Buffy Summers vs Lisa Fremont: Why study gender in media texts?

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For me, gender representation in film has always been of interest and concern, both as a teacher and a viewer.

The way media texts represent gender is worth analysing and challenging. Arguments exist (yes, I see the ‘straw man’ there – I hope to find a link soon) that challenging such depictions is pointless. That only the removal of gender as a concept will make any difference to society. I’m not on board with that, simply because gender difference has a role in diversity for me.

Further, I don’t enjoy representations that are one dimensional and those representations are here now. And so refusing to challenge damaging representations due to a potential future genderless society seems like rolling over. Future equality is just that – the future. We’ve got disparity right now.

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I’m also writing this because it bugs me that portions of society (will always?) unthinkingly consume static representations, which is what most gender representations in film amount to. I want to repeat that obvious point – such stereotypes or tropes are static. They can’t be dialogues. They’re images or products and function as shorthand for attitudes. Dialogue, of course, doesn’t happen until someone engages with a text, rather than simply consuming it. So even a representation of gender that might be considered ‘positive’ is not much by itself. We have to talk about it.

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So, onto the film texts at last – Rear Window and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My concern, as teacher and a writer I guess, is the way gender representations are static in media texts, a point I’ve rambled on about above. Now, this point feels more salient to me, especially when we look at film from different decades. It’s easy to point to Rear Window, for instance, and say – that’s how (western) women were in the 1950s. Look, it’s right there on the screen, see how Lisa is constantly cooking and dressing up for LB! Something which concerns me there, is that this allows a one-dimensional representation to achieve dominance through precedence. That’s ‘just how it was back then’ ‘that’s how it’s always been.’ (Hidden within that statement is also the notion that it was ‘like that’ everywhere for everyone. Every country, every race, etc).

Representations are static in newer and current texts too. Buffy, who it might be argued was only even possible as a character representation/a television show, after the second wave of feminism hit, is a classic representation of a 1990s woman. Look, she’s independent, see how she kicks the crap out of those guys and looks after herself, it’s right there on the screen!

It is on the screen.

But so are other behaviours. Both women are represented through the full range of their behaviours – but how often do we talk about that full range? To demonstrate this, both to myself and to my classes, I ask a simple question.

Who is more conservative, Lisa or Buffy?

Sometimes I add a qualifier – who is more conservative for her time?

‘Lisa’ is often the first response.

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And she seems a fine candidate. She’s driven in her efforts to show Jeff how she’d make a fantastic wife – a classic 1950s goal for a woman. She always looks immaculate, she cooks and entertains, she tends to him, she tries to find him work, she even calls the kitchen ‘something more comfortable.’ She’s working hard to represent herself as the perfect wife and even to put herself into a position where she will no longer work, no longer have financial independence.* She seems an utterly conventional 1950s woman.

However, how else is Lisa represented in the film? Consider a few other points:

•Lisa has financial independence
•Lisa has a career
•Lisa freely gives her opinions in public settings (ie: with Tom Doyle)
•Lisa does all the dangerous ‘leg work’ for Jeff
•When Lisa does these things, it endears her to Jeff – he sees another dimension to her character
•Most tellingly perhaps, the film ultimately validates her ‘unconventional’ behaviour by making her the hero

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Now, what about Buffy Summers (especially in the opening episodes of the show)? Even if she wasn’t the Slayer, it’s clear she’d be upfront with her opinions, strong, confident and principled. In the opening episodes of the series, you see her walking alone in dark streets, kicking butt, saving her friends and basically doing anything a typical male hero would do – and anything a typical female character wouldn’t have done on film in decades past.

However, how else is Buffy represented in the text? Consider a few mostly related points:

•Buffy is caring (ie: Willow)
•Buffy is concerned with fitting in
•Buffy is undergoing an identity crisis
•Buffy is concerned about her appearance (ie: choosing a costume in the opening episode)
•Giles is represented as a mentor and Buffy comes to realise she needs him

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So what does all of that mean and why’d I want to know who’s more conventional? No prizes for the correct answer – I ask so that we can see beyond the first impressions the screen creates.

Perhaps Lisa is still less of a rebel than a young woman searching for a husband, and maybe Buffy’s more of a hero than a teenager trying to find her path, but the reason Lisa and Buffy are both successful characters and valuable representations, is because they’re multifaceted. They aren’t typical. They have their conventional and unconventional traits. But up there, alone on the screen – they’re still static representations. We have to question and talk about them, as writers, teachers, students, viewers, to really see what’s going on.

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And perhaps all of this is only a concern if you accept that the media is influential. I admit that I don’t always see this as true. No amount of media advertising is going to convince me to take a political promise at face value. Forget the Hypodermic Needle model. The media isn’t influential all of the time, and not for all people. But sometimes it is. Sometimes it changes behaviour, sometimes it changes opinions. Sometimes neither. Other times it’s more insidious, saturating public consciousness with simplistic, one-dimensional representations that the uncritical mind may take on board.

And film is just one medium in our constantly connected society.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

*Two gender stereotypes seem to be at work there 1) a woman wants to wait on her husband hand and foot and 2) a man wants his wife to wait on hand and foot. Obviously Jeff doesn’t want that at all in Rear Window.

Now, is there problem with looking after your loved ones? No – if a woman or a man wants to look after their partner, no-one should stop them. And there’s no problem with such a representation appearing on the screen either – but only so long as it’s not the only way men and women are represented in a given media text. An unchallenged, singular representation closes off other possibilities of being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman,’ and if (or when) that singular representation normalises itself, people in the real world can have a hard time if they act outside dominant expectations. Which sucks.

Anyway – hope you all have a great Christmas break, see you in 2014!

The Story of Princess Kaguya

Kaguya-Hime_no_Monogatari_posterOnly ten days until Studio Ghibli’s next film Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Story of Princess Kaguya) is released. It’ll be a long wait for the movie to reach cinemas or DVD here in Oz, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.

Isao Takahata, director Grave of the Fireflies among other great films, hasn’t released a feature for a long time – and seeing the previews of Kaguya-hime, I’m equally excited about the animation style. It gives the film quite a soft look.

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Back to waiting!

(Here’s a longer preview)

Tales from Earthsea

As much as I enjoyed many things about Tales From Earthsea when I first saw it, it’s taken about six years for me to watch it again. I put it off a few times. Even though I remember enjoying the beautiful Ghibli colours, especially in Hort Town, which is wonderful, I didn’t rush back.

tales-from-earthsea1I also loved Cob, both the way he was animated (in each stage of his character development) and the fantastic performance by Willem Dafoe. Almost as much as this, I enjoyed Sparrowhawk’s calm manner and the scenes at the farm, but in the end, this was a film that never quite came together for me.

cobAnd that reason was one of the protagonists, Arren.

Unfortunately, the film introduces him in a manner which ensures he is a completely unsympathetic character. From that point on (and this is very early in the film) I didn’t care about him as I should have – mostly because any motivation for his actions were not addressed until late in the film, and by then it was almost a moot point. I’d already made up my mind about him.

Which is a shame, because I understand that the direction of the film was fraught with tension, which doubtless contributed in some way to the issues as I see them. And it’s heartbreaking that Goro’s first film directing for Ghibli, wasn’t as strong as his follow up From Up on Poppy Hill (which I loved), and because it was sad to see a son strive and perhaps fail to meet his father’s expectations.

And for those curious about how the author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, felt upon seeing the film – here is an interesting read. I feel like an author responding to criticism/adaptation of their own work is often risky, but she is both eloquent and respectful.

So, to sum up – an almost tragically flawed film with some wonderful elements.

From Up On Poppy Hill (update)

UPDATE: Finally got my hands on the latest Ghibli release!

It’s been nearly a year since I saw it and was keen to discover if it was as good as I remember, and in a word, yes! Really enjoyed it the second time around, though I wondered if the English voice cast didn’t sound slightly ‘older’ than the ages I imagined the characters to be. But, a minor quibble!

A couple of months ago I saw the new Studio Ghibli film From Up on Poppy Hill at the Reel Anime Festival in the wonderful Cinema Nova, Melbourne.

This isn’t a review exactly, so much as me mentioning that I really liked it, and cobbling together a few links. Due for an English-speaking release around March next year, it’ll be a bit of a wait to see it again.


From Up on Poppy Hill is a coming of age film set in post war Japan (in the Port of Yokohama). The animation is top notch with the colouring beautiful as ever and as is fairly often the case with Ghibli releases, the film is an adaptation of an existing manga.

It’s probably quite faithful to the source, but I can’t tell – though if it’s of the quality that Howl’s Moving Castle was, then it’s probably a great adaptation. In any event, you won’t need to know the original to enjoy this if you like the genre. It features an almost typical romantic plot and a good deal of humour, along with what is perhaps its strongest feature: a keen sense of nostalgia (which is aesthetic for me of course).

Being a period piece, it has a focus on the cultural details and day to day living that reveals the wonderful attention to detail that I love about Ghibli films. Part of this is the use of pop songs from the time, one from 1963, which I hadn’t realised was also a number single in the US at the time – is used to great effect in the movie. By Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, it’s known as ‘Sukiyaki’ and you can read about it here and hear it here. (Sakamoto has a tiny cameo in the film too).


And finally, here’s a link to a preview. In short, this is another success from Studio Ghibli, and a much better outing for (relatively) new director Goro, certainly than his last adaptation, Tales of Earthsea. Really looking forward to seeing Poppy Hill again.

If you’ve had a chance to see the film let me know what you thought, or for that matter, any ghibli film you might have enjoyed!

Stay tuned for a review in September, of a film which I hope will be the highlight of the 2013 Reel Anime Festival in Melbourne, A Letter to Momo!

Midnight in Paris – Cleared

Pleased to see that a film I really enjoyed, Midnight in Paris, is ‘off the hook’:

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The Faulkner Estate recently brought a claim against Sony for violating IP rights, but lost due to a ruling which sites the film’s use of his words as being ‘transformative’. Here’s some background on issue.

Personally I thought the way Faulkner’s line is actually used in the film, within dialogue from Owen Wilson’s character, and with an attribution as part of that dialogue, is more of a homage rather than a violation, and would fall within fair use. I do wonder, if the estate had been successful, would it lead to the idea that quotes or lines from books should be licensed to film studios? Murky.

True violation of IP is awful, no doubt, but Midnight in Paris doesn’t feel like it to me.

What do you think?

Studio Ghibli: Five Favourites – Post Five

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Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)
1988

Another of Ghibli’s fine adaptations, Grave of the Fireflies jostled for position at number five with the films now at six and seven, which I’m planning to add to this list later. Based on Akiyuki Nosakai’s novel, the film is the darkest of Ghibli films produced to date and is, in a word or two, heart-wrenching. I’ve actually only been able to watch it three times so far – it really puts me through the wringer.

grave-of-the-fireflies-post-2Isao Takahata’s best known film, it shows the struggle of siblings Seita and Setsuko during and after the bombing of Kobe in 1945. I won’t go into the plot here, but instead mention that the charactarisation is powerful and their reactions to war and injustice is moving.fireflies

grave_firefliesThe animation is harrowing too, a very red, orange and brown palette is used to great effect, and even with the moments of lightness, I think of the film as one long night in their lives. Even with their little triumphs and joys, such as their time at the beach or the all-important tin of sweets, the film is ominous.GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES 5And well it should be, perhaps, considering the subject. Often described as an anti-war film, something the director does not necessarily agree with, I think I remember reading Takahata describe the film as a warning against pride. I hope that’s as I remember it, I wish I could find the quote but instead, here’s a great discussion at the Cinema Sanctum blog.

Whatever your view on Grave of the Fireflies’ main theme, this is a film you should one day see, a true classic of the animation genre.

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Stay tuned for the two extra posts in the list!

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Studio Ghibli: Five Favourites – Post Four

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Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)
1995

This time I’ve actually chosen a film not directed by Miyazaki ( though he did write the script 🙂 ) but instead by Yoshifumi Kondo. Whisper of the Heart is another Ghibli adaptation, this time of a manga written by Aoi Hiiragi. While Whisper of the Heart has less action than early Ghibli works, it is full of conflict – and not simply the cliched teen angst to be found in many works aimed (unfairly?) at younger audiences.

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Instead it focuses on the conflict of the writer, or perhaps, the conflict of the creative person – whether it is main character Shizuku who desperately wants to be a writer, or Seiji, her love interest, who is striving to become a violin-maker. Much of the film focuses on the struggle these characters go through, trying to please themselves, take their dreams seriously, to work for them, to accommodate their families’ wishes and deal with their feelings for each other.

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Woven within the film’s central narrative are smaller stories, the mystery of the cat Muta, the story behind the fantastic statue ‘The Baron’ and his lost love Louise, and the story young Shizuku is writing (starring the Baron) and her struggle to produce a complete draft that she is happy with. Any writer or creative person should be able to relate to her frustration and excitement. On one hand, she can’t wait for someone to read it, on the other she is convinced she’s not good enough yet. I definitely relate, and it’s part of why the movie appeals to me so much.

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Here Shizuku visits Mr Nishi’s antique store, where she later shares her first draft in what is perhaps the film’s pivotal scene.

Whisper of the Heart also features a classic country song written by John Denver as something more than simply soundtrack – throughout in the film ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ is rewritten and performed by Shizuku, and also by Shizuku and Seiji in addition to appearing over the opening sequence. Here’s John’s version, the earnest Olivia and the English dub of Shizuku and Seiji on vocals and violin:

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Stay tuned for the fith in the list (and then two extras for fun)!

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Studio Ghibli: Five Favourites – Post Three

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
2004

Miyazaki and the Ghibli team are almost always stellar at adaptation. Howl’s… was first a fantastic, semi-satirical and wonderfully imaginative book by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, who first published it in the 1980s. For the film adaptation of Howl’s Miyazaki created what some reviewers feel is another visually stunning film but one that suffers from a dense plot.

I’d argue that Howl’s the film actually uses a simplified plot, where characters in the book might be combined into one for the film (Sophie has two sisters in the book for instance), or where subplots are either left out or melded.

(And I personally have no problem with this approach (by any filmmaker.) A film is not a book. They are meaningfully different and attempts to attack one for failing to reflect the conventions of the other is tedious.)

But back to Howl’s Moving Castle. Because it’s the castle itself that will probably enchant you as much as the characters or story, I thought a link would be in order – see below – because it’s an amazing piece of work, blending CGI and cel animation in a very fluid manner.

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Howl’s castle – click through to youtube, where you can see it move.

Living in the castle is the mysterious Howl, a wizard who enchants (not literally – someone else does that) the main character, Sophie, early on in the film, establishing the strong romantic aspect of the plot. Woven between their developing relationship, is magic, war and domesticity all offset by a curse placed on young Sophie, trapping her in the body of a 90 year old woman.

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As with many other Miyazaki films, there is a familiar anti-war theme, but he’s not heavy handed – even if some of Howl’s dialogue might been seen as such. More value for the viewer will probably come, once again, from characters’ relationships  –  take fire-demon Calcifer for one, whose relationship with Howl is not only complex and amusing, but vital to the plot in more ways than one.

Calcifer is voiced by Billy Crystal in the English dub. He does a great job too, which surprised me (in a good way.)

Once again Joe Hisaishi, provides a memorable soundtrack, with lush waltzes and heartfelt themes. Today, rather than link to the OST, I thought I’d share a great cover of one of the signature pieces, as performed on acoustic guitar by Sungha Jung:

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Stay tuned for the fourth in the list!

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Studio Ghibli: Five Favourites – Post Two

totoro-studio_00311019Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)
1984

Not precisely a Ghibli film, since the success of Nausicaa was part of what enabled Studio Ghibli to be formed, but basically so – and always sold as part of the Ghibli collection. Possibly my favourite, this time it’s another Miyazaki film and looking back it’s easy to see the roots of what might now be called a classic mix of Miyazaki’s environmentalism, fantasy and use of a female lead whose ability to solve conflict with kindness is a key part of both plot and charactarisation.

Nausica-of-the-Valley-of-the-Wind-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-27647506-500-300Here’s something of a blurb, not a great or official one by any means: Threatened by spreading toxic jungles, Nausicaa’s people rely on their own vigilance and the wind to protect their homes and people. When a ship carrying an ominous secret crashes in their valley, warring nations converge on the Valley of the Wind and it’s up to Nausicaa to save her people.

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Part of why this film is so effective for me, is because the world building is detailed – you can feel that there’s so much more beneath the surface. The detail of the world, it’s interconnected environment and tensions, the prejudice of its peoples, it’s just as realistic as it is fantastical. (This is in part due to it’s basis in a multi-volume manga written by Miyazaki.) The insects especially, are impressively drawn and varied but also complex creatures – not in the least being the almost majestic Ohmu.

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Again there’s a beautiful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, this time with a electronic feel typical of the 80s, though the opening piece here is still quite orchestral. Below is a live performance for the 25 Anniversary, you can see Joe on the piano.

Stay tuned for the third in the list!

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Studio Ghibli: Five Favourites – Post One

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Some of you will have noticed in my bio that I like Studio Ghibli films, and I’ve occasionally posted something to that effect here. So today I wanted to spend a bit more time on one of my favourite film production companies by writing a little on five (well, seven really) of my favourite Ghibli films.

It’s a Miyazaki-heavy list, but he’s such a warm director that I seem to naturally gravitate toward his films. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Takahata’s work, or the films of the other directors, but you’ll see a few Miyazaki ones in the list as I slowly reveal it!

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Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
2001

Perhaps like many Western audiences, this was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and its wonderful films – though I didn’t see it until some time after it’s English language release.

I was actually at uni and had recently borrowed the impressive 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Inside I noticed Spirited Away and went straight to the university library where I borrowed the DVD and that was it. I was hooked.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl who has to work in a spirits’ bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by their own greed.

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Admittedly that’s a pretty simple description of the plot but it gives you an idea of the main source of tension. What it fails to show is the stunning attention to detail found in the animation (a trademark of Ghibli) and the great character arc at its heart. The way protagonist Chihiro goes from being what is basically an annoying child to a person of resolve, and who can turn those around her into friends, is handled really well and provides an emotional core that’s a big part the reason I’ve watched the film so many times.

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But perhaps my favourite element of Spirited Away is the setting. The bathhouse is located in an abandoned amusement park and it’s beautiful, detailed and vivid, both in terms of its social and physical structure. And part of that colour definitely comes from the variety of spirits who visit it, among the most memorable being the close-mouthed Radish Spirit and the old River Spirit, who also embodies the environmental themes Miyazaki often includes in his films.

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Another stand out aspect of the movie, and most Ghibli films, is the music. Provided by Joe Hisaishi, it’s a moving score, with so much of it feeling both magical and familiar.

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An Academy Award winner and definitely an amazing film, Spirited Away isn’t quite my favourite Ghibli movie, but I’m kicking off with it because it’s where I started and if you’re looking to see what Studio Ghibli is like, you couldn’t find a better starting place.

More films to come so stay tuned!

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