Friday, January 27, 2012

New Article on Environmentalism and Gender in Animated Film

Just this week a scholarly article that I wrote with Dr Elizabeth Parsons (formerly of Deakin University) was published by Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. It was sparked by Liz's subject "Power Politics in Children's Literature", in which we taught the films Princess Mononoke and FernGully. Liz had already given a conference paper on the topic and kindly invited me to co-write an article with her. It did feel quite strange to be writing an academic article about contemporary films, as I think the closest I'd ever gotten to the present-day before was about 1920 and, at the point of writing, I'd never written about films either. I'm grateful to Liz for showing me how to step into a new field and for the opportunity to co-write this paper with her.

If anyone is interested in this area, or perhaps the work of Hayao Miyazaki (because we all know you're not going to be interested in the saccharine-fest that is Ferngully unless you saw it as a child), here is the abstract for the paper:

Animating child activism: Environmentalism and class politics in Ghibli's Princess Mononoke (1997) and Fox's Fern Gully (1992)

Informed by ecocriticism, this article conducts a comparative examination of two contemporary animated children's films, Princess Mononoke (1997) and Fern Gully (1992). While both films advocate for the prevention of deforestation, they are, to varying degrees, antithetical to environmentalism. Both films reject the principles of deep ecology in displacing responsibility for environmental destruction on to ‘supernatural’ forces and exhibit anthropocentric concern for the survival of humans. We argue that these films constitute divergent methodological approaches for environmental consciousness-raising in children's entertainment. The western world production demonstrates marked conservatism in its depiction of identity politics and ‘cute’ feminization of nature, while Hayao Miyazaki's film renders nature sublime and invokes complex socio-cultural differences. Against FernGully's ‘othering’ of working-class and queer characters, we posit that Princess Mononoke is decidedly queer, anti-binary and ideologically bi-partisan and, in accord with the underlying principle of environmental justice, asks child audiences to consider compassion for the poor in association with care for nature.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Model Girls: Setting up Girls for Judgement

Cindy Crawford’s daughter has revived discussion about the place of girls in high-fashion modelling. Ten-year-old Kaia Gerber has been chosen as the face of Young Versace and one of the launch images, in which she has been posed in a way that recalls her mother’s supermodel shots of the ‘90s, is a world apart from fleecy-clad child models grinning cheekily in the monthly Kmart catalogue.

It beggars belief that there is a Young Versace range that caters to children from newborns to twelve-years-old. I suppose there are wealthy people out there who couldn’t be seen shopping at Target for their kids, but with the scrapes that most kids get into, and their rapid growth, it’s sinfully excessive to be spending thousands on a flimsy skirt.

Yet wealthy people frittering away money is not the most significant thing to consider about Kaia’s modelling work and the visibility of young girls in the fashion industry. Unlike Thylane Blondeau's Vogue shoot last year, in which she wore a full face of make-up, leopard-print clothing and oversize heels, there is no parody of the fashion industry in Kaia’s images. This campaign is designed to appeal both to girls and their mothers (wealthy ones at least, and to foster aspirations in everyone else), and to encourage the process of girls valuing themselves according to how they look and what they buy.

Both men and women can take pleasure in aesthetic objects and the enjoyment of wearing good quality clothing, but it is women who are judged as a result of their appearance in ways that can be crippling. We know that the appearance of female politicians is far more often a subject of discussion in the media than men’s appearance— Tony Abbott’s alarming “budgie smugglers” being the exception.

A fascinating piece by Dannielle Miller at Mama Mia shows that even when women are active in areas in which their appearance should not be relevant, it is their looks that are most often attacked as a way of dragging them down and destroying their authority. Some of the female media commentators interviewed here, and in other articles on this topic, describe extremely hateful anonymous responses, not about what the substance of their opinion, but how they look. Nina Funnell, who writes about a range of women’s issues, and who has spoken out about her own horrifically violent rape, has shamefully received abusive comments suggesting that she was not attractive enough to be raped in any case.

This is what leads me to be critical of images like that of Kaia Gerber. Some might feel that the image is sexualising and is encouraging girls to “grow up too soon”. While these things might be true as well, using a young girl to advertise high fashion in the same way as women are used to advertise products begins the process of judgement even earlier. If mature women are undermined continuously because of their appearance and struggle with the results of this, then girls, who have not yet always been able to forge a self-confident identity, will not have the resources to brush such judgements aside.

Of course, for the past hundred years or more, girls have been able look to images of adult women in the media for an understanding of how they themselves should aspire to be and other girls can serve as the fashion and beauty police to ensure conformity. It is another level of pressure and expectation to have fashionable images of girls that are clothed and stylised as women, something that a 10-year-old cannot be, even if the image of Kaia from the neck-down looks as if she is a woman. The use of teen models often sells an unobtainable ideal of youth to women. However, selling womanhood to girls will surely only foster the same kind of degradation of girls' achievements in light of their looks as women already experience.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Transgendered Girls, Toys and the Great Girl Scout Cookie Boycott

There have been quite a few stories about transgender girls in the news, not least of which on the controversy front has been the story of an American Girl Scout who opposes the inclusion of transgender girls within the organisation and is calling for a cookie boycott in protest.

I first began thinking about transgender girls after reading a Boston Globe article about twin boys, one of whom is now a trans girl. Without denying the existence of transgendered children and adults, I found some of the ideas presented in the article problematic. My feelings were especially pronounced in light of the recent discussion of the new Lego "Friends" range for girls and the gender segregation of toys.

The article about the Maines twins begins as follows:

Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.

Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.

Though Wyatt went on to express a clearer sense that he was a girl, as she identifies now as Nicole, it bothered me that toy preference was being used as a marker of gender dysphoria. While clearly identifying with the accoutrements of the gender the child feels that they truly are means feeling an affinity with the stereotypical markers of that gender, such associations suggest that there is likely something significantly unusual about a child who strays outside accepted norms with the toys or clothes that he or she likes. Though we need to support transgender children, we also don't want to encourage rigid separation of children's play according to gender by suggesting that if boys like typically "feminine" toys or girls like typically "masculine" toys that it indicates something wrong.

A 2010 research paper that sought to consider whether there is an innate preference in infants for particular colours and shapes, suggested that all children prefer dolls to cars at 12 months (this was measured by how much the infants looked at a particular toy). Once the boys in the study were about a year older, however, they seemed to prefer cars over dolls, whereas girls retained their preference for the dolls. The authors conclude that these difference "may arise from socialization or cognitive gender development rather than inborn factors." So, essentially, as boys get older they are gradually encouraged by their parents and the media they consume to ditch the dolls and start their Matchbox collection.

Clearly there is a percentage of children who have gender identity issues who need to be better accommodated and treated (some of the stories of trans boys and girls on the Mermaids website, the UK organisation for gender-variant children, are sad reflections of intolerance). Nevertheless, all children are being affected by the increasing gendering of childhood play, which seems to pathologise difference and diversity. Though Nicole's interest in Barbies and tutus was indicative of something more, it should not be a cause for alarm if a boy wishes to play with dolls or if a girl is more interested in a chemistry set than setting to work with a replica iron. UK toy store Hamley's has recently removed the "gender apartheid" of its separate boys' and girls' floors for toys (coded pink and blue) in a way that will hopefully allow children more scope to choose toys that interest them, rather than confining them to a limited selection according to what boys and girls are supposed to like.

I would suggest that the insistence of pushing children into their "right" gender also contributes to the bigoted attitudes that transgender children experience from their peers and adults. If you've not yet seen it, the video of an American Girl Scout, Taylor, expressing concern about Girl Scouts USA's decision to allow trans girls to enter the movement, shows her received ideas about the threat of transgendered people.

As a fan of Girl Guide history, I'm in support of the concept of a girls' and women's only organisation that encourages leadership and self-reliance, and, like Taylor from California, I would be disappointed to see boys being admitted. Nevertheless, Taylor is reproducing discriminatory attitudes about transgendered people that cannot see beyond strict binaries of biologically male and female. Taylor's YouTube video, which has sparked no shortage of discussion on feminist sites, is also embedded at a site called Honest Girl Scouts.

The site is purportedly run by current and former women of Scouting who disagree with the organisation's apparent conduct of sex education and support of a woman's right to choose (or pushing "pro-lesbian, pro-abortion role models"). In some ways the site is laughable ("FACTOID: Did you know that radical feminist Betty Friedan, founder of NOW (National Organization for Women) and NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) was on the National Board of GSUSA for 12 years?") but in others, especially the use, and perhaps production, of Taylor's video, it is disturbing. Specifically, it appears as if they have used a girl as a conduit for their discriminatory views.

On the Bitch magazine Facebook page, where the cookie boycott story was posted, Taylor was quite often attacked and was labelled a "creep". I would argue that the real creeps are those who are behind these campaigns to discriminate against gays and lesbians and transgender men and women in Scouting. It is a shame that such an articulate and intelligent girl has been encouraged to put forward these views, and that an organisation that is attempting to be progressive is being fractured by those who cannot fathom why reducing discrimination for this minority of children is a good thing.

Scouting was originally founded to accept children of all religious persuasions, so, despite some worrying statements at time from founder Robert Baden-Powell, at heart the aim was to be open to all kinds of young people. Perhaps girls might have even remained part of the original Scouting scheme in England if Edwardian social norms had not been so concerned about girls being too "boyish" and the presence of girls "softening" boys. I would hope that the society in which we live - a century after Scouting began in America in 1912 - will not reproduce outdated notions of what each gender should be by supporting the opposition to trans girls being part of Girl Scouts America.