Role models: who is yours?

An article about role models on the Guardian website set me thinking this week. I’ve written at length about my feelings on feminism and choice, on the Disney Princess vibe, and generally on the topic of women in society. I’ve complained about the celebrity obsession (by definition, a celebrity should be someone celebrated for their achievements – which should not included marrying a footballer, brain-addling via cocaine or drunk driving…) at length, although largely, with a focus on unhealthy body image rather than other areas of feminine empowerment. I’ve come at the role model question almost exclusively from a beauty-related self-esteem angle.

I’ve never really considered that young girls today might see the Amy Winehouse and Kerry Katonas of this world as role models. I’ve never thought about the inhabitants of the Big Brother house as anything but wannabes that the world either watches and shudders at, or switches channels to avoid. And I’ve never thought of  Cheryl Cole fans as anything other than impressed by her role as a successful and hard-working musician (let’s not pick that to pieces just now, eh?) and presenter – it had not occured to me that her role-model status related in anyway to her imbecile of a philandering footballer ex!

But then, when I think about my own role models, I realise that very few of them are modern women. Yes, I admire Christina Henrdicks for her relationship with her body, and yes, I think Kate Winslet is a rather marvellous example of how to do Hollywood without over-exposing every element of your private life to the paparazzi… but it really ends there, for “celebrities” at least. While I think both of these women are excellent role models in their own rights, I’m not sure they’re MY role models, as beyond their physical entities, I can’t relate to their lifestyles.

In fact, my personal role models have always been fictional characters whose personalities and strength of character I have admired. As a girl, it was Sara Crew (A Little Princess), whose acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity were inspiring to me. Similarly, Lucy Pevensie (The Chronices of Narnia) and Maria Merryweather (The Little White Horse) demonstrated courage and sacrifice beyond my imagination. Later – and to this day – the wit and vivacity of Lizzy Bennett combined with the serenity and gentle nature of her sister Jane, and the gracious dignity of Elinor Dashwood have all provided characters on which I have modelled my own behaviour in difficult circumstances. I do not pretend to reach anything like their levels of propriety, but I’ll admit to having addressed a situation with “What would Lizzy do?” on more than one occasion…

I suppose it comes down to different role models for different roles. I will confess to admiring Cath Kidston for making a successful business out of her love for kitsch. I admire various bloggers – Amber, Gemma, Sian, Cate – who have made their interests into their career and forged the path for we mere wannabes online. And all those craftspeople on Etsy who’ve followed their hearts to mint pennies out of passion (I’m looking at YOU Amy!)… Really I’m beyond impressed by anyone who has slogged hard and long in order to make their creative talents pay the bills!

I think we all need role models, something to aspire to, someone to help mould our behaviour and choices. And perhaps, if the celebrity pool is so shallow, we should be casting a wider net? Should we be looking back, as we would have in the past, to our teachers and female relatives, for inspiration? And what of our friends? There are few women in my own inner circle who haven’t faced adversity and come out the stronger for it, and the more I talk to those around me, the more I realise that the every day struggles every woman faces require strength of character and courage equal to any heroine I have ever read about. Look around you next time you’re in the office, at the supermarket, on the bus, and consider: the likelihood is that the polite smiles and poker faces are hiding pain, loss, heartache and fear.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we set too much score by celebrities as role models when the real heroines of the piece are the ones we see down the pub on a Friday night.

Call out for word junkies…

You know how much I love you all, my lovely readers… and I know a lot of you are also talented bloggers – international bloggers at that. And you all blog in English, whether UK English, American English, Canadian English or Pidgin speak.

I started in my new role at Macmillan on Monday, and am largely involved in pushing and progressing the social media element of the marketing programme. One of the soc med elements that is currently working particularly well is the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which looks at English as a language in all its guises, as a language of business, as a language of education, as a media-led means of communication, as military speak, as the language of the internet…. It discusses the linguistic element, the addition of new words to the dictionary and the fluid nature of words and grammar. If, like me, you’re a bit of a word junky, I highly recommend a visit.

One of the projects the Dictionary blog is undertaking this year explores English as a language on an international level. They are putting a call out for writers and non-writers to create guest blog entries discussing their own English. This is about celebrating your own brand of the language, your nation’s English, local dialects, even invented words. But here I’ll lift directly from Laine’s brief, as she phrases it so much better than I can:

So we’d like to hear about American English and Canadian English, Welsh English and Cornish English, Japanese English, Chinese English, Mexican English, Brazilian English, Scottish English, Franglish, Spanglish, ‘Stralian… we’d like to hear about Texan talk and the Queens dialect, about Geordie and Scouse, about Glaswegian vs Aberdonian, and about the words that you’ve only ever heard down your local. Whether you’ve got a story or anecdote to tell, an idea to discuss or a point to make, we want to hear about it.

If you think you might be interested and could help me out with a little (or long) post, please leave me a comment and I’ll email through the full brief. So many of you who read and comment regularly have such wonderful and varied ways with words, I just know you must have some interesting ideas about language usage. We won’t necessarily be able to publish every post we receive, but I’ll certainly be fascinated to read your opinions – and grateful to you all for helping me to impress!!

Thanks in advance, my lovely readers – I really look forward to your responses!

Disney vs Feminism II: the rematch!

I got some great responses to my Disney vs Feminism post yesterday, thank you all! But one, from Fia at The Laundry Narrative, really inspired me. I ended up writing a long reply to her comment… and eventually decided to address the issues in a follow-up post instead!

(This is why I love social media – so much opportunity for debate and interaction!)

Fia commented:

“I don’t always like the messages of femininity and masculinity that Disney teaches: There seems to be only one type of feminine character and one type of masculine character that is appropriate in these movies and anything else is villianized or ridiculed. I don’t see choice being presented in these movies.”

I agree that Disney promotes very specific ideals about beauty and gender. But I must point out that the shots in this reel were cut in such a way to prove the maker’s point rather than taken in context. Take the clip of Belle leaning seductively against the door as an example. Having tried every other strategy, this shows her finally giving in and using the only remaining weapon at her disposal – her “feminine wiles” – to get Gaston to the exit – which she then opens and unceremoniously pushes him out through. The clip being cut the way it is manages to depict her as a flirtatious cutie seducing her man, rather than a the unwilling object of an arrogant’s affections.

A lot of this study focusses heavily on Beauty and the Beast, on Gaston being the attractive, strong, muscled role model, despite him actually being the bad guy. By contrast the good guy – the Beast – is monstrous of appearance, kind and gentle, a deliberate subversion of the tradition that is the whole point of this classic fairytale.

What’s more, Gaston’s arrogance and overt masculinity are actually the subject of as much ridicule as (and a lot more hatred than) Lefou’s bumbling (and sometimes distinctly vindictive) chubbiness.

The point that masculinity is about standing up for the girl, acting as protector and ultimately fighting for what’s yours, while I don’t agree with the violent elements, I actually agree with in principle. We should stand up for ourselves and for the ones we love, whatever our gender. This isn’t to say that the princess couldn’t put herself between danger and her prince – and in more recent Disney offerings she often tries at least – but that in-keeping with their afore-mentioned ideals the heroine is often too waif-like to have any real effect and the hero, even if a scrawny street rat, has more chance of victory.

(This is often true across the idealised Hollywood scale – take the Branjen triangle. Lara Croft may be a mean shot, but I’m pretty sure Angelina would literally snap if a dragon got hold of her miniscule frame. Jen, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t even last long enough for grasping – she’d break the moment Maleficent turned her icy glare in her direction. Nope, even putting Ange and Jen in together, tag-team stylee, my money would be on Brad to dispatch the beast…)

The use of the fight scene in The Lion King as an example of violence between men is, to my mind, ridiculous. The story is about animals. In the animal kingdom, that is how lions demonstrate their superiority and hold onto their pride. We don’t pull the same film up for it’s degredation of women because Nala is one of Mufassa’s many “wives” – because that’s how a pride of lions works – that is their social structure. There’s nothing more to it than reality.

As for the rest, I’m afraid I don’t know Mulan well enough to comment, although the fact that masculinity in any armed force is measured by strength, speed and physical prowess is hardly shocking – it’s what keeps them alive in battle. But Hercules is directly rooted in myth. He fought and killed monsters, with his sword and his bow and arrow, and was lauded for it. The Greeks had a chiseled idea of perfection too – how about that? Maybe it’s not all Disney’s fault afterall…

But to place Disney in its wider Hollywood context, I challenge anyone to find me one film, one TV show that doesn’t conform to the same ideal of beauty WITHOUT ovetrly utilising it in the storyline. Ugly Betty may be about inner beauty, but that focus of the show is clear before a single viewing, is right there in the title. The same goes for films like Shallow Hal.

Or look at Friends, one of the most successful and most oft-repeated TV shows of the last decade. Fat Monica is centre of ridicule and humour in every single flash back, and often even laughed about in non-flashback episodes. Meanwhile, the cast get skinnier with every rise in ratings…

“Beauty” as we have come to expect it does not exist – it is created through lighting and airbrushing, digital liposuction, and yes, an army of Hollywood make-up artists, dieticians and personal trainers. When someone comes along to challenge the beauty status quo they are heralded before being beaten into submission. Their shape, size, colour or face becomes more important than anything else – Kate Winslet’s weight outweighed her acting in Titanic, Halle Berry was the first BLACK woman to win an Oscar, etc etc.

Disney has always favoured an unobtainable ideal, but at least we all knew – even as children – that it was a cartoon, not real life. I’m far more concerned about our children being exposed to digitally enhanced images than Belle’s miniscule waist, to Zac Efron’s painted-on abs than Hercules’ barrell chest. In a world where I can watch a programme featuring a group of anorexics and think “but they don’t look that skinny to me” (Supersize vs Superskinny, BBC3, I actually sat mesmerised, thinking that exact thought) I am more concerned about the modelling agencies and catwalk designers that promote a pre-pubescent ideal of beauty, the digital artists that shave inches of a size zero waistline, and the casting directors that would rather cast a waif than a woman in the heroine’s role than I’ll ever be about little girls who want to marry a prince.

Disney vs Feminism: when I grow up I want to be a princess

I have a secret to share with you, my lovely readers. I’ve written before about how I’ve never really grown up, how I still love children’s books and dressing up and regressing into Disney films and musicals on a Sunday afternoon. But that’s not the worst of my regressions. My big secret is that, somewhere deep inside, hidden away from all judgement and ridicule, a very big part of my heart will always want to be a princess.

Yes, yes, you read that right. I want to be a princess. I want to fall for a stranger in a forest glen surrounded by my animal friends, to dance around a ballroom with a beast before dropping my slipper on the palace steps, to ride in a pony and trap with Prince Eric, and see the world on a magic carpet with a street rat who looks suspiciously like Tom Cruise but with all the extremeties of his features ironed out and NONE of the crazy.  (And breathe!) I want to run around the village in floating peasant dresses and attend balls in enormous pouffy gowns, be presented with a library (can you imagine? I’m sorry, Marilyn/Lorelei, I see what you’re getting at, but I’d rather have books than diamonds any day!), to be tuneful and graceful and beautiful…

…gold of sunshine in her hair
lips that shame the red, red rose

…you get the picture.

My favourite childhood Disney princess was Aurora, and I distinctly remember my friend Lottie and I bonding early on in our acquaintance, dancing around the kitchen with a broom and a mop, singing Once Upon a Dream. I never associated with her physical features and I MUCH prefered Cinderella’s dress, but I wanted to be like Aurora, to be gentle and kind, graceful and musical, to dance through forest glens and sing the birds to my side… I can’t say I much cared for Prince Phillip, but I did like Samson, his horse.

Later I fell for Ariel with her trove of collected treasures (possibly the start of my red hair obsession!) and Belle with her books… I associated with these dreamers, lost in past objects and fairy stories much as I felt to be, clinging to something or somewhere else. Very slightly stubborn, but again gentle-natured, kind and graceful. In these latter princesses there was an emphasis on their intelligence, their unwillingness to settle for a life in Daddy’s palace, for the local sleazeball (oh how I loved Gaston though!) or for any of the pompous, arrogant suitors neighbouring kingdoms sent for the Sultan’s approval.

And I thought this was feminism. I thought it was about shaking off the shackles of what was expected of you as “female” and seeking your own adventure, following your own path, choosing your own man. I believed feminism was about choice.

Turns out I was wrong. Feminism, it seems, is about refusing little girls the escapism of pink and pretty and dresses and wanting to be a princess – because this alone preconditions them to a life beneath the glass ceiling.

Feminism is about confiscating dolls, because they force a nurturing stereotype, and because even if you give children warrior dolls, it seems, they would rather marry them off to the next-door neighbour’s Action Men.

Feminism is about forcing little girls down non-traditional routes – even if they want to cook, clean and raise the kids – because to play mother is to go against the cause.

And if all this is feminism, I want out.

As a woman, I want the choice as to whether or not to be a wife, a mother, a career woman – or all of these things. I do not want my femininity to be called into question if I don’t have maternal instincts, but neither do I want to be labeled anti-feminist for cooing over a baby in a pretty pink outfit or giving my neice an old bridesmaid dress to play princesses in. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I want it all. “It all” includes the family, the home, and the “happy ever after”.

If feminism means no more dressing up in my Laura Ashley frocks to watch period dramas, no more dancing around the living room while Deborah Kerr teaches Yul Brynner to polka, no more catching myself singing out loud in public places, then I’m through with it. I don’t want to overcome the oppression of men only to find myself limited by oppressive women. I want equality, not seniority, independence, not sovereignty.

I want choice.

(If you’re wondering what inspired this post read this article from the TimesOnline)

Getting to grips


Remember when I announced that I wanted to do more 40s styled outfits this year? And remember how I was trying to get to grips (no pun intended) with some more complex hair-dos and make-up techniques?

Have you noticed that my vintage styling has slipped somewhat? I’ve fallen back into comfortable modern clothing – little dresses, cardis and coloured tights – my staple wardrobe. After Easter I plan to start making an effort once again.

So, in an attempt to get inspired I have been trawling the interwebs for exciting images and tutorials. I started at the Mad Men blog, where there are behind the scenes features and video clips expanding on the series’ fashion. Through some cosmic coincidence, Lauren also happened to be writing a piece about 60s Mad Men styling for the Queens of Vintage, so I hopped on over there, only to find a tutorial by fabulous blogger Candice of Super Kawaii Mama. Which just goes to show that there is plenty of inspiration out there if you just start looking for it!

It also got me thinking about vintage men’s fashion, and how much I like a man who’s put effort into his dress. I am not one of those women who loves a man in a suit – it doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I actually prefer a man in baggy jeans and beads, but I think that’s because it is a definite “look”. It’s styled, if not individual. But the men on Mad Men are dapper – and dapper IS something I like on a man. There’s a dapper older gent in Leamington in fact – I see him often, most recently at the bus stop near my house last week, in his seamed slacks, navy blazer with red silk handkerchief in the pocket to match his red shirt, and fedora hat. He always says hello and asks how I am, which I think goes along with the outfit. You can’t be rude if you’re dressed politely!

Of course, it’s not just vintage styling and old-fashioned manners that the men of Mad Men epitomise. These are men who not only wear the trousers but have to actually fill them out. A move in favour of the dapper silhouette would eradicate the current trend to squeeze bandy bird legs with knock-knees into denimwear best suited to your average 7 year old. Have you seen the episode of the Mighty Boosh in which Vince Noir takes to a wheelchair in an attempt to encourage his muscles to waste away enough to get into a pair of ultra-skinnies? Satrirical, yes, but representative none-the-less!

This rather fascinating article about male model of the moment David Gandy links the move towards a more manly silhouette to the recession – our need to fall back on the traditional “strong arms” and sturdy shoulders of a man who can bring home the bacon, and who will clearly and willingly eat it! Polly Vernon (yes, her again!) talks about the sudden rise in number of designers requesting men with – shock horror – 32 or even 34 inch waists. Gandy himself (the delicious gentleman boater in those beautiful Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue ads above) describes being put forward for castings when he started out and being told he was too big or too good-looking. For too long waifish 28 inch men were the end-all of the catwalks… but that looks set to change.

I am hoping that, in the same way that women across the globe are taking tips on the old “less is more” technique of dressing (the original art of tease) from Joan Holloway, men will begin to be inspired by Don Draper’s clean lines and broad shoulders. This is not a look that needs the big guns to work any more than it needs the sparrow legs – but it does need a healthy frame to build upon. A man’s frame. Personally, I’ve all had enough of boy-children in skinny jeans and bird-nest hair – it’s time to bring back the real men!

Word Power

There’s been a bit of talk in the blogoshpere of late about favourite words and phrases – words that roll of the tongue and taste divine to say, as well as those hated words that make people feel physically sick. I find it very difficult to pin down favourite words – I find new ones that I love almost daily – but I do adore “discombobulate”, which I think resonates with humour, “scriptures”, which I think has a magical quality, and I always beam at “fisticuffs”. The c-word offends me somewhat in meaning, but wounds more deeply in sound – it’s such an ugly word to hear. I have been known to avoid the company of people I have heard using it, I detest it that assiduously.

Words can be sensuous – can awaken senses with their sound, their shape (the way they create patterns of touch within the mouth) and their taste. I have always enjoyed the phrase “fair enough”, so much so that it evolved into a nickname, and I’m known in many a forum as fairynuff27. But if we extend phraseology into sentence structure we side-step nicely into the realm of poetry, prose and iambic pentameter (another great phrase!).

To me there is nothing in the world as delicious to pronounce as a Shakespearian text. At school I taught myself to quote big chunks of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, and my favourite sonnet, 116, by heart. I would like in bed at night, reciting lines to send me to sleep. I have been known to pause Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet in order to recite the cut lines – there is a reason that the balcony scene is one of the best known (and most often mis-quoted) in history, and believe it or not, Leo and Claire in a swimming pool have nothing to do with it.

Shakespeare’s arrangement of language works the tongue in such a way that the words take on another level of feeling when spoken. Lady Macbeth’s speech beginning “The raven himself is hoarse…” is dark and mystical and reads like an ancient incantation, mirroring its content and her “unnatural” actions. Her words are dark and bitter to form, as she is. It tastes raw, base, almost erotic on the lips.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!”

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5

There is one other text that has an overpowering effect on me, that has a strong taste and affects my senses. It’s the Nicene Creed as recited during holy communion. I think it’s beautiful to say, light, uplifting, creating a sense of freedom, but also a paradox. It’s a statement of faith pronounced as statement of fact. Each point of fact is preceeded with the words “we believe”. The effect of this, I imagine, is designed to set up faith as fact, but for me it simply litters it with underlying doubt. Still, the language is wonderful, the rhythm of speech (though varying with edition favoured) sweeps you away with it, the story is enlightening and before you know it you’re pronouncing “…and his kingdom shall have no end” with no residual hint of the aforementioned doubts. And I love the word “apostolic” too – especially in context:

“…we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church
we ackowledge one baptism for the remission of sins
we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Phew – that got heavy for a moment! Spot the literature graduate!