Sunday, February 7, 2010

It pays to be aware of what you are seeing around you.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to accompany my daughter to the BeachHouse at Glenelg. She loves the water slides and the other activities. While we were enjoying our wedges and ice-creams for lunch we sat next to the merry-go-round, sometimes referred to as a Carousel.

I'm informed by the BeachHouse's brochure that the Carousel had been restored for 2 years and is quite old. While I ate my lunch with my daughter I read a notice about the restoration of the screens which sit in the centre to cover unsightly inner workings. The notice explained that "heroes" were originally on the screens, such as William the Conqueror and the Black Prince (I have no idea who the Black Prince was). But when they were restored, those older heroes were replaced with more recent WWII "heroes".

Anyway, the centre of the Carousel had a bunch of 'important-looking' people on it. I didn't really recognise who they were exactly, but they were all serious looking, dressed in suits or military uniforms. All were men, because I assume we don't recognise any female war "heroines". But the upshot was that we were to consider them as important "heroes", people who had shaped our history and were worthy of respect because they (had) held high status. Worthy of being remembered.

A further study of the Carousel revealed that the top was decorated. This time, with images of women. But there was no notice or plaque to tell us if these women were heroes or not, or if they were important for some reason so we were left to guess why they were there. And it wasn't too hard to figure out. Most of the women had their breasts exposed and all were dressed in some sort of flowing, lightweight fabric. The overall theme of the images were whimsical, fantasy-like, mischievous, wanton, waif-like, vulnerable, sexual, flimsy, casual and easy. Definately, not important.

The messages I get from this are: Men are important. Women are not important. Men affiliated with WWII are heroes. There are no women affiliated with WWII, therefore, there are no women heroes. Men who are heroes should be commemorated and remembered. Women should be admired, then forgotten. Men are strong. Women are not strong. Women are vulnerable. Women are fantasy sexual creatures to be looked at.

These messages are prolific throughout our society and landscapes. The Carousel was a perfect example of both feminine and masculine depictions together. Almost fascinating as they were in such close proximity to each other. Such a contrast was startling. And I bet, nobody else noticed, at least not on the day we were there. Our children, and adolescents, are highly unlikely to critically analyse the images on the carousel and see them for what they are. And for those who don't notice, they run the risk of being the most influenced. And then, at times, we ask ourselves, why do (some) young men, treat young women badly or without respect. To my mind, one needs look no further than what we are inculcated with in our society as we grow up.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Young children's programmes

Recently I read some information about TV programmes targetted to young children. Programmes exclusively directed at young girls didn't appear until the early 1980s. Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony being the first two that contained all-girl characters and in settings that were unmistakenly feminine. The literature stated that before this time, young girls had to cross-over into the masculine domain and watch shows that were all about boys and boys adventures. This also meant that girls had to watch masculine based storylines and plots. Of particular note are characters set in eternal conflict with each other, such as Sylvester and Tweetie, RoadRunner and Coyote, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.

But Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony, directly aimed at little girls, had storylines and plots that minimised conflict and highlighted friendships, relationships, feelings and sharing. My Little Pony was different in that its setting was outside. Prior to this nearly all female characters were placed inside and were affiliated with their male counterparts. Characters such as Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse who were given high heeled shoes and voluptuous breasts were relegated mostly to inside (domestic) and affiliated with a love interest. Miss Piggy broke this mold somewhat, as in being assertive and outside/sporty but remained fixated with Kermit and was given enormous breasts, and in fact, her sexuality has been used as an asset and somewhat exploited. Even Pebbles, as a baby, was silent, and had her eyes on Bamm-Bamm, who was loud and noisy. I also learned that in the past, any female icon used to sell products/games/toys has spelt doom and hence, all icons associated with products, such as Ronald McDonald have remained male. This brought me to remembering characters from my childhood, such as Humphrey B Bear and Fat Cat, and guess what? They all turned out to be male characters.

So, with some history of young children's shows, I decided to watch a few days of what's available today, and was surprised to learn that not much has changed. Female characters are still mostly indoors, aligned with domestics, offered up as love interests (usually to the main male character), are given supporting roles only, or are used to resolve the conflict and chaos created by the male characters. There was one exception. Dora the Explorer. From what I could find Dora is the only female lead character that does not rely on male characters to help her out, or is in love with any of them, is not sexualised, makes all her own decisions and uses resources around her to get where she needs to be. But since Dora hit the screens, we have seen Go Diego Go! which is a male version of Dora, and in Diego's series Dora appears as his side-kick, not as a central figure. I'm unsure if Diego appears in Dora's series as a secondary figure.

Here's a run-down of some of the shows I managed to analyse:

Shaun the Sheep - male, outside, adventurous, mischevious, resourceful. The two female characters are Shirley who is extremely fat and eats everything, and a mother sheep with a baby and is characterised by having curlers in her hair.
Andy Pandy - male, adventurous and all other characters are male, except Lindy Lou who provides biscuits and Missy Hissy who is a snake.
Bill and Ben - male, outside, adventurous, mischevious and very resourceful. There are now 12 characters in Bill and Ben, and the three static characters of Rose, Thistle and Little Weed are all female.
Little Einsteins - rocket is the main character and is referred to as a "he". The four "little Einsteins" characters of 2 girls and 2 boys play supporting roles only, and it is Rocket that is given hero status.
Imagination Movers - 4 male lead characters who do all the imagining, with a boring Uncle who is accompanied by a female who is his secretary. The 2nd series gives the token female a bit more autonomy than the first series where she was relegated to smiling nicely and not saying very much. She is a major support role for the most boring character in the series.
My Friends Tigger and Pooh - all male cast, except for Darby who is a girl. Her role is a major facilitator in keeping the group of friends in harmony and sorting out any problems they may have assisted by Pooh, Piglet and Tigger.
Charlie and Lola - both male and female and additional characters are added in a 50/50 mix of male and female. While it seems that Lola is the main character in this series, the stories are actually Charlies. Each episode (and book) starts with "I have this little sister Lola, she is small and very funny." Thus putting the setting of the differences between the siblings right out in front.
Fifi and the Flower Tots - mostly female cast. Other than Bumble who is a close friend and helper to Fifi the other 2 male characters (Stingos and side-kick) are "baddies" and need to be put in their place, usually by Fifi who takes on the responsibility for their bad behaviour and tells them the error of their ways.
Bo on the Go - female. This show almost does a Dora. Only almost in that whenever Bo reaches a problem, she conjures up a male wizard who gives her the answer.
Odd Jobbers - male, with the only females in the show I watched given domestic roles.
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse - all male, except for Daisy and Minnie, as mentioned earlier, only in the more modern series, their breasts have been removed. They still have high heeled shoes and the bows in their hair have taken on unbelievable dimensions.
Bob the Builder - male, and in charge and in a male working role. Wendy is Bob's support character, who at times, will take on the responsibility of organising him and is his sometime love interest. The other female character is a cement mixer named Dizzy.
Handy Manny - male and in charge and in a male working role. Some tools in his box are female.
Roary the Racing Car, Brumm, and there's one about a fire engine who's learning the ropes - all male.

After doing this analysis on animated pre-school and early school aged programmes, I came to the conclusion that not too much has changed since before the 1980s. Male roles are overwhelmingly situated outside, adventurous, mischevious, chaotic, disorganised, mobile, in charge, in working roles of traditional breadwinners, domestically challenged, assertive and sometimes aggressive, scheming and plotting for personal gain.

On the other hand, female characters are overwhelmingly in supporting roles to male leading characters, in that they are either affiliated with them as a love interest, as their secretary and organiser, and/or as "fix-its" so that the male characters don't experience the full consequences of their actions. In situations when they do experience consequences it has been the action of the female characters that have brought their deeds to light. Some female characters are excessively passive, in that they can't move, and are often depicted in domestic roles of providing biscuits, cooking, making up the picnic basket and/or indoors baking. Violet and Primrose in Fifi and the Flowertots are locked in a competition of looks and vanity.

The only exception is Dora the Explorer and to a lesser extent, Bo on the Go. Programmes designed for young children conform to strong gender roles and depict storylines and characters within the confines of social expectations of what girls and boys should, or should not, be doing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review - Monsters Vs Aliens

I downloaded this off Foxtel the other day, and was quite disappointed with it. I knew Miss S had already seen it, she said she liked it, so I thought I'd watch it with her. After the first 20 minutes I really wanted to just switch it off, but was fascinated to see how worse it could actually get.

Here's the summary of what I saw.
One of the opening scenes has the bride being told by husband-to-be that he won't be taking her to Paris as promised, but they would be going to Fresno instead, because his job is more important. She reluctantly accepts this and I pick up on how her passivity hasn't even attempted to be disguised.

During her wedding ceremony she grows into a giant and nobody shows real concern for her. Everyone runs away including those who are supposed to love her, such as her fiance and her mother.

She is captured and taken to a facility where she is imprisoned. The head prison keeper arrives through a trapdoor on a personal flying contraption. She's trapped, upset, afraid, and confused. He laughs at her while he's circling around her head, making fun of her while she sobs. With full control over where he flies, he is free to come and go at will. She is curled up in the corner. So, I'm thinking, hmmm....woman=imprisoned, man=freedom of movement. We learn that the Government has captured her, that this is where she will live for the rest of her life and that she is a "monster". To confirm her monstrous status, although she actually looks picture-perfect-sexy, her prison companions are a giant insect, a slimy newt type creature, a wise-cracking man-come-cockroach and a ball of slime. I have trouble equating how a giant-sized sexy-looking young woman fits in with the other creatures. The connection eludes me.

However, an alien has come to take over Earth and our "monstrous" woman and her monster companions are freed with the job of getting rid of the alien. They are dumped in front of the large metallic alien. The giant woman has not been told of her mission, BTW, but she comes to the party and starts to fight the alien, but her companions do next to nothing. She has super strength, becomes angry, uses resources, is assertive, gives directions/orders to others and eventually saves some people. So, I'm thinking, right, the producers had to equate her to being monstrous before they could put strength into her character. I remembered how passive she was when she was a "normal" woman.

The President tries to seduce the alien with some music. His level of authority and power is demonstrated by how he brings with him hoardes of admirers - all men. The usual red carpet is put out and he is cheered on. In this scene the President actually fails at doing winning over the alien so he resorts to violence. He'd brought the army with him anyway, and they had all the right equipment to shoot and bomb the alien. Even though they do not succeed the scene is full of men all doing what men appear to do best in movies - shoot at things (or people), with the intent to kill.

Then there's the scenes where the President and all his advisers are in conference. In these scenes there are 2 women, one is used to make some sort of inane comment that is not given any credibility, and the other woman, continues to scream hysterically and is in fact, ordered out of the room, by the man in charge.

At this stage, about 45 mins into the movie, I'm intensely aware that all characters who have power are ALL men, and that the one woman who does display any sort of power has been aligned with, and portrayed as a monster. This type of thing is what fairytales are made up of. Men who use resources, show assertiveness, display anger and get upset are given positions of activity, movement and power, while any woman who does the same is aligned with evil and wickedness. In fairytales, and as with this movie, the one and only woman who has movement, and the power to save the earth, is told she is disgusting, unrecognisable and nobody wants to associate with her - even her family. Yeah, her fiance turned out to be a "stupid jerk". Something which our heroine recognises at the end of the movie. In the meantime, nobody seems to care about her at all. Her family has abandoned her and her mother and father show her minimal concern over her predicament.

At one stage, her giant-ness is removed from her and she once again becomes an ineffective, passive woman. But in order to save her fellow monsters, she voluntarily turns herself back into a "monster".

When the closing credits came up on the screen, I had an overwhelming feeling that the creators had not put much thought into the movie at all. The storyline was weak, and the stereotypes were strong. I was surprised to learn it was brought to us by those who made Shrek. Since Shrek challenges a number of stereotypes with creativity, I wonder what has changed in the Shrek team.

This type of movie, made for our kids, leaves me with no doubts that our children are inculcated with gender stereotypes and expectations from a young age.

Over the hump!

Well, that's the second year of a four year University double degree completed. I was stoked with my results. I got a High Distinction for Social Planning, a High Distinction for Demography and a Distinction for Geography - People and Space. I found the Geography topic the most interesting as well, mind you, the major assignment for Social Planning was about Hoon Driving and that led me into reading up quite a bit (even if there is not much written about it) about the social construct of masculinity and some history of the car.

So, this year I attained all up three High Distinctions, 2 Distinctions and a Credit. With a grade point average of 6.10 (out of 7) I'm well on the path to be offered Honours and to go on and complete (eventually) a Doctorate.

Exciting times. Now, all I need is some work for during the break!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

There's one theory about human behaviour which is based on the idea that people do what they do because their actions create either positive rewards or negative consequences. The notion is that whenever an action reaps a positive reward then an individual will be motivated to continue with that action. The converse also applies, if an individual receives a negative consequence to some action, then supposedly, the individual will cease doing that activity. This is referred to as the power of positive reinforcement and since it's one of the theories about how humans live their lives, you'll find that our legal and judicial system is based on this theory - if you do something wrong you will be punished, and then theoretically, you'll be dissuaded to never do "wrong" things again, or at least that one wrong thing that you did.

If the memory of my Psychology 101 classes serves me correctly, it was a psychologist called Skinner who proved (or created) this theory by using rats and a Skinner Box. Essentially, it's about 3 rats in separate cages. Inside the cages are levers, that when depressed, dispense a pellet of food. In the first cage the lever delivers a pellet of food each time it is pressed. The rat soon learns this is a constant source of food and nourishment and eventually learns that it can depend on the lever to dispense a pellet each time the rat needs one. So this rat, in cage 1, lives a pretty healthy and carefree life, running around on his treadmill, and getting food whenever he wishes. One could say the rat has developed a healthy attachment to the food lever. In the 2nd cage, the lever never dispenses any food. The rat soon learns that this is not a way to get food, so quickly dismisses the lever, which has no meaning to the rat, and seeks nourishment elsewhere. In the 3rd cage the lever, when pressed, dispenses with food only some of the time. The rat, rewarded once by the lever, presses it again. Nothing. Presses it again, nothing. But a third try, and a pellet of food is dispensed. So the rat, still hungry, presses the lever again, but nothing happens, in fact, nothing happens for about 20 depresses, then a pellet is dispensed. Do you know what happens to this rat? Over a period of time the rat becomes obsessed with pressing the lever. So much so that the rat doesn't walk away and go play on it's treadmill or other items in the cage. The rat doesn't even try to drink. In some experiments some rats died from a) exhaustion, b) dehydration, and c) starvation (if not enough pellets were dispensed). In other words, the rat is so focussed and obsessed with intermittent reinforcement that it's attachment to the lever is all encompassing and is unhealthy (to the observer, but not to the rat). It's the same dynamic that pokie machines work on. In fact, pokie machine manufacturers hire hoardes of psychologists to find out the best combinations to get people to become obsessed with their machines. But I digress.

So, out of each scenario, which one do you think creates the strongest attachment, and which scenario creates the attachment which is the hardest and longest to break? It's the intermittent reinforcement. Now, change the rats to small children, and change the lever that gives nourishment into a parent. If a parent gives love and emotional nourishment each time a child requires it, then that parent becomes a reliable source and the child is free to grow, to roam, to be creative and be safe in the knowledge that the parent will always provide for it's needs. In other words, the child grows up in a healthy environment and in turn, becomes an emotionally healthy adult. In this sense, the positive reinforcement theory becomes a part of attachment theory. Now, what about the parent that never shows emotional nourishment, love or caring? The child soon learns this is not a place to receive their basic needs and searches elsewhere, and one would hope finds it in another care-giver or parent. But what about the parent that shows caring, love and emotional nurturance only some of the time? At other times, the parent ignores the child or forces the child to request and beg for positive attention. Or the parent becomes competitive with the child and only gives positive reinforcement some of the time - like when it suits the parents desires. What would you think occurs in the child then? What would a child think and how would it act if a parent sulks or withholds because the child does not do something the adult wishes it to, or doesn't do it right? They become obsessed with winning that parents love and affection. It is particularly evident to an observer, but not to the parent or the child involved. They both read the situation differently. Just like the rat did - even up to it's untimely death.

This is something I read about recently and am somewhat intrigued by it. Because it explains a number of things. I've written before about how parents can be abusive. There are three main types of parenting, and one of them is the disengaged or uninvolved parent. These parents are abusive and consider their children to be in charge of fulfilling the adults emotional needs, rather than the other way around. If the child fails to do this, the parent sulks, or has a tantrum, probably screams and yells, probably insults the child, or generally becomes "mad" at them, and hence removes their affection. I'd have to say that sulking is the worst. But at other times the parent reacts positively to the child. Thus starts the cycle of the child becoming obsessed with winning the parents love. We all know that inconsistent parenting is harmful to a child's long term emotional development and healthy adult relationships. The positive reinforcement theory simply upholds this, and explains in a very clear way why some children do what they do.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A very sporty time

Stephanie recently had her sports day at school. After a short postponement due to very hot weather, we enjoyed a refreshingly cool breeze during the morning her sports morning. Stephanie had learned her lines for her team cheer off by heart and was really proud that she had done so. She was in McLaren team with yellow as the team colour. The pictures here are of her in the relay where her team won 3rd place and a fantastic photo I managed to get of her in the long jump. I reckon she was the best girl in this event and she did marvellously.

Then last Saturday we had her gymnastics presentation. All the kids were put into groups of 6 and did three exercises they were scored on. Stephanie said she wanted to do the beam the most and she won 3rd place in her group for this. She also won 4th place in the parallel bars. The other exercise she did was floor activities and she didn't get a mention in that, but she didn't care, as that wasn't her favourite thing to do anyway, despite how many times she tries to do cartwheels.

She felt a bit nervous about going, but once there she thoroughly enjoyed herself. All the kids also got a medal which was really good, and Stephanie says she really wants to continue with gymnastics. I feel so proud of her, she did so well. Many times she had a big grin on her face.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Plasma TVs and pregnancy

What is it with Plasma TVs and having babies? What is the correlation between them? Well, according to what seems the majority of the population, it all has to do with the Baby Bonus. How's that? I hear, and I'm so glad that you asked.

I've told anybody who cares to listen that I'm doing an essay on fertility trends. This is usually only how far I get. Because at this stage I'm generally interrupted with a comment that goes along the lines of, "Well, if the Govt wants to stop the population explosion they'll have to stop giving out the Baby Bonus so that all those young kids having kids themselves will stop buying Plasma TVs." This comment comes from all socio-economic classes of all ages right across the population spectrum, this stereotype is uttered. And you know what? I think that most people actually believe it. Needless to say, there is not one study that correlates sales of Plasma TVs to young pregnant people, nor are there any studies that even credit increased births to young people per se.

But since I'm poking the elephant in the room and challenging stereotypes it's worth noting that the Baby Bonus was introduced in 2004 and the trend in increased births began in 2001. So, it's highly unlikely that the Baby Bonus has much to do with Australia's increased fertility rate. Secondly, it's the age group of 30 - 39 year olds that have contributed to the increased trend in births since 2001 - pulling the Total Fertility Rate up from 1.73 per woman in 2001 to 1.93 in 2008 (the Total Fertility Rate is the number of babies any woman can be expected to have in her reproductive life-span). BTW, the TFR must be at 2.1 for population replacement, so the Govt still does want us women to keep on having more babies than we currently are. And while there has been a small increase in teenage pregnancies, the statistics show that terminations amongst our teens are much higher than births, so financial incentive is ineffective in this age group as well as those under 30 years.

So, there you have it. In a nutshell. Before you hear of anyone touting about how "young" mothers are rorting the system to deck themselves out with luxury items, think again. It's a stereotype that has no basis. It's fiction - all of it. Perhaps some retail outlet that sells high-end TVs started the rumour in an effort to boost sales? Who knows how the rumour started, but from what I have witnessed, it's widely entrenched throughout our society.