to helpless children.

Barbie embodying the myth of babysitting as
"easy" labour
The Great Depression, as Forman-Brunell argues, provided financial incentive for girls to become more enthusiastic about sitting, as their own families were no longer able to provide generous allowances and constraints on employment meant that other jobs were not available. More than 750,000 high-school aged girls became "mother's helpers" or babysitters, in part, Forman-Brunell explains, because of significant cultural shifts such as the number of teenagers becoming a larger part of the overall population, the growth in high school attendance (which enabled fads to spread rapidly) and the growth of commodity youth culture.

Adults nevertheless remained suspicious of girl babysitters, at first over their contested use of the home telephone, and later over crimes such as raiding food from the refrigerator. There were also numerous urban myths of wild parties, drug use and child neglect. Forman-Brunell punctuates her history with the various ways in which this suspicion has been made manifest through fears about "bobby-soxers" in the '40s, who were scandalised for "pursuing their social and sexual pleasures" (42) and sexually unstable girls who might spread communicable diseases, as well as fictional representations of crazy, murderous vixens out to destroy happy marriages. The "disorderly babysitter" becomes a prominent figure in the 1960s when American culture "simultaneously stimulated girlhood rebellion but also stifled it" (121). While from the 1970s, the babysitter is heavily eroticised in slasher movies, including Halloween, and pornographic novels.

Throughout their history, babysitters have consistently complained about poor and unfair working conditions: adults regularly failed to provide sufficient emergency information, girls were left stranded for hours when parents did not return home at the agreed-upon time, sitters were commonly underpaid (or received no payment at all), and, in the Depression-era, girls were required to complete extensive housekeeping tasks in addition to childcare. Sylvia Plath is perhaps the most famous babysitter of the 1940s who recorded her cynicism about child minding. As a fourteen-year-old she declared that "little children are bothersome beings that have to be waited on hand and food" (56). The discontent among sitters, primarily about overwork in comparison with meagre remuneration, grew to the point where girls began to form their own babysitter unions in the Midwest and Northeast to demand fair working conditions and payment.

Iowa State College "Y" members, 1955
World War II opened up many employment opportunities for girls, not only in after-school positions, but in jobs that lured them away from school altogether. The growth in new occupations for girls, an increasing birth rate, and the movement of many families away from cities (and grandparents) to the suburbs created a chronic sitter shortage. Forman-Brunell shows how many magazines therefore presented babysitting as a patriotic duty for girls, in which a girl might "guard the home front" in a mother's absence.  Parents attempted to find their own solutions, such as sitter exchanges or co-ops where groups of parents would take it in turns to mind each other's children. Inevitably, some parents did not pull their own weight and these co-ops failed to provide the answer to the sitter shortage.

An unexpected aspect of the history of babysitting in America is the cultural support for boy sitters, who were viewed as more reliable and authoritative than their female counterparts. During the Depression, the scepticism about girl babysitters contributed to the popularity of hiring boys to mind children and, similarly, during World War II, the sitter shortage meant that boys actively pursued jobs as child minders. Male college students even formed their own babysitting services, such as Princeton's "Tiger Tot Tending Agency". Male sitters also answered fears about the feminisation of boys while their fathers were busy working 50-hour-weeks: "boy sitters could pry loose the 'skirt-clinger,' and by playing 'rough-and-tumble' games outdoors, instill the manly hardiness experts anxiously promoted" (107).
Ann M. Martin's
The Baby-Sitters Club series

The latter part of the book concentrates on the increasing popular cultural representation of the babysitter from the 1970s and offers some intriguing insights into how this figure comes to be blamed for the destruction of the domestic ideal (especially by maniac male stalkers). For girls themselves, however, series such as the Baby-sitter's Club, which began in 1986 with Kristy's Great Idea, promoted sitting as a means to a career and a demonstration girls' competency. The books also presented sitting as an enterprise among a confident sisterhood of friends, well in advance of the concept of "Girl Power". Forman-Brunell argues that the cultural construction of the "Super Sitter", which the Baby-sitter's club espoused, "appropriated feminist ideologies but neutralized empowerment so that girls would not become too powerful" (177).

The Babysitters (2007), a babysitter transforms her child-
minding business into a call-girl service 
Babysitter: An American History necessarily charts the "fall" of babysitting, as girls became more preoccupied with after-school activities and part-time work in malls than minding children in private homes. While girls have always shown some reticence about sacrificing their social life during their teens, Forman-Brunell includes the perspectives of girl sitters that show that discontent with parents sometimes turns girls away from sitting. This history uses the practice of babysitting as a focal point for mapping changes in girls' education, employment and popular culture across the past 90 years. While babysitting may be a less popular form of employment among American teen girls today, the cultural resonance of the babysitter, however, lingers on, as both a trope of forbidden teen sexuality in pornography and a potential threat to children themselves in the horror genre. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Colonial "Dolly" Magazine: Ethel and Lilian Turner's Parthenon

The Parthenon, 11 August 1890
The age of the print magazine may be over, especially for younger readers who are not as familiar with the idea of traipsing down to the newsagent each month, as I once did, to seek out a copy of the newest Smash Hits. Magazines are nevertheless still considered influential on girls in particular. In the past few weeks, a petition to encourage Cleo magazine to stop their practice of using Photoshop to erase blemishes or bodily imperfections from the images it publishes has gathered over 13,000 signatures. Earlier in the year, Dolly, a magazine with a younger readership,  drew criticism for resurrecting its model search competition. The competition ran throughout my girlhood, but was put on hold ten years ago. The editor of the time, Mia Freedman, felt that the quest for cover girls fuelled the pressure that girl readers feel to live up to a particular ideal of beauty and also launched girls into an industry that she described as "all about rejection".

The history of British and American girls' magazines is a developing and exciting field, but the girls' magazines of Australia and Canada have been barely examined. In part this is because fewer magazines were produced in the colonies and those that do exist are not easily accessible. My colleague Kristine Moruzi has spent hours in church archives in order to read some of the Canadian girls' magazines, which were mostly published by religious organisations. Because magazines such as the Girl's Own Paper were readily imported from Britain, there is really only one example of a nineteenth-century Australian girls' magazine, the Sydney-based Parthenon (1889-1892).

The writers Ethel and Lilian Turner, who were still in their teens, began publishing the Parthenon in January 1889. Ethel edited a magazine at her high school, the Iris, but after her graduation soon moved to build a viable commercial venture. The sisters not only edited the magazine, but wrote most of its content, managed subscriptions and sought out advertisers. There are only two complete sets of the magazine in Australia, so when I finally saw copies of the Parthenon I was surprised by the professionalism of the design and the quantity of advertising that the sisters managed to attract as the magazine established itself. It is an astonishing and unique achievement for young women of the period.

Masthead, 1 February 1889
While the Parthenon includes some of the traditional fare of women's magazines, such as fashion and society news, it set out to be most especially a literary magazine. It sought to transform a situation in which Australian readers tended to prefer to import English and American magazines, and to foster locally produced print culture. Though the Turner sisters were trailblazers in their publishing venture, the magazine is not radical in its gender politics. It actively supports better conditions for women journalists and higher education for women (so long as it does not interfere with the duties of home: see article about aligning your tablecloth with mathematical precision), but does not support women's suffrage without reservation. I've written an article recently that compares the Parthenon's attitude on these issues with the feminist women's magazine the Dawn, and ultimately the kinds of beliefs they share about women's careers and responsibilities are not too dissimilar in most areas.

The magazine ran for 39 issues and in its time it featured early versions of some of the works that Ethel Turner would go on to publish during her long writing career, including Miss Bobbie. She was assigned responsibility for writing the serials for the children's page by Lilian, a serendipitous delegation that no doubt contributed to Ethel taking up a lucrative post writing for the children's pages of the Illustrated Sydney News soon after their enterprise could not find a buyer and was forced to cease publication in 1892.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Girls, "Tramps" and "Hookers": Target and the Girls' Clothing Debate

Target leopard print girls' shorts
We hardly ever hear public fretting about what boys are wearing. No railing about whether a boy is dressing in clothing that is not "age appropriate" or that might entice paedophiles. Yet the subject of what girls are wearing, as the recent media attention given to Target's clothing line for girls attests, is one that many parents feel strongly about. The debate began when a school teacher and mother, Ana Amini, posted the following message on Target's Facebook page:
''Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps … You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.''

Amini's comments resonated with tens of thousands of parents who "liked" her post or added their own supportive responses. When the social media backlash became a news story, a chorus of parents agreed that many of the clothes on the racks in Target for girls aged from seven to fourteen resembled those of "hookers" and "prostitutes".

The outrage spawned many opinion pieces. Dannielle Miller rightly pointed out that we shouldn't be shaming girls by labelling them "trampy" regardless of what they might be wearing, while others emphasised that it is adults who place any sexualised connotations on clothing choices. The heroine of my undergraduate years, Helen Razer, and Clementine Ford both offered up stories of their own girlhoods in their calls for the virtual lynch mob to calm. Together the articles suggest that for some time girls have innocuously worn revealing clothing, like crop tops or lycra pants, and that girls don't perceive a sexual element to this: it's just like a game of dress-ups.  Razer writes that "kids just see cloth and it is we who see meaning" and Ford proposes that "Clothes can't make children's look 'sexy'. They're inanimate objects." 

I agree with Razer that very young children don't derive significant meaning from clothing—although by the time they hit primary school, you won't find many boys who want to wear skirts or pink in public— but in the age group that is relevant here, from around seven-years-old and upwards, there is a major awareness of the various meanings of clothing. To not see any meaning in clothing, kids would have to be raised apart from our society and culture, with no access to the internet, magazines, advertising, video clips, movies, television or books. 

Branding is just one of aspect of clothing that children understand. I recall desperately wanting a pair of Converse All Stars in grade five but being forced to suffer the indignity of wearing an imitation brand. The shoes were practically identical to the much-longed for Cons, but the logo on the side panel was tellingly different to me and every other kid in my grade. But at least the merciless teasing was reserved for the boy whose family was so poor that he had to wear beaten-up Dunlop Volleys (this was prior to their hipster, ironic reclamation). Even children under 10 know that particular brands are authentic and are "cool" in comparison with generic items or house brands from Big W.

In addition to knowing about how clothing helps to communicate their gender and cultural savvy, girls also understand that clothing plays a part in how attractive or pretty they are seen to be. Cordelia Fine has noted how much more often people compliment young girls on what they are wearing or their prettiness, whereas comments about appearance are rarely delivered to boys. Girls are taught to understand that how they look impacts upon how they are valued. We know that even primary school aged girls are concerned about their weight and understand that being overweight makes them unattractive according to the thin body ideal.

We ought to think about girls' awareness of the importance of being attractive in tandem with the fact that girls are reaching puberty at an increasingly younger age. Breast development—the onset of puberty— is now beginning at an average age of nine years and ten months, according to a Danish study in 2006. Girls absorb from the culture around them what an ideal woman looks like and, as they develop physically, it is unsurprising that they seek to emulate the fashion that is popular for young women, or seen as attractive to boys and men. Girls may have always loved to play with Mum's make-up in the mirror or stalk around in high heels, but the age at which girls actually start wearing these tools that are intended to accentuate feminine attributes seems to be lowering. Or at least mainstream stores like Target seem to offer more clothing that mimics women's fashions without modification for the pre-teen market. So why is it a problem if girls wear all kinds of women's clothing styles? And need this imply sexual readiness to anyone?

What the History of Girlhood Can Tell Us

Richard Westall, Queen Victoria as a Girl
Razer makes a nod to the history of childhood by noting that children were once dressed in the same clothing as adults. Medievalist Philippe Ariès influentially claimed that childhood itself was not "invented" until the modern period, as before this time they were seen, and treated, as miniature adults. (Although there is much debate on this subject, and Ariès' assertion that children were dressed like adults seems to rely on the evidence of family portraits, which is the equivalent of looking at wedding photographs and suggesting that all little boys wore suits in the 20th century.)

Yet, apart from this one comment, the history of how girls appearance has been regulated and how girls are supposed to transition to womanhood have been absent from the discussion. If we look at the policing of girls' dress across the past century and a half, we find that there has always been anxiety about girls being appropriately covered and restrained by their clothing. As I have blogged about previously, make-up was also seen as fraught in the 19th century, especially for young girls who still had their virtue to preserve. (Married women were less susceptible to the risk of damage to their moral character through the sexual associations of cosmetics).

Franz Winterhalter, Queen Victoria, 1842 
When you read girls' books from the nineteenth century, as I do, you'll notice many references to girls "putting their hair up". Young girls wore their hair loose, but when girls of the middle and upper classes reached an age at which they were considered mature enough to be available for marriage they generally wore their hair up in public. This transition carried a great deal of ideological baggage. It was somewhat "trampy" for a girl of marriageable age to continue to wear her long hair loose because of its sensual associations. Just as Islamic women often reserve the sight of their hair for their husbands in the home, so would the proper Victorian woman keep her hair "modest" in public. By putting her hair up, a girl was signalling that she was ready for marriage, but also that she was a good, virginal type. At the same time, a girl might also begin to wear longer skirts. So clearly the protocols for entering womanhood worked to cover more of girls' bodies and contain their sexual appeal, unlike the general movement of today's girls into wearing more revealing clothing and accentuating their sex appeal as teenagers.

These changes in what girls wore and how they styled their hair would usually happen in advance of their "coming out", where they were introduced to "society" and might be presented to suitable bachelors. This would happen at around the age of eighteen, and debutante balls, which were still popular at high schools in Australia until fairly recently, continued some of the old-fashioned traditions associated with a girl "coming out" or being presented to eligible men.

Most cultures have some form of ritual associated with coming of age that marks the transition between childhood and adulthood. In Australia today, most of us don't practice any of the formal rituals that once helped to demarcate girlhood from womanhood and clearly identify the moment of transition. When we see thousands of parents reacting to "short shorts" for girls in Target, perhaps it also owes something to the haziness of where girlhood ends and womanhood begins, rather than solely being a paranoid reaction to perceived paedophilia or sexualisation. I would argue that clothes are more than just "inanimate objects" and that children do understand the meanings that our culture ascribes to them. The confusion among adults, however, about what girls should wear says much about our own uncertainty about girlhood and girls coming of age in a culture that is increasingly fixated on women's sexual attractiveness.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Empire in the Toy Cupboard: The V & A Museum of Childhood

'Excursions on Land & Sea', panorama, c. 1880
People sometimes comment on the academic study of children's literature and childhood as if it is a frivolous pursuit with no potential to tell us anything about history or culture. It would no doubt make some people gasp to know that some scholars even study children's toys. The toys in this post are part of the current V & A Museum of Childhood's exhibitions, and I've chosen them because of what they might reveal to us about the British Empire.

People don't tend to think of toys as carrying any particular meaning, perhaps apart from gendered ones, but the toys of the past record many complicated ideas, even if unintentionally.

L'Orient or the Indian Travellers; A Geographical and
 Historical Game, c. 1847
The panorama pictured above is designed to look like a toy theatre. The child would roll a long piece of paper along so that its movement gradually reveals a story (a candle could be placed behind the paper to add extra drama to the scene). This panorama bears a crest with the words "The World's Wonders", encouraging the toy owner to see English shipping--in this frame the ship is "full steam" across the English channel-- as a modern marvel. Without being able to see the full roll and with little knowledge of Europe in this period, I am still a little mystified as to why the Pan-Slavic flag sits alongside the Union Jack.

It was seagoing ability that made global exploration and colonisation possible. The L'Orient board game shows three different sailing routes to India, with the watchful eyes of British monarchs from George I to Queen Victoria running across the top. While the rule booklet for this game has been lost, the V & A speculates that players would use a form of spinning top (teetotum) to advance around the squares, with a requirement for the player to match the situation illustrated in each square with the ruling monarch of the period.
Telescopic panorama of the
Great Exhibition, 1851
'All the World at the Great Exhibition' , c. 1860

TheAGreat Exhibition of 1851 was the first World's Fair (today known as world expositions)  intended to exhibit milestones in culture and industry. The 'Crystal Palace' exhibition, as it is also known, primarily sought to show British achievements and those of its colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and India, though there were exhibits from European nations.The telescopic panorama of the Great Exhibition allows a child to peer through nine layers of card to take in a somewhat three-dimensional view of the Exhibition. The ongoing significance of the Great Exhibition in Victorian Britain is evident in the continuing production of products celebrating and recalling the event, such as this puzzle from around the 1860s. 
The guide picture that shows the child how the puzzle ought to look and the puzzle itself include the caption "All the World and His Wife at the Great Exhibition." The caption is a little unclear to me. Does it mean that the male figure, presumably English, represents "all the world", and his wife has no connection with the imperial realm of trade and industry? Or are the other figures represented, including those in Asian dress, being acknowledged as part of the fabric of that world?                          

Junior Lecturer Series, 1900-1910
The importance of the colonies is evident in a set of 'Junior Lecturer' slides that were produced from 1900-1910 in order for British children to become acquainted with the geography and peoples of places such as Canada and South Africa. The possessive title encourages children to see that these countries belong to them as British people. As good citizens of Empire, children ought to acquire knowledge about common practices in the colonies, just as the first explorers and settlers observed, categorised and documented these "new" lands.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The History of Dolls: V & A Museum of Childhood

Jem and Stormer of Jem and the Holograms c.1986
During the past week in London, I've managed to fit in some unofficial research about childhood around my real work at the Bodleian Library and the British Library, where I have been reading girls' school stories. One thing I won't be listing on my university travel diary is a visit to Hamley's, an amazing toy store on Regent St. I braved four floors of frazzled parents, hyperactive kids, and enthusiastic staff demonstrating products in a zany fashion. Though the "zaniness" of the staff interacting with toys seemed confined to the boys' floor, with more sedate happenings on the girls' floor. Although technically they're not "boys'" and "girls'" floors since the "gender apartheid" of such labelling at this iconic store was pointed out last year. 

Nevertheless, the "not-just-for-girls" floor was a pink wonderland of Barbie, fairies and Hello Kitty. Astonishingly, there is even a beauty salon, at which girls can nag their parents into paying for them to have their nails, make-up or hair done, with glitter an optional extra. The salon is called Tantrum, and the website of the concept store doesn't give any sense that a boy would want to tangle with glitter tattoos or nail polish (after all, it's "the ultimate girls' experience): 

Shirley Temple cut-out doll, 1935
The current trends in toys make an ideal contrast to the history of toys and children's play that is recorded in the exhibits at the V & A Museum of Childhood. The Bethnal Green building once housed an odd mixture of items including collections from the Food and Animal Products displays at the Great Exhibition, as well as art works intended to bring culture to London's East End. Since 1973, however, all of the V & A's objects relating to childhood have been held here. With thousands of items dating from the seventeenth century onwards in the collection, only a fraction is able to be displayed. I gravitated toward toys from the nineteenth century and to those of my own childhood in the 1980s, hence the Jem photograph above (though I was more of a Barbie & the Rockers girl, despite it being a blatant copy). All of the periods represented have much to tell us about how childhood, manufacturing and branding have changed, and to reveal the fine strands that connect the toys of the past with those of the present.

Lillie Langtry soap ad
The Shirley Temple cut-out doll from 1935 is a good example of how celebrity crossed over media platforms long before the Olsen twins. Of course, celebrity association with brands began decades before Temple's dimples charmed the world, with the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising showing some of the products endorsed by music hall performer Lillie Langtry from the 1880s. While images of children, such as Millais' Bubbles, were used to sell products such as soap in the Victorian period, Temple is perhaps the first actual child to spawn her own merchandise.

Walking doll c. 1885
It is miraculous that many of the early toys survive at all, let alone with their accompanying packaging and tiny accessories in some instances. The care taken with them indicates the precious nature of children's toys in the 18th and 19th centuries, and differing ideas about their disposable nature today. The skill and patient labour required in the manufacture of many early toys is evident in the walking doll picture here: a mechanical device that made the doll perambulate was concealed beneath her large skirts. The Museum's amazing display of dolls' houses (which were originally the preserve of adults) shows the extent of the painstaking labour devoted to crafting these miniature replicas. 

Amy Miles dolls' house 1890
Though the V & A collection includes a royal dolls' house, the one pictured here from 1890 belonged to a girl named Amy Miles, who is believed to have helped in its construction. There are other objects on display that show how children and parents created or crafted their own amusements. I'm surprised my father didn't design his own board game like the very elaborate home-made game created by one family. A faultless girls' embroidery sampler from the nineteenth century shows the crossover of leisure time with the acquisition of practical skills for homemaking.

There were also amazing displays of optical toys, such as panoramas, shadow theatres and lantern slides, many of which promoted Britain's achievements or explained the customs of its colonies. In my next post, I'll show some of these toys that introduced ideas about the British Empire to children in the 19th and early 20th centuries.