A few months ago, I attended a workshop at which a number of female academics employed phrases such as “I just fell into it” to describe their career trajectories into full-time, permanent employment. While I can accept that a certain degree of serendipity exists in any career—being “in the right place at the right time”, and so on— in the context of an increasingly precarious, increasingly competitive academic labour market this kind of phrase feel at best disingenuous, and, at worst actively damaging.

In fact, what strikes me most in first-hand accounts by Early Career Researchers, such as Charlotte Mathieson’s and Sophie Coulombeau’s respective blog posts on job hunting post-PhD, is their acknowledgement of the requirement for ECRs to be simultaneously flexible and strategic in order to secure that elusive goal: a permanent academic job.*

Mathieson, for example, gives the following excellent advice:

“Have a 1, 2, and 5-year plan. […] keeping in mind long-term goals and objectives is crucial to making the most of the time you do have and, importantly, keeping your morale and long-term focus going in difficult times. Be strategic and prioritise publications, as well as identifying CV gaps to fill; and be realistic, recognize that plans will change and you need to review, revise, readjust periodically.”

Clearly, no one passively “falls” into an academic post. Besides, these days, a large proportion of doctoral graduates go on to work outside of Higher Education (e.g. 54% in the Arts and Humanities, for more insightful statistics see Vitae’s What do Researchers Do? report). The complexity of such post-PhD career paths begs the question: shouldn’t the kind of strategic planning Mathieson enourages begin way before PhD graduation? Don’t PGRs have much to gain from setting priorities and filling in CV gaps during their PhDs, i.e. when they are most likely to have access to expert advice and support at/from their institutions? And, if so, how can we make this happen?

career-pathways

Source: What Do Researchers Do? (Vitae 2013)

I am exploring precisely these kinds of questions through my current placement project with Vitae. Having consulted with Arts and Humanities doctoral researchers and ECRs through a series of workshops and an online survey, I am now starting to analyse the data collected, with a view to formulate recommendations to funders, institutions and supervisors. So watch this space for updates on the project as it progresses!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in  finding out more about the wealth of career options available to researchers post-PhD, why not have a listen to the Vitae and Taylor & Francis podcast Episode 2, ‘Stepping Up and Moving On’? Click here to hear expert advice from a careers consultant from King’s College London, as well as first hand accounts from PhD graduates such who have gone into “altac” careers. (Bonus: you get to hear my first foray into podcasting!)

Finally, if you’re keen to kick-start your own professional development, Vitae’s PDP Researchers’ Online Course is a great place to start.

* If this sounds terribly neoliberal, it’s because it is. More on this some other time.

I presented a version of this blogpost at the excellent Academia and Affect Symposium on Friday 3rd June 2016. For more details about the symposium and future events see here, and here.

Postfeminist Authorship
When I was 8 years old, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. Not just any journalist you understand—I wanted to be Lois Lane, as I saw her weekly in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997). I even dressed up as a “journalist” for a friend’s birthday party. This meant wearing a button-up blouse and sunglasses in my hair. But as I think about this girl, and teenager she became, and the researcher she would grow into, I see a lineage of bookish women, with journals, quills, typewriters, computers, and laptops, endlessly at work on my film and TV screens.

As a white, straight, middle class, and generally privileged girl, I easily saw in these characters what I wanted to be when I grew up. I saw a lifestyle I could aspire to, an ambition made legitimate through its circulation on screen. I saw the attractive, slim, white Carrie Bradshaw freed from the mundanity of office work, tip-tapping away on her MacBook in the private, feminised space of the bedroom in Sex and the City (1998-2004). I saw Kate Winslet and Rachel MacAdams respectively solving mysteries in The Life of David Gale (2003) or State of Play (2009). Watching Anne Hathaway becoming Jane Austen in Becoming Jane (2007), I understood that “being creative” was to self-actualise. I believed that working in precarious conditions with little money and no safety net was to be an authentic artist. In these texts and in media accounts of celebrity success against impossible odds, I saw the promise of rewarding “passionate work”, a job “akin to a romantic relationship” (McRobbie 2016), and through this passionate attachment, in turn, the promise of becoming an intelligible feminine subject.

Aged 16, I joined the creative writing club at my school in Paris. Needless to say, I took to the pretentious clichéd performance of authoriality with gusto. We met in smoky Parisian cafés, and ordered espressos—no milk no sugar—we endlessly discussed the depressing poetry we planned to write. I would insufferably, and, at great lengths, quote Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Aschenbach’s “noble” desire to “lay in the arms of beauty”.

Revisionary Authorship
In hindsight, it’s easy to see what was missing in my teenaged enacting of authorship. With the many privileges of my upbringing, I could afford to think myself apolitical. Having wholeheartedly internalised the lessons of postfeminist media culture, I was unable, and indeed unwilling, to conceive of my vocation as a writer as gendered, classed or raced; I “just” wanted to be a writer (see Dyer 1997, 1-2). More on this and my “embarrassingly delayed click! moment” here.

It would be highly disingenuous, then, to suggest that my past politics, and my embarrassment and shame at my past politics, don’t affect my identity or my practice as a researcher today.

What I didn’t know then that I know now is that art is deeply and necessarily political. Women’s authorship is a fundamentally radical instrument, which promises to rewrite the terms of everyone’s socialisation. From Mary Wollestonecraft to Charlotte Brontë, from Virginia Woolf to Judith Butler, the history of feminism is almost indistinguishable from the history of women writers, and of women writers writing about writing. Even as Roland Barthes announced “The Death of the Author” in 1967, second wave feminists declared its very opposite: the “birth” of the woman author. In “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), in an albeit highly essentialist lexicon, Hélène Cixous celebrates the revolutionary potential in women’s writing:

Diapositive07

In line with Cixous, my own authorship is revisionary in nature. In my PhD project, I study the very women I thought I wanted to become. The act of re-viewing them is in itself political. It is crucial for me to revisit these texts precisely because I see them as the site of my postfeminist indoctrination.

Through my doctoral project I not only trace the trajectory of pernicious conservative ideas about identity and authorship, but I also hope to rewrite them, to revise my own assumptions, to check my own privilege, one woman author at a time. In my work on films like The Help (2011), I think about the ways in which conservative and exclusionary assumptions about whose works are worth reading, or whose voices are worth celebrating in the canon, are produced and perpetuated on screen. My primary texts endlessly suggest that the corporeality of an author determines their corpus; assumptions simultaneously predicated upon, and ultimately legitimating, whiteness and maleness as the default “setting” for human subjectivity. In critiquing these assumptions, I seek to push back against a culture which marginalises any author who is not white or male. (For a more detailed exploration of The Help’s racial politics click here)

In revisiting texts like Julie & Julia (2009), I think about how precarious working or living conditions are celebrated as “authentic”, “self-actualising”, or “bohemian”, despite the fact that there is nothing desirable about the fatigue of working several jobs in a time of austerity, or the anxiety of not knowing whether you’ll be able to make rent this month. There is nothing romantic about welfare-free employment. And nothing fun about the second shift which still awaits most women at home today. So I write all day about how discourses of “girl power” erase the mechanics of privilege and create fallacious fantasies of meritocracy, equality, and levelled playing fields. I write all day about processes of surveillance and how they pervade the lives of characters like Bridget as they strive to be good self-governing subjects. But of course, the phrase “I write all day” is misleading. I don’t write all day. Often I don’t write at all. That doesn’t tend to happen to my protagonists. Writer’s block is little more than an obstacle on the road to heteronormative closure in films like Not Another Happy Ending (2013).

Untenable Authorship?
But even as I think these lofty political thoughts about authorship, I know I am complicit in these problematic representations. When I place my laptop by the window, write in cafés, artfully pile up my books on my bed, when I read outside, or sit in the grass sipping a smoothie, I am self-consciously performing my own authorship. And when I relentlessly photograph and document the researcher “lifestyle”, using ridiculous hashtags like #livingthephDream, I am fetishizing and celebrating precariousness the same way my primary texts do. And in doing so, I erase the very real and painful struggle of academic labour. So there is also something perverse, ironic, paradoxical, and, untenable about my project and my positioning in academia, whereby I find myself uncomfortably occupying the spaces that I examine, enacting the very iconography I critique.

In other words, I play my part as a mediated neoliberal (authorial) subject.

So, what hope is there when even the spaces which exist to critique suspect politics such as neoliberalism are complicit in their existence? What hope is there in the context of heightened anxiety to do with insecure employment, unfair pay, the impact agenda, and indeed the REF? In typical Carrie Bradshaw fashion, I can’t help but wonder… can’t we be hopeful? In the end, I have to believe that in re-valuing and re-politicising our labour as researchers, in revisiting the sites of our indoctrination, in coming together and connecting the dots of our experiences, it is in our power to collective rewrite this story.

PS. I wrote this in a café.

Further reading
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 875-93.
Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997.
Gill, Rosalind. “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia”, in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, 2009.
McRobbie, Angela. Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Cambridge: Polity, 2016.

 

 

In an insightful post entitled ‘How to Deal with your PhDouble’, Nadine Muller suggests that, ‘at some point,’ most people are ‘faced with the realisation that someone is working on a virtually identical topic to yours.’ While I’ve yet to encounter my own PhDouble, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hadley Freeman, Guardian journalist and author of Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies (2013), is writing (parts of) my thesis. Unless, of course, it is the other way around? Freeman has in fact been writing for The Guardian these last fifteen years, circling around key issues including gender, feminism, authorship, and popular culture.

Either way, in a time of austerity, when Arts and Humanities funding is increasingly under threat lest we prove our ‘impact’, doing a PhD, and doing a PhD in film in particular, can strike as particularly foolish, or indulgent. In such moments of PhDoubt, Freeman’s articles—or indeed Lindy West’s and Caitlin Moran’s—remind me that I am not working from an ivory tower. My work deals with, is influenced by, and ultimately hopes to shape futures iterations of, popular culture. Our conversations about gender, whether they take place in academic or journalistic forums, are necessary and necessarily pressing. So, much like the PhDouble, my Guardian double (‘Guardouble’?) does not really ‘threaten [my] sense of uniqueness’ (Muller, ‘How to Deal’, 2014). Instead, as Muller argues, since ‘Academia is about the creation of knowledge, […] at its best it is always collaborative, never solitary, even when you’re alone in your study’ (‘How to Deal’, 2014).

So in honour of my Guardouble, here is a compilation of Freeman’s thought-provoking commentary on popular perceptions of singleness, makeovers, and female authorship: in other words, the very concerns which drive All the Single Writing Ladies. Enjoy. 

On the Single Woman

Such is the popularity of investigations into the enthralling mystery of single women that these articles are pretty much their own genre of journalism in America, characterised by gloomy warnings about the dangers of feminism, cod anthropological claims, regrets about leaving a nice man because the writer wanted an unspecified ‘more’, self-flagellation dressed up as ‘honesty’ about feminism and they are always – always – written by a woman.  […] The reason they attract so much attention is because the media love any stories that suggest independent women will be punished and because many women readers, in my experience, glob on to articles that voice their worst fears. With meta irony, such an article was featured in Sex and the City just as that show itself became another example of self-flagellation with a feminist fig leaf when Carrie was featured in a piece titled, Single and Fabulous? – emphasis on the question mark. (‘Single women’, 2011)

 On Makeovers and Neoliberal Selfhood

The truth is […] I don’t think women are obsessed with makeovers. But I do think that media aimed at women, from movies to magazines to TV shows, strongly believe they should be, and this is manifested in a variety of ways. There’s the subtle way: the constant message that women can and must improve their physical appearance in some way, and not to do so will result in loneliness and self-loathing. There’s the less subtle way, which is the media veneration of female celebrities who achieve Nobel prize-winning feats in self-transformation, such as losing weight after having a baby. Then there’s the straightforward no-bother-with-subtlety approach, which is simply to celebrate makeovers in themselves. […] And yet, because so many women grow up with this ingrained belief that self-improvement is all, there will always be something fascinating about looking at Before and After comparisons and imagining that such a transformation is possible. (‘The trouble with makeovers’, 2015)

On Autobiography and the Woman Author

But in my experience, in both journalism and publishing it is women who are most encouraged to reach inside themselves, pull out their guts and slap them unadulterated on the page. Dunham defends the rise of the female memoir in the introduction to her book, positing it as a triumph of feminism. But it is a thin line between the long overdue validation of women’s lives and telling women that the most interesting thing they have to offer, and that all they can be trusted to write about, is themselves.(‘The latest message’, 2014)

[Science for Her] stands apart from the recent vogue in publishing for the tell-all memoir. Amram, too, has been approached to write one, but says, ‘I had no interest in writing a memoir, because I was 25 then and was like, “Nothing has happened to me yet. I think I should wait until I have a story to tell, OK?” I just wanted to do my science book. I mean, I grew up in a lovely family and went to school. I don’t think that’s a story.’ (‘Megan Amram’, 2014)

On Sex, the Woman Author, and the Disparaging of Women’s Labour

[A]mong all the lessons to be gleaned from Hollywood movies, there are few that have become as established as the idea that female journalists have sex with the people they’re writing about. […] Judd Apatow’s comedy Trainwreck, which stars and is written by Amy Schumer, will come to the UK next month. Despite its pretence to edginess, it is utterly conventional, not least in its depiction of – can you guess? – female journalists. The movie tells the story of Amy, a journalist who is assigned by her editor to write a profile of a sexy sports doctor. […] So off she goes and promptly gets drunk with the doctor – and has sex with him – because how else do female journalists get to know their subjects? […] To a certain extent, the depiction of female journalists in films reflects how movies in general belittle women who work these days. Women’s jobs, today’s Hollywood movies imply, are a mere hurdle they need to scale before discovering the meaning of life (marriage). But the Hollywood obsession with female journalists’ sex lives feels especially ridiculous as there are few professionals who film folk encounter more than journalists. So this idea that female journalists are all just dying to jump into bed with them is a fascinating insight into certain film-makers’ tragic sexual fantasies. (‘Don’t believe Hollywood’, 2015)

References

Freeman, Hadley. ‘Single women: an American obsession’. The Guardian. 29 November 2011.
—.The latest message for female writers – don’t think, just spill’. The Guardian. 19 September 2014.
—. ‘Not That Kind of Girl review – Lena Dunham exposes all, again’. The Guardian. 30 September 2014.
—.Megan Amram: the comedian giving molecules a makeover’. The Guardian. 14 November 2014.
—.The trouble with makeovers? It’s far better to look like yourself’. The Guardian. 20 April 2015.
—.‘Never underestimate the appetite for seeing women like Amy Winehouse self-destruct’The Guardian. 24 June 2015.
—.‘Don’t believe Hollywood’s sexual fantasies about female journalists’.The Guardian. 29 July 2015.
Muller, Nadine. ‘Someone’s Doing my PhD! How to Deal with Your PhDouble’. Dr Nadine Muller. 06 November 2014.

This post is adapted from a Pecha Kucha I gave at the Forum in Norwich last Thursday as part of the UEA in the City: A Festival of Student Research.

Pecha Kucha

Pecha Kucha

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about a film I really love—and in some ways, really hate—10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999). I still remember the first time I watched the film. I was an impressionable 13 year-old, and in those pre-Netflix days I had rented the cassette from my local Blockbusters. The story was simple enough: Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) played by Heath Ledger, is paid by a third party to date Kat Stratford (see what they did there, again?), herself played by teen-movie darling Julia Stiles. Unfortunately, Kat is much too busy kicking ass at football, reading The Bell Jar, and generally fighting the patriarchy to be interested in Patrick… and yet, the two eventually fall in love.

I couldn’t have told at the time what it was about the story that I found just so compelling; but it was probably the fairy tale idea, that despite being a desperately dweeby teenager myself, I, too would end up at the prom with Heath Ledger. 

Marie at the prom with Heath Ledger: a dream come true?

Dreams do come true: my prom photo* (*not really)

Problem #1 and #2
The problem is, when I revisited the film as an adult, as a film student, and, as a feminist, it became increasingly unpalatable. It was obvious that the story I so lovingly remembered as a light-hearted, feel-good, romantic comedy was actually really dark and sinister. It was just another story of violence and submission packaged as ‘romance.’So that’s the first thing I hate about 10 Things I Hate About You: its dishonesty about the kind of story it is telling. The plot is actually borrowed from Shakespeare’s misogyny-fest The Taming of the Shrew. 

However, the play’s Christopher Sly framing means productions can work to interrogate the play’s problematic gender politics. Even so, and even gender-flipped, it makes for an uneasy viewing. Problem #2: the film’s lack of framing, on the other hand, means we have to take the love story of 10 Things I Hate About You at face value.

Problem #3 and #4
Giving Shakespeare a teen makeover was all the rage in the late 1990s to early 2000s: Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996); 
Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 19999) incorporating elements of As You Like It; O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) based on Othello, and also featuring Julia Stiles; Get Over It (Tommy O’Haver, 2001), featuring a production of Midsummer Night’s DreamI also like to think of Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) as an adaptation of Julius Caesar. She’s the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006), a loose adaptation of Twelfth Night that Channing Tatum probably wishes he could forgetmore or less marks the end of the cycle. 

But that takes me to problem #3: 10 Things I Hate About You deploys its cultural capital so strategically that the film’s gender politics are seen as essentially ‘Shakespearean’ and therefore above critique. Bardolatrous much? This is related to problem #4, the film’s relentless suggestion that Shakespeare, a white man 400 years dead, is not just relevant today, but that he can be credited with ‘inventing’ everything, including feminism itself. 

This is NOT what a Feminist looks like

This is NOT what a Feminist looks like

Problem #5 and #6
In reality, the film’s celebration of Shakespeare trivialises feminism. At the beginning of the film, Kat embodies an excessive form of feminism known as the ‘Femi-Nazi’, her aggressive speech and masculine clothing signalling her abrasive, shrill, feminist personality. The message could not be more clear: being a feminist is really uncool! So that’s problem #5: the film claims to cash in on 1990s ‘girl power’ but it’s actively undermining it (spoiler alert: we call this disavowal postfeminism).  
In a typical postfeminist sleight of hand, the film reveals that Kat’s feminism was bankrupt all along: it is not the result of careful critical thinking but of an unsatisfactory sexual encounter in the wake of her mother’s infidelity to the father. The film thus dismisses feminism as a disruptive behavioural disorder originating from bad mothering that must be cured via the redemptive effects of heteronormative romance. In other words, the political is personal.

Femi-Nazi Kat

Femi-Nazi Kat

By the end of the film, Kat has changed her mind about (not) going to prom. She has undergone a makeover which has revealed both an essential, gentler, (postfeminist) inner self, as well as, exposed the girlie beauty that had been tantalisingly veiled by her unfortunate political and sartorial choices. This makeover is the sixth thing I hate, about 10 Things I Hate About You. It is also typical teen movie fodder: in Never Been Kissed and She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999), the geeky protagonists similarly transition into prom queen material. Problematically, their changed exteriors signify a necessary internal change, whereby they somehow require improvement in order to secure their happy ending.

Problem #7
At this point in the film, Kat reads a sonnet she has written for her English class:

I hate the way you talk to me, and the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car, I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots and the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick, it even makes me rhyme.
I hate the way you’re always right, I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh, even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around, and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you,
not even close… not even a little bit…not even at all.

Problem #7: that’s more than 10 things – that is 14 things she hates about Patrick. More seriously, through this poem, Kat, who has, until now, shown impressive independent thinking, gives up the very values which define her. When she says ‘I hate the way you’re always right’ she is not only authenticating male privilege, but also giving up her own agency and independent thought.

Problem #8 and #9
In the next scene, we have problem #8, as Patrick turns up, and literally buys Kat’s forgiveness by giving her a guitar. When Kat points out: ’You can’t just buy me a guitar every time you screw up, you know.’  He responds, ‘Yeah, I know. But then, there’s always drums and bass, and maybe even one day, a tambourine.’ 
Before she can protest any further, Patrick kisses her into silence— he literally stops her from objecting. This is known as the silencing kiss, and it’s problem #9: the way in which romcoms package controlling behaviour as a desirable aspect of ‘the chase.’ (See also Darcy’s romantic incredibly insulting proposal in Pride and Prejudice.)

Cheap trick: the silencing kiss

Silencing kiss: romantic resolution or controlling behaviour?

Problem #10
So that takes us to the final thing I hate about 10 Things I Hate About You—Just like Julia Stiles who can’t help but love Heath Ledger, most of all, I hate the way I don’t hate this film, not even close… not even a little bit… not even at all. And this cognitive dissonance is incredibly unsettling, because films are more than mere ‘entertainment.’ Films help us forge our identities, help us decide who we are, how we should behave, and what kind of relationships we should have. Stories matter because they shape the way we think.

This is why it’s crucial for people to study, untangle, and indeed frame, the kinds of message embedded within these stories, because in the end, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’

 

Further Reading (featuring brilliant awful academic puns)
:

Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt. ‘Totally Clueless?: Shakespeare Goes Hollywood in the 1990s.’ Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 8–22.

Burt, Richard. ‘Te(e)n Things I Hate about Girlene Shakesploitation Flicks in the Late 1990’s, or Not-So-Fast Times at Shakespeare High.’ Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema. Ed. Courtney Lehman and Lisa Starks. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson, 2002. 202-232.

Clement, Jennifer. ‘The Postfeminist Mystique: Feminism and Shakespearean Adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man.’ Borrowers and Lenders. Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 2008).

Deitchman, Elizabeth A. ‘Shakespeare Stiles Style: Shakespeare, Julia Stiles and American Girl Culture.’ Companion to Shakespeare and Performance. Ed. Barbara Hodgdon and W. B.Worthen. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 478-493.

Friedman, Michael D. ‘The Feminist as Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You.’ Shakespeare Bulletin 22.2 (Summer 2004): 45–65.

Hersey, Eleanor. ‘Love and Microphones: Romantic Comedy Heroines as Public Speakers.’ The Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 34, No. 4 (2007). 146-158.

Hulbert, Jennifer, Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. and Robert L. York. ‘”Dude, Where’s My Bard?” Reducing, Translating and Referencing Shakespeare for Youth: An Introduction.’ Shakespeare and Youth Culture. Ed. by Jennifer Hulbert, Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. and Robert L. York. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 1-42.

Klett, Elizabeth. ‘Reviving Viola: Comic and Tragic Teen Film Adaptations of Twelfth Night.’ Shakespeare Bulletin. Vol. 26, No. 2, (Summer 2008) . 69-87.

Pittman, L. Monique. “Taming 10 Things I Hate about You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 32 (2004). 144–52.

—. “Dressing the Girl/ Playing the Boy: Twelfth Night Learns Soccer on the Set of She’s the Man.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 36, No. 2 (2008). 122-136.

Welsh, James M. ‘Classic Demolition: Why Shakespeare Is Not Exactly “Our Contemporary,” or, “Dude, Where’s My Hankie?”‘ Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 3 (2002). 223–27.

York, Robert L. ‘”Smells like Teen Shakespirit” Or, the Shakespearean Films of Julia Stiles.’ Shakespeare and Youth Culture. Ed. Jennifer Hulbert, Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. and Robert L. York. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 57–115.

I really, really wanted to like Jurassic World (2015).

Dinosaurs? Check. Chris Pratt? Check. A family in crisis in the face of mortal danger? Check. As a huge fan of formulaic disaster movies, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that following three major dinosaur-related tragedies, big businesses would think it fit to invest in what can only be described as (another) catastrophe waiting to happen. I was willing to believe that these investors might not have rigorous emergency plans in place. I could even forgive Chris Pratt’s character’s lack of charm.

But having spent the last eight months thinking and writing about female characters in film, and in particular the portrayal of single women, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore, and indeed forgive, Hollywood’s determination to ‘tame’ single women’s uncompliant femininities. In the wise (satirical) words of The Onion, I could not quite take ‘a short break from being a feminist to enjoy the film’ because Jurassic World‘s taming narrative is so overtly didactic in its promotion of marriage and motherhood that even crazy dangerous dinosaurs failed to veil the film’s retrograde gender politics.

Taming Claire

Jurassic World: The Postfeminist Taming of the Corporate Shrew (With Added Lady Dinosaurs)

What’s a taming narrative, I hear you ask? Oh, you know, only an age-old misogynist plot device masquerading as modern romance. The device can be traced as far as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which a ‘shrewish’ unmarried woman is made subservient to her husband/ love interest through various physical and psychological torment. In a film like Little Women (1994), the taming plot is thinly disguised as a search for authorial authenticity and artistic success, and repackaged as a postfeminist struggle to ‘have it all’. In Jurassic World, on the other hand, dinosaurs are an excuse to see power-dresser Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) brought crashing down from her snazzy, but soulless corporate job, and finally discover her innate feminine desire for coupledom and family. By the time Claire’s sleek straight hair has become gently curled by her adventures (but not frizzy), when her heels have been mocked for their impracticality (but never removed), when her skins glistens with gentle lady sweat, and her immaculate corporate wardrobe has been attractively muddied and ripped, we can be safe in the knowledge that she will ride into the sunset with Owen (Chris Pratt) and produce equally beautiful, non-genetically modified, patriarchy-revering offspring.

Sexy Post-taming Claire: Ripped Clothes, Curly Hair, Glistening Skin, Heels

Perhaps a more generous reading of the film would be that Claire’s inability to exert agency in the narrative reveals the dystopian reality of postfeminist women who ‘lean in’ to typically ‘masculine’ corporate business and ‘lose themselves’ in the process. Her exit with Owen at the film’s conclusion might then be seen as a progressive ‘leaning out’ of a problematic corporate culture. Casting essentialist gender identity claims aside, the issue with this reading is its retreatist trajectory, in which the problem of the underrepresentation of women in the workforce and the toxic ‘masculinity’ inherent corporate culture is solved by women leaving their jobs and (presumably) having babies. I can only assume this is what Owen means by ‘let’s stick together’. What’s more, it is pretty difficult to read a blockbuster with a $150 million budget as a credible marxist critique of capitalist society. Finally, if this were the film’s take-home message, there would really be no call to repeatedly highlight Claire’s (evil!) SINGLENESS and CHILDLESSNESS.

As nice as it would be to enjoy Jurassic World for ‘what it is’, I found it impossible to watch the film without mentally filing most of dialogue and narrative under ‘taming of the single childless woman’, ‘bad things happen when (single, childless) women are in charge’, or ‘all a beautiful, ambitious, well-dressed single woman needs is to be liberated from her high-powered job and snappy wardrobe to discover the joys of benevolent patriarchal protection and motherhood’. Before anyone tells me to enjoy Jurassic World ‘for what it is’ because ‘it’s only an action movie’, I think we are all agreed that Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has conclusively proved that feminist action films are not just possible, they can be fun, unrelenting, action-packed, visually striking… but, granted, not quite as profitable (so far).

Hey Girl

Feminist Mad Max

For the record though, unlike Claire, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her acolytes turn back and (spoiler alert!) capture the citadel to create a more just society. They don’t escape into the sunset, though Mad Max (Tom Hardy) himself, a typical Western hero, does.

 

Further reading:
Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV ShowThe Onion (January 2014)
Why You Should Not Go See “Mad Max: Feminist Road” Return of Kings (May 2015)
Feminist Mad Max, Tumblr (May 2015)
Jurassic World’s Mother of a ProblemThe Mary Sue (June 2015)
Reviewer From The Guardian Says Jurassic World Passes Bechdel Test Because of Female DinosaursThe Mary Sue (June 2015)

 

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a fantastic, moving, talk by Caroline Criado-Perez at Norwich Cathedral. She began by telling us about her feminist ‘click!’ moment: how an encounter with feminist linguistic theory came to alter her perspective forever. She did not dwell on her prefeminist past. Rather counterintuitively, this ‘before’ moment is best described as postfeminism: which is exactly what I spend most of my days thinking and writing about.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about postfeminism? We talk about a ‘generally decent, if misguided, belief that our society has reached a moment in which we are living out our lives in a level playing field’ (Vavrus 2010, 222). A sense that ‘we have arrived at an “after” moment when inequality is over’ (Joseph 2011, 61). More often than not, we talk about Bridget Jones’s Diary (novel: 1996, adaptation: 2001) and the ways in which its titular heroine enacts a postfeminist ‘double entanglement’ in which feminism is ‘taken into account’ only to be dismissed and ‘understood to have already passed away’ (McRobbie 2004, 256).

Crucially though, we also talk about people like me.

19 year old Marie: this is what a postfeminist looks like

19 year old Marie: this is what a Postfeminist looks like

Privileged girls and boys who grow up with only the foggiest notion of what feminism is. Dweeby teens who despite their unrelenting enthusiasm for extra-credit are somehow never exposed to feminist history. Young women who go off to university genuinely believing sexism does not exist, and that campaigning bodies like the women’s committee are ‘reverse-sexist.’ First year English undergraduates whom, in their first ever lecture refuse to ‘stand up if you are feminist’, and record the following in their pretentious journal:

The first lecture was very interesting and polemical—though the woman’s rampant feminism was a little scary. (October 2007)

Amazingly, despite living with an incredible, passionate, and articulate lifelong feminist, extensively writing about the performativity of gender in academic essays, and telling everyone at great lengths about the concept of being ‘post-gender‘, I never would have dreamed of calling myself a feminist. For that, I really have the so-called ‘real world’, to thank. Entering the world of work was as thrilling as it was terrifying, and I’ll never forget the great couple of years I spent as a project manager. Crucially divorced from the community of ideas in which I had leisurely dwelled for four years, it became apparent that not everyone deconstructs the gender politics of films, senses a disconnect between sex and gender, or avidly reads Jezebel.

I distinctly remember talking about #projectbush with my work friends, a project led by the design agency Mother London, described as:

a call to action for women to stand up to the pressures of modern society and present their bushes in all their glory. Whether waxed or never tended, young, old, black, brown or white, we want to display London’s lady gardens in all their variety, and demonstrate the choice that many young women –particularly – may not realise they have when it comes to waxing.

One of my (male) colleagues found the whole thing laughable, a pointless piece of exhibitionism, given that there ‘is no pressure or expectation for women to do anything to their pubic hair.’ As much as I wanted him to be right, it simply did not ring true. I was reminded of a passage in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: ‘Obviously, Doctor […] you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’

Obviously, you've never been a 13 year-old girl

Obviously, you’ve never been a 13 year-old girl

I think that was the moment I realised I had to be a feminist.

But with great feminism comes great responsibility. And for me, this translates into a responsibility to interrogate the culture I have grown up in, to educate myself, and unpack my own convoluted ideological journey. My doctoral research grows out of this concern, largely dealing with issues of postfeminism because my own feminist ‘click!’ moment came so embarrassingly late in the day. Because I know first-hand how pernicious postfeminist thinking is, and the importance of untangling its sophisticated threads. Because I need to understand how something so fundamental to my politics can have been dormant for so long.

So when I study the gender politics at play in texts like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), I am not just revisiting the site of my indoctrination. The act of re-viewing the film is, in itself, political: chipping away at the ‘post’, and, hopefully, rewriting my future.

There are more than 10 problematic things about 10 Things I Hate About You

There are more than 10 problematic things about 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Works cited
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. [1993] London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary. London: Picador, 1996.
Joseph, Ralina L. ‘”Hope Is Finally Making a Comeback”: First Lady Reframed.’ Communication, Culture & Critique 4, no. 1 (2011). 56-77.
McRobbie, Angela. ‘Post‐Feminism and Popular Culture.’ Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004). 255-64.
Vavrus, Mary Douglas. ‘Unhitching the “Post” (of Postfeminism).’ Journal of Communication Inquiry 34, no. 3 (2010). 222-27.

A little over a year ago, Creative Review ran a blog on Elle’s attempt to ‘rebrand feminism.’  If you recall, Elle commissioned three branding agencies (Brave, Mother and Wieden + Kennedy London) to collaborate with three feminist groups (The Feminist Times, campaigner Jinan Younis and Vagenda founders Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet). You can check out the results of these collaborations here.

Wieden + Kennedy and Vagenda's press ad

#Iamwomanand

Leaving aside Elle‘s involvement – that bastion of progressive feminist thought! – and ignoring the spurious premise that Feminism can be branded at all, I want to draw your attention to a specific comment posted by ‘John’ soon after CR published the blog:

Ironic observation, or economical commentary on Feminist branding trends?

‘Nice use of pink for the ladies’

Somehow, I haven’t been able to shake this comment since. Is using pink to fight patriarchy/kyriarchy subversive? Or is it symptomatic of a complacent, unimaginative branding laziness which perpetuates some of the very reductive stereotypes we hope to eschew? I can only assume that the colour is being used ‘ironically,’ but when practically all mainstream ‘Feminist Books’ I come across buy into this ‘subversive’ ‘ironic’ aesthetic, it becomes a branding shortcut rather than a thoughtful engagement with a gendered and gendering visual culture. (Though Caitlin Moran’s covers are a notable exception). And of course, I, in turn, quite literally buy into it by purchasing these books.

Here are a handful of Pinkified titles from my own Feminist bookshelf:

Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay and Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham

Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay and Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham

Backlash, Susan Faludi

Backlash, Susan Faludi

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy

In fact, this isn’t just about the ‘Feminist mainstream,’ but about the wider cultural denigration of, and poor, lazy marketing associated with, female-authored or women-oriented genre fiction and non-fiction. I’d happily blame ‘the neoliberal imperative’ for all this, but I doubt that will inspire anyone to do things differently. Editors, art directors, cover designers and authors of the mainstream publishing industry, unite! Say no to pink – please?!

Further reading:
On the excellent Jennifer Weiner: this and this
On the 2013 ‘coverflip’: this and also this
On the gender publishing gap