Before 2015, when you thought about director George Miller’s Mad Max film series, you probably wouldn’t associate it with words such as ‘Feminism’ or ‘Female Empowerment’ as much as you would with ‘Cars’, ‘Motorbikes’ or ‘Mel Gibson.’
Skip forward to today, however, and you’ll find that Mad Max: Fury Road – the fourth installment of the long-running franchise – has proven to be a surprisingly divisive film for anyone interested in gender politics, hailed as either an instant Feminist classic or reviled as “propaganda” ruining a traditionally male-focussed franchise. I totally side with the former, and whilst it is not without fault from a Feminist perspective, I was incredibly uplifted to see such a big-budget blockbuster not only follow in the footsteps of female-lead action films of the past like Alien, Terminator and The Hunger Games, but also sport a very clear anti-Patriarchal stance. There is no subtext or subtlety about it: Fury Road is a bloody and biting call to arms for women everywhere with it’s unofficial tagline:
‘WE ARE NOT THINGS.’
Misogynists everywhere have been very vocal in their criticism of it, but after sifting through all the negativity lobbied against the film, there’s one in particular that bugs me the most. Men’s Rights Activists’ such as Aaron Clarey in his review on popular MRA blog Return of the Kings have popularised the idea that titular character Max [Tom Hardy] is criminally sidelined in his own film, leaving co-star Imperator Furiosa [Charlize Theron] to steal the show.
“Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances […] And finally, Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.”
The irony of this statement is that once I started to unpack all the ways Clarey was wrong, I inadvertently started to realise that the Feminist lifeblood of Fury Road runs far deeper than just the superficial ‘strong female character’ stereotype.
Throughout the Mad Max franchise, Max has always been characterised as a nomadic figure, drifting from one post-apocalyptic madness to the next. Fury Road’s narration consolidates this by quoting this from The First History of Man:
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
Tom Hardy as ‘Mad Max.’
It’s true that the story of Fury Road could have easily happened without him, but by no means does this fact make him redundant as a character, and the entire course of the story would have been irrevocably different. The fact that Max is thrown by accident into Furiosa’s plans is also completely in-keeping with his status as an adventuring wanderer. After all, Furiosa may rightly call the shots in the first act of her bid for freedom, but it is Max who takes control in the second act of the film when he instigates their daring plan to recapture the Citadel where women are imprisoned, and Max who revives Furiosa with his own blood when she is critically wounded. They adapt to working together when they realise that a united front is the only assurance of freedom, and as such contribute equally as co-pilots to the steering of the plot.
These themes of cooperation, reinvention, and reclamation actually run deeper into the matrix of the film than you might think.
The primitivism of a world that has seemed to suffer a technological and biological man-made apocalypse in Mad Max is laid bare in the absence of plants, water, or urbanised environments. This planetary devolution has also seeped into human society as any scrap of hard-fought social changes have been stripped back to the patriarchal foundations our civilisation is built on. And the chosen few are not just surviving – they’re thriving.
Furiosa yearns to return to the place of her birth – the fabled all-female ‘green place’ that is just a distant memory to her now. This parallels the traditional affinity of women with plants and nature; juxtaposed against the dominant patriarchy who rely solely on machines and artificial materials. They are as much the adversary of nature as they are to the opposite sex.
This juxtaposition is then flipped on its head when you realise that to reach the ‘green place’, Furiosa and the liberated women must rely on a massive man-made behemoth of smoke and oil, fully customised with extra fuel, water, and… milk? Yes, you read it right. At one point in the story, Max – injured from a battle – washes the blood from his face using breast milk from one of the truck’s pumps. This milk is ‘farmed’ at the Citadel as an alternative to water. “Redemption is symbolized through human milk,” Coleen Martell explains in her article Sweet Nectar of the Matriarchy: Breast Milk in Mad Max: Fury Road. “‘Mother’s Milk’ anoints Max’s face after his first proactively selfless act in support of Furiosa and the ‘Five Wives.’” It seems that the truck has been secretly converted from a weapon of war to a nurturing body.
Furiosa with her Truck.
This body shares a bond with Furiosa that parallels the one she strikes up with Max. Her missing arm is replaced with a mechanised one that connects her directly to the driving mechanism; she even smears herself with its oil as war paint. More than a horse is to a knight; Furiosa’s steed gives her freedom, shelter, and life.
Furiosa, despite being born as woman of nature, has not only adopted the mechanised world of men, but she has repurposed and reclaimed it as a true Cyberfeminist would to use against them.
In the end, the women’s choice – aided by Max – to return and reintegrate themselves into society on their own terms seems far more victorious and satisfactory to me than finding peace in a separatist female utopia, which so many of the negative reviews would have you believe. This, to me, is the real Feminist message of Mad Max: Fury Road. Empowerment and freedom doesn’t always have to be fought for in blood, sweat and violence; it can also be won with unity, sympathy and nurture.
There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.
Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign
It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.
Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines
The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.
This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.
Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com
The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.
I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.
As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.
The crux of what I’m saying is this: A female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.
If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.
Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.
Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011
Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.
There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.
The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.
Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.
In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.
(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)
We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.
This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction here.
‘This is the 14th century father, you’re living in the past!’
Based on the fairy story by Charles Perrault, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a Princess named Aurora who is cursed by the Evil Sorceress Maleficent as revenge for being snubbed by her parents – the Royal Family. The curse dictates that Aurora will grow in beauty and grace, only to be pricked in the finger by an enchanted spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and die. Luckily, three good fairies counteract the curse by altering the death clause to an ‘eternal sleep’ to be broken only with ‘love’s first kiss.’ Despite hiding Aurora in the woods to raise her as their own for 16 years, the good fairies cannot stop the curse from being fulfilled, and the only way to save Aurora is to send the kingdom to sleep with her and find her true love –who just happens to be the Prince she is unknowingly betrothed to.
Sleeping Beauty – Princess Aurora
Queen Mother (Princess Leah)
The three Good Fairies – Mistress Flora, Mistress Fauna, and Mistress Merryweather.
Yes – Maleficent.
Early in the film Maleficent crashes the party to celebrate Aurora’s birth, offended she wasn’t invited. For this discrepancy, she curses the baby princess after two of the three good fairies have blessed her with magical gifts, and whilst there definitely seems to an unspoken history between her, the royal family, and the fairies, the sole motivation we are given for Maleficent’s villainy is this particular story is her exclusion from the celebrations alone. Is killing a baby an appropriate response for not getting a party invite? Not sure I can sympathise with her on that.
Despite her weak incentive, Maleficent is by far one of the most memorable and powerful Disney villainesses. Even the good fairies say her powers are ‘too great’ which is presumably why they can’t completely undo her magic, and even after all their efforts to prevent it, Maleficent simply hypnotises Aurora towards her doom. While the three good fairies have power in sisterhood, Maleficent derives power from isolation, with only her pet raven and goblin army for company in the ‘Forbidden Mountains’ where she rules as ‘the Mistress of all Evil.’ Her animalistic design – horned headdress, grey hued skin, yellow eyes, and black ragged cloak – casts a bat’s silhouette, and hints at her incredible transformative abilities later in the film.
STAY BACK PEASANTS!
She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, but is she a positive female role model? On the one hand you could argue Maleficent’s fierce power and dominance, but her adversarial aggression towards every other female (and male) character casts her more negatively to me, as her independence can be more easily read as maniacal supremacy.
The three good fairies – true to their kind and ‘cuddly’ appearance – treat Aurora’s wellbeing as their top priority for the entire film to protect her from Maleficent’s wrath. And between them, they also provide the first positive examples of true sisterhood in the Princess catalogue so far. Whether they’re actually related or not, they definitely act like a real family – bickering and all – and it’s genuinely endearing.
They also have refreshingly distinct personalities from each other – Flora is the ‘leader’ and the bossy one, Fauna is the middle child and the more sweet and mild one, and Merryweather is the younger, grumpier one that argues Flora constantly. This affects their difference of opinion concerning Maleficent as well, as Merryweather is determined to use her magic to get revenge, but Fauna doesn’t think she’s ‘so bad’ and points out they can only use their magic for ‘good and happiness’.
(Left to right) Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather
There is also an obvious parallel with nature as their names all have connections with plants, animals and weather, which is perhaps where their powers stem. As they debate where to hide the princess, Flora suggests turning her into a flower, but Fauna – logical as usual – points out that ‘Maleficent would send a frost to kill it’ implying that Maleficent’s powers might be rooted in nature also. We could even surmise from this comment that the fairies might be connected to spring, and Maleficent to winter, deepening their opposition to one another. It also means that Maleficent might be a similar creature to a fairy – but obviously not a good fairy, which the good fairies use to their advantage as they say she cannot understand ‘love and kindness’ – exactly what they use to hide Aurora.
In the woodcutter’s cottage that they raise Aurora in, the fairies induct her into their family by renaming her ‘Briar Rose’ (another plant reference like ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’.) Aurora seems happy enough living with her ‘aunts’, but complains that they treat her like a child, as she is not allowed to be truly independent – a typical frustrated teenager, really. And like a typical Disney Princess, she also confides in her animal friends that she dreams of meeting her prince to remedy her loneliness.
Maleficent’s curse and her pursuit of fulfilling that curse drives the fairies to protect Aurora by raising her in the woods for 16 years, meaning that Maleficent and the good fairies supply the motivation, development, and resolution of the story, and making the plot driven almost entirely by its female fairy cast. Most of the film feels really like a battle between the fairies and Maleficent with others simply caught in the crossfire.
Even in the final battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in her fiery dragon form, the good fairies are there to help him flee his prison in the Forbidden Mountains and summon the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue (‘weapons of righteousness that triumph over evil’) to his aid. Flora even says an incantation to help his sword fly true into the dragon’s heart.
But sisterhood is also a key positive driving force here. After all, are they doing all this just to get Phillip a wife? Or to thwart Maleficent once and for all? Nope. It’s all for the sake of their maternal bond with Aurora and putting her happiness before their own.
The male characters are:
King Stephen – Aurora’s father
King Hubert – Phillip’s father (Stephen’s old friend)
Samson (Prince Phillip’s horse)
‘Fondly had these two kings dreamed their kingdoms would unite.’
The male characters have little interaction with the female characters, or influence on the plot for that matter. The most significant event is that Phillip and Aurora are arranged to be married by their parents at the very start of the film, and this sets their playful romance in motion. The next time they met – 16 years later – they have no idea that either of them are royalty, but are drawn together through a kind of ‘magical’ bond of destiny.
‘Hey there, handsome…’
‘I preferred the owl.’
Right from the start, Phillip is given far more personality than the previous two Princes we have seen in Snow White and Cinderella, as we see him wrinkle his nose with genuine childish ‘ickiness’ at the sight of the baby Aurora when presented to her. Even into adulthood, he remains cheeky, charming, and adventurous evidenced by his play fighting with Samson in the woods. His courtship with Aurora, however, is typically short – a quick dance in the woods, a few exchanged words, and that’s it: true love.
The good fairies deep desire to protect Aurora is a familial one, but it may also stem from their connection to her magical properties, which are hinted at throughout the story. We are told by the narrator that Aurora is a ‘miracle’ baby that her parents wished for, and her name even means ‘dawn’, linking her irrevocably to that magical time between day and night. Her stereotypical Princess characteristics of beauty and a great singing voice are also ‘gifts’ from the good fairies’ spells cast after her birth. This makes the disgusted expression that young Phillip pulls when peeking into her crib before the spells are cast all the more interesting. What did Aurora look like before she was given the gift of beauty? Even as an adult, Phillip also comments when he hears her voice in the woods that it sounds ‘too good to be real.’ Aurora seems to have entirely engineered virtues. What would she have been without these conjured qualities, I wonder? What would Merryweather’s spell have given her if she’d been able to cast it before Maleficent turned up to cast her curse? Intelligence? Super strength? Laser vision?
In terms of her Princess role, Aurora spends most of the film unaware that she is royalty, but still possesses the beauty, charm, and ability to communicate with animals that a true Disney princess should have. We also see her cooking and cleaning in the cottage in the woods for her ‘aunts’, meaning that they have brought her up to do her fair share of domestic chores similarly to Snow White and Cinderella – the main difference being that she does those jobs wilfully.
When the fairies reveal her true identity to her, they expect her to be delighted, but instead she rejects her princess role upon learning that she cannot marry the random stranger she danced with in the woods as she is already betrothed to a Prince and must fulfil her responsibilities now that she is 16-years-old.
the importance of family and responsibility, and the accepting or shirking of it. Aurora and Phillip have preordained paths that they want to escape as young adults, and even though she doesn’t know it, Aurora is also trapped by Maleficent’s curse that the fairies are trying to help her escape from. In the end, they are both forced to follow these destined paths but to a happy ending, which makes these flirtations with defiance ultimately empty threats.
Considering that Snow White and Cinderella were classified as negative, Sleeping Beauty makes significant strides in the right direction in terms of positive gender representation. The film is almost entirely female driven; the villainess is a powerful bad-ass; the good fairies have a strong sisterly bond; and the Prince is given an actual personality compared to his bland predecessors in the Disney films before it. It teaches that women can indomitable forces of nature – both good and bad; independent and communal.
Equally the film unfortunately suffers from the same negative problems as the previous ones – lack of real motivation or empathy for the female villain; the titular Princess has little control of her own destiny or of the plot, and possesses very few distinctive characteristics beyond the typical Disney Princess ones – beauty, charm, and grace (even if these are revealed to be completely artificial). There is a lot more to praise than the previous two Disney films, but a lot of the same problems remain, which is why – as much as I wanted to – I couldn’t give it a positive classification.
Please not that I have not taken Maleficent (2014) into account in this analysis.
The Sacred Blacksmith or Seiken no Burakkusumisu is a fantastical story about knights, demons, medieval melodrama, magical swords, and reincarnation. At its core, however, it is essentially a story about a young woman asserting herself in a man’s world. In light of this it might be surprising to learn that the manga’s key demographic in Japan is the ‘Seinen’ audience – young to middle-aged men. Seinen stories are primarily characterised by soft-core sexual content and a female protagonist, but rather than rely solely on the usual fan service to satisfy male readers (panty shots, accidental nudity, nosebleeds, etc.) Sacred Blacksmith uses its genre trappings to instead highlight the causes and consequences of sexual violence with chilling realism, and handles it better than most live-action representations I’ve seen.
The Sacred Blacksmith began life as light novel series by Isao Miura with illustrations by Luna. The manga adaptation by Kotaro Yamada has been serialised in Monthly Comic Book Alive since 2009, and the (criminally short) 12-episode anime from Manglobe also aired in 2009. It’s hero is Cecily Campbell, a young woman who dreams of becoming a great knight like her Father. The problem is… Cecily doesn’t have a clue how to be a knight. In fact, she’s pretty useless at it. That is, until she teams up with Aria – a formidable spiritual sword who can take the form of a human – and Luke Ainsworth, a grumpy and isolated master Blacksmith who is attempting to forge a sword powerful enough to take out the evil presence that plagues the medieval world they live in. Aria quickly becomes Cecily’s ally and best friend, but Luke takes a lot more convincing. This is not because Luke has any prejudice against women (evidenced by his female assistant, Lisa) but simply because he finds Cecily’s incompetence really annoying.
Cecily getting on Luke’s last nerve.
Cecily, however, is unrelentingly ambitious, and slowly manages to become better and better at wielding Aria, and far more confident in battle. Luke finds that as their paths continuously cross, and Lisa and Aria conspire to push the two together, he begins to see past his initial impression of Cecily as a bumbling idiot and instead as a valuable ally and equal. These feelings predictably intensify into more romantic ones, but as Luke seems unsure if Cecily returns these feelings, he remains at a respectful distance from her… for now, anyway.
Shall we dance..?
Cecily and Luke’s tentative and courteous relationship throughout the story is put into stark contrast with Cecily’s encounters with the villain of the story – Siegfried. Siegfried is your standard ‘insert-villain-here’ kind of villain: power-hungry, ruthless, and very, very creepy. This creepiness doesn’t take long to become predatory, culminating in one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever come across in my years of reading comics and manga.
It comes after Cecily manages to claim a significant victory over Siegfried, and he – humiliated – physically and sexually assaults her when she is alone and off-guard. His intention is to not only humiliate her in the way she did him, but to demonstrate both his power over her as an enemy and, more importantly, as a man over a woman. He doesn’t even need to actually carry out the ‘act’ fully because the implication is enough, and the implication is that it would certainly not be a sexual act rooted in lust, but a violent one rooted in sadism. The ordeal is quite honestly extremely difficult to read – as you would expect it to be – but perhaps equally heart breaking is seeing the effect it has on Cecily, who is utterly psychologically destroyed by it.
Cecily in turmoil after the assault.
This internal collapse is physically represented – and powerfully visualised – by Cecily shutting herself away in bed at home, curled up under the covers with the curtains drawn, closed off to all of her friends and family. Aria tries to console her, but gets nowhere. Cecily seems to suffer in silence for many painful weeks. It is unclear if Siegfried’s actions are unique to his cruel character, or symptomatic of a larger culture of sexual violence in that world, but either way, the effect on Cecily would be the same. In a manga that had been fairly sweet natured up until this point, the gritty brutality of this arc was rendered all the more shocking to me, but I was also impressed at the balance of realism, brutality, and delicacy that Yomada conveyed through art and text, and all the more endeared to Cecily. I was reminded of a scene in the film G.I Jane (1997) which told the story of Jordan O’Neil – the first woman to go through a male-exclusive Navy Seal training programme, the toughest in the world. In the scene, the harsh reality of being prisoners of war is demonstrated to the new recruits, and to their horror, Master Chief Urgayle graphically simulates raping O’Neil to coldly remind them that sexual abuse is used as torture in war. Broadly speaking, he is also reminding O’Neil that she really is a woman in a man’s world, and could be taken advantage of in ways that her male peers probably wouldn’t. The only difference between G.I Jane and Sacred Blacksmith is that O’Neil’s abuse was simulated, but Cecily’s was all too real.
G.I Jane – the cold reality for women on the battlefield?
My expectation in Sacred Blacksmith was that Cecily would eventually confide in Luke leaving him to enact revenge on Siegfried as the resident valiant ‘Prince Charming’, but I was glad when this expectation turned out to be completely wrong. Instead – as you would hope from a self-motivated woman of action – Cecily manages to not only come to terms with the ordeal, but faces down Siegfried again with Aria in hand. Luke does aid her in doing this and there is an implication that he has some idea of what may have happened, but I don’t think this detracts from the significance of Cecily standing up to her attacker and finding strength as a survivor rather than continue to feel defeated as a victim. In fact, when Luke steps in to confront Siegfried alongside Cecily, he does so not as Cecily’s protector or superior, but as her friend and ally outraged on her behalf.
Luke has had enough of this shit.
The ‘woman in a man’s world’ trope maybe a well worn one, as is the ‘clumsy girl who learns strength through fighting’ one. And although Sacred Blacksmith doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is ultimately Cecily Campbell’s inner strength that pulls her through one of the toughest ordeals a woman can face, and handled with the appropriate mix of shock, brutality, and sensitivity through the beautifully drawn art. And don’t forget – this is all in a story aimed at young men.
This article is the third in a series. You can read the introduction to Wicked Wiles here.
“A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”
Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s Cinderella (1950) is set in a ‘far away land long ago’ where a girl named Cinderella lives happily with her family. Sadly, this doesn’t last. Her mother dies and Cinderella’s father remarries a woman with two daughters, who turn out to be cold and cruel. Upon his death, they force Cinderella to become their maid. Meanwhile in the royal castle, the King – longing for grandchildren – plans a ball for his son the Prince to find him a suitable bride. Invitations are sent to every eligible lady in the land, and Cinderella begs her stepmother to let her go. With the help of her mice friends, Cinderella fashions a beautiful dress to wear, only to have her stepsisters tear it to shreds and her dreams of happiness destroyed.
Luckily, Cinderella’s laments are heard by her Fairy Godmother, who whips up a new dress, a pumpkin carriage, and some glass slippers that will last until midnight. Cinderella charms the Prince at the ball but is forced to run away prematurely as her curfew approaches leaving only a glass slipper behind. This forces the King to send out a search party to try the glass slipper on the foot of every woman in the land in the hopes of finding its mysterious owner.
The film’s character are mostly female, consisting of:
Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine)
The Fairy Godmother
An unnamed female narrator at the start of the film.
Yes – Cinderella’s stepmother and her two daughters.
Jealous of Cinderella’s ‘charm and beauty’, her stepmother forces Cinders to become a servant. This also kind of makes financial sense as she presumably cannot afford to employ actual servants after squandering her late husband’s wealth – as the narrator reveals at the start. Just like Disney’s previous Princess film – Snow White – the jealousy of a bitter stepmother provides the only villainous motivation. The difference this time being that Cinderella’s stepmother is not an evil Sorceress. She’s just plain evil.
Anastasia and Drusilla are described as ‘vain and selfish’ by the narrator and are not forced to do any work around the house due to their mother’s favouritism. The stepsisters aren’t exactly ugly, but certainly plainer and ‘less feminine’ compared to Cinderella. During the fitting of the glass slipper scene, for example, the mislaid slipper barely covers either of their feet – implying both sisters lack the aspirational feminine trait of small and dainty feet, which by default Cinderella must have. This also follows the Disney tradition of personality dictating appearance.
Anastasia & Drusilla.
In the case of the step-family, however, this rule seems unbalanced as their personalities really are worse than their looks. Upon receiving the invite to the ball, Cinderella’s stepmother agrees she can attend on the condition that Cinderella completes all of her chores and has a suitable dress. When Anastasia and Drusilla object she repeats her condition: ‘I said if.’ Obviously she has no intention of letting Cinderella attend, but clearly gets some sick pleasure out of dangling hope in front of her unfortunate stepdaughter so she can rip it away from her; a metaphor that turns out to be literal when she manipulates Anastasia and Drusilla into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds.
This glimmer of hope is both a fantastical and tangible thing for Cinderella as the narrator tells us that the kingdom is ‘tiny’ and she can see the castle in plain view from her bedroom window. Yet, I would go so far as to say that if you look a little closer than the film would want you to look, that glimmer of hope is a thematic thread for all of its characters, including the villains, and provides their real motivation.
The iconic Disney castle.
This realisation struck me when Anastasia and Drusilla complained to their mother that they had no new clothes to wear to the ball, and I remembered that narrator explained that the stepmother had married Cinderella’s father for his money – all of which she and her greedy daughters spent. The implication is that the stepmother is a ‘gold digger’ – yet another demonising female quality. Having sucked one source of income dry, she is now forced to set her sights on marrying a daughter off to the bachelor Prince in that oh-so-visible-castle-from-the-window to sustain the opulent lifestyle they have become accustomed to.
But let’s consider the social context of this: In the not-so-long-ago times when either a rich father or husband was the only means for a woman of status to survive, what other choice did the stepmother have? To Cinderella, the castle represents freedom from her oppressive stepmother, but to her stepmother the castle represents financial freedom in an oppressive society. And whilst she cannot be excused for it, perhaps her cruel treatment of Cinderella is a venting of frustration upon the remnant of a marriage she hoped would afford her security, and an added burden of an extra mouth to feed with money she has (stupidly) frittered away.
The motivational jealousy she feels at Cinderella’s ‘beauty and charm’ is because those natural qualities that Cinders has been gifted with mean she could easily find an affluent husband… if she is ever allowed out of the house.
From start to finish, all of the interactions between the film’s central female family members are irrefutably negative. As the maid, Cinderella is unquestionably submissive to her rude and demanding stepmother and stepsisters, with the exception of bravely asking her stepmother’s permission to go the ball.
YOU SHALL NOT GO TO THE BALL.
The only positive interaction Cinderella has between another female character is with the Fairy Godmother who is basically everyone’s ideal Grandma – lovely, huggable, and quirky. She comforts Cinders and works her magic to restore her self-confidence and get her to the ball. She even has the foresight to allow Cinderella to keep the remaining glass slipper after her magic fades, enabling Cinders to prove later on that she is the true owner of the shoes when her stepmother ‘accidentally’ smashes the other.
Cinderella is light on plot and high on filler, and by filler I mean lots of animals in clothes faffing around for too long (in my opinion). This makes answering this question tricky, but arguably it is the King who sets everything in motion to achieve his goal of having grandchildren, and the entire story revolves the ball.
The stepmother contributes only by blocking Cinderella’s opportunities to escape her control, and these are opportunities that are given to Cinderella rather than creating opportunities herself. The only time she asserts any kind of influence is when she asks to go the ball. In fact, Cinders is so lacking in drive that even after the ball when the magic wears off she shrugs her shoulders and trudges back home obediently instead of seizing her opportunity to run away for good.
The male characters are:
The Duke (the King’s aide)
Various animals that live in Cinderella’s chateau
The King states that he has no interest in which woman the Prince picks as his bride; as long as she can provide him with grandchildren: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions.’ The Prince also has no interest in any of the women at the ball – stifling a yawn as they are all introduced to him. That is, until he spots Cinderella entering at the back of the ballroom.
Obviously taken by her looks, he rushes over to meet her, and the pair spends the night walking and talking through the castle gardens. We never get to hear what they are saying (other than a weird telepathic duet) until Cinderella suddenly tells him she must leave as her curfew approaches. This is also the last we really see or hear of the Prince, as it is the Duke who is tasked with searching the Kingdom for the mysterious maiden that the Prince stupidly failed to get the name of his new crush despite all those hours of implied conversation.
“I have absolutely no character!”
I mentioned earlier that the castle represents hope, and this is also true of the Prince. He is a sadly tokenistic character – known only as ‘Charming’ – serving purely as wish fulfilment for the female characters; therefore a surprisingly weak male presence despite his narrative importance.
Just like Snow White before her, Cinderella’s skills are enforcedly domestically based. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella – although born into wealth – has to marry to attain Princess status and we don’t get to see what kind of Princess she becomes. (Although, if the King got his way, she’d most likely be spending most it popping out kids and little else.) Otherwise, she possesses natural beauty and charm, kindness, and the ability to communicate with animals – typical of a Disney Princess.
Unfortunately under my criteria it’s another negative Disney Princess film in terms of gender representation. Here’s why:
Cinderella barely influences the plot.
Negative interactions between nearly all female characters.
Cinderella is given the opportunity to follow her dreams but only to satiate the King’s need for grandchildren. He doesn’t care who she is, he just wants a woman – any woman – to marry his son and produce heirs.
The film missed opportunities to give depth to the stepmother and stepsisters’ jealousy – some kind of social context might have made it more balanced and more interesting.
The animals help Cinderella because she helps them, which shows that if you are nice to others they will return this kindness.
There is also a positive message about working hard and being rewarded, except Cinderella’s opportunities happen mainly by chance.
Unfounded jealousy is the only motivation for female villainy.
Marriage is your only chance at happiness/means to financially support yourself, with no option to become self-sufficient.
The film is critical of women who marry for money alone, yet offers no context/solution to this problem.
Male characters are depicted negatively – either talking about women as baby-making machines, or treated as nameless and voiceless tokens.
Written and drawn by Yana Toboso, Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, is a Victorian supernatural fairy story like no other. Dark, weird, and classically gothic, this manga is fantastically written, stunningly drawn, and hugely loved both in and outside of Japan. It’s popularity is so strong in fact that its franchise has stretched beyond the manga series and anime adaptations, but also into a video game, a live-action film, and even two musical productions (only in Japan, unfortunately).
Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation
Despite volumes of the manga selling millions of copies, Black Butler is surprisingly not ranked highly in lists of the most popular manga on sale at the moment, but what sets it apart from most of its competition is the level of adoration and demand for cross-platform adaptations. The fans aren’t just satisfied with reading the story – they want the story to be as real and interactive as possible.
This only leaves one question: What is it about this manga that’s so special?
For starters – and I know this word is overused – it’s truly unique. I love manga, but like any established medium, so much of it is stuffed with generic tropes, fan service gimmicks, and ‘this-seems-very-familiar’ premises. The genres and sub-genres – although endlessly abundant – are also incredibly rigid, and most authors seem to prefer to play it safe within these genres, telling the kinds of high-school romance or action-adventure stories that the audience is used to reading and therefore easy to sell. However, it serves to note that the biggest sellers at the moment – One Piece, Attack on Titan, Naruto, Magi and Kuroko’s Basket – are actually very distinctive, showing that if an original idea catches people’s imaginations, it can really take off.
Magi Manga Cover
Kuroko’s Basketball Manga Cover
Naruto Manga Cover
Attack on Titan Manga Cover
One Piece Manga Cover
Black Butler is a manga that has certainly achieved this. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive; orphaned on his tenth birthday when his parents were killed in a mysterious fire. Upon their death, Ciel vowed revenge, and inadvertently summoned a demon – Sebastian Michaelis – whom he made a deal with: To help him enact his revenge in exchange for his soul. Until that day arrives, Sebastian poses as Ciel’s butler and aids him in fulfilling his family’s duties as Queen Victoria’s ‘Watchdog,’ solving crimes in London’s gritty underworld while facing other paranormal beings along the way. Even in the worn-out supernatural genre, it’s a pretty interesting set-up.
The characters, however, are the real heart of the series. Ciel Phantomhive is far from your typical 13-year-old boy. Despite running his family’s toy company, he has little time or interest in childish pursuits – preferring to spend his time reading the newspaper, intimidating businessmen, indulging in Victorian High-Tea, and picking over crime scenes with his tailor-made cane and permanent frown of disdain.
Sebastian Michaelis is quite simply what he says he is: “One Hell of butler.” He can do everything from cooking a three-course dinner from scratch in under an hour; to taking out armed mobsters armed only silverware. His demonic powers essentially give him enhanced strength, speed and invulnerability, but his slim physique and feline elegance are more reminiscent of Catwoman than Superman. Despite taking on a male guise, there are subtle hints throughout the story that Sebastian is in fact gender-neutral, which, coupled with his graceful but deadly demeanour, makes him a mysterious and unpredictable presence.
Sebastian also becomes the unwitting object of affection for rogue Grim Reaper (and fan favourite) Grell Sutcliffe. Grell’s sexuality is never openly discussed, but the batting of his eye lashes, the shimmy in his walk, and a certain Titanic re-enactment scene (pictured below) – not to mention his constant fawning over Sebastian’s assumed-male body – make it pretty clear what kind of stereotype he is supposed to be (…or perhaps not if you take a look at this interesting forum debate between fans). Whilst Grell is genuinely endearing, this comedic but negative stereotyping of gay men and women as camp, sexually devious, and always chasing after people they can’t get is unfortunately common in manga/anime of this genre. Sebastian’s indefinable character draws strength from exactly the opposite.
Every night in my dreams, I see you… I feel you…
The dynamic between Ciel and Sebastian is often mistaken for something perversely sexual and has inspired a wealth of, uh, not so tasteful fan fiction and art, but though I agree it is a perverse relationship, it’s certainly not a romantic one. Despite Toboso’s seductively penned expressions and glove removal sequences, Sebastian actually has no discernable sexuality. It is more of an unhealthy co-dependency to satiate unhealthy desires that he and Ciel share. For Ciel, it is the desire for revenge, and for Sebastian, it is the desire to consume Ciel’s soul. Sebastian – like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel legend – is ‘fattening’ Ciel’s soul up as he helps Ciel get closer and closer to his ultimate goal. In that role, Sebastian appears caring, nurturing, and protective, and sometimes it seems that even Ciel mistakes this for the guidance and companionship he has been missing in the wake of his parent’s demise, forgetting that behind beneath his loyal butler’s skin beats the dark heart of a predator.
“One Hell of a Butler.”
Although there is something negative to be found in the twinning of androgyny with the monstrous, I think that what Toboso ultimately proves by playing on that connection in Black Butler is that we are perhaps more uncomfortable with androgyny then demonism, and this is the story’s unique appeal. The glimpses of Sebastian in his feminised demon form are more tantalising than his acts of inhuman strength and violence. Sebastian’s gender is a riddle that we – as readers in a gendered society – long to solve.
By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in comic book and children’s book illustration. Check out her website here if you’ve got a project you want to bring to life with bespoke artwork 🙂
This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction to ‘Wicked Wiles’ here or on the Fanny Pack blog where it was originally published here.
Original Film Poster from 1937
Grumpy: ‘She’s a female! And all females is poison! They’re full of wicked wiles!’
Bashful: ‘What are wicked wiles?’
Grumpy: ‘I don’t know, but I’m against ’em.’
Based on a German fairy tale first published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) tells the story of an Evil Queen who becomes envious of the beauty of her stepdaughter – the Princess known as ‘Snow White’. In an attempt to blemish Snow White’s beauty, the Queen demotes her to a servant status, only to have her magic mirror tell her that the Princess is still ‘the fairest of them all’ even with rags and a mop. Furious, the Queen orders a huntsman to murder Snow White in the woods, but luckily for the Princess the huntsman chickens out, and – after fleeing into the woods – she takes refuge in the house of seven dwarves.
The Queen soon discovers that the Princess is still alive and, disguised as an old woman, tricks her into eating a poisoned apple sending her into a deep sleep that can only be broken with ‘true love’s kiss.’
Just two: Snow White and the Evil Queen.
Yes – The Evil Queen. Her motivation is jealousy of Snow White.
The Queen, through fear and magical prowess is by far the most powerful character, yet this power is undermined by her petty fears and ultimately leads to her demise. Snow White seems disinterested in her birthright, therefore the only threat she poses to the Queen is apparently a superficial one. This is also undermines the Queen’s strength as a female character: after all, why would such a formidable Sorceress be so enraged by someone so non-threatening?
Not only this, but unlike future Disney villains, the Evil Queen is not at all unattractive; making her psychosis completely unfounded in reality. It could be that her envy of Snow White’s looks is actually a fear of ageing, and the face she sees in the mirror confirming her fears is that of her inner voice whispering to her that her best days are over – that ‘true’ femininity is for the young. The Queen’s ‘old crone’ disguise adopted to trick Snow White is perhaps reflective of what she really thinks she looks like to others.
Reading the Queen’s ‘evil’ as psychosis certainly makes the Queen more sympathetic, but the film clearly doesn’t want these conceivable sympathies to be obvious to its audience. After all, evil is literally in her name.
The title sequence implies a previous interaction in the form of text from a book. The book tells us that the Queen has demoted Snow White to a scullery maid as punishment for her beauty in the hopes this will detract from her looks.
No further interactions between the film’s only female characters are seen on screen until the Queen transforms into an old woman and tricks Snow White into eating the poison apple. This means that every interaction the pair have – both on and off screen – is profoundly negative. But, as the Queen and Snow White are the heroine and villain, negative interactions are indicative of this dynamic.
However, the film also offers a conceptual contrast between its protagonist and antagonist, which is revealed in the circumstances of the Queen’s death. The death is signalled long before it actually happens by the appearance of a pair of vultures, which turn up as she arrives at the dwarves’ house. They follow her until she is hit by a bolt of lightening when fleeing from the dwarves on a cliff, and as she falls, slowly descend to claim their meal. This death at the hands of nature – not man – puts the Queen even more at odds with Snow White, who can communicate with animals and spends most of the film living in the woods. The Queen, on the other hand, uses her magic to defy nature, and is punished for it.
Despite being the titular character, it is the Evil Queen, not Snow White, who drives the plot.
The male characters are: The Prince, the Mirror(?), the Huntsman, and the dwarves.
The Prince shows up early in the film and instantly serenades Snow White despite her lowly appearance, implying that her natural beauty shines through the scruffy clothes the Queen has forced her to wear. Even though he is her equal in status and appearance, and the object of her fantasies, the Prince is absent from the film until the very end when he awakens her with ‘love’s true kiss.’
The face in the mirror – a mysterious, disembodied entity – appears with a male face and voice, and actively encourages the Queen’s obsession with beauty. If the mirror is reflective of the Queen’s inner voice, the fact that this voice is male is incredibly telling. Rather than see herself through her own eyes, she perceives and personifies superficial flaws through the eyes she seems to find the most scrutinising – the male gaze, which is driving her to murderous insanity.
The Huntsman is ordered by the Queen to murder Snow White, which he appears to have no qualms about right up until the very moment he holds up his axe, at which point he falters, and through new found sympathy for the Princess, allows her to escape.
The dwarves are introduced to Snow White through their messy home, which she promptly cleans, implying that in the absence of a female presence up until that point, the dwarves were either unable or incapable of doing any domestic work.
Grumpy says when they see Snow White asleep: ‘All female’s are poison with their wicked wiles.’ Considering the only other woman in the story is an evil Queen, this assessment is not altogether unfair, and when Snow White mentions that the Queen wants to kill her, the dwarves react with fear and derision for her.
Grumpy remains vocally resistant throughout most of the film: ‘The wiles are working! Give ‘em an inch and they’ll walk all over yer.’ He also complains that she is feminising them simply by making them clean themselves, implying that she is invading their traditional masculine territory. Unfortunately for him, he is the only dissenter, as the other dwarves are happy to do as they are told in exchange for the benefits of Snow White’s housework and her entrancing looks and singing. In fact, the other dwarves mock him for resisting – forcing him to bathe and covering him in flowers to ‘feminise’ him.
Although their interactions portray men and women to be able to coexist equally and peacefully, it is clear this balance is upheld only by each gender complying with their traditional roles: men going out to work and women staying at home. The Queen – a powerful widowed woman – is non-compliant and filled with madness that will ultimately destroy her.
Other than what will become quintessential Disney Princess qualities such as beauty, kindness, singing, and talking to animals, Snow White has forcible experience as domestic servant, which turns out to be handy in bartering shelter from the dwarves. Despite seeming largely powerless, Snow White’s ability to unknowingly charm every male character around her – even Grumpy – is almost a magical power. ‘The wiles are working!’ Grumpy proclaims, her ‘wiles’ being her ‘fairness.’ Just as the Queen bewitches people with her evil magic, Snow White can bewitch people with her ‘good magic.’ It is her natural qualities, rather than any learned ones, that enable her to survive beyond the castle walls.
Snow White’s sole aspiration is for her ‘prince to come,’ but seeing as her situation is so dire, this dream seems more about being taken away to a better life where she isn’t abused by her stepmother, rather than longing for one specific man, which could be why the Prince – despite a good singing voice – is so in distinctive. He doesn’t even have a proper name. Snow White, knowing she is unequipped to survive alone, dreams of freedom through marriage, which I’m sure rings true with a lot of women in the past whose only option to leave home was by finding a husband.
Although the film’s two female characters are both central to the plot, as Snow White’s power lies solely in her idealised natural beauty and the Queen – despite possessing supreme magical power – is undermined by an unexplained fixation with this beauty, both are weak female role models overall.
Snow White does learn and possess skills beyond her Princess role, but does not develop as a character. Meanwhile the Queen only falls further and further into a maddening pressure to stay young and beautiful, and is ultimately punished for her insecurities.
The male characters are compassionate and – particularly the dwarves – comedic, but their main purpose is to provide a masculine edge to emphasise Snow White’s softer femininity – to conform to a narrow and traditional male/female dynamic for which the Queen is demonised for flouting. This positivity towards conformism is twinned by the subtextual Nature vs. Artificiality duel personified by Snow White and the Queen.
In summary, although Snow White is a story about escapism and fantasy; equally there is a fundamental message left for young girls and it seems a problematic one. Natural beauty is to be aspired to if you’re lucky enough to possess it but if you don’t have it, and try to pursue it, your vanity could lead to jealousy, jealousy to obsession, and finally dangerous madness.
Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Cinderella (1950)
Follow this blog and Fanny Pack for updates every month.
This article was first published on the Fanny Pack Blog. Read the original post here and follow Fanny Pack to read updates on this series before they are published here.
Disney’s iconic Princess catalogue of fairy-tale inspired films began right from the company’s cinematic debut in 1939 with Snow White – the first ever animated feature-length film, and it’s first critical and commercial success.
74 years later, the runaway success of Disney’s latest addition to its signature genre – Frozen – has proven that the allure of being a Princess hasn’t lost its shimmer for the latest generation of Disney-weaned audiences. Despite being a very specific brand, Disney Princess’ official website summarizes its intentions quite broadly:
Nothing in this mission statement is purposefully negative or harmful, just as none of Disney’s films are. And yet, as open and expansive as it encourages young girls to be, there is also an inhibiting factor straight from the offset – this is a gender specific genre according to Disney, and as such, limiting to both genders. Little boys have apparently nothing to learn from watching them and are almost always stereotyped as the strong, courageous, adventurous men. Whilst little girls must seek guidance and inspiration from them in the form of ‘happily ever after,’ dreaming of a handsome prince, perfect wedding days or coming to the realization that almost every princess is white, with long blonde hair and blue eyes.
Laura Bates from the ‘Everyday Sexism’ book, talks about one of the “earliest manifestations of childhood sexism is in the almost surreal segregation of children’s toys” and this also transpires into the films. Laura acknowledges the “attempts to subvert the stereotypes in recent years with Tangled and Brave, showcasing strong female heroines rather than the typical ‘damsel in distress’… however they remain stubbornly problematic.”
Looking at theses films and toys in isolation, it may seem a little over the top. So what if girls like fashion, makeup and boys? But, as Laura Bates says, “the sheer saturation of tween culture with these characters and images creates a powerfully dictatorial consensus about who girls should be, what they should be interested in and how they should look.” The question is how is this influencing the way our daughters, sisters etc. see themselves, and how does it impact their future choices?
This being the case, just what do little girls learn about their gender from 74-years worth of Disney Princess films? And, is that lesson a positive, negative, or neutral one?
Over this series of blogs, I hope to discover the answers to these questions by watching each film in the Princess genre in chronological order of release and analyzing each one using my own criteria:
At the end of each article, I will give the film a ‘Gender Representation Classification’ stamp – Positive, Negative, or Neutral – in a similar way that films are rated for age. It is important to add that my criteria has nothing to do with whether each film is cinematically ‘good’ – these questions are specific to whether each film has good gender politics; although I suspect there might be a point of correlation between the two. I should also add that I – like most – am a HUGE Disney fan, but I will be trying my absolute best to forget any preconceived opinions about each film before watching it so as it be as unbiased as possible.
The final note is the list itself. Now, there is an official Disney Princess roster that I will be using, but I have also made my own additions. This includes any animated or partly-animated Disney Studios film (including Disney/Pixar) that prominently features a female character (human or non-human) that is either a Princess; becomes a Princess; or of Princess status equivalence – i.e. Pocahontas is included as she is the daughter of the Chief of her tribe; Nala is included as she is part of the Pride’s royal family and [SPOILERS] becomes Simba’s wife.
Here is the list I will be writing about in the next few months. (in chronological order of release):
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Princess: Snow White
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Robin Hood (1973)
Princess: Maid Marian
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Lion King (1994)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Princess’: Elsa & Ana
Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!
Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.
“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?
The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:
We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.
If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?
Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.
If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?
A/N: This is a follow-on piece to my previous post, ‘A Response to Women Against Feminism’, and some of the comments I received on it, so if you haven’t already it might be helpful to read it – as well as some of the comments – before reading this.
I have always tried to separate emotion from criticism as a writer, but when I came across an article about the group ‘Women Against Feminism’ and scrolled through some of the photos from the group’s members, I did get emotional. At first I was frustrated. Then I was disheartened. Then I began to think about some of the statements from the group more rationally; think about their context, and perhaps their misunderstandings about a cause I believed in, and decided to do what I normally try to avoid – put my honest and emotional reaction into writing. I read about the group in the morning and by the early evening I had finished, edited, and posted the response, thinking nothing more would really come of it.
Somehow a lot of people not only found and read the post, but they shared it, commented on it, liked/disliked it, and even wrote their own response to my response. I was truly overwhelmed by all of it, so, to all of you reading this who did one or more of the above things – thank you. Whether you agreed whole-heartedly or thought I was talking absolute rubbish, I am touched that you felt strongly enough to contribute to this ever-growing debate.
A common trend I noticed both in the ‘WAF’ group and within the comments on my response to them was the rejection or negation of Feminism as a word and/or concept in favour of words and/or concepts such as Humanism or Equalism. While I can’t respond to every single point raised by every single person, nor do I want to directly answer specific questions or criticisms thrown at me, this trend did get me thinking:
Is Equalism really the antidote to the perceived problems of Feminism?
As I made mention of in my response piece, Feminism is a political, social, and cultural movement with over 200 years of history behind it. One of the reasons why it is has remained so prevalent – other than the fight for women’s equality not yet being won – is because of a cycle of continual reinvention. Get ready for a cheesy pop cultural reference: It’s pretty much the Madonna of equal rights movements. It’s history is not defined as simply ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ as many make the mistake of thinking it is, but broadly as Feminism and Post-Feminism, with those two halves then being divided again into four ‘waves.’ From Goddess worship to Cyborg Anthropology, Suffragettes to Riot Grrrls, Feminist history is diverse, militant, creative, crazy, and even unappealing and downright ugly at times.
Isn’t that what keeps a cause alive, though? Isn’t that what keeps a democratic society in general thriving? Constant debate, constant re-examination, constant rebirth… It’s an exciting and fascinating movement, whether you agree with its aims or not.
As long as there has been any kind of women’s movement, there has also been an opposing one. WAF is certainly not the first, and it most certainly will not be the last. From what I can tell, this particular group seem to be saying that they feel brow-beaten, belittled, patronised, or even abused by Feminists (or ‘Femi-Nazis’ as they are affectionately called by some…) And you know what? I do empathise with this to a certain point. Like any flourishing political movement, Feminism’s supporters hold a broad spectrum of beliefs – much like the Left, Right and Centre spectrum of the political landscape as a whole. To put it simply: On one side you have liberal Feminists, and on the other, you have radical Feminists. (Just for the curious – I consider myself to be a liberal Feminist with Post-Human leanings).
Whilst I don’t want to put words into their mouths, I know from research and experience that some radical (really radical) Feminists might argue that women should in fact be superior to men; that all heterosexual sex is rape; and that marriage should be abolished. Liberal Feminists (like myself) might argue that women should be equal to men, and that women should have complete freedom of choice in their lives without judgement or alienation from any other woman or man.
That is not to say that there aren’t points of cross-pollination though. Even as a liberal Feminist believing in gender equality, I hold some beliefs that may seem extreme or odd to some, but are purely personal choices based on my political preference. For instance, I don’t believe in marriage. Does this mean I go around telling every man and woman that he or she shouldn’t get married? No. That belief to me is a personal choice and I am grateful that I live in a society in which men and women can now choose whether or not to uphold this tradition. However, issues relating to marriage such as child-brides and legalised rape within marriage in certain cultures are not personal beliefs of mine – they are global injustices that I think are important to stop.
That is the difference between a personal belief and a global injustice. I think that the point in which a healthy debate turns into a nasty argument is often when we confuse the two.
Most of these extremely radical beliefs seem to be in the minority though, and whilst I would speak against any Feminist who promoted something I didn’t agree with, I would not tell him or her that they couldn’t believe in those ideals, just as I wouldn’t tell anti-Feminists they couldn’t be anti-Feminists. I would – and did – however, present my side of the argument for their consideration. If you believe in a cause strongly enough you will always defend and promote it. Whether you manage to convince the opposing side of your point, well, that depends on the strength of your argument.
Whether you are a radical or a liberal, all Feminists (Female Supremacists aside…) are united and bound by the goal of reaching total equal political, social, and cultural status with men. We may take different roads, but the destination will always remain the same.
The question I ask now is: With so many different beliefs, theories, and splinter-movements to pick and choose from within the rich history of Feminism – and indeed other movements for similarly oppressed groups – what does something like Equalism really offer you as an alternative?
Reading the comments and statements of its supporters and champions, the central ideal of Equalism for many appears to reject movements that cater to a specific oppressed or disadvantaged group – e.g. Feminist groups for women, Men’s Rights groups for men, Civil and Racial Rights groups for people of colour, Disabled Rights groups for disabled people, or LGBT groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people – in favour of lumping them all together in one easily digestible package of equality.
This is all well and good in theory, and I certainly support Equalist ideology, but the fundamental problem I keep getting stuck on is this: If you’re focussing on everyone, who are you making them equal to?
The point of these individual pressure groups is that they recognise that they belong – not through choice – to a marginalised and disadvantaged faction in society, and so seek to advance themselves to match – not surpass – their comparative dominant and over-privileged faction. Their goal is to level the playing field by bringing the oppressed side up, not the oppressive side down. Very often, the toughest battles to fight are on a culturally systemic one – where this oppression is so inherently indoctrinated into an oppressive group, that they may not even be aware that they are enacting it, or when they are made aware of it, they find it hard to accept and reject it completely.
Identifying the most privileged/least oppressed group can be tricky, as it is usually bound up in varying socio-economic and cultural systems from country to country. Certainly in most of the Western world – the perspective I write from – this group appears to be white, able-bodied, heterosexual, and middle to upper class men. This does not mean that this group suffers no oppression whatsoever, but that they suffer the least amount compared to the others.
The most privileged and least oppressed group in a society therefore provides the ‘pinnacle’ or set standard that any disadvantaged group strives to reach.
This gets more complicated when you begin to crossbreed the perceived disadvantages with one another. For example, a black woman may experience more oppression than a white woman. A gay man may experience more oppression than a heterosexual man. A disabled, transgendered Asian woman may experience more oppression than a disabled, bisexual white man. You can see how complicated this can get, and how the levels of oppression can multiply and multiply based on numerous social and political stigmas.
Each of these groups has completely different obstacles to overcome, completely different experiences of life, and completely different needs to be fulfilled to feel like they are truly accepted within a particular society. Or maybe they don’t even want to be part of a society at all. Maybe they want to be part of their own.
Therefore, if the goal of Equalism is simply ‘to make everyone equal’ then how is that going to be achieved in practical terms? This definition, as sweet and simple as it is, seems to be just that – too sweet and too simple.
Of course, you could say this of Feminism – that the goal is too big and the target group too diverse. Except that Feminists have already recognised this, and, as I said earlier, split into various splinter groups and waves that aim to address the needs of all kinds of different women. The one common thread that weaves through them is that they are all women – biological, Cis, or transgendered – whatever their definition is. Feminism also practices what it preaches. Better women than me do more than write ranty blogs, sign petitions, donate to charities, and join in on ‘Reclaim The Night’ rallies. They physically go out into disadvantaged communities and directly make a difference in people’s lives. Brave and intelligent activists like Malala Yousafzai, for example.
Furthermore, if your definition of ‘everyone’ really means everyone, does that include the most privileged/least oppressed groups as well? What is the measure of equality for the group that sits comfortably at the top? There is nowhere else to go for them except up or down. In this case, the terminology would need to either be Disenfranchisement or Advancement, not Equalism. Surely, it seems more sensible to focus on enabling the groups below them to first reach their level at the top before we decide how to advance society as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. Just like Equalists I really do want to live in a world in which everyone is equal, in which no child is brought up in a world that will punish them for the circumstances of their birth that they do not have any chance of changing – nor should they be forced to. I want to live in a world in which difference and diversity is so accepted that those words have lost all meaning.
The crux of what I’m saying is that Equalism certainly has it’s heart in the right place, but I’m just not convinced that it offers any practical solution to the problems of the individualised Equal Rights groups. In fact, the blind rejection of the hard work these groups have done in favour of lumping them altogether seems almost offensively simplistic. If there is a real, working Equalist agenda that sets practical and achievable aims as to how each and every person in our society can be made exactly equal to one another – I’d really like to see it. If you think I’m wrong – Change my mind.
In the meantime, I will continue to support individualised groups tailored for individualised needs and hope that one by one, or in collaboration with one another, they win every battle, and continue to change every heart and mind set against them for the good of our society as whole.