Archive for category Feminism

In Defense of *Honey Boo Boo*

TLC’s new show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, staring 6-year-old Alana Thompson and family has elicited a lot of response, mostly negative. Certainly much of the criticism is valid, especially the argument that beauty pageants for children are detrimental because they sexualize little girls, promote poor body image, and lead girls to seek approval from external “judges” to confirm their self-worth (based largely on appearance).

Yet the question of how women are portrayed in the media is always connected to larger questions of power, and who is in control of representation—especially female representation. The show presents Mama June as an unhealthy, overweight, neglectful, yet wholly happy and content mother, who chooses to subject her daughter to the beauty pageant circuit for the sake of fun and fame. The show focuses on the very worst aspects of June’s life so that we will objectify and judge her. Moreover, the show makes light of any issues June has with herself. For example, although we know June is “dieting,” the diet becomes a joke when June and her teen daughters “weigh in” and find they have lost little to no weight.

Such one-sided “images” of June mask the real reason why she and other parents enter their children in pageants—a reason that is important because it reveals exactly how insidious our culture’s fixation on appearance and an impossible aesthetic of beauty has become. These parents are, at heart, unhappy and discontent with their own looks, and so must relive the dream of youth and beauty through their children. The standard of beauty in modern American society has become SO extreme, that most women (like Mama June) can only imitate it when they are pre-pubescent or adolescent; that is, before they develop womanly curves (hips, thighs, and breasts), when they are still cute and childish and sassy.

Once women’s bodies mature, the ways that they can imitate the beauty ideal become limited. The typical path requires that women resort to dangerous eating disorders, plastic surgery, and/or botox injections to approximate their once youthful faces and figures. But the reality for most women is that puberty permanently withholds the ability to attain the Hollywood/cultural/media ideal of female perfection—wrinkle-free, jiggle-free, and near-to impossible proportions. Sadly, the only way that most women can relive “the dream” of bodily perfection is through their children, who still have youth and metabolism on their side. More importantly, the body of a girl is infinitely flexible in the sense that it can be easily manipulated through make-up, sexy outfits, and padding in the right places. Ironically, when a young girl like Boo Boo cannot fully meet the beauty ideal (because of her weight, ALREADY an issue), she can turn it into comic relief (making her belly talk, resorting to sassy phrases, for example). This clowning allows her audience comic relief, as if Mama June and her daughter were not “really” trying to be beautiful, but just poking fun. This truth, that the clowning is a sham and that the rejection indeed hurts (in so many ways), is sad and sick, but is without question the insidious outcome of a society that creates body hatred and distress in women (and now children) who are unable to meet the beauty ideal.

Let’s face it, healthier ( read “thinner”) women, women other than June Thompson (like those starring on The Real Housewives, for example), do just as much damage to children’s psyches when they choose plastic surgery and botox and a myriad of other costly and invasive body-altering procedures in pursuit of the unattainable ideal. The message being sent to their daughters and to young women watching their programs is that women must go to profound extremes to “fix” what (they believe) is wrong with their bodies. Changing one’s appearance to any extent implies that something is wrong with one’s natural looks, whether the change involves fake eyelashes, tanning, a wig, or a more extreme approach (plastic surgery, extreme weight loss, botox). Such images surely have a terrible psychological impact on young girls.

How can we criticize June Thompson’s decision to enter her daughter in pageants when this is the model of female beauty that we as a culture promote and reward? Yes, pageant parents are certainly at fault for buying in to a beauty ideal that requires children to don excessive makeup, fake hair, and spray tans; but the wider culture should also be held accountable for presenting the Barbie image as the social ideal in the first place. And because we belong to this society, watch the programs, purchase these magazines (and the beauty products they promote), each of us is culpable.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a metaphor of our times. This child becomes, for a short time during her beauty pageants, what the culture asks of her. She is hyper-aware of every detail of her appearance, because how she appears to others, and especially how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as success. Her own sense of self is either confirmed or rejected by these outsiders. This is the danger. That she will begin believing them. When puberty hits and the dream dies, perhaps Mama June will convince Alana that we love “allllll of this” (said by Alana as she runs her hand seductively down her side), and perhaps Alana will decline plastic surgery and avoid an eating disorder. But although June cannot see it for herself, she too, the mama who proudly declares “I tell my girls all the time that I would still love them if they were 1,000 lbs” (Tauber 59) has also bought into the beauty ideal. Otherwise, the public would never even have met Honey Boo Boo Child.

Work Cited
Tauber, Michelle. “Much Ado About BOO BOO.” People. Vol. 78(11).
Sept 10, 2012. 58-61.

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Review of Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow

Last night I rented and watched Country Strong, directed by Shana Feste, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as country music star Kelly Canter. There was no hype about this movie when it opened in theatres (Jan 7, 2011), so I really wasn’t expecting much, but country music plots rarely let me down. This movie was not great, but it definitely had some good moments. I loved the duet between Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund (Give into Me)—the song is beautiful, and the on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable. Paltrow did an acceptable job as Kelly Canter, even though her singing voice is mediocre and her southern accent makes me cringe. To her credit, Paltrow played a convincing drunk musician attempting to make a comeback in an industry that places a heavy value on youth and beauty. Kelly’s pain seems authentic enough as she recognizes that she is slowly and inevitably being upstaged by the sober ex-pageant queen Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester). And the fact that Kelly ultimately accepts Chiles and offers her advice (although this scene is woefully short) helps to reverse (if not completely obliterate) the vile message that women are always in competition with one another.

What really prompted me to write about this film, however, was not the acting or the music, but the anti-women connotations in the underlying plot (note, from here spoilers will ensue). Beautiful successful Kelly Canter has it all, but is miserable. Miserable enough to drink herself into oblivion and fall from the stage one night while she is performing, causing herself a miscarriage. This seems to be the one thing for which she is unable to forgive herself. There are two issues here, both equally problematic. First, as the New York Times Movie Review from Jan 6, 2011 points out, (http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/movies/07country.html), “the only successful woman is a desperately unhappy woman.” This message is sadder than a washed-up country music star. And it is a message that does seem to proliferate in popular culture. But what the New York Times review missed was how this message is complicated by Kelly’s miscarriage. For example, Kelly blames herself for the miscarriage instead of a music industry that drove her to drink, or her husband/manager who seems more concerned with making money than with her health and mental status. Kelly cares for an abandoned baby bird (yeah, this one is over the top) because her maternal instincts have no other outlet. Kelly overcomes her aversion to Chiles and offers the younger woman motherly advice about stardom. Do you see where I am going with this?

Kelly Canter personifies not only the successful women who is unhappy, but more importantly, the successful women who is unhappy (or crazed, or mentally unsound) because she does not have children (the Cate Blanchett character in Hanna also fits this bill: see my earlier post ). I suspect that portraying childless woman as aberrant in film or fiction is a backlash to the increasing number of women who are choosing to forego motherhood in favor of other options. I suspect that mainstream society still fears and/or resents women who remain childless, and especially fears women who are sexually active (like Kelly Canter) for pleasure rather than for purposes of reproduction. The stigma that women without children are terribly unhappy thus proliferates, to deter real women from remaining childless. Portraying Kelly as an addict who is unable to heal because she is unable to conceive sends a clear message: If you have no children you are going to regret it. It may even drive you to suicide.

And that’s the final thing I want to mention, how much I hate that Kelly kills herself. In my book about vigilante women I discuss how authors condemn their heroines to mental or physical illness as a way for their characters to resist emotional entrapment (like the nameless narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the mother character, Anna Holbrook, in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio). Writers alternately invent heroines who attempt suicide to escape constrictive circumstances (such as Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). Contemporary authors more often amend these dismal endings by featuring empowered heroines who turn their resistance outward– to oppose the laws that restrict their personal rights, or toward the people who most represent oppression in their lives. Such characters are modern day vigilante women. A better ending (in my estimation) for Country Strong would allow Kelly Canter to live up to the movie’s title—she would find the strength to oppose those who disregard her best interests, thus permanently improving the country music industry for other women artists (like the up and coming Chiles) in some small way.

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Movie Review: Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright

Be forewarned: There are spoilers in this movie review.

The movie Hanna, directed by Joe Wright, pits young
and culturally naive Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) against an
evil CIA agent (Marissa Weigler, played by Cate Blanchett),
who is attempting to eradicate all traces of Hanna’s existence.
Hanna is the last surviving “evidence” of a morally
questionable DNA experiment conducted by the government.
The experiment was designed with the intention of creating
an army of super soldiers—humans better equipped than their
non-meddled-with counterparts to decimate and destroy. As an
infant, Hanna is rescued by a rogue CIA agent. He raises her
in the wilds of Finland, teaching her not only how to survive
in the harsh conditions, but also how to fight and defend herself.
Most importantly, he instills in her the drive to destroy
agent Weigler before Weigler destroys her.

Although enjoyable, from a feminist perspective, the film has
some flaws.  For example, I found it interesting that Hanna’s
great adversary is a woman. I suppose the writers thought it
would be too problematic to pit Hanna against a man. It might
alienate the audience to have this young beauty destroy a
full-grown man, or alternately, it might not be perceived as
a fair fight.  Instead, Hanna must assassinate agent Weigler,
a CHILDLESS yet sexualized female, who, because of her
childless status, is portrayed as monstrous. Scary, yes, but
not in the way the writer intended.  In this case, the childless
woman completely lacks the maternal instinct that would make her
sympathetic to Hanna’s plight. Childlessness is thus equated
with monstrosity—Agent Weigler is an aberration, a freak of
nature, somehow less than woman.  This depiction is reinforced
with her cold, ruthless demeanor. Even in private she is deranged
enough to make her gums bleed intentionally when she cleans her
teeth. I can almost guarantee that childless men are never
depicted as monsters.

The ending of the film is also problematic. Whereas the film
could have ended with Hanna showing Agent Weigler mercy and
letting her live, instead, Hanna predictably kills Weigler
without mercy. Thus, the moral of this story is that free will
is nonexistent. Hanna has learned nothing during her foray into
civilization. She is the product of her genetic makeup and nothing
else. She is, in fact, the killing machine that the CIA feared.
Moreover, nothing can be chalked up to her personal strength as
a woman—she has been engineered and trained by men and has
done exactly as they asked.

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Book Review of On Borrowed Wings: A Novel

Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings exposes the ingrained
sexism of higher education via protagonist Adele Pietra,
who, in 1940, must disguise herself as her dead brother
to receive an education at Yale. The premise of the book
is interesting, as is the implied commentary that gendered
roles are not a genetic reality, but learned systems of
behavior. Class distinctions are also smartly refuted when
working-class Adele excels in her studies, and then “makes
good” by sharing her knowledge with disadvantaged families
of New Haven.

Although the social messages of On Borrowed Wings
reverberate, the downfall of the novel lies in the
one-dimensional portrayal of its secondary characters.
Exactly how many stories about academia involve an utterly
incompetent teacher or administrator who is one-upped by
an underling with a heart of gold? In this case Adele’s
work study is conducted under the “tutelage” of evil
Professor Spang from the Department of Social Demography
and Intelligence. Spang spouts banalities such as the following:
“It used to be that we could keep them at bay…but they’re
encroaching…Some have even managed to steal our women…Pity all
the mixed blood brats they’ve borne. And look what they’ve done
with our money” (124). Yes, we detest ignorant bigots in
positions of power. However, such hackneyed character
portrayals tend to incite more boredom than loathing.

Moreover, the first-person narration is often clumsy and
self-conscious, replete with overwritten lines such as,
“I walked a little faster, then broke into a run, a limber,
startled run, my feet barely skimming the sandy path” (38).

To sum up, read this novel for its interesting story
and superior social commentary, but be prepared to
overlook simplistic characterizations and awkward syntax.
Grade: B-

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