Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"Tweenage Kicks": Angry Young Women vs. Andrew Collins

So I've just left off getting angry over this article enough to write something half-decent about it. Interestingly, I spotted it just after I'd spent a good chunk of my morning watching more Anita Sarkeesian videos. Both happened to be focusing on how things are marketed and represented to particular audiences, particularly to young girls. However, while Anita's comments are always intelligent, insightful, and well argued, even when I don't agree with her, Andrew Collins has managed to churn out a load of patronising, badly judged drivel on behalf of the Radio Times. So let's start with the first "tween" culture reference in the title of the article: the Twilight franchise. Here's what Anita has to say about Twilight:


Fair dues. Now here's Andrew's version of what Twilight is all about:
Tweens are fed a carefully mixed cocktail of harmless My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise, so that the intoxicating effect is aspirational and at the same time safe or as safe as any saga about vampires and werewolves can be.
Wow. Aspirational. Hm. Even if you're into your slushy romantic rubbish, could you really call a "My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise" an aspiration? A quick search on Google gives you these definitions for "aspiration":

as·pi·ra·tion/ˌaspəˈrāSHən/

Noun:
  1. A hope or ambition of achieving something: "he had nothing tangible to back up his literary aspirations".
  2. The object of such an ambition; a goal.
So, specifically, an "ambition" is an intention to "achieve" something. Whatever your feelings about Edward, I fail to see how his making a "chaste promise" can in any way be classed as aspirational for girls. He (not Bella), is promising not to do something. Quite aside from its instantly vomit-inducing effect, the quotation above doesn't even make sense. So much for that.

Next, The Hunger Games. I don't entirely agree with Anita on this one because, personally, I found a lot to enjoy about the second and third books, even if they weren't as strong as the first. I also take issue with some of her more negative comments. For example, she doesn't believe that parents would give up their kids to fight to the death, while I'd argue that this already does happen in real life: many parents are perfectly happy for their kids to join the military, proud of them for going out to war with the intention of murdering other people's kids, and then seem strangely surprised when their soldier sons end up killed in combat. She also doesn't think that the kids from the Districts have been dehumanised enough by the Capitol to make it convincing that viewers would accept it, despite the fact that she recognises slavery as dehumanising people enough for it to work. I'd argue that Suzanne Collins makes it clear that the Districts pretty much are slaves to the Capitol - at least in all but name. I'm also not fundamentally opposed to a romance plot, if it's done well enough. Still, most of what she says about the first novel here is well put:


Let's compare this assessment to Andrew Collins's view:
The Hunger Games is another “young adult” franchise now in the process of bounding from page to screen… yes, a dystopian sci-fi saga, but this time with feminist “girl power” in the shape of the book’s teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who must compete in a multi-player battle to the death.
Just to clarify for anybody who doesn't remember the 90s or wasn't in Britain during that period, "girl power" is a term most commonly associated with the pop band the Spice Girls and the rest of the hideous "music" industry they belonged to. Essentially, it's the preferred mantra of an absolutely insidious kind of sexism which masquerades as a form of feminism, sexualising, stereotyping and infantilising women (quite aside from the creepiness of Emma Bunton being "Baby Spice", note the fact that it's "girl" and not "woman" power), setting the equal rights clock back several decades and effectively erasing all the work done by feminists in the 70s and 80s. So, all in all, a great choice of term to associate with Katniss Everdeen, who is widely understood as one of the strongest and most interesting YA female characters aimed at a teenage audience ever created.

The third thing the title refers to is Julian Fellowes's upcoming film of Romeo and Juliet. Judging from Collins's article, I'd wouldn't have thought it sounded very promising. That said, it's not really much to go on, given the woefully misguided assessments of the Hunger Games and Twilight franchises that we've already seen.

My initial reaction to this article, believe it or not, was actually excitement when I read that the fantastic Hailee Steinfeld was going to be starring in a production of this wonderful, if much misunderstood play. Potentially, it could be great for kids reading Shakespeare in school to have an accessible alternative to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version to watch. Though enjoyable, Luhrmann's interpretation leaves much to be desired, for precisely the reason that Andrew Collins inadvertently gives in his article. "Romeo and Juliet errs towards the soppy". This is true enough of Luhrmann's version, but not of the play in general. I can only hope that Collins's assessment is meant to refer only to the upcoming film, rather than to the original play, because if that's what you honestly think of any of Shakespeare's work then you should shut up and educate yourself. Bear in mind we're talking about a writer who actively ridiculed the "soppy" Petrarchan conventions of his time, and was responsible for creating this little gem of a poem, which in its way pretty much overturned all expectations about sonnets at the time. Despite common misconceptions, Romeo and Juliet actually makes almost exactly the same point. Romeo is a fickle and childish lover, who only thinks that Juliet is the love of his life. We know this because, at the start of the play, Romeo is in an agony of love over another woman, Rosaline. Shakespeare didn't just write in this other unseen character for no reason - as Friar Laurence rather scathingly comments later on:
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here! 
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, 
So soon forsaken? Young men's love then lies 
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. 
This is a major theme throughout the play. Shakespeare is obviously well aware of his characters' immaturity and wants us to notice it. For some reason, people nowadays, in a supposedly more sexually liberated society, seem perfectly willing to accept that Romeo and Juliet meet at a party, get married and kill themselves for each other all in the space of a few days. Wake up everyone! This isn't rational or reasonable behaviour by anyone's standards! It's not romantic, it's just plain ridiculous. Shakespeare definitely never conceived of the play as the great love story it's come to be seen as. In fact, the romance plot is principally a device designed to serve the play's most important theme: conflict. This isn't a play about love, it's a play about hatred and violence and feuding and the futility thereof, and about full-grown men who should know better carrying their childish enmity with them into old age, and abusing their power by inflicting their prejudices on the those who look up to them.

So what if Collins just means the film? Well, having seen Hailee Steinfeld star in True Grit as the intelligent, resourceful, and also very cold and hardened Mattie Ross, I'd be deeply disappointed if she has actually pandered to pressure to go silly and girly and romantic. Incidentally, that's not what Juliet is, and from what I've seen of Steinfeld, I'd say she should be fairly well-suited to the role. If you don't believe me, check this out. That's pretty damn raunchy. Romeo might mince and sugarcoat his words, but Juliet, by contrast, gets rather shockingly to the point. She seems a lot more canny and streetwise than her husband, despite being shut away all the time, and being only fourteen. See, young teens can exceed expectations.

Moving on to the other films Collins mentions nearer the end of the article. The first is Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. For me, this film was a major disappointment. Although they do revolve around a fairly stereotypical girl and a fairly stereotypical love triangle, I actually really, really love The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. The reasons? 1) Georgia is a well-rounded and endearing character, who spends time with her family and other female friends and, although at her tender age she is excessively preoccupied with the opposite sex, it's not the only thing she ever talks about, and she can have fun in other ways. 2) These are amongst the funniest books I have ever read. Yes, there's romance, but it's done in such a knowing and ironic way that we're encouraged to laugh at Georgia's foolishness even as we sympathise with and grow to love her. We can concern ourselves over her bad decisions while similarly being secure in the knowledge that she will ultimately grow up, see sense and realise that she ought to be with her hilarious best friend, rather than any of her pretty, air-headed boyfriends (note the reversal of the usual stereotype here). Unfortunately, the film seemed to drain away all of Georgia's and Dave's charm, chemistry and charisma. Instead, it tried to present love interest Robbie as a much more sympathetic, if no less boring, character. So in the film, we're meant to want Georgia to end up with the stupid, dull one. Even the changing of the title from Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging didn't bode well: the disparity in tone between the words "Perfect" and "Full-Frontal" pretty much set the disparity in tone between the whole of the film and the whole of the book. Collins, on the other hand, says that:
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging...with its indie soundtrack and accent on kissing and being dumped, was anything but saccharine.
I beg to differ. An indie soundtrack and discussion of kissing does not a challenging, innovative or in any way interesting film make.

Finally, the article rounds off by talking about The Amazing Spider-Man. At last, you might be thinking, at least one paragraph that can't be quite so infuriating. If girls are into superheroes, that proves they don't only care about boys and kissing, right? They might like to see action scenes, they might enjoy the creative and imaginative possibilities of the fantasy genre, or they might even take an interest in the geeky science side of the film. After all, Gwen Stacy is a great heroine and potential role model. She's funny, intelligent and tough. She not only starts off the film having proved that her intellect is equal, if not superior, to that of her boyfriend-to-be, having already landed herself a job at science research company Oscorp, purely on the strength of her own achievements and confidence. Peter, meanwhile, merely sneaks into the building and becomes friends with Curt Connors through his family connections. Gwen then twice risks her own life saving Peter's neck, so eat that, Mary-Jane! Here is a heroine that, unlike any of the others discussed so far, actually offers girls something to aspire to. Remember that word? Aspiration. You know like, girls, you can get a good job! You can save people's lives! You can do well in school and learn things! But, naturally, according to Andrew Collins, none of this could possibly be of any importance to the girls who like the film. Obviously, all they're really interested in is this:
the current superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man....has Andrew Garfield pushed up against the lockers in high school and actually kissing a girl when he’s not in his mask. A superhero movie that’s not exclusively aimed at teenage boys? Who’d have thought it?
Yep, that's right. Kissing and boys. Of course. And, here's the cherry on the cake: after repeatedly and extensively patronising young girls, he actually has the nerve to say that, "The Tween market can’t be patronised". No, no, because telling girls they should be making chaste promises, obsessing over boys, and occasionally having babies isn't the slightest bit patronising.

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