Archive for the ‘Thesis excerpts’ Category

Garnish suitably

January 16, 2011

Whenever I watch Mad Men I find myself feeling incredibly grateful that I was born when I was, and that second wave feminism came along in the 1960s and 70s to improve opportunities for women, and to improve gender relations more generally.

When I marvel at the period depicted in Mad Men, all retro and cool in its whisky-slugging, cigar-smoking, no-such-thing-as-sexual-harrassment-laws way, sometimes it’s easy to forget how recent that era was. I sometimes have to remind myself that this level of sexism (and racism and homophobia) is not something from back in the dark ages. Sure, it was last century, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My thought process often goes something like this: “Oh yeah, my mum lived through this. She was a teenager in the 60s. Wow, I’m so glad things have changed!”.

For me, one of the best things about Mad Men is that reminder. But I don’t mean to set up a distinction between the bad old days of the sixties and some sort of feminist utopia of the present. I’m certainly not suggesting that sexism, racism, homophobia are things of the past.

In fact, some of the most powerful moments in the series – the ones that turn up the dial on my melancholia or my rage – are the reminders that, actually, things have not changed as much as they could have. As much as they should have.

One theme that came through quite strongly in the interviews that I did with young women for my PhD, was the idea that women had more to fight for in previous generations; that the inequalities were much more stark, more obvious, more urgent. And I suppose this is what Mad Men helps to highlight for me. That is, the sheer awfulness of the misogyny depicted in the program gives me a hint of what it was like ‘back then’, and helps me understand what second-wave feminists were battling against.

But my interviews with young women also uncovered a sense among this generation that although lots of things have been achieved for women, there is still a long way to go. This sentiment was summed up really well by one of my participants, who I nicknamed Katrina. She said:

But I don’t know, it’s not really an equality that’s you know, “I’m not allowed to do this but he is”, kind of thing. I think it’s more an inequality in that women get raped more than men, and women are in domestic violence situations more than men. And women report sexual harassment more than men. So in that way we’re not equal because there’s still this divide in what’s acceptable to do to a woman and what is acceptable to do to a man. And so that’s unequal. But in terms of, kind of, yes we get paid equally. However women experience the glass ceiling. So yeah, it’s kind of an unequal equality, if that kind of makes sense.

Katrina, and a number of other participants, recognised that issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and barriers to women in the workplace are still important and worthy of our attention. In my thesis I used Katrina’s phrase “unequal equality” to unpack the complex relationship that young women have with feminism, and also to discuss the idea that equality discourses alone cannot adequately deal with the issues and pressures they are experiencing.

But having said all that, I was recently, hilariously, reminded of how attitudes to gender have changed in recent decades. At my mother’s house a little while ago, we were flicking through her copy of the The Commonsense Cookery Book, an Australian classic that was first published in 1914. My mum’s edition is from the 1960s and is filled with all manner of weird-sounding delights, such as Apple Snow – a recipe involving stewed apple, sugar, beaten egg-whites and red food colouring. Mmm, delicious!

Besides being grateful for advances in gastronomy, looking through that cookbook made me think about the generational aspects of gender relations. My mother and her sister were both given copies of The Commonsense Cookery Book when they started high school in the early 1960s. My grandmother told us that she too was handed a copy of the book when she began high school!! In the 1930s!

If my grade-seven classmates had been handed a recipe book on our first day at big school in the early 1990s, we would have laughed in the teachers’ faces. In the years between my mum’s first year at high school and my first year, something shifted. No longer was it a woman’s primary role to be a housekeeper, a wife and a mother.

The image at the top is a photograph of a page from the Commonsense Cookery Book with a recipe for “toasted sandwiches”. I had to take a photo because I found it so amusing. The text reads:

1. Make the sandwiches.
2. Toast on both sides and cut into small triangles
3. Serve on a hot plate and doily
4. Garnish suitably

I laughed for minutes when I first came across this recipe. I particularly love how there are no actual instructions or ingredients for the sandwich, but there is detailed information about doilies, garnishes, and the shape that the sandwiches should be cut into.Thank goodness we’ve moved on from teaching school girls how to make toasties!


Princess Valhalla: postfeminist superhero

August 24, 2010

Not too long ago I posted a link to a rather odd video called Princess Valhalla Hawkwind. For readers who don’t know the television series The United States of Tara, the youtube clip would have made absolutely no sense. I awarded it a ‘postfeminist heroine of the week’ prize, but without explaining why. So perhaps it’s time to try put Princess Valhalla into context.

First, let me explain a little about the series. Don’t worry, there won’t be spoilers. In Australia the ABC is screening Series 2 once a week. (Except it has been rudely interupted mid-season by The Chaser’s election show. Boo!) You can also watch the series online via iView, but only one or two episodes are ever up at one time. The series is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Diablo Cody (of Juno fame) and features Australia’s Toni Collette in the lead role.

Toni Collette is absolutely fantastic in this. So good that she has won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. She plays Tara, wife to Max and mother of teenage kids Kate and Marshall (perhaps my two favourite characters). Toni Collette also plays several other characters, in the form of Tara’s “alter egos” or Alters, because Tara suffers from dissociative identity disorder.

I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the condition this is. But this is television, and as a piece of drama, it’s fantastic. I really love it. The acting is brilliant, the scripts are moving and hilarious and the relationships between the characters always strike me as believable. Each character copes with Tara’s mental illness in different ways, painting the complex story of a family in all its quirks, its tensions and its humour.

So where does this whacky Princess Valhalla Hawkwind character come in?

I’m glad you asked. Princess Valhalla Hawkwind is a fictional character within the series. We first come across her when Kate (in her new job as a debt-collector) has to track down a woman called Lynda P. Frazier. Lynda turns out to be an artist, and the creator of a comic-book featuring feminist super-hero Princess Valhalla. Kate and Lynda quickly become friends, hanging out and smoking pot. Kate becomes fascinated with the Princess Valhalla character, and in one episode she raids Lynda’s wardrobe to dress up in full Princess Valhalla costume.


Sex and the Critic

June 4, 2010

Well, the word on the street* seems to be that the latest Sex and the City film is atrocious. This makes me sad. The first film was disappointing enough. I’m sad that the next one is reportedly even worse.** And apparently, there isn’t even much of beautiful Manhattan to perve at.

The good thing about a sequel is that it helps keep my thesis research topical. Thanks Carrie! Unfortunately, the films are such a reversal of the first season of the television series***, that the argument I made about the way SatC reflects (some) feminist themes is made kinda redundant. Well, not completely redundant. It’s just that now, whenever I mention that part of my PhD research was about Sex and the City, I’m going to get people rolling their eyes and telling me how awful it became.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sex and the City, but I grew to like it after researching it. The first season was relatively progressive television. And it was funny. It first screened in the late-1990s. Television with four strong, assertive, wise-cracking female characters had not been seen before. They talked about sex. They discussed topics that had previously been absolutely taboo on the small screen (vibrators, bisexuality, anal sex, female friendship? Whoah, watch out America). Hell, the title even had the word “sex” in it. That in itself was somehow a bit of a breakthrough.

And while I don’t particularly want to see the sequel, as someone who spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking and writing about the TV series, I feel somewhat obliged to check it out. I wonder if I can sneak in to a cinema and watch it for free? I don’t really want to pay money because I don’t want to encourage a tre-quel.

I don’t really know where I stand on SatC 2. I think I’m strangely caught somewhere in between these two fantastic Australian commentaries:

* Sex and the City 2: A Letter to Feminism’s Snuff Film (Helen Razer at badhostess)

* Hating on Sex and the City is soooo 2006 (Rachel Hills at musings of an inappropriate woman)

On the one hand I’m furious that the new film is a racist, misogynistic, ageist piece of crap with un-ironic product placement. And on the other, having not seen it yet myself, I’m tempted to wonder how audiences will receive and interpret the flick. Most of the women I spoke to during my fieldwork, whether they were fans or not, were critical of aspects of the TV series. Interestingly, they tended to make the same kinds of criticisms that film reviewers and feminist bloggers are making about the current film!

I’d love to do a quick exit-poll outside cinemas to gauge audiences reactions. Part of me suspects that fandom might still win out here. These four characters – as flawed as they are – have been in some people’s lives for about twelve years now. Twelve years! Even if the film versions have “jumped the shark“, Carrie Bradshaw and Co. will have a place in the hearts of many.

disclaimery things:

* The street, in this case, being twitter, facebook and various blogs that I read. 🙂
** No, I have not seen it yet. But I probably will. Soon. Dendy, want to shout me a ticket? I’ll pay for my own cosmo.
*** For my thesis, I analysed only the first season (of SatC and Desperate Housewives) rather than the every episode ever made, because alongside my interviews and focus groups I’d have had way too much data to work with.

Pondering feminist identification

March 5, 2010

[image source: lism.’s flickr]

In a recent post at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, Rachel Hills asks why feminism still has such a bad reputation: “You say ‘feminist’ like it’s a bad thing”

Hills writes:

As an older teenager and young adult, it became interesting to me because it provided a social and cultural framework through which I could make sense of my experiences, and the experiences of the people around me. These days, feminism and other intersectionalist discussions around gender, race, sexuality, class and disability, provide the building blocks to think about what it means to lead an ethical life.

But while I’ve never been uncomfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, I have found myself growing uncomfortable with other people identifying me as such. Mostly because they so often say it like it’s a bad thing – like it makes me silly, or ideologically rigid, or batshit insane. They turn what to me says “yes, I’m interested in gender from a critical perspective” and “no, I’m not an asshole”, into an insult.

Georgina Isbister in a piece in the National Times in December last year, wrote “Feminism is not a dirty word”

Isbister writes:

The denial of feminist identification seems to be based not in resistance to feminism’s goals of gender equality, but in the replication of outdated and exaggerated feminist stereotypes. What I find when I gently scratch the surface of these stereotypical assumptions is that most of my students, both female and male, support gender equality. Actually, they demand it.

I found similar things in my interviews with young women. Often their first response to feminism was to talk about the widely perpetuated negative stereotypes about feminists, but once they got talking about issues that feminism deals with, many acknowledged that their beliefs were feminist.

As I wrote in the comments on Rachel Hills’ post:

One thing I found that makes a difference in terms of feminist identification is how someone defines feminism. If you define it as a belief system (eg. a belief in gender equality) then you are more likely to say you’re a feminist than if you define it as activism. I spoke to quite a few women who said they believed in feminist ideals but were hesitant to call themselves feminists because they weren’t actively involved in fighting for women’s rights. One participant gave a great analogy…She said she cares about the environment, but wouldn’t call herself an environmentalist because she doesn’t go out and chain herself to trees, and so on.

Interestingly, I got different responses to the questions, “what do you think of when you hear the word feminist”, compared with “how do you define feminism?”. The former elicited many more of the negative stereotypes about feminism (man-hating, hairy armpits/legs, angry, humourless – which interestingly most recognised as media stereotypes), whereas the latter allowed the women to describe what they thought feminism means. Once they got talking about it, many were more likely to switch from ambivalnece to saying “Actually, I suppose I am a feminist really”.

Only a couple of my participants were openly hostile to feminism (it’s likely that my recruitment posters which mentioned ‘feminism’ attracted participants who were symathetic towards feminism) and this was because they blamed feminism for women having to do everything – have a full time job and then come home and still do all the childcare and housework.

I’ve written lots about this topic. Not surprising since I wrote my thesis on it! I’ll leave it there for now, but I’ll share more of my thesis findings soon, especially since I have a journal article in the works based on this aspect of my research.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

The Power of Female Sex

February 12, 2010

The four main characters in Sex and the City represent different kinds of women.

“No, they don’t! They’re all white rich bitches”, I hear you cry.

Well, obviously they’re not particularly diverse in terms of things like race, class or sexuality. This is a limitation of the series raised by many researchers. Interestingly, a number of the young women I interviewed also made similar criticisms about the “white upper class-ness” of these ladies. However, they also praised Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte because they are strong, powerful women who offer a range of attitudes to life, love and sex.

The divergent opinions expressed by the lead characters in Sex and the City, are demonstrated in their response to Carrie’s experience in the episode, “The Power of Female Sex” (Series 1: Episode 5). This episode explores issues of female power and sexuality from a number of different angles.

Revealed in this episode (in case we didn’t know already) is the frightening extent of Carrie’s shoe addiction, when her excessive consumption results in her credit card being destroyed by the sales assistant. Carrie’s acquaintance, Amalita, steps in to help. Amalita is an Italian woman who uses her sexuality to fund an extravagant global lifestyle. Or, as Carrie puts it, Amalita does not work for a living but has “a dizzying sexual power that she exploit[s] to her full advantage”. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Amalita buys the shoes for Carrie as a gift. Carrie is then unexpectedly drawn into a world of sex, money and power when Amalita sets her up on a date with a handsome French fellow called Gilles.*

* Not to be confused with the actor Gilles Marini, who played a different character (Dante, aka The Naked Guy) in Sex and the City: The Movie.

(image source)

Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂

Right, where was I? Oh yes, some thesis material (with minor alterations)…

We see Carrie on her date, which involves a romantic walk in the park accompanied by an accordion soundtrack. Carrie is sufficiently swept off her feet with the romance of it all because we are then told that she spends the night with him. Carrie wakes the next morning to discover that not only has Gilles left the hotel, he has left one-thousand dollars on the bedside table with a ‘thank you’ note. Carrie is so confused by this occurrence that she invites her girlfriends to the hotel to help her make sense of it – and to share a room service brunch. Carrie does not know whether to be flattered or insulted that Gilles paid her money for their night together. As Susan Zieger (2004: 105) puts it, Carrie, Miranda and Samantha “debate whether keeping it makes her a whore”.

Each of the friends offers a different opinion, as they characteristically dissect the experience and share their wisdom. Miranda and Samantha disagree about the trading of money for sex:

Miranda: The room service is one thing, but the money – uh-uh.
Samantha: What’re you getting so uptight about? I mean, money is power. Sex is power. Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.
Miranda: Don’t listen to the dime store Camille Paglia.

This brief interchange highlights that the women in Sex and the City bring “disparate perspectives” (Lotz 2001) to their frank discussions of sexuality. They do not all react in the same way to this unusual situation, suggesting it is a complex issue that they interpret differently.

[Amanda Lotz wrote a paper outlining a way to identify what she called “postfeminist attributes” within television series. I drew on her work in my thesis to help show how SatC and Desperate Housewives can be considered postfeminist.]

Lotz’s first postfeminist attribute stresses the importance of diversity among women, making clear that women “experience their subjectivity differently and dependent on context” (2001: 115). Sex and the City is a programme not afraid to portray diverse perspectives on the complexities of power and sex. While Samantha sees no problem in Carrie spending the money that the Frenchman leaves after a fun evening together, Miranda argues that Samantha’s attitude is harmful to women. Miranda contends that that kind of logic has been used to exploit women throughout the ages.

Clearly, Sex and the City, with its exploration of the contradictions surrounding women, sex and power, can be considered postfeminist. It shows characters working through the tensions and challenges of this era. The characters in Sex and the City represent women with distinct and varied outlooks. Furthermore, the characters are not only familiar with feminist discourses, as evidenced by Miranda’s reference to Camille Paglia, but they have debates about these issues while discussing their own sex lives. This demonstrates the extent to which feminism is entwined in popular culture, a key feature in my understanding of postfeminism.

Lotz, Amanda D. 2001. “Postfeminist Television Criticism: Rehabilitating Critical Terms and Identifying Postfeminist Attributes”. Feminist Media Studies 1 (1): 105-121.

Seidelman, Susan. 1998. [director] “The Power of Female Sex”, Sex and the City, Series One, Episode 5, HBO.

Zieger, Susan. 2004. “Sex and the Citizen in Sex and the City‘s New York”. In Reading Sex and the City, edited by K. Akass and J. McCabe. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.

more defining…

February 3, 2010

(A snippet from my PhD dissertation)

I consider postfeminism to mean after the height of the women’s liberation movement and the changes in society that it brought about. However, I am not trying to articulate a “style” of feminism. Rather, postfeminism offers a way of thinking through the way feminism has changed, and a way of marking and explaining a particular era – a specific generational moment.

As Joanne Hollows (2006: 104) articulates, today’s women:

“have grown up in conditions that are both shaped by second-wave feminism, and which are also the product of a time that is historically post-second-wave-feminism”. [1]

Avoiding the hyphenation, this is one sense in which I use the term postfeminism. It specifies the current historical moment, making clear the role cultural context plays in shaping a generation, and clarifies the extent to which feminism has impacted the lives of the current generation. The idea of “post” meaning “after” gets around the problem of envisaging it as “death”. It allows room to acknowledge that the young women today have grown up after the height of the second-wave women’s movement, in a cultural context different from their parents, that has been strongly influenced by second wave feminist discourses.

[1] Hollows, Joanne (2006) “Can I Go Home Yet? Feminism, Post-feminism and Domesticity”. In Feminism in Popular Culture, edited by J. Hollows and R. Moseley. Oxford and New York: Berg.