Girls Like Humour and Slapstick Too

I just watched Yogi Bear, the movie, with our five year old daughter. She loved it. Bears, slapstick, what’s not to love. (I on the other hand have some issues — the same issues I usually have about movies for children: one female character, the love interest, who exists only as  a ‘prize’ for a shafted male character, who is consistently referred to by Boo Boo not by her name but in dismissive fashion, and is actually listed in dialogue at one point as a kind of prize, along with food items. There.)

I have not yet seen Frozen. I’ve listened to Slate Culture Gabfest talk about Frozen and now I’ve listened to NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour crew talk about Frozen and there are a couple of reasons I don’t want to pay for box office tickets:

  • Frozen is apparently reminiscent of Tangled, of which I am no fan (because it contains the wrong kind of slapstick)
  • The lead animator said something dumb about how hard it is to keep girls looking pretty through a range of emotions (and his fans subsequently said he only said that because he was tired and he’s actually a brilliant genius etc)
  • Slate’s Dan Snyder has two daughters and didn’t think the sister relationship in Frozen was very well done at all
  • Two of the men on NPR’s Pop Cuture Happy Hour said that Frozen just isn’t funny enough.

Which brings me to my main point:

Stories starring girls don’t actually have to be earnest.

Feisty princesses don’t need to improve the world in serious fashion a la Brave. There’s no reason, Pixar et al, why you can’t make a film starring a girl who is genuinely, consistently funny. Where are the stories starring girls in which humour is the main point?

This is not to say that Frozen doesn’t have any funny moments at all. NPR explained that Frozen is a bit different from most similar films in that the jokes are not all jammed into the start — the film does in fact become more funny as the film progresses. However, it’s interesting to note that the men on that podcast didn’t think it was sufficiently funny.

Maybe this is the real reason why boys apparently don’t want to watch films starring girls? (Apparently.)

 

Feminist Film Review: Silence Of The Lambs

Silence of the Lambs is one of those films which I seem to watch every few years — always on a rainy day — because it’s showing on free-to-air TV. I first saw it as a teenager. (I was making Japanese flashcards in the living room and my mother was knitting, I think. It was raining outside.)

WILL THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?

For me, the annoyance was offset by the pleasure derived from a perfect response.

Clarice Starling is left out of a discussion between detectives and agents — all male — because her superior says he doesn’t want to discuss grisly details (in front of a woman). Rather than speak up at the time, Starling takes the opportunity to creep around a house and look for telling clues. Later, on the way back to head office, the guy who excluded Starling has noticed that she may have been put out, and explains that he was only trying to get the men out of there (or something). He says it doesn’t matter — tells her not to take it to heart.

Clarice Starling replies that indeed it does matter. The men look to him in order to know how to act, and so it very much matters. This is a feminist line if ever I heard one, and a satisfying one, too. Don’t we all love hearing fictional characters deliver great comebacks at exactly the right time? The kind we wish we’d been able to give…

The ending is significant in any story because of its positioning, and I’m noticing that a number of films which are otherwise feminist in tone don’t take the risk of leaving an audience thinking the message is too feminist friendly, because they almost take back any messages that might have been absorbed earlier.

In this film I made a gagging sound when Clarice is congratulated by her male mentor, who tells her that her father would be proud. Clarice Starling is thereby accepted into the world of men, but more significantly, the assumption is that she has been after male approval this whole time, and that her worth as a human being is dependent on acceptance of father figures. A father’s approval is indeed significant. But why not her mother’s approval, as a counter example?

Let’s not forget that in the story it is mainly young women being killed. (As usual.) A feminist may well be sick and tired of that. And no, the fact that several men are killed also is really no consolation.

There is also a variation on street harassment, from Miggs and also Hannibal Lecter, and although Miggs gets his punishment, Lecter walks free, which is necessary of course, otherwise there’d be no sequel.

Less believable to me is that almost the whole world seem against Clarice Starling. Obviously this is to build empathy in the audience, but it’s just a bit much that even the head of the prison is so lascivious. Sometimes I feel in stories that conflict is ratcheted right up and surpasses its effectiveness. The clumsy flirtations of the lab scientists have Clarice Starling in yet another sexually charged situation — do male writers think it even possible that a man does not interact in this way with a young woman? — but their efforts are less intimidating because of their nerd-cred. In real life, of course, a guy with nerd-cred is no more or less intimidating — this is a slightly annoying trope.

DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?

Given that the baddies are both men and Clarice Starling is as monomoniacal as the men she works alongside in regards to catching Buffalo Bill, no, Clarice never does talk to another woman about something other than a man. There is a scene in which she bounces ideas off her friend who is a woman, but they’re talking about work.

Is this a problem? Probably not.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

Very good, though looks slightly low budget by today’s standards.

The ending is problematic.

A few years ago I happened across the paperback in a secondhand book store and decided to actually read it in order to find out just how, exactly, Clarice ends up at the right house while the other police ends up at the wrong one. This is one weakness of the film, at least for dimwits such as me. Caught up in the action, I never did understand how they got the guy at exactly the right time. When I read the novel I worked it out but I’ve already forgotten the answer.

Needless to say — that old cliche — the novel is better than the film, though the two can exist quite happily in the world. It’s easy to forget that this was a bit of a groundbreaking novel, because so many similar have come out since.

On Multi-tasking

Should You And Yours Multi-task In Multi-screen World? from GeekDad at Wired

Are Men Or Women Better At Multitasking? from PsyBlog

When you can’t get anything done, do one thing from Time Management Ninja

Mardi Gras and Multitasking from Big Think makes an unusual link and argues that the brain likes distractions because paying attention is hard.

Feminist Film Review: Gravity

***SPOILERS ABOUND***. This is not a post for people who have yet to see the film, except for the final paragraph, which is safe.

DOES THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?

There has already been quite a bit of feminist commentary on this film, partly because there are so few action films with female protagonists, and also — unusually — for the billing. This is from Aaron Ricciardi writing at Huffington:

Here’s why I’m livid: Gravity has a cast of two actors, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. This is just a guess, but I’d say that Mr. Clooney is only on screen for about twenty minutes. Ms. Bullock, on the other hand, is never not on screen. She is the movie. So why, may I ask, does every piece of marketing material for a movie which pretty much features one actor and no one else for its entire ninety-minute running time look like this?:

SANDRA BULLOCK GEORGE CLOONEY

GRAVITY

Now, if the billing for Cast Away was laid out in the same way that Gravity‘s is, it would have looked like this:

TOM HANKS HELEN HUNT

CAST AWAY

Apart from the layout of the credits, I found other minor annoyances with this film.

1. The romantic banter between the Sandra Bullock character and the George Clooney character felt tacked on. If I were an X-Files shipper, I’d definitely be in the anti-romance camp. I don’t happen to think that every single story needs a romantic subplot, and this one certainly didn’t. The romantic subplot is that after George Clooney floats away, he asks Sandra Bullock to confess that she finds him attractive. Not much of a romance, admittedly, but it comes after flirtation and banter. The reason I’m disappointed in this is because women deserve to work in their chosen professions without necessarily being the object of banter from older male colleagues — in real life as in fiction. Likewise, women deserve to watch a scientist go about her work without that interference, even if it is George Clooney. Especially if it is George Clooney. Don’t the scriptwriters realise that had Bullock and Clooney remained professional with each other that this was the way to be cutting-edge? I’m sure that there are plenty of fans who like this in a storyline, but the problem is — for those of us who don’t — there is no reprieve.

2. In this story, with the experienced older man and the younger (though middle-aged) female engineer, the age and experience differential is supposed to justify the fact that all throughout the action, it’s Sandra Bullock who screams and panics, while the George Clooney character is affable, calm, collected and saves the woman to sacrifice his own life. IT COULD EASILY HAVE BEEN WRITTEN THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

…there was absolutely no reason for Clooney to sacrifice himself!!! Once Sandra caught him, he would be just floating there. A small tug on his tether would send him back to the space station. And as my wife put it, when you have a hold of George Clooney, only an idiot would let him go.

- What Does A Real Astronaut Think Of Gravity?

3. There seems to be a rule and the rule is this: If a female stars on screen and she is good looking (when is she not, in Hollywood?) the audience must see what her body looks like. In this film both characters are dressed in shapeless moon suits. We only ever see Clooney’s face. But when Bullock returns to the safety of a spacecraft she removes her moon suit and there follows an extended scene in which she lies suspended in the room in partially fetal position. The audience just so happens to get many chances for the eyes to linger upon Bullock’s lithe musculature. One argument is that the disrobing is a part of the story. This is true. My question is: Do astronauts wear boy-leg underpants under their moon suits? I honestly don’t know. If roles had been reversed and George Clooney’s character was the one to make it back to the ship, would we have seen him in his underdaks? While Clooney and others have made their fame based on a certain amount of objectification, as has Bullock, I think an audience would have been surprised to find a male astronaut only wore underpants under a moon suit. I would expect a long-john type of garment, given the weather conditions of space. Therefore, the partial dress of the female character in Gravity feels gratuitous.

Also, how was Clooney going to beat Anatoly’s space walk record if astronauts apparently don’t wear either a diaper or a cooling garment under their spacesuits? That would be one smelly suit. Although I have to admit, that Sandra Bullock looked much sexier in her tank-top and boy shorts than I did when I took off my spacesuit.

What Does A Real Astronaut Think Of Gravity?

DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?

The Bechdel test sometimes needs a little modification, with commonsense applied depending on the film, and Gravity is no exception. In its most literal interpretation Gravity could never pass the test because there is only one female character and it is therefore impossible that two female characters exist who talk to each other.

However, there is a scene which violates the spirt of the Bechdel Test. I’m talking about the hallucination in which Clooney miraculously comes back to the cockpit to tell Bullock how to start a spaceship which is out of fuel. Clooney delivers an inspiring lecture just at the point where Bullock is about to give up. In fact, she has already lain down to die. Clooney’s character not only talks about technical aspects of driving the ship (his speciality and therefore appropriate to the story) but also gives Bullock’s character a personal life lesson which brooches the topic of her dead daughter.

I realise this is an hallucination scene, but in the context of fiction, it’s all made up, so I will ignore this point when I categorise this speech as ‘a man giving sage advice to a woman’. The ‘Fairy Godmother’ moment was delivered by a know-it-all man, even though ‘it didn’t really’.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

Yes, it’s excellent. Floating free in space would be one of my greatest fears — though fortunately for me it’s not one that interferes with everyday life — and the pacing, the special effects and the non-romance related dialogue are excellent. It begins and ends in a good place. My heart was pounding the entire time. If you’re after a rise in blood pressure, this is the film for you, even if you’re not typically a fan of action films.

If you’ve been looking forward to the rare Hollywood film in which an intelligent woman gets to save the day, you may be disappointed.

On Rituals

It’s a truism that if you think you’re sick, then you probably are; the reverse is equally true.

Last night I watched a documentary called Teenage Exorcists, about three young women from America who travel the world with one of their fathers (the chief exorcist) banishing demons from folk who genuinely believe they’ve been possessed by Satan/Jezebel/Death, you name it.

These girls are like a real-life ‘cross’ (ha) between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Doo movies (mainly because I think Brynne looks a lot like Daphne).

Although the word ‘placebo’ didn’t come up during the documentary, I felt the very atmospheric ritual of exorcism — the showmanship, the drumming, the crowds, the screaming — demonstrates the power of rituals in general.

Why Rituals Work from Scientific American

The Power Of Rituals from Psych Central

Turns out that the link between rituals and placebo goes way back:

“Placebo buttons are a lot like superstitions, or ancient rituals,” the article reads. “You do something in the hopes of an outcome – if you get the outcome, you keep the superstition.”

- from Placebo Buttons Do Absolutely Nothing, at io9, you know, like that button you’re meant to press before you cross the road at traffic lights.

I have no plans to visit an exorcism ever, skeptic that I am, but I am wondering about how everyday rituals might provide a soothing, if not outright placebo, effect and what new rituals we might adopt in order to bring calm to everyday life.

A Place For Purple Prose

purple-paper

Apart from the fact that certain types of writing demand flowery language — a subset of the romance genre being a case in point — there are other uses for the sort of prose which otherwise reads so beautifully that it draws attention to itself. Sometimes such language has the unintended effect of drawing the reader out of the story. At other times there is a reason for it.

This is the opening of Chapter 12 from Kate Grenville’s The Idea Of Perfection:

Out at The Bent Bridge, the men were having their smoko. They had got the fire going, twigs crackling under the billy, the flames invisible in the brilliant morning light. Smoke drifted away blue under the trees and turned the slanting sunlight into great organ-pipes of powdery light.

In a story set in the Australian bush, this paragraph almost seems out of place, with its excess adjectives (brilliant, blue, great) and alliteration (slanting sunlight) and its grandiose metaphor (organ-pipes) and original but tenuous use of ‘powdery’ rather than ‘dusty’. But the prose continues like this, with an abrupt change in tone:

The red-headed one they all called Blue opened his sandwich up, showing the flap of grainy grey devon inside. He had caught the sun across his bare freckled back and his eyes were bloodshot.

Er, yuk, he said, and peeled it off the bread.

It was stuck like wallpaper.

He flung it into the fire where it lay across a stick, curling, darkening, starting to sizzle. He stuck the two slices of bread back against each other.

It now becomes clear why the first paragraph had been so beautifully written: To contrast with the earthiness of the men working on the bridge.

The ‘red-headed one they all called Blue’ is an example of typically Australian irony, in which case colour is mentioned now for a different effect — to bring us back to the reality of ‘Australia’. The Australian-ness of this man is continued with the colour red — his freckles, his bloodshot eyes. There is no longer any glamour associated with adjectives of colour.

The devon sausage sounds even more disgusting than it is when contrasted against the ‘organ pipes of powdery light’, especially since ‘powdery’ is a word that could equally be used to describe devon, albeit with a completely different emotional outcome.

The dialogue, too, of ‘Er, yuk’ portrays unembellished laconic disgust, with its harsh ‘k’ sound.

‘It was stuck like wallpaper’ is another kind of imagery — a simile this time — but it has a quite different ring to it, because wallpaper is such an ordinary thing found in old houses, whereas ‘organ-pipes’ conjures up a cathedral with its high ceilings, spirituality and melodious sounds.

Next we have the colloquial verbs of ‘flung’ and ‘stuck’; Germanic-derived words which emphasise the harshness of the environs.

All of this works much better, of course, because it occurs in opposition to a flowery opening paragraph, which shows off the author’s flair for language, but with an end in mind… other than showing off.

the idea of perfection kate grenville

On Reading A Lot, Quickly

When I was in Year Nine there was a nationwide attempt to get kids reading, and so a reading challenge, sponsored by a corporation I can no longer remember, was set in place.

Were there prizes? I don’t remember. There must have been, even if it was $50 for your school to buy more books for the library, because for one girl in our year, the stakes were mystifyingly high. I remember the girl’s glasses and her long curly hair because she had her picture printed in the school newsletter. At a high school of over 2000 kids, it was a big deal to get a mention in the newsletter and few students managed this level of fame over the course of five years’ secondary education. The girl with the glasses and the curly brown hair had read over 100 books in a matter of weeks. This seemed an impossible feat.

I had a friend who had volunteered as a school librarian during that period. It was well-known among the librarian-set that the girl with the glasses and the long, curly brown hair did not actually read all those books. Instead, she wrote the requisite synopsis on her reading log by taking cues from the back of the paperbacks before conjuring opinions out of thin air. She had been spending her lunchtimes fiddling the paperwork.

For what aim, no one really knew. I’m still a bit flummoxed by it. I suppose no teacher thought to cross check because who on earth would do such a thing? Lunchtimes spent alone in libraries copying book synopses is an unlikely leisure pursuit by any sane person’s estimations.

I was reminded of that girl with the glasses and the long, curly brown hair when I read this headline: 9-year-old girl devours 364 books in 7 months! though I’d like to clarify that I don’t automatically doubt the veracity of this particular achievement. I have also known in my time kids who are genuinely voracious readers, to a problematic point even, and nine-year-old Faith Jackson may indeed by a wunderkind.

More recently I have been listening to the Book Riot podcast, with Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky, who never seem to read anything I’m reading (okay so it’s the other way round) but who are each so enthusiastic about books in general that it’s infectious. I just want to rush off and read those books, or any books — all the books! These are two heavy readers who know a lot about books and publishing. So I was both reassured and disturbed to hear Rebecca say on a recent episode that no matter how she arranges her life, in any given year she can’t seem to get around to reading more than about 8o or 90 books per annum.

I’ve never managed that many. I also have a period of about 15 years in my life where I read nothing at all outside textbooks and work stuff. So I feel I have a lot to catch up on. For the past three years I’ve set myself the challenge of reading a book a week, and I have managed it — barely, each time — by including a few children’s books and comics, which can be read in a single sitting.

It fills me with horror and panic to think that I’ll get to the end of my life and will have most certainly failed, miserably, to read even a small subset of the books that I know I’d love to read, even if I work my way up to 80 or 90 books per year, as Rebecca does, and even if I lead a long and mentally astute life.

It’s almost enough to make a person rush out and read the backs of paperbacks, checking them off on some sort of reading log. Anything, anything at all to quell the Reading Demons who chase me through the labyrinth of book review sites, biting at my bookmarks and snarling at my spectacles, chanting, ‘Read, read as fast as you can! You’ll never catch up, no matter your plan!’