“The Truth will make you free. But first, it will really piss you off!” –Gloria Steinem
When I was young and of some indeterminate age, I noticed how girls were largely absent from the cartoons that I loved to watch. The main characters and sidekicks seemed to (nearly) always be male, and the female representation was mostly limited to one character. Moreover, the female character tended to be a bit part, a sideline to the main story. And this lack bothered me, right from the outset.
One of my favourite authors around this time, Enid Blyton, also disappointed and shocked me with her gendered bias. The girls steadfastly performed domestic duties inside the home, whilst their brother would always be involved with the outdoor activities. A sign of the times you might argue. Probably true. But there were times when the boy, Jo, got to go adventuring whilst the girls stayed behind to do stimulating tasks such as ironing. Ironing trumped adventuring! And this was written by a woman! At the time I puzzled over how she could do this; choose to write those words when she could’ve written others. After all, it didn’t need to be realistic and in accordance with the prevailing societal norms – it was fiction after all!
At the time I didn’t realise how our gendered beliefs can be rendered so invisible to ourselves and others. How we can write about cultural truisms as if they apply universally and across history. But, now I understand more about our gender filters; that in short, our gendered beliefs are so deeply entrenched, so core to how we interpret the world and so early developed in our lives, that we find it difficult to disentangle them or hold them at arm’s length long enough to enable us to question their validity.
One example if you’ll indulge me. Take the issue of employing quotas to enable more women to be in positions of leadership and power. This is not a popular option in the corporate world of Australia currently. They implicitly challenge the existing status quo for instance. But the main concern of those who oppose quotas seems to be this: that the best person for the job won’t get it with a quota in place (implying of course, that the current system succeeds in employing the top person for the job). It is argued that a quota system will confer unnatural and therefore unfair advantages onto those who don’t have the necessary skills/experience/capability. (Naturally, the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and class in the makeup of people who command our highest levels of position and power is not considered).
And this sets up an interesting binary in my opinion. Either, we agree that white, middle and upper class (and mostly heterosexual) men have the greatest intellect, skills and capacity for leadership over men from all other backgrounds, plus all women, regardless of their individual skills/experience/capability. (Since in our society, they are the ones that occupy the vast majority of our executive level positions). Or instead, we consider that it’s not just about who is the most capable person for the job, it’s also about whom fits in best within the existing setup. In other words, either men of a specific socio-economic and cultural demographic are truly our superiors and deserve these positions unquestioningly, or they have been given a leg up (in large part), because they look and behave like the people who hire them. You decide.
But back to girls and their absence in visual pop culture and my feminist awakenings. Like any burgeoning awareness, once something is noticed it is difficult to shut it down. And I didn’t need to look hard to witness how girls were mostly absent in mainstream media. On many television shows and films of my childhood men stood front and centre. Think of Star Wars and Doctor Who. Think of the Thunderbirds or the Muppets. Think of Road Runner or Tom and Jerry. Or the highly dubious male to female ratio in The Smurfs (11:1). There are too many examples.
It was reflected in my High School English classes. We read about boys and men. Books like Of Mice and Men, Kes (how I hated that!), Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. I don’t recall reading a book with a female protagonist or heroine (and how I yearned to!). Boys and men always directed the show and the action. The lives and feelings of boys and men were the entirety of options of what we could identify with. As a hormonal adolescent female I wondered at the sense of this. Firstly, why didn’t we study women’s stories? What did those stories lack? Were they not literature to be studied? Also, who were my role models to look up to and identify with? To share their triumphs and travesties? There was no mirror I could look through and see someone who resembled me either now or in my perceived future. And that frustrated me no end, and seemed mightily unfair.
Now, as an adult with some lived experience, I now wonder about the impact of this invisibility. What happens when your gender is so under-represented in our cultural narratives over and over again? What happens when your story (or your sister’s/mother’s/daughter’s) seems hardly worth telling and portraying? What conclusions can be drawn about the importance (or not) of the female gender in our society? And just as crucially, how does it affect boys and their understanding about girls and women? Could it be that one of the reasons that the female gender is perceived as mysterious and complicated is precisely because our stories are less visible and less told? That maybe, the essence of women’s “otherness” has risen from the silence around our narratives?
And let’s consider what happens when stories are told about girls and women. They are often sidelined and trivialised (for instance, a film being referred to as a “chick” film). They are marketed less in general and rarely to boys or men for mainstream viewing. (There’s that tired old chestnut that girls will see movies and tv shows about boys but not vice versa so therefore the status quo can’t be changed). These stories tend to centre on relationships to men or bitchy interactions with each other (hello stereotypes).
Women are not portrayed as game changers wielding any real power or influence. Women never save the world or change the course of history. Women never invent anything, create anything or influence the outcome of (almost) anything. Where are the stories about success and failure? Around nationhood and land? Around heroism and sacrifice? Around mateship/bonding or sisterhood? Around making choices which affect the lives of many others?
This is what I gleaned from my consumption of mainstream media growing up – that essentially girls and women didn’t count, otherwise we’d show more stories about them. (And what a powerful message that is.)
Sometimes I wonder if I take it too seriously. Maybe it doesn’t matter what happens in the fiction/make believe/fantasy world. Maybe it bears little reflection on how women are viewed in our society. But yet, it seems to me that the fantasy world is like a form of collective imagination and storytelling. It is a place for playfulness, a place for rich tales and mythologies. A place where good mostly usurps evil. Where happy endings are the norm. A place a kid imagines themselves to be. A place a kid can pretend to be the one saving the world. But yet, these remain men’s narratives and men’s perspectives. It’s not to say men’s narratives are worthless, but there needs to be a balance and opportunities to enlarge the spectrum and hear women’s stories too. Otherwise we sell ourselves and our children short; indeed we dangerously skew their ideas around what is normal personhood, what constitutes a normal life with normal hopes and desires. This provides a limited script for how we understand ourselves and each other when one gender’s stories are unheard and rendered invisible.
But if we agree that this stuff is important, why then is this an area so overlooked and ignored? Why don’t we demand a solution such as instigating quotas for storylines and main characters for instance (particularly with kids shows)? Why doesn’t the fact that half the population’s stories and narratives are missing from mainstream bother us enough? Are we persuaded that the media we and our children consume has no real impact or consequences (to which I answer refer to the paragraph above)?
And finally, why does the status quo remain so similar to my childhood of thirty years ago?
That, my friends, is the most chilling aspect of all.
* Acknowledgements to Margot Margowan of the Reel Girl blog.