Originally published on Fanny Pack, 19th October 2016.
Hello, I’m a woman and I don’t ever want to get married.
It’s not a proclamation likely to make anyone gasp, shudder, faint or feel an uncontrollable urge to form a Frankenstein-esque mob of angry villagers to hunt me down and force a wedding band around my finger, but it is likely to auto-generate one particular question in most people’s heads like a predictive text:
In a world where we – especially women – are still expected to tie the knot at some point in their lives, almost as a default setting, this might seem like a fair response. Except that I don’t think it should be. Not me, Oprah Winfrey, Kourtney Kardashian, Chelsea Handler, Jon Hamm, Charlize Theron, Helena Bonham-Carter and anyone else – famous or not – who choose never to marry their significant other do. But even though marriage is now very much a choice in most places, culturally it still feels like very much the opposite.
I know that it is first-hand – without being Jennifer Aniston – because every time I have to vocalise (when prompted) that I won’t ever be getting married, the reactions I usually get make me feel like I’m either the bearded-woman at the Victorian freak show, or I’m accidentally doing something eyebrow-raisingly rebellious. I’m inadvertently railing against the all-powerful regime of hen parties and white veils and ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ monogrammed everything. It kind of makes me sound like I’m actively fighting against the entire institution, but that’s not true either. Not wanting to get married is exactly the same as being an atheist: just because you don’t have a religion, it doesn’t mean you’re actively trying to stop everyone else from having one. (Richard Dawkins, aside.)
Well, just call me The Walking Dead forever, in that case.Weddingbee.
There’s also this ridiculous wheeze echoed through “think-pieces” and trolling comments in the darker recesses of Reddit and Twitter that feminism has “killed” lovely old-fashioned notions like romance; empowering women to focus too much on silly things like gender equality and their careers rather than keep protecting the sanctity of the nuclear family, as if marriage and motherhood were the last holy bastions holding back the coming apocalypse spilling forth from Hell.
Here are some home truths: not believing in marriage doesn’t mean you’re not a romantic person. I’ve got two very-worn out copies of Love, Actually and When Harry Met Sally that can attest to that fact. I can also tell you categorically that I was a non-believer in marriage long before I called myself a feminist. Feminism didn’t ‘convert’ me into something I’m not – it just helped me give voice and reason to feelings and beliefs I already held to be true.
The main root of my feelings was planted when I realised that women are culturally conditioned from young ages to ‘aspire’ to marriage as a crowning achievement rather than the simple lifestyle choice it actually is. This conditioning continues into our adulthood, when we’re then culturally pressured into thinking that spending the amount of money we’d also deem an appropriate price tag for a two-bedroom semi-detached house on what is essentially a piece of paper, two bits of boring jewellery and a giant party made-up of estranged relatives we can’t stand and random acquaintances is somehow the key to life-long happiness.
As a kid, I bought Barbie dolls already decked out in their perfect bridal gowns and consumed hours of Disney princessfilms that were remiss if their heroine’s journey didn’t culminate in a wedding. I watched women in countless TV shows and rom-coms as a teenager lovingly pour over wedding scrapbooks they’d had since they were children; try on wedding dresses just for the fun of it; browbeat tired and disinterested caricatures of boyfriends into the perfect proposals and then scream and wail when their actual wedding plans started going awry, as if their very existence depended on one day in their whole lives going absolutely perfectly for fear of the rest of it being cursed to fall to shit. And once the rings are on, the curtain falls. Their lives are fulfilled, done and spent.
I watched these stereotypes of wedding-crazy women and wondered why I couldn’t relate to them. Was I not ‘woman-ing’ correctly? Then one day it hit me. I’d always played ‘wedding’ with my toys as a child, but I never actually imagined myself to be the bride. To someone who did relate to all those things I mentioned earlier, that might seem like a sad realisation. To me, it was life affirming. I’d seen all the evidence of what marriage could be and what it could mean. My own parents have been very happily married for over twenty years, too. Having weighed all this up, I’d been able to come to the informed opinion that weddings really meant nothing to me, bridal gowns didn’t make me giddy, and being a wife wasn’t a description or title that suited me.
Just about the only thing I would do in a wedding dress. Cosmopolitan.
It’s a choice that women in the past fought tooth and nail for me to be empowered to make. But, I think it’s important to remember that my ability to make that choice is a luxury not afforded to everyone. Women and girls are still being forced into marriages they wouldn’t choose for themselves, sometimes to men who are physically and sexually abusive to them. My ability to choose also carries heterosexual privilege too. If I wanted to spend my life with someone of the same sex, I would either not be able to marry them at all if I lived in certain countries, or even in countries that have legalised marriage equality, the choice to not get married would still be less viable as LGBTQ couples face complicated legal baggage around having children. And, as Princess Jasmine’s father learned in one of my favourite Disney princess films, the decision to get married should be based on love, not legalities.
“Screw bureaucracy – I’m the damn Sultan!” Fanpop.
At the end of the day, we need to stop treating marriage as an inevitable destination rather than the equal-opportunities choice in our lives we have fought – and still fight – for it to become. If you like it, put a ring on it. Or not. And that should be nobodies’ business but your own.
‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?
[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]
In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.
For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).
As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.
I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.
At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.
The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.
A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.
There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.
If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.
I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.
In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.
BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:
“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”
Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.
Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.
Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.
So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:
Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.
Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:
Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.
Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care.Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.
Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug)is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:
Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.
Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.
The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.
“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.
BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.
This article is part of the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series examining the positive and negative messages on gender that Disney Princess films impart to their target audience – girls. If you haven’t already, you can check out the introduction here, and search for ‘Wicked Wiles’ at the top of this page to catch up with the series.
Originally published on Fanny Pack, 26/05/2016.
Based on the classic French fairy tale and the 1946 French film, ‘Le Belle at la Bete’, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) is one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved in the Princess catalogue. The story revolves around the titular ‘Beast’ – a vain and selfish Prince who is transformed into a monstrous animal by an enchantress as punishment for his flaws – and Belle (the ‘Beauty’), a kind and intelligent girl whom he imprisons in the hope that she might help break the spell put on him. Despite his poor anger-management skills (and inability to use cutlery) Belle slowly begins to tame the Beast’s temperament and work her way into his heart. But, before she can return his feelings and make him human again, an angry mob from her village led by the villainous Gaston – desperate for Belle’s hand in marriage – threaten to destroy everything.
Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well? Source:Disney Wikia.
As usual, I’ll be using six key questions to filter the film’s feminist/anti-feminist messages through and ultimately give it a ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ or ‘Negative’ stamp on it at the end. So without further ago, let’s see how Disney’s sixth official Princess movie holds up.
The old beggar woman/enchantress
The feather duster maid (called ‘Babette’)
The Wardrobe (called ‘Madame de la Grand Bouche’, which translates to ‘Madame Big Mouth’. Nice.)
The Triplets (called the ‘Bimbettes’… Hmm.)
Total: 8 principle female characters (with speaking parts) compared to 11 principle male characters (with speaking parts).
In a word, no. And this is a good break with tradition, as nearly every Princess movie so far from ‘Snow White’, to ‘Cinderella’, to ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to ‘The Little Mermaid’ have had female villains motivated solely by vacuous jealousy.
Although the Prince/Beast is the perceived villain to begin with in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the real villain is Belle’s relentless pursuer, Gaston – clearly the more beastly of the two, personality-wise.
Apart from Mrs. Potts, who acts as a surrogate matriarchal figure to just about everyone, Belle disappointingly has very little interactions with any other female character. All of her close allies – her father, the Beast, Cogsworth and Lumiere – are male, through a combination of circumstance and choice.
This serves subliminally to reinforce Belle’s ‘otherness’ as she seems unable and/or unwilling to maintain relationships with others of her gender. Unfortunately, this is also reflected across the rest of the film’s female characters, with the tightest bonds of friendship being between men: Gaston and LeFou; and Lumiere and Cogsworth.
For the final two-thirds of the film the answer to this is Belle, with her father, Maurice, keeping things barrelling along through the first act. Yet, even when Belle does become the driving force of the plot, she doesn’t actually attract the majority of the viewer’s emotional investment. That’s because most of this investment is funnelled into the Beast’s quest to regain his humanity instead.
At the start of the film, Belle flitters around a field belting out a song about “wanting so much more than this provincial life”, yet her unfalteringly charismatic character doesn’t develop one bit throughout the story. Geographically-speaking, she also only ends up living what can’t be more than a few miles away from the home she dreamed of travelling far away from. Meanwhile, the Beast’s character enjoys a dramatically shifting arc that also bears the weight of the entire story’s moral as an added bonus. In this respect, Belle – the eponymous princess of this supposed Princess-orientated movie – is effectively side-lined in her own film.
If toxic masculinity took cartoon form, it would look like Gaston. Whilst Belle is a flawed but emphatically feminist heroine, Gaston is a perfect send-up of laddish, brutish and gross chauvinism. His interactions with her are all deliberately sexist, offensive, vile and stupid – i.e. The perfect counter-balance to Belle’s pragmatism, wit, and intelligence. Gaston’s attraction to Belle is based firstly on her obvious good looks, and secondly because her constant rejection of him turns his failing courtship of her into a game, and as a proud hunter who “uses antlers in all of his decorating”, you know that Gaston basically just sees her as little more than anther deer to chase, shoot, sling over his back and carry home to become another trophy over his fireplace.
During his solo song (sung in that flawless baritone), we’re given a handy checklist of things to have and achieve before any self-respecting ‘man’s man’ can be counted as worthy of the appendage swinging between his legs:
Body hair. A lot of it.
Spitting. Be good at it.
Hunting. Do it often.
Using animals as decoration. Everywhere.
Eating 4 dozen raw eggs to become the “size of a barge”.
Drinking. All the time.
Chess (although because being smart is basically useless, the only way to win is by slapping the board away from your oppenent.)
Stomping around in boots. No, really – go out and buy some, now you pussy! (Gaston’s words, remember, not mine.)
With his square jaw, bulging muscles and operatically-deep voice, Gaston is kind of like a Disney prince gone wrong. And Belle, with all her well-developed intellect, seems to be the only person to call this out. Even her father says that he “seems handsome” and suggests Belle should give him a chance in the romance department. The rest of the town – especially his loyal lackey, LeFou, and the horny triplets – treat Gaston like the village hero, never questioning his judgement, and happy to attend an impromptu wedding for he and Belle (before she’s even agreed to it) or sing an ode to his chest hair in the tavern, or later on be led blindly on a witch hunt to kill the Beast he showed them in a “magic mirror”.
The Beast on the other hand, with his anger problems, selfishness and emotional unavailability is someone who starts off in a similar place to Gaston – albeit minus the gushing self-confidence. He doesn’t even call Belle by her name to begin with, just “the girl”. The difference between he and Gaston is that rather than forcing himself upon her, the Beast allows himself to be changed for the better by Belle, thus turning himself into a man worthy of her love. As Gaston becomes more and more incensed and crazed to the point of trying to blackmail Belle into marrying him, the Beast learns to control his anger and becomes more docile and open to the needs of others until he earns rather than wins her affections.
Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast? Source: Disney Wikia.
The ultimate proof of his transformation comes when he allows Belle to leave the castle to attend to her sick father at the expense of him being able to break the spell. (Although, seeing how close the town and castle seem to be, there’s no reason he should have assumed Belle couldn’t have popped back to the castle later on…)
Most of Belle’s characteristics fit the usual wish list for Disney Princesses we’ve encountered so far: beauty, charm, kindness, a good set of pipes, and a touch of wistful longing for ‘something more’ than the life they’re trapped in. But Belle has another trick up her puffy dress sleeves: intellectualism. Like our previous heroine, Ariel, Belle is curious about the world around her. The difference here is that Belle has been able to satiate her curiosity with books, turning her into an imaginative, ambitious, sharp-witted, and worldly heroine.
Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! Source:CDN.
As I mentioned previously, the downside to all this glowing perfection is that Belle seems to have done all her character development off-screen, but she also has another severe weakness: Her heightened intelligence has given her one hell of a superiority complex.
At the start she sings about her “little town, full of little people” and is bored by the routine of everyone else’s lives. She laments that no-one reads and imagines more like she does. Similarly, the rest of the town look down on her for being intellectual and “weird”.
During this opening number we see a woman struggling with a comical amount of children – literally juggling babies in her arms – whilst desperately trying to buy some eggs. Meanwhile, Belle sails past on the back of a cart, smiling and singing about the joy of reading – unburdened by the troubles of being a working class mother. This is the best insight we get into Belle’s P.O.V: All sweetness and pleasantries on the outside, but internally judging the other women around her who have slavishly ‘given up’ on any hope of independence or self-empowerment.
“No ma’am, a baby is not acceptable payment for eggs.” Source: Tumblr.
Belle’s quest for self-betterment is both her greatest strength and weakness. She is presented to young girls watching the film as a woman ahead of her time – a model early feminist before the term was even invented who dreams of living life beyond her designated place in society. Yet, by doing so, she can’t help but dole out pity to the other women around her who were not able to choose to live their lives in the way that she has so luckily been able to. In some ways Belle is the epitome of some of the feminist movement’s problems: white, elitist and judgemental. And also kind of a hypocrite – after all, let’s not forget that the only two books we see Belle actually engaged with are romance stories – one (pictured below) she reads a passage from referencing “Prince Charming” and the other is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Maybe her desires aren’t quite as wildly different from everyone else’s as she might wish.
“Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come… I-I mean, I’ll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff.” Source: Lost In Drawers
Yes, I know. How can one of Disney’s foremost feminist heroines be merely a ‘Neutral’ in terms of gender representation? Hear me out.
The core philosophy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to love what’s inside of someone rather than just what’s on the outside. This makes it the first time a Disney Princess film has broken the nonsensical ‘love at first sight’ BS that has been at the heart of every previous story – and this is where most of its plus points come from. Belle saves the Beast – not just physically by breaking the spell, but emotionally and psychologically by changing his behaviour and smoothing his sharp edges. He begins as a self-loathing, literal monster, and ends up as a well-rounded man who literally and figuratively reclaims his humanity thanks to Belle. Belle, meanwhile, is rewarded with the one thing she (secretly) always longed for: someone who truly understands her. Both of them begin as loners and societal misfits, but they end as the perfect fit in each other’s lives.
However, this nice, mushy message comes at a cost: Belle’s agency as a character. As I’ve established, when we are introduced to Belle she has no more growing left to do in this film other than learn to be less of a judgemental bitch and find a suitable husband. In fact, I was left feeling a little cheated by the end. The opening, uplifting number makes us anticipate the journey of a modern woman ready to go globe-trotting… only to lead down the same well-trodden path of her finding the nearest castle and Prince to hook up with and stay put in his library for the rest of her life.
In the end, Belle is actually demoted to the usual passive ‘Prince’ role – a one-note hero who swoops in to save the day in the nick of time, leaving the Beast fulfilling the lead, active ‘Princess’ role. This, ultimately, is why what should have been a ‘Positive’ film for gender representation, has sadly balanced out into a ‘Neutral’ one instead.
[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE]
First published on the Fanny Pack blog, April 6th 2016.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may have been a disappointment to many, but I think most comic book fans – and feminists – can agree that Gal Gadot’s strong performance as Wonder Woman was a much-needed bright spot. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s other significant female character – intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – doesn’t get the same treatment. Though she plays a fairly significant part in advancing the story, and enjoys some (weird) bath-time fun with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), that’s pretty much all she’s there for – little more than a plot device, a shoulder to cry on, and even worse, a constant distraction to Earth’s greatest hero.
This may seem like a trivial complaint but as someone who fell in love with comic books before feminism, Lois Lane – along with Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Storm – was instrumental in shaping my understanding of what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. And in a world filled with Gods, magic, time-travel and President Luthor, you’ve got to be one heck of a dame.
Here’s why The Daily Planet’s ace reporter is far more than just Superman’s victimised girlfriend.
A DAMSEL (NOT) IN DISTRESS
The ‘woman in peril’ theme is one that has unfortunately persisted throughout literature and pop culture, from ancient Greek maidens like Andromeda and her hero Perseus, right the way through to Princess Zelda and her hero Link in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda. It’s no surprise then that the Superhero genre – the modern-day equivalent to Perseus – has also been oversaturated by the damsel/hero dynamic.
Superman is the world’s first Superhero and Lois Lane his eternal damsel in distress. No matter how many Pulitzers she wins or oranges she juices at her Daily Planet desk in her personal war on cigarettes, that core underpinning will never change. But throughout her 75-year history, her determination to fight this definition has never waned.
‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #85
From her solo comic title, ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ (1954-1974) to her top billing in TV’s ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ (1993-97), and recent YA novel series ‘Fallout‘ by Gwenda Bond, Lois has proven that she is not only a superior journalist to Clark Kent and Superman’s equal partner, but can carry a story on her own. More often than not, when Lois finds herself in need of rescue from the Big Man in Blue, it’s from a sticky situation of her own making. Rather than wait around to be scooped up by a dragon like a hapless medieval maiden, Lois seeks out trouble in the name of journalism.
Lois also starred in her own newspaper strip, ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter’, 1943-44.
Even better is when – thanks to a mix of her “military brat” upbringing and some Kryptonian martial arts – sometimes she gets to even save herself.
‘COS FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL
Ever since William Moulton Marston blessed us our first feminist superwoman, Wonder Woman, the Superhero genre has been filled with gutsy, gladiatorial women. But whilst these goddesses represent a masculinised ideal of brute force, Lois Lane represents a more achievable kind of strength for us mere mortals. Tenacity, self-reliance, and quick wits – these are the weapons of choice for the archetypal career woman bent on “having it all”.
Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane in ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.’
But Lois Lane’s fierceness didn’t just grow from the necessity to reflect the changing role of women in society; Shuster and Siegel embedded it within her character from the very start. Her personality was borrowed from fast-talking fictional reporter (and owner of The Most 1930s Name Ever) ‘Torchy Blane’ who starred in a series of Warner Bros. films in the 1930s. Her tagline was ‘The Lady Bloodhound with a Nose For News!’ and she was one of the few positive examples of career-driven women on American cinema screens at the time that rivalled – or bested – her male equivalents.
Glenda Farrell as ‘Torchy Blane.’
Also woven into Lois’ DNA was real-life pioneering journalist and inventor Nellie Bly. Not only did Bly famously travel the world in a record-breaking 72 days, but also she feigned insanity in order to write an exposé on life inside a mental institution – redefining investigative journalism and making the rest of us feel desperately lazy.
From Meg in Disney’s Hercules to Spider-Man’s Mary-Jane Watson, every “feisty” damsel worth her salt owes a debt of gratitude to Lois.
LOIS ISN’T HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #121
Saying that Lois and Clark are one of your favourite couples in fiction is kind tantamount to saying the same about Romeo and Juliet. In other words, woefully mainstream. But as much as I really do believe they deserve a place amongst literature’s greatest love stories, Lois has proven many times that she can function perfectly well without her fated other half, as the panel above illustrates.
This was exemplified on-screen recently in the much-maligned Superman Returns (2006). Picking up after Superman II (1980), the film starts with Superman (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a 5-year absence to find that Lois (Kate Bosworth) has not only moved on to someone else, but also raised a son with him.
Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in ‘Superman Returns’.
Inevitably as the story progresses, Lois finds that her feelings for the Man of Steel are not as buried as she’d thought, and I’m sure the abandoned sequel planned for 2009 would have seen my favourite reporting duo back together. Nonetheless, I was still impressed that rather than pull a ‘Bella Swan’ and throw herself off of a cliff in a fit of angsty despair, Lois Lane wipes away her tears, wins her damn Pulitzer, finds another great guy, raises a child, and foils Lex Luthor’s dastardly plans.
Because not even Earth’s strongest hero can break her that easily.
KEEP LOIS OUT OF THE REFRIGERATOR
‘Superman Annual’ #2
Despite her development over the years into a competent and important player in the DC Universe’s canon of heroines, too many landmark stand-alone stories in Superman’s history hinge not on the strength of Lois Lane, but on her death. Kingdom Come, Superman: Kal, Flashpoint, and Injustice: Gods Among Us all sacrifice Lois (in some pretty fucked up ways) simply to motivate Superman to lose his shit. And judging from the teasers nestled in Dawn of Justice, we may be in danger of seeing one of these stories on screen soon.
This is a variant of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope known as ‘Women In Refrigerators’, coined by comics writer Gail Simone to “describe the trend of female comic book characters who are routinely brutalised or killed-off as a plot device designed to move the male character’s story arc forward.” (The term originates from Green Lantern #54, in which Green Lantern discovers his murdered girlfriend’s body in his fridge.)
‘Green Lantern’ #54
Look, I get it. Superman only has two weaknesses: Kryptonite and Lois Lane. (Well, three weaknesses if you include his susceptibility to magic.) Same goes for practically every other superhero trying to balance saving the planet with getting laid. It’s a character-building shortcut that’s become inherent to the genre. But the problem with this is that while the male character (and they are nearly always male by default) benefits from this dynamic by having his big, brooding ego balanced with a touch of human emotion, the female character gains nothing other than baring the weight of the inevitable choice he will have to make between her life and the lives of others. What does it tell you about the value of a female character if she adds more to the narrative in death than in life? Plus, this constant stream of stories that use violence against women as a plot device harmfully perpetuates the real-world stereotype of women as helpless victims and men as their patriarchal saviours.
Any writer that reduces Lois Lane down to little more than human Kryptonite thoroughly misrepresents her rich 75-year history as an important pop cultural icon to women. I can only wait and hope that Snyder’s future Justice League movies treat her a little better than just a sacrificial lamb with a reporter’s badge. In the immortal words of Kate Beaton (of ‘Hark, a Vagrant‘ fame): “If Lois isn’t super rad all the time, then I don’t even want to hear about it.”
‘Lois Lane, Reporter’ by Kate Beaton, ‘Hark, a Vagrant’.
Featured Image: Screenshot from ‘Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘, Geek 101 Podcast.
Last week the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue released no less than three different covers featuring three different body types: American model Hailey Clauson, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey (who appears in a body-painted swimsuit), and plus-size model and body image activist Ashley Graham.
It marks the first time a size 16 model has graced its cover and needless to say, the Internet went crazy. “Wow. Just, wow,” gushed The Huffington Post. “The body positivity movement is booming,” proclaimed Shape magazine. “And we couldn’t be more excited that SI picked women who add fuel to the fire.” Exactly the kind of responses that SI had been hoping to create as Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day made clear at their unveiling event:
“All three women are beautiful, sexy and strong. Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’ Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”
She’s right, of course. Beauty certainly isn’t “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” and seeing this (not so) ground-breaking idea finally appearing on the covers of an iconic beauty magazine gives it even more commercial validation for all those women out there who have never considered themselves to be ‘conventionally’ beautiful. And yet, as I looked at these uniquely beautiful cover girls in their swimsuits, all I felt was unease. There was just something about all this self-congratulation and buzzworthy empowerment that didn’t sit right with me.
Let’s break it down.
The pros are obvious. Women of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel loved, sexy, and beautiful, and celebrating that breaks down the harmful monotony of the ‘one-size’ beauty culture. A lot of women feel undervalued and invisible when they can’t see themselves on a cinema screen, or a catwalk runway, or a shop window, or a magazine cover, and so the more the body positive movement is allowed to infiltrate all of these fiercely image-conscious industries, the more women will feel healthier and happier in their own skin without the crushing pressure to constantly change themselves.
Let’s also not forget SI’s clear target demographic: heterosexual men. Another misconception that the ‘one size’ culture helps to wrongfully prevail is the idea that there is similarly a singular type of woman that all straight men find attractive. But from my research of actually, y’know, talking to straight men about their tastes in women this just simply isn’t true. Men have a very diverse range of sexual tastes and desires that different kinds of women can easily fulfil. Sometimes they can even open them up to new fantasies they didn’t even know they had.
‘Not Models’ photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use “real women”, from Stylehasnosize.com
Speaking of the straight male demographic, let’s get into the cons. There is always a fine line to tread between owning your sexuality and allowing it to be owned by others. This is something that has plagued feminist debate for decades, especially when feminist artists and performers use nudity or provocative imagery as a means of self-expression. Whenever I think about this debate, I am always reminded of a particular section from art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1975):
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. […] She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….
“One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
As inspiring as the body positive movement is, you can’t escape from the fact that these covers are sexualised female bodies for the approval, delight, and consumption of male eyes specifically. They still place sexuality and image as the most valuable trait for any women of any visible description. Ashley Graham is a role model for plus size women. But who cares about that unless she also looks great in a bikini! Ronda Rousey is a successful and respected female athlete. Yeah, but is she hot though? Any way you slice it, it’s the same old objectification but with a ‘body positive’ Get Out Of Jail Free card attached.
Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated, May 2015)
It’s also worth noting that out of the three covers released, not one single woman of colour has been featured. I guess racial inclusivity and body inclusivity are two completely separate things to SI.
In fact, I think I’ve finally worked out what that feeling of unease is that I just couldn’t find the reason for earlier. It’s exactly the same feeling I get from all those “real beauty” Dove adverts. For years, the personal care brand Dove has – in the brilliant words of Mark Duffy – “passive-aggressively assaulted women’s physical insecurities to sell beauty products.” Think about every Dove TV advert you’ve ever seen. Did you ever worry about not having soft enough underarms, firmer skin, or more radiant under-eyes before watching it? Nope, me neither. But apparently Dove thinks these are pressing issues to further women’s empowerment. Who cares about the patriarchy when you have a natural-looking glow!
Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ Ads in 2008 were revealed to have been Photoshopped.
Hijacking an aspirational movement or trend like body positivity to use as an empty marketing ploy for easy headlines is certainly nothing new, but judging from the trend-worthy hype those SI covers have generated it’s effectiveness clearly hasn’t diminished either.
I’m not saying that Ashley Graham and Ronda Rousey aren’t empowering women. I’m just saying these particular photos of them aren’t. And incidentally, if you want to see some real body positive photos of women (and men) that don’t reduce their models to sex objects, then take a look through this great collection on Bustle.
Although I can see some of the positive benefits of using models of different sizes, when you break it down SI is still a magazine that pedals eroticised photos of swimsuit models to cater to straight male sexual fantasies and little else. The only difference here is that the editors have found a way to trick people into applauding that.
One of the most enduring myths about homosexuality that it’s opponents cling to dearly is that it’s a choice, and by extension, the threat that it poses to children if this choice is ever allowed to worm it’s way into the developing brains. Rather than considering the idea that external influences only awaken or reinforce existing parts of our sexual subconscious, LGBTQ rights’ opponents often characterise any discussion of sexual orientation in schools or media as a brainwashing toxin of a sinister ‘gay agenda’ seeping into the sensitive minds of the youth – tricking their ‘naturally’ heterosexual brains into pondering devious sexual behaviour.
Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book asserted that Batman and Robin’s “hidden” romance would impact negatively on young comic book readers.
Sexual ‘deviancy’ in adults can apparently be treated with regular visits to your local conversion camp, or simply marrying someone of the opposite sex and suppressing all those unnatural urges to do what comes naturally to you. But before it’s too late, how do you prevent all those liberal influences from ‘recruiting‘ children into homosexuality? In schools, regulation of the curriculum can be very effective. Only twelve states in the US require teachers to discuss sexual orientation, and even more disturbingly: three of those twelve dictate that teachers only impart negative information. In 1988, the UK government passed the now infamous Section 28 amendment, stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. (This harmful legislation wasn’t repealed until 2003 after years of hard-fought campaigning from pressure groups like Stonewall.)
That leaves the other major influence in most children’s lives: cartoons. Like every other form of mass commercial entertainment, cartoon creators have to continually walk a fine line between cookie-cutter commercialism and original artistic expression; between pleasing their ratings-obsessed executives and staying true to their visions as storytellers. But what do you do when this vision involves a young boy being raised by a group of lesbian alien super-heroines? How much of this vision are you going to be allowed to stay true to before your network bosses start to catch a whiff of that ‘gay agenda’ you’re obviously trying to push on unsuspecting children?
The cast of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe: (clockwise from left) Amethyst, Garnet, Pearl and Steven
This is a question that ‘Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar has had to face in the wake of Cartoon Network UK’s decision to censor an episode of the show that recently aired in the UK. You may think I’m joking about the lesbian alien super-heroine thing. I’m not. Three of the show’s main characters form part of an all-female team called ‘The Crystal Gems’ who come from a similarly all-female planet of imperialistic aliens whose personalities and powers derive from gemstones. When one of their members – ‘Rose Quartz’ – falls in love with a male human on Earth, she sacrifices her own body in order to have their half-human, half-gem-powered son: Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems soon adopt him into the team to replace his mother and essentially act as surrogate mothers/aunts/sisters.
Steven’s parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe
The controversial scene in question comes from an episode in which it becomes clear that one of the Crystal Gems – ‘Pearl’ – had romantic feelings for Rose Quartz. These feelings were only intensified when Rose Quartz started to find herself drawn strangely to Greg. As in typical with Steven Universe, these feelings eventually came to a head in a musical number called ‘What Can I For You’, which is where the censorship comes into play.
Interestingly Cartoon Network US didn’t make the same censorship decision as their UK counterpart, leading to fans of the show creating side-by-side comparisons of the censored and uncensored versions of the same scene:
Two women dancing intensely… Hmm. It’s almost disappointing how un-gay the scene actually is. Following a very vocal backlash online from the show’s adult fans, the network defended it’s decision with this statement:
“In the UK we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time. We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. […] Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.”
“Characters may be seen kissing or cuddling and there may be references to sexual behaviour. However, there will be no overt focus on sexual behaviour, language or innuendo.”
It’s also notable that this is a repeated decision from Cartoon Network, who also censored a gay kiss on an episode of Clarence last year between what some consider to be the first overtly gay characters in a children’s cartoon. This would have been more of an impressive milestone if it not for the fact that these two men merely served as the punch-line to a joke in the episode about a woman being stood up for a blind date, rather than central protagonists – as is too often the case with any LGBTQ inclusion in children’s media. Subtext and throwaway humour has sadly long been the modus operandi of any writer/animator in order to slip anything ‘covertly’ gay past possible censorship. Other recent examples include Gobber from How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Oaken from Frozen.
Oaken waves to his implied family in Disney’s ‘Frozen’.
What makes Steven Universe different from any other of these examples is that the sexual orientation of its characters is far from throwaway. Just like the mythical island of Themyscira (home of Wonder Woman), all the gems hail from a single-gendered planet meaning that the only romantic relationships they have the option of pursuing within their own species are same-sex ones. Whereas as we live in a hetero-normative society, they live in a homo-normative one. Needless to say the show also passes the Bechdal test with flying colours.
The gems also possess the ability to fuse with one another to become stronger, which they can only achieve through dancing in perfect synchronisation to fuse both body and soul. Some of these fusion rituals are harmlessly flirtatious but others can be more meaningful. For example, it is revealed later in the show that [SPOILER ALERT] the body of the leader of the Crystal Gems – ‘Garnet’ – is actually the result of two gems (Ruby and Sapphire) that fell so deeply in love that they decided to fuse together indefinitely, which quite frankly sounds like the purest expression of marital bliss ever.
Clearly, LGBTQ themes are so core to the underpinnings of the show’s characters that to try and remove even the slightest hint of them – as Cartoon Network did – has a detrimental effect on the nature of the show. This threat was not lost on any of its fans either, as a petition to air the uncensored version of the episode in the UK and Europe has so far picked up over 6,000 signatures.
It seems to me that what Cartoon Network means by “celebrating” diversity actually translates through its actions as ‘tolerating’ diversity. Gay characters can exist as sanitised background noise or pithy punch-lines to straight character’s jokes, but as soon as they become living, breathing protagonists with feelings that children might start to identify with, the executives get squeamish. Sure, they want to pander to the demands of liberal, politically correct parents, but they also have to be mindful of being accused of pushing that ‘gay agenda’ by the more puritanical or conservative parents.
Where is the consistency in living in a country that legalises same-sex marriage but simaltaneously continues to strip same-sex relationships from children’s media as if it is something perverse that they should be protected from?
Why – in the same episode – is this sexual behaviour acceptable:
Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven’s parents) embrace lovingly in the episode ‘We Need To Talk’. This scene aired uncensored.
But this isn’t?
Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate moment in the same episode. This scene was censored in the UK.
Studies show that the later children identify as being gay, the more frequently they are bullied by their peers. And with 1 in 2 young people in the UK identifying themselves as being “not 100% heterosexual“, it seems that the more examples of positive examples of healthy, loving, and normalised same-sex relationships they have access to at an early age, the better off their mental health and well-being will be later in life.
Please send a message to Cartoon Network UK that same-sex relationships shouldn’t be censored from children’s cartoons. Sign the petition here.
Screenshot of Helen Lovejoy from ‘Much Apu About Nothing’, The Simpsons, 1990.
Cover of Frederick Wrexham M.D’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth‘, 1954.
‘Steven Universe‘ banner, Cartoon Network, 2013.
Screenshot from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2014-15.
YouTube clip comparing Cartoon Network US and UK airings of a scene from ‘What Can I Do For You’, Steven Universe, 2015-16.
Screenshot of Oaken waving to his family from Frozen, Disney, 2014.
YouTube clip from ‘The Answer’, Steven Universe, 2016.
Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Greg embracing from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2015.
Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Pearl dancing from ‘We Need To Talk,’ Steven Universe, 2015.
THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES. YOU CAN READ THE INTRODUCTION HERE.
Based loosely on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid tells the story of 16-year-old Princess Ariel, a mermaid who lives under the sea with her father – King Triton – and six sisters. Restless and adventurous, Ariel constantly collects human objects she salvages from shipwrecks until her obsession finally rests on one human in particular: Prince Eric, who she rescues from drowning when his ship capsizes in a storm. Eric awakens to the sound of Ariel singing to him, but she swims away before he can see her properly.
Furious that she made contact with a human, Triton forbids Ariel from returning to the surface, pushing her into the lair of Ursula – the ‘sea witch’. In exchange for her voice, Ursula grants Ariel legs for three days on the condition that she must make Eric give her true love’s first kiss within that time, or she will belong to Ursula forever.
There are 9 female characters with speaking parts:
Ariel’s six sisters: Princess Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana.
A maid in Eric’s castle.
Yes, Ursula the ‘sea witch’.
Ursula, the ‘Sea Witch’.
Ursula is clearly motivated by her desire to dethrone Triton and take his power for herself, which she does through plotting to ensnare his daughter in a deal she think she can easily win. Even before hearing her deliciously maniacal voice, it’s immediately obvious in her character design that she is the villain as she’s completely oppositional to Ariel and the other merpeople. Rather than being half fish, she’s half octopus; her colour scheme is the classic Disney combo of black and purple; she’s not conventionally beautiful, and wears so much make-up she looks like a bit of a drag queen (which is probably intentional considering she was supposedly inspired by iconic drag queen actress Divine). Although brilliantly effective, it’s a design that once again falls into the trap of equating unattractiveness in women with villainy, and Ursula – although impressively powerful – overall comes across as bitter and desperate.
Considering there are nine female characters with speaking parts, and Ariel herself has a mainly female family, it’s odd that there’s hardly any real interaction between all of them. In fact, the film works hard to set them all as far apart as possible.
Ariel’s sisters performing a musical number for their Father, King Triton.
At the start of the film Ariel – the youngest – is meant to be making her musical debut with her sisters in a show for their father, except when her moment comes… she’s not there. Instead, she’s exploring a sunken ship with her fish friend Flounder, which shows her sisters to be obedient ‘good’ daughters, whereas Ariel comes across as more individual and rebellious preferring the company of male companions, and this is also visually represented through her unique colour scheme: red hair and green fins.
Ariel and Ursula drive the plot together, with Ariel being in control in the first half, and Ursula taking over more in the second as she realises that Ariel may come out on top from their deal. Ariel is a headstrong character that gets to make a lot of her own choices in the film, both good and bad, but unfortunately this seems to come across as one of the ‘quirks’ of her character rather than something that should be a given for any protagonist of any gender.
As previously mentioned, Ariel interacts with male characters far more than female ones with the sole exception of Ursula. Although this lack of female camaraderie is negative, the bonds she has with the central male characters – Triton and Eric – are probably the most endearing parts of the film.
Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.
It’s clear that despite their differences, Triton is a deeply loving single father to his troublesome teenage daughter. Although he comes across as overly tough at times due to the stress of his job and Ariel’s bouts of rebellion, in the end when it comes down to Ariel’s life being under threat – he chooses to sacrifice his own power and freedom for hers, and ultimately he learns to relinquish his control over her to allow her own autonomy to flourish like any good father would.
Eric and Ariel meet face to face.
Eric – although strangely pretty happy to fall in love with a mute girl he found on the beach after three days – seems pretty well matched for Ariel. Like her, he is curious, adventurous and not interested in being part of the traditional stuffy ruling elite. This relationship ultimately provides the central emotional crux of the film: both Eric and Ariel are missing something in their lives that nothing from their own worlds can adequately fill until they find each other, and this is what makes their romance seem to have a stronger foundation than Disney’s previous Prince/Princess dynamics.
From an early point in the story Ariel is shown to be completely disinterested in her traditional Princess role, preferring to go salvaging junk from a shipwreck rather than appear in her father’s concert with her sisters. She’s curious, adventurous, and absent-minded – perhaps supposed to be on the quirky-side, as she’s completely different from her rule-abiding sisters.
Ariel singing “Part Of Your World.”
Lyrically, ‘Part of Your World’ could be more multi-layered than you might think. On the surface, it is about a teenager’s dream of running away from home, sick of her father’s stifling rule. However, closer examination could provide deeper meaning relating to gender. Ariel laments in the song that although she has a massive hoard of “neat” stuff from her treasure hunts, she still feels unfulfilled. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” A privileged princess surrounded by material wealth and a big, close-knit family should be happy, right? But the only thing that Ariel thinks will truly make her happy is “to be where the people are.” You could argue that she’s after another physical thing – legs, but really she’s after something that can’t be stolen, found, or bought – she’s wants change, to be part of a different kind of society – or in her case, species.
“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women” by Susan Faludi (1992)
The 1980s – when this film was released – was an uncertain time for women as the huge momentum that the women’s liberation movement gained through the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat stunted by a joint political and media backlash. According to writer Susan Faludi, this backlash was designed to pin the blame for women’s socio-economic struggles on feminism for forcing them to feel pressured to “have it all” – an unachievable dream. In this context, “Part of Your World” could represent the disillusionment of women in this decade – sick of being told to settle with their lot and placate their dreams of true liberation with capitalist consumerism; in the same way that Ariel has been forced to satiate her true desires with meaningless trophies by her father’s patriarchal subjugation.
Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.
“Betcha on land, they’d understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters; Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.
Keep on dreaming, Ariel.
Of course, this being a Disney romance, it isn’t long until the “Your” in the song’s name becomes specific to one person – a man. You could surmise that rather than fulfil her original dream of exploring the surface world like she has the sea, Ariel instead chooses to pass from under the rule of her father’s kingdom to Eric’s. Rather than obsessing over ‘stuff’, she obsesses over Eric, both of which could be seen as distractions from real freedom. This is all highly subjective, of course, but the pieces seem to fit.
This one was tough to call. Although there is a lot to celebrate in terms of positive gender representation in this film – the high female character count; the female-driven plot; the positive treatment of female characters by male ones; and Ariel’s character being fully fleshed out beyond that of just beauty and a great singing voice – there is also a lot to criticise. Yes, Ariel is the first overtly rebellious Disney Princess, but her lust for freedom is quickly tempered into teenage romantic obsession. Ursula, though an outrageously brilliant villain and fearsomely powerful witch, is weakened by the comedic value of making her look like drag queen; and despite there being the highest female character count yet, with the exception of Ariel and Ursula, none of these female characters really interact with each other.
Conclusively, The Little Mermaid is a Disney Princess film that has all the pieces in place to make a truly gender-positive film, but doesn’t quite fit them together properly.
Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: Beauty and the Beast!
At the advent of the new millennium it seemed as though the laddish, matching-tracksuit-wearing man of the ’90s was becoming deeply unfashionable, replaced by an all-new slicker, cleaner, prettier model. The metrosexual man wore chinos and tight jeans. He wasn’t afraid to use moisturiser. He wore expensive underwear. His chin was stubble-free and his trainers were designer. His bed-head hair was quiffed to perfection. He worshipped at the altar of Beckham.
But now, like the ‘lad’s lad’, the metrosexual man is a dying breed: hunted out of high-fashion by a strange new type of man that emerged out of the wilderness late last year. He’s grown his moussed-quiff out into a top-knot and thrown out his over-priced razor to let his facial hair grown wild like a sexy lawn. He has tattoos of Mexican skulls and ’40s pin-up girls on his arms. He wears flannel, wife-beater vests, and American Apparel hoodies. His glasses make Christopher Reeves’s ’70s frames look embarrassingly undersized.
You know this man. You’ve probably seen him drinking imported beer outside of a bar decorated with sheet metal and taxidermy. Or maybe you’ve seen him rifling through a rack of over-sized denim jackets at a thrift store. This man is the lumbersexual.
But is the lumbersexual just another fad of the past year, or does he represent something deeper about the current ‘crisis of masculinity’? In a world in which the male suicide rate is climbing at an alarming rate, could something as superficial as a fashion statement really help stabilise this crisis? Should we even be calling it a ‘crisis’ in the first place?
The lad and the metrosexual may be two opposite ends on a spectrum of conventional (and broadly heterosexual) masculine behaviour and fashion, but what they share is authenticity. The men subscribing themselves to them are subscribing to forms of masculinity that they recognise within themselves – either careless or aspirational.
The lumbersexual is purposefully inauthentic, and could only exist now. Since the start of the new millennium, we’ve been sliding into a cultural zeitgeist in which irony and recycling has become the widest accepted currency in pop culture and fashion. A zeitgeist in which tackiness is the new chic and new ideas are old ones in disguise. Trends like the lumbersexual are a perfect culmination of this ironic re-appropriation: a delicately mixed recipe of romanticised blue-collar Americana, a vague sense of tribalism, and a dash of punk for good measure. An on-point lumbersexual has got his keys to his vintage truck in one hand and his brand new iPhone in the other. The perfect hyper-masculine costume for the 21st century. A parody – not an homage – of masculinity.
Even the Metrosexual King has converted to Lumbersexuality. (Source: blogspot.com)
“It’s hard not to see male suicide in the context of feminism. That while young women grow in confidence as feminism has evolved from dry academic discussion to being featured in Vogue, as women come together on social media […] nobody gives the same empowering message to young men. […] Young men are victims of patriarchy too.”
To assert that the empowerment of women has lead to the disillusionment of men to me is a patriarchal statement in itself, but I do agree with her that the patriarchy is also the culprit in this case. And it seems that most of the data on the gender divide concerning suicide rates supports this idea. Professor Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman noted in another similar article for the Guardian last January that:
“Even in their choice of suicide method, males and females act out culturally prescribed gender roles.”
Despite more women being diagnosed with depression and attempting suicide than men, women tend to opt for less violent means such as over-dosing, whereas men more often choose firearms or hanging and therefore have a much higher suicide success rate.
So, how exactly does donning a plaid shirt and buying beard oil combat suicidal thoughts? How do we help men fight the crisis of masculinity? Well, for starters, what if we thought of it as less of a ‘crisis’, and more of a deconstruction? Think of previous iconic trends that have briefly torn up the rulebook for men’s fashion: from the longhaired hippies of the ’60s, to the glam rockers of the ’70s, to the new romantics of the ’80s. Or what about looking outside of conventional heterosexual masculinity altogether? Think of drag queens, cross-dressers, and ‘gender-fucks’ like Conchita Wurst. Whilst feminine fashion and behaviour has allowed for fluidity, mainstream masculinity – although fluctuating occasionally – has generally remained stubbornly rigid, and the men who challenge it always perceived as more scandalous than women who do the same.
This is why trends like the lumbersexual matter. Not as a genuine expression of ‘back to the good old days’ grunting and unwashed hyper-manliness, but as an ironic costume. Men dressing up as men like some kind of weird reverse drag act. Fashion – as ephemeral as it may seem to some – matters. The way we dress and project ourselves matters. Masculinity doesn’t need to be saved or preserved; it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. It needs expanding and exploring. It needs redefinition. If our construction of gender runs so deeply through our psychological governing that it even affects how we choose to kill ourselves – and how ‘successful’ we are at it – then surely that alone is proof of how urgently we need to change this construction – for both genders.
If we want to save generations of young boys from feeling helpless enough to take their own lives we need to stop telling them to ‘man up’, or even ‘woman up’; we need to tell them to shirk oppressive gendered expectations in favour of simply being more comfortable in their own skin. To explore their own sense of what it means to be a man, just like Caiden Henson and his proud lumbersexual father, Paul:
Caiden Henson (3-years-old) dressed in his choice of Halloween costume – Disney’s Princess Elsa. (Source: dailymail.co.uk)
Taking inspiration from a mix of British history and folklore, Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) reimagines the classic tale of the notorious morally-minded outlaw who robs from the rich to give to the poor during the reign of Prince John (1199 – 1216), set in – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nottingham. In this version, Disney chose to reinterpret the entire Kingdom as anthropomorphic animals: Robin Hood and Maid Marian are foxes; Little John is a bear; Friar Tuck is a badger/mole (I honestly couldn’t work out which one…); Prince John and King Richard are Lions; the Sheriff of Nottingham is a wolf; Sir Hiss (aide to Prince John is a snake); Lady Kluck (Maid Marian’s Lady in Waiting) is a hen; and other characters include dogs, rabbits, mice, and even a tortoise.
Robin Hood: Foxy.
This version – filled with a strange mixed cast of both British and American voice talent – follows Robin and Little John on various escapades to recover the money that Prince John has heavily taxing his subjects for – leaving most of them destitute. (In reality, this was to fund the Prince’s war with France, but the film chooses to simply chalk it up to greed alone.) However, the thread that weaves everything together is actually the reuniting of Robin with his childhood sweetheart, Maid Marian. After returning to her uncle’s (Prince John’s) castle in Nottingham, both she and Robin long to see each other. Prince John – eager to capture the outlaw who continually makes a mockery of him – stages an archery tournament with a kiss from Marian as the Grand Prize, knowing that Robin wouldn’t be able to resist showing off his skills.
Robin enters in disguise and is of course victorious; at which point the Prince’s guards jump on him. Robin manages to escape execution thanks to Little John’s help, and elopes with Marian to Sherwood Forest. Furious once again, Prince John captures Friar Tuck – a loyal ally of Robin’s – and announces his public execution to lure Robin out again.
There are 6 female characters with speaking parts:
Little Rabbit girl
There are no female villains. In fact, none of the female characters have any villainous or unfavourable character traits at all. This could be seen as positive as none of the female characters are portrayed in an actively negative light, but on the downside, it also means that none of them actively contribute to the driving of the plot.
As all of the characters are animals, the animators sometimes felt the needs to make their genders unmistakeable by exaggerating some elements of their design. The little girl rabbit, for example, is flagged out as a girl by a cute dress, long eye lashes, and a massive pink bow (despite having no hair).
I guess her ears were getting in her eyes..?
Despite these cosmetic issues, I actually really enjoyed the tight bond that Maid Marian and Lady Kluck shared. Maid Marian is a classic – if not the classic – ‘damsel in distress’ archetype, and as such could have easily been portrayed as little more than just another object to steal from Prince John for Robin’s trophy collection in this version. However, for the first quarter of the film we see her only interacting with Lady Kluck and a little gaggle of children from Nottingham who stumble into the castle gardens to retrieve an arrow they accidentally shot over the walls.
As the children sneak through the bushes – terrified of running into the short-tempered Prince John – we hear whoops of laughter and shouts from the two ladies, until we see what they’re doing: playing badminton together. Later on when they are alone in Marian’s chambers, they gossip and giggle together about her romance with Robin, and Klucky assures her – as a good friend would – that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Although Robin does unfortunately occupy the majority of their conversations, I still found it pleasantly surprisingly that the film would take so much time to build up Marian’s relationship with another female character, especially one as relatively minor as Klucky. It leant Marian’s character a little more weight and independence; and Klucky – voluptuous, eccentric, feisty, and inexplicably Scottish – is a very easy character to fall in love with.
The plot is driven mainly by Prince John as he devises most of the major events in the story, such as the archery tournament and Friar Tuck’s execution. Moreover, even though Robin Hood is the titular character, it’s Prince John’s constantly unreasonable tax escalations that fuel his escapades. None of the female characters significantly contribute to the driving of the plot.
Robin and Little John seem to really love playing dress-up in this film. Less hardened bandits than happy-go-lucky conmen, the first we see of them in ‘action’ is interestingly them scampering through Sherwood forest pulling on various items of women’s clothing. Disguised as fortune tellers, they intercept Prince John’s carriage, knowing that he would never suspect women to rob him: “Female bandits? Poppycock. Whatever next!”
Neither Robin nor Little John seem even vaguely embarrassed or uncomfortable playing up to their gender-bended disguises – Robin comically modulates his voice as he pretends to see the Prince’s fortune in his looking glass; whilst Little John even sashays around flirtatiously teasing the guards outside.
Possibly one of the strangest Disney screen caps ever.
Even domestically, the pair seem no strangers to more ‘feminine’ pursuits. John wears a frilly apron as he hangs washing out to dry on a line whilst Robin absent-mindedly stirs a pot of stew, dreamily thinking about Maid Marian. The stew starts to boil over, and Little John scolds him as he tries to salvage their dinner. These Disney bachelors seem a lot more maturely developed than the dwarves of Snow White who lived in squalor for fear of taking up ‘womanly’ chores. The tone, however is still frustratingly unclear: Are Robin and Little John progressively comfortable enough in their masculinity that they can easily affect traditionally female activities? Or are these scenes – complete with emasculating filly aprons and fake breasts – played for laughs?
Something more troubling though is Prince John’s character. Other than the decimation of the working class, his villainous quirk is that he is a “mummy’s boy”. Clingy, babyish, squeaky-voiced, and easily wound-up, he wails and sucks his thumb every time his late mother is mentioned, which he is mocked for, of course. He is the complete opposite of his brother Richard “Lionheart”, who we see later as a large, strong, and deep-voiced character – and well-loved by his people.
The oppositional twinning of Prince John with weakness and King Richard with strength sheds John’s close bond with his mother in a negative light as it reinforces the negative stereotype of boys’ who identify more with the mothers as being “feminised”, and therefore weak.
Prince John curls up with his riches.
In terms of the physical treatment of female characters by the males ones, the story seems mainly predicated on Marian and Robin’s romance, and as I mentioned earlier – Marian is by no means completely sidelined. As she and Robin make their escape from his capture and near-execution at the archery tournament, she does her best to fight alongside rather than hinder him. I’m not saying she’s a feminist icon by any stretch of the imagination, but Disney could have done a lot worse by her. Klucky, of course, is the stand-out performer in this scene:
Although Marian is not technically a Princess, her familial status as King Richard and Prince John’s niece, coupled with her being the object of the heroes’ affections puts her in the ‘might as well be’ category.
Aside from performing her duties at the archery tournament and generally living the lifestyle of a Princess, Marain’s main function in the story is to abandon these duties to elope with Robin. And although he is absolved of his crimes once King Richard takes back the throne at the end, she is still the most consciously rebellious Princess we have seen so far.
As much as I wanted to give this film a positive stamp of approval, there were certain negative factors I couldn’t let slide:
No female characters significantly drive the plot.
The majority of Maid Marian and Lady Kluck’s conversation focus on Robin.
The tone of Robin and Little John’s “feminine” escapades is unclear.
Little John’s intrinsic weaknesses as a leader are implied to be rooted to his close relationship with his mother.
But, there were enough positive elements in the film to balance it out to a neutral classification:
Maid Marian is allowed to make the decision to rebel rather than wait to be rescued.
She also has a close bond with another female character, in this movie the female characters are not pitted against each other.
Despite still being defined mainly by her relationship to Robin, Marian is given a fair amount of screen time on her own.
Lady Kluck doesn’t fulfil conventional beauty standards in the way that Marian does, but is still shown as a positive character: vibrant, funny, independent, and loyal.
Next up in the “Wicked Wiles” series: The Little Mermaid!
Originally published for Bitch Flicks as part of their ‘Female Gaze’ theme week, 26th August 2015.
With their starry eyes, cutesy costumes, Barbie-esque features, and catchphrases overflowing with dreamy positivity, the magical girls of the shojo (girls) genre of anime might not seem like the most feminist of heroines upon cursory glance. Yet, the plucky sorceress’ of such cult classics as Sailor Moon can be seen as emblematic of a counter-movement of female action heroes in Japanese culture – the antidote to the hyper-masculinity of the shonen (boys) genre.
Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon
Goku from Dragon Ball
This assessment by no means disregards the problems of the magical girl genre – glorification of the traditionally ultra feminine, fetishisation and infantilisation. Shojo characters with their typically doe-eyed innocence can be easily corrupted to cater to a specific male fantasy of virginal femininity. However, the work of the all-female team of manga/anime creators known as ‘CLAMP’ not only combats these issues, but also, as Kathryn Hemmann in The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Culture writes, “employs shojo for themselves and their own pleasure.”
I became a fan of CLAMP – like most people of my age – in the 1990s. As a child, my introduction to the wonderfully weird world of Japanese cartoons consisted of the standard diet for most children of that era: Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z. Imported, dissected, re-dubbed, and re-packaged to suit the tastes of a western – and more specifically – male audience. But amongst the shouts of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” and “Kamehameha!” there was one show that really left a lasting impression on me. It was about a little girl gifted with great power through capturing and using magical ‘Clow’ cards. She wasn’t muscly; she wasn’t self-assured; and she certainly wasn’t male. She was Sakura Kinomoto, the show was called Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura in it’s original Japanese format), and it was my first exposure to both CLAMP and the magical girl or ‘mahou shoujo’ genre they helped to popularise.
CLAMP at the Phoenix Anime Convention, 2006
Like most adolescent heroes, Sakura seems hopelessly ill-equipped to begin with, and yet her sheer determination to achieve her full potential sees her through to becoming a magical force to be reckoned with without ever surrendering her loving personality. Rather than conforming to the ‘strong female character’ stereotype that implies that women must act more masculine to achieve truly equal footing with male action heroes, Sakura’s power stems from traits considered more conventionally feminine: love, empathy, and pureness of heart. Even her wardrobe changes into unapologetically girly battle outfits aesthetically reinforce CLAMP’s refusal to bow to a male audiences’ preferences.
Sakura’s signature battle outfit.
These themes of romance and friendship are a core part of the story development and instrumental in the viewer’s investment in the characters. Through Cardcaptor Sakura, CLAMP explores the complexities of both platonic and romantic female love – both heterosexual and homosexual – from an almost exclusively female perspective. In almost soap opera-esque melodrama, Sakura pines for her older brother’s best friend (who unbeknownst to her, is also his love interest) as Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo pines for her. Tomoyo, who lives a rich and sheltered life in a female-centric household, seems to live vicariously through Sakura. Upon discovering her secret heroics at night, she begins to capture Sakura’s adventures on camera and even provides her with her signature battle costumes, which cause Sakura huge embarrassment. Yet, at the risk of hurting her friend’s feelings, she grudgingly wears them anyway.
As the show develops, we are shown more and more just how deeply Tomoyo’s feelings run. In episode 11, Tomoyo gives Sakura a rare tour of her impressive mansion home, including a cinema room in which she confesses that she watches her recordings back of Sakura in battle constantly. It seems that Tomoyo is as much a part of the audience to Sakura’s life as we – the viewers – are. It also strikes me that this obsessive behaviour might translate entirely differently if Tomoyo were male.
Tomoyo and Kero-chan spy on Sakura.
Tomoyo’s idolisation of Sakura is far from veiled, and yet it is not revealed to be unmistakably romantic until Episode 40, in which Sakura must capture a Clow card that makes people dream about their hidden desires. Sakura, Tomoyo, Syaoran Li (Sakura’s rival and male love interest) and his cousin Meilin visit a fun fair. Sakura and Meilin team up to play a Whack-A-Mole game and Tomoyo – as usual – picks up her camera to film Sakura in action. Suddenly, the Clow card appears in the form of a glowing butterfly and lands on Tomoyo’s shoulder. Tomoyo falls into a dream sequence, in which we see her deepest desire play out through her eyes. On a pink background of falling cherry blossom, copies of Sakura dressed in Tomoyo’s outfits call her name and dance playfully around her. We are shown a shot of Tomoyo’s face – staring in awe at first, and then relax into a smile. ‘I’m so happy!’ she says to herself, and runs towards the dancing copies of Sakura – still filming.
It seems like an odd moment to be sexually awakened – watching your crush play a ‘Whack-A-Mole’ game at a fun fair – and perhaps if the show had been targeted at a more mixed audience (or the characters were older) this moment might have been filled with more obvious sexualised content. But through Tomoyo’s own eyes, CLAMP visually summarise the complex feelings of romance, admiration, obsession, and innocent love she feels for her best friend. Not only this, but as Sakura dances continually out of Tomoyo’s physical reach, the implication becomes one of wanting something you know you can never have. Tomoyo knows by now of Syaoran’s feelings for Sakura, and like a true friend, encourages their romance for the sake of Sakura’s happiness rather than her own.
This ‘doomed’ romance trap seems to be a family curse, as we discover in episode 10 that Tomoyo’s mother appeared to also be hopelessly in love with Sakura’s mother (who happens to also be her cousin). Similarly, Sakura’s mother didn’t return her cousin’s feelings as she was in love with an older man (Sakura’s father) in the same way that Sakura is attracted to Yukito – an older boy. Both mothers are absent from their lives – Sakura’s mother through death, and Tomoyo’s through continual business trips – yet their daughters seem fated to play out their romantic histories.
Tomoyo invading Sakura’s personal space…
Suffering from a bout of nostalgia, I decided to revisit the show as an adult, first in it’s Americanised form, and then the original Japanese version to compare the differences. I was shocked to discover that in an effort to make the show fit the perceived needs of their rigidly defined demographic of young boys, the executives at Kids WB had hacked all elements of ‘toxic’ feminisation from it – romance, homosexuality, and the agency of Sakura has a protagonist (even her name is removed from the title) – dramatically reducing the series from 70 to just 39 episodes. In fact, if they had been able to “maximise” their cuts, the show would reportedly have run for merely 13 episodes. In other words, there was a concerted effort to twist the female gaze into a male one under the belief that CLAMP’s blend of hyper-femininity and action would be unappealing for the male audience it was being sold to. In Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls, Anne Allison quotes this from an executive from Mattel, “[…] In America, girls will watch male-oriented programming but boys won’t watch female-oriented shows; this makes a male superhero a better bet.”
Whilst moaning about all this to my partner recently, I asked him if he had watched the dubbed version of the show as a child. He said that he had, but didn’t realise until he was older that the show had probably been intended for girls. I asked him if he remembered being turned-off that the show’s hero was a little girl as opposed to the ultra-masculine characters of his favourite childhood anime, Dragon Ball Z. His answer totally undermines Mattel’s assumptions about the show’s gender appeal: “I thought Sakura was really cool. In fact, I loved her so much I begged my mum for roller-skates that Christmas so that I could skate around to be like her.” Even more affirming than this is the fact that whilst the dubbed version of the show ended up being cancelled, the original Japanese one ran to its intended conclusion; spawned two films; and inspired two spin-off series’ using the same characters – Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic.
Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles
Sadly, by ‘butching’ Cardcaptor Sakura up to be squeezed into the TV schedule alongside Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, western children were deprived of the tender and emotionally complex storytelling and character development behind all the magic and swordplay – and even from getting a satisfying ending to the show. It seems that whilst Japanese children are considered mature enough to deal with female superheroes, complex pre-pubescent emotions, and LGBTQ+ representation from a female perspective, western children are unfortunately not treated with the same respect or intelligence.
iwantedwings (aka Hannah) is a freelance writer, artist, anime-nerd, and Britney Spears apologist based in the UK.