In support of Caitlin Stasey and herself.com

Caitlin Stasey’s name has been popping up all over the place recently after launching her new website herself.com early this year. The website features in depth interviews with women from diverse backgrounds and is accompanied by empowering nude photography. In an interview with Daily Life, Caitlin states that her goal in starting herself.com was “…to help demystify the female form, to assist in the erasure of coveting it, and to help celebrate the ever changing face of it.” This is after experiencing first hand, and noticing her friends and colleagues also dealing with the struggle for equality and to have their voices heard. I was initially skeptical because I wasn’t sure that more nudity would really be helping anyone, however after perusing the website and finding myself engrossed in learning about these interesting women I am completely behind the project.

Chelsea in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

The media in general provides images of only one type of woman. This woman appears in commercials for anti aging creams, she models lipsticks and she glamorises whitening toothpaste. She reads the news, she graces the pages of most women’s magazines and she strolls down the catwalk at fashion shows. She is, for the most part, white. She is able bodied; tall and very slim whilst still having large perky breasts. Her butt is large and firm and her hips are wide – but not too wide. She is young and has smooth skin, free of stretch marks, wrinkles or blemishes. She has large almond shaped eyes with long lashes, her nose is small, her lips are plump and defined and her cheekbones are prominent and high. She also doesn’t exist. Most of the images we see are photo shopped because even models aren’t deemed to be beautiful enough. In an article in the second edition of Womankind magazine called Killing us softly, by Antonia Case, an admission from an American photo editor for a popular women’s magazine is revealed. He confesses to piecing together a covergirl from images of four different women! This seems entirely unnecessary and serves only to make sure that the ideal way for women to look is absolutely unattainable.

The fact that the ideal woman doesn’t exist is the whole point. She isn’t meant to exist because we aren’t meant to win. We can’t rely on the advertisers and the media to realistically represent women because they NEED us to feel inadequate. There are literally entire industries that are financially dependent on women having low self-esteem. Women who feel like they are one amongst a kaleidoscope of different women and that each variation is worthy regardless of what they look like are much less likely to spend $200 on face cream. Women who frequently see other women in the media with bodies that are realistic and imperfect are less likely to spend their whole lives paying for diets and exercise regimes in a never ending battle to lose 10 pounds.

Milena in her photoshoot with herself.com

Milena in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

In addition to being deliberately unattainable, these depictions of women in the media are also viewed through the male gaze. The male gaze describes a well established and widely accepted theory that women are objectified in films because heterosexual males are in control of the camera. We view scenes in movies as through the eyes of a heterosexual male. This extends to advertising and media and explains the way that the camera often lingers or zooms in on areas of the female body considered to be sexual, and the way that women are generally portrayed as passive and available. This teaches women to view themselves in the way that heterosexual men would view them, and it tells them that their value is in their appearance and in approval from men. It teaches men to view women as objects without individual agency who primarily exist for male viewing pleasure.

It is important to talk about these issues and it is useful to highlight the ways in which most of the images of women we are exposed to are harmful, but we need more than this. We need things we can tell people to do to complement the long list of what not to do. This is what Caitlin Stasey has achieved with her new website. Her amazing photographer Jennifer Toole has captured images of women on their own terms, in ways they want to view themselves. Although limited in her selection of participants to those who volunteer, Stasey is achieving remarkable diversity in her subjects. This image of Chelsea shows us  how to photograph women in a way in which they are empowered. Milena shows us how the natural female form looks. Kate shows us that being a woman is not defined by your genitals. The more pictures we have that aren’t sexualising women the better.

Kate in her photoshoot for herself.com

Kate in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

One of the most common criticisms of herself.com are along the same lines as my original hesitations about the project. People wonder whether more nudity is really the answer. While I definitely don’t think that there is one answer to a problem that is a deeply entrenched and pervasive part of our culture, I definitely do think that empowering images of women such as those captured for herself.com are a powerful part of the solution. The overwhelming majority of images to be found online and in the media are objectifying and sexualising women. I can’t imagine how we can counteract the sheer volume of dehumanising pornographic images of women on the internet but we can start by supporting alternatives such as Caitlin Stasey’s project.

Stasey has created a platform that challenges popular media’s version of ‘normal’. Whilst a flick through any fashion magazine would have you believe that women should look like the ideal outlined above, ten minutes perusing herself.com clearly demonstrates that powerful, interesting and intelligent women come in all sorts of different bodies, and they are all beautiful. The depth of the interviews and the topics that they cover enhance this, making the women who are featured into actual people with agency – people with history, feelings, opinions, desires and dreams. Endeavours like this are necessary to challenge the currently accepted standard and give us a positive way forward in the push towards real gender equality.

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Our grandmothers guard a wealth of untold stories.

I went to lunch with my grandmother and two of her friends at the local RSL recently. We went to play the pokies and enjoy the $9.95 seniors menu. This is not an uncommon occurrence but for some reason the conversation on this day stayed with me long afterwards. We often think of old ladies in fairly simplistic terms. They stereotypically like their knitting, a cup of tea (lots of milk) and bake a great scone/tea cake/chocolate chip cookie. Perhaps on this occasion I actually listened to them or perhaps they were more candid then usual, but I came away with the acute realisation that they exist in a world that is completely alien to mine. These women have experienced so much. In between stories of incontinent late husbands, haemorrhoids and hernias they throw in casual references to recently dead friends or those still languishing in nursing homes. I discovered that between them they have nursed four dying husbands, two sisters, a brother and helped to nurse countless friends. Despite this all three had a wicked sense of humour. They joked about sex, how difficult it is to wipe up after a trip to the toilet when you have haemorrhoids and how they were trying out online dating (“I’m looking for a friend WITHOUT benefits”).

I was fascinated. How, having witnessed and suffered so much misery were they able to continue to face life, and their not so distant death with such humour and courage? The familiar Nana that I had grown up with started to take on new dimensions. Somehow I had never considered this before. Elderly women are invisible in Australian culture. I have never read a book by or about a woman of this age. I have never seen a movie or watched a TV show that has an elderly lady as the leading character. I have so few reference points. Then another thought struck me, with startling clarity – if I live long enough this is going to happen to me too. Statistically speaking women live longer than men and more often than not it is women who take time off work to care for elderly relatives.

How does it feel it be nearly 80? To not just outlive, but nurse one or even two dying husbands on your own. To lose a son, a best friend, a brother or sister and support your friends through their own losses. To have collections of equipment in your home for when the next person you love needs to be nursed. Bed poles, commodes, walking frames and boxes of medications to lower your blood pressure, raise your iron levels, lower your cholesterol, soften or harden your stools as the need arises. To visit friends and relatives in nursing homes and know that you too are getting older. To watch them waste away, looked after by staff who don’t seem to care in an organisation that seems to be more of a business than a care facility. To know that you are closer to death than birth and to know intimately what it means to die. To have lived with a partner for fifty years and lose him. To watch him slowly fade away as dementia steals all the particular special things that made him who he is, that you loved. To have had a busy loving family who needed you for such a long time and wake up one day to find yourself alone in your house. No one to care for and no one to care for you. To go to family dinners and events and feel like you and your opinions and experiences are no longer relevant. You are from a different era. To have your family start treating you like a child.

There are women like this everywhere. Mothers, sisters, wives, grandmothers. They have spent their lives doing all the unglamorous unpaid caring work that goes unnoticed. Raising a family, caring for relatives. They get up every morning, pull on their comfortable slacks, sensible non-slip shoes, white singlet and a blouse they got half price at Harris Scarf. They vacuum the floor that only three people have walked on this week and wash the two dishes from their dinner last night. They start giving away and donating the things they don’t need any more. “Can’t take anything with you where I’m going.” my Nana often says.

These women find the time and caring and the fucks to give about the countless, trivial problems of their children and grandchildren and then quietly go and have a mammogram, a mole scan, a blood test. Simultaneously preparing for death and doing their best to delay it. They unanimously agree over lunch that they want to go quickly. A nice stroke or a heart attack. They lament that voluntary euthanasia isn’t an option and then in the same breath tell me about how one of them took their terminally ill husband to a sex shop for the first time while he was still in a wheelchair. With the three of them cackling, the kettle is put on again as some more chocolate slice is retrieved from the fridge.

These women know how life starts and they know how it ends. They can reconcile the inevitability of death and illness whilst finding the motivation to get up every morning and face their lives with hope and love. I want to know how they think. I want to know what they think is important in life and what isn’t. What they would change and what they wouldn’t give up for the world.

I resolve to come back and start recording their stories.

Volume Verses Originality

I have realised in my attempt to complete the #YourTurnChallenge this week that I am quite hung up on originality, and I am sure that I am not alone in this. Once I see my opinion expressed somewhere else I hesitate to write about it. It feels pointless to articulate something I know someone else has already said. Recently, though, I am finding reason to change my mind and add my voice to the mix.

The Internet is a vast place. One person’s voice may get lost amongst the catacombs of porn and click bait. Even if that voice gets hosted on a popular news site or trends on twitter. When it comes to the kind of social change needed to stop misogyny, transphobia or racism we need to be hearing so many voices that change becomes inevitable. We need the right message to be everywhere, impossible to miss. This is what I mean by volume.

This goes for almost all issues of social change. One person saying something, regardless of how many people agree, doesn’t have the same impact as large numbers of people saying that thing. Mass consensus will cause people to look at an idea twice. If a message is popping up everywhere people who previously wouldn’t have considered it are more likely to investigate.

With that thought in mind I am going to raise my voice to join the clamour.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – A word about Valka

I had been looking forward to the release of How to train your dragon 2 and so was disappointed to read a review by The Dissolve that was critical of the portrayal of a prominent female character. The review by Tasha Robinson lamented that this very interesting female lead had amazing potential but that when it came to the crunch she didn’t do anything. She was saved by her husband in the major fight scene and then proceeded to disappear:

“…once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated. “

The character being discussed is Valka, mother to the stories protagonist, Hiccup. We are told that dragons attacked the Viking Island of Berk when Hiccup was a baby and carried Valka away with them. For the past 20 years she has lived with the dragons in their hidden frozen island cave, learned their secrets and become their friends. It is reported that she didn’t come back to Berk once she was able because she didn’t believe she could get the Vikings to come around and trust the dragons. She is intelligent, fierce and independent, yet vulnerable and tender towards her son and husband.

After watching the movie myself I disagreed with the Dissolve reivew. Yes I suppose she was kind of interesting, being a dragon lady and all and having this fantastic relationship with and knowledge of the dragons, as well as some pretty cool armour, but the story wasn’t about her. Her very premise wasn’t the best role model anyway; she left her family because she didn’t think she could change their minds. She left her infant son without a mother. I feel that the decision to have a child is a big one and that it comes with certain responsibilities – responsibilities which Valka shirked for a life of fun with her dragons while her husband Stoick raised their son on his own. Additionally, the battle in which Valka is ‘defeated’ by the villain is quite realistic. She is fighting someone who is about four times her size, of course she needed help!!

I then read another review, this one on The Daily Dot by Aja Romano entitled “Why ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is a radical feminist triumph”. It was a fantastic review and made a lot of really good points and if you don’t have a lot of time you should stop reading this and go and read that instead. This reviewer loved the way that Valka was not shamed for her choices by the narrative or her husband or son, and loved how badass she was. She says:

“…Hiccup instantly and immediately recognized that his mom’s choices were her own choices, and that they were obviously valuable and important. At no point did the narrative shame Valka for rejecting her role as a mother and a housewife.”

This is what I want to talk about.
I will admit up front that I am very new to feminism, and by this I mean I have only really been aware of what it is all about for maybe three or four months (but I am doing A LOT of reading!). I am all for women making their own choices and making them for themselves and not for everyone else. I am all for women not being expected to be mothers and housewives, and I am all for women finding their own paths and what makes them happy… however… I still don’t feel like it was fair of her to leave her family behind. Male or female, Viking or not, If you bring a new life into this world then you owe it the best chance possible to grow up happy and healthy.

Perhaps I am the one being unfair; I don’t have children and I am not a Viking woman (although I was delighted to discover that I may be descended from Vikings through my maternal grandfathers line). I am well aware that I have lived a very fortunate life thanks to my country of birth, my devoted parents and my middle class upbringing and perhaps I am missing something or I am unable to relate to this situation. If that is the case I would love to have my mind changed. Please, educate me!