'Yaoi Fangirls' by inukagome134
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, LGBTQ, Manga, Pop Culture

Does ‘Boys Love/Yaoi’ Manga Have A Gender And Sexuality Problem?

‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?

[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]

In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.

For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).

As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.

Haruka from Free! getting out a pool

I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.

At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.

The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.

Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata

A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.

There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.

If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.

Regular couple, yaoi couple, yuri couple. I see no difference, love is love.

I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.

In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.

BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:

“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”

Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.

Ten Count covers

Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.

Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.

So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:

Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.

Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:

Pages from 'Ten Count'

Ouch.

Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.

Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care. Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.

Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug) is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:

Cover art from 'Raising a Bat'

Cover art for Raising a Bat by “Jade”.

Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.

Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.

Page from 'Raising a Bat'

Uh-oh…

The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.

Min Gyeom's descent into depression is captured beautifully in his expressions.

“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.

BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.


Header image by inukagome134.
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Beauty and the Beast, Belle and Gaston
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: How Feminist Is Disney’s ‘Beauty & The Beast’?

fanny pack feminism gender disney wicked wiles equality analysis pop culture princess film animation

This article is part of the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series examining the positive and negative messages on gender that Disney Princess films impart to their target audience – girls. If you haven’t already, you can check out the introduction here, and search for ‘Wicked Wiles’ at the top of this page to catch up with the series.

Originally published on Fanny Pack, 26/05/2016.


Synopsis

Based on the classic French fairy tale and the 1946 French film, ‘Le Belle at la Bete’, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) is one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved in the Princess catalogue. The story revolves around the titular ‘Beast’ – a vain and selfish Prince who is transformed into a monstrous animal by an enchantress as punishment for his flaws – and Belle (the ‘Beauty’), a kind and intelligent girl whom he imprisons in the hope that she might help break the spell put on him. Despite his poor anger-management skills (and inability to use cutlery) Belle slowly begins to tame the Beast’s temperament and work her way into his heart. But, before she can return his feelings and make him human again, an angry mob from her village led by the villainous Gaston – desperate for Belle’s hand in marriage – threaten to destroy everything.

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well?

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well? Source: Disney Wikia.

As usual, I’ll be using six key questions to filter the film’s feminist/anti-feminist messages through and ultimately give it a ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ or ‘Negative’ stamp on it at the end. So without further ago, let’s see how Disney’s sixth official Princess movie holds up.


How many female characters are there?

  1. Belle
  2. Mrs. Potts
  3. The old beggar woman/enchantress
  4. The feather duster maid (called ‘Babette’)
  5. The Wardrobe (called ‘Madame de la Grand Bouche’, which translates to ‘Madame Big Mouth’. Nice.)
  6. The Triplets (called the ‘Bimbettes’… Hmm.)

Total: 8 principle female characters (with speaking parts) compared to 11 principle male characters (with speaking parts).


Is the villain female, and if so what are her motivations?

In a word, no. And this is a good break with tradition, as nearly every Princess movie so far from ‘Snow White’, to ‘Cinderella’, to ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to ‘The Little Mermaid’ have had female villains motivated solely by vacuous jealousy.

Although the Prince/Beast is the perceived villain to begin with in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the real villain is Belle’s relentless pursuer, Gaston – clearly the more beastly of the two, personality-wise.

Gaston: 'Belle is mine!'

Source: Giphy.


How do the female characters interact with each other

Apart from Mrs. Potts, who acts as a surrogate matriarchal figure to just about everyone, Belle disappointingly has very little interactions with any other female character. All of her close allies – her father, the Beast, Cogsworth and Lumiere – are male, through a combination of circumstance and choice.

This serves subliminally to reinforce Belle’s ‘otherness’ as she seems unable and/or unwilling to maintain relationships with others of her gender. Unfortunately, this is also reflected across the rest of the film’s female characters, with the tightest bonds of friendship being between men: Gaston and LeFou; and Lumiere and Cogsworth.

Lumiere and Cogsworth: Pucker up, Cogsy.

Pucker up, Cogsy. Source: Tumblr.


Who drives the plot?

For the final two-thirds of the film the answer to this is Belle, with her father, Maurice, keeping things barrelling along through the first act. Yet, even when Belle does become the driving force of the plot, she doesn’t actually attract the majority of the viewer’s emotional investment. That’s because most of this investment is funnelled into the Beast’s quest to regain his humanity instead.

Belle: 'I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.'

Source: Tumblr.

At the start of the film, Belle flitters around a field belting out a song about “wanting so much more than this provincial life”, yet her unfalteringly charismatic character doesn’t develop one bit throughout the story. Geographically-speaking, she also only ends up living what can’t be more than a few miles away from the home she dreamed of travelling far away from. Meanwhile, the Beast’s character enjoys a dramatically shifting arc that also bears the weight of the entire story’s moral as an added bonus. In this respect, Belle – the eponymous princess of this supposed Princess-orientated movie – is effectively side-lined in her own film.


How do the male characters treat the female ones

If toxic masculinity took cartoon form, it would look like Gaston. Whilst Belle is a flawed but emphatically feminist heroine, Gaston is a perfect send-up of laddish, brutish and gross chauvinism. His interactions with her are all deliberately sexist, offensive, vile and stupid – i.e. The perfect counter-balance to Belle’s pragmatism, wit, and intelligence. Gaston’s attraction to Belle is based firstly on her obvious good looks, and secondly because her constant rejection of him turns his failing courtship of her into a game, and as a proud hunter who “uses antlers in all of his decorating”, you know that Gaston basically just sees her as little more than anther deer to chase, shoot, sling over his back and carry home to become another trophy over his fireplace.

During his solo song (sung in that flawless baritone), we’re given a handy checklist of things to have and achieve before any self-respecting ‘man’s man’ can be counted as worthy of the appendage swinging between his legs:

  • Body hair. A lot of it.
  • Spitting. Be good at it.
  • Hunting. Do it often.
  • Using animals as decoration. Everywhere.
  • Eating 4 dozen raw eggs to become the “size of a barge”.
  • Drinking. All the time.
  • Chess (although because being smart is basically useless, the only way to win is by slapping the board away from your oppenent.)
  • Stomping around in boots. No, really – go out and buy some, now you pussy! (Gaston’s words, remember, not mine.)

With his square jaw, bulging muscles and operatically-deep voice, Gaston is kind of like a Disney prince gone wrong. And Belle, with all her well-developed intellect, seems to be the only person to call this out. Even her father says that he “seems handsome” and suggests Belle should give him a chance in the romance department. The rest of the town – especially his loyal lackey, LeFou, and the horny triplets – treat Gaston like the village hero, never questioning his judgement, and happy to attend an impromptu wedding for he and Belle (before she’s even agreed to it) or sing an ode to his chest hair in the tavern, or later on be led blindly on a witch hunt to kill the Beast he showed them in a “magic mirror”.

Belle and Gaston: None of it. That's what Belle's having.

None of it. That’s what Belle’s having. Source: Disney Wikia.

The Beast on the other hand, with his anger problems, selfishness and emotional unavailability is someone who starts off in a similar place to Gaston – albeit minus the gushing self-confidence. He doesn’t even call Belle by her name to begin with, just “the girl”. The difference between he and Gaston is that rather than forcing himself upon her, the Beast allows himself to be changed for the better by Belle, thus turning himself into a man worthy of her love. As Gaston becomes more and more incensed and crazed to the point of trying to blackmail Belle into marrying him, the Beast learns to control his anger and becomes more docile and open to the needs of others until he earns rather than wins her affections.

Belle and the Prince: Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast?

Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast? Source: Disney Wikia.

The ultimate proof of his transformation comes when he allows Belle to leave the castle to attend to her sick father at the expense of him being able to break the spell. (Although, seeing how close the town and castle seem to be, there’s no reason he should have assumed Belle couldn’t have popped back to the castle later on…)


Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role

Most of Belle’s characteristics fit the usual wish list for Disney Princesses we’ve encountered so far: beauty, charm, kindness, a good set of pipes, and a touch of wistful longing for ‘something more’ than the life they’re trapped in. But Belle has another trick up her puffy dress sleeves: intellectualism. Like our previous heroine, Ariel, Belle is curious about the world around her. The difference here is that Belle has been able to satiate her curiosity with books, turning her into an imaginative, ambitious, sharp-witted, and worldly heroine.

Belle and books: Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! Source: CDN.

As I mentioned previously, the downside to all this glowing perfection is that Belle seems to have done all her character development off-screen, but she also has another severe weakness: Her heightened intelligence has given her one hell of a superiority complex.

At the start she sings about her “little town, full of little people” and is bored by the routine of everyone else’s lives. She laments that no-one reads and imagines more like she does. Similarly, the rest of the town look down on her for being intellectual and “weird”.

Belle realises the whole town is staring at her. Hmm, my ears are burning...

Hmm, my ears are burning… Source: LoveLace Media.

During this opening number we see a woman struggling with a comical amount of children – literally juggling babies in her arms – whilst desperately trying to buy some eggs. Meanwhile, Belle sails past on the back of a cart, smiling and singing about the joy of reading – unburdened by the troubles of being a working class mother. This is the best insight we get into Belle’s P.O.V: All sweetness and pleasantries on the outside, but internally judging the other women around her who have slavishly ‘given up’ on any hope of independence or self-empowerment.

Mother struggling to buy eggs while Belle rides by in the background. "I need six eggs!"

“No ma’am, a baby is not acceptable payment for eggs.” Source: Tumblr.

Belle’s quest for self-betterment is both her greatest strength and weakness. She is presented to young girls watching the film as a woman ahead of her time – a model early feminist before the term was even invented who dreams of living life beyond her designated place in society. Yet, by doing so, she can’t help but dole out pity to the other women around her who were not able to choose to live their lives in the way that she has so luckily been able to. In some ways Belle is the epitome of some of the feminist movement’s problems: white, elitist and judgemental. And also kind of a hypocrite – after all, let’s not forget that the only two books we see Belle actually engaged with are romance stories – one (pictured below) she reads a passage from referencing “Prince Charming” and the other is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Maybe her desires aren’t quite as wildly different from everyone else’s as she might wish.

Belle reading a romance book: "Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come. I-I mean, I'll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff."

“Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come… I-I mean, I’ll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff.” SourceLost In Drawers


wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

Yes, I know. How can one of Disney’s foremost feminist heroines be merely a ‘Neutral’ in terms of gender representation? Hear me out.

The core philosophy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to love what’s inside of someone rather than just what’s on the outside. This makes it the first time a Disney Princess film has broken the nonsensical ‘love at first sight’ BS that has been at the heart of every previous story – and this is where most of its plus points come from. Belle saves the Beast – not just physically by breaking the spell, but emotionally and psychologically by changing his behaviour and smoothing his sharp edges. He begins as a self-loathing, literal monster, and ends up as a well-rounded man who literally and figuratively reclaims his humanity thanks to Belle. Belle, meanwhile, is rewarded with the one thing she (secretly) always longed for: someone who truly understands her. Both of them begin as loners and societal misfits, but they end as the perfect fit in each other’s lives.

Belle and the Beast in the snow

Source: ImagesMTV

However, this nice, mushy message comes at a cost: Belle’s agency as a character. As I’ve established, when we are introduced to Belle she has no more growing left to do in this film other than learn to be less of a judgemental bitch and find a suitable husband. In fact, I was left feeling a little cheated by the end. The opening, uplifting number makes us anticipate the journey of a modern woman ready to go globe-trotting… only to lead down the same well-trodden path of her finding the nearest castle and Prince to hook up with and stay put in his library for the rest of her life.

In the end, Belle is actually demoted to the usual passive ‘Prince’ role – a one-note hero who swoops in to save the day in the nick of time, leaving  the Beast fulfilling the lead, active ‘Princess’ role. This, ultimately, is why what should have been a ‘Positive’ film for gender representation, has sadly balanced out into a ‘Neutral’ one instead.


 

Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: ‘Aladdin‘.

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Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes

The Lois Lane ‘Batman V Superman’ Doesn’t Think You Can Handle

[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE]

First published on the Fanny Pack blog, April 6th 2016.


Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may have been a disappointment to many, but I think most comic book fans – and feminists – can agree that Gal Gadot’s strong performance as Wonder Woman was a much-needed bright spot. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s other significant female character – intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – doesn’t get the same treatment. Though she plays a fairly significant part in advancing the story, and enjoys some (weird) bath-time fun with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), that’s pretty much all she’s there for – little more than a plot device, a shoulder to cry on, and even worse, a constant distraction to Earth’s greatest hero.

This may seem like a trivial complaint but as someone who fell in love with comic books before feminism, Lois Lane – along with Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Storm – was instrumental in shaping my understanding of what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. And in a world filled with Gods, magic, time-travel and President Luthor, you’ve got to be one heck of a dame.

Here’s why The Daily Planet’s ace reporter is far more than just Superman’s victimised girlfriend.

A DAMSEL (NOT) IN DISTRESS

Disney's Hercules, Meg:

 The ‘woman in peril’ theme is one that has unfortunately persisted throughout literature and pop culture, from ancient Greek maidens like Andromeda and her hero Perseus, right the way through to Princess Zelda and her hero Link in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda. It’s no surprise then that the Superhero genre – the modern-day equivalent to Perseus – has also been oversaturated by the damsel/hero dynamic.

Superman is the world’s first Superhero and Lois Lane his eternal damsel in distress. No matter how many Pulitzers she wins or oranges she juices at her Daily Planet desk in her personal war on cigarettes, that core underpinning will never change. But throughout her 75-year history, her determination to fight this definition has never waned.

'Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane' #85

‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #85

From her solo comic title, ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ (1954-1974) to her top billing in TV’s ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ (1993-97), and recent YA novel series ‘Fallout‘ by Gwenda Bond, Lois has proven that she is not only a superior journalist to Clark Kent and Superman’s equal partner, but can carry a story on her own. More often than not, when Lois finds herself in need of rescue from the Big Man in Blue, it’s from a sticky situation of her own making. Rather than wait around to be scooped up by a dragon like a hapless medieval maiden, Lois seeks out trouble in the name of journalism.

Lois Lane, Girl Reporter Newspaper Strip

Lois also starred in her own newspaper strip, ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter’, 1943-44.

Even better is when – thanks to a mix of her “military brat” upbringing and some Kryptonian martial arts – sometimes she gets to even save herself.

‘COS FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL

30 Rock. Jack to Liz:

Ever since William Moulton Marston blessed us our first feminist superwoman, Wonder Woman, the Superhero genre has been filled with gutsy, gladiatorial women. But whilst these goddesses represent a masculinised ideal of brute force, Lois Lane represents a more achievable kind of strength for us mere mortals. Tenacity, self-reliance, and quick wits – these are the weapons of choice for the archetypal career woman bent on “having it all”.

Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane in 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.'

Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane in ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.’

But Lois Lane’s fierceness didn’t just grow from the necessity to reflect the changing role of women in society; Shuster and Siegel embedded it within her character from the very start. Her personality was borrowed from fast-talking fictional reporter (and owner of The Most 1930s Name Ever) ‘Torchy Blane’ who starred in a series of Warner Bros. films in the 1930s. Her tagline was ‘The Lady Bloodhound with a Nose For News!’ and she was one of the few positive examples of career-driven women on American cinema screens at the time that rivalled – or bested – her male equivalents.

Glenda Farrell as ‘Torchy Blane.’

Also woven into Lois’ DNA was real-life pioneering journalist and inventor Nellie Bly. Not only did Bly famously travel the world in a record-breaking 72 days, but also she feigned insanity in order to write an exposé on life inside a mental institution – redefining investigative journalism and making the rest of us feel desperately lazy.

From Meg in Disney’s Hercules to Spider-Man’s Mary-Jane Watson, every “feisty” damsel worth her salt owes a debt of gratitude to Lois.

LOIS ISN’T HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO

Lois Lane breaks up with Superman

‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #121

Saying that Lois and Clark are one of your favourite couples in fiction is kind tantamount to saying the same about Romeo and Juliet. In other words, woefully mainstream. But as much as I really do believe they deserve a place amongst literature’s greatest love stories, Lois has proven many times that she can function perfectly well without her fated other half, as the panel above illustrates.

This was exemplified on-screen recently in the much-maligned Superman Returns (2006). Picking up after Superman II (1980), the film starts with Superman (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a 5-year absence to find that Lois (Kate Bosworth) has not only moved on to someone else, but also raised a son with him.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in 'Superman Returns'.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in ‘Superman Returns’.

Inevitably as the story progresses, Lois finds that her feelings for the Man of Steel are not as buried as she’d thought, and I’m sure the abandoned sequel planned for 2009 would have seen my favourite reporting duo back together. Nonetheless, I was still impressed that rather than pull a ‘Bella Swan’ and throw herself off of a cliff in a fit of angsty despair, Lois Lane wipes away her tears, wins her damn Pulitzer, finds another great guy, raises a child, and foils Lex Luthor’s dastardly plans.

Because not even Earth’s strongest hero can break her that easily.

 

KEEP LOIS OUT OF THE REFRIGERATOR

Lois Lane's death in Superman Annual #2

‘Superman Annual’ #2

Despite her development over the years into a competent and important player in the DC Universe’s canon of heroines, too many landmark stand-alone stories in Superman’s history hinge not on the strength of Lois Lane, but on her death. Kingdom Come, Superman: Kal, Flashpoint, and Injustice: Gods Among Us all sacrifice Lois (in some pretty fucked up ways) simply to motivate Superman to lose his shit. And judging from the teasers nestled in Dawn of Justice, we may be in danger of seeing one of these stories on screen soon.

This is a variant of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope known as ‘Women In Refrigerators’, coined by comics writer Gail Simone to “describe the trend of female comic book characters who are routinely brutalised or killed-off as a plot device designed to move the male character’s story arc forward.” (The term originates from Green Lantern #54, in which Green Lantern discovers his murdered girlfriend’s body in his fridge.)

Green Lantern discovers his girlfriend's murdered body in his fridge

‘Green Lantern’ #54

Look, I get it. Superman only has two weaknesses: Kryptonite and Lois Lane. (Well, three weaknesses if you include his susceptibility to magic.) Same goes for practically every other superhero trying to balance saving the planet with getting laid. It’s a character-building shortcut that’s become inherent to the genre. But the problem with this is that while the male character (and they are nearly always male by default) benefits from this dynamic by having his big, brooding ego balanced with a touch of human emotion, the female character gains nothing other than baring the weight of the inevitable choice he will have to make between her life and the lives of others. What does it tell you about the value of a female character if she adds more to the narrative in death than in life? Plus, this constant stream of stories that use violence against women as a plot device harmfully perpetuates the real-world stereotype of women as helpless victims and men as their patriarchal saviours.

Any writer that reduces Lois Lane down to little more than human Kryptonite thoroughly misrepresents her rich 75-year history as an important pop cultural icon to women. I can only wait and hope that Snyder’s future Justice League movies treat her a little better than just a sacrificial lamb with a reporter’s badge. In the immortal words of Kate Beaton (of ‘Hark, a Vagrant‘ fame): “If Lois isn’t super rad all the time, then I don’t even want to hear about it.”

'Lois Lane, Reporter' by Kate Beaton, 'Hark, a Vagrant'.

‘Lois Lane, Reporter’ by Kate Beaton, ‘Hark, a Vagrant’.


IMAGE CREDITS:

Featured Image: Screenshot from ‘Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘, Geek 101 Podcast.

  1. Screenshot of Megara from Disney’s Hercules, Trembling Trimble.
  2. Cover of ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane‘ #85, Superman Wiki.
  3. Newspaper strip, ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter‘, Strippers Guide.
  4. Clip of Lois Lane fighting from Smallville, season 6, episode 17 ‘Combat’, You Tube.
  5. Screenshots of Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Entertainment Weekly.
  6. Trailer screenshot of Glenda Farrell as Torchy Blane in ‘Smart Blonde‘, Wikipedia.
  7. Panel from ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane‘ #121, Women Write About Comics.
  8. Screenshot of Lois Lane and Clark Kent from ‘Superman Returns‘, The Skinny Stiletto.
  9. Panel from ‘Superman Annual’ #2, Comic Vine.
  10. Panel from ‘Green Lantern’ #54, The Artifice.
  11. ‘Lois Lane, Reporter’ comic strips by Kate Beaton, Hark, a Vagrant.
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Body Image, Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Identity, Pop Culture, Society and Politics

There’s Nothing Empowering About Those ‘Body Positive’ Sports Illustrated Covers

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog on February 23rd 2016


Last week the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue released no less than three different covers featuring three different body types: American model Hailey Clauson, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey (who appears in a body-painted swimsuit), and plus-size model and body image activist Ashley Graham.

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

It marks the first time a size 16 model has graced its cover and needless to say, the Internet went crazy. “Wow. Just, wow,” gushed The Huffington Post. “The body positivity movement is booming,” proclaimed Shape magazine. “And we couldn’t be more excited that SI picked women who add fuel to the fire.” Exactly the kind of responses that SI had been hoping to create as Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day made clear at their unveiling event:

“All three women are beautiful, sexy and strong. Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’ Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”

 She’s right, of course. Beauty certainly isn’t “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” and seeing this (not so) ground-breaking idea finally appearing on the covers of an iconic beauty magazine gives it even more commercial validation for all those women out there who have never considered themselves to be ‘conventionally’ beautiful. And yet, as I looked at these uniquely beautiful cover girls in their swimsuits, all I felt was unease. There was just something about all this self-congratulation and buzzworthy empowerment that didn’t sit right with me.

Let’s break it down.

The pros are obvious. Women of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel loved, sexy, and beautiful, and celebrating that breaks down the harmful monotony of the ‘one-size’ beauty culture. A lot of women feel undervalued and invisible when they can’t see themselves on a cinema screen, or a catwalk runway, or a shop window, or a magazine cover, and so the more the body positive movement is allowed to infiltrate all of these fiercely image-conscious industries, the more women will feel healthier and happier in their own skin without the crushing pressure to constantly change themselves.

Let’s also not forget SI’s clear target demographic: heterosexual men. Another misconception that the ‘one size’ culture helps to wrongfully prevail is the idea that there is similarly a singular type of woman that all straight men find attractive. But from my research of actually, y’know, talking to straight men about their tastes in women this just simply isn’t true. Men have a very diverse range of sexual tastes and desires that different kinds of women can easily fulfil. Sometimes they can even open them up to new fantasies they didn’t even know they had.

'Not Models' photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use "real women", from Stylehasnosize.com

‘Not Models’ photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use “real women”, from Stylehasnosize.com

Speaking of the straight male demographic, let’s get into the cons. There is always a fine line to tread between owning your sexuality and allowing it to be owned by others. This is something that has plagued feminist debate for decades, especially when feminist artists and performers use nudity or provocative imagery as a means of self-expression. Whenever I think about this debate, I am always reminded of a particular section from art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1975):

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. […] She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

 “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

As inspiring as the body positive movement is, you can’t escape from the fact that these covers are sexualised female bodies for the approval, delight, and consumption of male eyes specifically. They still place sexuality and image as the most valuable trait for any women of any visible description. Ashley Graham is a role model for plus size women. But who cares about that unless she also looks great in a bikini! Ronda Rousey is a successful and respected female athlete. Yeah, but is she hot though? Any way you slice it, it’s the same old objectification but with a ‘body positive’ Get Out Of Jail Free card attached.

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated May 2015)

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated, May 2015)

It’s also worth noting that out of the three covers released, not one single woman of colour has been featured. I guess racial inclusivity and body inclusivity are two completely separate things to SI. 

In fact, I think I’ve finally worked out what that feeling of unease is that I just couldn’t find the reason for earlier. It’s exactly the same feeling I get from all those “real beauty” Dove adverts. For years, the personal care brand Dove has – in the brilliant words of Mark Duffy – “passive-aggressively assaulted women’s physical insecurities to sell beauty products.” Think about every Dove TV advert you’ve ever seen. Did you ever worry about not having soft enough underarms, firmer skin, or more radiant under-eyes before watching it? Nope, me neither. But apparently Dove thinks these are pressing issues to further women’s empowerment. Who cares about the patriarchy when you have a natural-looking glow!

Dove's 'Campaign For Real Beauty' Ads revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ Ads in 2008 were revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Hijacking an aspirational movement or trend like body positivity to use as an empty marketing ploy for easy headlines is certainly nothing new, but judging from the trend-worthy hype those SI covers have generated it’s effectiveness clearly hasn’t diminished either.

I’m not saying that Ashley Graham and Ronda Rousey aren’t empowering women. I’m just saying these particular photos of them aren’t. And incidentally, if you want to see some real body positive photos of women (and men) that don’t reduce their models to sex objects, then take a look through this great collection on Bustle.

Although I can see some of the positive benefits of using models of different sizes, when you break it down SI is still a magazine that pedals eroticised photos of swimsuit models to cater to straight male sexual fantasies and little else. The only difference here is that the editors have found a way to trick people into applauding that.


 

IMAGE CREDITS

1 – 3: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016 featuring Ashley Graham, Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson.

4. ‘Models vs. Not Models’ photoshoot campaign from Stylehasnosize.com

5. Sports Illustrated cover featuring Ronda Rousey, May 2015

6. Hacktivist photo from Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ advert campaign, 2008

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Steven Universe Pearl and Rose Quartz
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children? – Steven Universe And The ‘Gay Agenda’ In Kid’s Cartoons

Originally posted on the Fanny Pack blog on February 3rd 2016.


 

won't somebody please think of the children the simpsons helen

Well, won’t they?

One of the most enduring myths about homosexuality that it’s opponents cling to dearly is that it’s a choice, and by extension, the threat that it poses to children if this choice is ever allowed to worm it’s way into the developing brains. Rather than considering the idea that external influences only awaken or reinforce existing parts of our sexual subconscious, LGBTQ rights’ opponents often characterise any discussion of sexual orientation in schools or media as a brainwashing toxin of a sinister ‘gay agenda’ seeping into the sensitive minds of the youth – tricking their ‘naturally’ heterosexual brains into pondering devious sexual behaviour.

seduction of the innocent book cover

Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book asserted that Batman and Robin’s “hidden” romance would impact negatively on young comic book readers.

Sexual ‘deviancy’ in adults can apparently be treated with regular visits to your local conversion camp, or simply marrying someone of the opposite sex and suppressing all those unnatural urges to do what comes naturally to you. But before it’s too late, how do you prevent all those liberal influences from ‘recruiting‘ children into homosexuality? In schools, regulation of the curriculum can be very effective. Only twelve states in the US require teachers to discuss sexual orientation, and even more disturbingly: three of those twelve dictate that teachers only impart negative information. In 1988, the UK government passed the now infamous Section 28 amendment, stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. (This harmful legislation wasn’t repealed until 2003 after years of hard-fought campaigning from pressure groups like Stonewall.)

That leaves the other major influence in most children’s lives: cartoons. Like every other form of mass commercial entertainment, cartoon creators have to continually walk a fine line between cookie-cutter commercialism and original artistic expression; between pleasing their ratings-obsessed executives and staying true to their visions as storytellers. But what do you do when this vision involves a young boy being raised by a group of lesbian alien super-heroines? How much of this vision are you going to be allowed to stay true to before your network bosses start to catch a whiff of that ‘gay agenda’ you’re obviously trying to push on unsuspecting children?

Steven Universe Cartoon Network

The cast of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe: (clockwise from left) Amethyst, Garnet, Pearl and Steven

This is a question that ‘Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar has had to face in the wake of Cartoon Network UK’s decision to censor an episode of the show that recently aired in the UK. You may think I’m joking about the lesbian alien super-heroine thing. I’m not. Three of the show’s main characters form part of an all-female team called ‘The Crystal Gems’ who come from a similarly all-female planet of imperialistic aliens whose personalities and powers derive from gemstones. When one of their members – ‘Rose Quartz’ – falls in love with a male human on Earth, she sacrifices her own body in order to have their half-human, half-gem-powered son: Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems soon adopt him into the team to replace his mother and essentially act as surrogate mothers/aunts/sisters.

Steven's parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

Steven’s parents: Rose Quartz and Greg Universe

The controversial scene in question comes from an episode in which it becomes clear that one of the Crystal Gems – ‘Pearl’ – had romantic feelings for Rose Quartz. These feelings were only intensified when Rose Quartz started to find herself drawn strangely to Greg. As in typical with Steven Universe, these feelings eventually came to a head in a musical number called ‘What Can I For You’, which is where the censorship comes into play.

Interestingly Cartoon Network US didn’t make the same censorship decision as their UK counterpart, leading to fans of the show creating side-by-side comparisons of the censored and uncensored versions of the same scene:

Two women dancing intensely… Hmm. It’s almost disappointing how un-gay the scene actually is. Following a very vocal backlash online from the show’s adult fans, the network defended it’s decision with this statement:

“In the UK we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time. We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. […] Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.”

However, as Pink News points out, this decision conflicts with the BBFC’s ‘U’ rating guide (the rating which all Cartoon Network shows for children aim for):

“Characters may be seen kissing or cuddling and there may be references to sexual behaviour. However, there will be no overt focus on sexual behaviour, language or innuendo.”

It’s also notable that this is a repeated decision from Cartoon Network, who also censored a gay kiss on an episode of Clarence last year between what some consider to be the first overtly gay characters in a children’s cartoon. This would have been more of an impressive milestone if it not for the fact that these two men merely served as the punch-line to a joke in the episode about a woman being stood up for a blind date, rather than central protagonists – as is too often the case with any LGBTQ inclusion in children’s media. Subtext and throwaway humour has sadly long been the modus operandi of any writer/animator in order to slip anything ‘covertly’ gay past possible censorship. Other recent examples include Gobber from How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Oaken from Frozen.

Frozen's Oaken waves to his family

Oaken waves to his implied family in Disney’s ‘Frozen’.

What makes Steven Universe different from any other of these examples is that the sexual orientation of its characters is far from throwaway. Just like the mythical island of Themyscira (home of Wonder Woman), all the gems hail from a single-gendered planet meaning that the only romantic relationships they have the option of pursuing within their own species are same-sex ones. Whereas as we live in a hetero-normative society, they live in a homo-normative one. Needless to say the show also passes the Bechdal test with flying colours.

The gems also possess the ability to fuse with one another to become stronger, which they can only achieve through dancing in perfect synchronisation to fuse both body and soul. Some of these fusion rituals are harmlessly flirtatious but others can be more meaningful. For example, it is revealed later in the show that [SPOILER ALERT] the body of the leader of the Crystal Gems – ‘Garnet’ – is actually the result of two gems (Ruby and Sapphire) that fell so deeply in love that they decided to fuse together indefinitely, which quite frankly sounds like the purest expression of marital bliss ever.

Clearly, LGBTQ themes are so core to the underpinnings of the show’s characters that to try and remove even the slightest hint of them – as Cartoon Network did – has a detrimental effect on the nature of the show. This threat was not lost on any of its fans either, as a petition to air the uncensored version of the episode in the UK and Europe has so far picked up over 6,000 signatures.

It seems to me that what Cartoon Network means by “celebrating” diversity actually translates through its actions as ‘tolerating’ diversity. Gay characters can exist as sanitised background noise or pithy punch-lines to straight character’s jokes, but as soon as they become living, breathing protagonists with feelings that children might start to identify with, the executives get squeamish. Sure, they want to pander to the demands of liberal, politically correct parents, but they also have to be mindful of being accused of pushing that ‘gay agenda’ by the more puritanical or conservative parents.

Where is the consistency in living in a country that legalises same-sex marriage but simaltaneously continues to strip same-sex relationships from children’s media as if it is something perverse that they should be protected from?

Why – in the same episode – is this sexual behaviour acceptable:

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven's parents) embrace lovingly in the episode 'What Can I Do For You?'

Rose Quartz and Greg Universe (Steven’s parents) embrace lovingly in the episode ‘We Need To Talk’. This scene aired uncensored.

But this isn’t?

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate dance

Pearl and Rose Quartz share an intimate moment in the same episode. This scene was censored in the UK.

Studies show that the later children identify as being gay, the more frequently they are bullied by their peers. And with 1 in 2 young people in the UK identifying themselves as being “not 100% heterosexual“, it seems that the more examples of positive examples of healthy, loving, and normalised same-sex relationships they have access to at an early age, the better off their mental health and well-being will be later in life.

Please send a message to Cartoon Network UK that same-sex relationships shouldn’t be censored from children’s cartoons. Sign the petition here.


 

IMAGE CREDITS:
  1. Screenshot of Helen Lovejoy from ‘Much Apu About Nothing’, The Simpsons, 1990.
  2. Cover of Frederick Wrexham M.D’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth‘, 1954.
  3. Steven Universe‘ banner, Cartoon Network, 2013.
  4. Screenshot from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2014-15.
  5. YouTube clip comparing Cartoon Network US and UK airings of a scene from ‘What Can I Do For You’, Steven Universe, 2015-16.
  6. Screenshot of Oaken waving to his family from Frozen, Disney, 2014.
  7. YouTube clip from ‘The Answer’, Steven Universe, 2016.
  8. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Greg embracing from ‘We Need To Talk’, Steven Universe, 2015.
  9. Screenshot of Rose Quartz and Pearl dancing from ‘We Need To Talk,’ Steven Universe, 2015.
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wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: Little Mermaid (1989)

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES. YOU CAN READ THE INTRODUCTION HERE.

wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based loosely on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid tells the story of 16-year-old Princess Ariel, a mermaid who lives under the sea with her father – King Triton – and six sisters. Restless and adventurous, Ariel constantly collects human objects she salvages from shipwrecks until her obsession finally rests on one human in particular: Prince Eric, who she rescues from drowning when his ship capsizes in a storm. Eric awakens to the sound of Ariel singing to him, but she swims away before he can see her properly.

The Little Mermaid Ariel

Princess Ariel

Furious that she made contact with a human, Triton forbids Ariel from returning to the surface, pushing her into the lair of Ursula – the ‘sea witch’. In exchange for her voice, Ursula grants Ariel legs for three days on the condition that she must make Eric give her true love’s first kiss within that time, or she will belong to Ursula forever.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

There are 9 female characters with speaking parts:

  • Princess Ariel
  • Ariel’s six sisters: Princess Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana.
  • Ursula
  • A maid in Eric’s castle.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes, Ursula the ‘sea witch’.

Ursula the Sea Witch

Ursula, the ‘Sea Witch’.

Ursula is clearly motivated by her desire to dethrone Triton and take his power for herself, which she does through plotting to ensnare his daughter in a deal she think she can easily win. Even before hearing her deliciously maniacal voice, it’s immediately obvious in her character design that she is the villain as she’s completely oppositional to Ariel and the other merpeople. Rather than being half fish, she’s half octopus; her colour scheme is the classic Disney combo of black and purple; she’s not conventionally beautiful, and wears so much make-up she looks like a bit of a drag queen (which is probably intentional considering she was supposedly inspired by iconic drag queen actress Divine). Although brilliantly effective, it’s a design that once again falls into the trap of equating unattractiveness in women with villainy, and Ursula – although impressively powerful –  overall comes across as bitter and desperate.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism

Considering there are nine female characters with speaking parts, and Ariel herself has a mainly female family, it’s odd that there’s hardly any real interaction between all of them. In fact, the film works hard to set them all as far apart as possible.

Ariel's Sisters

Ariel’s sisters performing a musical number for their Father, King Triton.

At the start of the film Ariel – the youngest – is meant to be making her musical debut with her sisters in a show for their father, except when her moment comes… she’s not there. Instead, she’s exploring a sunken ship with her fish friend Flounder, which shows her sisters to be obedient ‘good’ daughters, whereas Ariel comes across as more individual and rebellious preferring the company of male companions, and this is also visually represented through her unique colour scheme: red hair and green fins.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Ariel and Ursula drive the plot together, with Ariel being in control in the first half, and Ursula taking over more in the second as she realises that Ariel may come out on top from their deal. Ariel is a headstrong character that gets to make a lot of her own choices in the film, both good and bad, but unfortunately this seems to come across as one of the ‘quirks’ of her character rather than something that should be a given for any protagonist of any gender.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

As previously mentioned, Ariel interacts with male characters far more than female ones with the sole exception of Ursula. Although this lack of female camaraderie is negative, the bonds she has with the central male characters –  Triton and Eric – are probably the most endearing parts of the film.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

It’s clear that despite their differences, Triton is a deeply loving single father to his troublesome teenage daughter. Although he comes across as overly tough at times due to the stress of his job and Ariel’s bouts of rebellion, in the end when it comes down to Ariel’s life being under threat – he chooses to sacrifice his own power and freedom for hers, and ultimately he learns to relinquish his control over her to allow her own autonomy to flourish like any good father would.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric – although strangely pretty happy to fall in love with a mute girl he found on the beach after three days –  seems pretty well matched for Ariel. Like her, he is curious, adventurous and not interested in being part of the traditional stuffy ruling elite. This relationship ultimately provides the central emotional crux of the film: both Eric and Ariel are missing something in their lives that nothing from their own worlds can adequately fill until they find each other, and this is what makes their romance seem to have a stronger foundation than Disney’s previous Prince/Princess dynamics.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

From an early point in the story Ariel is shown to be completely disinterested in her traditional Princess role, preferring to go salvaging junk from a shipwreck rather than appear in her father’s concert with her sisters. She’s curious, adventurous, and absent-minded – perhaps supposed to be on the quirky-side, as she’s completely different from her rule-abiding sisters.

Ariel singing Part of Your World gif

Ariel singing “Part Of Your World.”

Lyrically, ‘Part of Your World’ could be more multi-layered than you might think. On the surface, it is about a teenager’s dream of running away from home, sick of her father’s stifling rule. However, closer examination could provide deeper meaning relating to gender. Ariel laments in the song that although she has a massive hoard of “neat” stuff from her treasure hunts, she still feels unfulfilled. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” A privileged princess surrounded by material wealth and a big, close-knit family should be happy, right? But the only thing that Ariel thinks will truly make her happy is “to be where the people are.” You could argue that she’s after another physical thing – legs, but really she’s after something that can’t be stolen, found, or bought – she’s wants change, to be part of a different kind of society – or in her case, species.

“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women” by Susan Faludi (1992)

The 1980s – when this film was released – was an uncertain time for women as the huge momentum that the women’s liberation movement gained through the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat stunted by a joint political and media backlash. According to writer Susan Faludi, this backlash was designed to pin the blame for women’s socio-economic struggles on feminism for forcing them to feel pressured to “have it all” – an unachievable dream. In this context, “Part of Your World” could represent the disillusionment of women in this decade – sick of being told to settle with their lot and placate their dreams of true liberation with capitalist consumerism; in the same way that Ariel has been forced to satiate her true desires with meaningless trophies by her father’s patriarchal subjugation.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

“Betcha on land, they’d understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters; Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.

Keep on dreaming, Ariel.

Of course, this being a Disney romance, it isn’t long until the “Your” in the song’s name becomes specific to one person – a man. You could surmise that rather than fulfil her original dream of exploring the surface world like she has the sea, Ariel instead chooses to pass from under the rule of her father’s kingdom to Eric’s. Rather than obsessing over ‘stuff’, she obsesses over Eric, both of which could be seen as distractions from real freedom. This is all highly subjective, of course, but the pieces seem to fit.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

This one was tough to call. Although there is a lot to celebrate in terms of positive gender representation in this film – the high female character count; the female-driven plot; the positive treatment of female characters by male ones; and Ariel’s character being fully fleshed out beyond that of just beauty and a great singing voice – there is also a lot to criticise. Yes, Ariel is the first overtly rebellious Disney Princess, but her lust for freedom is quickly tempered into teenage romantic obsession. Ursula, though an outrageously brilliant villain and fearsomely powerful witch, is weakened by the comedic value of making her look like drag queen; and despite there being the highest female character count yet, with the exception of Ariel and Ursula, none of these female characters really interact with each other.

Conclusively, The Little Mermaid is a Disney Princess film that has all the pieces in place to make a truly gender-positive film, but doesn’t quite fit them together properly.


Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: Beauty and the Beast!

 

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Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

The Lumbersexual Proves That Masculinity Is In Crisis – And It’s a Good Thing.

First published on Fanny Pack.


What’s happened to the metrosexual man?

At the advent of the new millennium it seemed as though the laddish, matching-tracksuit-wearing man of the ’90s was becoming deeply unfashionable, replaced by an all-new slicker, cleaner, prettier model. The metrosexual man wore chinos and tight jeans. He wasn’t afraid to use moisturiser. He wore expensive underwear. His chin was stubble-free and his trainers were designer. His bed-head hair was quiffed to perfection. He worshipped at the altar of Beckham.

Lad and Metrosexual

(From left to right) Lad’s fashion and Metrosexual icon David Beckham. (Sources: The Guardian & Irish Central)

But now, like the ‘lad’s lad’, the metrosexual man is a dying breed: hunted out of high-fashion by a strange new type of man that emerged out of the wilderness late last year. He’s grown his moussed-quiff out into a top-knot and thrown out his over-priced razor to let his facial hair grown wild like a sexy lawn. He has tattoos of Mexican skulls and ’40s pin-up girls on his arms. He wears flannel, wife-beater vests, and American Apparel hoodies. His glasses make Christopher Reeves’s ’70s frames look embarrassingly undersized.

You know this man. You’ve probably seen him drinking imported beer outside of a bar decorated with sheet metal and taxidermy. Or maybe you’ve seen him rifling through a rack of over-sized denim jackets at a thrift store. This man is the lumbersexual.

Lumbersexual styled model

A Lumbersexual-styled model. (Source: neverlikeditanyway.com)

But is the lumbersexual just another fad of the past year, or does he represent something deeper about the current ‘crisis of masculinity’? In a world in which the male suicide rate is climbing at an alarming rate, could something as superficial as a fashion statement really help stabilise this crisis? Should we even be calling it a ‘crisis’ in the first place?

The lad and the metrosexual may be two opposite ends on a spectrum of conventional (and broadly heterosexual) masculine behaviour and fashion, but what they share is authenticity. The men subscribing themselves to them are subscribing to forms of masculinity that they recognise within themselves – either careless or aspirational.

The lumbersexual is purposefully inauthentic, and could only exist now. Since the start of the new millennium, we’ve been sliding into a cultural zeitgeist in which irony and recycling has become the widest accepted currency in pop culture and fashion. A zeitgeist in which tackiness is the new chic and new ideas are old ones in disguise. Trends like the lumbersexual are a perfect culmination of this ironic re-appropriation: a delicately mixed recipe of romanticised blue-collar Americana, a vague sense of tribalism, and a dash of punk for good measure. An on-point lumbersexual has got his keys to his vintage truck in one hand and his brand new iPhone in the other. The perfect hyper-masculine costume for the 21st century. A parody – not an homage – of masculinity.

Even the Metrosexual King has succumbed to Metrosexuality

Even the Metrosexual King has converted to Lumbersexuality. (Source: blogspot.com)

This trend could be seen as either a new wave of broad exploration of what it means to be a man in our society today, or symptomatic of a deep-seated ‘crisis’ of masculinity that so many have speculated about in the last year. Columnist Katie Glass certainly seemed to indorse the latter in her article for September’s Sunday Times magazine, in which she voiced her concern for the increasing male suicide rate in the UK (which is currently a bigger killer than murder, road accidents, and HIV/AIDS combined) in relation to women’s progress:

“It’s hard not to see male suicide in the context of feminism. That while young women grow in confidence as feminism has evolved from dry academic discussion to being featured in Vogue, as women come together on social media […] nobody gives the same empowering message to young men. […] Young men are victims of patriarchy too.”

To assert that the empowerment of women has lead to the disillusionment of men to me is a patriarchal statement in itself, but I do agree with her that the patriarchy is also the culprit in this case. And it seems that most of the data on the gender divide concerning suicide rates supports this idea. Professor Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman noted in another similar article for the Guardian last January that:

“Even in their choice of suicide method, males and females act out culturally prescribed gender roles.”

Despite more women being diagnosed with depression and attempting suicide than men, women tend to opt for less violent means such as over-dosing, whereas men more often choose firearms or hanging and therefore have a much higher suicide success rate.

So, how exactly does donning a plaid shirt and buying beard oil combat suicidal thoughts? How do we help men fight the crisis of masculinity? Well, for starters, what if we thought of it as less of a ‘crisis’, and more of a deconstruction? Think of previous iconic trends that have briefly torn up the rulebook for men’s fashion: from the longhaired hippies of the ’60s, to the glam rockers of the ’70s, to the new romantics of the ’80s. Or what about looking outside of conventional heterosexual masculinity altogether? Think of drag queenscross-dressers, and ‘gender-fucks’ like Conchita Wurst. Whilst feminine fashion and behaviour has allowed for fluidity, mainstream masculinity – although fluctuating occasionally – has generally remained stubbornly rigid, and the men who challenge it always perceived as more scandalous than women who do the same.

Conchita Wurst redefining masculinity

Conchita Wurst: redefining masculinity. (Source: ibtimes.com)

This is why trends like the lumbersexual matter. Not as a genuine expression of ‘back to the good old days’ grunting and unwashed hyper-manliness, but as an ironic costume. Men dressing up as men like some kind of weird reverse drag act. Fashion – as ephemeral as it may seem to some – matters. The way we dress and project ourselves matters. Masculinity doesn’t need to be saved or preserved; it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. It needs expanding and exploring. It needs redefinition. If our construction of gender runs so deeply through our psychological governing that it even affects how we choose to kill ourselves – and how ‘successful’ we are at it – then surely that alone is proof of how urgently we need to change this construction – for both genders.

If we want to save generations of young boys from feeling helpless enough to take their own lives we need to stop telling them to ‘man up’, or even ‘woman up’; we need to tell them to shirk oppressive gendered expectations in favour of simply being more comfortable in their own skin. To explore their own sense of what it means to be a man, just like Caiden Henson and his proud lumbersexual father, Paul:

Caiden Henson dressed in his choice of Hallowe'en costume - Disney's Princess Elsa.

Caiden Henson (3-years-old) dressed in his choice of Halloween costume – Disney’s Princess Elsa. (Source: dailymail.co.uk)

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