Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Toddlers & Tiaras

As I am typing this, I am in the middle of a TLC marathon of Toddlers & Tiaras. If you are a smart person, you have probably never watched this show. Because it's kind of horrifying.

This is not one of those feminist rants against beauty pageants. Like sports, beauty pageants are a thing I have no interest in ever being near physically, but do enjoy watching movies about. (Drop Dead Gorgeous is a favorite of mine. I also like Mini Driver's Beautiful, and of course, Miss Congeniality.)

My problem with Toddlers & Tiaras is that... how young is too young for a beauty pageant?

Me thinks this might be too young.

When I was growing up, I saw JonBenét Ramsey's coiffed hair and made-up face on the cover of tabloid magazines as I walked past them in the grocery store all the time. I knew very little about the case as a 6 or 7 year old, other than this was a beauty queen child who had been murdered. Never having enjoyed being on stage much, this certainly never made beauty pageants attractive to me.

I really could not get away from this image when I was a child.

It was also weird for me that JonBenét Ramsey was around the same age as me, but that I actually looked my age. This same uneasy feeling comes back whenever I am sucked into watching Toddlers & Tiaras.

Lots of kids play dress up, experiment with make up, or wish they were older, and most parents support their children pretending and playing like that. Fewer parents actually go as far to make these childhood fantasies a reality. And these are some pretty disturbing fantasies. Watching marathons of 6 year olds shaking their pelvises like they're Pussycat Dolls while wearing fake teeth, fake hair, and fake tans is really unsettling. A lot of the girls on T&T say they like pageants and enjoy performing and being on stage... but whatever happened to tap lessons? Or musical theater?

There was an internet-wide outcry when Noah Cyrus (Miley Cyrus' 9 year old sister) showed up in a tight, short, vampish dress at a red carpet event. People were outraged that her parents or handlers or whoever hadn't stopped this age-inappropriate mess from happening. Bloggers asked questions like Anyone remember how Abigail Breslin dressed when she was 9? I am sure that Noah, as a child in a family of stars faces a lot of pressures and wants to be like her cool older sister a lot... But T&T is a whole different monster. The girls are younger, the dresses are smaller, and the emphasis on femininity and beauty is stronger.

Noah Cyrus was over-sexualized in that dress. And while the girls in T&T are wearing floofy pink dresses or bathing suits with sequins, it's the same thing. These are girls too young to even have lost their first baby teeth yet. Some of them are still babies. The over-sexualization of women is a huge problem in the US, but people have generally accepted that as an unavoidable fact of American culture. But what about stretching that over-sexualization to 6 year olds? Toddlers? Babies?

I am by no means a reality-TV fan, but I do think it is interesting how even in all its ridiculousness and show-boatness, it does turn a mirror back on society. While some things do get amped up for TV, we watch shows like Real Housewives, Bad Girls Club, Toddlers & Tiaras, Jersey Shore, or Laguna Beach because we like watching characters we recognize. And even though we watch and complain, we keep watching because we live in a culture that supports these kinds of people and activities, no matter how over the top they are.

I could have not watched 4 episodes of Toddlers & Tiaras today, but despite my disgust at the things these parents are doing to their daughters, it's fascinating. I can't help but wonder, how are these girls going to approach the world, femininity, independence and confidence when they get older?

Edit: (1-10-11) Sociological Images just posted 2 commentaries on the sexualization of young girls. One about child models and the other about Toddlers & Tiaras. Interesting! Check 'em out!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Race on TV

If you have ever attended elementary school, you have probably seen an image like the one above, symbolizing worldwide unity between people of different heritages. And today, with greater access to civil rights, more diverse schools and workplaces, the connecting force of the internet and social media, and laws protecting minority people, this is probably more closer to truth than it ever has been before. Which still doesn't make it true. Take for example, entertainment media.

It's not a secret that Hollywood isn't as diverse as it should be. In ten seasons of "Friends" there was only one non-white character. And she was only on for nine episodes. Countless other shows follow in this pattern.

Last year my roommate and I had a conversation about the portrayals of Latino characters in TV and movies.

"Even J.Lo doesn't even play Puerto Rican characters all the time. The Wedding Planner? She was Italian!" Sara said
"Um... she was Puerto Rican in Maid in Manhattan!" I suggested.
"Yeah," Sara responded. "And she was a maid."
"... Right."

Yep. Latino actors are more likely to play hired help, drug dealers, and gardeners than other characters. (Ugly Betty is one successful exception. And Grey's Anatomy is very diverse as well.) Diversity in television and movies has increased in the past 20 years, but it really is still not good enough.

One of the main issues I see, as a white woman, is that unless the cast is majority white or has a white leading character, the movie or show tends to not be marketed to all people. This year Chris Rock's remake of the 2007 British comedy, Death at a Funeral, into an all American-cast (with nearly all black actors) went largely unnoticed by white moviegoers. I went to see it in theaters and watched the original a couple months later, and found that if I mentioned the Chris Rock remake to my white friends, a lot of them hadn't heard of it, but had heard of or seen the original (which has an all-white cast).

The problem I think lies in the fact that the people who make decisions in Hollywood have confidence that movies with majority white casts will bring in all audiences, while movies (or TV shows) with minority actors in the majority will only appeal to minorities. Sort of the same way they think girls will go to boy-helmed children's movies but boys won't go to girl-movies. It's a money thing. (This ... somewhat lengthy article gives a good summary about what's happening with diversity in Hollywood.) There's no reason why white people can't relate to or enjoy watching actors who don't share their race. Put more diversity in TV! People are not as easy to peg as you make them out to be!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ah... Twitter trending topics.

I look at the twitter trending topics every once in awhile because I think it's interesting to see when pop culture or news gets in them... today I noticed that #femalesneedto became a trending topic. I was interested to see how the tweets looked.

(Note: these tweets were posted by both men and women, and I have removed/blocked out their usernames)

some of the tweets were nice, like this one

but a lot of them were, unsurprisingly, like this.

and you should understand that if you reference "man law," I will think you are stupid.

I agree, few ladies can pull off acting like farming equipment.

nothing says realness like twitter

I agree with this one actually. It's just not a practical look in any weather.

I don't even know what that is...

True that, sister!

So it wasn't a surprise that the twitterverse was spewing a whole lot of stereotypical and/or offensive things about women, which made reading the intelligent tweets all the nicer. There are loads more... but like youtube comments and actually most comments on just about any website that serves a gigantic amount of people, aren't really worth anything.

The reason I posted all of these (mostly trash) tweets is because it's important to realize the effect of these all encompassing statements. The tweets about females needing to be less promiscuous (or whatever) are meant for a certain stereotype but are disseminated in a really base, general way that seem like all women are golddiggers or bitches or gossipy (or whatever). It is quite possible that some of the people who posted these lame tweets are interesting, intelligent people who get caught up in stereotypes and the pull of internet joinerism. (That is blatantly not a word.) But it's sad that sexism is such a strong force in our society that men and women can so readily pull out these stereotypical statements about what women should or should not do and post them with pride (I mean... it's on twitter... anyone can see it. You're posting it SO people see what you're writing).

And as I often feel after being on the internet for too long, I am losing faith in the American education system.

Have Yourself a Very Gendered Christmas

Since I am the child who is much more likely to buy a wrench set for my mother and an Enya CD for my father, seeing's gift suggestions always reminds me how stereotypically gendered gift-giving can be, at least from a commercial standpoint.

Also... why is THIS a thing?

Elves should not be sexy. Just--ah! I think by now everyone has gotten over Legolas and realizes that there's nothing sexy about elves... it was just Orlando Bloom. (There was a time... in the early 2000's... when this was confused.) But yeah. As always men dressing up in costumes for Christmas are funny and silly! While women who dress up for Christmas must be sexy. (Someone please explain to me what is sexy about Christmas. Isn't it supposed to be about babies in mangers and gift cards?)

Anyway, back to the gift thing--the elf thing was just bothering me-- it is not just children who are attacked with gendered commercial expectations. I'm not sure what it is about classic rock or history books/DVDs that are so often associated with men, but that's how it's usually marketed. People tend to be really critical of the commercials aimed at children and how they construct gender, but gender constructs in advertisements don't end with childhood. And that's something I wish there was more awareness about, because products and commercials do influence the way they think, and when they're being used to enforce gender stereotypes... that's not helping society progress. I mean, I'm not expecting cell phone ads or gift guides to be revolutionary or anything... I would just like for them to be even handed about they way men and women are portrayed in them. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.

In my wishlist, in case you are wondering, besides books and DVDs (take that, Amazon predictions!), I have this:

So I only added the pink one because it also "supports" breast cancer research (and would thus add to my collection of legitimate items made to look silly by being breast cancer research pink...), but the user reviews say that the cap comes off too easily in their purses, so I will be researching other brands and models.

In any case, gender stereotypes don't take a holiday for the holidays, and if you look for them... they will be there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advice from a Cartoon Princess

I love these Second City videos. However much I know Disney Princess movies give off conflicting messages, I still love them. It was a love that was ingrained in me from a very young age. However, coming off a debate with one of my friends about the merits of Princess Tiana (my new Princess fave) vs. Rapunzel (my friend Emma's new fave), I thought I'd do a little exercise in creativity, and put aside my blind love for cartoon princesses for a hot second and emulate these excellent, funny, and critical videos from Second City.

Cinderella: If your life sucks, don't do anything to change it. Wait for your Fairy Godmother! She'll sing and put you in a pretty dress. And then you'll get married. You should always let animals help you get all the little mundane things done, like chores or getting dressed or sewing ball gowns, they're very talented. You should always tolerate the mean people in your life because some day you will get made a princess and they'll still be mean. Don't stay out after midnight--bad things happen! That means you're out of control and you will probably lose your shoes. Having small feet is the way to get a husband.

Sleeping Beauty: If you meet a strange man in the woods who seems to be stalking you but sings well--you should probably marry him someday. Fairies will protect you any time you're near death or danger, so don't worry! If you fall into a coma and wake up with that strange, stalker man making out with you, it definitely means that it's true love. Get married ASAP! If you grew up in isolation with only woodland creatures and some matronly fairies as company, you're probably psychologically fine. Getting married will probably fix any of those problems anyway, so do it as quick as possible! Human friends are overrated, but husbands are forever.

Jasmine: If you meet this cute guy who you think is lying about his identity, he might not be that bad of a guy. In fact, he might actually have magical friends. Don't trust dark-skinned men with goatees. They will definitely try to make you their sex slave. You should make friends with tigers because people just aren't reliable. Always wear revealing clothing. It will always get you ahead in life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

TV for Teens/Tweens

Being the pop-culture nerd I am (and the procrastinator that I am), I've spent a good amount of time watching shows on the Disney Channel, and for the most part it's a pretty bleak view of what girls have for options as TV shows. I've seen an embarrassing amount of Hannah Montana episodes (okay... I like Miley Cyrus), and while I'm glad that Hannah/Miley has a female friend, Lily, on the show, a lot of their time on the show is spent by scheming, weird plans, general ditziness... blah blah. Nothing new. They have two ditzy enemies... I don't think it's a particularly evil show, but it's just not doing anything for girls. The current Good Luck Charlie and Life with Derek (2005-2009) both feature stories about expanding families in which the oldest girl sibling (an up-tight perfectionist) has to take on more responsibility as the oldest male sibling goofs off. Life with Derek I found to be kind of funny although clichéd, but I just can't sit through Good Luck Charlie without a rage blackout. Or just turning it off.

The Suite Life and The Suite Life on Deck are about the male twin protagonists and their childish ventures into getting girlfriends and feature a lot of cliché TV situations... I don't know Sonny with a Chance super well, but it seems to involve a lot of situations between nice-girl (brunette) Demi Lovato and the diva-y blonde character.

Nickelodeon's iCarly is one show that I do actually like. I haven't seen a ton of episodes, and at first I was not a huge fan of Miranda Cosgrove (the uptight student from School of Rock), but I grew to really like the show and the message. First of all, I like that it's a show about three friends who make a webcast TV show. This is showing kids at home that there are things you can do on your own with the power of the internet. And the show within the show features real kids who send in stuff to the iCarly website. I really like this type of involved media, and it's teaching kids a good lesson about work ethic and how you can create media when you feel like there's something that you want or can add. I also really like the character Sam Puckett (played by Jennette McCurdy).

While she may appear to be your typical blonde TV teen, Sam is bitingly sarcastic, obsessed with eating, and athletic to a point of violence. There's one episode where Sam wants to date some kid in their school but doesn't know how to get his attention. Carly then "girlifies" Sam (teaches her to chew with her mouth closed, not eat things out of the trash, not beat people up, etc.), which for about 10 minutes I watched, horrified, that Nickelodeon was letting this happen, but by the end of the show, Sam is back to her own ways, and triumphantly beats a bully up to save Carly while her date walks in to see the scene. Instead of rejecting Sam, he thinks it's cool. So I'm really happy about this depiction of teenage girlhood on television. There are a lot of sassy/"sarcastic" teenage girl characters, but there are fewer shows with writers who can write the lines well enough and actresses who can pull them off in a convincing way. So there's a lot of unnecessary sass out there. But I think iCarly is well done, and am glad for the young girls who get to watch it and have these strong female characters to look up to.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Women and Movies

Here are a few links to blogs about women and the movie industry

Women & Hollywood- this blog reviews and reports on women's issues in the entertainment business, Hollywood, and portrayals in film.

The Hathor Legacy - this is similar to Women & Hollywood, but I like it because it has, I think, a lot more criticisms about the inner-workings of the Hollywood Movie Making standards that leave women out systematically.

Birds Eye View- this site features articles and news about films made my international female filmmakers.

Since I just wrote about Tangled, here's this great post from Girl w/ Pen about it. The whole thing is great, it's really critical of how Disney sees movies with female main characters as for girls and movies with male main characters as gender neutral. I thought this part was especially good:

She is, no doubt, an improvement on Snow White, who could only sing to animals and happily clean up after seven dwarves. Yet, as Scott Mendelson indicates, her bravery is framed in a “condescending ‘girl-power’ punch or two” way – it is the exception to her character, rather than the rule. While Flynn is all masculine adventure, power, and cunning, she is all long blonde locks with a hint of you-go-girl attitude to appease a 21st century audience.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crossing Gender Lines

When I was in first grade my best friend and I had a fight. She wanted us to be called "tomboys," (as opposed to "girlie-girls,") but I was quick to point out, "But I take ballet."
"Then you're a girlie-girl," she said.
"But I play soccer," I countered.
"Then you're a tomboy."
I'm sure you can imagine what our seven-year old selves went on to do. (I repeated my same arguments that I was not one or another while she tried to label me as one and we continued to argue until we were distracted.)

I'm not exactly sure what the current seven-year old opinions are on tomboys vs. girlie girls, but where I lived in 1997, it was cool to be a tomboy.

So when I read a post online about a mother's struggle dealing with her seven-year old daughter, Katie, being teased for liking Star Wars, I remembered my own seven-year old struggle with labels. I took ballet lessons and I played soccer. I had Barbies and dinosaur figurines. I collected the "boy" toys in McDonald's Happy Meals because the toys for boys always did things while the toys for girls were generally stationary dolls. (Are Happy Meals still gendered? I don't even know.) I loved Disney princesses but I was also aware that I horror and action movies (like Star Wars) were really cool. For a seven-year old, whose entire world is gendered through movies, TV, commercials, toys, and other children, this was kind of confusing. Did I have to be a tomboy or a girlie-girl?

And I was glad to read the mother's follow-up post, about receiving support from other nerds, Star Wars fans, and girls who like "boy"-stuff.

I'm glad that Katie has so much support from all over the world now, but I wish more parents were like Katie's mom. Katie is being allowed to explore all the things she likes without being constricted by gendered associations. When I was a sophomore, I took a cultural anthropology class. One day we started discussing gender expression for children, and one girl raised her hand and started talking about how she had an 8-year old nephew who she knew was gay because he liked Barbies and "girl"-toys. After class she continued telling me about her nephew (she was one of those chatty-types) in the elevator and how if she had a son and he asked to play with "girl"-toys, she'd just hand him Hot Wheels or something and tell him no. I was shocked and didn't really know what to say other than, "Oh... I think I'll just let my kids play with what they want..."

What if that girl from my class has children who don't want to conform to strict gender norms? What about children whose parents force upon them these arbitrary distinctions about gendered activities? Aren't their lives and potential to grow severely limited?

I think this section from the follow-up post puts it perfectly:

And Katie is learning how to reach out to help other children in the same way that she has been helped. A mother named Emily called to tell me that her first grade son was recently teased for bringing My Little Pony for show and tell. She said he was terribly upset by the incident, and when I told Katie about it, she called to leave a message for the child.

She said, "I am Katie. I like Star Wars, and you like My Little Pony. I know other boys who like to play with My Little Pony, and it's great, and umm, May the Pony Be With You!" she finished proudly.

It is a gift to watch your child grow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Movie Review: Tangled

So I heard about this movie awhile ago, back when it was still slated to be called "Rapunzel" and be a traditionally animated movie. Then The Princess and the Frog came out and didn't do as well as Disney had hoped, so they rebooted some of their ideas to try to make it more appealing to boys. So this character got added:
So I read a lot about how people were worried that since The Princess and the Frog (which was great, I saw it in theaters) didn't do as well in theaters as Disney had hoped, and that after Tangled, Disney will be scrapping the traditional princess story, that there's going to be a considerably less significant female presence in movies for children. This is something I'm still worried about, but in any case, that's enough for another post.

I thought Tangled was alright. It has a lot of the hallmarks of other Disney/princess movies, so although the story had been considerably changed from the traditional Rapunzel story, there were several parts of the movie that I just felt deja vu. (Disney does reuse character design, so I think that was part of it for me. The male lead, Flynn Rider, reminded me a lot of Aladdin, and the horse reminded me a lot of Pegasus from Hercules and Abu from Aladdin. The chameleon--actually my favorite character-- reminded me a lot of Pip in Enchanted... so on.) There were parts that were pretty funny, and the music was pretty good, but overall, after the movie, I was just left feeling like there should have been something else or they should have done things differently to make it really good.

this was actually the funniest character in the movie

As far as gender in the movie goes, I just feel blah about it. I thought Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) was a pretty good character, there are a lot of parts in the movie where she's adventurous and resourceful, but spends most of the movie wide-eyed and naïve (in contrast to Fiona from Shrek, who spent most of her life in a tower and comes out of it kind of badass and sassy).

One part of the movie stuck out for me in particular, in which Rapunzel gets a bar full of thugs to sing about their dreams, and all these huge scary guys start singing about how they like knitting and playing the piano and stuff. While part of me likes that there's this expectation-reversal, the making of big-scary-men into sensitive (effeminate?) characters, it's also kind of a tired theme that crops up too often in children's movies. (Men can only be secretly sensitive when they're actually physically intimidating as well... you rarely see sensitive or effeminate characters who could be construed as stereotypically gay. Female characters don't really get the opportunity to do these gender-expectation reversals, except in Shrek when all the Princesses became a kung-fu team... but you know what I mean.) And then when Flynn Rider's character gets coerced into singing, he starts off, "I have dreams like you, no really!/ Just much less touchy-feely!" and I groaned. It's funny that these big, huge thugs have all these dreams about touchy-feely things. But Flynn is not a party to that. So... for the boys who go see Tangled (if Disney does indeed reach its intended audience), what are they going to think? That liking these "unmanly" things is a joke? Because that's how the movie is portraying it.

The villain of the movie is the evil witch, Mother Gothel, a scary-looking crone whose greatest desire is to stay young forever. Is it just me, or are female villains more shallow than male villains?

Wicked Queen (Snow White, 1937): Object: be the prettiest. She's also a witch.
Evil Stepmother (Cinderella, 1950): Object: marry off her daughters, torture her step-daughter.
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959): Object: revenge for not getting invited to a party. She's also a witch.
Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians, 1961): Object: kill puppies for fashion.
Ursula (The Little Mermaid, 1989): Object: take over underwater kingdom. (Finally! Big goal!) She's also a witch.
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast, 1991): Object: get a wife, feed ego. (This one's a pretty shallow guy.)
Jafar (Aladdin, 1992): Object: take over kingdom. He is a sorcerer too.
Scar (The Lion King, 1994): Object: take over kingdom.
Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas, 1995): Object: take all the gold from the Native Americans, gain power.
Judge Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996): Object: gypsy holocaust
Hades (Hercules, 1997): Object: Take over Mount Olympus
Shan Yu (Mulan, 1998): Object: Take over China.
Queen Narissa (Enchanted, 2007): Object: Be queen forever. She's also a witch.
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog, 2009): Object: gain money and power. He's also a voodoo doctor.

So... the general trend seems to be that female villains have shallow, appearance-related goals while male villains tend to seek more power. Tangled is no exception. I didn't have high expectations for the movie, and while it wasn't bad, it just wasn't super memorable.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Watch This

I saw this South African PSA linked on feministing, and I think it merits sharing as much as possible. As noted in the commentary on feministing,

Of course it’s tempting to believe that, unlike those people in that neighborhood or thatcountry or that part of the world, we would do something. But the reason POWA’s video is so troubling—and powerful—is that while it’s obvious that someone should have intervened, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not at all clear that we would have.

This I find particularly chilling. I think a lot of the time, people look at cases of domestic abuse and think, "Wow. Why couldn't she leave?" and blame battered-wife-syndrome and all that and don't look at the larger picture. Often there are other people involved in these couples' lives, who either know or suspect what's happening. Friends, family, neighbors... shouldn't we be thinking, "Wow. Why didn't they do anything?"

Last year, ABC released a program called What Would You Do? about witnessing (staged) ethical problems like racism or domestic abuse, and showed how passersby reacted. I first learned about this program while at an event put on my my university's Muslim Student Association. The MSA showed the program in which What Would You Do? dealt with a woman wearing a headscarf (an actress) is yelled at by a store owner (actor) who calls her racial slurs and other unfortunately uncommon insults. Some people in the store watch, while only a couple people ever intervene. After we watched the program, the MSA opened it up to discussion. If you saw that happening, what would you do?

The question was posed to everyone, but I felt like as I was one of the only non-Muslims and non-MSA members in the room, that I should enter the discussion. So I raised my hand and got called on. "Unless I thought saying something could potentially instigate violence... I would say something," I said. This was another thing we had discussed in FMLA, when one girl said she suspected that her neighbor was being beaten by her husband or boyfriend. The general consensus was that she should call the police the next time she heard it happen, but trying to establish contact with the woman could turn out to be potentially dangerous for both the woman and her.

And that is the tricky part of being a stander-by. When is it more harmful to do something than not? I would hope that all people would watch that video and think to themselves they would do something. But the truth is... would you? Fear is a powerful and dangerous deterrent. I hope that I would react in some helpful and honorable way if I were ever to be put in a situation where I was witnessing or listening to someone being abused, but I also hope that I never have to find out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

For Every Girl...

I first saw this poster when I was a first-year staff member at a summer camp in my staff notebook. Before each summer, every staff member comes a week early to talk about procedures and child development. This poster definitely spoke to me and in each of my 4 years as a staff member, I have always been happy when we turned to that page.

I saw this poster again in one of my favorite professor's offices last year when I went to go talk to her about peer-teaching for her in one of her classes (which I did), and we both talked about how much we liked it.

One of my favorite things about this poster is that it is a reminder that whatever children are showing us might not be what they're feeling. One of the most interesting things about working with kids with such a huge age range (age 7-15) is that they're all in such developmentally different places. And even among kids the same age, some kids just figure out who they are and what they like earlier in life. And other kids really struggle with their desires to fit in and be a person they like being. I think this poster could be useful to children, but I feel like it's much more aimed at adults. I wish there was (and maybe there is) some sort of campaign or poster series like this aimed at children to demonstrate how they should like what they're doing no matter if it's a "gendered" activity aimed at the opposite gender.