Category Archives: Feministing

On Ghostbusters 2016 and objectivity

My husband and I saw Ghostbusters separately. We each saw it alone, which is perhaps the best way to know whether you really enjoyed something; you’re not reacting to it with anyone, so it’s all on you.

I loved it. He thought it was fine. We, like everyone else in the world, both fell hard for Holtzmann; we diverged on Hemsworth. I was pleasantly surprised by his straight delivery and almost deadpan gaze; my husband found him a bit lifeless. We agree that the first half hour takes too long to get to the point. I would say that too much space is given to Wiig and McCarthy to do their thing as individuals when the strength of the film is the union of all four characters, and in particular the rock solid contributions of Jones and McKinnon. He reckons that they are both simply not that funny in the first half of the film – individually and together. We were both glad that, even if Patty is still relegated to being the only non-academic of the group and a bit ‘urban’ (which could have been a massive cringe as the only notable POC in the film), she’s actually far more rounded than the trailer suggested, and massively well self-educated to boot.  But still: overall I loved it, pre-ordered it on Blu-ray (yes, some people still do that) and can’t wait to see it again, and he thought it was a bit better than okay but… yeah, whatever.

Here is where I wonder if it’s actually impossible to separate political joy and filmmaking objectivity. Do we even need to? My husband’s position is arguably more ‘objective’ than mine in that he is, by definition, less invested in the film being good. He has never had to go out at night worrying if tonight is going to involve (another) assault or death; on a recent re-watch of the original Ghostbusters he himself pointed out how revoltingly predatory Bill Murray’s Venkman is but I think he could see it rather than feel it. As a child I watched that version many, many times every summer – that and Mannequin were the only vaguely suitable films in English that my grandma’s local video shop in Athens carried – and yet I never loved it. At the time it was groundbreaking in many ways and the premise remains an excellent one, but I did not warm to it the way I did Back To The Future, The Goonies and Pretty in Pink. Even Mannequin, frankly. That’s fine, I didn’t have to. I can accept that it wasn’t, in the end, made for me.

But this Ghostbusters, at this time, was. And I accept the gift wholeheartedly. I feel an intense and lasting joy at the lack of casual rape jokes, at the tongue-in-cheek references to fanboy trolling, at the deliberately practical and unsexy costumes, at Holtzmann’s triumphant battle scene, at female friendship that doesn’t centre on relationships, at flawed women being flawed. And it doesn’t matter to me whether future generations objectively think that joke was as funny as it could have been, etc. I lost patience with this Ghostbusters only when it delivered heavy-handed fan service to the original (Aykroyd’s lamely game cameo was really just awful, and Murray’s awkwardly unnecessary; Hudson’s was actually quite sweet and natural but made the sad lack of Ramis even more keenly felt). When it was its own, kickass thing, behaving as if comic female action leads are just the most natural thing in the world, it was exactly what I always knew could happen if we just let it.

To be honest, the best case scenario is that women in the future find this film a bit of an embarrassing relic that their mums like. That there are so many original, brilliant feature films that don’t need to rely on an existing formats to make their point that this seems a bit old fashioned and unnecessary. I do not need it to last. I do not need it to be ‘objectively’ brilliant to do exactly what it was has done (even if I think it does actually stand up just fine most of the time, thanks). If the greatest value this film ever has is as a gender political statement, then that is more than enough for me.

And if my husband has to stand there in his wrongness, be wrong and get used to it, then I dare say we can both live with that too.

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A little friendly competition

At a recent parents’ evening, 5yo Ramona’s teacher told us how seating our daughter with her best friend tended to improve her work. “There’s a bit of healthy competition going on there, which I admit I sometimes use to get the best out of them.”

Although it shouldn’t, hearing of competition between girls in a positive light does sound strange to me.  I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting that women are raised to think that rivalry is negative – that it’s somehow incompatible with having each other’s backs, owning ‘squad goals’ and knowing where the bodies are hidden.

The thing about surrounding oneself with an army of intelligent, wonderful, interesting human beings is that at some point anyone with all but the most cast iron self-confidence will doubt themselves. I pride myself on having a particularly strong group of pals, each of whom fulfils a part of me that it’s more fun to share: working to make dreams and passions a reality, navigating a particularly sticky work situation, sitting in the cinema holding hands and crying. Each one of those women is astonishingly talented and beautiful – and if I’m totally honest I have a history of being the Fat Friend. Frankly, Peggy Carter might know her value but she had to prove it in a room full of men. Trying to blossom in my own right when I’m surrounded by an entire garden centre feels more challenging – and thinking of it in terms of competition makes me feel about as positive as a Japanese knotweed infestation.

As a result it’s easier to just shy away from it all. No one likes to look too keen; it’s even counterproductive, for how could I compete? Yet I can clearly see that in my daughter’s case, still blissfully free of hang ups and damaging mean girl narratives, a little friendly rivalry is proving good for everyone. When you strive to emulate each other’s strengths, you also pay tribute to them.  Comparison can be the thief of joy, yes, but what could be better than being most inspired by the people you choose to be friends with?

In one of my daughter’s favourite films – the subtle and profound My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks – the essential conflict is caused by introducing the idea of competitiveness. A school musical showcase becomes a “battle of the bands” as some slinky sirens literally feed off disharmony. “What’s so wrong with a little competition?” purrs the leader, and the slanging matches begin. But in the end it is a competition that brings down the bad guys – an epic sing-off, in fact – and in order to do it the girls have to include a friend they’ve been inadvertently keeping at arm’s length despite her best efforts to atone for past cruelties. It’s easy to read it as ‘all competition is bad’, but it seems to me that the message is actually that winning is fine  – provided you don’t get there by trampling on anyone, and you consider everyone’s strengths and not just your own (the good guys also have to acknowledge some self-centered and exclusionary behaviour among themselves).

At some point, my daughter will  learn that other people will overtake her, and that she will have to make a decision whether to try, try again or change direction. It’s not easy to know whether you’re giving up too soon or flogging a dead horse; too much comparison can make A look like B, but too little and you end up as one of those people cruelly made a laughing stock on a TV talent show. At some point she’ll have to get used to the idea that other people will look up to her and – this is the tricky bit – accept this as valid. Suffering from imposter syndrome is not at all unusual among women, and I am certainly a veteran. I love that Ramona is getting the opportunity to stretch herself, and see where she can lead and where she can learn. She’s acquiring graciousness and generosity as she helps others with what she finds easy, and since humility is particularly hard to come by in small children I hope she’s learning that too. To genuinely congratulate a friend who has done better than you at something you care about is not easy; envy comes quickly. But it feels so much better and is so much more inspiring and hopeful than the alternative.

When it comes down to it, I want to believe that good things come to good people. And I honestly believe that a little genuinely friendly competition brings the kind of self-awareness and self-confidence that’s needed to act like a good person in the world.

And all I’ve ever wanted to do is raise a good person.

10 ways Disney’s Frozen is female-friendly (SPOILERS)

I’ve been asked a few times about how I do the whole feminist thing and the whole Disney thing and they don’t implode in each other’s faces. It comes down to a couple of things really. One is selective fandom (there are things I enjoy and things I don’t, which with something as massively wide-ranging as the Disneyverse, is really the case for anyone) and the other is recognising that it’s possible to enjoy things that aren’t perfect.

do like to be constructive about celebrating when I feel like Disney, or any other company under fire from feminist groups, is talking more to people – okay, women – like me. I’ve already written about how much I enjoyed Frozen from the point of view of a film (and music) fan. But this post is really about all the things in it that I thought were really promising from the perspective of being a woman who cares about how women are represented. For another, also largely positive, perspective (though we see a few points differently), see Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies.

A couple of disclaimers:

I. I am going to try not to be completely obvious where possible, but this is bound to contain a spoiler or two. I’m writing this shortly after seeing the film, but am delaying publishing until it’s been released in UK to try not to be That Guy. Or Gal. But still: spoilers. Probably.

II. I’m completely aware that The Snow Queen is very different, and that it is a very female-friendly narrative, and that this has been changed. Honestly, I don’t really care, because I’m not very attached to The Snow Queen and I think the reworking of this (and relative importance of characters like Kristoff) has been widely misunderstood or misrepresented. Regardless, if that’s your beef with the film, I ain’t going to convince you to give it a try, so thanks for sticking with me until here. See you next time, maybe.

Ten Ways Disney’s Frozen is Female-Friendly

1. There are two female protagonists. Admittedly there are still more men than women on screen, but the two women are the main characters – they dominate the screen time hugely, to the point that I actually slightly lamented one of the men not getting his due as a character.

2. It passes the Bechdel Test. Repeatedly. And not in the wicked stepmother kinda way.

3. (potential spoilers) The much-discussed love triangle is actually quite a subversive take on the ‘love at first sight’ narrative. It gently lampoons the suddenness with which characters in similar films act. More on this later.

4. a) The animation is changing. Much has been written about how slim the princesses still are, and that’s true, but I see a significant difference in style even since Tangled. The shift might still be fairly small at this point, but I’m hoping that we continue to see this move away from Glen Keane’s massively over-exaggerated wasp waists and baby seal eyes.

4. b) (potential spoilers) Interestingly, both characters also resist much in the way of overt sexualisation. Although in Elsa’s dramatic transformation she strips off a layer and adds a split in her skirt, it actually makes sense as part of her arc of self-discovery and new-found freedom – and I don’t believe that any hint of sexuality in a kids’ story is the same thing as sexualisation. She still remains pretty covered up (even for someone whom the cold never bothers, anyway). And – whether terrified or awed – people are consistently far more interested in what she does than what she looks like. Anna’s beauty is also little talked about, even by her love interests; her one love song is basically about how similar their personalities are. The only other song of hers that even mentions love – when Anna considers finally having a shot at romance – is largely comic, instantly scuppering the brief moments of longing: “I suddenly see him standing there / A beautiful stranger, tall and fair / I wanna stuff some chocolate in my face!” (She does). And Fixer Upper deliberately turns the notion of making over female characters on its head (even if it was a shame that the opportunity to give Kristoff a song in his own voice and words was lost).

Also, there is no moment, as in The Little Mermaid or Tangled, where the female character is lingeringly gazed upon by a man, to swelling music.

5. There is a female screenwriter. Jennifer Lee also wrote Wreck-It Ralph, which – not coincidentally, I feel – also has an excellent, stereotype-bending female character.

6. She was so awesome, they brought her on as a co-director. And she directed Get a Horse, the wonderful 3D short that debuted with the film in theatres.

7. (potential spoiler) The love triangle is part-red herring, part misdirection. It exists in order to further the plot which is explicitly about the complex but ultimately positive familial relationship between two women. Unlike, for example, Tangled‘s distressing family dynamic, there is a very pure, honest and real love between the two sisters. And it’s not a sub-plot. It is the plot. Both women are on a journey of self-acceptance usually seen in male characters in films like Aladdin.

8. (potential spoiler) The women save each other. On the occasion when a man appears to save one of them, all is not as it seems.

9. Happily ever after is not defined by a wedding, but by the sisters realising their long-cherished wish for freedom.

10. Though there is a romantic kiss near the end, just for the icing on the fairytale cake, the male character asks for permission to kiss the female character. Enthusiastic consent! In a cartoon! What is not to love there?

Frankly, if Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Brave are indicative of the direction Disney and Pixar films are going, I am definitely coming along for the ride. I can only see it getting better and better from here.

Bea Magazine: What we teach small children about consent

So, here’s a post wot I wrote for Bea, all about issues of everyday consent, being aware of children’s personal space and remembering the role of permission in setting boundaries for children.

It’s already spawned a really interesting conversation with Bea editor Keris and Rachel on Twitter about whether lack of pressure (or rather, lack of pressure as part of a passive aggressive approach / threat of abandonment) is another form of coercion. I definitely agree that it can be, which is why it’s so important to make “you don’t have to” an honest statement, and not include sulking or implied hurt or distance. But there’s definitely a whole other extended conversation to have about less obvious negative signals and being conscious of those.

Discussion of your experiences is very welcome. You don’t have to be a parent – we were all children once!

 

Dogs Trust’s Freedom Project: How fostering a dog could help save a life

[Trigger warning: domestic violence]

In March 2008, I rocked up to a large, busy office in Islington for an interview with a dog charity. I’m a self-confessed cat person, but I really wanted to work for a non-profit and the role had loads of potential. I have no notion of how long it takes to get anywhere, plus a paranoid neurosis about being late, so I turned up about 45 minutes early. (This is not a recommended interview technique, and I should have holed up in Starbucks, but that’s by the by). I decided that there’s never such a thing as too much research, so I picked up an annual review from a heap on the table in reception.

That’s where I learned about the Freedom Project.

Dogs Trust, where I went on to spend four and half incredibly happy years, has always been clear on its core activity: rehoming dogs. But it has a number of other projects, and two outreach activities in particular, that reach much further than most people expect of an animal charity. The charity’s single-minded devotion to making life better for dogs extends, quite rightly, to making it better for owners, too.

The Freedom Project is a fostering service with a very specific goal. It takes dogs from families fleeing violence at home and finds them temporary homes (usually for 3-9 months); meanwhile, the family in question are helped by other services such as Refuge to escape to a safe space. Once they’re settled, their pets come home to them. Veterinary and food costs are covered by Dogs Trust – the foster carer just has to provide a little bit of love, security and day-to-day care. Dogs Trust and Refuge, plus a number of other groups from the RSPCA to the NSPCC, are members of the Links Group, which works to understand the relationships between the abuse of vulnerable adults, children and animals in order to inform the work of the many organisations working to prevent this and assist survivors.

The evidence is growing that abuse of animals and abuse of people are closely interlinked. It’s not immediately obvious to most people – me included – that someone might be partially prevented from escaping a violent home through fear of what will happen to a pet. Quite often, pets are an enormous source of solace, and the thought of them being left at the mercy of a violent individual is understandably terrifying. There can be substantial guilt involved, and projects like this can help break down one of the many – complex and varied – barriers holding someone in a cycle of violence and terror.

The project is not UK-wide, though there are other fostering services you can find out more about. Due to the resources available it operates in Greater London, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire at present (with assistance from Cats Protection in London who organise cat fostering). This week, Dogs Trust is committing its social media presence to drawing attention to the scheme and to raising funds. Here’s what you can do:

Anyone who needs further advice on these issues can also call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (24 hours a day) on 0808 2000 247.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While we aim for that essential result which cannot come fast enough, this is just one way of supporting women and children. If you prefer not to give to animal charities, then please note that the annual Refuge John Lewis Christmas List is now live.

Gender markers, kids and confusion

At the moment, one of our favoured bedtime stories is Dr Xargle’s Book of Earth Tiggers. It’s a shrewd observation of a life lived with cats, most of which goes right over Ramona’s head but she enjoys it anyway.

It also features this page:

Dr Xargle's Book of Earth Tiggers - Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

And Ramona always says “why is the man made to step on the hairy pudding?”. After having tried to explain hairball humour, we then have this conversation, every time:

Me: How do you know it’s a man?
Ramona: Because it’s a he not a she.
Me: How do you know?
Ramona: Because it is.
Me: What makes it a he?
Ramona: He’s wearing he clothes.
Me: Ramona, have you ever worn blue and white?
Ramona: Yes of course, silly!
Me: Well, what colour are boy clothes?
Ramona: ALL colours!
Me: What colour are girl clothes, then?
Ramona: All colours! *laughs*
Me: (knowing she has worn a skirt or dress all of five times in the past year, because she chooses her own clothes much of the time and prefers trousers) Do you wear trousers and pyjama bottoms?
Ramona: Yes.
Me: So if you wear trousers, and blue and white, and stripes… how do you know this is a he?
Ramona: Because it is.

Perhaps I’m being a bit disingenuous here, because I too can see it’s meant to be a man. I know what cues I’m looking for, even if I think they’re silly ones – and obviously so does she, even though she can’t fully articulate them yet. And she’s just 3 years old. If she’s already categorising people according to markers she barely comprehends, that’s really quite worrying.

Yes, it matters. It might be a very small thing in the grand scheme of things, but lots of small things make up big and scary things, so we start here. Let me make it clear that I do not expect this to be of importance to every feminist, much less every person, but I personally think it’s something worth noting.

So I’ve noted it. And now, one way or another, so have you.

Cybher: The Round-Up

I’ve just submitted a piece to BitchBuzz on the general wonder that was Cybher, so here I’m just going to stick to my own personal highlights. If you want to find out more about the event, just head over to the website.

Well, what a day that was. I’m seriously in awe of Sian To, as she swept like a nattily-dressed force of nature through proceedings without ever losing the smile on her face (except when she teared up at how far Cybher has come, which is understandable). Impressive stuff.

The highlights for me:

  • Meeting Disney PR / social media bod Grace Yee and boring the poor woman silly with my thoughts on Epcot, Alan Menken and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (or, as Ramona called it this morning ‘Mickey House Clubmouse’).
  • Getting to see two marvellous women, Lori Smith and Natalie Lue, both leading sessions on their areas of expertise, and owning the room.
  • Seeing the world’s most self-possessed nine-year-old presenting on a huge and intimidating stage without blinking.
  • Getting a list of apps to explore for work as well as fun.
  • Finding out some more proactive strategies – and legal info – for dealing with trolls when ‘not feeding’ doesn’t work (and I always think ignoring it is somehow pretty unfair anyway).
  • Being really inspired by Jennifer Begg and others in a session about social media for social good. (Must read Half the Sky!).
  • Meeting and chatting to various people I know in real life and from Twitter such as Gail Doggett and Esther Freeman, but also people I’d never met before who were rather marvellous.

An honourable mention has to go to the Palmer’s PRs who must have got sick of hearing the words “I had no idea you did all this stuff!” and calmly passed out immensely generous bags of cocoa butter goodies – presumably so they never had to hear it again. Oh, and we had the most kick-arse branded goodie bags – actual leather satchels – I’ve ever seen. None of which are the main reasons anyone goes to an event like this – no, really – but they’re a massively appreciated bonus.

It really was a fabulous day and I would go again. So there.