Review: The Sister’s Song by Louise Allan

Review: The Sister’s Song by Louise Allan

It’s not news that I love books. I love reading them. I love the way they look on my shelves, my bedside table, my desk, the kitchen bench, in my handbag, perched on the edge of the couch… you get the picture (book hoarder). Just having books around me makes me happy.

Most of all though, I love seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and that is something books are uniquely good at.

Even better than reading a good book and discovering a new author you can secretly love from afar, is reading a good book written by someone you know. There’s the tantalizing thrill of prying open the inner workings of their brain. The fear of what you will do if you don’t like it, and the excitement in letting them know that you do. You try and piece together what you know of them, and how they found their idea. It makes the reading all the more pleasurable.

I met Louise Allan through a workshop group and was struck with how bright and outgoing she is. The best word I can use to describe her is gregarious. So, I knew immediately that I had read her book.

I was not disappointed.

Set in Tasmania, The Sister’s Song traces the lives of two sisters who each mourn the loss of what could have been. They story is narrated from Ida’s point of view, beginning in childhood, as she struggles to live in the shadow of her younger sister’s immense musical talent. As the sisters grow up it seems they are destined to lead drastically different lives. Ida a wife and mother, Nora an opera star. Yet both sisters suffer different but equally devastating loss and find themselves having to reconstruct their sense of self and purpose. The relationship between Ida and Nora is deftly portrayed, exploring the complex and intricate ways that women rely upon, and care for, each other.

Louise Allan’s The Sister’s Song is a book that rings and resonates like a tiny crystal bell. It is delicate and beautiful, and sings with an exquisite melancholy that is somehow touching and heart-warming in its sadness and beauty. There is so much to love about this book. The writing is crisp and clear and there are no wasted words. Instead, Allan manages to lay bare her characters loss and trauma without resorting to melodrama. It simply is, and the story is all the more powerful and devastating for it.

Set in an era where women’s roles were clearly proscribed and defined, The Sister’s Song speaks to all women about their hardships, their losses, their work and their need for kinship. Running through the book is the whisper of hope and optimism that together we are stronger, that there is no one path, and that what was, is no more.

Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks is not a book for the faint hearted. It is a book worth reading. Set in an easy-to-believe alternative and highly conservative America, Red Clocks explores the complex issues of motherhood as personal and political.

Seen from the perspective of four women, all coping with different facets of women’s maternal lives, Red Clock delves into this deeply personal aspect of womanhood. Zumas doesn’t balk from the gritty, visceral details of both the emotional and physical experience of maternity. Her explicit, and at time confronting, portrayal the processes of pregnancy and the emotional toll of motherhood as a social construct gives voice to the experiences of women from many angles.

Zumas challenges motherhood as a natural or desirable outcome for women, while empathetically representing women who for a multitude of reasons are unable to become biological mothers themselves.

Overlaid with these deeply personal narratives of mothering, is the socio-political aspect of women’s bodies and futures as being determined by, and at the whim of, social policy. She raises difficult questions about autonomy, freedom and ideology that run frighteningly close to current political contexts.

This is a hard read, but Zumas give us rounded, sympathetic characters that makes us evaluate where we stand on maternity as a personal experience and as a social and political issue.

Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

This weekend my family I watched the latest iteration in the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel. I was curious to see how my eleven-year-old daughter felt about this new female lead. I hadn’t let her watch Wonder Woman because I felt Wonder Woman was a character written more for the pleasure of men rather than the empowerment of women. You can read my full discussion of that film here in relation to Black Panther.

I was hoping for something more from Captain Marvel.

I have been following with interest the chatter around this film from both sides of the divide. On one side naysayers of the film and its depiction of women as powerful and independent have, like the reboot of Ghostbusters before it, tried to harpoon this film because of its female lead. Ridiculous, I know. To the point that the movie site Rotten Tomatoes has had to take action against trolling and negative reviews before the film was even released. (Link to article here.)

On the other side, the star of Captain Marvel, Brie Larson has proudly spruiked the films feminist credentials. An article on womenintheworld.com outlines Larson’s discussion around the film as a “meditation on intersectional feminism.” This one really interested me. The Cliff note version is that intersectional feminism explores the way that different combinations—or intersections—of power act upon people’s lives. In other words, an individual’s level of acceptance or discrimination, their access to education or opportunities in career and social status are shaped by a complex intersection of gender, class, sexuality, race, education, age, political affiliations and language. Therefore, examining feminism through intersectionality accounts for not just gender, but other mechanisms through which people are discriminated or oppressed.

In particular, intersectional feminism is a back-lash against white feminism, whereby educated and wealthy white feminists are unable to see themselves as more privileged than other groups of women.

So, when I read that Brie Larson had called this film a meditation on intersectional feminism, I was skeptical.

Okay, context provided.

This is a lot of baggage to take into a film, let alone a Marvel film about superheroes that—let’s face it—is escapism at its best. I tried hard to enjoy the experience of the film for its visual aspects, its humour and its role in the larger Marvel landscape. Also, as a child of the 90’s I was excited about reminiscing over the soundtrack (A Guardian’s of the Galaxy for the grunge brigade.) More than anything I wanted to see something different in terms of how a female superhero is represented on-screen.

The first third of the film was slow. Larson barely spoke. She stomped around, almost robotically, looking puzzled and lost as she followed her mission and tried to piece together her past. To my delight, however, she stomped around in flat shoes and the same suit as the men from her planet. Win number one.

The soundtrack was heavily skewed to iconic female songs of the 90’s. Win number two.

The digitally youthified (is that a word?) Samuel L. Jackson provided excellent comic relief as the sidekick to Larson’s endearing hero. Win number three. (*note: the mouthy, African-American sidekick is an insidious stereotype = intersectional fail.)

Where the film really took off is the unveiling of the backstory. Yes, there was a montage. Yes, she fell down and got back up again. But this montage showed the young Captain Marvel, not fighting against her own willpower, or her own doubts, but against a society and culture that tells little girls that they are “too emotional”, too delicate and too weak. Win number four.

At times the pro-feminist rhetoric was like a sledgehammer, but I felt my daughter physically respond to the power and positivity that this film engendered, almost as though she were seeing something novel. Perhaps we need a sledgehammer until the message becomes as natural for girls as it is for boys.

Win number five? No love story. This was a film in which the female protagonist (unlike Wonder Woman) was compassionate, caring, ethical, supportive of other women AND had agency without romance being a major plot line. She didn’t have to sacrifice herself for love. She didn’t need to fall in love to find her power. She owned it all on her own.

Was this the best movie I’ve ever seen? Not by a long way. It was pretty, it was funny, Ben Mendelsohn was awesome, it was fun. Was it intersectional? Maybe. The film addressed refugees, sexism, discrimination and social/cultural expectations. Was it a step in the right direction? Absolutely. My daughter walked out beaming and I, for once, wasn’t cringing at the subliminal messages she was being sent. This added to what Black Panther started and I’m excited to see what the women of Marvel do in the upcoming Avenger’s film.

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

This week I’m in Sydney for the Feminist Writer’s Festival and I had planned to repost an older blog post that pretty no one read. It’s lazy, but practical in the midst of an incredibly busy and blustery week. However, last night as I flew over from Perth I watched The Incredibles 2 and was so taken with this lovely little film that I changed my mind and decided to write about it.

Confession: Life is tough at the moment. I’m in The Queen Victoria building, waiting for my coffee to arrive. I slept in until 9am. Seriously, 9am? And am a free agent until six when the first lecture of the festival starts. Pity me.

The Incredibles 2.

The first Incredibles movie is one of my favourites. Anyone with small people in their lives will know what it is like to have to continuously watch the same trite, vacuous and irritating animated films on repeated loop for say… ten years? The Incredibles was one that I got into. It’s take on life after superdom. That is, life after the romance, the adventure, the thrill of the chase. Married life. Family life. How do we reconcile our young, beautiful former selves with this ragged person just trying to hang on. This, all mixed in with a super cute super-hero storyline.

The latest iteration of The Incredibles somehow does it better again. This time we follow the rebooted career of Elastogirl (The mother, wife and carer of the Incredibles family). The husband and wife team reverse roles and while there’s nothing new in that plot-line it is handled so beautifully and poignantly that I almost forgot I was watching a kids’ film. The film begins with the family saving the city from “The Underminer” (where the first film ended). When the action scene ends, the family is arrested. Superheros are still illegal. The insurance won’t cover the damage of their intervention. Now homeless and unemployed the family is destitute. This is when Elastogirl is offered an opportunity to raise the image of superheros through a suit-cam and PR campaign. Like the first film, the superhero plot is an absolute aside to the relationships and identities this film is exploring.

It is overwhelmingly exciting that the protagonist of a kids’ superhero movie is a middle-aged mother-of-three who is trying to recapture her own sense of self as autonomous and important while balancing her need to care for her family. Layered over this is the equally amusing but touching narrative of Mr Incredible. He too struggles to give up his past identity in order to do maths homework, care for a baby and steer his teenage daughter through adolescence. COupled with this is his own identity crisis in which he must manage his ego and expectations as he is outshone by his previously second-fiddle wife. While the film draws on familiar jokes about a father’s inability to cope in the home it swiftly dispels the rather insulting notion that it can’t be done. Mr Incredible adapts, learns and copes in order to give Elastogirl the space and the time she needs to thrive outside the home.

This film is funny, beautifully made, and full of pop-culture references. It engages with the social and political sphere in its ongoing storyline about doing what it right versus what is legal and the way that governments and legislation can lose sight of people.

Why do I think this film is important?

This film is about family. It is about the relationships that make us who we are. It doesn’t valorise youth and beauty. Nor does it dismiss its young characters as incapable or reliant. Rather, The Incredibles 2 is a film I want my children to see because it shows a family working together to navigate life and reminds us that every member has value, both within the family and as a member of the larger community.

 

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‘You Belong, We’ve Got You’: Can advertising to women change the message?

‘You Belong, We’ve Got You’: Can advertising to women change the message?

We’ve all heard them. The positive body-image messages being shouted from the rooftops. The idea that ‘you are enough’ is slowly seeping into our collective consciousnesses. We say it but in our heart of hearts do we actually believe it?

So, if ‘you are enough’ is just a platitude, a bumper sticker, a thing as elusive as weight loss chocolate and imaginary as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, how can we shift the message to make it tangible and believable?

It isn’t enough to tell women that they are just fine the way they are. I sometimes wonder if the constant telling is part of the problem. It feels like a trick. Like your mum telling you that your five-year-old drawing is the best she has ever seen. It’s nice. It feels good and your love her for it but even then, deep-down, you know she has to say that.

It’s this fault line between good intentions and our own sense of the truth that I think we (or at least I) are detecting in some of the body-positive rhetoric that is circulating. My *bullshit* meter is twitching.

We even try to fool each other. Maybe fool isn’t the right world. No, it’s ourselves that we try to fool. I will, with complete sincerity tell a friend that she is beautiful. I don’t care what size she is, whether she wears makeup or how she dresses. I honestly DON’T CARE.  I just don’t look at those indicators. To me, the women in my life are all the things we are supposed to love about other people: funny, kind, smart, sweary, cynical, jaded, (okay, maybe some of these might just be my criteria), HONEST.

Yet, in the same instant, as I extol their virtues I will remind myself of the number on the scales that morning. Those three vicious little numbers that glow like a possessed demon-child and spew-forth all the self-loathing and inadequacies that I would never impose on other women, and that, from the best I can tell, other women don’t impose on me.

Why is the body-positive message only partially grafted onto our consciousnesses then?  Why can’t I succumb to a sense of self-approval that lets me stop whining and just get on with the business of my life? Once again, this is where story (for me) comes into play.

Storyline A:

Once there was a beautiful princess. She was meek and mild with flowing golden hair and a teeny-tiny waste. She liked men (NOT women they were all against her), but not too much. Just enough though, that the first one to come along and do something nice for her would do. Babies, babies, babies (we think, the stories don’t go that far). Blah. She dies (probably killed by a younger female rival), the end.

After a while, women decided that this story sucked, so with a ‘little’ convincing (thousands of years) they were able to shift it—somewhat.

Story-line B:

Once there was a beautiful woman. She was quite smart (just the right level, in certain areas) and always made time between her long work hours, perfect children, home and career to get her hair and nails done. She always looked amazing in active-wear and never missed a workout. She was so supportive of her partner’s amazing career—without her they’d be nothing. Babies, babies… blah. She dies, the end.

Better?  A little?

My story-line:

Once there was a girl. She liked school and was pretty good at it. She met the person that understood her and together they shared a family They like to travel and do sport together. She isn’t perfect, but that’s irrelevant because she is healthy and they are happy.

At least, that’s the gist it what I want my story to be, but damned if Story-line B doesn’t keep sneaking in there. Why? Because Story-line B is sill the one (to a greater or lesser extent) that we see out there: on TV, in the movies, books, and advertising. (I promise I’m getting to the point soon!)

Obviously, Story-line B is about as subtle as a heavy mallet smashing you over the head when spoken out loud, but it pervades (like a soft, soothing mist) through the images and stories that surround us. If telling us that we ‘are enough’ isn’t working because everything else we see suggests that we aren’t. So how do we fix it?

I had one idea.

Appeal to capitalism.

I won’t shop in certain shops because, based on their advertising, I assume that they won’t have any sizes or styles that fit me (I’m an AU12, US8). Especially sportswear (because only really slim ladies play sport, right?).

I’m going to ping Lululemon here. For years (and even in an earlier blog post) I have scoffed at their advertising and their merchandise. It’s only for tiny women. I don’t know more than three women who could, or would wear such skimpy clothes, etc… etc… moral high-ground, angry feminist, feelings of sadness and shame. 

Then I had reason to actually go into the shop. I gave the (admittedly young and tiny) shop assistant a hard time about never being able to find anything to fit. But then it did. It was attractive, supported my body-shape and was (choking on my own self-righteousness, splutter, splutter) comfortable. So, they did have clothes in their range that fit me, and women bigger than me. Their advertising, however—with the exception one set of slightly heavier-set legs on their website— had completely alienated me.

My challenge to advertisers, then, is this:

Stop telling me I’m ‘enough’ (see Dove’s campaign for real women.) It’s condescending and cynical. Don’t market ‘plus sizes.’ Don’t stop marketing to the thin, muscular, power-women that intimidate me so much (they actually do exist and also deserve nice clothes.) Just advertise ALL of your range. Show women in your small sizes AND in your larger sizes (trust me, selling me a size 12 or 14 that I have seen only a size 4 model NEVER ends well). That is, show us what you sell. I don’t need an explicitly body-positive message, a pat on the head or a special campaign. Like everything, just include me. If you make it in a fourteen, or a sixteen, or a twenty show me a woman that size wearing it. She’s not a ‘plus-size’ model by the way, she’s just a model.

And to those shops that assume women bigger than fifty-five kgs don’t exercise—your time is coming to an end (and you are missing out on a profitable market-share.)

Check out these guys as an example of amazing advertising to women. Their mission statement at Active Truth says:

“….We believe in size inclusivity and not segregating plus size activewear and standard activewear ranges…”

While some normalising buzz words could be removed there (plus-size/standard) at least this company is making an effort to change the story they are telling. The big brands in women’s clothing could learn a lot and gain customers without actually changing much.

Actions speak louder than words and inclusion speaks louder than platitudes.

(I get the irony of this last sentence btw.)

 

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