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My final post is about something that should sound familiar to almost everyone, Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was one of the most influential cultural icons in the 20th century. She was a pioneering role model for young ladies; independent, intelligent, self-confident, and attractive. Nancy had a knack for stumbling upon mysteries, making connections where none would be seen, and solving cases better than her male counterparts. She was allowed to do as she pleased but still held the poise and charm of a lady. She was considerate and always had the best intentions in mind. As different ghost writers began writing and modifying the series after Mildred Wirt Benson, the dynamics of the stories changed, reflecting the social limitations of those times. By surveying the works from the original, unmodified, Nancy Drew Mystery Stories written in the 1930s, the revised editions published in the fifties, and the newest Nancy Drew Girl Detective series written in the past decade, it is apparent that these social restrictions influenced the heroine’s attributes both directly and through interactions with other characters.

Originally written in the 1930s by Mildred Wirt Benson, under the pen name Carolyn Keene, the series highlighted the ideals of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1920s, through creating a character which drew positive characteristics from both genders. Benson staunchly believed in the idea that girls could do anything just as well as boys, strongly influencing Nancy’s revolutionary character. Nancy, with the company of her best friends George and Bess, would solve mysteries using their wit and quick thinking. In years following, the series was written and revised by different ghost writers under the direction of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Adams had a different vision for Nancy, preferring her character to be more within the traditional heroine role that other works of literature portrayed at that time. Nancy got a boyfriend who would be the “muscle” behind her work, and help her get out of tight situations in which she used to be able to get out of herself. This quote provides an appropriate description of this:

“Nancy Drew lives in an affluent version of fairyland with a patriarchal figure, her father (her mother is deceased)… although Nancy appears to be a Barbie with brains, breaking away from stereotypical female roles, in reality she is still contatined by the world of her father, her freedom enabled only by an absent mother. Hence, these books present no strong image of matriarch and provide restrictive images of appropriate feminine roles to young women.”

Stratemeyer began a revision of all the original books and some books were modified to the extent where the entire story was changed to include these points.

In the most modern books, written in the last decade, Nancy is turned into a boy crazed, air-head type character who seems to stumble upon the solution to the mysteries, not really thinking through them herself. In 2007, the Nancy Drew movie was made in which the whole movie illustrates exactly this kind of Nancy: (See 1:57)

If we were to submit these stories to the Bechdel test, I think the earlier ones would pass with flying colors. The newest ones however, sadly to say, might not. What does this say about what we are teaching our newer generation? It seems to be an interesting phenomenon in which the media caters to what our newest generations wants to see but they want to see exactly what they are being exposed to around them. It is really sad that Nancy Drew portrays a backwards movement of the portrayal of young women in media but this is really a point where we have to recognize this and try to counter it with something that can help create the opposite views.

-Visnu

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Upon further contemplation of the Bechdel test, I was thinking about a couple things that I left off with in the first post. Is the Bechdel test it sufficient? If not, can it be extended? How?

I came across this video that seemed to address these questions and a bit more.

She (GoingRampant) starts by identifying the way the Bechdel test has evolved over the years to include more stringent criteria. According to her the test as identified by the tropes video is too restrictive

I think she does a good job of addressing is the symbolism in characters. This is taking the Bechdel test and its constituents beyond a strictly gendered character, male or female, and applying it to characters that might be symbolic of either of these gender identities. She also addresses gender ambiguity. If there is a character who is gender ambiguous who happens to pass the conversation portion of the test, does this count?

She then goes on to explain communication. How can the test be applied to media where there is little to no dialogue? The characters cannot be judged on the content of their conversations, if they don’t even speak, so all other modes of communication must also be taken into account. These include gestures and movements. If the particular form of media has mixed verbal communication, how do we take this into account comprehensively?

She outlines her own Bechdel Test making some much needed adjustments:

1. The fictional media must have at least two characters coded as female.

2. They have names if naming is the standard in the media.

3. They communicate with each other using their primary form of their names.

4. They communicate with or without the presence and/ or contribution of a character or characters coded as male

5. They communicate about something other than a character or characters coded as male.

I think it goes to show that the Bechdel test is a good place to begin analyzing the representation of women in media, but is by no means complete. I think the next step is to create a test that might be helpful in understanding whether or not the female portrayal is positive and substantive, but that might just be too complicated.

-Visnu

The Smurfette Syndrome has inspired some fun music!

 

-Rachael

We’ve received many comments on this blog regarding the “Long Line of Independent Women” post, which you can read here.  And it is true that most of the women that we’ve discussed so far are white, heterosexual, and relatively cisgendered, which of course is not representative of all people.  The internet is an interesting tool for discussion, because if contributing authors remain nameless, the only clues about a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, are perceived from the actual content of the writing.

Unfortunately, as difficult as it is to find women who are represented in a progressive and realistic light within the media, it is even more challenging to find those who marginalize the normative.  The general term is much easier to describe than it is to account for every single variable.  At the opposite continuum of an all-encompassing spectrum, I will take you on a small internet journey of the transgendered female character.

For someone who is not grossly familiar with television and movies, I am unable to produce many examples on my own.  Honestly, my best and favorite transgendered character is Divine, although most of John Waters’ movies are quite unconcerned with documenting realistic narratives.

As many people will, I turned to Wikipedia.  I cannot vouch for the comprehensiveness of this list, but the page for transgendered characters did host quite a few examples. Sadly most of these characters are in the spirit of the queer portrayal within the media: short lived and comedic.

Of the many unfamiliar shows, The Education of Max Bickford posed a bit of potential.  If you haven’t heard of it before, it only aired one season on CBS back in 2001-2002 before it was cancelled.  It centers around an all-women’s college, where Max is a professor, and his colleague and best friend is a transgendered woman, Erica.  Never having seen the series, I can’t defend how riveting it was, but authors Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich received a Writer’s Guild award in 2003 for the pilot episode.

In many cases, my intrigue is fed more by the writers and actors who chose to take on these roles, than the actual characters in the show.  There is a very interesting interview with Helen Shaver who plays Erica, which the authors claim is the first permanent transgendered character in a network television series.  Shaver drew much of her inspiration from her transgendered friend of many years, and feels that the choice of a woman for the role reflects the fact that many transgendered people pass quite easily in society.  She was also popular in Desert Hearts,  a mainstream film that portrayed a positive lesbian relationship, and quite deserving of its own post.

I was set to further research Yorkin and Prestwich, who went on to produce a series called The Killing, except that at the time of writing, AMC’s site has been hacked.  Stay tuned for future posts on that topic.

To end the train-of-thought internet tour, I leave you with the World According to Garp.  While Divine is my favorite film star, John Irving’s character, Roberta Muldoon, is much closer to my heart.  In the novel Roberta , once a famous linebacker, was sexually reassigned as a woman.  My only reference for the movie comes from this short clip on youtube, where her and Garp’s relationship seems consistent with the book.  What I loved about Roberta was her positive energy, confidence, and persistence through her struggle and pain.

-Amanda

http://blip.tv/nostalgia-chick/nostalgia-chick-the-smurfette-principle-3141764

Another great video addressing the Smurfette Syndrome is by blogger Nostalgia Chick.  She focuses on animated television from its beginning and how the Smurfette Syndrome has been applied.   Nostalgia Chick explains that there is the default and there is the deviation of the default.  The deviation is often applied to racial minority characters, but this also applies to women, for some reason, even though they are 50% of the population.

One thing that Nostalgia Chick said really stuck with me, and I want to explore this more.  “Why are female characters so hard to relate to?”

So, why are they so hard to relate to?  Are they written in a way that they only appeal to female audiences, or have we, as an audience, become detached with female characters?  Nostalgia Chick attempts to understand why this is the case with cartoons from her youth.  Some cartoons are aimed at specific genders, which will usually have token characters of the opposite sex.  In this case there is usually a female In cartoons that there was a main female character, she was usually some sort of love interest, usually one that needed to be continuously saved by other male main characters.  If there was a second character she is usually a geek or unthreatening.  Also, when there are female counter parts, they are usually a girl version for the more dominant male version, and very often they are, as Nostalgia Chick pointed out, they are usually a pink version of that male counter part.   Animaniacs is a great example of this.  Many of the male characters, simply have a girl version of a pink or purple shade.

I think the bigger question is how has the Smurfette Syndrome surfaced in reality? Though the number has recently grown, there are fewer women then men in our government, working in higher management, and in the sciences engineering fields.  In 2009, Kyrie O’Connor addresses the issue of having only one woman in the Supreme Court on her blog chron.com titled Suffering From Smurfette Syndrome.  In the two short years since her article was written, the demographic has changed.  Today we have three Supreme Court Justices; this is still only 1/3 of the members for a demographic of half of the country.   I am only addressing the misrepresentation of women; there is also a serious misrepresentation for many racial minority groups.

While equality for women and minorities has come a long way, there is still an distinct difference between the default and the deviation from default.  It is important to realize that just because a change has happened, doesn’t mean that it is time to stop fighting.  We still have a long way to go.  A token character on a television show, member of an influential group, or with a significant profession are all very important steps.  It is important to realize that they are steps, and there are still several more to go.

-Rachael

This doesn’t really have much to do with any post but I thought it was fun:

http://thehairpin.com/2011/11/beyonce-songs-re-imagined-as-undergraduate-theses-in-women%E2%80%99s-and-gender-studies

Enjoy 🙂

-Visnu

Women in television today are growing and branching out to roles that historically never existed.  Over the past 40-50 years there is a definite progression of women playing strong, independent, and real characters.  We have come a long way, as women, and this is something that should be celebrated.  I am not however, saying, we have succeeded, and we won.  I just want to acknowledge the feat that we have conquered.

I recently watched an episode of America in Primetime.  This is a four-part documentary series created by PBS.  One of the episodes called “Independent Women” was dedicated to the progression of women characters in television.   I was fascinated by the all of the strong women who took our television to the next level.   They address many popular female characters from television shows such as I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Roseanne, The Good Wife, Desperate Housewives, Nurse Jackie, and Weeds to name a few.

I am a 30-year-old woman, so I am familiar with many of the shows that had to break down walls for us to have shows like Nurse Jackie and Sex and the City today.   I was too young I loved many of the television shows that they addressed in this documentary.  Murphy Brown and Roseanne were television shows that were always watched, as a family, in my house.  My mother was a very strong and independent woman.  She worked very hard to raise us on her limited means, but she always gave us what we needed.  She was also a very honest and sarcastic woman.  I believe that many women feel that they need to, in our society, to find humor in a society that is so hard to exist within.  I personally do the same.  We loved to watch Murphy Brown and Roseanne (my mom’s favorite) because they mirrored the lives that we had.   Murphy Brown was a recovering alcoholic with a fast sarcastic wit, and no apologies for whom she was and what she felt she needed to do.  She had a successful career, which she had worked very hard for, and worked hard to maintain it.   They were flawed.  They were real.

Roseanne was a real woman, doing everything that she could to make it, and raise her children the best that she could.  She used humor, often crudely, especially for the time, to make light of a situation that many people were experiencing in their own lives.  People look to characters on television to reflect their lives.  They want to feel that they are not the only ones struggling with certain problems.   While many of the characters are often overblown images of reality, people what to see someone struggling like they are and succeeding.  This gives us hope.

Today female characters have gone to a new level.  They are pushing boundaries, sometimes to the extreme.  Weeds tell the story of a mother, selling marijuana to make a life for her family.  She is making a lot of mistakes, but she is doing what she thinks is best for her family.   Sex in the City follows four women who are trying to find love in a big city that makes love very difficult.  Nurse Jackie is balancing a career, a husband and kids, a drug addiction, and a boyfriend.  These are issues that, today; many modern women are struggling with.  I for one am grateful for the women who came before them and allowed television today to feature such real characters.

There are many television shows and movies today that perpetuate the Smurfette Syndrome.  I think that we should also celebrate the shows that are making great waves for the real women of television.

Here is a link to the entire episode of the PBS Television show America in Primetime featuring Independent Women.

-Rachael

Before I leave Breaking Bad, dear readers, I have a few more comments to make.  When researching the show last week, I came across blogs for Hank and Marie on AMC TV’s website.

Initially when I read Marie’s blog, I was struck by how ditsy she sounded.  Then I read Hank’s and felt the testosterone radiating from my computer.  They seem to be extreme opposites, and yet are perfectly stereotyped.  I don’t feel that I know these two people too well from the show, but I can explore the depth of character through their writing.

My impression is that Hank and Marie are supposed to be an all-American, pseudo small town couple, with whom many people can identify.  I would like to believe that real folks are more complex, but thinking back to my days in the Midwest, it doesn’t seem extremely far-fetched.  There does exist women whose lives revolve around their husbands, at the expense of their own needs.  Even so, I think Marie has the potential for a more dimensional personification.

After reading a few blog posts, I was relieved to see that Hank does soften occasionally, as Marie as also sticks up for herself.  The best dissection can be made when the two characters are talking about the same issue, as in their nephew’s 16th birthday.  You can read them http://blogs.amctv.com/breaking-bad/2011/09/maries-blog-gloppy-oily-mess.php and http://blogs.amctv.com/breaking-bad/2011/09/hanks-blog-pt-cruising.php

I thought that Hank was unnecessarily harsh when scrutinizing Marie’s choice of gift.  Her writings about Hank, as usual, border on doting.  They were both supportive of Walter Jr. in his future endeavors and offered the advice of life’s experience.  Marie Says, “He’s on the verge of the best — and some of the hardest — years of his life, and it makes me think of all the things I wish I’d known when I was his age.”  Unfortunately immediately following this wise comment, she launches into some comedic relief, talking about how she learned not to pass flashing school buses or buy too much bulk mayonnaise.  It’s as if the writers don’t intend for the viewer to actually take her seriously.  It feels reminiscent of the token gay character who is the butt of jokes, or who makes a spectacle of his gayness for the laughter of others.

As promised in our blog, instead of continually pointing out what is wrong in the world, we will try and make some things right.  Without having ever seen the episode in question, I will use the bits of story from both blogs to rewrite Marie’s in a more realistic fashion.  Of course she’s allowed to be quirky, but I think she is capable of real feelings, too.

A Brilliant World Ahead

Well I’ll be… I just can’t believe my nephew is 16 this week!  Time really does fly.  It seems like just yesterday when more food made it up his nose than into his mouth.  Ah, kids.  But he’s a good one.  Has a good head on his shoulders.

I thought I did at his age.  I was going to take over the world.  But it’s a crazy age and so easy to get misdirected…  Just know we’re always here for you, Jr.  I’ve always been fortunate to have very supportive friends.  Unpopular decisions will be made, but where would life be without those?  There will be so many good times, too.

And he probably thinks that I’m an old lady, but oh, he’ll be here soon enough.  Ha!  And there’s still so much life to live.  I’m getting ready to go back to school, just as he will soon be off to college.  How bout that one?  Me nodding off to philosophy with the rest of the freshmen.  Oh yes.

Except that Hank isn’t quite on board yet… I’m waiting until I have more details in place.  Sometimes he gets so quick to judge if everything is not completely laid out.  And honestly, I’m still a little sore from our fight the other day.  It wasn’t even over anything important, but it still stings, you know?

Skyler had the idea to give Walt Jr. car themed gifts to go along with his hot new ride, and I thought that was a great idea.  Hank was not as receptive, of course.  If it’s something that us women think of, it must be silly.  Although he did try…. But a video game about cars is not exactly what we were thinking.  I probably would have let it go, but he was so animatedly against my gift of a car vacuum.  Oh he just went on and on about how stupid it was, especially because Jr’s parents own a carwash.

Alright, and that is a good point.  But there is no reason to be demeaning while you make it.  And… he never did hear me out.  I thought that since Walt Jr. is getting older and more independent, he might want the option to not have to rely on his parents.  Maybe he’ll want to clean his car at the gas station and not drive halfway across town to go to the carwash?  He is a very neat boy, and now that he’s super proud of his car, I’m sure he’ll keep it spotless.

So Hank and I talked about it… Or we tried to talk about it.  And you know, “pick your battles”.  I thought it was over until Hank slipped in some passive aggressive comments while Jr. was opening gifts.  Real mature.  But my girls and I had some good laughs and exchanged stories later, so I feel a lot better.  What would I do without them?  We were in stitches over some of the antics of our partners!  But don’t worry, we shared some good ones, too.

Oh the things you have to look forward to, Walt!  But really, these are just little things, and once you master those, you really will conquer the world.  Happy Birthday my (not so young any more) nephew.

-Amanda

I recently encountered the Bechdel test in class and though it was a perfect example of a type of extension of the Smurfette Principle within the cinema realm.


As introduced, the Bechdel Test, sometimes also known as the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule, is a test which outlines specific criteria by which a movie can be measured for its accurate representation of female characters. Originally an idea by Liz Wallace, it was popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For in a strip titled The Rule published in 1985.

The framework of the Bechdel Test is as follows:

1. The movie has at least two women in it.

2. These women talk to each other.

3. They talk to each other about something besides men.

As simple as these might seem, there is an extraordinarily surprising number of movies that fail the test. This graph portrays the proportion of movies that pass and don’t pass aspects of the test out of a data base of 2732 movies and counting.

Only a little more than half of the movies pass all three tests, about a third of them only pass one or two of the tests and about a sixth of them don’t pass the test at all. This second graph does a great job of comparing the number of movies that pass the test over the years. Although there is an increase in the number of movies, there is also an increase in the ratio of disparity between the movies that pass completely and the ones that don’t.

So what does all this mean?

Before we answer this question, it is fair to note that the test isn’t at all an indicator of how good the movie is. There are plenty of movies that are “good” that don’t pass the test (although the definition of a “good” movie could be argued to be subjective). It also doesn’t dictate whether or not the portrayal of women is positive within the movie. This is especially seen in horror films where the film might pass the third criteria but it doesn’t necessarily mean the characters are having a particularly intellectual conversation at any capacity.

The vast majority of the population doesn’t even think about the portrayal of women characters in the way as outlined by the test. It has become enough just to have a representation of a woman even if it is in a supporting role. Hollywood at this point, makes a lot of assumptions regarding the importance of solid female characters. They build characters that are incredibly shallow and portray them in films that reflect that, also known as “chick flicks”. The majority of the female characters developed in any other genre are such to perpetuate this stereotype of women being there solely to support the male in whatever his endeavors may be. This says loads about our film male-centric film industry which has such a huge role in the shaping our mainstream culture, translating into the realm of print such as magazines and advertisements. At this extent, is the Bechdel Test enough to even begin to reverse the damage?

-Visnu

I have chosen to scrutinize the show Breaking Bad in the feminist fashion of our blog.  I will admit I was resistant at first.  The only other recent series I have watched is Mad Men, and if familiar with the storyline, you might suspect that show as the better contender for a sexist debate.  While I would agree, one must consider the purpose and audience of the show.  When the producers remade Mad Men, it was not just the fashion of the 1960’s they wished to embody; it was also the attitudes of the time, especially those related to women.  So I leave you, Mad Men, and turn to Breaking Bad.

My reluctance stemmed from the thought that Breaking Bad’s main character is a man, and what is the harm in that?  The premise of the show, for those unfamiliar, is that a high school science teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with lung cancer and turns to cooking meth to support his family.  This is a predominantly masculine storyline with action and drug lords, so it makes sense to have a male lead.

The problem lies with the female characters, and here is why: this is a popular show that reinforces negative connotations about women and the structure of sexism.  It continually delivers a message about men and women’s roles, which serves to justify the actions of men and habituate women to servitude.

This may sound a little extreme, and that is because the message is neatly encoded so that society is spoon-fed little doses, like hiding a pill in dog food.  I will say, however, that as I have not seen every episode, I needed some evidence to support or refute my position.  Thankfully AMC provides a nice little video recap of seasons 1 and 2 to serve as a teaser for season 3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmk0kkznxSw

Skyler White, Walter’s wife, was featured in 25 seconds of the 6 minute long video, accounting for approximately 7% of exposure.  The other two prominent female characters had even less: Marie, Skyler’s sister, at 0.03% and Jane, who was killed off after 10 episodes, at 2%.  Not surprising, Jane as the young, sexy female was a better advertisement than middle aged Marie, even though she is a permanent character.

Skyler and Marie’s roles are to simply support the storyline and their male counterparts.  Marie’s husband is Hank, the DEA agent who is hot on the trail of Walter’s drug ring, and much more influential to the plot.  For Marie’s one second of video, she is seen sitting with Skyler, remarking on the details of her husband’s case.  Marie is not even in focus.  From the episodes I have watched, she is never without Hank or Skyler, and thus stagnant to the story.

Skyler’s purpose is slightly more complex.  She gets a job, has an affair, and consults with a divorce lawyer, although these actions are all in response to something fueled by Walter.  It would be much more reassuring if she pursued a career for intellectual interest instead of monetary reasons because of her impending divorce.  Near the end of the video, Walter reiterates the main purpose behind Skyler’s character, which was originally pointed out by Laura Mulvey.  His main conflict is that although he has more money than he can spend, what he does not have is his family.  His wife becomes an object to influence the plot.

I want break quickly and comment that I really don’t like either female character.  I empathize with Skyler slightly more than Marie, and I never watched Jane in an episode.  There are rarely female characters that I can identify with, but there are still many whom I like.  Dearest reader, what is your opinion?

To steer things back to the video, Skyler is either angry or extremely maternal (which does help her likeability).  Her two longest scenes are when arguing with Walter, and her initial dialogue contradicts the latter.  First Walter pleads with Skyler that if she stays, he will tell her everything.  Her response is that she is afraid to know, and she leaves anyways.

In the next scene Skyler demands that Walter tell her everything, with no further excuses.

She is illustrated as wishy-washy and unreasonable, where Walter is the recipient of her overreacting, as he is truly hurt.  There is a short clip where she says, “Lies on top of lies” after Walter asserts, “We’re going to make it”.  In another she has her back turned to Walter while she applies lotion.

Her maternal clips are much shorter.  Skyler and her son hug Walter while he’s in the hospital, Skyler lies with Walter and her baby.  I nearly missed a bird’s eye view of Skyler asleep in bed while Walter is awake in agony next to her.

It is apparent from the teaser video that the female characters are not interesting enough to hold their own grounds.  Marie is barely existent, and Skyler is the main source of conflict for Walter.  She either makes his life difficult by demanding the truth or exists as the feminine object that he desires.  Neither is a woman who I would want to model my life after.

-Amanda