So I have a baby girl and right now she smiles at anything that pleases her, which is a lot of things. Obviously I think she's beautiful but she neither knows nor cares if she is or not. She is innocent, unabashed and totally candid about how she feels about everything. Dammit, I envy her.
Actually, I think I would have envied her much more as a young girl. This is because I could be an awkward and self-conscious kid and when it came to meeting boys, I was that times ten. What’s more, I was not shy in the usual sense of the word. My behaviour was actually quite extrovert, serving as a front for my various anxieties. I chatted plenty but often cringed at every word.
Youth insecurity may be nothing new, of course, but this itself is a problem. If it is so timeless, then it is sure also to come Daughter's way at some point. When it does, can I help her to manage it, emerge unscathed, even? If so, it makes sense first to identify the causes, starting with my own experience.
My school years would be an obvious factor here. If I tell you I attended an all-girls' state school, alarm bells would probably start ringing immediately. Single sex schools reinforce young people's inability to relate to one another, people say. In my own experiences as a student and also a co-ed secondary teacher, I have seen some truth to this. For all my innate awkwardness as a high-school student I was often outspoken, daft, at times a bit of a class clown. I'm sure I could often be quite irritating but the fact remains that I felt free to be so.
Outside of the school gates, as soon as we bumped into any boys, everything changed. I suddenly felt ridiculous and compelled to be quiet, smile sweetly and try to look pretty. The boys could be daft and crack jokes and we'd all laugh, even if (secretly) they weren't very funny. Most of the girls kept quite quiet. Me? Any words that did escape out of my mouth did so before I could predict the reaction they'd draw- a snigger, an incredulous look, a smirk. I felt like an idiot and redoubled my resolve to be even more silent than my friends.
But where did this division come from, and would studying GCSEs alongside boys have helped? Actually I'm not sure it would, at least not back in the 90s. I remember talking to an old school friend about those days and discussing whether it would have been different had our school been co-ed. 'Absolutely' she said. 'It would have been rubbish with boys. They'd have ruined it.' Why, though? I never asked her to elaborate but I think I agree with her, at least in terms of school back then. And across both genders, I think it has a lot to do with the roles that we subscribed to - consciously or, more likely, not.
In terms of roles, the idea of the submissive female had certainly been challenged long before the 1990s. Sure enough, in history and literature,
massive geek keen student that I was, these strong, sharp-witted women stood before me, whether historical figure, character or writer: Elizabeth I, the suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen. In the library or the classroom I felt empowered to take their lead but as soon as the school bell went their influence started to melt away. Why? Because for adolescents reading about these women was ‘culture’ and it was no match for popular culture. It was one world of women - comprised of dusty words and grainy photos, confined to the bookshelf - pitted hopelessly against another: that of the loud and shiny celluloid bubble that existed everywhere else.
From this bubble it was TV and film that fixated us most, TV that did so the most regularly. The shows in question were generally Neighbours, Home and Away, Byker Grove, Friends, Saved by The Bell. Whether English, Australian or American, the females in these shows were either beautiful or interesting but very rarely both. The pinup girls were the ones the boys wanted and so the ones we wanted/ reluctantly tried to be: Beth from Neighbours, Donna Air. In their trendy clothes with their flawless faces they shimmered and seemingly outshone any more edgy female characters who sulked sarcastically in corners (various) or simply never pulled (Spuggy from Byker Grove). The message was clear: in the company of boys - and especially if you want a boyfriend - look good and shut up. As summed up by the, er, immortal AC Slater on Saved by The Bell:
Women: shopping, hair, diets.
What's the mystery?
guffaws of canned laughter
What is actually more telling here is not what Slater says but the fact it is him that says it. I admit it, he was all dimples and wet-look mullet and I (sigh) fancied him, but as an ‘attractive’ male on the show, successful with the very women he derided in this way, he was also allowed to be funny. He was allowed to assume two roles in the way that the women were not. Or rather, if the pretty women ever were funny on these shows, the Kellies, Monicas, Phoebes and the like were either endearingly neurotic or ditzy; when not the straight guys of comedy they were hardly the comic geniuses either. The wisecracks - to be laughed with and not at - were reserved for the men only.
So returning to my school days, it becomes clear what shook the confidence felt in the classroom. Without the company of boys, we could assume the roles normally assigned to them: speakers, debaters, jokers, clowns. We did not need to fear being unfanciable or bossy (a word rightly being challenged in a lot of current sexism debates). Apart from my own home, it was the one place I could be myself and yes, it would have been ‘rubbish’ had boys been there.
The irony of following TV is huge, of course. Young and naive, we looked to it for answers because it forged a kind of reality for us. However, minority groups have complained for decades that TV actually lags behind reality as if, for instance, a gay scene did not exist before ‘Queer as Folk’ became mainstream viewing. Looking back, I almost knew this myself but maybe was too afraid to ask questions. Not just in literature but among my own friends and family I knew quirky and quick-witted females from seven to seventy-five. And some were beautiful but in one way or another, all were attractive.
Yet the regressive figures blaring out from the screen were the ones we still chose to follow.
I stress the use of past tense, though. In terms of both popular and classroom culture I have seen things start to change. Many shows, enjoyed by both adults and teens, have started to get it more right, albeit dropping some clangers from time to time. Dramas like Homeland, Bloodline and Banshee have started featuring teen girl leads who are assertive and rebellious, often unearthing home truths no adults - or boys - dare to. However, these girls are also chronically sullen, most likely to say ‘I hate this family’ at least twice an episode. They shout and pout but are not much fun and so, in challenging one stereotype, of the desperate to please teen girl, they reinforce another: the stroppy, ‘hormonal’ one. They send the message that being powerful and being remotely personable cannot be the same thing and yet for many of the male leads in these shows, it can. It might be a step up from the TV of my youth but I still think girls deserve better.
An improvement is Game of Thrones, where powerful women of all ages are literally taking over the world. Well, of Westeros. Here, there are more fierce, fearless and charismatic women than you can shake a sword at and one of them, Lady Mormont, is about eleven years old. That said, with the exception of the much older, wiser Lady Tyrell, most of the best one-liners are still reserved for Tyrion Lannister, an underdog, to be sure, but a man all the same.
Thank God, then, for shows like Girls, Broad City and Orange is the New Black. In the former two, the girls may be ridiculous, the ones in Girls spoiled and even unlikeable, but they are sure as hell funny and compelling to watch. In Orange, Piper, the pretty and middle-class protagonist so typical of TV, is becoming less and less the show’s key figure. Instead, it has been taken over by the white noise of female characters from various socio-ethnic groups, characters far more powerful, funny and likeable and whose voices defy you not to sit up and listen. With few exceptions, it is telling that neither Piper nor any male on the show is a match for their charisma. It may be strange to consider a bunch of fictional felons as future role models for my daughter, but in some ways they are.
I stress ‘future' role models. If I’m a responsible parent, that should probably be some years away. In the meantime, is there any hope for the younger female audience? Well yes, I believe there is, and I’ve seen it through the films of Disney and Dreamworks. Now stay with me here; I know that earlier films from the Disney canon have done little to dispel the traditional view of women. This is as follows:
A: Marriage = the ultimate happy ending,
B: To be marriageable = being sweet, submissive and servile.
C: Failure to comply with B = failure to achieve A, therefore making you miserable and/or a social outcast.
Luckily, in the ‘golden age’ of 1990s Disney pluckier heroines emerged who at least challenged requirement B if not A (though I guess these are fairytales we’re talking about). Runaway princesses Ariel and Jasmine challenge patriarchy in every sense since their fathers rule house and kingdom alike. Yet for all the trappings of their gilded cages, these girls are at least adored in their community: not something I hugely identified with in my school days. What’s more, with Jasmine in particular there was something so self-possessed, so perfect, that to me she seemed untouchable.
In Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, on the other hand, I found a far more sympathetic character. Her lonely, social-outcast status is established from the opening song. In return, she is bored and sad in the provincial village and rejects it as much as it rejects her. Her cage is not only ungilded but it works both ways: she is both shut in and shut out. What’s more, Gaston, the town’s Mr Popular - the figure TV shows were telling us to want or, even worse, dumb down for - turns out to be a bigoted villain also rejected by Belle. Instead she prefers the darkly and Gothically-complex Beast and I remember how grown-up I felt being let in on this more adult message. In fairness, Dreamworks’ Shrek also deals with the concept of layers to people’s personality and its heroine, Princess Fiona, is also likeable and misunderstood. That said, I would find it hard to shed a tear for her and Shrek in the same way I do for Belle and the beast at the latter's death.
If Belle affected me so strongly, though, how was she still not enough? Why couldn’t she save me from my awkward self? After all, Disney epitomises popular culture so I should have felt in excellent company among the many other girls who had been inspired and emboldened to be like Belle. This film should have set me up for everything that was to come in my teens and yet it did not.
I think there are two reasons for this. Believe it or not, it’s actually Frozen that highlights them most clearly. Firstly, it’s to do with the shedding of tears mentioned above. Now, Disney is no stranger to tugging on the old heartstrings - mine included- with a bit of favourite-character-death (FCD), at the end of the film; think Baloo, both leads from The Fox and The Hound, and so on. Whether the character actually remains dead or not (a favoured Disney happy-ending technique) is immaterial. By this point our tears have been jerked all the same. In the eighty-eighth minute out of ninety, such death has no plot left to move along and so exists only for maximum emotional impact.
For this all to work, then, it has to happen with a character we are desperate not to lose. Even now if I see the beast ‘die’, sure enough I sniffle as much as ever; In Frozen, I do the same but it’s with Anna. But what is more important here is that the beast’s death is merely true to form because he is a male lead, whereas Frozen is the first Disney film to do this with a female one. So in joining the FCD hall of fame, Anna must be the first female Disney character that we would be this sad to let go. And don’t think it’s got anything to do with following the original story; Disney films tend to deviate massively from those anyway and this one is no different. This being the case, if Disney’s aim was to be purely subversive they could just as easily have killed off Elsa in their first female FCD. But they knew exactly what they were doing in their choice to sacrifice Anna: providing maximum entertainment with the best possible plot choices. Many fans of the film say that they identify with Elsa in her loneliness just as, I suspect, is the case with Belle. But if Belle and Elsa are parallels then so are Anna and the beast. That is, it would be hard to imagine feeling quite the same loss at the death of Belle or Elsa. For all their bravery and fierce independence, they are still typically statuesque, straight-guy female leads. The beast and Anna are brave too, but they are also creators, not just bystanders, of many of the film’s comic moments. Because we warm to them in this way, their deaths hurt us in that we lose a friend, not an idol.
The significance is this: as a strong lead and an equal to any male comic character, Anna shows that for girls it’s not just OK to be daft but cool to be daft. I wish someone had told me that all those years ago.
But there’s more. For all the power of this message, similar to the case with Belle it only half-liberates young girls if the boys aren’t hearing it too. And yet they are, loud and clear: Frozen has proven hugely popular among boys of different ages, both statistically and anecdotally. This has been no accident, of course; Disney's marketing campaign for Frozen was aimed as much at boys as it was girls. This itself has been revolutionary in the world of Disney fairytales. But getting boys to go and see a film once is one thing; having them endlessly revisit it and quote its lines, is quite another. It’s also not just about Olaf and Kristof, either: many young males are reported to identify with the female leads and in my son’s case Anna is quoted more than any other character. The message of Frozen has resonated universally.
Perhaps it is ironic that Frozen's status as Disney's biggest financial triumph is what has made it a moral and political one too. The more popular a film is, the more widely its message is shared. What we are now seeing is that great storytelling and strong, fun characters are levelling the gender playing field for girls of all ages, just like we have always known they could.
And my daughter? I think she'll be just fine in a co-ed classroom. More than that, I think it will be the best thing for her. But you know what? Just writing this I've come to realise how much I think the same for my son.
Bring it on.