Movember versus Muffember

2 Dec

Now, I know the main readership of this blog is of the female variety, so I’m sure you will have joined with me yesterday in congratulating yourself on the passing of another “Movember” – the annual campaign to raise awareness and funds for the fight against prostate and testicular cancer – hopefully without any incidents of public embarrassment or moustache-rash. Chem’s specimen this year led to the nickname ‘Mexican;’ however disappointingly few of my other male friends decided to participate this year. In case your menfolk crown themselves with moustaches all year round and you have no idea what the fuss is about, here is a brief summary from the official website for Movember UK:

“On Movember 1st, guys register at Movember.com with a clean-shave face and then for the rest of the month, these selfless and generous men, known as Mo Bros, groom, trim and wax their way into the annals of fine moustachery. Mo Sistas are the women who register to support the men in their lives, raising funds by seeking sponsorship for their Mo-growing efforts. Mo Bros effectively become walking, talking billboards for the 30 days of November and through their actions and words raise awareness by prompting private and public conversation around the often ignored issue of men’s health.” 

Last year over 112,000 men and women officially supported the campaign [although many I suspect, like Chem, grew a ‘tache for awareness but didn’t actually raise sponsorship], raising £11.7 million. The Independent claims over 250,000 people joined in this year, with a current total of £14.7 million raised as part of a global total of £63 million! If you’re not getting an impression of the grandeur and scale of the event yet then check out the official Movember Facebook pages for the UK, USA, Australia and Canada – each of which have attracted tens of thousands of fans. Distinguished gents Stephen Fry, Daniel Craig and Justin Bieber publicised their own facial delights on social media – unfortunately Bieber’s failed to impress – and the campaign has attracted global media awareness.

I wholeheartedly support Movember, despite the preponderance of moustaches it generates on otherwise extremely-attractive men, but would also like to draw attention to the comparatively media-neglected phenomenon that is Muffember – and its rival/companion, as Puce recently alerted me to – Fanuary.

Just as men grow and sculpt their facial hair during Movember, Muffember and Fanuary campaigners document the growth of their pubic body hair for a month, with one website even offering the tongue-in-cheek encouragement of shaping it as a moustache in pay-back! Like Movember, the Fanuary movement originated in Australia; hence why it takes place during the month of January in order to target bikini-lines in the prime beach season; whilst Muffember is designed to run parallel with Movember. Both aim to raise awareness of the gynaecological cancers: cervical cancer is a prime target, but ovarian cancer as well as cancer of the fallopian tubes, vulva, vagina and uterus, all treatable if detected early, are in need of similar awareness campaigns.

The problem with Muffember and Fanuary is that, generally speaking, the public audience of a woman’s “lady garden” at any one time is likely to be countable on one hand, despite the recent trend for showing-off “vajazzles.”  Whilst some participators, for example the extremely brave Sarah Berry [warning: you will see pubic hair if you click this link], choose to visually document their progress online, it’s a controversial choice and one that even cancer charities have denounced as “pornographic” and distasteful – this news clip from 2007 charts a rare [that I could find] media recognition of Fanuary, where they highlight the official charity’s distancing from such efforts, even threatening legal action if their name is used in affiliation.  Fanuary is now supported by the charitable trust Women for Women, whilst Sarah Berry’s Just Giving fundraising page asks for donations in support of Ovarian Cancer Action.

In researching the two campaigns for this blog I was struck by the difference in media reaction – whilst Movember is globally recognised and has a fancy official website, the nature of the female campaign is much more underground – or rather, underclothes. Berry’s blog charting her progress was featured in a short piece on Diva Mag Online, and the campaign was also mentioned on the website Family Affairs, to give one example. However a brief search of Wikipedia will reveal that neither Fanuary nor Muffember are listed [unlike a well-documented page for Movember], and only Fanuary has made it into the Urban Dictionary.

It’s hard to say which campaign has gathered more online momentum, however the difference in Facebook pages, for me, spells it all out [I’m sure Twitter would provide interesting figures too, but I don’t know how to use that] – Fanuary has attracted nearly 8,000 likes, with the following passage as the sole information provided:

“Fanuary is the girls version of Movember… we grow our fanny hairs in January! Movember is disgusting and ridiculous… so now i am introducing another disgusting and ridiculous month…. FANUARY!! gilrs HATE facial hair… boys HATE fanny hair!!”

This is followed by the tagline “its a battle of the hairy sexes!! ;)” Personally I’m quite astonished that such an idiotic statement has been allowed to be affiliated with the campaign name, which not only degrades female body hair as unfeminine or sexually unattractive to the male gaze, but also labels the Movember campaign as “disgusting and ridiculous” for no apparent reason other than that “gilrs HATE facial hair” – nevermind the fact I’d hate any of my male friends or family to suffer testicular cancer just a little bit more than a few extra bristles on their faces. I hope that those who have liked the page have done so out of a serious desire to break down the taboos about gynaecological cancers, and not simply a desire to affiliate with the vaguely “feminist” pretensions of the page.

In contrast, the Facebook page for Muffember has attracted a mere 85 likes, but provides links and information to those serious about participating.

I found it interesting that whilst these campaigns both claim affiliation or juxtaposition with Movember through their name, the Independent article released today cited the “pink ribbon campaign” for breast cancer awareness as the female equivalent to Movember. Hugely successful in the media, breast cancer seems to be much less of a societal taboo than gynaecological counterparts, and the campaign to raise awareness of testicular cancer much more socially acceptable than female equivalents. For example, to the best of my knowledge no-one has complained about Cosmo’s “naked centrefolds” that feature celebrity men posing naked to raise awareness of testicular cancer – when women try to do the same thing, we are told it is “pornographic.” I acknowledge this is a tricky debate here about exploitation of the female body and sex appeal to sell – but if the product being sold is knowledge that might save a life, and the women doing the selling perfectly happy to raise awareness through their bodies as many men are, then why is it a problem?

I read an article on the Guardian today that assessed the “pornification” of women’s bodies in a culture of “hypersexualisation” that encourages women to have cosmetic labiaplasty in order to “perfect” their womanhood. The authors suggest that feminists are now “conservatives” in the public eye, seen as creating “moral panic” over sexualised images of women’s bodies that misses the actual problem: the images “perpetuate myths of women’s unconditional sexual availability and object status, and thus undermine women’s rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality.” In my opinion the Muffember and Fanuary campaigns seem to be damsels in exactly this distress – women are being discouraged by “feminists” who fear sexual objectification from showing their bodies to support those bodies’ health and well-being, yet everyday consumer-culture proliferates images and messages of gender-sexualisation. It also denies the existence of a “positive” imaging of the vagina, as a subject viewed from female/feminist gaze, rather than sexualised masculine gaze – and you don’t have to be a radical feminist to dispel this myth, as even the “respectable” Guardian ran features over the summer on the imaging of the vagina by female artists [on my “future posts to write” list!].

By now my word count represents nearly a third of the essay on medieval marriage I am supposed to be writing, but I have two more small points to make: firstly, I started reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman last week in a fit of essay procrastination – I’m only a few chapters in, but if you want to read a very honest and modern take on pubic hair as well as other aspects of “femininity” than I absolutely cannot recommend anything better to read. And secondly, if you know a man a little down at the loss of his moustache this month, then I honestly think Not On the HighStreet’s Movember Collection could definitely cheer him up…

Thinking back through our mothers: looking for Zella Malendah Wootton

13 Nov

Those among you who are curious enough to have read my ‘About’ page will know that I named this blog after my great-great-grandmother, Zella Malendah Wootton. I did this partly because I liked the name and thought it was unusual, but also because I liked the associations it held of a maternal heritage. The titular quote is from Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” In this post I will be fulfilling this statement, showcasing a selection of photographs from my maternal family tree that my mother recently showed to me.

I don’t know why I feel more of an attachment for Zella than I do for any other [non-living] ancestor on my family tree. Genealogy is an odd pastime – my mother is very concerned with factual accuracy; dates, names, places. I’m more interested in the people behind the names, the stories you can infer from these facts. Studying family history is a microcosmic version of “real” history – you are dealing with births, deaths, and marriage certificates; the everyday life of ordinary people [our family tree has so far thrown up approximately zero celebrities]; running at a seeming distance to the stream of history as a whole, occasionally dipping in its toes; but really forging its lifeblood all along.

What perhaps makes it different to “mainstream” history is the level of personal engagement and attachment you can feel for characters whose lives are convincingly real: their historical record is more than an ‘X’ on a marriage certificate, and you yourself are a part of their historical legacy. We are also able to forge emotional connections with people we will never meet through the trickles of oral, visual, and even written history that traverse generations through story-telling, scrap-booking and heirlooms. The excitement of discovering the significance of a historical “artifact”, of identifying its place in both a personal and a public history, is made available to even the most amateur historian.

The capacity for personal engagement does not, fortunately, appear to exclude the interest of others in family trees completely unconnected to their own. For example, just look at the popularity of programmes like BBC’s Who Do You Think You AreI hope therefore that it follows that those beyond my immediate family will find some interest and entertainment in this post, which is now going to focus on some photographic “artifacts” from my own family history!

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The following are a very small selection of photographs from my maternal family tree, focusing, rather appropriately for this blog, upon its “mothers.” Don’t worry, Mother, there aren’t any embarrassing photos of you as a baby! Over the Christmas holidays I am hoping to undertake the project of digitally scanning a much greater selection of photographs, and I’m also now extremely keen to unearth similar photographs from my paternal family line – however as my parents have said, there’s quite enough to be getting on with for now!

Nana and Pops as I remember them

We’ll start with the most recent photo of the few I have scanned. This shows Nana and Pops [sorry, Granddad to all you non-Americans!] much as I remember them, although Pops died when I was quite young. Looking through the photo albums I was amazed by just how little I knew of his remarkable life, from his youth spent in gymnastic competitions and the RAF to exactly how he ended up working in London with a chauffeur. Oddly one of my most enduring memories of Pops is actually sitting in his car and being driven somewhere, although I have no recollection now where we were going or why the memory has stuck with me!

Nana and Pops - Nana sporting amazing sunglasses!

This photograph is probably from the late fifties. I just love everything about it! I’m hoping Nana still has those sunglasses hidden away somewhere as I would really love to steal them!

Nana and Pops' wedding day, 16th July 1960

This is my favourite picture from Nana and Pops’ wedding album. Canny readers of the caption will discern that I was in fact born on their 31st wedding anniversary! To have your first grandchild born on your wedding anniversary seems like a lovely touch of fate to me; my sister also shares her birthday with Nana! Born in 1940, Nana was exactly a week off her 20th birthday at her wedding. Pretty scary to me now as I am already past 20! [not that I feel it!] I must be practically on the shelf…

Nana working in a sweetshop, 1957

It’s amazing how much you don’t know about the people you are most closely related to. Looking through these photo albums I discovered not only that Nana worked in a sweetshop before she was married, but also that my mum had blonde hair when she was a little girl. What was even more remarkable was that Mother herself had forgotten this fact! We always considered it a bit of an anomaly that my sister has blonde hair, and now it turns out it was perfectly logical all along…Intriguingly in Pops’ photo albums from before he was married [apparently scrap-booking was cool for men then, too] there are a few photographs of girlfriends who definitely aren’t Nana! Scandalous, I say!

Westward Ho, 1956 - 'Mr and Mrs Ascot'

From one scandal to another…yes, you are seeing right, although I can offer no explanation as to exactly what you are seeing beyond the fact that it took place at a holiday camp in Westward Ho in 1956! My Mother informed me Nana and Pops actually met at a holiday camp, I hope it wasn’t at this precise moment! Nana’s mustache could rival Chem’s here…

Nana as a baby and in 1953, age 13

Ella and Brenda

Here we have some photos of Nana in her youth – I’m not sure who the little girl in the dungarees is yet. Out of all the photographs the above one of Nana and her mother, Ella Malendah Wootton [my great-grandmother], is definitely one of my favourites. I really like the colours in it, and I would also like to know what happened to that necklace Ella is wearing!

Here Ella appears again, this time with her sister-in-law Marjorie Osborne Stewart, who we seem to have quite a few photographs of. They were born in the same year, 1914. Ella married Marjorie’s older brother, Colin Alec Stewart [my great-grandfather].

Marjorie and Ella

Marjorie married a man with frankly excellent name of John Percy Percival! There are lots of photos of them together and they always look incredibly dapper. I particularly liked this photo of them together as it feels much more happy and spontaneous than the posed, studio ones. John’s hat is also spectacularly jaunty!

Marjorie and John

Now we have reached the final photo of the selection. To me, both personally and from the perspective of a historian, this is the most interestin of all. At the centre stands a young Ella Malendah [she’s around 25 years old] with her new husband Colin [who looks very tall!]. We are so far unsure who most of the peripheral characters are, however the older lady next to Ella is in all probability her mother Zella Malendah, who would have been about 51.

This discovery was unexpectedly exciting for me – I’d picked Zella Malendah’s name for my blog with the vague idea of her as my great-great-grandmother, but she seemed somehow remote and insubstantial in this figure. I think I was surprised to find that someone as old as that in history could still be evident in photographs – somehow to say “my great-great-grandmother” seems to imply a greater period of time than to say “a lady who was alive 70 years ago.” This is the only photo I have found of her so far, and I don’t know the likelihood of another being unearthed. My mother told me the man standing to her right is likely her second husband, George Harry Godwin, whom she’d been married to since 1934.

So here we have a discovery that is really quite personal to me – cue a second, bringing this microcosmic moment into a wider historical perspective. The wedding of Ella and Colin took place on the third of September 1939 – that’s correct history buffs, the day that Britain declared war on Germany. It’s fascinating to me that a single photograph can encapsulate not only a personally-significant moment of family history, but a moment of greater historical significance that had ramifications for every family in Britain, let alone across the world. It makes me wonder – did they know that war had been declared when the photo was taken?

Unfortunately I don’t know what happened to either of them during the war – where, or if, my great grandfather fought, and how Ella was affected or involved in the war effort. The passing of Remembrance Sunday has definitely made me aware that to remember the sacrifices our not-so-distant ancestors made, we must first know what those sacrifices were; a few days ago a Jehovah’s witness rang my doorbell and began to speak of how God had helped him make sense of the slaughter in the trenches. Here was a statement of history; of one man’s interpretation of the historical events so many lived through – and it really struck home to me that as both my grandfathers have passed I have lost forever the opportunity to ask them how they made sense of it all.

Wedding of Ella and Colin

Seeing these photos has instilled me with the desire to find out more – about these people’s lives, and the part they played in both my family history and the history of twentieth-century Britain. It seems a simple fact to state, but history really is a collection of  “stories,” whether preserved through written texts, images, or simply being passed down from mouth to mouth through generations. Being as this blog is concerned with gender however, I can’t get away with simply searching for a history from these photos – I want the herstory’s too. Most usually in history it is the former that are more readily available – men’s lives were recorded through the social and legal framework that valued their “citizenship” – their right to write, vote, act – as greater than women’s. The second world war was a catalyst for change, as women became more politically and socially visible through the workplaces, and gradually in society as a whole. However, whilst the war gave women a platform from which to be heard, it also created distinctly separate platforms for men and women’s experiences – men fought, women stayed at home. Both experienced the war, but their experiences were different: gender was both an agent of this, and a factor in the different ways that those experiences were recorded.

For example, I could find out through the War Office and written documents much of my grandfathers’  and great-grandfathers’ experiences, but there is no similar organised structure of data to tell me about the experience of  my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.Personal, family, history then is a way of discovering and recording this historical evidence; of making sense of the impact of greater historical phenomena on the everyday life of our ancestors, but also understanding how what happened then has informed the present world that we exist in. I hope to report back in the New Year with many more photos, and hopefully many more stories!

“My blog needs YOU!” – not exactly Lord Kitchener, but hey…

28 Oct

Some of you may be glad to know I have no long spiel prepared for you today – instead I am going to ask you to write something for me! Since I have now been writing zellamalenda for a whole entire month, I am hoping you will all have formed an opinion as to what you like, and what you don’t like, about the site. I would be extraordinarily grateful if you could take a few minutes to send me a line or two with your thoughts! Feel free to comment below this post, message me on facebook, text me, ring me, bbm me, write me a letter, send me a fax/telegram/pigeon post, or perhaps anonymously collate a message from newspaper clippings and slip it through my letterbox, if you so wish…

This brings me to my next point, dear reader – WHO are you? My site stats tell me my post yesterday attracted 21 views, but only about half of that number have confessed to reading! Please do feel free to come out of hiding!

It may interest some of you to know that wordpress has a subscribe/follow option: basically if you click the link which should appear somewhere on this page [I can’t see it as it’s my own blog unfortunately, but I know it is there as I have one loyal follower so far! Thank you Clev! I’m considering issuing you a first-follower certificate in recognition], you will be updated via email each time I publish a new post. This may be handy for some viewers [cough Mother cough] who are not in the habit of checking facebook regularly, and so find the links get a bit lost on my page. In addition to this, I was thinking of creating a facebook page for zellamalendah, so I can post links to updates only to those who are actually interested, rather than spamming my entire friends list. I could also post mini-updates in between blogs to keep everyone posted on what I’m working on and upcoming ideas. Does anyone think this is a good idea/would actually “Like” the page if I made one?

Planning out ideas...

Another feature some of you may not be aware of is the “About” page – if you scroll to the top of the page (above the zellamalendah title) you will see two tabs; the second one is “About,” and as the name suggests it tells you a little bit about this blog and why I’m writing it!

I’ve really enjoyed writing this so far and I wish I’d started in the summer; I have so much to say and so little time to write! Obviously my last post was quite long – would you prefer me to write little and often, or save myself up for big posts like the ones on Barbie? And don’t worry, I do have lots of other stuff besides Barbie to talk about! I would like to especially commend Cadet [I can’t remember if I’ve already given you a name; if not, here it is!] for sending me links to lots of interesting articles and topics for discussion – if anyone else has an idea for a post please feel free to let me know! Does anyone have an opinion as to whether I should stick to feminist/gender posts or branch out into other areas? I am extremely happy to accept any ideas for topics [not that I’m exactly running out myself!], and also if anyone would consider writing a guest article then I would be thrilled! It would be great to get responses from you lot about what I’ve written, or writing on completely different topics that I may have no idea of!

I’ll conclude by expressing the hope that you are all enjoying what I have written so far, or are at the least finding improvement with each post – even if they haven’t reached a level of actual enjoy-ability quite yet!

Barbie Reconsidered: the “Others” – Fulla, Sara and Razanne

27 Oct

First of all I would like to say a massive thank you to Oliver [I can’t give you a codename without probably sounding creepy, we don’t after all know each other that well], for being the first person to comment on my blog! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write a response; as usual I had so much to say I found I couldn’t very well fit it into a comment box. I’ve decided to conflate my thoughts with those of my second Barbie post, which was originally planned to consider non-Western, or “Other,” perspectives on Barbie. I hope the following jumble of ideas does not prove too inadequate a response, and if anyone else has any thoughts please do feel free to comment! To the person who recently said they would not like to write a blog because they were afraid of others’ judgement of their opinions – well, it was quite scary to receive an email acknowledging that someone had not only read my blog but had something serious to say about it [and on top of all that it was a disagreement no less], however it’s made my original ideas stronger [I hope] through being challenged and expanded – and what is more, it doesn’t really matter that someone disagrees with you – people are allowed to disagree!

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So – in response to you, Oliver, I’m afraid to say I’ve done no specific research into gender essentialism. Despite lacking knowledge of it as a specific discourse I would like to maintain my, perhaps uninformed, stance that a doll, void of branding, target audiences, clothing and external “lenses,” is an essentially unsexual [I realise now asexual was perhaps the wrong choice of word] object. I view the sexual stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” as constructs, hence why I have usually referred to them within speech marks, and in considering dolls I have applied the logic that gender constructs [as built on sexual difference] cannot apply to an essentially de-genitalised body. I’m sure someone can pick holes all over this theory, and I can certainly point out the obvious one – in order for a doll to be viewed as a completely de-sexualised object in this way, it is first necessary to deconstruct the lenses of sexual difference that inform the focus of our gaze in the first place. For example, I am writing from the perspective of a white, Western, sexually-liberated woman, subject to ingrained Western ideals of “masculinity” and “femininity,” and so any object which seeks to represent the female body will have certain connotations of sexuality and gender beyond the essential point of genital difference.

Your conclusion, that “it is up to the person playing with the doll to decide how sexual or asexual a role the doll takes, regardless of the presence of genitalia” is therefore one I entirely agree with. The doll is of course in all cases subject to the gaze and play of its owner, and their individual or cultural perception of sexuality and gender will inform the kind of sexuality they read in the text of Barbie’s body; not merely through her plastic shape but through her clothes, accessories and packaging.

Fulla doll as packaged

When researching my original post I was struck by the many examples I found of non-Western or “Other” Barbie dolls. Essentially the same de-genitalised body within, their external appearance is branded to appeal to “Other” markets, mainly in the Middle East, where religion and culture clamour for alternative female role models to Barbie. What I find interesting is that Barbie’s body is so much more dangerous in these markets than her competitors’, despite the, if you like, “biological” sameness between them. Looking at dolls as if they are “texts” or “performances” of womanhood, to play with which invokes an act not only of spectatorship but participation in the performance itself, it is arguable that Barbie threatens through her very capacity to create and invite spectacle. Her clothes, appearance and packaging shout “look at me!” – and as Aqua sang, she seemingly invites the process of undressing. In contrast the non-Western dolls seek, like the women they are designed for, to be kept within traditional “feminine” modes of display.

In her packaging Fulla usually wears a hijab or traditional Muslim outfit, but she also comes with a “private” outfit to wear at home; modestly her skirts extend below her knees, sleeves are never shorter than 3/4 length, and her hair remains covered. Looking at the popular Fulla doll’s official website, we find that the act of female undressing is not merely discouraged but physically prevented, by the irremovable “bathing suit” beneath her garments. The website boasts: “she is the only doll in the world that is not completely naked when you undress her.”

Sara doll with her brother Dara

Here I think we must return to Oliver’s comment: “one could equally claim that the negation of genitalia comes from a place of shame and, in fact, acts as a kind of diversion or evasion.” Perhaps pre-empting expected “Western” response to Fulla, the promotional team are eager to assert their doll’s legitimacy as a representation of womanhood, building up a construct of desirable, and therefore culturally valid, “femininity” – “Don’t for a second think Fulla is boring in any way! Fulla is trendy, Fulla is smart. And …. Fulla is modern! She loves shopping, cooking, reading and praying, just like all the other girls.” Deliberately distancing themselves from negative media associations of traditional Muslim dress and behaviour, Fulla’s image of femininity responds less to sexual difference to men [which is negated by her de-genitalised body] than to different images of female  sexuality – with the emphasis upon being  “just like all the other girls” – accepting this definition as authoritative. Although the language here is inclusive [unlike the negative either/or dichotomy traditionally defining sexuality], Fulla’s physical being is still exclusive, in a way that Barbie’s is not. In Barbie, de-genitalisation is a lack openly displayed, and so informs the visual performance of femininity and female sexuality whether its audience chooses to “act out” or “play” genital sexuality, or asexuality. Fulla does not present this choice: genital “lack” is negated by the covering of the body and its performance as a constructed “whole” devoid of the source of female sexuality.

Fulla

Fulla’s sale in 2003 coincided with the warning of the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful.” Barbie was outlawed, and Fulla, along with the later dolls Sara and Razanne, provided the acceptable alternatives. I found the words of a mother on Islamic Voice particularly interesting: “Jenna never tried to take Razanne’s hijab off, though Barbie was usually stripped naked.” Emphasis is also placed again on Razanne’s “private” outfits – “Lest  people think that she’s all about praying, there’s In-Out Razanne, whose wardrobe also includes a short, flowery dress she can wear inside the home, in view only of men in her family.” The very phrase “In-Out” implies a dichotomy between public-masculine and private-feminine space, less breachable perhaps in Razanne compared to Fulla’s concessions to modern style and practicality.

Fulla

The association of female space with private, domestic, zones is also implicit in the limited career options Fulla and Sara have access to. Although both dolls are apparently keen students at school, their aspirations are to be “dentists, doctors and teachers” – whilst this may seem embracingly liberal, it is clear that these simply fall into the category of acceptable careers. These are not presented in a dichotomy with transgressive career paths, but with the vocation of a housewife and mother. Sara and Fulla’s characters are both younger than Barbie and thus subject to a strong parental influence: for example, Sara’s father works for the “Iran Cultural Heritage Organisation” whilst her mother is a housewife. Both parents uphold traditional gender roles and are portrayed as role models to their daughters. Barbie, on the other hand, comes with little biographical ancestry – she acts instead as the role model to a kinship network of younger siblings, and also has access to a male community in the form of her on/off boyfriend Ken – definitely not an option for Sara, Fulla or Razanne.

Razanne in her packaging

Having said this, I must take issue with my own phrase “not an option” – for as Oliver has asserted, “it is up to the person playing with the doll to decide.” Sara and Fulla’s carefully protected bodies may theoretically ensure the “correct” delineations of public and private space, dress, and behaviour – but the chaos of play asserts the child’s right to transgress the rules. Regardless of whether their doll wears a hijab, hotpants, or irremovable bathing suit, and regardless even of the presence of genitalia, there is no more an authority which can prevent the player “acting out” sex scenes than they can effectively stop the player having sex themselves. Socio-cultural or religious ideology can affect only the player, not the doll; for even if ideology is transcribed upon the text of a doll’s body, the audience can choose not to read, to cover the message, or to wilfully ignore or misinterpret it. Implicit in playing is spectatorship; not passively accepting an image or ideology, but reacting, perhaps unpredictably, to it.

I’m going to leave off here as my word count is making me anxious – look out for Barbie Post. No 3 in the future! The photos are not mine and can be found here [Fulla], here [Razanne], and here [Sara].

“You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere” – “Barbie Girl”, Aqua

15 Oct

I’m a blonde bimbo girl, in the fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky…
You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”

In 2002 Mattel Inc sued MCA Records, the producers of Aqua’s song Barbie Girl, for their overtly sexualised portrayal of the children’s doll. The case was unsuccessful, with the judge ruling that the song was acceptable social commentary. Having dressed up as “Barbies” on Saturday night for my housemate Clev’s birthday, I at first decided it would be interesting to explore the decisions behind our own representations of the doll, but then turned to the preoccupation in the media with Barbie, sex, and female body image.

Barbie was launched in 1959 as a Westernised version of the German fashion doll Bild Lilli, produced between 1950 and 1964. Bild Lilli had started life as the cartoon creation of Reinhard Beuthien; a representation of the sexually liberated post-war woman, she was depicted with captions that emphasised her new place in the socio-sexual and political world. One image showing her with her boss [she worked as a secretary] quips “As you were angry when I was late this morning I will leave the office at five p.m sharp!” The first Lilli Dolls were marketed to an adult audience in bars and tobacco shops, and despite the disapproval of some parents she evolved into a children’s toy, with a range of fashion accessories, houses and furniture.

Barbie in 1959

So – this was Lilli, but who is Barbie? The story goes that Ruth Watson, an American mother, noticed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, sometimes giving them adult roles. Watson saw the German doll Lilli and modelled her own version for market in 1959, naming it after her daughter. The market for young girl’s dolls seems to offer two choices – the “infant” doll, to whom the child assumes a motherly role, and the “adult” doll, a role-model for the child’s emulation. Although dolls are primarily marketed and sold as female toys, Action Man and Ben10 offer “masculine” choices for young boys. There is a clear gender-role division whereby the infant dolls are marketed solely to young girls, shaping the stereotype that girls will grow-up to have children and be there sole care-providers. I may be wrong but I have never yet seen a “masculine” infant doll that asserts the right and ability of a boy to grow-up and be a stay-at-home Dad. In my eyes this is just as problematic as the perceived sexual element of a Barbie doll, which undoubtedly stems from the viewpoint of feminists like Ariel Levy, who in her work Female Chauvinist Pigs condemned Barbie as a “sex doll,” as well as her origin in the Bild Lilli. Certainly within the mainstream media it is not hard to find images of sexualised Barbie dolls, for example in More magazine’s latter pages, where they are used to demonstrate sexual positions to readers. Although marketed at an older audience than the dolls themselves, such magazines can easily fall into the hands of younger siblings, and in an age where Barbie is as prevalent online as she is in shops, finding sexualised images of her through Google is not at all challenging either.

The problem with this for me, is that Barbie dolls [both the female and male version], have no sexual organs. Sexualising a barbie doll is sexualising a eunuch, and perhaps a reason why Barbie, rather than Ken, attracts so much media attention – emasculated Ken has little authority in the development of a masculinity defined on male and female sexual difference. True, Barbie has breasts, long legs, a teeny-tiny waist and a  bottom, but I would argue that again, none of these bodily parts are sexual organs, they are parts of the female body that have been claimed by a male discourse that portrays them as desirable, and so sexual. Thus Barbie in herself is asexual – but through a male gaze [a gaze which inevitably penetrates the female, for aren’t we all concerned by how desirable we are to men?] her figure is sexualised. The problems do not end here, however – accepting that Barbie represents a product of masculine desire, the question arises: why do moralists assume that girls are more impressionable than boys? Whilst media attention is sporadically given to the damaging [or reinforcing] effects violent computer games have on masculinity, the issue of female sexuality and its susceptibility to external influence is so much taken for granted, and indeed ingrained within us, that it is hard to escape. This manifests itself in the much greater protection of ideals of femininity – for example the media outrage at beauty pageants conducted for young children or make-up ranges designed for the prepubescent – compared to a much more laissez-faire approach to young boys’ exposure to the sexual world, for example through porn [again, available readily on the internet for anyone to find]. Unfortunately the masculine sexual ideal is to be dominant and protective of the weaker, and more susceptible, feminine – therefore this is a cycle that is likely to be self-repeating until such sexual-stereotypes are broken down.

Barbie in the Nude, 2011

There is however, in my view, a positive interpretation to Barbie’s association with female sexuality. Having studied the dichotomy of sex vs intellect that moralists and masculinists imposed upon the “New Woman” who saught liberation from Victorian sexual ideals in the 1890s, the figure of Barbie becomes a cultural icon representing the victory of this struggle decades later, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and onwards. As women entered previously “masculine” workplaces they were caught between a desire to maintain their gender identities and reclaimed femininity, but also to achieve success in an environment defined and dominated by masculine parameters. Barbie, in her many career guises, asserts the idea that women can be both “career girls” [see the 1963 and 1999 editions], whilst retaining the right to be lovers and mothers. In other words, their sexuality was not in a dichotomy with intellect, whereby choosing one eroded the value of the other – they could choose both. Barbie furthermore posed in aspirational identities, such as the 1965 Astronaut Barbie, who was designed even before the first man had landed on the moon.

Barbie could choose her career, but she could also choose to have a family, and a boyfriend/husband in the form of Ken. Although the official line was that all the younger Stacey’s, Skipper’s and Shelley’s were Barbie’s sisters, as a child my dolls formed nuclear family units, usually with extra women in each household as friends and relations, as my gender ratio was extraordinarily overbalanced – I only had two Kens’s to service dozens of women. Interestingly these two Ken’s formed what I would now call “conservative husband Ken”, who had plastic moulded brown hair and wore sensible clothes, went to work, and whose head stuck out the sunroof of the pink BMW; and “surfer boyfriend Ken”, who had “real” blonde hair, a bead necklace and “beach” style clothing. But this is getting besides my final point in this already over-long consideration of Barbie. In an age where the media calls for greater Sex Education in schools and at younger ages, arguing that the current curriculum offers advice “too little, too late, [and] too biological,” the very sexual element of Barbie dolls must surely be of benefit to the exploration and development of young girls’ awareness of their own bodies; more helpful I would argue in an environment where sexuality is readily available than prolonging innocence, or ignorance. This is not only relevant to a consideration of issues like sexual health and STD’s, but also to shouting the message that female sexuality is not dangerous or weak, but that the right to sexual liberation, exploration and satisfaction belongs to women just as much as men – and we need only to open the pages of More magazine, with their Barbie dolls instructing and guiding, to tell us exactly this.

Barbie and her Dreamcar, 2011


“We Can Do It!” – J. Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter

6 Oct

"We Can Do It!" - J. Howard Miller's Rosie the Riveter

 

J. Howard Miller’s image of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic factory girl of the American second world war propaganda machine, demonstrates visibly that beauty in a woman is not incompatible with brains and brawn. It also loudly shouts that women can operate just as successfully as men, even in traditional areas of “masculine” expertise. Now my housemates and I may not be about to commence work in a munitions factory, but we have recently taken on the “masculine” world of flat-pack furniture. What is more, we have tackled it without masculine assistance!

I should begin by explaining that as a child my preferred toys were Barbies, alongside other dolls, soft toys, and figurines. Lego simply did not come into the equation – although my mother informed me recently that I did possess some for a brief stint when I was very young. It was evidently a phase that did not last, for I distinctly recall in first school attempting to cheat and choose arts and crafts over building blocks above the permitted number of times. Whatever my tactic was, it didn’t work, and I was reprimanded by an exasperated teacher and forced to go and play with those dreaded bricks! Things have not advanced much since, with imaginative simulation games such as the Sims far outweighing strategic or logical computer games in my repertoire. This is not to say that I sucked at Portal 2; but it did take me rather a few attempts to finally defeat Wheatley.

The same story returns when we come to the matter of a flat-pack desk, this particular one in the possession of my housemate Clev. The first hurdle was presented in analysing whether the flat-pack boxes would fit in my car. It transpired none of us owned a measuring tape. Measuring tape duly procured, and after much configuring of seat angles, we decided it would – but only with two out of the three of us in the car at the same time. I should probably mention that my car is a Ford Fiesta, not exactly designed for transporting bulky items of furniture. Anyway, we drove to Ikea [and I wonder how many Rosie’s would even have been able to do this?], found the aisle, whizzed the boxes on the trolley to the loading bay, and after a bit of shoving and budging, managed to not only squeeze in the desk and all three of ourselves, but a bookshelf, all of our handbags and shopping, and also a French Baguette [after all this hard work we were having cheese fondue for dinner!].

The next hurdle to present itself was the actual construction of the desk [after actually getting the boxes upstairs, also quite a feat]. This was a three-woman job: Clev read the instructions and did the hammering, I did the screwing [cue hilarious jokes], and Puce, well Puce mostly just watched Jeremy Kyle. I think it is safe to say that the project was an overwhelming success. There may be one or two screws missing from the right door hinge which accidentally got removed and refused to go back in, but hey, the door opens and closes which is all it is required to do! It also looks rather splendid, in fact I think I may be suffering desk envy – my own specimen is rather battered and exudes lots of ‘character,’ i.e. a missing drawer.

Opening this month’s issue of Cosmo, it seems that all our manliness may actually have been “feminine” after all, with a statistic claiming that 72% of Britons think women are better at DIY than men. This doesn’t quite seem to tally with my experience of growing up with programmes like DIY SOS, where overwhelmingly women were left stuck with the product of their husband’s incompetence, and the men who came to rescue them were just that – men. The role of the curly-haired Deborah Drew was to pick the colours and decide where the furniture went, often coming to blows with the team; a somehow traditional duel between masculine practicality and feminine aesthetics. Perhaps the gender roles here are outdated; certainly the author of Cosmo’s article Do Women Still Need Men?, Gary Bainbridge, seems to disagree. He argues that women are not only better at “Woman Stuff,” but at “Man Stuff” too. He remarks: “it’s sobering to know that I can basically be replaced by a stepladder,” – although the notion that men are more likely to be taller and so able to reach things off high shelves [whilst admittedly completely true and relevant in my case], still reinforces a perception that men must be big and strong, whilst women are little and weak – and that that is the natural and desirable way of things. Take for instance the photograph of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s engagement, shown to us in a lecture on Tuesday. The image shows Charles as taller than Diana, his hand placed protectively, and possessively, on her neck. He is of course standing on a step; his masculine height an illusion constructed and presented by the media.

I’ve come a bit off the topic of DIY, but since I’m aiming to try and make these posts shorter I’ll refrain from moving on to analyse Sex and the City’s Samantha and the episode when she realises she has no man to fix her curtains – instead I will offer you a very grateful and warm thanks for reading this blog so far, and for all the lovely feedback you have offered! Especial thanks to Balloon [or should your nickname be Hot Air?] for being such a sweetie and motivating me to write this instead of going to bed like I should have done!

“My best friend is the [wo]man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read” – Abraham Lincoln

4 Oct

Bolstered by both the positive and ambiguous comments my first blog post has received [thanks especially to the person who said: ‘it made my head hurt‘], I have another offering for you. It seems somewhat cheeky to use this as an outlet for promoting a charity when I’m only on my second post, but hey, this is a charity about saving books and distributing them for free, and if you don’t agree with either of those principles then really you should just leave now!

Healthy Planet essentially buys crates of books, many in good readable and saleable condition, that are otherwise heading a lonely path to landfill. They then set up temporary shops in empty commercial buildings, where anyone can come and take away the books that tickle their fancy, absolutely free! [Although obviously donations to support the scheme are welcome].

Where I come into all this is that, along with my excellent front-of-house partner, Puce, yesterday I helped manage a store that has just opened in Southampton. For much of the day Puce took charge of encouraging people to come and look at the books, explaining why they were free [and fending off the weirdo who tried to recruit her as a bus driver!], whilst I rifled through the boxes and occasional fruit crates that yielded many forgotten treasures. Patricia Cornwell and Catherine Cookson were frequent finds; but alongside them were many literary prize-winning novels, popular classics, and a hugely delightful collection of vintage Pelican editions.

Books For Free, 03/10/11, Bargate, Southampton

Finding such books of course provoked the temptation to take them home myself; I did bring home a rather exorbitant seven, however I found that one of the most exciting aspects of the day was hearing someone say ‘Ooh, my mum said I would like this,‘ or re-discovering a book that they had intended to read but never gotten round to. Many people were also looking for books that a friend or relative would like, or let us know that they would be passing the books on once they had read them themselves.

I always think of reading as quite an independent, solitary activity, but as this experience has reminded me, many of the books I read are given to me, or at least recommended to me, by a whole network of friends and family.  I will forever be indebted, for example, to my friend MJ who gave me a copy of Northanger Abbey that she had received free in a women’s magazine. She realised it was more my sort of thing, and was entirely right- an enduring love for all things Austen was born!

Of the seven books I brought home, I thought all but one were written by women. Of these six, I was only right about five. The Secret Scripture, it turns out, was written by Sebastian Barry. What is interesting however is that all these books are written about women – actually no, I’m going to have to retract that statement as I just checked the blurb of Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris, whose hero is a man. The other works of Harris’s I have read were all about women, so there we have it – a gender assumption in action!

Is there a foolproof statement I can make about gender in my book choices? I suppose I can say: many different kinds of women are represented. Barry depicts a mental patient; Antonia Fraser real women in The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England.  If “women’s lot” and a mental hospital sound a little defeatist, let’s compare it to the opening pages of  Jackie Collin’s Poor Little Bitch Girl. Our femme fatale is Annabelle Maestro; loaded with the profits of her own and other women’s bodies, she has broken free from her familial identity and forged that of the successful Belle Svetlana. In these pages her male clientele are represented by a young, inexperienced boy; the women are in charge both sexually and financially, with Svetlana living in her own house and supporting the habits of her junkie boyfriend. She is, so far, anything but The Weaker Vessel of the characters depicted.

Of course I have only reached the end of chapter one, and it remains to be seen whether Svetlana retains her dominant position, or becomes ‘A tale of modern female submission‘ – the tagline of a book I saw in Ann Summers recently. Whilst volunteering with Books for Free what struck me most was the sheer number of books that were written about women – women who fall in love, have careers, get married, have affairs, commit murders, run households, have sex, have children. Through the narrative their “labels” change; they are chicks, housewives, victims, home-wreckers, bitches, mothers, wives…usually defined through their relation to male characters; and when engaging with women, companionship is often overlooked in favour of jealousy and competition. It’s something I’ve noticed especially this summer when reading the Elizabeth Chadwick novel A Place Beyond Courage – words saturate the dates where women collide with men; but I am interested in the unwritten words that fill the spaces between these pages.