Monday, November 29, 2010

Feminism, literature and the academy

This semester I studied a unit at university on Feminism and Literature. I read all the expected theory, including the French feminists who I hadn’t read before. We shared information about how the study was relevant to us, but the study was confined to literature, and didn’t really include broader issues of feminism. The lecturer said, at the end of the course, that these types of units are going out of fashion, and the course is likely to be replaced by a unit such as one on Literature, Environment and Animals, since there is little new theoretical work in the area of feminism and literature. She said that does not mean that she does not think it is very important, just that they may slip it into other units such as the one mentioned above for example, as ecofeminism.

I found that, although there isn’t much happening in theory, there is a lot going on in practice.

Women who write don’t want to be defined or restricted by gender. The conversation amongst writers is unresolved and ongoing.

Joyce Carol Oates noted that worthy content, in itself, does not make a serious work of art.
“For a practicing writer, for a practicing artist of any kind, ‘sociology’, ‘politics’, and even ‘biology’ are subordinate to matters of personal vision and even to matters of craftsmanship.”

Recently, in an interview with The Guardian, writer, A S Byatt objected to the Orange Prize as sexist, as it assumes there is a feminine subject matter. She appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, saying that women who write intellectual novels are seen by critics as strange and unnatural. (2010, online)

Jonathon Franzen, also quoted in The Guardian, says "The categories by which we value fiction are skewed male, and this creates a very destructive disconnect between the critical establishment and the predominantly female readership of novels," he says. "That's inarguable." (2010, online)

When interviewed on ABC radio Showalter said that women are still left outside the canon and suggested that women’s writing would be perceived more seriously if women did as men did in proclaiming themselves part of a movement or generation, thereby defining themselves as important writers. (2010, online)

There is much to consider here. And that is just amongst privileged white westerners.

It is difficult to discuss feminism and literature without broadening the terms of reference to politics. While women are paid less then men, fewer women hold positions of power, such as seats on company boards, than men, issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment remain, do we need to redress the balance with affirmative action? And what of issues affecting women in the developing world, such as poverty, lack of education, lack of medical assistance, the sex trade, living in conflict areas, and restrictions enforced by religion? Do the issues of gender equality apply in the literary world? Do women writers need to promote themselves, network, and ask for more pay in order to redress the balance? Or does behaving as if the issue doesn’t exist make it all OK? Will good writing, no matter who wrote it and under what conditions, always find an audience?

What do you think? Are we likely to come up with new theories of feminism and literature? What of Helene Cixous’ proposition that we shift the core of logocentrism and phallocentricism: ‘Then all the stories would have to be told differently, the future would be incalculable, the historical forces would, will, change hands, bodies; another thinking as yet not thinkable will transform the functioning of all society.' (93)

I am including the references here and the list of key concepts from the course. These key concepts are themselves a bit outdated. Are they concepts most practising feminists would be familiar with, or are they irrelevant?

A S Byatt interview

Helene Cixous. 'Sorties'. La jeune née (Union Génerale d'Editions, 10/18, 1975). Reprinted in New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 90—98.

Oates, Joyce Carol, Is There a Female Voice? Joyce Carol Oates Replies’, Gender and Literary Voice, Eagleton, M. (ed) 1996, in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Victoria, p 292

Jonathon Franzen interview

The Marxist Feminist Collective ,1989, ‘Women Writing: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Aurora Leigh’ in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Edward Arnold, London.

Showalter interview

Showalter, Elaine. 1978 (2009), A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers, from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing. Virago, London

Feminism - Key Concepts

Centre and periphery
Patriarchal society
The pen as a metaphorical penis
Cultural androgyny
Sexual difference
Judith Shakespeare
Sexualisation of discourse
Black feminist criticism
‘Ain’t I a woman?’
The metaphor of literary paternity
Politics of difference
Binary opposition
Sex/gender distinction
Feminist reading practice
Biological determinism
White ink
L’Ecriture feminine

The Demise of Disney Princesses

Disney Studios have announced that they have no more Princess or fairytale movies in the pipeline, and have significantly changed their approach to the movie about Rapunzel. Because of the way these depictions are poor role modelling for girls? Oh, no.

In the age of mega-franchises when movies need to appeal to a broad audience to justify a sizeable investment, Disney discovered too late that The Princess and the Frog appealed to too narrow an audience: little girls. This prompted the studio to change the name of its Rapunzel movie to the gender-neutral Tangled and shift the lens of its marketing to the film's swashbuckling male co-star, Flynn Rider.

The movie was reconceived as a musical with fast-paced action and witty banter. The only surviving elements, Catmull says, were ''the hair, the tower and Rapunzel''.

So,they changed the name, and the advertisements now focus on the male character, because they want to increase their audience. Hmm. I wonder.

And girls are over princesses by the time they are six. Then they want to be cool and hot.

So why has the clock struck midnight for Disney's fairytales?

Among girls, princesses and the romanticised ideal they represent - revolving around finding the man of your dreams - have a limited shelf life. With the advent of ''tween'' TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models.

''By the time they're five or six, they're not interested in being princesses,'' says Dafna Lemish, who chairs the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and is an expert in the role of media in children's lives. ''They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.''

MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, knocked the toy industry's blonde bombshell off her stilettos by recognising how little girls' interests have morphed.

''You've got to go with the times,'' MGA's chief executive, Isaac Larian, says. ''You can't keep selling what the mothers and the fathers played with before. You've got to see life through their lens.''

Clearly, they see this is what society values.

Clearly, an opportunity to offer a counter message.

Clearly, an opportunity missed.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What tv ads for toys teach kids about gender

I'm liking this woman more and more. She's doing good work here.

This time she's looking at how toys are advertised to children in ways which teach them very limited depictions of gender.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Top 50 Mom Blogs

Wow, there is a lot of action in mother blog land!

Check out the Top 50 mom blogs. You can add your own, add your favourite (I reckon we need more Australian mums nominated) or vote. There are different categories too. You'll find something fun or informative to read.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Letter to dance school

After seeing a display at a local fete, I have written this letter to a local dance school. No accusations. Just asking them to consider a series of questions. Can't hurt to ask, can it? I should add that our dance school, with ongoing conversation and growing awareness about these issues, is brilliant.

Do you believe that creativity can be about anything? That songs, dance, art, can be about any idea or concept or situation?

Do you think that our culture has been presenting boys and girls in narrow stereotypes of what it is to be male or female?

Are you aware of campaigns to prevent the public sexualisation of children, and the work of action groups such as Collective Shout and Kids Free 2B Kids? Are you aware of books such as Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Culture; Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism; Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls; Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity; What’s Happening to our Girls: Too Much Too Soon, and Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What We Can Do About It? Are you aware that the current standard in the children’s dance industry is implicated in these public discussions?

As a dance teacher do you believe you have a responsibility to protect the innocence and modesty of children? Do you believe you have a responsibility to present children in a flattering manner?

Do you use songs from CDs that contain a warning sticker? Do you play these songs in front of primary school children? Are the dances performed by the older students suitable to be seen by the younger students? Are the costumes suitable and flattering?

Are you aware that many families are concerned with current standards at dance schools, where raunch seems to be part of the accepted dance culture? When families leave your dance school do you ask them why? Do you think that positioning yourself as a respectful school that explores a full range of ideas, emotions and situations in dance, and uses a wide range of music and costuming ideas, might bring in more customers?

If you hire your hall from the local church would you be comfortable inviting the local minister and his family to your dance concert?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Bechdel test - for movies

This is the Bechdel test, as applied to women in movies. The idea is to ask, when watching a movie, are there at least two female characters who have names, do they talk to each other and do they talk to each other about something other than men.

Interesting. Play the video.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Erica Jong, Rebecca Walker, feminism and motherhood

An article in the Wall Street Journal by Erica Jong in which she agrees with Elisabeth Badinter (French philosopher), that intensive mothering is bad for feminism. Badinter's book is being released in English.

The article also includes a sidebar of parenting advice over 2000 years, proving once again that parenting as we know it is always in flux, and will change again when our kids are older.

2,000 Years of Parenting Advice

* Proper measures must be taken to ensure that [children] shall be tactful and courteous in their address; for nothing is so deservedly disliked as tactless characters. —"The Education of Children," Plutarch, A.D. 110
* I will also advise his feet to be wash'd every day in cold water, and to have his shoes so thin, that they might leak and let in water.… It is recommendable for its cleanliness; but that which I aim at in it, is health; and therefore I limit it not precisely to any time of the day. —"Some Thoughts Concerning Education," John Locke, 1693
* But let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature's sentiments will be awakened in every heart, the state will be repeopled. —"Emile: or, On Education," Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762
* Even very little children are happy when they think they are useful. "I can do some good—can't I, mother?" is one of the first questions asked….Let them go out with their little basket, to weed the garden, to pick peas for dinner, to feed the chickens, &c. —"The Mother's Book," Lydia Maria Child, 1831
* Babies under six months old should never be played with; and the less of it at any time the better for the infant. —"The Care and Feeding of Children," L. Emmett Holt, 1894
* Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task. —"Psychological Care of Infant and Child," John B. Watson, 1928
* The more people have studied different methods of bringing up children the more they have come to the conclusion that what good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all. Furthermore, all parents do their best job when they have a natural, easy confidence in themselves. Better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry. —"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care," Benjamin Spock, 1946

And the flipside. An article by Rebecca Walker,daughter of Alice Walker, saying what a terrible mother Alice was and is. Good feminist equals bad mother. How to reconcile the two.

The school community

Yesterday morning I heard on the radio an interview with Hugh Mackay, the social researcher, promoting his book 'What Makes us Tick? The Ten Desires that Drive Us.' He said that everybody's brain is like ten kids on a trampoline calling 'look at me, look at me!', and that we are fundamentally irrational creatures who occasionally have bouts of rationality, and that it is amazing we function as well as we do.

And then I went on the prove him right. I embarrassed and humiliated myself in front of the school community, via email.

Now it probably does me no harm to be humiliated. I'm being philosophical. It isn't the first and won't be the last time I've felt ashamed, and have had to face up to people who probably think less of me. I'm trying to remind myself of all the things I've done right, that have been helpful, and hope people will forgive me my lack of judgement and making a fool of myself. My error wasn't on the scale of introducing AIDS to Africa or privitising child care in Australia, but it was an error. And I should have known better.

Being on a committee in the community is a serious job. I know that. People who do it are volunteers. The volunteers are usually the people who volunteer for other things as well. By being on the committee you take on extra jobs through the course of running the committee's business. People volunteer in the community because they care. Most people don't volunteer, and don't get involved and yesterday, that looked pretty attractive. Actually, that's a little unfair - lots of people do volunteer for special events, they just don't take on longterm voluntary commitments. I could work at a paid job. I could clean the house and cook more. I could spend my time working out how to draw water. I could move my kids to another school and start again, keeping a low profile. But we have all learnt something, and we all have to turn up to school each day and just continue on. I'm at our primary school for eleven years, which is longer than I stayed at any job, and there are bound to be dramas. We can now continue with, as my very kind friend says, kindness.

So I'm now reading my SEND button as BE KIND.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Redefine girly

This site was recommended on the New Moon site which my daughter has joined. It promotes merchandise for girls with an alternative, empowering message. Good idea, although some of them, I'm just not sure about.

The t shirts have pictures of women or girls in different professions, and a slogan to match each profession.

Firefighter - I look good in red
Astronaut - When you wish upon the stars
Police officer - Blue is my color
Breast cancer scientist - Cooking up something great - find a cure

Doctor - Call me in the morning
Director - Act like a lady
Carpenter - I broke a nail
Race car driver - I drove like a girl
Military - Don't fight with girls
Sailor - Always looking for a great sail

I'm not so sure.

I appreciate they are trying to question the stereotypes about what girls can be, and I admire and support that, but 'Call me in the morning'? Really?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

OC, Oh Dear

Last week I was writing a post about how uni has finished and what I’ll do next, because the family got along fine without much extra attention from me, and nobody missed me. This week I’m thinking I was living in a fool’s paradise.

The catalyst for the change is two things really. Daughter 1 was offered a place in the OC stream of another school (opportunity class for gifted and talented kids, offering a compressed curriculum and extended learning opportunities), and daughter 2 has a music exam coming up which she is not prepared for.

The OC offer is one that many families would have been working towards. I was kind of surprised, but not surprised, that she got the offer. We don’t do tutoring in our family, and most of the kids offered places would have been tutored. She did the test just to practise doing the test (it is like an IQ test or Public Service exam), never considering she’d accept an offer. But once the offer was made, she started wondering. I’ve spent a few days doing research about the school. They are having an orientation day on Tuesday, and we said we’d go, just out of curiosity, but she has a rehearsal for School Spectacular that day, so I might go on my own. Accepting the offer would mean changing schools, having to drive her there and back each day. And me not being available for the other children. I really don’t feel like getting to know everything about another school. We’re happy where we are, and she can walk to school. None of her friends were offered a place and we don’t know anyone there.

Not accepting the offer means that I might have to extend her opportunities a little myself. I spoke to our school principal about what it all means, and I must say she was very impressive. If I didn’t already love her, I would want to be at her school after that conversation. She said the plus of accepting would be that my daughter would be with like-minded kids. I asked if those kids would be tutored. She said that 95% of them would be. Well that makes my daughter the 5% , so she wouldn’t be with like-minded kids.

Staying where we are means that she will be involved in the enrichment program which extends the brighter kids. That’s a program which is working well. Staying means she has a better chance at gaining a leadership position in the higher years. That’s something she’s interested in. If she wants she can join the band, learn an instrument, or do an extra ballet class at the better ballet school (she’s doing a summer school week long workshop there as her Christmas present). I could be more involved in her reading and help her there. And I could take her to museums and cultural activities. We’ve been pacing ourselves on these kinds of excursions, and maybe it is time to venture further than our local area. So, that means more time and attention from me. Without me turning her education or stimulation into a project.

Daughter 2 has been learning her instrument this year, and changed teachers at the time that the exam information was released. She was a few pages behind the level expected. I’ve started supervising my daughter’s practice, and I’d be very surprised if she passes. Doing homework and home practice isn’t something that she manages herself well, and I’d kind of given up, being sick of nagging, telling her that these things are her responsibility and she’ll have to cop the consequences. But now I feel like I’ve failed her. She has a CD and CD Rom with her book, and we’ve never played either.

All the kids want me to teach them to cook. I hardly ever read to them anymore, because they are more interested in watching tv shows after dinner a few nights a week. Two have coughs that I’m not tending to, one needs to use otovent to clear her ears or we'll end up at the ENT specialist who will want to give her grommets, one needs eye ointment, and I’m not being diligent about these things. They want to play board games with me and I hardly ever do that. The youngest was particularly vocal about not liking me studying.

And when I think about how much I read with the oldest child compared to the youngest... chalk and cheese.

Last week I spent two days making tutus for their school dance group that has a performance on this week. I have another costume to make tomorrow, and another costume to repair. This week, and the next few weeks, will be crazy busy, just with all the commitments the kids have taken on, and the jobs I do voluntarily. I really don’t have time to study.

I spent the whole weekend looking after the household and family. Trying to get a few loads of washing dry in the sun before it rains again. Taking kids to dance class (preparation for end of year concert), taking them for a fitting for their School Spectacular costume, feeding them, talking to them, helping with music practice, combing for nits, and so on, preparing for the week ahead. Still I have made no attempt to tidy or clean the house. And I realised that I actually need to spend more time with the kids, not less.

Now to rethink the idea of working, the idea of a mother doing her own thing, the realities of what the kids need, and how to make it all fit...

Friday, November 05, 2010

Alternative rolemodels

Some interesting things going on in the area of alternative role models for women and girls.

And I know we need them. I've just witnessed a display from a local dance school at a local fete. I asked the name of the school because it is time to write to the governing associations for dance schools to ask them what on earth they think they're doing. The girls who would have been aged about 10 - 12 were dressed in small shorts, a top that tied in the front, exposing much flesh in the midriff (unflattering for most of the girls), shiny tights and long socks. The dances were all to r'n'b rap music - I couldn't tell if the music was actually about anything - and the moves were all shaking and thrusts ending with the usual strutty poses of Las Vegas showgirls. All the dances were the same. They need to start thinking about what they are doing, and using some creativity!

Here are some ideas promoting alternatives.

There is a website to highlight the various ways women can succeed in the world, without being pink and girly. Pinkstinks is the site. They run campaigns, name and shame, present worthy role models, and share alternatives to the pink culture for girls.

And a story about it in the Guardian

Also, have a look at this magazine for girls, determinedly feminist, and anti the usual message to girls delivered in mainstream mags. It is called New Moon, and encourages girls' creativity. You can check it out here.

This alternative I find a little disturbing, although it probably isn't surprising that women have a found a way to move away from the fashion of raunch culture. Lolita fashion is women dressing as Victorian dolls. I find it disturbing because I find it infantalising and fetishising. What do you think?

The last alternative is also disturbing. The Tea Party as a women's movement. I know I keep saying that women and mothers should be political, and while I don't share their politics, at least it is showing women in the media, and women with power, in a light that moves away from the Paris Hilton stereotype. There is a discussion here from ABC radio.

Do you have any alternative role models, or know of any groups that take action against the stereotyping of girls, you'd like to share?