June 19, 2013 | Times & Transcript
(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on June 19th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)
The summer blockbuster movie season is upon us and with it comes a barrage of films featuring women and girls in limited, sexualized and trivial roles. Just how abysmal is the representation of women and girls in film and television? Let me introduction you to a little something we feminists call the Bechdel test.
Bechdel is a concept that originates from a 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel, a queer American cartoonist. In this strip, a character mentions that she doesn’t watch films that don’t meet a basic criteria: they must have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man (bonus points if these characters actually have names). The joke of the strip is, of course, that the character doesn’t get to watch many movies.
At first blush, this might seem like an absurd feminist litmus test for entertainment. But take a few moments to actually apply the test to a selection of your favourite movies; some of the Harry Potter films don’t pass, none of the original Star Wars films do, the Princess Bride doesn’t, and neither does When Harry Met Sally or Shrek.
The kicker is that the Bechdel test doesn’t even assess whether female characters are well developed, if they get a significant amount of screen time, or if they drive the plot, but only whether there are female characters (even minor characters) who interact (even for a few seconds) in a way that doesn’t revolve around men. That’s all.
It’s because the Bechdel test is so straightforward, so unsophisticated and sets the bar so low that it’s an illuminating tool. When you realize how few movies pass this simple test, it becomes clear the evaluation isn’t about criticizing individual movies with a rote scale, but about drawing attention to the consistently poor representation of women and girls in film.
It’s interesting (read: troubling) that so many mainstream films have such limited representation of women and girls. Imagine, for a minute, how audiences and critics would discuss a film that only had a single male character, or had two male characters who only spoke to each other about a woman. A film with such limited space for male characters would quickly be pigeon-holed as a chick-flick, as a movie with appeal that only extended to female audiences. Yet movies with hardly any representation of women and girls aren’t considered special-interest or qualified as being for a primarily male audience; they’re considered typical.
My argument isn’t, of course, that we need to be equal-opportunity in terms of labelling movies as bro-shows and chick-flicks, but that we need to question the fact that women and girls are so underrepresented in film while men and boys are so ubiquitous. We need to ask why films that focus on men and boys are considered to have general appeal, while those that focus on women and girls are thought to only appeal to female audiences. Why are men’s stories considered universal, while women and girls’ stories are thought to only be relevant to other women and girls?
These questions are worth discussing because representation is important. It’s important that we see reflections of ourselves in the media and art we consume, even when that media is summer blockbuster movies.
A few years ago, Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz spoke to a group of college students about representation. Diaz spoke of the fact that vampires are commonly depicted as not having reflections in mirrors, going on to say that “What I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
To see representations of people similar to you in films is affirming — be it people who share your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your body type, your politics or whatever else. I’ve experienced the rush that comes with recognizing some part of your identity on screen (specifically, in university when I discovered Showcase’s queer-focused, all female-cast drama The L Word). I didn’t realize how starved I was for that reflection until I finally had a glimpse of it.
That’s why, for my own sanity, I’ll be making a point to watch films that pass the Bechdel test this summer — even if it means that I won’t have much to chose from.
May 23, 2013 | Times & Transcript
(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on May 23rd, 2013, and is shared with permission.)
Over the past few weeks, the Walt Disney Company has faced on online uproar over their makeover of Merida, the protagonist of the film Brave. The makeover was in preparation for Merida’s induction to the Magic Kingdom’s Princess Hall of Fame and involved sexualizing the youthful character by making her older, more polished, and giving her a classic come-hither countenance (that kind of looks like it’s thanks to a facelift, if I’m being perfectly honest).
Disney regularly gives the ol’ beautifying treatment to its female characters when it’s time for a new run of merchandise. Last holiday shopping season, for instance, Disney worked with Barneys New York to re-envision its classic characters (Mickey, Minnie, Daffy, Daisy, etc.) as runway models. The companies didn’t just slap some couture on the beloved characters’ gentle, rounded figures, but stretched their bodies out to a model-esque 5’11” stature. The female characters were particularly lengthened and thinned, given legs that were a fraction of the size of (and much more exposed than) their male counterparts’. A few months before that, the company released their Disney Villains Beauty Line, which featured the zaftig Ursula slimmed down to the size of Sleeping Beauty’s supernaturally svelte Maleficent. Apparently even animal/human-hybrid cartoon characters need to be thin to be glamorous, and glamorous to be relevant.
Though we’ve seen Disney ‘work over’ characters before, it felt like a particularly raw deal to watch Merida’s image be subjected to the sexing-up process. Merida won our hearts by being the first Disney Princess to have a story that didn’t focus on romance, but on an adventure that isn’t ultimately about finding a prince. Brave starts with Merida refusing to marry, setting the stage for the focus and driving force of the film: an exploration of Merida’s relationship with her mother, the Queen. After much showcasing of Merida’s strength of character, as well as her skills at archery and horseback riding (on a massive Clydesdale, no less), the film doesn’t give in to Disney tradition and end with a marriage, but with a celebration of the renewed bond between mother and daughter, after Merida saves the day.
Merida won’t be married off, won’t sit around daintily, won’t even let her masses of red curls be symbolically restrained by a fancy headdress. She takes up space, makes herself heard and refuses to allow tradition to force her into marriage before she’s ready or interested. In a genre where every other female protagonist is partnered (or hinted to be on the verge of partnering) with a man by the end of her story, Merida’s persistent and triumphant singledom is important.
Given Merida’s insistence on living life in her full, complicated, unkempt, wilful glory, it seems antithetical for her to have to be aged, polished and sexualized before she can be crowned as an official Disney Princess. It seems like punishment.
In creating an older, sexualized version of Merida, Disney isn’t just presenting a different image of Merida but filling in the blanks of what Merida’s future looks like. Disney is telling us that despite her story being so different from all the other princesses, she ends up just like Belle, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: made over according to traditional beauty standards, her bow and arrow taken away so she can stand pretty with the other ladies.
When images of this new Merida hit the Internet, criticism flowed. The woman who created Merida and co-directed Brave, Brenda Chapman, offered her thoughts in her local newspaper: “It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.”
I agree with Ms. Chapman wholeheartedly; this isn’t just a harmless makeover. It’s a message to girls and boys that what ultimately matters about a woman — even an animated one who doesn’t give a whit about being attractive to men — is her sex appeal (and there’s only one definition of what said appeal looks like).
Ms. Chapman and I aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Public outcry over Merida’s makeover was swift and loud, and Disney backed off quickly. Of course, Disney didn’t go so far as to admit that their sexing up of a role model for girls — one who is popular specifically because her story isn’t centred on her being appealing to men — was problematic. Rather, they pulled the image from their Princesses website, said that there were various renderings of Merida floating about and that there were no plans to move forward with the, ahem, “fancified depictions of Merida,” as Catherine Connors, editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, put it in a blog post.
Ms. Connors’ post also defended Disney by suggesting that it’s actually the makeover’s critics who are focused too much on Merida’s appearance, reminding us that the character “is defined by far more important things than what she wears.” In other words, Disney’s compulsion to vamp up every one of its leading ladies (including giving its lone black Princess, Tiana, a nose-job before her induction into the Hall of Fame) is innocuous, and what’s actually diminishing the Princesses is . . . our questioning of that compulsion? Forgive me if I’m incredulous, but I take issue with the suggestion that critical thinking is the problem here.
While Disney might not grasp why their actions are problematic (or they fully grasp it but don’t care to change) and issue befuddling defences via blog posts, this is ultimately a victory — and not just for Merida’s image, but for her story. Thanks to public outcry, Merida is a character who not only escaped a marriage she didn’t want and wasn’t ready for, but also escaped a Disney image overhaul (for now, at least). What other Disney Princess can claim to possess such strength of character that they’re in control of their lives both onscreen and in the marketing department? As far as her accomplishments go, Merida’s remaining unmarried at the end of Brave might pale in comparison to the fact that she’s keeping her original look for the Princess Hall of Fame.
April 25, 2013 | Times & Transcript
(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on April 25th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)
Last week, “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” a short video investigating the women’s perceptions of beauty, was in heavy circulation on social media, spreading like wildfire amongst women on Facebook and Twitter.
The video features a forensic sketch artist drawing portraits of a series of women based on verbal descriptions. The twist? For every portrait-subject he produces two sketches: one based on how the woman describes herself and one based on a description from someone who just met her.
The clip shows the artist working away and we hear voice-overs of the portrait subjects being described by themselves and by near-strangers. Self-descriptions focus on perceived flaws; descriptions from strangers are generous, emphasizing prominent cheekbones and eyes that light up.
Once both portraits are completed, they’re lined up for comparison and we see that sketches based on self-descriptions are harsher than those based on descriptions from strangers. The portrait subjects comment on what they’ve realized through this ‘social experiment’ and the phrase “You are more beautiful thank you think” flashes onto the screen as the clip comes to an end.
The Real Beauty Sketches video is part of Dove’s larger Campaign for Real Beauty. The Campaign was launched in 2004 as part of the company’s ‘social mission,’ which is focused on the self-esteem of women and girls and asks us to “Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”
The campaign famously uses photo spreads of groups of underwear-clad women who range from petite to plus in a variety of shapes and skin colours. It also released a video clip showing the behind-the-scenes process of creating a photo suitable for use in a magazine ad, showing the extent to which models are made up and images are manipulated.
From its launch, people were feeling this campaign. Dove was leveling with us about the raw deal we were getting as women, they were speaking to our ‘beauty ideal angst.’ They even went so far as to brand their product line for maturing skin as Dove Pro-Age. Pro-age; a.k.a. in favour of aging! This was revolutionary for a beauty company.
Except it wasn’t. We really wanted it to be; but it wasn’t.
While Dove’s messaging may seem strikingly fresh and honest, it’s all marketing in the end. Dove’s end goal is to move product, not to liberate women and girls from restrictive beauty ideals. They’re making a killing by giving us enough empowering-sounding rhetoric to hook us as brand-loyal customers, but stop short of doing anything that would seriously challenge the societal obsession with beauty that keeps them in business.
What makes me so sure of this? Two things: the kind of work Dove’s parent company engages in outside of the campaign and a closer reading of the campaign’s message.
Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that owns Axe. The Axe brand consistently produces promotional materials that aggressively uphold stereotypical gender roles and objectifies women. In one Axe commercial, a female character is actually depicted as a pair of walking breasts until the last 10 seconds of the clip.
In addition to being responsible for Axe’s misogynist advertising, Unilever also has a serious stake in the skin-lightening game in India’s beauty industry. In many societies, beauty ideals don’t just uphold youth and thinness as paramount; they also fixate on whiteness. Unilever isn’t above cashing in on the intersection of sexism and racism, so they produce and market creams to women of colour with the promise of lighter skin as a gateway to a better life.
Do those sounds like brands that are concerned with increasing women’s self-esteem?
You might think that I should cut Dove some slack; after all, they can’t control what Unilever’s other brands do. Fair enough, but while Dove doesn’t control Unilever, Unilever does control Dove. Given how much Unilever benefits from women’s continued insecurity and investment in beauty, the fact that they’re on board with the Real Beauty Campaign should give us pause. Would Unilever give the OK to a campaign that was going to dismantle the cultural beauty-obsession they rely on for profits? Unlikely.
If Unilever benefits from our obsession with problematic beauty standards, why was the Real Beauty campaign ever rolled out? This is where the closer reading of the campaign’s message comes in.
In their campaign, Dove is telling women that they are beautiful and that self-esteem is important, not questioning the importance we place on beauty. At one point during the Real Beauty Sketches video, a portrait subject reflects on how she needs to be more appreciative of her natural beauty, because “It impacts everything . . . couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” As far as the video is concerned, the problem women face is that they don’t think they’re beautiful, not that beauty determines the quality of their lives. According to Dove, women need to learn how to ease up on themselves, not dismantle the beauty-industrial complex.
In addition to affirming the importance of beauty, the video also upholds existing standards of beauty. Women describe themselves critically, talking about having fat faces and protruding chins; as strangers describe positive attributes, the word thin is used repeatedly. When the portraits are revealed, we know which ones Dove wants us to think are more beautiful: the ones depicting a younger, smoother, slimmer face. One woman, while looking at the portrait based on her self-description, comments that she looks “Fatter; sadder, too.” The message is clear: thin is beautiful, and beauty is happiness.
We need to recognize that Dove — and companies that use marketing tactics with a similar veneer of empowerment and awareness — aren’t going to liberate us from our societal obsession with beauty. It’s not their ultimate goal; selling product to women who buy into beauty is.