Saturday, 22 February 2014

Female Bodies in Film

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Hollywood does not have the best relationship with the female body. Too often, female characters in films exist purely as bodies. There is no character development, their dialogue (should they have any) is bland or pandering to the male lead, and they contribute little to the plot. Female characters are used frequently to titillate, to act as window-dressing to the swashbuckling hero’s tale, but not to contribute to the storyline in any meaningful way. I couldn’t help put ponder this unfortunate status quo while watching Spike Jonze’s delightful Her, a film which appears to subvert the Hollywood norm by depicting a romantic and sexual relationship liberated from the female body.

In Her, Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an emotionally stunted man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. The film is warm and funny, and the relationship between Twombly and Samantha is beautifully and organically developed; it only occasionally feels a little creepy. The film can feel a bit languorous (perhaps due to its over-abundance of Instagram-filtered montages) but the relationship between Twombly and Samantha remains consistently engaging. Samantha may not have a body but she feels real and weighty, and it seems quietly subversive for a major character in a film to consist of only a voice.

Films usually relish the opportunity to highlight female bodies and, in particular, female nudity. According to the New York Film Academy, in the top 500 films of 2007-2012, 29% of women wore sexually revealing clothes compared to just 7% of men. Similarly, 26% of women actors got partially naked compared to 9% of men. Only 31% of speaking characters were women and roughly a third of those women were shown in sexually revealing attire or partially naked. These statistics suggest a rather depressing fixation on female flesh as opposed to real, interesting, developed female characters.

In the face of this, Jonze’s film could be seen as a feminist triumph. Twombly does not pine after Samantha’s body; he does not idolize her form or fetishise her figure. His attachment to her grows through witty, insightful conversations. He values her for the emotional support she offers, not her flesh. And Samantha is a fantastically well-developed character. She is immensely curious, desperately eager to learn about the world and experience new things. She composes music, she draws, she has a charmingly dirty sense of humour. Most importantly, she grows, gaining more confidence and independence until it becomes clear that she has outgrown Twombly and their relationship.

But then, read in another way, Her and the lack of a female body seems less like a feminist victory and more like the unfortunate end result of an industry thoroughly uncomfortable with the realities of the female form. While the statistics compiled by the New York Film Academy show that Hollywood has no problem with female nudity, that doesn’t mean that Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with female bodies. The naked female bodies shown by Hollywood aren’t real bodies; they’re smooth and clean, like plastic facsimiles of the real thing.

The furor surrounding the nudity depicted in Lena Dunham’s Girls shows just how uncomfortable we are with realistic female nudity. Even now, nearly two years later, questions are still being asked about why Dunham’s less than model-esque figure is cavorting naked across our screens. It is immensely depressing that soft, rolling bodies are still shocking enough to warrant avid debate.

With this context in mind, Her’s lack of a female body seems a bit sinister. Hollywood would seemingly prefer to eradicate female bodies altogether rather than show one in all its unsightly glory: rumpled, patchy and sweaty.

It is also questionable whether Jonze really has eradicated the female body from his love story. Jonze could have chosen an unknown actor to play Samantha. Instead he chose Scarlett Johansson, a stunningly beautiful, slender female with whom the film-going audience is undoubtedly familiar. When her voice purrs from Twombly’s phone, it’s impossible not to imagine Johansson’s statuesque figure. As Manohla Dargis suggests in the New York Times, Scarlett Johansson’s “lush physicality” comes through Somantha’s voice. Samantha has a body in our minds and that body is firm and smooth and slim. Perhaps Her isn’t as subversive with regard to its depiction of female bodies as it first appears.

I don’t think Jonze removed the female figure from his romance because he’s scared of the real female body, in all its podgy, sweaty glory. Jonze is trying to provide a thought-provoking commentary on our current obsession with our smartphones and other devices. But it’s interesting to consider Her in the context of other films and their depictions of female characters. Her subverts the Hollywood norm of incessantly showing toned, naked female figures by keeping the central love interest off screen. But Her also supports the Hollywood norm by choosing the conventionally attractive Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the female lead and by excluding other, more varied female bodies.  I guess it will take more time for films like Her and tv shows like Girls to make a significant impact on how women’s bodies are treated on our screens.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Bits and Bobs

It's been a while since I've made a Bits and Bobs post which means I have loads of interesting links to share. Hope you all had a lovely Valentine's Day - mine was spent eating ice cream and watching Star Wars. I regret nothing...

- Have you seen those articles making fun of stock images? Now Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement is partnering with Getty to make a collection of feminist friendly stock images.

- Screw expensive couple's therapy - apparently watching and discussing rom coms is good for your marriage.

- Check out this incredible article about a woman living with retrograde amnesia

- I don't believe that violent films make people violent but I do ponder whether films are, in general, getting more violent and what this says about our society. I therefore found it interesting when Harvey Weinstein recently announced that he's going to back away from making violent films - here's an interesting article discussing his decision and violent films in general. 

- Apparently the most successful online dating profiles are the ones that defy gender norms. Thank god I have a masters in war, making me the most desirable person on the internet.

- the weather has been crazy recently! Polar vortexes in the US, snow in Cairo, flooding in the UK - I'm pretty certain a weather-borne apocalypse is just round the corner. It's so bad, the penguins are apparently on anti-depressents

- I love this 1866 pamphlet arguing for female suffrage.

- Want to listen to an incredible jazz cover of Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child o' Mine? Damn straight you do!

Have a wonderful week and stay safe with the weather. Maybe watch a couple of Roland Emmerich films and take some notes.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Barbies and Disney and Vogue! Oh my!

Photo credit: Robert Sabitzer

Last week, Vice President of design for Barbie, Kim Culmone, was interviewed by Fast Company about why Mattel retains Barbie’s impossible hourglass figure despite decades of criticism. It has been frequently argued that Barbie’s dimensions set an extreme body standard which little girls can never achieve, thus undermining their self-esteem and making them susceptible to eating disorders. Culmone responds to criticism by arguing that Barbie’s body was never intended to be realistic and was designed in such a way primarily to be easily dressed and undressed. Her design is apparently purely functional.

The interview isn’t particularly sensational: Culmone’s answers seem reasonable enough and Fast Company is hardly the first website to voice criticisms of Barbie’s figure. And yet the interview, and the articles it has spawned, has nevertheless left me contemplating whether or not my most beloved childhood toy has had a lasting psychological impact.   

I loved Barbies as a child. Being a thoroughly spoiled youngest child, I had nearly a hundred dolls and a bewildering array of accessories. I had the Dream House, several modes of transportation and, of course, an incredible collection of clothing. I would spend hours and hours acting out outrageous stories with my plastic, compliant minions.

So am I crippled with self-esteem issues? Well I’m a 20-something woman living in a society which places an excessive amount of importance on the physical characteristics of woman, so of course. But I don’t blame Barbie for this unfortunate turn of events. As a child I never once looked at Barbie and wanted to look like her because, you know, she’s a hunk of plastic. Barbie may be an unrealistic and impossibly proportioned representation of the female form but that never bothered me as a child because she’s a doll. I never expected realism from my toys; a child’s toy chest would be a miserable place if all toys had to conform to reality.

In fact Barbie’s figure may have been one of the reasons I loved her so much. More than anything else, what every little girl wants to be is a grown-up. I always preferred Barbies over all other dolls because, to me, she seemed the most womanly. Her ample breasts and hips were clear indicators that she was an adult and not a child. She was a grown, adult woman, with complicated relationships, a demanding profession (maybe a spy, maybe the president, maybe a ballet dancer, maybe all at once) and an enviable wardrobe. The stories I wanted to play out required adult characters and Barbie fit that role perfectly.

The criticisms made against Barbie’s figure are the same as those made frequently against the Disney heroines and their impossible waistlines. Ariel from The Little Mermaid seems to get picked on the most in this regard, perhaps because she was the first of the Disney renaissance princesses or because she spends a considerable amount of the film showing off her impossible figure in only a bikini top. But, again, I never once as a child thought that Ariel was a realistic portrayal of a woman because of course she’s not; she’s a mermaid. The figures of the Disney heroines are impossible – the same is true of talking crockery, flying horses, pumpkin carriages, and hyenas capable of learning meticulously choreographed dance routines.

Womanhood as depicted by Barbie and Disney has not left my self-esteem in tatters because what they’re depicting is self-consciously a fantasy – everyone is aware that toys and animated musicals are not real. But the women on the cover of Vogue, they are flesh and blood; they are ‘real’. Of course I know on an intellectual level that they have been airbrushed to the point of impossibility but my immediate emotional reaction to those glossy images is that the cover model looks fantastic and I probably didn’t need that 5th Krispy Kreme. The same is true of the models gliding down the runway in their impeccably tailored couture. Or even the street-style blogs and their constantly updated stream of super skinny (and overwhelmingly white, but that’s a point for another blog) women seemingly plucked from the streets in their day-to-day attire. If these living, breathing women can look so effortlessly fantastic just walking down the street, maybe I should put in a bit more effort before popping to the corner shop. Street-style blogs, the runway and Vogue are of course just as much a fantasy as Disney and Barbie but they masquerade as real and attainable in a way that I just don’t think Disney and Barbie does.

Of course it’s possible that Disney and Barbie have had an impact on my self-esteem and I’m just in denial. Research has been done which shows that Barbie does indeed have an impact on body satisfaction among 5-8 year olds (though I’m not entirely convinced by the rigorousness of the methodology). If Mattel decided to completely revamp Barbie to make her more realistically proportioned, then fair play to them. But it would be naïve to think that such a move would signal a revolution in portrayals of the female form, ushering in a new age of body acceptance. There are far too many other sources of negative body images, ones far more powerful than Mattel’s iconic doll.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Social Media, Performance and Self Identity

It is both hilarious and depressing how fervently facebook plugs dating sites to me

While perusing the interweb I came across this fascinating article on The Atlantic looking at personal identity asperformance. The article discusses the work of social psychologist Sam Gosling who looks at the ways in which people fill their spaces with personal possessions and tries to determine what insights these items can give into people’s personalities.

Gosling has determined that some items act as ‘conscious identity claims’ – things we actively choose based on how we want other people to perceive us (artwork or books we display, the clothes we wear). Some items are ‘feeling regulators’ – sentimental items or souvenirs that meet a personal emotional need (photos of loved ones, holiday souvenirs). Finally, some items are ‘unconscious behavioural residue’ – hints we leave behind inadvertently (an obsessively organised bookshelf might hint at compulsive behaviour). These conscious and unconscious cues, when observed as a whole, reveal something about the person who left them.

This reminds me of Goffman’s seminalsociology text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which argues that all social interactions are essentially performances. These performances are made of two aspects: the expressions that we give (symbols, verbal or otherwise, that admittedly convey information), and the expressions that we give off (unconscious actions that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor).
Goffman’s book was published in 1959, which limits it predominantly to face-to-face interaction (how quaint!), but Gosling’s research also covers the online world. We use cues to infer things about a person on social media in exactly the same way as we do in person. For example, Gosling found in his research that those who scored highly on the extroversion scale via personality tests had more facebook friends. So if you encounter someone on facebook with thousands of friends, it’s probably safe to infer that they are socially competent and confident individuals. Looking at Gosling and Goffman’s work in tandem, we can conclude that our social media presence is also a performance. We carefully curate what photos we post and what amusing buzzfeed links we share to put across a certain persona to anyone who encounters our profile.

But for whom are we performing? Goffman argues that we perform for ourselves just as much as we perform for others. Individuals perform even when there is no audience because it affirms our sense of identity. For example, in some mental hospitals in America, unclaimed deceased patients may be given elaborate funerals. This performance is carried out for the benefit of those partaking in the ceremony, proving to themselves that they are the kinds of people who observe standards of civility. We do not think of this as a performance, we are not purposefully trying to manipulate others or ourselves. As Goffman explains, people “sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they habitually project is the real reality.”

Combining Goffman and Gosling therefore suggests that facebook is as much a performance for ourselves as it is for others. The friend counter on our profiles not only shows other people how cool and popular we are, it is affirmation for ourselves that we have friends. A studyfrom the journal, Media Psychology, has shown that people receive a significant self-esteem boost when looking at their own facebook profile compared to looking at the profile of a stranger. This study supports the idea that facebook is a performance and that we are its intended audience just as much as our friends and internet creepers.

The author of The Atlantic article, Jennifer Oullette, says that, “our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.” But Oullette’s observation doesn’t go far enough. Our facebook profiles may indeed be identity claims but it’s important to remember to whom these identity claims are directed.