Archive for the ‘Anti-Heroines’ Category

Geena Davis - Not Just a Pretty face

Actress Geena Davis is perhaps best remembered in the role of poor, put-upon Thelma, sidekick to Susan Sarendon’s sassy Louise, in Ridley Scott’s 1991 groundbreaking road movie, Thelma & Louise. Although still acting, Ms. Davis has increasingly turned her attention to activism for gender equality, initially in sport and laterally in the media. Interestingly her positive action in support of a more balanced reflection of society in the media sprang from fairly innocuous roots. Back in 2004 Davis was watching television with her young daughter when it struck her that there was a noticeable imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters portrayed in programmes aimed at pre-teens. Not only was there a marked numerical imbalance, it also became apparent that the roles open to female actresses fell into a narrow range of stereotypes: generally sexualised eye-candy. These were programmes directed specifically at children aged under-11, many of them – on both the big screen and the small – viewed by our children too.

Davis became convinced that this insidious form of gender bias was feeding into the reality that females are undervalued in society. “The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.” This observation ultimately led to the establishment of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the undertaking of a comprehensive research project looking at gender in children’s entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication of University of Southern California. This study directed by Dr. Stacy Smith and covering four hundred G, PG, PG-13, and R-Rated movie, concluded that for every one female character portrayed, there are almost three males and that girls are given far less screen time.

“The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.”

The researchers also linked their findings to a resulting undermining of self-esteem amongst young girls and a consequent sexist bias amongst young boys. In response the institute developed a programme, called SEE JANE that works in collaboration with the entertainment industry using research, education and advocacy to dramatically reduce stereotyping and increase the number of female characters included in children’s entertainment.

The approach taken by Geena Davis in tackling gender equality at this fundamental level in the entertainment industry has been recognised and rewarded. In 2009 she received an honorary Doctorate from Bates College, a private liberal arts college located in Lewiston, Maine. Although tangible changes have been affected by the Institute, their task is far from complete. However, it is truly inspiring to see a woman turn an everyday observation into such a laudable and practical programme of action and to learn of a Hollywood legend using their fame to such commendable ends. After all as Geena so straightforwardly puts it, “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.”

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Actress Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and grew up between Limerick and London.  Having trained at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College, she got her first major break in 2005, when she was cast in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto. Since then, she has maintained a steady career in theatre, film and television – already, in 2010, she has starred in the BBC series Five Daughters and the Irish film Trafficked. From September, she will be appearing in the role of Ophelia in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet.  She recently starred in RTE’s four-part drama Love/Hate.

What was the first record you ever bought?
Nirvana, Heart-Shaped box (with the Marigold b-side where Dave Grohl sings).

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of summer rain on its way and the smell of the person I’m in love with. Preferably a mix of the two.

Have you ever had a nickname?
Tooters, Roo… all my “weak” passwords, which I’ll now have to change.

What is your favourite room in your house?
My bedroom at around 5pm last Saturday when the evening light hit.

What are your guilty pleasures?
Real pleasures shouldn’t be guilty. I read that somewhere. Wish I could get it into my head. I’m always feeling guilty about something or other. OK, ALL of Paul Rudd’s films.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I know for a fact that people are sick of bloody actors banging on about being shy, but it is true for a lot of us. I am obsessed with the idea that the most important thing about someone is that which you don’t know. I read that somewhere too. I’m looking forward to having an idea or thought of my own.

Who is your closest female friend?
I have three and strangely enough they don’t really know one another: Pippa, Lou and Nadia.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
Neither. For now.

Where would you most like to live?
Kilshannig, Co. Kerry

Who was your first kiss?
When I was 6 or 7, with a lovely boy called Aaron. Think I could be totally making that up, though. I do that quite a lot with memories.

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
Haven’t yet. Quite interested to see what’s ahead.

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
An early edition of The Third Policeman. It was from my mother.

What is your favourite word?
Too many to mention, although I’m a natural Mrs. Malaprop so I probably wouldn’t know what it meant anyway.

Who was your first love?
I had an almighty crush on a boy with initials D.C. when I was 8. Makes me get butterflies even now. He had absolutely no interest whatsoever.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
An artist, I think. Or mad. Or less mad, probably. Who knows?

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
Yes: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton. Whom I keep mentioning in interviews in the vain hope of getting a job off him.

What happens after we die?
“The Undiscover’d Country”. Where there’s lots of sleep and beautiful dreaming.

What female historical figure do you admire most?
The courageous, good ones who never make it into the books.

Sum yourself up in three words:
Bewildered. Headstrong. Loquacious.

And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?
This is a school essay question that I have nightmares about where I’m wearing my pyjamas – if I’m lucky! I’ll be brief: anti mean people; pro the nice ones.

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In his review of the upcoming Fox film, Ramona and Beezus, based on a children’s novel by Beverly Cleary, Roger Ebert laments the fact that Cleary’s Ramona books never inspired a television series. I found this surprising because, between 1988 and 1990, Ramona, the Canadian series starring Sarah Polley, was my favourite television programme.

I was the same age as the eight-year-old Ramona Quimby when I first discovered the series and loved spending weekend mornings watching a bright, inquisitive Canadian girl explore a world that was not unlike my own. Like me, Ramona sometimes had to cope with embarrassing haircuts, inedible dinners (“Liver!? Eww!!”) and arguments with classmates. She, too, worried about her parents separating and felt uncomfortable about being introduced to the new boyfriend of a much-beloved aunt. I was jealous of the fact that she had an older sister, Beatrice or “Beezus”, (even if Beezus did sometimes call Ramona “a pest”) and could empathise when she had mixed feelings about the impending arrival of a new baby in her family.

Ramona Quimby was as significant a figure in my childhood as My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase became during my adolescence. Both girls were complex characters, with well-developed personalities comprising elements of light and shade, and both demonstrated that even the most seemingly-mundane, middle-class life is likely to be more confusing than carefree. In a recent interview, Sarah Polley described Ramona as “a little bit of an oddball” and said that she felt that the character “spoke to [her] and made [her] feel less isolated”. I think it’s important for young girls, many of whom often feel like misunderstood oddballs themselves, to be able to watch and read about characters like Ramona, whose adventures and woes are centred around school, family and friendships; and not just boys, clothes and popularity.

Do small-screen heroines like Ramona (and Angela) exist anymore?

Aoife Kelleher

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Flannery O’Connor

It was fellow Irish writer Claire Keegan who introduced me to Flannery O’Connor. Claire eulogised about Flannery so much at a class I took with her, that I ran out that day to buy Flannery’s first short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Before that I thought (presumed?) that Flannery was a man, possibly Irish. That was about twelve years ago and I have been a lover of Flannery’s work ever since. I’m re-reading that first collection now and still finding things to marvel at in it.

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925; she was an only child and her great grandparents had emigrated from Ireland. I dislike the expression, ‘she was before her time’, because it’s an impossible thing – Flannery was of her time, obviously – but she had a modern outlook and was a sassy woman, despite being a devoted Catholic. Like many female writers, Flannery didn’t marry or have children – art and family life are often a poor mix. She did have plenty of close male friends but lost one to the priesthood and another to marriage with somebody else.

She believed in using authentic language in her stories – the language of her homeplace – and she did this to great effect. Her characters’ voices get into the reader’s ear and are totally believable. Her style is straightforward with occasional flashes of brilliant imagery. Though her fiction is often rough and harsh in subject matter, it’s also funny and moving. She doesn’t shy away from difficult things: motiveless murder, suicide and violence are some of her themes but there is always a subtle morality beating around the edges of the narrative. Her female characters are strong and opinionated, sometimes not altogether likeable, but they are always feisty and individualistic, which I love.

Flannery herself seems to have been mildly eccentric – she was obsessed with birds: she made suits of clothes for her chickens as a child and kept up to forty peacocks at one time. She suffered from lupus (the disease which killed her father) and was often ill but when she went to Lourdes she said ‘I prayed for my book not my bones’. She didn’t have any time for the romantic image of the artist as lonely and sensitive, believing instead that the artist should live fully in her community. Neither did she believe in ‘sinister calculation’ on the part of the writer – she thought writers should just write – and the ‘learned and literary interpretations’ of her work often appalled her.

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 from lupus; she wrote two novels and 32 short stories. If you haven’t already read her, seek her out. She’s well worth it.

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This month back in 1937, Amelia Earhart went missing. Radio contact with her plane was lost as she crossed the central Pacific Ocean and she was never officially heard from again. The following January, one of the most celebrated aviators of the period was declared dead. The US pilot had the true high-flying lifestyle – she was feted and celebrated on a circuit famed for its showmanship and flamboyance. There’s some evidence [that should really read ‘speculation’] she may have died as a castaway, but ultimately it seems her life was cut short due to her passion for flight.

But there was another winged woman in that era of dare-devil barnstorming and aeronautic record-breaking. One who also had worldwide fame and acclaim, and who many argue was a more competent pilot and technician. Mary Heath from Limerick moved in the same circles as Earhart and captured the media’s attention with her glamorous antics both high in the air and on terra firma. It seems quite bizarre that Lady Heath (her second husband – of three, no less – was a an elderly peer with the funds to bankroll her insatiable appetite for the flying life) is all but forgotten from our lore. It’s particularly surprising because in celebrity terms she ticked every box to make her story last: a hideous take-off, a stratospheric career, sudden accident and slow, downward spiral to a pitiful crash death just a couple of years after Earhart went missing.

Heath was born Sophia Theresa Catherine Mary Peirce Evans in 1896 at Knockaderry, Co. Limerick. Her father, a volatile character, bludgeoned her mother to death as the toddler Sophie lay bundled up asleep. Raised by her aunts and grandmother (her father was detained in an asylum until his death) Sophie was an energetic tomboy. She was schooled in Dublin and went to college but dropped out to help with the war effort, where she met and married husband number 1.

At this stage Sophie was a keen and highly successful athlete in England and on the back from a sports meeting in Prague in 1925 she got chatting to a pilot. He suggested she come to a flying show in London and it was there she got her first flying lesson and was hooked. From there she rapidly became part of the scene and campaigned vigorously for women to be able to hold a commercial flying licence – at the time menstruation was cited as a reason for banning women from being pilots! – and she eventually became the first woman in Britain to be recognised as a commercial pilot.

Aviation in the 1920s was all about excitement – during the Great War planes were considered war machines, but now the focus was on antics and derring-do. Lady Mary dazzled crowds with her bravery in races and stunt shows, and won the media over with her glamour and wit. She set international flight records and hung out with the US set, including Charles Lindburgh. But in 1929 she suffered horrendous injuries in a crash in the US where she went through the roof of a building. She went on to fly again but her career was on the wane and she returned home with hubby number three and trained young pilots. I spoke to one man who went up in the plane with her at that time and he laughingly recalls a formidable woman with a mouth on her that was not for the feeble of heart.

Mary’s reliance on the drink became more apparent and she eventually moved to London where she died from head injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs of a tram. A tragically understated end to a one-time blistering career. Journalist and author Lindie Naughton is one of the foremost authorities on Mary Heath and you can find out more and see videos of Heath in full flight here .

Claire O’Connell

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Let’s clear the air here. There should be no more debate about whether the lifestyle of the Sex of the City women is one to aspire to.

The characters of the TV series, the ones that lived in a city where I wanted to live, who had wardrobes that didn’t look completely like a four-year-old high on Cheesy Puffs had sketched them up, and who were allowed to put down the penises and let some decent one-liners pass through their hi-shine lips from time to time, are long gone. The cutout dollies that totter through the films are turgid, unwatchable, sick-making puppets.

Literally sick-making. When I was watching the first one in the cinema – purely for the purpose of patronising my sister afterwards, I assure you – a girl actually vomited. Right on the floor two rows over. She and her friends left before the lights went up and the cleaner who came in as the credits rolled eyed us all with suspicion when she found the mess. I don’t blame her – we all looked pretty green around the gills after being forced to eat crap for nigh-on two hours.

I guess I was always ruined for SATC though because I’ve known what my dream lifestyle would be since I was 10 years old and came to know one Jessica Beatrice Fletcher. I’ve been recently reminding myself of what I should be aiming for in about 30 years’ time because RTE One are showing re-runs of Murder, She Wrote as a mid-afternoon delight.

They don’t make daytime TV heroines like crime-novelist/murder-mystery-sleuth JB Fletcher. I can now appreciate how impressive it was at all that an older female actress could anchor such a huge TV series in the 1980s.

But back then, I didn’t care about that. All I knew was that this was a dame whose life I wanted.  How amazing was she? Here was a pensionable woman jogging – actually jogging – in the opening credits. This was revolutionary to me because the most exercise old ladies I knew got seemed to be picking up dropped stitches in their knitting.

If she wasn’t cycling around Cabot Cove solving localised murders and tapping away in a disciplined fashion on her typewriter in her nicely-appointed study (She had an actual study! With bookshelves!) she was jetsetting off on some book tour, all expenses paid. This was a woman who was earning enough money from her own talent to be put up at the Plaza.

It hadn’t been easy for Jess, we knew that. We got a nod from her androgynous pen name, JB Fletcher, that she had to be smart to make it in the macho world of crimewriting. As far as I was concerned, that just put her on a par with George Eliot. (I liked Silas Marner. I was a strange child.)

She was also a widow but she wasn’t going to wallow in it. She was out there doing her thing. I admired how easy she was in any social situation, from gutting fish with Amos at home in C.C. to gently keeping leery old millionaires at arms’ length on her many business trips to the metropolis.

This was also a woman who had genuinely platonic male friends in Dr Seth and Sheriff Amos. Jess didn’t play coy games. She liked men but she knew she was absolutely their equal (although secretly, we knew she was more astute and clued-in than them). Jess had friends everywhere – and they were friends with country club memberships and penthouse suites at her disposal.

You or I might be flustered by this kind of social whirl but Jessica was a smart packer. She did city-casual well. Neat crew-neck sweaters, crisp cotton shirts – never blouses, mind – with the cuffs nattily folded back, sharply tailored tweed slacks. But Mrs F. she could pull sophisticated glamour out of the bag. Dinner at the Bosmanian Ambassador’s residence? No problemo; check out Jessica’s night-sky blue silk skirt suit. Charity function with the Guggenheims? Certainly, just give her a moment in her hotel suite to slip into a smart black batwing frock.

Of course the show was formulaic, and she always got her murderous man or woman. But it was the way she moved through the plot, self-sufficient but friendly, wealthy but not complacent about it, her curiousity always tempered with concern and compassion, that made Mrs Fletcher special. I wanted her fulfilling life but more importantly I aspired to be at least half the woman she was.

Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to Jess and the City.

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A few years ago, I tried to have a conversation with my Dad about how pornography objectified women – a conversation that I’ve had with almost all of my friends and, typically, I have convinced almost none of them. I remember talking about how threesomes, in particular, were gruesome to me; it’s all, I said, about pleasing the man. Because what a man in these movies wants, essentially, is a girl who’ll eat pussy, but only if a man’s watching.

As a slight aside, that reminds me of one of my favourite lines in Colum McCann‘s As the Great World Spins:

They fuck you like they’re doing you a big favor. Every man wants a whore to rescue, that’s the knockdown truth.

My Dad – and yes, sure, let’s all talk about how strange it is that I had this conversation with my father – asked me if it was the same if it was two men and a woman; how about if the woman is the one, and they are the two. What then? Are they performing for her? And I realised that, no matter how many women there are, or how many men, it’s always the woman who’s the performer.

A woman’s role in our society, at least as defined by pornography and sexual norms, is as the object. The man is the voyeur; she is the painting, while he, the fine art lover, to give more credit than is due. I think it was Susan Brownmiller who taught me that, no matter how much a woman may be enjoying it, the language of sex means that she’s always going to be the one getting fucked. The man is active, while she is passive. She may be the performer, but she is performing for him. Which brings me nicely to Janet:

At the Essence Music Festival, Ms Jackson brings a “lucky concertgoer” on stage to perform for. That’s all she’s doing: performing for him. When Enrique Iglesias brings a woman onstage (I know, I know, the lucky girl), he sings about loving her (“I can be your hero, baby”); when Janet brings a man on stage, she sings about sex (“I touched myself, even though you told me not to”) and, for that matter, obeying orders. With role models like these, who needs Lindsay Lohan?

Rosemary McCabe

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