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.
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.
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.
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)
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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.
The year is 2014. You are a white Western woman. You wake up in the morning in a comfortably sized house or flat. You have a full or part-time job that enables you to pay your rent or mortgage. You have been to school and maybe even college or university as well. You can read and write and count. You own a car or have a driver’s licence. You have enough money in your own bank account to feed and clothe yourself. You have access to the Internet. You can vote. You have a boyfriend or girlfriend of your choosing, who you can also marry if you want to, and raise a family with. You walk down the street wearing whatever you feel like wearing. You can go to bars and clubs and sleep with whomever you want.
Your world is full of freedom and possibility.
Then you pick up a newspaper or go online. You read about angry women ranting about sexism and inequality. You see phrases like ‘rape-culture’ and ‘slut-shaming.’ You furrow your brow and think to yourself: ‘What are they so angry about? There is no such thing as sexism anymore.’
Now imagine this:
The year is 2013. You are a 25 year-old Pakistani woman. A few months ago, you married the man you love. A man you choose for yourself. You are also pregnant with his child. You see your life stretching out before you, filled with hope and happiness. Suddenly, you and your husband are dragged away from each other. You are both beaten with bricks and batons. You can’t fight back. You can’t escape. No one comes to help you. Through your fading vision, you look up, and look into the eyes of one of your assailants: into the eyes of your father.
The year is 2013. You are a 23 year-old Indian woman. You are a physiotherapy student with a promising career ahead of you. You are sitting on a private bus travelling home alone on a warm December evening. You gaze out of the window as the buildings of New Dheli rush past you and feel content. Suddenly, a blunt force hits the back of your head and you fall to the floor of the bus. A group of strange men are standing over you. They bring the metal bar down on you again and again and again until all you can taste is the blood filling up your mouth. You pray that you will die soon. And you do, but not then. You are raped, beaten, and tortured over and over again. Death is slow and agonising.
The year is 2014. You are a 13 year-old girl from Niger. You no longer live there though. You are now living in the neighbouring country Nigeria, sitting alone in small room on a small bed in a small apartment high above the city of Kano. You are not allowed to leave. Your stomach is swollen from the unwanted life growing inside of it. You had no choice. The father is a man in his 40s. He is a businessman. He has bought you as his wife. You were a penniless, uneducated girl when he came for you. You don’t know of any life you could have had. Neither did your family: just one less mouth for them to feed. You still have the body of a child, and it’s straining under the pressure from the one inside of you. You feel like you’re about to be split in two. You don’t wonder if you will survive the birth. A part of you doesn’t want to.
These are fictionalised accounts of real events that have happened to real women living in our world today. They follow the past 250 years of women and men campaigning for women to be given equal rights to men to prevent these kinds of injustices and abuses on the grounds of gender taking place. Over the course of this time, campaigners – Feminists, both female and male – have been locked up, beaten, tortured, and even killed, in the pursuit of equality. They did this with pen and ink and print; they did this with their voices; they did this with their bodies; they did this with art and music; they did in courts of law and halls and houses of government that they fought be to allowed into.
They did this so that women would no longer been seen as property, livestock, breeding machines, sex objects, punching bags, or infantile morons. They did this not just for themselves, but also for their daughters, and their daughters, and their daughters for generations to come. They did this for women they would never meet – women who lived across countries, across vast oceans, across the entire globe, and even across time.
They did this so that women like me – a white Western woman – could attend school and university; to learn to read, write, and think critically; to gain a degree; to get a job and be paid an equal salary to a man in the same position; and to sit here with my own computer and type all of this.
Feminism is a movement for freedom, equality, choice, love, compassion, respect, solidarity, and education. We may argue, we may disagree, we may struggle to understand the choices and perspectives of others sometimes, but these core beliefs of the movement have never changed, and they never will.
That is why I am a Feminist.
If you feel that you have so far lived your life unaffected by even the mildest form of sexism – anything from feeling uncomfortable when a man catcalls you in the street, to feeling scared walking home alone at night in a secluded area – and are treated with love and respect by every man in your life, then to you I say: I’m glad for you. If you don’t think you need feminism, then that is a victory for the movement. You have fulfilled all those dreams that every suffragette being force-fed in prison and every ‘witch’ burnt at the stake dreamed you would one day.
But perhaps take a second to consider the life of the Pakistani woman who was beaten to death by her own family for marrying a man of her choosing. Or the life of the Indian woman who was raped, beaten, and murdered on a bus by a gang of men. Or the life of the little girl in Niger who was sold to a man more than twice her own age and forced to carry a baby that may kill her to deliver. Do they still need feminism?
And perhaps take a second to consider this too: Even in our liberal, Western world, why do women still only fill 24% of senior management jobs? Why are more women than men domestically abused or even killed every week at the hands of their male partner or ex-partner? Why is there still a pay gap (in the UK specifically) of 15% for women doing the same jobs and working the same hours as men?
And what about on a cultural level? Have you ever noticed how comedy panel shows usually only have one female panellist compared to 4-5 male ones? That almost every dieting product on the market is solely aimed at women? How a lot of newspapers and advertising campaigns will use a sexualised or pornographic image of a woman to sell news or products that have nothing to do with sex?
Or perhaps on a personal level: Do you choose to wear certain clothes because you want to or because you feel ‘unfeminine’ if you don’t? Do you choose to cover yourself up because you want to or because you feel ashamed or intimidated by a man looking at your body? Do you shave your legs and underarm hair because you want to or because you will look ‘ugly’ if you don’t? Did you parents dress you in pink as a baby because they liked the colour or because you were born a girl? Do you want to have children because you want to or because you are a woman?
When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, do you see yourself through your own eyes, or through the eyes of the men that will look at you when you walk out the door?
The fact is, like it or not, you still live a world where gender matters. Where gender controls not just the entire course of your life – but the lives of women all over the world. Every second, a child will be born female in a country where she will persecuted for this random biological occurrence for the rest of her life. So before you hold up your anti-Feminist placard proudly and smile at your own sense of empowerment, think not what Feminism can do for you, but what it can do for that one girl. She needs someone to stand up for her. That someone could be you.
UPDATE: Click here to read my follow up to this article: ‘Equalism: The Feminist Alternative?’
This is a response to ‘Women Against Feminism’ groups on Tumblr and Facebook.
The stories of the women mentioned in this post were sourced from these sites:
It seems like decades has passed since I stayed up all night to read the entirety of New Moon in my room, lying on my bed on my stomach, legs crossed in the air in the manner that all teenage girls seem to read books in films. My mum came in at about 6:00am and asked me why I was awake so early on a school day. “I just couldn’t stop reading this book,” I replied guiltily, but completely honestly.
Why was I feeling guilty that I’d become so desperate to find out if Bella and Edward managed to reunite? Well, because even at 16 years old I was well aware that the vampire romance series I’d become obsessed with was extremely…uncool? Fan-girly? And before you start sneering – Yes, I did laugh out loud when Edward revealed his sparkly chest to Bella whilst proclaiming that ‘this was the skin of a killer.’ Yes, I did become continually annoyed at Bella’s pretence that she was some sort of ugly, friendless outcast when every single male character – human and non-human alike – aside from her own father seemed to be desperate to invite her to the prom or take her home to meet his family of supernatural monsters. Yes, I was well aware that Stephanie Meyer’s descriptions of Edward were both ludicrously gushing and often contradictory. If you want proof of this I highly recommend the parody novel from The Harvard Lampoon, Nightlight, which as well as being a brilliant spoof is a surprisingly surreal book in its own right.
Actually, on the subject of spoofing, I think the reason why I enjoyed the parody so much was because I did genuinely enjoy the books so much. As I said before, there is a lot to mock and gripe about, but I can’t lie and say that I didn’t connect with some of the characters, I didn’t believe in the romance, and I wasn’t drawn into the storyline. (Well, for the most part… I mean one of the most negative aspects of every single book in the series – aside from the third one – is that the conclusions are disappointingly anti-climactic. This is actually something that the films do better: for instance, the build-up to the climax of New Moon promises an epic fight scene between Edward and the Volturi – the Head Vamps of all the Vamps. The film manages to give you this, but the book gives you…tense but polite discussion with mild threats that you doubt will be followed through on. I mean if Edward has ‘an Adonis-like physique’ I would like to see him put it to practical use PLZ. Also, FYI: Jacob’s character is completely ruined in the second book. Let’s move on from that though.) What I’m getting at is that parodies normally work best when the spoofing comes from a respectful or affectionate place. That’s why the Family Guy spoofs of Star Wars work so well.
So, as much as I acknowledge and agree with a lot of the deluge (and it is an absolute tidal wave) of criticism that has been vented towards the Twilight franchise, and I certainly wouldn’t claim it is a piece of literary genius, I can’t say I’m not a fan of the series. I’m not a ‘Twihard,’ but I’m definitely not a Twihater. Is that a thing? It is now.
Now that a considerable amount of time has passed from the publication of the first book to the release of the final film instalment on DVD, it is safe to say that the dust has finally settled on the whole Twlight thing. Except it hasn’t. Because the current fan-girl fantasy franchise kid on the block is The Hunger Games, and for some reason, it seems to have been hailed as the ‘antidote’ to Twlight. Now, as I am currently only part-way through the third book (yes, I am bit a late to the party on this one) so I know it’s a bit unfair to judge it completely at this stage…but hey, I’m doing it anyway. Or at least, partly doing it. My probably controversial opinion is this: Having discovered Twilight through little fan pockets of sites like deviantART – i.e when it was still under the radar of mainstream pop culture – I don’t think Twilight is as bad as everyone says it is, and, having been convinced to read Hunger Games after hearing so much adulation for it, I don’t think Hunger Games is as good as everyone says it is. There. I said it. I’ll admit on the Hunger Games front that this might have a lot to do with hype and heightened expectations, and despite reaching this opinion recently I would still recommend Hunger Games over Twilight to anyone after an easy-to-read fantasy series. I mean, Hunger Games is generally better written with a much deeper and more interesting storyline and less predictable character development with a more likeable female lead and is just generally a bit more head-scratchingly thought-provoking.
However, I would only say this if asked to choose between those two series’ specifically as they are strikingly different, and to hold them side-by-side so closely is unfair. The only strong lines of comparison are quite vague: they both have a plot that is carried by a young female lead, and both of these leads are thrust into fantastical situations and fall into love triangles. Those are quite general similarities. But because of the female leads, and because it is a fairly new idea to market a fantasy-action franchise at a young female audience rather than a young male one, their comparative positive and negative impact on their intended audiences has been assessed intently. I do find Katniss’ character a great deal less problematic than Bella’s, but the line of argument that a lot of critics – particularly feminist critics – use is that whereas Katniss is physically and emotionally tough as old boots, Bella is comparatively weedy and mopey. Okay, she does spend a lot of New Moon moping around, but I wouldn’t ever describe her as weedy. The idea that if you put a bow and arrow and a scowl onto a female character’s face she is automatically a satisfyingly feminist presence is completely reductive. Just because Princess Fiona can do karate in the Shrek series, it doesn’t mean that Dreamworks completely revolutionised the princess genre for the modern kick-ass cool girl age. It’s a good place to start, if nothing else. (If you want to know who I think is a genuine feminist icon for the kick-ass cool girl age I would happily point you in the direction of Lisbeth Salander of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.)
Having made my way through most of the Hunger Games seriesnow I can’t help but feel a tad disappointed by Katniss’ character towards the end, who seems to become physically and emotionally weaker as the story progresses. From her bold decision to take her sister’s place in the games in the first book to the groggy and wounded state the we find her in wandering around in by the third. It is very much a world that seems to be happening around her rather than being lead by her. She is continually manipulated, paraded around, or concealed, with both predominantly patriarchal sides of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ preferring to use her as a symbol rather than a physical presence to achieve their own ends. If you want to compare this to Twlight, which is what most critics choose to do, then this character arc is again strikingly different; oppositional, in fact.
If you examine Bella’s character arc she is presented in the first book to be a normal, introverted teenage girl and by the end of the final book is transformed into a super-powered young mother. The mother thing is also key here because – and I write this as a pro-choice supporter – when met with rigid opposition, including from the person she loves the most, Bella fought for control over her own body and fought for her right to choose to have that child…even though I was kind of on the side of the nay-sayers at the time when reading it…but still, it was her decision to make. Bella drove the entire plot of that final book and for the most part does so in all of the previous instalments too. On the surface, I think it is easy to miss this and see her as a feeble lead, just as a think on the surface it is easy to see Katniss as being a consistently strong lead when actually her strength and direct impact on the plot – although satisfying at the start – continually diminishes.
This is a very general observation, although none-the-less one I think people should consider if they want to compare these two. I would also add that Katniss’ waning control in the story is not something I think is necessarily a weakness of the story itself. It makes perfect sense within the genre that it has clearly been written in – dystopian quasi-science fiction in which doom and gloom abound, and social and political upheaval suck its character’s into a spiralling trap of helplessness and frustration. Similarly, Twilight inhabits its gothic, supernatural melodrama genre perfectly well. In terms of science fiction, Katniss represents the typical human element that becomes helplessly swept up and subsequently powerless in a futuristic world. In terms of fantasy, Bella represents the typical human element that actively seeks out and is ultimately empowered by an ancient world.
On a side note, it is also interesting to note the parallels between the main male love interests – Edward and Peeta, who are both refreshingly caring, sensitive, artistic, and convincingly admire and adore their female counterparts without question. The hint at reversed gender stereotypes in these two relationships – which is admittedly clearer in Hunger Games than Twilight – is actually far more progressive than simply having a strong female lead alone, and far more important for a young audience to be influenced by today.
Perhaps a lot of the flack that Twilight receives is flack towards fangirl culture in general, which I think is more sexist than people accuse the series itself of being. Yes, there are some ridiculously obsessed fans out there who happen to be mainly women, but surely there are far worse franchises out there that appeal to fan-boy culture. The Transformers series, for instance, offers a far more damaging view of women, who are really just curvy ornaments around the orgy of explosions and shiny things with wheels. It is also interesting that none of these male-angled franchises’ feel the need to directly appeal to women in the way that the Hunger Games and Twilight marketing campaigns felt the need to by saying ‘thank goodness boys will like them too because there’s some fight scenes and CGI stuff going on.’ Not that I think fight scenes and CGI stuff isn’t appealing to girls and romance isn’t appealing to boys. I enjoy both in equal measure, and quite frankly could have done with more action in the Twilight series and less romance in the Hunger Games.
I am now going to go back to reading the final Hunger Games book and hope that Katniss gets stuck into more of said ‘action’ by the end.
“In a male dominated society, dressing as a woman can seem like treason.”
– RuPaul Charles
My favourite reality-contest-show-thing, RuPaul’s Drag Race – in all its glorious camp and absurdity – presents a perfect case to prove the feminine mystique. Drag performed with such professionalism and aptitude in the show, that it lays bare just how stereotypical stereotypes of women really are. These impersonations are often funny, melodramatic, and almost certainly bitchy, but somehow always seem directed with the highest affection and respect towards their female muses. The emphasis, it seems, is always to celebrate, not defame or criticise. Many drag artists say that the transformation from man to woman is empowering, and for some gay men who have suffered abuse from being themselves, becoming a different person entirely allows them a welcome escape from reality. In the same way that a lot of actors who say they are shy or lack self confidence often say that being able to play a character and inhabit someone else’s body gives them a sense of freedom.
As a biological woman it is really interesting to see how the opposite gender interprets my own. These interpretations are very often based on the most readily available templates: celebrities. Celebrities, as I’m sure I don’t really need to explain, are famous either for having some kind of talent or – more often today – for reasons no one is quite sure of. They are people who the media and their audience nominate as our spokespeople by pushing their fame higher. Either we find these people interesting because they are completely different from us or we see something of ourselves in them. Because of this, we both identify with and judge them at the same time. All of our insecurities and qualities that we see in ourselves can be pushed onto them. Using this idea we categorise them in terms of what stereotypes they embody to us: slutty, demure, quirky, beautiful, ugly, funny, skinny, fat, witty, sardonic, cruel, etc. They often come in opposites because we still believe we live in a binary world, or rather choose to believe we do, forgetting or ignoring the multiple shades of grey that come in between the black and white.
Subcultures like the Drag Queen world embody these grey shades. How do we define a man dressed as a woman? They call each other ‘she,’ they wear fake body parts or ‘padding,’ they ‘tuck’ their male genitalia out of sight, they adopt female names and alter egos, they walk differently, act differently and sometimes modulate their voices to sound more feminine. What it really boils down to is biology, which exemplifies the feminist ideal that everything else we define as feminine is artificial; imposed character traits that can be applied and disposed of as quickly as costumes. Make-up becomes a mask to hide or highlight while clothing and hair create shapes around and against the body to sculpt and define. Feminine behaviour and appearance we mistake as natural traits are proven to be copied from actresses, celebrities, and fictional caricatures who inhabit our pop cultural landscape who in turn have been shaped by classical art and literature. The cultural becomes political and the political becomes cultural.
“Gender is a failure. Everyone fails at it. If we didn’t, we would be done, we would be dead, we would be over.”
– Judith Butler
This all feeds into our gender divided view of society and we self-condition ourselves to conform for fear of judgement or lack of any other way to define ourselves. Categorisation is a coping strategy to help us navigate through our complex social structure. Of course it is a valid and understandable strategy, but in a postmodern – and eventually posthuman – world it needs to either be developed from binary to multiple; or eradicated entirely. I hope it is the latter because, as we are all aware, in order to categorise you must exclude; exclusion leads to subjugation; subjugation leads to oppression.
But don’t be fooled into thinking I am ‘anti-feminine.’ I don’t want to go around telling women to stop acting like women because, well, I like acting like a woman myself. Pretty dresses, make-up, heels, I love the whole shebang. Not all the time though – some days I love wearing an oversized boys t-shirt and a pair of trainers. The next day I might dress as a Japanese sailor. That’s what I’m saying about multiplicity: why self-define yourself as only one thing when you can reinvent yourself every day? I don’t want women to stop acting like women because they think its ‘traitorous’ to feminism; I want women to be aware and consider the fact that most of the ways they act and present themselves is culturally, socially, and politically defined, rather than naturally. This realisation may seem profoundly negative but it is in fact liberating. Think about it. If the rules of ‘being a woman’ don’t really exist, then that leaves space for every individual woman – or individual man dressing up as a woman – to make up their own rules for themself.
Take a queue from a Drag Queen. Think about who you are or who you want to be and become it. Own it. Don’t wear a skirt because you’re a woman; wear it because you’re a person who likes wearing a skirt. Flaunt your favourite bits of yourself because they’re your favourite bits, not anyone else’s. Gender is something to play and have fun with, not constrain and flagellate ourselves with. Watch one episode of Drag Race and you’ll see what I mean.