** spoiler alert **
I’ll admit, this book took me longer to warm to than the rest of Juliet’s books. The plot felt directionless for a good portion of the middle – I got a bit frustrated because Blackthorn and Grim were so interesting to me, and I wanted to discover more about their pasts and see Blackthorn struggle more with her quest, but they were stuck in the one place solving a crime between two unimportant villagers (as important as the message in the outcome was).
Oran as a POV character seemed to get more chapters than Blackthorn & Grim themselves… and it didn’t help that he was hopelessly naive and obsessed with an idealised version of his betrothed for the majority of the novel. I wish I could like him, I applaud Juliet for writing Oran, who possesses traits that are rarely bestowed on principal male characters, it’s something I’d like to see more of. But for some reason, he really grated with me.
With the slight negativity out of the way – WOW! I love Blackthorn and Grim so much, both separately and as a pair. Especially Grim, he really leapt off the page in each of his chapters (curious as to why he was written in present tense). Their dynamic was wonderful and, towards the very end, quite heartbreaking – I’m really looking forward to reading more about them, and finding out about their pasts. Seeing the gradual breakdown of emotional barriers between the two is truly beautiful to read. Blackthorn is such a wonderfully feminist character, and I love how she alters her view of more “traditionally feminine” women by the end of the novel, in appreciating Flidais’ strength of character and bravery.
I also grew to appreciate Ciar – only after I begun to realise who she really was, and I’m glad Blackthorn is going to assist her in getting back to her human form and we’ll be seeing more of her in future books. (I don’t think she deserved being turned into a dog! She didn’t really make the choice to turn into Flidais, she just did what she had to to survive… as manipulative as she became…) Juliet really has a knack for writing delightfully flawed characters.
I really, really wanted to read more about Conmael in this book! I’m sure we’ll get to that in the future but… Juliet’s depictions of the Fair Folk are always so intriguing. (I’ve been on a Labyrinth kick lately and I kept picturing him as David Bowie though, imagine my delight when he was hinted as an owl in the last chapter!)
Ultimately I give this book a 4/5, I’m very excited for the future novels and I feel this series can only get better.
Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – has been long perceived as a predominately “male” interest, and perhaps prior to the past ten years the majority of fantasy fans were male. Most fantasy was marketed towards men, and sadly – it still is. It has only been in the past month that Marvel has announced female-led blockbusters Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, where the past ten years they have been producing exclusively male-led superhero films. There are only two Avengers who have yet to receive a standalone film, and one of them is the franchise’s only female superhero, Black Widow (and there are no solid plans for this film). The opening weekend of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a 44 per cent female audience, and yet the main female character in the film, Gamora, was the only main character to not receive merchandise.
It is only later this year that Marvel is producing a miniseries based on Captain America’s Peggy Carter. A female fan who attended the 2014 San Diego Comic Con related her experience asking for merchandise for the show on her blog:
“This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.”
Doctor Who is another fantasy series with a large female audience, and yet the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat, has been criticised for his handling of female characters on the show. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in the characters’ personalities.
“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”
Additionally, there has not been one single female writer on the show during Moffat’s tenure.
According to statistics from Nielsen, approximately 2 million women are tuning in to Game of Thrones on average each week – about 42 per cent of their total 4.8 million viewers. A rather large number, considering its show runners draw female viewers in with promises of strong female characters while simultaneously including a large gender disparity with shown nudity, sexualised violence that is extraneous from the source material, and behind the scenes problems such as firing a recurring actress because she amended her contract to include “no nudity.”
Why don’t these franchises respect such a large portion of their audience?
It would appear that there is still a lack of awareness of the audience of science fiction and fantasy media, furthering a need to undertake more comprehensive audience studies in the area. Women make up more than half of the film-going audience, and yet only make up 15 per cent of leading roles – and this doesn’t even take into account the representation of women of colour and LGBTQ women (most female characters in mainstream film and television are straight and white). This misunderstanding of the audience’s desires is reductive both to the audience and to the profitability of the media itself.
Representation is also important to the audience on a personal level, as there is a noted link between self-esteem and representation. Whoopi Goldberg once spoke of her understanding of the significance of representation through her memories of watching Uhura, played by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.
“When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Studies have shown that correlations between self-esteem and media are reflected by the representations of the characters themselves. Coded messages within media helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, through constant depiction of white male characters as powerful main characters, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as love interests. What results is white men having greater positive media representation from a young age.
All in all, it is evident that there is a long way to go before female characters and the female audience is afforded respect in what is perceived to be a male-dominated media.
Emma Watson’s UN speech was wonderful. Here we have a young female celebrity who is absolutely not afraid to attach her name to feminism, someone who clearly understands its meaning and importance (unlike the likes of Lana Del Rey and Shailene Woodley, who have denounced feminism as “man hating”). Emma concisely explained the real meaning of feminism, that is, “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”, and explained how men, too, can benefit from dismantling the harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated in the patriarchy. After all, the patriarchy is what leads to the notion that men have to be “powerful” and “commanding”, even “aggressive” while women are “submissive” “weak” and “emotional”. Both genders could benefit from feeling free to display any of the aforementioned qualities. Sensitivity is not weakness, men should be free to show that, and women should not be berated for it.
What really concerned me, however, was the response to this speech. On the one hand, some people took it upon themselves to say the speech was not valid because it focused on men, instead of women. While I understand that feminism shouldn’t and doesn’t have to cater to men, as it is primarily concerned with the improvement of women’s lives – if this speech is going to make even a tiny bit of difference, if it’s going to get men to quit that tempting knee-jerk reaction to lambast feminists as “man haters” and the misguided idea that feminism has no benefits for them, then it has to be a good thing.
My brother always rolls his eyes when I talk about feminism, but I linked him to Emma’s speech. Because he admires her, and a lot of young people have an attachment to her because of Harry Potter – we almost feel like we know her, there’s a familiarity and respect there. Emma is a perfect spokeswoman for this issue.
The main problem with directing this speech (and the He for She campaign) towards men is the response from 4chan and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs). This morning, 4chan released a threatening message to Emma, saying, “Never forget, the biggest to come thus far” – many believing this has to do with the nude photo leaks that have been occurring for the past few weeks. Emma has gone out of her way to be welcoming and including to men in the feminist discussion, and what she’s gotten in response are threats. Even when the discussion is (at least partially) directed towards men, it’s not enough for some of them. Moreover, the response (if it is referring to nude leaks) is so intrinsically misogynistic, it only serves to prove that MRA is indeed a form of terrorism. Similar abuse was shown towards several high profile women in the gaming industry during #GamerGate, including vlogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has been the subject of rape and violence threats, breach of confidentiality and cyber abuse – simply because she created a series of videos about women’s representation in gaming. The fact is, there is an increasingly aggressive male online culture that will not allow women to speak about their own rights without risking retribution (in the form of sexist attacks, threats of rape and violence, and more).
Another response has been to put Emma down in comparison to women of colour being a supposed “better” example of spokeswoman. Intersectional feminism is a hugely important issue that needs to be discussed more in mainstream media. However, Emma herself talks about her “privilege” in her speech – a very self aware wording that lends even more certainty to the idea that she is a good spokeswoman for feminism. The best? Maybe not. Someone who has a lot of reach trying to do the best of her ability for a good cause? Yes. She says herself she doesn’t believe she’s the best person to be talking about the issue, but – “if not me, who?” She is not any less of a feminist because she is a white woman. When so many young stars nowadays are publicly aligning against feminism, it’s important to have such well known figures supporting it. Feminism is not a competition, it should be about supporting other women.
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)
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6p5AZp7r_Q
Sarah “KiteTales”: More than a Damsel in a Dress: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJihi5rB_Ek
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.
91-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.”
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.
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.