Media freedom & the net: social justice

The Internet has brought about many real world changes throughout the years, which brings much to the case of the idea that everyone enjoys media freedom. Networked publics have enabled people to exercise their media freedom to enact change to varying levels of success, based largely on the tactics used. Shirky (2008, p. 304) states that, “our social tools are dramatically improving our ability to share, co-operate, and act together… it is leading to an epochal change.” Around 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the Internet, the overwhelming majority of which are located in the developed world (ITU, 2014) – this does not include parts the developing world and therefore it is important to note that media freedom is far from universal. Nonetheless, the navigation of online to offline practices in effecting real world change can be examined through policy changes, activism, social groupings and interpersonal relationships, and more – however, the impact of the Internet is not wholly positive. The emerging networked public sphere has come with as many challenges as it has opportunities, and it is important to note all of these factors and both sides of the debate in going forward.

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Welcoming 2016

This year is a blank slate. For one kind of person, that idea would be filled with promise, but for me – honestly, it’s a bit anxiety inducing. There’s so much I want to achieve personally, so much I’m not sure I’ll be able to accomplish. It’s a challenge, but above all else I’m going to try as best as I can, and cling to positivity and hope.

As for my internet presence – I’d like to post more here, and develop my blog in a way that categorises it a bit better. I’ll stop posting my random articles, and post more book reviews and posts with meaning. I’m doing the goodreads challenge again this year, aiming to read 50 books in a year. That’s about 20 more than last year… so I’m definitely starting this year optimistically!

Fairytales and Transformation

There’s something about fairy tales that has captured the minds of generations for centuries, whether through traditional oral storytelling, in written form or their portrayal to the masses through animation and film. However, it can be hard for the fairy tale genre to break the mold set forth by Disney and its sanitised narratives.

For example, in the original tale of Cinderella, the stepsisters’ eyes were plucked out by pigeons as punishment for their wickedness. Even worse, Rapunzel woke from her slumber after being raped by the prince, and raised her twins alone. And, in a twist that the producers at Disney could never, ever commit to film, The Little Mermaid, who fell in love with the prince ends up dying – turned into sea foam when he chooses someone else.

The notion of the “dark” fairy tale is by no means new, but increasingly they have become a careful, trepidatious balance between light and dark, and between “traditional” and “feminist” in their empowerment of women, who are most often at the centre of the narratives. Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella was criticised more for the slimness of principal star Lily James’ waistline than anything dark, while Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods has been criticised for being less than child-friendly – it is always amusing when unsuspecting parents bring their children to a performance, only to leave before the second act!

The modern-day fairy tale for adults seems like a far-fetched fantasy, when we expect them to be written for children.

Danielle Wood, winner of the 2002 Australian/Vogel Literary award, a senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania and author of several fairy tale oriented books, is in a unique position as she is a mother who writes fairy tales. In being exposed to elements of adult and child views of these narratives, she has been able to implement a multifaceted approach to her writing built on these experiences. Mothers Grimm, published in 2014 by Allen & Unwin, deals with motherhood, satirising the ideal of the “perfect” fairy tale mother – she claims that the “good mother” is as much a fairy tale as the big bad wolf. She theorises that different fairy tales become relevant at different periods. “At the moment, we’re particularly interested in those tales like ‘Rapunzel’ (Tangled), ‘Snow White’ (Snow White and the Huntsman) and even ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Maleficent) that interrogate the relationships between women, and especially the relationships between different kinds of mothers and daughters.”

This inter-generational appeal being reflected in modern retellings is promising as it not only recognises the effect of a fairy tale beyond a child’s worldview, but acts as an improvement on the representation of women in these stories – transforming outdated moral codes into something fresh. This is particularly relevant considering how women are often pitted against one another in traditional stories – such as the Evil Queen wishing to kill Snow White, her adopted daughter; the Wicked Stepmother and stepsisters’ resentment of Cinderella; Maleficent punishing Aurora for her parent’s mistakes – rarely are female friendships and dynamics positive in these instances. Women are also concerningly pitted against one another in modern, real-life media, where gossip columns consistently attempt to create a vicious diatribe of competition. It is in the ability of fairy tales to transform to suit modern concerns that the genre finds its ongoing power. “What I love about fairy tales is their endless malleability. And, at different times in history, different fairy tales seem to come to the fore and present themselves as blueprints to help us work through our preoccupations and anxieties,” Wood said.

Fairy tales have always had a uniquely feminine aspect, yet most of the stories as they are commonly known were reconstructed from original tales by men – the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Walt Disney. In an older version of Little Red Riding Hood, the story ended with Little Red using her wits to deceive the wolf and escape independently. Another version had Little Red and her grandmother teaming up to smoke the wolf out the chimney. In the popular Perrault version, Little Red and her grandmother are saved by a huntsman who is conveniently walking through the woods and hears their cries.

Wood praises a recent turn towards finding the feminine in fairy tales, particularly in reinforcing positive dynamics. “Women have always been the tellers of fairy tales, but they have not always had the opportunity to be their publishers or most well-recognised proponents. In recent years there has been increasing focus – in fiction and scholarly work – on the women who were writing fairy tales at the same time as Perrault, and the women who told tales to the Grimms. So, perhaps the 20th and 21st century retellings of the tales, by women, are just fairy tales finding their way home?”

Reilly McCarron, the creator of Australia’s very own Fairy Tale Society, and owner of healing business Faerie Bard, aims to use her talents as an oral storyteller and musician to retain older, bawdier versions of fairy tales. Like Danielle Wood, McCarron believes that the concept of transformation is key to the resilience of fairy tales. Fairy tales are about reinvention, and transformation is a key element in many stories. It is something that humans understand on a deeper level, the idea that one can grow and transform throughout life, battle metaphorical wolves and dragons, and survive. “Fairy tales are perfectly shaped little stories which reveal the dynamics of the human condition through symbolic motifs and metaphor. They provide a safe stage on which dangerous emotional states can be played out, where dark inner world landscapes are illuminated, where deep insights and wise guidance is found,” McCarron said.

McCarron turns to an older form of storytelling to depict fairy tales – that of oral storytelling – and believes they can enable audiences to heal. “Fairy tales themselves undergo endless transformation as new tellers and artists recreate them in new ways.” This connection between the shifting, transforming narrative and human life holds a deep meaning for McCarron. “Fairy tales illuminate complex psychological states in simplistic ways. The story thread follows through on the journey of transformation until some form of justice or resolution has been reached. Because the tale is simple and entertaining it can be swallowed whole, allowing the seeds of insight to take root in the mind of the listener.”

One of her favourite fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty, was the inspiration for her 2012 show “Sleeping Kingdom, Waking Beauty,” which demonstrated the darkness that can be overcome and understood through the narrative of a rape survivor. The show was hailed by critics, including Paul Nolan of Performing Arts Hub, “The piece was a relevant comment on modern life choices and enlightenment on the road to adulthood during any era.”

“I [retold] this tale to reveal the sleeping/dissociating girl’s inner journey, from which she wakes with a deep understanding of herself,” McCarron said. She believes in the resonance of fairy tales because they are, at heart, full of humanity and real world difficulties. With such symbolically complex narratives, it is hard to believe fairy tales are often dismissed as “just” children’s stories, as if their meanings are not relevant to adult experience. Likewise, it is a genre that, given its propensity for balancing darkness and hope in real-life morality lessons, could perhaps seek to avoid condescending to children. “The fairy tales I told to adults were older versions of popular tales and included some of the sex, humour, and horror which had been edited out of popular versions like Disney. Many adults enjoyed hearing tales they thought they knew but didn’t quite; these versions had more to offer the mature mind,” said McCarron.

The performative nature of fairy tales is something McCarron would like to uphold, as a traditional feature of a genre that is always being transformed and modernised. “The Australian Fairy Tale Society has inspired Fairy Tale Rings to sprout up across the country where people gather together to perform, read, bring artworks, and discuss a tale together, and there are many other groups around Australia doing similar things. But it doesn’t have to be a storyteller performing to an audience, parents of young children keep this tradition alive at bedtime everywhere.”

Danielle Wood has faith that the tales will continue to be created and shared for a long time to come. Fairy tales are uniquely poised to be able to tell the same stories over again with different values and reflections, allowing them to be continually modernised and transformed. “People have responded to Mothers Grimm by saying ‘oh yes, fairy tale retellings are very in, aren’t they?’ But I’m not sure that they’ve ever really been out, and I can’t see why that would change.”

‘Transformation: Spinning straw into green and gold’ is the theme of the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s second conference to be held on Sunday 21st June (Winter Solstice) at the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm, published by Allen & Unwin, can be purchased through major Australian bookstores. She will also be at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the 22nd of May for a panel on Myths, Fairy tales and the Need to Believe.

Blurring the Pages

Submitted to Whim Magazine.

Tracing pages with delicate fingertips, her eyes are travelling through worlds she’s seen many times in her memory, in her dreams.

(We’ve been here before, we’ve been here before)

She’s forgotten why the words scramble amongst themselves, jutting with crowded cursive, starving for her attention.

(Let us out, let us out)

Tiny caged birds sing notes that no longer move her, wrapped in golden borders, falling as empty lies down already stained pages.

(Did you think we’d last forever?)

She hopes someday they’ll fall into line, ordered ranks; tidy bookshelves in the reaches of her heart.

(All the stories can’t be lies)

Views Journalism: Media Analysis of Women in Video Games

Earlier this year, YouTube user Anita Sarkeesian, also known as “Feminist Frequency” released a multi-part segment on the “damsel in distress” trope in video games. Soon after posting the video, the user received other opinions that are interesting to examine in comparison – in particular, a response to the original video, by user Sarah, also known as KiteTales. Analysis of these videos suggest two opposing views of the trope “damsel in distress,” as well as perceptions of femininity in modern society.

This article will conclude that both authors operate with assumptions pertaining to their audiences – but both seem to have a different idea of what their audience is. This leads to a questioning of how gender roles are depicted through video games, and what it says about wider society. If traditional and stereotypical femininity is seen as negative, but adopting traditional and stereotypical male qualities is also anti-feminist, what roles are the audience and wider society really expecting women to fulfil? Both arguments will be analysed with regards to the ways in which the authors attempt to persuade their audience.

These two videos may then provide a window into attitudes towards female roles, reception and representation in video games. Anita addresses her presentation to the “modern feminist”, or modern society as widely understood, and to those wishing to annihilate perceptions of female weakness and inferiority within games. The piece begins with an introduction, encouraging the viewer to consider her presentation as being “from a systemic, big picture perspective” – alluding to the ad populum nature of her argument.

She intimates more than once that the “stereotypically feminine” is a backward suggestion that has no place in the modern gaming world due to the negative repercussions of perceptions of women offline. Anita speaks humorously at points so as to mock the unfortunate situations some female characters find themselves in as a result of the damsel in distress trope, encouraging her audience to feel the same. At the same time, she attempts to present her video with the belief that she has authority to speak on the matter and for her voice to be accepted as fact – shown through her introduction where she briefs the audience on her previous videos regarding gaming. Anita used a ‘kickstarter’ funding program to launch a series of videos regarding gender tropes in video games in 2012, and has since gained media attention.

It is interesting to note that while Anita is speaking from her own perspective and opinion, she often fails to assert this fact, preferring to neglect referring to herself within the presentation. Her language is often evaluative, but while Sarah takes a clear stance and takes great consideration into asserting herself as the author, Anita’s is a mix of factual and authorial-based content, which may be misleading to the reader. That is to say, some of her arguments contain hasty generalisations.

It is useful to first outline what the authors believe constitutes a strong female character, to then analyse the ways in which they go about this in their presentations.

Agency, aggression, self-sufficiency and playability feed into Anita’s view of what makes a strong female character in a game. On the one hand, Anita reveals the disturbing tendency for female characters to be placed in positions of great distress with limited agency, but in doing so she often downplays the achievements of existing female characters, even after acknowledging them. Anita employs humour, inclusive terminology, factual evidence and examples, appeal to authority, visual representation and a mostly implicit authorial attitude throughout her presentation.

Contrastingly, Sarah believes strong female characters in games need not have such gregarious qualities, but could simply be kind, helpful, respected leaders and survivors. Her vlog is presented in a way that encourages the traditionally feminine as something to be desired, even respected, in a character. Her response is from the outset she presents her personal perspective, rather than implying her word is fact and unbiased. Sarah positions herself “as a gamer, and as a female” suggesting she believes she holds a sense of authority on her topic. She uses the support of emotive language, humour, factual evidence, and analogy as well as an explicit authorial attitude.

Let’s begin with an examination of Anita’s “Damsel in Distress: Tropes vs women in video games.” From the outset, it is clear that Anita operates with the assumption that strong female characters should “be” a certain way, through exposing these parameters with an example. “She was strong, she was capable and she was heroic.” These positive attributes are then combined with an interposal of her own opinion, “pretty cool, right? Well, it would have been.” Anita poses the rhetorical question to the audience before providing her own response and continuing, thus silencing space for opinion and interpretation. It is interesting to note that Anita has also closed the option for comments under the video itself. Already, the audience is invited into a point of view that has decided strong characters are capable and heroic. Throughout her presentation, she carries the theme of assuming her audience shares her values through inclusive lexis, such as, “we have to remember [that…].” She likewise assumes that the game that was never produced is a game that her audience would have liked to play. Through the inclusion of this particular example, Anita implies that potential appropriately strong female characters have been silenced – that this is an injustice her audience should share.

Anita’s argument begins as clear and critical, raising some valid points about the mistreatment of certain characters. Her claim that the damsel in distress trope “disempowers female characters and robs them of a chance to be heroes in their own right” is backed by the justification within the examples she has used. She goes further to illustrate her point by examining the sexualisation of the character of Krystal in Star Fox Adventures once she is “damselled.” A short clip is shown in the presentation, and Anita makes use of humour to state the ridiculousness of the image, “… ‘Crystal clear’ that she is now an object of desire.” Humour is used as an affiliation strategy throughout the presentation, trusting that her audience will find the trope so ridiculous in modern games as to be laughable – despite the alleged popularity of said trope.

Anita goes further to justify her argument, utilising factually-based evidence in an appeal to authority. She approaches the term “damsel in distress” etymologically, picking apart the terms “damsel” and “distress” to clarify her point. Following this explanation, she identifies several groups of women who are “traditionally” placed in the role as justification. Through the sequencing of her argument, she leads her audience to assume that this trope is most universally used on women from all ages and groups in society. There is an underlying assumption that the victimisation occurs mostly, if not entirely with regards to female characters – without considering the consequences or meaning of the lack of a male equivalent. In being exclusively critical of female characters, Anita is failing to mention what a subversion of the trope would entail – perhaps reinforcing the harmful notions of female victimhood within games that she wishes to break free of. In addition, she often offers hasty generalisations in an attempt to justify her thoughts, “a large percentage of the world’s population still clings to the deeply sexist belief that women as a group need to be sheltered, protected and taken care of by men,” “the damsel in distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalise extremely toxic, patronising and paternalistic attitudes about women.

In Sarah’s response to ‘tropes vs women’, she directly notes the problematic nature of Anita’s shaming of victims within video games. Using an analogy to real world abuse victims, she poses the question of “if implying that being a victim overshadows all other positive traits of a character, what message are you truly sending?” Making use of emotive language and repetition of rhetorical questions, Sarah brings the argument further from its roots in video game culture and closer to reality – asking her viewers to question the legitimacy of Anita’s statements in the context of modern society. Sarah operates with the assumption that her audience believes female characters do not necessarily have to hold the parameters of outward strength that Anita outlines – that there is more than one type of strength and these are less overt, but still important.

Anita consistently characterises the notions of passivity and helplessness – whether by the character’s own fault or not – as indicative of unworthiness as a character in their own right.

All that is really required to fulfil the damsel in distress trope is for a female character to be reduced to a state of helplessness from which she requires rescuing by a typically male hero for the benefit of his story arc.

She operates under the assumption that her audience will agree – perhaps revealing socially ingrained victim blaming. Interestingly, Anita does provide her audience with examples of certain characters who are occasionally active, playable and helpful within games. However, they are quickly dismissed for neglecting to be enough of an active character in Anita’s own opinion. She uses Princess Peach as an example of the damsel in distress trope before circling back to state that she is, “kinda, accidentally playable” in Super Mario Bros 2. Therefore it can be said that this is an informal fallacy, wherein in actuality, Peach does often fit into the parameters of a “strong female character” – active, playable, heroic – that Anita identified at the beginning of her presentation. Anita uses humour in her wording here to justify herself to her audience, or to cover up the fallacy.

Sarah, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to convince her audience of the benefits of these “damselled” characters. Using descriptive language, she tells of the chaos that surrounds the game once the princesses have been captured, and by way of justification states that this proves their importance to their respective communities. She uses the assumption that her audience believes good leadership and peace outweighs drama, action and violence. “The princesses and their safety symbolise a state of peace, and it cannot be said that the male protagonists are rescuing them solely to benefit their own story arc.” To justify her opinion to the audience, Sarah admits that part of the damsel trope is for the benefit of the protagonist’s story arc – however, it is also reductive to see a female character simply through a trope.

Interestingly, although Sarah claims in the introduction of her presentation that “I’m not seeking to devalue Anita’s views,” there is a subtle ad hominem argument within the presentation. “It turns out the only people who do not value [Princess Peach and Princess Zelda] are the critics who reduce them to just another example of a plot device and refer to them as ‘property’.” In doing so, she shames the opposing argument for devaluing what she believes to be strong and inspirational female characters. She goes further to list the positive qualities of Princess Peach, perhaps renewing feelings of nostalgia in her viewers for what she acknowledges to be “beloved” characters in a persuasive strategy to win her audience. She admits that Peach is “stereotypical” in her femininity, and holds the belief that “there is nothing wrong with this.” Her defensive stance is backed up by her impassioned terminology to state that Anita’s view is, in her view, incorrect.

Indeed, Anita and Sarah are at odds with the basic premise of female “strength” – Sarah being more focused on the idea that stereotypical femininity does not warrant a negative response. Sarah’s argument centres on the use of emotive language and an appeal to the audience for support of what is clearly the author’s opinion – proving to the audience that she is protective and passionate about characters she believes to be misinterpreted and misunderstood in modern culture. She carries the underlying assumption that she is defending these characters to a largely hostile society that views the stereotypically feminine as weak and backward in modern times.

In conclusion, both videos present views pertaining to female representation in games and roles in wider society that are deeply conflicting. This suggests that Anita, a popular and outspoken vlogger, is somewhat representative of a large group of people who have no qualm with tearing down traditional or stereotypical femininity in a fictionalised environment with little thought to the real world repercussions. Anita states she is concerned with presenting women as victims within video games because it makes them appear weak and unworthy of praise even for what they do provide to the narrative. Sarah, on the other hand, defends these characters partially on behalf of real world abuse victims, suggesting that perhaps Anita’s argument could do with some revision. Overall, they are addressing an audience that is receptive and – evident through Anita’s need for closing the comments section of her video – critical, of the messages they are being told, but it is impossible to come to a formal conclusion based on the data of two videos. It can, however, be said that the audience could perhaps be rooted in internalised misogyny based on Sarah’s need for emotive appeal and Anita’s aggressive attack on some peaceful, helpful, but victimised, female characters.

Anita Sarkeesian (FeministFrequency): Damsel in Distress: Tropes vs Women in Video Games Part 1:

Sarah “KiteTales”: More than a Damsel in a Dress:

He Changes Your World, Doesn’t He? Living with an Autistic Twin

Note: for public publishing purposes, names have been altered

Most would assume that twins are more than just siblings, appearing more like variants of the same person. Perhaps having the same speech patterns, similar interests and personalities. For John and Sarah James, ten, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

At just one year old, John was diagnosed with autism, a severe developmental disorder that prevents him from having a normal life. His autism is classified as ‘low functioning’ – meaning he needs constant assistance because he’s less verbal and less capable, on the lower end of the disability spectrum. Care is provided for by his family and by his autism-specific school, Aspect, located in Peakhurst.

In the lead up to disability awareness month in April, the James family agreed to talk a bit about the challenges living with an autistic child.

Sarah is shy, but demands attention. She loves her brother, who she is resembles merely physically – both of them have dark brown hair and eyes. However, she finds herself at odds competing for attention from their mother, 47-year-old Jane – who recently quit her job to take care of John full time.

“[The twins are] complete opposites,” Jane spoke for Sarah, who sat beside her quietly, “It’s hard not understanding what they want, that’s the hardest and I feel sorry for him sometimes cause he doesn’t know.”

John’s autism stops his speech patterns from developing properly, he can barely form words and speaks in wordless yells.

“I try to explain that to Sarah. How would she feel if she couldn’t tell [people] how she felt… and had to do what other people wanted her to do all the time.”

There is a warm affection in Jane’s voice as she describes a sunny day by the local poolside, where Sarah noticed other children were bullying her brother. Barking “like a Rottweiler”, she defended her brother with a ferocity that could only be attributed to the love between siblings.

“I kicked them in the stomach!” Sarah says gleefully.

“No you didn’t,” scolds Jane, “don’t dream on!”

It is clear that the children are close despite the adversity they face on a daily basis, as Jane describes the endearing way John looks at his sister, and his careful attention to her wishes.

“He listens to her, he doesn’t listen to me,” she says. When Jane asks for a potato chip, John will refuse, but he could never refuse his sister.

While to John, Sarah is simply his sister; Sarah finds the relationship to be slightly more problematic.

When asked if she understands why John acts the way he does, Sarah replies, “sometimes.”

Jane mentions instances where Sarah finds it difficult to cope with John. Sometimes he hides her homework when she has an assignment due, and she gets the scolding for leaving it around for John to make mischief with.

She wants a brother, and she feels as though she’s missing out. When her parents are at home, John is always the focus of attention due to his high maintenance. The family has moved houses to be closer to a new school they are hoping John will be accepted to. From five am until school time, and from the afternoon until he goes to sleep, John’s needs are of the utmost importance. It is easy to see why a ten-year-old girl could feel neglected.

“She wants a brother, she wants a companion… She missed out big time,” Jane says. She mentions the fear that came with the idea of trying for another baby, knowing the chance of conceiving another autistic child was high. She was reluctant to take the risk, especially considering the impact it would have on her daughter.

John’s condition is something Sarah has come to accept, but it’s also something she finds difficult to grasp at such a young age. It is clear Jane becomes exhausted through her constant attention to John, and likewise, Sarah does occasionally wonder what it would be like to have a normal brother.

“You would’ve loved him to be normal, wouldn’t you?” Jane asks her daughter, “to be able to have friends together and go out together?” John’s wordless voice rings in the background as he watches a television program, bringing the reality home.

“But he changes your world for you, doesn’t he?”

Jane explains how Sarah has found her footing in life living with an autistic twin, meeting new friends through various support groups John has been involved in. John’s friends have ‘normal’ siblings around Sarah’s age, who she’s become close to, playing with them every school holiday.

She maintains that John has been the glue binding their family together, “As far as we’re concerned we believe that he is the glue to our family. He makes us stick together.”

“It’s made us stronger,” she says, “but every day is a challenge.”

Jane explains that in the future, she wants nothing but the best for John, and she hopes that Sarah will feel the same. She expresses a desire to have Sarah look after John as an adult, keeping him as part of a family unit. It seems as though a lot of pressure has already been placed on the young girl, but even now she is used to the challenges.

“If she couldn’t I’d understand,” Jane says, “but I’d like him [to be] in his own place. Later on he could live downstairs and try to have a family upstairs.”

Jane declares that the autism school, Aspect, and especially its community, has provided endless love and support for the family in difficult times. The school is facing funding cuts by the New South Wales government next month, which Jane says will have a long-lasting negative impact on the disabled community.

“It’ll have a great impact on the resources, on the teachers, on the kids… it’ll ultimately affect the kids you know.”

“There are some kids that need one on one support. If they lose that they’re gone.”

Sarah’s protectiveness of her brother will definitely serve as proof of the importance of love within the community in the wake of these unwanted changes.

“We’re a family,” Jane says, “the better we make [John] able to do things by himself the better it will be for us later.”

The best way to ensure the best life for her son is to provide him with the care he needs, and Jane and Sarah hope that other families will still be able to receive the assistance they have valued so much.

The golden artist

beryl oliver91-year-old Beryl Oliver has been a painter her whole life. She has studied alongside Margaret Olley, John Coburn, Richard Ashton and Albert Sherman, and maintained a lifelong friendship with the creator of Mr Squiggle, Norman Hetherington.

Today she is the most well known painter in Canterbury, many of her paintings adorning the walls of its residents.

But outside her local area, she is a figure of mystery.

Oliver is wrapped in a red woolen jumper, sitting on a couch in a small granny flat at the back of her house in Earlwood, her hand shaking slightly as she reaches for a glass of orange juice.

“You get shaky in your old age,” she explains with a sad smile. She seems to be a woman of juxtapositions – she looks weary, but when you catch her eye you see a twinkle of energy.

“A man from a gallery in Seaforth called me a few weeks ago,” she says, “he wanted to know all about me. He said my paintings had come up in auction, but they had no idea who I was.”

Opting out of Sydney’s National Art School at the start of the Second World War to become a telegraphist for the war effort, Oliver missed out on rehabilitation by a few months at its end, meaning she was unable to return.

She sits back in her chair with a sigh. “I always wonder what might have happened if I had been able to get back into art school.”

Instead she opened a cake shop in Earlwood with her husband, painting in her spare time before and after hours.

“It was then I met Albert Sherman,” she recalls, her eyes lighting up with admiration as she shows a book of his paintings, which bear a startling resemblance to the style of her own paintings on the wall behind her.

“He didn’t usually take on students, but he thought I had talent,” she smiles girlishly.

Oliver opens a small folder filled with scans of her own paintings – each one an expertly crafted still life image. The flowers are brought to life through vivid pinks, yellows and reds.

She doesn’t know where many of them have gone, and she’s never counted them. Painting is for enjoyment – for her to take pride in and for others to bask in. It has never been a matter of numbers and digits for Beryl Oliver.

Art has always been close to her heart. “At about the age of six I would sit on the street outside a café in Kiama that had this beautiful picture of a fruit milkshake. I would try so hard to copy it, I don’t know if I ever succeeded!”

85 years on and Oliver has auctioned countless paintings to charities and private owners, her painting style celebrated for the richness in its depiction of still life.

“If I can make the flowers really come alive, I’m happy. If you can reach out, pick them out of the vase, I know what I’ve succeeded.” Oliver’s eyes flash with that youthful glint as she pauses, imagining.

She knows the importance of community in art. Every Wednesday she attends art classes in Earlwood, teaching her craft and encouraging emerging artists to pursue their dreams.

She smiles as she recalls Norman Hetherington, the creator of the popular long running children’s series Mr Squiggle. They met at art school in 1936 and remained friends until his death in 2010.

“You wouldn’t think he even had a sense of humour!” she laughs. “His house was like a theatre, puppets everywhere!”

For many years Beryl and her son Dean painted and her husband Ken carved ornate frames until his death in 2009, they were very much a team.

When asked about the future of art, Oliver purses her lips, “They’ve lost the art of drawing. If we put them down to really draw – without the eye down in the jaw and the nose up in the forehead – I don’t think they could do it. I question if they can really draw.”

“But I think art is different nowadays. The portrait prize this year didn’t have a face… I mean, let’s face it!” Oliver laughs infectiously.

“They’ve very clever, but there’s no form. You can’t touch it; it doesn’t come to life the way it used to. They’re just lines on a piece of paper.”


The Commercialisation of Audrey Hepburn

Why is society determined to view Audrey as a fashion accessory?


Audrey Hepburn is primarily remembered for her role as a style icon – her little black dress or “LBD” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s has since become a staple of the modern woman’s wardrobe. Her face is branded on handbags, t-shirts, accessories, even taken advantage of for Gap black skinny tights in a 2007 advertisement campaign that caused controversy. Not many other women of this period of cinema are taken advantage of in such a way – why is society determined to define Audrey as an accessory?

There are many misconceptions about Audrey, leading many to even state she is an anti-feminist figure and a bad role model for girls. This relates back to the fact she was one of the first truly “thin” silver screen stars, known for her lithe, boyish figure. What many do not know, however, is that this was largely a side effect of her childhood and adolescent wartime experiences.

More than just a pretty face, Audrey spent her adolescence in the war-torn Netherlands, secretly putting on ballet performances to raise money for the Dutch resistance. This was after her uncle had been shot dead in the street, and her half brother had been sent to a German prison camp. She suffered acute anaemia, malnutrition, respiratory problems and oedema. It is through these wartime experiences that she garnered a unique sympathy for the suffering of others.

“I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.”

She was also offered the role of Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), but declined because the memories of her own experiences and her similarities with Anne Frank would be too painful.

Eventually, Audrey became the face of the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), devoting the final years of her life to humanitarian work, to which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for her efforts.

“I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children […] The ‘Third World’ is a term I don’t like very much, because we’re all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering.”

Unfortunately, Audrey Hepburn is so often reduced to merely a fashion icon, disregarding her humanitarian efforts and the strong characters she often played in her films. Although Audrey’s heyday was during the 1950s and 60s – not exactly a period where women were written as well rounded, complex individuals – not everything has to be written with feminism in mind to still contain elements of it. For example, in Audrey’s very first film, Roman Holiday(1953), her protagonist is a princess who escapes from her palace and goes sightseeing with a journalist who she falls in love with. While she is initially shown to be vulnerable, childlike and irresponsible, she ends up choosing her responsibilities as a leader over love, showing a maturity in her character growth in an ending a lot more substantial than others of the period (such as Marilyn Monroe’s Bus Stop (1956) – where Marilyn’s character throws her aspirations out the window to marry an abusive man who kidnapped her). Interestingly, Roman Holiday later allegedly inspired the writers of Aladdin(1992) for the character of Jasmine – obviously taking it in an entirely different direction – and still a good message, just a different one – there is no one way to be a strong female character.

Another noteworthy role of Audrey’s was that of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), widely considered one of her best performances and her most recognised character. Holly is a free spirit, escaping the constraints of her past in a brave attempt to build herself a new life in New York City. When her love interest, Paul, says, “I love you, you belong to me!” she passionately responds, “No, people don’t belong to people. I’ll never let anybody put me in a cage.” Although this film is now largely only recognised due to Audrey’s style, it is clear that there are seeds of something more substantial in her character, who can be seen as largely progressive for her time.

While it is difficult to state that Audrey’s films were “Feminist” (as Monika Bartyzel of The Week states in her article) it is important to recognise the impact of her characters in paving the way to recognising that women could be spunky, strong and independent while also possessing flawed traits. Audrey’s characters are some of the most consistently humanised female characters of her era.

Sadly, much like her characters, Audrey herself is reduced to an empty kind of “icon” status relating to fashion that takes her much more at face value than looking at her history, her life and achievements – which makes it all the more important to take a closer look and reconsider what her real impact was.

This is the first in a series on the life and impact of women in classic Hollywood. Please comment below with suggestions for future features.


Review: Alex Watts and the Foreign Tongue

Review: Alex Watts and the Foreign Tongue – by Hannah Oakshott

Alex Watts and the Foreign Tongue delight with new remix

Melbourne-based rock band Alex Watts and the Foreign Tongue has fostered a unique collaboration with Swedish beatmaker Lars Rosenblad, who won a remixing competition hosted by the band for their 2013 single, Warned.

The single has a smooth, moody feel, detailing its hungover protagonist in his internal conflict over an illicit affair. Rosenblad’s remix serves to create an edgier texture, a modern grittiness that complements and extends the original message of the piece. Synthesised beats work cohesively alongside Watts’ vocals in a decisively powerful rendition.

“I love the way [Rosenblad’s] version opens up the chorus and embraces what a pop-tune the song is behind all of the guitar and horns we had in the band version,” said Watts.

“When he sent the first mix to me I was blown away by how beautiful it is.”

Rosenblad experimented in the electronic dance music genre for a few years under the alias ‘Ell-Er’, but has expressed a desire to “get back in touch with the actual soul in music.” In the remix of Warned, he has achieved a genuine, energetic sound that pays respect to its original.


In the spirit of modern Internet and music convergence, the band also released a Warned lyric video to their youtube account. The visuals are worth checking out – the use of dramatic fonts, band footage and symbolic imagery are eclectic and strangely alluring and assist to bring the music to life.

“I found some footage of us in the recording studio that was shot for a promo video, combined that with the lyrics, and then did some weird things like getting photos of my face, cutting out the eyes and having them dance around the screen,” Watts said.

The collaboration is promising, and fans of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and The Strokes will be anxious to hear more.

‘Warned (Lars Rosenblad Remix)’ is now available through Astound Records.

Shying Away from Introversion

Originally published at Top Shelf

Late last year, I stumbled across a quote from Jennifer Lawrence. “Oh, I can’t stand shy people. Like, make it up already. Ask about the weather, don’t stare at your plate and make me feel like I’m making you uncomfortable!”

Imagine growing up in a world where every successful person seems to be so vastly different from you. They’re loud, overly confident, unfailingly witty, with never a dull moment in their lives.

The truth is – the media is absolutely obsessed with extroverts. They’re built up, fawned over – everyone associates Lady Gaga with her loud outfits and louder antics, Tina Fey and her self assured personality, Jim Carrey and his string of comedic roles where he seems to play the same loud, borderline obnoxious character.

And yet, Lady Gaga, Tina Fey and Jim Carrey all consider themselves to be shy.

In fact, so does David Bowie, Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, Carrie Underwood, Joan Rivers, Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks.

I know it would have done me a world of good  if I had come across this information when I was younger. Representation is important. It is important for a child to know that there are people like them they can admire and aspire to be.

Introversion and shyness are not to be used interchangeably, but they often come hand in hand. According to theNew Oxford American Dictionary, Introversion is defined as “a person predominately concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.” Shyness is defined as “being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.” Introversion doesn’t necessarily mean experiencing anxiety in social situations, merely needing space and time to reflect.


Introversion is still perceived as something that we need to “fix” – when it is estimated 25-50% of the population are introverted. Extroversion is an admired quality – but if you’re an introvert, there’s “something wrong with you”. This message is so strong that successful people seem to be reluctant to talk about these issues in a public forum, as if it might somehow tarnish how they’re perceived by society. Introverts are literally stifled to the point where they become unrecognisable, which can be damaging to society as a whole which, for better or worse, often looks to media trendsetters for basic values.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts says society shows bias towards extroversion. “Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation. We’re also living through this belief system which holds that all creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place.”

She regrets that what results is a “colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness.”

In a very interesting TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, she discusses the many advantages to introverts in leadership roles in society – including their ability to let all voices in a team be heard.

Kristen Stewart is awkward, introverted, shy, she stutters – she sometimes makes people uncomfortable because of these things. But to me, it’s refreshing.

Unlike many other celebrities, Kristen does not try to hide or change who she is. In fact, she’s surprisingly open about her views on shyness.

“You get criticized for being honest and criticized for being nervous. So that’s kind of annoying. I do a whole day of press and then I get calls from publicity people that are like, ‘you might want to be a little bit more bubbly’. And I’m like, ‘no’. People get very upset in the States. It’s weird. They don’t understand me. Which is fine. I guess it doesn’t really matter who I am, it just matters that they like the movie.”

In the words of Julia Roberts, “people hate Kristen Stewart because she’s insecure and shy. It scares people that she’s normal.”

Whenever she comes up in conversation, it’s to be the butt of a joke. Once I had someone tell me how terrible she is in interviews, that she should learn to portray herself in a more ‘acceptable’ way. Immediately, I came to her defence, but it was only after reflection I recognised how deeply problematic that view was.

At the centre of this argument is the axiom that in order to be successful – or in Kristen’s case, to be a famous and respected Hollywood star – you have to be an extrovert. You have to be constantly funny and confident; it’s the only way you will achieve respect.

Jennifer Lawrence is undoubtedly just as “awkward” as Kristen is. At last year’s 85th annual Academy Awards; she tripped up the stairs walking to receive an award. The media laughed with her, calling her a darling. In comparison, Kristen attended the ceremony with a broken leg, limping with crutches, and received widespread hatred and criticism.

“Did her makeup artist say [what] happened to her hairbrush? Or her personality?”

“She always looks drugged or bored, just like her ‘acting’.”

Jennifer and Kristen are both inherently similar – the only difference being that Kristen is shy. She is unconfident. She is an introvert.


Kristen knows who she is and she’s comfortable with that, even if a lot of people are not. Her perception can teach us a lesson about how we’re affecting people who, despite themselves, actually do care a great deal what people think about them.

“I’m quite odd and different but what is wrong with that? One should be proud about being the way you are. And if others can’t accept or like you the way you are, then it’s their problem… not yours.”

Rather than trying to blame shy people for something they cannot help, teaching others to laugh at and deride people who are more legitimately self conscious and unconfident. Causing them to limit themselves and their aspirations. If society as a whole was more accepting, more supportive, who knows how much more confident they could be? A little understanding goes a long way.