Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why Does Pink Inspire Such Loathing?

A few items have caught my eye over the last days. A friend and peer, Michelle Smith, has an excellent piece in The Age about the new Lego range for girls. (She blogs about it here.) What I really love about her approach to the topic is that she begins:

"In a 1970s advertisement for Lego, a small girl holds up a free-form construction, made up of a jumble of different types of bricks and figures. She is wearing a blue T-shirt, a pair of jeans and blue sneakers, and her red hair is plaited."

It's very easy to see issues like this one become linear: somewhat along the lines that 'girls have always been commercially segregated from boys and this needs to change.' In fact, if you go back in history, you'll find that there are many, many periods in which boys had long curls and were fitted into dresses for the first few years and, likewise, that pink was the traditional colour for boys until the last century. Yet, there has been an increasingly aggressive move towards 'pink marketing' for girls and it's difficult to ignore.

Now, this is problematic, not simply because I agree - girls don't always want everything in pink and marketing executives shouldn't assume they do. It's lazy, for a start. But it also inspires campaigns like PinkStinks and while I agree with much of the campaign's argument, I still wince at how the colour, intentionally or not, becomes the crux of the outrage, rather than the marketing approach to the colour. I like pink. Pink isn't the problem. It's the way pink is being used in this commercial context that is the problem.

In fact, I think part of the reason pink creates such tension is that it is an assertive colour. I've blogged about this before. You rarely find someone saying 'I hate blue' with the same vehemence. Pink is divisive. Pink doesn't care what you think. Pink has the potential to be revolutionary. (Note my little joke there.)

I worry when the response to marketing for girls is reduced, essentially, to an attempt to stamp out pink and maybe sparkles and princess dresses too (which would be a shame, because you'd miss stuff like this). Inevitably, immediately following this attempt, is a reassertion of the binary by which all that is offered to girls is 'bad'. What is offered to boys is 'good'. See what's happening there?

I confess, as a girl myself, I insisted on wearing long dresses with puffy sleeves and sashes and playing with dolls. My mother made all my dresses to my exacting standards and my best ever Christmas was when she made me a new wardrobe for my dolls, mostly with scraps from my pretty dresses (they were often in blue, incidentally, and as you can see, I didn't really pay attention to marketing and didn't even know Barbie dolls existed). But before you judge me, I will add that all my friends were boys. I taught the boys how to skip and behave properly at tea parties. I played outdoors with them, teaching them how to chase dragons and hop over alligator swamps. (Yes, I was pretty assertive, too.) It didn't occur to me until the second year of school that I was 'supposed to' play with girls. That is still one of my saddest days ever and I've never entirely gotten over the heartbreak. (Edited to add: That wasn't actually intended as a pointless personal ramble. The point I wanted to illustrate is that each girl's experience is unique, being girly doesn't necessarily mean you lack assertiveness, and that girls and boys can play at a whole range of games irrespective of supposed gender assignations.)

So I watch these debates with some concern. I particularly worry when a voice pops up asking about the boys and whether it isn't also sad that they have a restricted range of toys marketed to them, a range that doesn't include little stoves and mops, and inevitably someone takes that person to task, 'because boys are privileged.' They're not privileged if they can't easily go into the toy shop and ask for pink fairy wings or a plastic saucepan! Patriarchy is bad for girls and boys. We're not going to get rid of the gender binary and create gender equality if we simply insist all girls should wear jeans and play with trucks. We're not going to get rid of the gender binary and create gender equality by outlawing pink. It's rather like saying it's anti-feminist to make cupcakes. And often, it's not what is being said, but how people are interpreting it.

This isn't what thoughtful, open-minded people like Michelle Smith are saying, but just look at the comments to some of these pieces and you see these extremes come into play.

Mind, I also got a little frustrated at a piece in The Guardian on comic books and women by Ben Quinn. Here's a little snippet:

"'There is a certain sensitivity that you find in women's art that just does not appear in a lot of guys' work,' says James Pearson, who edited the anthology, which follows the story of escaped slaves taking refuge in a swamp."

Oh no, I thought, sighing a little. It's not so bad, but I always feel unhappy when emotions or creativity become gendered. We do need to see more women artists and writers in comics, but they don't necessarily have to produce 'feminine' content, whatever that is. Can one truly tell if an artist is male or female? We used to debate in the unit, 'Writing Women,' whether one could tell if the author was male or female and if it even mattered. A student memorably told us about a friend who insisted he couldn't abide women writers. She smirked. He had a poster of George Elliot on his wall.

Finally, it was incredibly soppy, but I really loved this year's Doctor Who Christmas special. As I noted to some friends - spoiler alert - I especially enjoyed watching a woman carry an entire forest in her head without exploding, without dying, and without having to have the Doctor take the burden because she wasn't strong enough. Those who have watched previous series might know what I mean.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Holiday

Ah, I love the holiday season. If only for the excuse to watch Muppets doing Christmas carols, like this. (Yes, Animal is my favourite Muppet.)

I'll be away from all things academic for a couple of weeks, although I'm sure I'll still be reading fairy tales and thinking about glass slippers. Academics are never quite on holiday.

I did see the double bill of Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman at the Wheeler Centre event last night. It was brilliant. I won't do a blow by blow account, but I did have one 'can I just duck under the chair?' moment when someone asked Gaiman how he felt about academic critique and his books being taught. I know most authors don't really like their books being taught and I do completely understand that. If I had a book, I'm almost certain I wouldn't like it being taught.

It's true that many students are turned off books by having to 'study' them. I was one such student. Although I did discover a love of Andrew Marvell through high school English, I also came to the conclusion I really hated The Catcher in the Rye. I regularly hear students talk about the books that school and university have ruined for them.

It's scary being a teacher of English Literature. You want students to love the books you teach, but you know that can't always happen. After all, even if you recommend a book to a friend, there's no guarantee they'll love it. Still, you sort of have to study books in English Literature, don't you? And although authors often say they prefer people to find their books 'naturally,' I think schools and universities can be places where you can discover authors 'naturally,' so to speak.

Happily, I've heard from many students who have discovered authors through my classes and have become great fans, going on to read all the authors' books. I have heard from students who had difficulty wrestling copies of their class texts back from a parent or partner in order to study for the test or write their essay. I have even had the occasional email about how a student stayed up all night reading a book and how the book made them happy (incidentally, that was, at least on one occasion, Gaiman's Stardust). So while I know that I have inevitably ruined books for some students, I know other students have discovered new books to love through my classes. That makes me feel a bit better about the whole thing.

Last night did, however, make me stop and reflect upon how we, as teachers and academics, can work to better overcome the stigma of ruining books for our students. I don't have a ready response yet, but I will be thinking about it further... after the holiday.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Craft and the Academic

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the challenges of supervising PhD students. The upshot of our discussion was my remark that people didn't have to do PhDs: writing a thesis is a lifestyle, not simply an assignment. (Incidentally, I think those are the best words of wisdom I can give anyone considering the PhD route.)

My friend agreed and pointed out a C. Wright Mills piece, "On Intellectual Craftsmanship," which can be found in the appendix of The Sociological Imagination (1959). Mills tells us: "It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. [...] Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman" (195).

This is what I've been trying to get it in my own erratic way. Being an academic is not simply about sitting at a computer for a designated number of hours writing an article or spending an afternoon reading until the book in question is covered in post-it notes or marking a 10 foot high stack of undergraduate essays. To really succeed academically, it has to be about the craft. The academic wants to create, to learn, to improve and innovate.

This is something I want to bring more and more into the classroom. To make undergraduate life at university less about assignments, grades and playing the system and more about a lifestyle. I'm always frustrated that so much of our teaching and student-contact has to be geared towards final grades and major and minor structures. I once overheard two students on the bus complaining because they'd had a couple of lectures on a topic that wasn't covered in the exam. "What was the point of that?" asked one. I barely resisted turning around to say, "Learning."

I also have a soft spot for Mills since he called himself a Wobbly. Yes, a Wobbly. "'I am a Wobbly.' I mean this spiritually and politically [...] I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat" (Letters and Autobiographical Writings, 2000: 252).

I aspire to be a Wobbly.

Incidentally, in terms of craft, I've been reading Jane Austen Knits. While there is little evidence of Jane's own knitting, her mother could be easily absorbed in the knitting of gloves and socks, which makes me like her all the more. I like the combination of literature, history and knitting that has gone into each of the patterns included in the magazine. For a little taste, here's a link to a blog post by the designer, Sharon Fuller, of 'Picturesque Cape.'

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Useful for Authors... and readers too

Just before I get into the real matter of this post, recently I discovered fantasy/fairy tale magazines. I perhaps shouldn't say 'discovered'. I knew they were around. I hadn't really engaged with them, though. That's changed now that I have an iPad. For some reason - possibly the ability to flick through many magazines without burying myself under them - reading the magazines on the iPad is much more satisfying and I've become a great fan. My current favourite is Fantasy Magazine. The stories are excellent, with contributors like Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, and the cover artwork is rich. See, for instance, the cover of the July 2011 issue.

I've also been delighted to see that Dark Horse is releasing Buffy and Hellboy comics for reading on iPads. Hardcopy magazines and comics have been expensive in Australia. Storage rapidly becomes an issue. Digital subscriptions and copies overcome these problems and make the material readily available. Albeit, these are advantages only if you have a digital device to read the material. I'm not advocating the iPad, incidentally, but it's the device I went with and it's been handy.

The matter of this post, ostensibly, is useful advice for authors (or hopeful authors) and their readers. Neil Gaiman, a great supporter of audio books, has just blogged a post that will hopefully spread far and wide. In "Audiobooks: A Cautionary Tale," he provides advice on making the most of your audio rights. With audiobooks becoming ever more viable and popular thanks to downloadable formats, this is rapidly becoming an significant aspect of a writer's work. Gaiman writes:

I think what I want to say mostly is, if you are an author, Get Involved in Your Audiobooks Early. Get your agent involved and interested. Talk about them at contract stage. Find out if you're selling the rights, and if you are selling them then find out what control you have or whether you are going to be consulted or not about who the narrator is and how the audiobook is done.

I think the most fun I had with an audio book was sitting with a group of friends one night listening to a Doctor Who story.
We were traveling and decided to have an early night 'in'. Since we were on the road, this was a B&B. We had a supply of edible goodies from M&S and sprawled happily about the room while I logged into iTunes. A few of us fell asleep before the end, but thankfully, no one who snored over the narration. There is a communal aspect to the audio book that is doubly appealing to me. Joining in as you all gasp and giggle is entertaining in itself.

There is also an excellent post on Amazon reviews from Anne R. Allen's blog. With the bookstore in increasing trouble, we're more reliant on reader reviews and recommendations through online bookstores like, of course, Amazon. I usually flick through the reviews before buying. They don't always persuade or dissuade me, but they do matter. I appreciate the reviews, in particular, that outline the content in more detail than the publisher's blurb (I wish publishers would catch up with the realities of today's book buying practices and provide good, concrete information on the contents). Allen's post gives pause for thought, though, on how much power the buying public now holds over the author. I encourage everyone to read the post and think about reviewing books on Amazon. We have more power now to substantially support writers. It's time to use this power wisely.