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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

These Dolls Don't Play Nice

I was at the Hallmark store the other day getting birthday cards when I saw a rack of Ty Girlz – plush adolescent-looking dolls accompanied by an online code which grants the buyer entry into the Ty Girlz virtual world. I was curious about what Ty (the company that makes these dolls as well as the popular Beanie Babies) had created as their world, and why lately, I have witnessed an outbreak of teenager dolls (think Bratz, This is Me, etc.). I decided to buy one and do some of my own dollerific research.

Perusing my options, I wondered why all the dolls had such downright mean and sarcastic facial expressions. It seems we Americans think that teenage insolence is the coolest thing around, and further reinforce this idea—often culturally attributed to movies, music videos, and celebrities—by selling such dolls to 6 to 13-year-old girls. (I recalled a small girl I had seen the day before in a parking lot, strutting around in a mini skirt and high-heeled boots while holding her mother’s hand. It seemed to me the sale of those clothes benefited the manufacturer more than her.) In the end, I chose Rockin’ Ruby, a rocker chick in all-black faux vinyl or leather. Outfitted with a belly-button ring, choker (wow, a whole ’nother blog could be written on why it’s called that!), platforms, and oodles of makeup, she seemed like the toughest of the lot. (They each sported heels of some sort, makeup, and plenty of accessories though.)


As it turned out, Rockin’ Ruby had just been “retired” (no more of her type of doll will be made), but I could see from her goodbye messages in Ty Girlz world that her persona was a young woman on tour with a band, a teenager whose “positive” traits of independence and musical talent were actually just a hankering to party and dress like a celebrity bad-girl. The rest of the Ty Girlz were equally as into being flirty and glamorous (aka sexually suggestive and super-duper slim) according to their bios and appearances—but who can enjoy your own snazziness when you’re so busy worrying about how you look and which new clothes you need to buy? (You apparently also “NEED” to buy the rest of the Ty Girlz dolls to complete your collection, a direct marketing effort built straight into this world for girls.)

I apologize for judging the dolls based on their external features and certainly hope I am not promoting any negative stereotypes by discussing the personality types these dolls are meant to be, but it’s important to point out that someone purposely created their “looks” and “personas” in order to turn a profit. These skinny, lollipop-headed dolls make cool the anorexic/bulimic body figure, as if feeling bad about yourself, your life, and the state of the world, is normal or even fun and desirable. They imitate the insecurity many of us feel about our external appearances, activities, and relationships—and that makes them cool enough to buy? How confusing.

The Ty company, by involving real girls in their dolls’ virtual world, have infused these toys with a celebrity effect: that of being role models despite that they’re not real people in girls’ personal lives. The Ty Girlz world is a higher-pitched, curliqued version of the commercial MTV atmosphere. As I surfed the site, loud rock or dance music erupted from my screen to accompany chat rooms, fitting rooms, and bedrooms. All there is to do is shop (for clothes or furniture for your house), chat, and play games that all center around a gabby (even catty), sexy climate—and one that ultimately is simply there to endorse the Ty product. After playing some shopping, dressing, and dancing games (whose characters ask you aloud in a girls’ voice to help them “look perfect” or “look my best”), I became hopeful that the trivia game might offer a more interesting and 3-dimensional horizon to this world. When I found that it only featured Ty Girlz “facts,” I truly felt the narrow confines of the Ty Girlz universe: It would be like living in a mall, where every fashion, friend, activity, and thought is dictated to you. For all its colors, cell phone rings, zooming cars, makeover before-and-after shots, and easily-earned Girlz world money—all you have to do is stay and play, and your bank account fills again—its shallow interactivity would not normally hold girls’ attention. But feeling bad about what they look like, what activities they do, and how much money they have compared to their co-avatars sure might.

I am highly disappointed that today’s toys—objects that used to stimulate children’s imaginations—now tell girls not only how to play with them and who they should aspire to become but also who to be now. (One could criticize traditional babydolls for influencing girls’ hopes of eventual motherhood, but Ty Girlz and other such dolls pressure girls to be chic, sexually active, and exterior-focused in their current lives.) And while the Ty Girlz dolls may be accompanied by a bajillion play options that seem to expand or improve upon real-life make-believe—She’s not hard plastic! She’s a friend closer to your age! You can buy her tons of virtual outfits in any color!—her personality, fashion sense, wishes, and ambitions are built-in and pretty unchangeable. (Yes, Rockin’ Ruby’s shiny silver panties are woven into her skin and the rest of her clothes are sewn on—not to mention, the size of her head ensures that she will stick with her current top forever. Clearly, this IS the outfit she wants to be wearing.)

Even if I consider social or community aspects offered by the Girlz world that one might not have with a regular ol’ lone toy, in addition to the confusion between doll and self caused by the online avatar world, these dolls as playthings teach girls that appropriate friendship activities are to “dress up your room” and “give your girls makeovers.” (In imitation of today’s narcissistic ‘social networking’ friendship sites, the “All About Me” section is coming soon to tygirlz.com.) The Girlz chat-room scene is equally as grim. The fact that—against a background of animated silhouettes clubbing—clickable pre-written phrases exist to aid girls too young to type gives me a clear signal that perhaps they shouldn’t be there, and that this is not a place where real friends are found. (Moreover, the fact that I signed up as a 25-year-old yet had full access to the chat rooms doesn’t make me feel any better about the security of girls who might be excited by a stranger’s flattery.)

One website cannot of course single-handedly make a girl devalue herself, no less contribute to how secure she is as she becomes a woman in her teenage years. But in a nation where girls’ (and therefore women’s) self-esteem is dropping, I would say that it certainly adds to—and profits from—the cacophony of voices telling females of all ages who and how to be.

But enough of my ideas—what do YOU think about these dolls? What are your opinions about doll ages (baby, girl, teen, adult)? Do you have TY Girlz or similar dolls with an online playspace? How are they the same and different than dolls that don’t have an online world? What do you think are the pros and cons of playing online? Feel free to disagree with anything I said or comment on a related question I didn’t mention—let your voice be heard! I look forward to reading…

Monday, February 18, 2008

Where Feminism Has Gone (Wrong): Why today’s definition of feminism is detrimental to our work

As media-makers, our messages ride on the dynamism inherent to media forms: the direct and emotional impact on people, the ability to reach a huge and diverse population, and possibly most important in today’s web 2.0 culture, the speed at which media can be shared.

Independent and Hollywood media-makers alike gear their work toward user participation, and those working for social change are generally excited by the “viral” nature of social sharing of media (even if one does lose control over one’s product in order to obtain mainstream involvement). Women working for social change have looked to film as a powerful media in which they can bring female voices and struggles forth (it is no wonder that most of feminist art was also video art). Today, with film’s expansion into mobile, shareable media, women especially use the internet as one big “indie TV channel” where their messages can be heard loud and clear, skipping over years of festival circuitry and involvement in the commercial film industry—a capitalistic field reliant on connections, near impossible to break into, and generally “an old boys’ club.”

However, as a female indie filmmaker/feminist activist, I have experienced sexism, aversion to “the f-word”—usually predicated on assumptions that feminists are either mean-spirited men-haters or na├»ve pot-smokers—and bureaucratic coldness like that found within the commercial film industry. And what upsets me most, is that the majority of these experiences have happened with other women. Why?

The openness of today’s indie media platforms also comes with an over-abundance of available media, so the freedom to post and share one’s voice does not mean it can be heard over the cacophony of everyone else doing the same. Being indie is still hard, and being an indie woman filmmaker is even harder. While the film industry can be a harsh world where individuals use other individuals for their own gain, unfortunately, these inhuman standards are alive and well in the indie world too, as we each strive to make “my project” the one that “makes a difference.”

Current feminist media heroes are women who can break into the film industry (Sophia Coppola was the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing (she didn’t win but got “Best Original Screenplay”) for Lost in Translation, Halle Berry was the first African-American woman to win “Best Actress”), women who start their own film companies that comes to be known and profitable, women who star on TV and in movies who contribute to charities and women’s causes, women who break “female” stereotypes and are funny, loud, smart, and so on (see Ms. Magazine’s recent article “Comic Relief”). These women are an outcome of 70’s feminist efforts, showing the world through Amazonian feats of persistence and assertiveness that yes, women are valuable members of society. But these women are also ostracized and scrutinized for wailing away at the norm. It takes “balls of steel” to withstand this cultural critique.

We owe thanks to the strength and competitiveness of these women, for girls today aspire to be everything from lawyers to Oscar-winning film producers. But with all this feminist effort came a backlash, which I feel we are experiencing now. Women said, “Wait! Why can’t I like lipstick and sports? Why can’t I be a mother and a CEO?” We want it all. And why shouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, “wanting it all” has transformed into a tacit social understanding that we must be and do it all (read Courtney E. Martin’s book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, for more on this). We sift through today’s barrage of commercial images, our mother’s advice, and our own internal wishes and desires and conclude that we should be able to be and do all things, since after all, this is age of empowered women, right? We want to be pretty and smart. Powerful but not a bitch. Sexy but respected. Yet we find this a near impossible goal, and incredulously (and in some cases, jealously) wonder how on earth the women around us seem to be pulling this all off—making today’s “empowered” women experience and contribute to increased competition amongst women.

But women need to stop seeing each other as competition in the way of the powerful world of men. We need to stop believing that men hold all the power, and that “female” traits are not those that belong or contribute to power. We need to stop feeling that we must be perfect in order to deserve our power. Why aren’t “chick flicks” films that affect the public? Why is feminism the new f-word? Women need to recognize each other as sisters in the same fight–a fight that will go nowhere if we continue as individuals championing personal causes. It’s true that the personal is political. Our bodies are ourselves. The issues we care about at home are those we base our votes on. But in trying to liberate ourselves from the “female” roles and characteristics that suppress us (i.e. the all-forgiving, timid, nurturing mother/wife/family chef and maid), we have taken on the oppressive hard, cold, egocentric roles and qualities of maledom that we blamed for holding us down. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from each other and even from our own selves.

Gaining the American signs of success (wealth and possessions) is an extremely individualistic process. This mindset of individualism as the road to power, as the path to getting one’s voice heard, even to the “female” goal of bettering the world (which requires power and getting one’s voice heard), leads to isolation and tremendous amounts of singular work and struggle.

Jack Lemmon used to say (according to Kevin Spacey) that those who get to the top must send the elevator back down. There are not enough women who are recognized as having power, this is true, but that does not mean we do not have power. Those women who are in recognized powerful roles need to be open to the queries and efforts of women “below” them, whose powerful efforts to change women’s lives (or even just change the world) are halted by other women who harbor the “I worked hard to get here so you will too” attitude. And women who are not in recognized positions of power need to look at other women as allies, not as competition to achieving their goals (or even snagging that cute someone at a bar).

The world needs to be told that not just anomalous loud, fierce women can “withstand” the responsibilities of bearing their own power. Or that loud, fierce women are not an anomaly. Or that women who are shy, who wear lipstick, work at night, teach kindergarten, have a power that is just as loud and fierce as any feminist lobbyist or protestor, and that women’s needs and rights are still not met on a global scale.

The world needs to hear the voices of many women banding together.

What do women want to achieve with indie media? Beauty? Humanity? Meaning? Social change? While we’re so busy combating the unrealistic, damaging portrayals of women on the screen, behind the scenes we’re treating each other with little respect and interest.

Many women (and men) believe that feminism is over, that because the Vice President of Google is a woman, gender equality has been reached—and that by harping on women’s rights, activists are actually hindering the chance for women to simply be treated as people. However, even from my own personal experience and the experiences of my friends, I say that feminism should not call victory so easily (watch Google’s Vice President, Sheryl Sandberg, talk about women’s lack of professional confidence and how we can utilize user-generated content). Half the population of this earth is female, yet by rejecting feminist group identity for individual "success," we have pushed our quests for respect, confidence, and legitimacy into private and internal realms, where they become impossible one-woman efforts.

Whether you’re a grip, CEO, or teen girl playing with a camera, we all need to keep the broader community in mind. The effects of your media will be greater with collaboration, since the combined efforts of women involved in many types of projects can change society. If our voices come together in media, if we cooperate on the social change work we are each currently attempting to do separately, society will be forced to respect and value us. First, we must respect and value each other.

Some groups of women I enjoy working with who value each other and each other’s work include the REAL Hot 100, New Moon Girl Media, and the Fund for Women Artists, which is currently helping women across the globe collaborate on projects for Support Women Artists Now Day March 29th! Please share your work with these organizations and others…Let’s get to work ladies!