Category Archives: Thinking about the past

‘Wow! Am I so ready for this change?’

When I first watched Frozen I was pleasantly surprised. At least, it’s the women who sort their crisis: Sven doesn’t get there in time, not that he could do anything if he did. And Anna is after all pretty plucky, despite her stupidity over evil Prince Hans. And the whole Frozen story is about how we deal with fear and how love and acceptance can resolve this – positive and hopeful, if naive. So, I’m not a Frozen hater (well, I am in that – If I see one more bit of merchandise….hear that song…. Argh! kind of way), but something I read this week made me think some more and question whether the films our girls are watching are really moving forward in terms of their portrayal of women.

Linguists (Fought and Eisenhauer) have completed a study which reveals that increasingly – with the exceptions of Tangled and Brave – Disney films over the last 30 years have seen women speaking for considerably less time than men; Frozen sees men speak for 59% of the time and The Little Mermaid, a staggering 71%. Yet, back in the days when Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty hit the celluloid – in spite of their subservient roles and appearance-motived plots – it was the reverse, with female characters speaking the vast majority (71% in Sleeping Beauty, 60% Cinderella) of the lines.

Now, part of me immediately recoils from this conclusion that the proportion of lines given to women is critical in this debate for several reasons: it’s obviously down to the story – the three good and one wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty are all women. Looked at from the male perspective, Cinderella doesn’t have step-brothers for instance (although it is interesting that Cinderella’s father is cut out of the plot which doesn’t help the gender imbalance). It’s obviously the case that what the genders say and how characters evolve is the critical factor in how roles are being defined. And these stories are set in the “olden days” where people didn’t have women diplomats and women  administrators.

We can’t make the past a Feminist idyll. And the beauty and romance of enjoying stories from the enchanted age of castles and frilly ball gowns is still one to watch even if there aren’t men changing nappies and women changing tyres.

Linguist Karen Eisenhauer, who co-wrote the report thinks Disney has shown a tendency of seeing men as “the norm” (great line!) but the serious point being made was that when Disney go about choosing more incidental speaking characters – shop keepers, fishermen, diplomats or just funny characters – these are usually men. So you may well have strong female leads, but women have the crises, they don’t just live; they don’t have small, comic parts; they are not simply there.

I think it’s fair to say that Disney should be on guard against immediately chucking a man into a role which could be filled by either sex.  Report co-author Professor Carmen Fought continues:

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way….. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Now, I seriously tried not to gender-stereotype my children. I don’t know about you, but I could not get my son interested in pushing a dolly in a pram, and his main interest with the plastic cooker was mending the doors with his Bob the Builder tool kit. And with my daughter, I resisted pink…honestly, but it was like squatting in front of the Niagra Falls – personally I think our children aren’t quite so easy to deter from the stereotypes and there seem to be some ingrained tendencies, much as it bemuses and faintly concerns me.

But that caveat aside, clearly what our children watch – especially as these days it dominates parties, toys and every little thing you buy – does influence them greatly. The study also shows how women are valued far more for their attitudes and abilities than their beauty in recent years, and to be honest that matters to me far, far more than how many lines they have.  Worth noting that the study shows that the two films in recent years which have bucked the trend for female lines – Brave (74% women) and Tangled  (52% women)- have both been written by women and Disney is clearly aware of the sensitivities.

Thinking about this study though, has left me drawing a slightly different conclusion about how to model inspirational women: it’s not so much about the predominance of a character (in so much as the lines) or the casting, it’s the choice of story made into a film which needs greater consideration.

I think we need more female writers and directors to generate the sorts of films that hold up for our children women of strength, passion and integrity. At the same time, I certainly don’t want a ‘Feminist agenda’: let’s also see men of strength and integrity and women and men working together – be great if that was “the norm”.

So what do you think? Does it matter how much women are on screen? What determines how children view gender?

 

You may well want to take a look article from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/researchers-have-discovered-a-major-problem-with-the-little-mermaid-and-other-disney-movies/

 

 

 

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Did they wee in the olden days?

I think the Victorians in this picture would seriously get the vapours if they heard my 4 year old daughter’s question. They wouldn’t realise how alien they look; how they don’t look like they do anything as mundane as wee!

I suppose the past is so easy to romanticise; we do it, but our children maybe do it even more. And the more I think about it, the more I think we construct a false idea of history and then learn from it.

I read an article recently where someone was passionately asserting, as if there could be no contradiction, that things are so much harder for children today than ever before.  Terrorism and the “media” were the main reasons given. And I don’t minimise either the fear and threat of Terrorism, nor the terrifying power of the internet: something I feel very strongly about.

But, I do think we have both romanticised our view of history and perhaps even ‘romanticised’ our current reality: are we really living like we’re people on the brink of an apocalypse?

What about the day-in-day-out terrorism of class prejudice which, while still a major and under-recognised issue today, was acutely relevant to daily economics, politics and social pressures not even a hundred years ago. In London slums  in Victorian times more than half of the babies died before their first birthday.  It could be more like 75% in areas where epidemics were taking hold (Museum of London/British Library). Tuberculosis, small pox, cholera and death in childbirth dominated daily life.

Is it the idea of strong family units that makes us “nostalgic” for life back then? The idea that there was an extended family that helped with mugs of bovril and a raging fire on the range? It is a lovely image, but it doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. What exactly would your life be like as a Mum aged 13 sharing the cramped family home with your Mum/Aunt/Grandma bringing up your own child with a secrecy born of shame?

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And this is the model we judge our own society against? Strong family values, helping people against all the odds, grinning and bearing it, coping, putting family first? Sure, but what would you write about if you were blogging around the turn of the century? I’m not saying everything’s better now – it obviously isn’t and there are huge pressures on our children today, not least through an increasingly bullying social media and a potentially threatening world wide web inevitably escaping control.

The idea that we learn from history is parroted ad absurdum. If we do, it’s not clear what we’re learning from and therefore what we’re learning. I don’t think we were innocent then and I don’t think we are now. We construct history, put it out there and then use it to judge ourselves pretty unfairly in the process.

So the next time you feel you don’t come up to scratch as an earth mother, resorting to a DVD or a can of baked beans…or you look at your not very 2.4 family and think you’re grandmother would be turning in her grave, just remember the Mothers who weren’t allowed to love their own children, the fathers who weren’t allowed to marry the mothers of their children, and the children who weren’t allowed to know the love…or even the names of their own parents.

And the next time you meet someone who – like me – had a medically prescribed C-section, not being too posh to push, too lazy, too….pick your adjective because non C section Mums have had a whole store chucked at them…. remember the Mums who died or were left incontinent for the rest of their insanitary lives, and be proud you live in a world which is, on many levels, so much safer than it was.

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I’d love to wear those ethereal ’20s dresses sported at the Ritz by Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. I’d love to have a good old fashioned Knees up Mother Brown and pint of stout at a good old East End boozer in Call the Midwife.

 

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But even aside from the tragic disadvantages of a less medically advanced society, the people in those stories are not inoculated against emotional pain. They fall out of love, they cheat on each other, they fight with their parents and siblings and they see their dreams fade – this is what it means to be human. But for every one that falls out of love, someone falls in….someone is faithful, someone is a good friend through it all and someone sees dreams come true.

If our children pick up from us the “good old days” mantra, they’ll carry it on their shoulders just as I reckon we do. We shouldn’t be judged by another era, but neither should we judge those other eras more favourably than we judge our own. Humans mess up and humans do wonderful things. It’s important our children realise the similarities as much as the differences across the generations. History today seems to focus far more on the differences, as if electricity changed the running of the human heart.

What do you think? Do we give our children a romanticised view of history? How does our view of history affect how we live our lives? What impact might that have on our children? Please share.