A Star Is Delivered By The Patriarchy

I’m frankly disturbed by the praise that is being lauded on A Star Is Born. The film is a front runner for the Best Picture Oscar and likely to be one of the most nominated films of the year, so I feel compelled to add to the conversation. I was cynical when it was released but came around to seeing the film last week after all the acclaim. I was disappointed for is derivative take on the well-worn story and underwhelmed by all the production elements except for the music. However, I’m primarily writing this because I just haven’t seen many confront the film’s gender politics that feel inappropriate for the 2018.

Spoilers ahead. 

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Lady Gaga as Ally in the foreground in focus. Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine is – appropriately – in the background, out of focus.

Firstly, Jackson Maine. His behaviour at the beginning of the film is predatory. He finds himself backstage in a changing area (with consent) but it’s just a teaser for the way he will come to use his privilege. He touches Ally several times weirdly, removing her eyebrow at one point in a moment that is supposed to be…romantic? He invites her to his show that night and mishears her negative responses; he sends a driver to stalk her until she changes her mind. Later Ally wakes up and Jackson has been let into her room by her father and he is sitting on her bed watching her sleep. The Bechdel Cast recommends ‘the Buscemi test’ – would this behaviour be acceptable if it was Steve Buscemi doing it? The first act climaxes with Ally being bullied on stage to perform the song that she wrote. Jackson begins to play the song without her consent, effectively making her choose between claiming back her intellectual property and allowing him to plagiarise her work. This all happens in just the first 30 minutes of the film. Overall, Jackson has a male saviour vibe, attempting to convince us that without him Ally could not be successful.

As for Ally – who doesn’t get a last name until she marries Jackson – she starts the film with more personality than she finishes it. Signs of her character’s potential depth are sidelined for a familiar male-centric narrative. Multiple instances in the film occur when she says “no” and these are translated by men into “yes”. As Aja Romano writes, the film has a problem with consent. Her agency is eroded as she is increasingly controlled by Jackson and later by her producer. Because Jackson’s treatment of her is increasingly bad as she continues to climb the stardom ladder, she comes across as dependent on him. So when she insists on him coming on tour with her, it comes across as contractual – not as a gesture of love. Exploring her background could have helped the film to explain her choices and develop her character; however, the most significant attempt at this is derailed by more patriarchal writing and direction. This scene with her father helps us to understand her relationship with alcoholic men but the foundation of the scene quickly departs from its potential when Ally forgives her father for his behaviour without giving any focus on the impact on Ally or the pain that she might have experienced. There are only men in her life; however, the films inclusion of two best friend drag queen characters is refreshing. Ally’s career is treated as matter-of-fact. The insane standard of beauty that women in entertainment are held to is scratched at but never really explored or commented on as much more than just something that needs to be accepted.

The last point I want to make is the ending which is shoehorned into the final 15 minutes as it appears Cooper suddenly realised that traditionally the male lead in the Star is Born franchise needs to die so that Mrs Maine can sing a final sad song in an emotional climax. Cooper goes for a suicide, but irresponsibly treats this as a moment of heroism. Once again Ally is deprived of agency as she could very easily just leave him or they could attempt long distance while she tours. Instead Cooper, inspired by a convenient plot beat from Ally’s producer, decides gallantly to end his own life to deprive Ally of any chance to make a decision that might put her career before him. Making the scene more problematic is how Jackson is not sober. This is only a step away from the irresponsible representation of suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’. It’s hard to align this scene and Lady Gaga’s work on mental health.

It so easily could have been different. A remake could have revitalised the story by inverting the genders or at least updating the gender politics. The best version of this film would have cast Shangela and Willam as the leads. This kind of familiar straight white privilege patter should be unwelcome in our modern cinemas. But strangely, it is apparently the best film made in the last year.

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Casting & Representation

A recent activity I did with a Year 12 Media class who are working towards their L3 BTEC qualification raised some interesting bias. The students have created a pre-production for a new Netflix series that they were pitch. They needed to cast their shows, and had unlimited budgets to do so.

To facilitate some brainstorming around this, I gave them a slip of paper to write a brief character bio to find an actor that fits. The class then roamed the room, and made casting suggestions on each slip, folding it over each time so they could not be influenced by the other suggestions. The outcomes of this activities were fascinating. Here are some observations:

  • Of the 42 characters that there were bios written, the gender split was 50-50. (However, the class is 80% female).
  • The bios were prompted to suggest age, gender, appearance, occupation, … No student mentioned anything about class, sexuality, or disability. Gender was treated understand as binary, with no one making any offers about diverse expressions of femininity or masculinity.
  • If the ethnicity was not stated on the sheet, all the suggestions of actors were white.
  • All characters appeared to be middle-class or upper middle-class based on their descriptions. No narratives explored issues around class.
  • While there were a lot of teenage characters, the most common suggestions for these characters were older actors like Zac Efron (30), Michael B Jordan (31), even Ryan Reynolds (41). Students struggled to remember the names of actors under the age of 25.

This was an unscientific study, but as these findings came clear and the dialogue around them developed, I felt as though a lot of reflection and examination of personal bias was going on.

The Spice Girls and Cultural Politics

The recent release of the ‘comeback’ single from a trio of the Spice Girls raises questions about the relevance of the cultural politics which the group successful embraced during their most successful years in the late 1990s. The latest song, which is a leak not an official release, captures a familiar brand of identity politics with commentators referring to it as a “Girl Power anthem“. I wrote the essay below in 2006, exploring the idea of the Spice Girls as a popular culture phenomenon and their cultural politics.


6925404431_45273d40a5_bPopular music plays an important social and cultural role; “it provides…role models, [and] expresses social attitudes” (Bodkin 2000, 41). As a case study to argue the intrinsic relationship between popular music and cultural politics, this essay will focus on the Spice Girls and their first album Spice. While the Spice Girls were largely dismissed as artificial, (Leach 2001, 148) closer analysis of their message of ‘Girl Power’ and their accompanying image reveal a group that is culturally political.

Cultural politics is a broad sweeping term that can be used in relation to many conflicts in society. It is a concept which recognises society is made up of different viewpoints and refers to the ways in which co-existence is maintained (Opie 2006). In other words, a system of negotiation between different belief systems must be found for this co-existence to operate. Furthermore, within this system, a dominant – or hegemonic – group usually emergences and this position can be challenged. Sue Abel notes: “hegemony is always a process in struggle, it is never stable. It involves negotiation” (2006). Popular Music provides a medium for this negotiation to take place. Simon Firth agrees. He suggests we use pop songs to create for ourselves a particular sort of self-determination, a particular place in society (1987, 140).

The Spice Girls is one of many examples of bands that could be considered subordinate and therefore compete for equality. The primary and most palpable reason for this consideration is that the group consists of only females. Typically in rock and pop music a woman’s participation is limited to supporting a male performer in the role of a backup singer or groupie, or featuring in their videos and other merchandise (Schilt 2003, 5; Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls, by definition, oppose these widely held stereotypes. In addition, the group is packaged in such a way that they do more than just represent achievement in a male dominated environment; they are constructed to be role models for adulation and to provide “legitimisation for various modes of rites of passage into the world of femininity” (Lemish 2003, 17). It is in this way that the Spice Girls are noticeably political.

The place that the Spice Girls have in history is very significant in relation to the message that they conveyed. They formed in late 1994, but did not break into the spotlight until their debut single, ‘Wannabe,’ in July 1996 (Spice Girls 1997). They followed on from the Riot Grrrl movement, personified by Alanis Morisette, which had its roots in punk. This movement was characterised by a portraying a sense of womanhood that challenged sexism (Schilt 2003, 7). But unlike the Riot Grrrl’s before them, the Spice Girls “were an undeniably commercial product” (Leach 2001, 148). However, to conclude at this point is to understate the significance of the Spice Girls: “they weren’t just another pop group, they were an ideological package” (The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, 209).

The Spice Girls’ ideology is best summarised by their use of the phrase: “Girl Power.” In the Spice Girls book, that was published in 1997 just before the release of their second album, the opening pages claim ‘Girl Power’ to be:

… when…You help a guy with his bag
You and your mates reply to wolf whistles by shouting ‘get your arse out!’
You wear high heels and think on your feet
You know you can do it and nothing’s going to stop you
You don’t wait around for him to call
You stick with your mates and they stick with you
You’re loud and proud even when you’ve broken out in spots
You believe in yourself and control your own life (Spice Girls 1997, 7).

From these statements, ‘Girl Power’ appears to be an expression that connotes independence and self-respect. It is a show of strength and perseverance in the face of stereotypes that expect women to be weak and subordinate. The similarities to feminism are actually articulated in the book: “Feminism has become a dirty word. ‘Girl Power’ is just a nineties way of saying it!” (Spice Girls 1997, 49).

One of the doctrines of ‘Girl Power’ speaks of standing by your friends, an idea that is inherent in the construction of the Spice Girls. The notion of sisterhood is strong in all Spice Girls related texts including their movie, which shows their togetherness through group activity and avoidance of the ‘bitchy’ and jealous female cliché. The book further emphasises the friendship between the five; Melanie C says “We really care about each other and want the best out of each other, so we all look after each other” (Spice Girls 1997, 48). By extension, this sisterhood that the Spice Girls promote is inclusive of the audience that participates in their music. Dafna Lemish says, on this feature of the Spice Girls, “Their music style, forms of performance and body display, as well as celebration of girl talk and female friendship and networking, create a special space for a rebellious female voice” (2003, 19). Therefore ‘Girl Power’ can be taken to be a political message addressing gender inequality.

spice_girls_2008_02_croppedRelated to this is the Spice Girls’ treatment of men, which follows from the feelings of independence articulated by artists like Tina Turner and Madonna. While Madonna was a ‘Material Girl’ and Tina Turner asked ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ the Spice Girls set out new criteria for men to take note of related to the new independent self-respecting woman that the group were promoting. The political aspect to this challenge is evident in the liner notes to their first album. They return the male gaze: “what you looking at boy?” compare themselves with peace activists: “freedom fighters” and make political statements: “spice revolution.”

The Spice Girls’ address of men in their lyrics summarise their attitudes. They set out rules that subvert the stereotypical roles in modern relationships. ‘Say You’ll Be There’ demystifies the nagging demanding woman by having the female say, “there’s no need to say you love me,” instead “all I want from you is the promise that you’ll be there.” And to reinforce the idea of the independent woman they sing, “if you can’t work this equation then I guess I’ll have to show you the door.” Similarly, various other moments in other tracks demand respect and claim a sexual power. In ‘Something Kinda Funny’ the group sings “play my game or get left behind,” in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ they say “giving is good as long as you are getting” and in ‘2 Become 1’ the woman becomes the dominant and the initiator: “I need some love like I never needed love before (wanna make love to ya baby).”

Moreover, the Spice Girls, through how they address sexuality and men, subvert the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. ‘Wannabe,’ the group’s debut single that went to number one and stayed there for seven weeks, articulates many of the group’s attitudes towards sex that subsequent tracks elaborate on. In the song Melanie C sings: “If you want my future, forget my past.” Such an expression contests the stigma attached to losing one’s virginity. While it is socially acceptable for any male to have a sexual history, negative discourse surrounds the non-virgin female. ‘Wannabe’ claims that it is acceptable that girls can have sexual histories too. Similarly ‘Love Thing’ rejects the idea of love, but approves of desire and sex. This song bridges the gap between the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. These statements are consistent with the group’s articulation of ‘Girl Power’ as an expression of feminism.

However, while the idea of sisterhood is established and a challenge to men’s supremacy, the image of femininity within this collective is a celebration of difference. Here is where the political aspect of gender is evident with the Spice Girls’ progressive portrayal of femininity. In popular music “[t]he construction or performance of gender … is influenced by and also influences specific social and cultural contexts” (Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls were constructed as being five different types of the same facet of society. They assumed five unique personalities and adopted pet names: baby, scary, sporty, ginger and posh spice. In doing this they create a definition of womanhood that is diverse and varied. One can be physically active and outgoing like Sporty Spice, wild and loud like Scary Spice or elegant and sophisticated like Posh Spice.

Outlined above is a number of ways in which the Spice Girls can be seen to be a political. However, while critics have accepted their attempts to make feminist statements, they also argued that the promises they make are empty; “there is no encouragement for girls to use music as a form of expressing anger towards a world that marginalises them” (Douglas 1997, H34). Questions are raised like ‘what are they being asked to do when the Spice Girls encourage them to “Do It”?’ However while these criticisms point out these contradictory struggles with ease, (Leach 2001; Lemish 1998; Dibben 1999) they fail to account for the overall image and appeal of the Spice Girls which makes any issue regarding any specific contradiction inconsequential.

The political significance of the Spice Girls is in line with Simon Firth’s analysis of popular music as a means of creating communities. He argues that the experience of popular music is an experience of identity (Firth, 1996, 121). The Spice Girls construct a feminine space and legitimise various modes of femininity, and in doing so create a community with their audience in which their principles are upheld. The space in which they created is a challenge to hegemony. Therefore there is a political element to their message, one which attempts to reconstruct culture through a 90s form of feminism.

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Abel, Sue. “Maori and Tikanga Pakeha Media.” Lecture Presented at Victoria University of Wellington. September 12, 2006.

Bodkin, Sally. “When Humpty Dumpty me the Spice Girls.” In Spring into Music:

Conference and Workshop Papers. Havelock North: Organising Committee of ‘Spring into Music,’ 2000. 41-50.

The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Eds. Simon Firth, Will Straw and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cohen, Sara. “Popular Music, Gender and Sexuality,” in The Cambridge Companion to

Pop and Rock. Eds. Simon Firth, Will Straw and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 227-242.

Dibben, Nicola. “Representations of Femininity in Popular Music.” Popular Music. 18.3.1999. 331-355.

Douglas, Susan. “Girls ‘n’ Spice: All Things Nice?” The Nation. 25 August, 1997: H34.

Firth, Simon. “Towards an Aesthetic of popular Music.” in Music and Society: The

Politics of Composition, Performance and Rejection. Ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 133-150.

–. “Music and Identity.” In Questions of Cultural Identity. Ed. S. Hall and P. D. Gay. London: Sage, 1996. 108-127.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. “Vicars of ‘Wannabe’: Authenticity and the Spice Girls,” in Popular Music, 20.2. 2001. 143-167.

Lemish, Dafna. “‘Spice Girls’ Talk: A Case Study in the Development of Gendered

Identity.” In Millennium Girls: Today’s Girls and Their Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A Inness. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. 145-67.

–. “Spice World: constructing femininity the popular way” in Popular Music and Society. 26.1. 2003. 17-30.

Opie, Brian. “Introduction to Literature and Cultural Politics.” Lecture Presented at Victoria University of Wellington. February 27, 2006.

Schilt, Kirsten. “‘A little too ironic’: the appropriation and packaging of Riot Grrrl politics by mainstream female musicians,” in Popular Music and Society. 26.1. 2003. 5-16.

Spice Girls. Girl Power! Secanucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1997.

Spice World (Bob Spiers, UK, 1997)

NZIFF – 52 Tuesdays

52 Tuesdays was an extremely brave film, tackling such a wide range of issues and managing to be a moving experience. Set in Australia, it felt very Australian. There’s nothing quite like an Australian suburb, and here it provides the background for a journey of self-discovery for our key protagonists Billie and James. James (formerly Jane) Billie’s mother over the course of a year shown in 52 Tuesdays transitions to her male identity. Billie is 16 and going through a period of questioning herself – curiosity brings her into contact with two friends with whom she goes through a liberating, but ultimately a dangerous experience.

The central performances are stunning. The emotional depth of the story is not lost through the inexperienced actors. The authenticity of their performances is hugely supported by the filming schedule where the production filmed on 52 Tuesdays across a year. The growth and changes are authentic. Particularly for Billie, who gets a haircut and begins to look far more worldly as she develops some familiar teenage apathy. The costume design for the film always reinforces this authenticity and the growth of the characters.

The film bravely ventures into territory around gender and sexual identity. I’ve had a number of conversations since seeing the film on Monday where people have reacted in a surprising way to the story. Some have been confused by why the mother would put their teenage child through that at such a key time in their life. Others wondered why the mother was so open about something so private. Without fail though, through explaining more about the film and the context, people have been ready to accept how much of a role model James is in being true to himself, and sharing that experience should make his relationship with his daughter stronger. There is also nothing wrong in promoting the conversation of gender identity with a teenager who can only benefit from exposure to diversity. It’s such an important dialogue to encourage.

There is a lovely scene where Billie asks early on in the film if she should call her Mum “Dad”. The response is that she should call her whatever she is comfortable with. And while Billie does use ‘he’ later in the film, she never stops using the word “Mum”. I think that is a beautiful part of that relationship, as the word loses its gender connotations, and simply remains to represent the connection between Billie and James.