Hunting Girls- Book Review

 

oliverKelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape certainly has an interesting premise. Written by an eminent feminist philosopher (currently Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University) it looks at popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence (especially sexual violence) is an inevitable, part of feminine coming of age. I came to this book with high hopes for its content.

 “Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans, and the occasional vampire, so appealing? Is this equal opportunity killing?… Killing, instead of loving, animals has become the emblem of girl power. Just as girls are hunted and attacked with relish in these films, our heroines displace that patriarchal violence onto their animal prey”.

The first sections of the book examines several popular movies/franchises in light of violence perpetrated by the heroines and upon them, particularly by their romantic partners. The discussion of the symbolism of hunting provide the most interesting sections of the book. However, despite going over the plot of The Hunger Games (trilogy), the movie Hanna, and a few fairly random name checks and one liners (Merida from Brave has a bow!), it all feels a bit hollow. The best of the points she makes were made by Carol J Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat over twenty years ago.

In the final section of the book, Oliver refocuses on the real world, particularly through the growing prevalence of campus rape in the United States. As an educator, Oliver obviously has strong views about sexual violence on campuses and who is responsible for this culture – to the point she loses objectivity. She ‘name drops’ the Hunting Ground documentary in a way that I was not comfortable with – reducing these real women to more archetypes for analysis. I am not a fan of trigger warnings, but Oliver is extremely dismissive of the need to provide safe spaces for survivors of assault. While I agree with her that there needs to be discussion and debate around the causes of rape culture, I disagree that victims of sexual assault cannot be simultaneously protected and respected.

 I found this book disappointing on a number of levels. Close to the end of the book Oliver states “we should focus on the ways in which girl power in these films is also the result of girls and women bonding together to nurture and protect each other”. I’m going to set aside my utter loathing for the phrase ‘girl power’ for a moment and agree with this. So, if Oliver believes this why didn’t she do that, rather than tearing apart these characters, encouraging the reader to look at them through a violent male gaze instead? That there is a significant issue with the packaging of female suffering as entertainment there is no doubt – but this book is an unrelentingly negative attack on the majority of strong female characters in the past ten years. Which is helpful how? The recasting of these YA heroines as new Disney princesses is gimmicky and doesn’t work (Bella Swan and Edward as Beauty and the Beast anyone? Anyone? No, me neither).  It’s also disappointing that she focuses on the flattened film versions of more complex book series, not least because this insures she is speaking about white women and girls when she talks about women and girls.

 Oliver’s point seems to be that a lack of consent is something prevalent and reinforced by popular culture – which is a bit of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ conclusion to come to. I expected Hunting Girls to be an analysis of, and perhaps a suggested response to, rape culture. Instead this book concludes that yes, there is indeed a rape culture, and lack of consent as a virtue has been around for as long as the Sleeping Beauty myth has. In essence, Hunting Girls is a journal article stretched into a (short) book, shorter again if we take out the plot summaries of several movie franchises that bulk out the first two-thirds of the book. This pop culture analysis, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t mesh with the campus rape discussion in the latter third of the book at all. While some of the points raised are interesting, I felt this book left a lot to be desired.

Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape by Kelly Oliver is published by Columbia University Press and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

 

 

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers

BeastI have been a huge fan of Marina Warner since I first read No Go, the Bogeyman, a history (as the subtitle would have it) of ‘scaring, lulling and making mock’ which explored the dark realms of ogres, giants and other figures of male terror. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers was written prior to that, and is widely regarded as a landmark study of the history and meaning of fairy tales, but I have only gotten to it now.

 Warner is an exceptional academic writer, and wears her learning lightly. Unfortunately its density makes it difficult to do justice to in a short review, given that it ranges across several centuries of fairy tales (or ‘wonder tales’) and the cultural context from which they sprang. Although the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Charles ‘I even got a Google Doodle’ Perrault are the famous tellers of fairy-tales, it comes as no surprise that the dearth of women in this cannon is merely the result of masculine appropriation of stories that were told, retold and shaped by women. Unlike the majority of fairy tale studies, Warner is not here for psychoanalysis but rather to illuminate the tellers of these tales and then reattach those tales to their historical context.

 The book is divided into two sections ‘The Tellers’ and ‘The Tales’. In the first we learn much about how female voices and wisdom were perceived in the Christian west, including how old woman began to be denigrated to crones as they carried secret knowledge about sex, contraception and abortion while simultaneously Saint Anne, mother of Mary, became ever more venerated. In one of many fascinating asides Warner unpacks the etymology of ‘gossip’ – from the Old English godsibb meaning ‘godparent’ (in Old English sibb could mean kinship, relationship, love, friendship, peace, happiness’ while sibling meant any relative or kinsman); to the c.1300 meaning of “familiar acquaintance, friend, neighbour – especially women friends invited to attend a birth” to the 1560s meaning of “anyone engaging in idle talk”. Continue reading “From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers”

‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject

The American West is as problematic a concept as the American Dream; while there was, and is, an American West, it is presented to us in cinema as an intangible and elusive ideal. All Westerns, even revisionist Westerns seeking to portray the ‘true’ West such as Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are to some degree effected by the fact that “[t]he history of the West has been consistently revised in accord with the dream” (Hine 1). As a result, I intend to approach these films by firstly analysing the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘mythology’, and to proceed from these concepts to their impact on the individual in the films in question.

It may seem ludicrous to suggest that history is a concept in need of explanation- the linear progress that is the western conception of history means that history is the clearly defined, rational understanding we have of past events, and the present we have today is built upon history’s foundations. However, even if we are able – as we never are in the instance of the American West- to strip history bare of the mythology that embellishes it, history is never ideologically pure, as best described by an ancient Tibetan saying “until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter”. The most obvious example of this is the Manifest Destiny outlook to exterminating the Native American population until well into the twentieth century. Until very recently, history told us little of the diverse cultural groups that peopled America before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of the nations history began to annihilate their culture. Perhaps it is true that, as Kevin Brownlow would have it “[n]o-one goes to the Western for a history lesson”, yet as the Western is often the dominant means for the public to appropriate the history of the West, surely it has a responsibility towards accuracy (Brownlow quoted in Maltby 34).

As Wright points out, the Western obsession with the settlement of the American West locates Westerns in a historically specific, chronologically limited time frame of the thirty years between 1860 and 1890. In 1861 the Indian wars began as the Cheyenne found the Colorado goldminers invading their lands; 1862 saw the passing of the Homestead Act. By 1890 all Native Americans had either been exterminated or placed on reservations, as the previous year saw the last ‘unoccupied’ area in America (the Oklahoma territory) opened to homesteaders in a massive land rush (5). A thirty year period would not be difficult to portray in a historically correct manner if the filmmaker so wished, yet the mythmakers of the West appear to be relatively unconcerned about accuracy of any kind- John Ford, for instance, notoriously demanding his crews research the people/place they were to film and then telling them to “Ignore all that and make a movie!”. The myths and legends created about the West are more popular, and hence more powerful, than the history of the West – “The legend is inescapable. The history exists because the legend exists. The history of the West is in a sense a subgenre of the Western, and revisionist history a subgenre of that” (Maltby 39). Continue reading “‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject”

The Rise of Eating Disorders

Any sociological account of the rise of eating disorders is almost certain to acknowledge them to be a reaction to the cultural heritage that their sufferers are burdened by. The rise of eating disorders clearly shows them to be an almost exclusively western phenomenon, and a by-product of the modern culture of consumption and media influence. While there had been documented cases of eating disorders prior to the 1980’s, since that decade anorexia and bulimia have both reached almost epidemic proportions, while the average weight of a white westerner is ballooning, with comfort eating and compulsive overeating becoming more and more prevalent. Therefore, this essay attempts to account for the rise of eating disorders by looking to the culture that has fostered them.

It is perhaps the domineering role taken up by medical discourse in the discussion of eating disorders that has led to the unspoken denial that they have a firm cultural foundation. Sociology has not, I feel, played a full enough role attempting to find a solution for a blatantly social problem, although many pioneering moves have been made. According to Susie Orbach anorexia “represents one extreme on a continuum on which all women today find themselves”, all are vulnerable to “requirement of the cultural construction of femininity”(Bordo 1993:47); while feminists such as Chernin have also looked at anorexia as the extreme product of this society’s obsession with weight (Clarke et al 1988).

While it may be true that “your true self…lies immeasurably above that which you usually take to be yourself”1 this is a credo that many western women do not take to heart. Through the perceived mindset of society, an illogical ideal of what constitutes beauty, (often cemented by media representations of beauty), there appears to be a universal fall in self-esteem. There is huge cultural importance placed on thinness, and all society is expected to compete with their own genetic make-up to achieve the perfect form. The western socio-cultural physical ideal is the slim muscular form, and the pressure placed upon us to attain this is the root cause of eating disorders. There are many close similarities between the values of those with eating disorders and the rest of the female population, in fact the only major difference appears to be that sufferers have gone too far.

All those suffering with eating disorders choose varying positions in relation to the social ideal, rushing to embrace it or flee it in their differing ways. Anorexics are willing to starve themselves to attain it, compulsive overeaters not only reject it but strive to oppose it, while bulimics become ensnared in a masochistic cycle of bingeing and purging as they struggle internally with the desire to consume and the desire to conform. Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism. Anorexia and obesity are opposing approaches to trying to find a solution to this double bind. Backlash against this ideal has on one hand produced a mentality of “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint”2; and on the other has produced women such as the American Carol Yager, who died in her sleep aged thirty-four years weighing a colossal 114st – cause of death, crushed by her own body-weight. These extremes exhibit how the monster we have created is now turning to destroy us. Continue reading “The Rise of Eating Disorders”

Into the West – Romanticism in Irish rural sociology

Romanticism in rural sociology stems, in many ways, from the cultural idealism which the rural has had lumbered upon it. This essay attempts to outline the impact of this idealism on the sociological view of the rural, the prevalence of romanticism with regard to rurality, and to illustrate attempts to negate this romanticism. I hope to show that romantic Ireland, far from being dead and gone, is a fiction firmly lodged in the modern mindset and in sociological frameworks.

The rural has not always been romanticised by any means. In fact, Karl Marx pitied those forced to live in the “idiocy of rural life”(Slater, 1995:5). In fact it would be safe to conjecture that romanticism in the form that plagues rural sociology is traceable only post-eighteenth century, where the ideological revolution against the regulations of the Enlightenment led to the proposition that Arcadia was centred in the simplistic, virtuistic countryside. Suddenly the Industrial Revolution was being challenged by “the romantic version of rural life” which “defined it as being more profound and fulfilling than urban life, and more harmonious and virtuous”(Slater, 1995:2). The poets of the Lake District were illustrating the Zeitgeist when they lost themselves in the poetic bosom of the country. The desire of this period to study other cultures led to a veritable barrage of literary texts examining the “Other”, such as Kipling’s “Kim” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Even Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, while clearly describing fictitious lands, was playing into the hands of those fascinated by “the Other” and clearly recognised that “Their time is not Our time, and Their space is not Our space”(Peace, 1987:94). Soon there was a general mourning for the loss of Durkheimian mechanical solidarity through spiraling urbanisation, while the work of Tonnies began to be misrepresented so as the rural was positively teeming with Gemeinschaft relationships (Slater, 1995: 7). This led to the creation of a rural pedestal that the modern tourist still attempts to gaze upon. Continue reading “Into the West – Romanticism in Irish rural sociology”