Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bitch is Back

Apologies for the protracted absence, folks, but the Bitch is Back and you can expect to see some changes around here very soon.

Starting with the format. It's no news that Pink Stinks, after all. Please stand by, and thanks for your patience. 

In the meantime, enjoy yourself a Symmetry Breakfast, combining some of my favourite things (being food porn, beautiful flatware and an obsessive, anal attention to detail).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Forget Marilyn

I've never fooled anyone. I've let people fool themselves.
They didn't bother to find out who and what I was.
Instead they would invent a character for me. 
I wouldn't argue with them.
They were obviously loving somebody I wasn't.
― Marilyn Monroe.

On August 5th of 2012, it will be fifty years since the death of Norma Jeane Baker, also known at various points throughout her life as Norma Jeane Mortenson, Norma Jeane Dougherty, Norma Jeane DiMaggio and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe.

Norma Jeane (pictured above) died in 1962 - the death of an older woman, alone in her bed with a stomach full of barbiturates. Yet, it would seem that, even today, Marilyn Monroe remains very much alive and well. Actually, she's everywhere.

Her face adorns a huge array of consumer products, including clothing, handbags, leather furniture, cigarette lighters, homewares, and even vodka bottles. According to Forbes Magazine, Monroe's name, voice and likeness continue to earn approximately $8 million every year, with no sign of profits declining any time soon.

Absolut Marilyn Monroe

The cultural (or should that be, pop-cultural?) fascination with Marilyn Monroe is further evidenced by the steady sales of over 600 books written about her life. She has been the subject of over a dozen film and television biographies, portrayed by actresses including Mira Sorvino, Michelle Williams, and in one upcoming tribute, Naomi Watts. She is regularly listed as having one of the most recognisable faces in the world.

And, despite her luscious figure, it is always her face, framed by its platinum halo, which is the most articulated in these images. The problem is, whatever image of Marilyn Monroe you encounter, in whatever format and emblazoned on whatever piece of mechandise, she's apt to be smiling.

Call it ironic, anachronistic, or even downright ghoulish, but the insistent fetishization of Monroe's beautiful face, and particularly of her smile, belies a few uncomfortable facts. Firstly, that this was the face of a deeply disturbed and unhappy woman who apparently took her own life. Secondly, that Marilyn Monroe simply does not exist. And she never did.

In the manner of many a mythological being, Marilyn Monroe emerged fully-formed from the void at some point during 1945, around the beginning of the time that the world began to forget Norma Jeane, if she had ever been known at all. Many volumes have detailed the procedures involved in the metamorphosis; the acting, singing and deportment lessons, the meticulous attention to makeup, lighting, and camera angles, the cosmetic surgeries and hormone creams, and the drawn-out search for the "right" shade of blonde, to name but a few. Studio executives determined that Norma Jeane should take her mother's maiden name of Monroe, and being the types of guys who prefer to market an alliterative package, proposed the first name of Marilyn - a name that Norma Jeane is said to have both despised and initially protested.

The resultant package was only too marketable. At the height of her fame, Norman Mailer dubbed Monroe to represent "every man's love affair with America". The ultimate blonde bombshell, Monroe captivated women and men alike with her breathless lisp and coy glances. Rubbing shoulders (and sometimes more) with actors, politicians and sports-stars, the intelligentsia and the gutter-press, paupers and Presidents, Marilyn played the part of the perfect sex symbol. Not that she cared that much for the role. "Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry," she commented, "especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered". 

Tired? Hurt? Bewildered? These adjectives are almost irreconcilable with the lingering and saturating images of Marilyn Monroe at her flirty, voluptuous best. Yet, she frequently commented on her deep discomfort with the image she was forced to present. When travelling alone, she made notable attempts to shed the cumbersome image and name of Marilyn Monroe, checking into hotels under pseudonyms and wearing scarves to cover her famous, platinum curls. "A sex symbol becomes a thing", she said, "And I hate being a thing".

But we have made her a thing. The images that we see now of Marilyn Monroe represent a commodity, not a person. Even in death, Norma Jeane was unable to shed the image of Marilyn. Shortly after her premature death, Hugh Hefner made a public display of buying the burial plot next to hers, ostensibly so that he could spend eternity lying next to the most beautiful woman in the world. Over forty years later, he sold this plot at a substantial profit. Norma Jeane found no escape from Marily in death: she is still a fetishized sex symbol, even in her grave.

Andy Warhol also was quick to cash in on Norma Jeane's demise, glibly recounting that he had started experimenting with silkscreen printing during August 1962, and that "When Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face." One of these prints now resides on permanent display in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

In 1973, Elton John released "Candle in the Wind", further glamorizing (and cashing in on) Marilyn Monroe's life and tragic death. At first glance, Sir Elton could be credited for his sensitivity, for his inclusion of the lines, 

They put you on the treadmill/ And they made you change your name, 

and his acknowledgement that,

Even when you died/ The press still hounded you/ All the papers had to say / Was that Marilyn was found in the nude. 

Yet, the song becomes uncomfortable for its fetishization of female vulnerability. Illustrating Marilyn as a fragile candle, "never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in" clearly invites the listener to insert themselves as savior into an abortive rescue fantasy where Marilyn might just be alive today if only some special person would have treated her better.  A certain hypocrisy also emanates from Elton's castigation of the media for feasting on Monroe, while he himself profits from picking the carcass of her suicide.   

In any event, Elton John snatched back his tribute to Monroe in 1997 and slapped it onto the proceedings of Princess Diana's funeral, re-branded as "Goodbye English Rose". Now we have a choice of vulnerable, blonde, females for our rescue fantasy. 

A worthy question in all this is, why Marilyn? Certainly she is seen to epitomise beauty and glamour but, both in her day and later, no more so than other screen sirens such as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner or Kim Novak, whose beautiful visages have faded into a relative obscurity with the passage of time. Likewise, Marilyn's popularity can't be put down to her talent, or Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh would be similarly feted. 

The jarring and inescapable truth is that our fascination with Marilyn is inextricable from the manner and timing of her death. She died at her peak and left an image that cannot be tarnished, of eternal youth, glamour and beauty. We will never see her aged mugshot in the manner of Zsa Zsa Gabor, or her eventual, octogenarian demise, like Elizabeth Taylor. When she picked up that bottle of pills in 1962, she escaped all temporal considerations and became ephemeral. 

Certainly, it is no news that Hollywood loves a premature death because it contributes to a perpetually youthful star whose image is always saleable; one need only look to the examples of James Dean, Jean Harlow, or Natalie Wood for evidence of that fact. But there is no equivalence between these icons and Monroe, either in the manner of their deaths or the magnitude of their posthumous fame. Dean died in a car accident, Harlow of kidney failure, and Wood in mysterious circumstances suggesting foul play - Monroe is the only one suspected of dying by her own hand. And, crucially, only in the case of Monroe may we reasonably suspect that inability to cope with the incredible pressures placed on her by her fame and promoted public image were instrumental in her death. 

And Marilyn is the only one worth $8 million per year, 5o years later.

Doubtless, a candle-lit vigil, or other expression of misguided public grief, will mark the anniversary of her death in August of this year. And doubtless, it will be accompanied by these very same images of Marilyn Monroe, worn on T-shirts or held up on placards, plastered on thermoses and wristwatches and cosmetic cases, even tattooed on bodies.

But in the context of her death, such iconography surpasses the inappropriate and borders upon the grotesque. We do her a disservice in remembering her under a name that she hated and which was not hers, and by glorifying in the manufactured images that burdened her so much. Trapped on a pedestal, Norma Jeane has been dehumanised by the glowing, golden Marilyn. Reduced to a buzzword, a sex symbol, a two-dimensional marketing strategy, this iconography freezes her forever as the very "thing" that she did not want to be. And it is these images, these conjured abstractions, that we forever associate with her, worshiping the construct that crushed Norma Jeane.

Moreover, what do we teach young women, focusing as we do on such glamorized depictions of Marilyn Monroe, if not that the safest path to fame and adulation is to look sexy, die young and leave a beautiful corpse? Even if beauty and fame cost you your happiness. Even if they cost your very life.

The only way to truly honour her life, or respect her death, is to do away with Marilyn Monroe. 

We need to forget Marilyn, and start remembering Norma Jeane.

RIP Norma Jeane Baker 

June 1, 1926 - August 5, 1962

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Apocalypse, Soon

"You mark my words," says Spike, ex-army from the top of his buzz-cut to the tip of his heavy leather boots. "It's all going to shit, and you've got less than five years to make it out."

Spike takes a long, contemplative swig of his scotch and growls, ominously, "You mark my words."

From the verandah of his comfortable house, nestled into a few thousand acres of pristine bushland, the world doesn't look at all like it's going to shit, but perhaps that's just a function of the tricks that the sunlight plays in the eucalypts on clear days. On the hillside, the rustling treetops resemble showgirls in spangled skirts - the effect is one of glitter. Below the treeline, Spike gestures proudly to several brand-new water tanks, augmenting a battered original.

"There'll be enough for over a year of drought," he says. "And of course we're good for power with the solar grid. A hundred percent self-sufficient, in three years, that's the goal. We're at eighty percent, now. And that's not to mention the vegetables..."

As he shows me the beds of tomatoes, eggplant and pumpkin, and seed potatoes and the chili bushes, there's a flinty edge to his eyes and his voice belying the facade of merely an enthusiastic gardener. In a sense, nothing has changed for Spike in the twenty years since he was a Special Ops sniper in Bosnia - he is still a man on a mission for survival.

Spike says, "If it's not the oil crash, it'll be water. Either way, things can't go on much longer. Everybody smart is getting the hell out of the cities..."

Back in the city, Spike was my neighbour. Then, as now, he was an hospitable host with the ability to charm and unnerve his guests in equal measure.

"...The cities are doomed," he says, oddly cheerfully. "They'll be dying like flies."

I realise that "they", includes me.

"There'll be nothing," he shakes his head, "no water, no food, violence, it'll be like Mogadishu, but worse. The end of society, the end of fucking everything. But we'll be set, out here. It'll only be the farmers that survive. And if anybody comes to try and steal my water, my power, the food for my daughter, I'll be waiting for them."

There is a long pause. "I've got over ten thousand rounds."

And a gun-safe, well stocked. And that decade of Special Ops training. I suppress a shiver as the possibility occurs to me that, far from dreading an apocalypse, Spike's looking forward to it.

"I've a daughter to protect. A family. I'm not taking any fucking risks. From the house, I can take a person out from the top of the driveway." The driveway starts nearly a kilometre from the house, but Spike reels off the specs of several semi-automatic rifles he owns that could easily make the shot. He asks me if I have ever seen a gunshot wound.

"It's not like in the movies, where a bullet goes in and there's a neat little hole," scoffs Spike. "Shoot a person with something like this," he gestures to his shotgun, "and there's nothing left of them. It's like a bag full of guts, exploding. Cut you right through the middle." He rubs his hands together and his voice is grim with overtones of glee. "I won't be taking any chances. You mark my words."

I try to reconcile the competing images of Spike offering me a drink, and Spike blowing out my midsection with a semi-automatic rifle. Even I'm surprised by how easily the two seem to follow. Men like Spike are made of hard corners, which social niceties will only ever barely obscure. There is no doubt in my mind that, given the slightest threat to his family, Spike's tenuous civilian mindset would give way to the warrior sensibilities in which his character was forged. Something about the edge to Spike's voice assured me that, old friend or not, he'd blow me to pieces without a shred of dissonance should circumstances require. This is a man who has taken lives, before.

Some old soldiers, if you ask them in a quiet moment, admit an unfashionable truth. Some of them say that, despite the pain and futility and waste of it all, the things they saw and did, and the things that were done to them, war was still the best time of their lives. Some talk of the excitement of it, or of the camaraderie, or even just the sense of fighting for a "right" cause in a wrong world. Still others, for whom the war represented only the extremes of fear and horror, see peace and safety as bafflingly unrealistic concepts, flimsy as stage props and bound inevitably to crumble under the weight of reality.

For one reason or another, many men live with rifles tucked just behind their eyes. Whether they fear the return to savagery, or whether they long for it, they always expect it. And soon.

From inside the house comes the sound of Spike's little daughter, laughing and babbling after her bath. Spike's face lights up as he goes to embrace her. The evening passes pleasantly but my eyes are drawn back at times to the gun-safe, guarding the tools with which Spike will protect his tiny kingdom when the apocalypse comes.

The next morning, on my way home to my doomed city, I drive past the marker at the top of the driveway. As it recedes into the distance, I feel a palpable but inexplicable sense of relief.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Hidden Wrongness of Harry Potter

These days, everybody wants to be a wizard. How could we not? The Harry Potter universe is so beautifully realised that it feels like you could walk right in, pull up a Butterbeer, and chat with the Order of the Phoenix like you've known each other for years. Not to mention that the place is freaking AWESOME in every respect, from magic wands to dancing chocolate frogs, unicorns, dragons, potions, and high school that never involves maths or science.

Of course, you have the downsides - Lord Voldemort, a variety of terrifically lethal monsters, sadistic teachers, irritating blonde enemies - but, let's face it, nobody ever looked less cool for smiting any of the above. If you don't mind the occasional near-death experience (and zombies, there are fucking zombies), then it would be unbelieveably, incredibly awesome to live in the Harry Potter Universe.

Except that it totally isn't. Some scary and seriously overlooked shit goes down in the Harry Potter universe. Stuff like...

1. Fat people are evil.

Let's play a game. First, let's have a glance at some of the heroes from Harry Potter:

The three main characters

Dumbledore's Army (the entire student resistance)

Get a good look? Now, here are some images of Harry Potter villains:

Harry's asshat Uncle Vernon...

...and Cousin Dudley

Draco's fat, stupid henchmen; Crabbe and Goyle

Sadistic, chubby torturer; Dolores Umbridge

Getting the idea? Of course, I can already hear the bitching start, "But most of the Harry Potter villains are thin! And so is Imelda Staunton and you're full of shit!" To that, I say, take a closer look at Harry Potter and you'll notice that there is not a single fat character who is a nice person*. And that Dolores Umbridge is supposed to be fat in the books, with a double chin, bitches. J.K. Rowling really seems to have it in for the fatties in her novels, but occasionally must have felt like she was pushing the envelope as she settles, now and then, on simply ridiculing the appearance of unpleasant characters. Let's take Slytherin student Pansy Parkinson - a mere footnote to the story, she is rarely mentioned without Rowling adding, with relish, that she has a face like a bulldog.

2. No sex ed. And probably, no sex.

As Harry and the gang grew up, there were more than a few clues as to their romantic awakenings. And, at first, these seemed to be right on cue. By the fifth book, Harry sneaks a pash with Cho Chang, and it's not long after that Ron spends half of an entire book sucking face with Lavender Brown. Even mousy, bookish Hermione enjoys a flirtation with Viktor Krum - at one point even hinting that she may go to visit his home over the summertime.

And then, right when everything seems to be steaming up... nothing. J.K. Rowling avoids the mention of sex almost studiously - no mean feat in novels featuring adolescent students of a co-ed boarding school. By the final novel, despite being alone, terrified and full of teenage hormones, seventeen year-old Ron and Hermione share perfectly chaste accommodation for months on end. The only hint of physical contact we are informed of is the scandalous detail that they actually fall asleep holding hands. But then, as explained by Rowling earlier in the series, women in the Harry Potter universe are curiously devoid of sexual desire - apparent in the fact that the girls' dormitories are equipped to keep the boys out, but the boys' dormitories require no such security measures.

Maybe it's a good thing that nobody at Hogwarts is getting down and dirty, though, considering that at no point are they ever seen to receive any sexual education. We readers would have really benefited from some as well, come to think of it. I have unanswered questions about wizarding contraception.

"I can't handle another unplanned pregnancy!"

3. It's all about the... *ahem*, wand.

In case you haven't noticed, it's a wizard's world out there. But I like to think that Rowling's hand was forced on this; in a climate where she was encouraged to use a gender-neutral pen name, she may have naturally (and probably correctly) realised that the series would have the most mainstream appeal if it featured a male protagonist.

"Guys, you ever get this feeling when chicks feature in books?"

Of course, Harry's best friend is also a guy. So is his mentor, Dumbledore, and his only remaining relative, Sirius. And his arch-enemy, Professor Snape. And his super-arch enemy, Lord Voldemort. There's Hermione, of course, but she's mainly there in a Lisa Simpson context; as a mobile encyclopaedia and force of temperance against the constant wand-stroking going on by the male main cast.

"Hey Voldemort! Wanna... duel?"

Aside from the scarcity of female leads, the Harry Potter universe doesn't present women particularly well. In the Goblet of Fire Tri-Wizard Tournament, we not only saw the standard ratio of three men to one woman, but a female competitor who came last in all three events, and needed to be rescued (by men) in two of them.

Life for witches in the Harry Potter universe presents some considerable drawbacks, as well. Most wizarding marriages seem to take place straight out of high school, and any suspicions we have about wizarding contraception would seem to be borne out by the fact that women like Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, and Fleur Delacour all became mothers before their twenty-first birthdays. But that's not much of an issue, so long as their children don't turn out as...

4. Squibs

For the uninitiated, a Squib in the Harry Potter universe is a child born to wizarding parents but without any magical powers of their own. Wizard attitudes to "special" children fall on the "only-just-above-Spartan" level, in that they don't merely fling the unfortunate prodigy from cliffs. However, Squibs are seen as a source of shame and embarrassment, often hidden, and usually sent into exile in the Muggle community because it's "kinder" that way. Rowling hints that a culture of Squibicide may have even existed in the wizarding world, what with widespread acceptance of the conspiracy theory that Dumbledore's sister was a Squib, deliberately done away with by the family.

Don't worry, kid, Muggle society is used to failure. You'll fit right in!

* I should also point out that Hagrid isn't "fat" so much as "retarded half-giant".

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Taking It Back?

Most everyone with an internet subscription has probably heard of SlutWalk by now.

It all began in January of this year, when a Toronto policeman told a group of ten young women that “I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."

Biggest "Police Fail" since Kill Bill.

The women were so (understandably) outraged at this betrayal of misogyny by those appointed to protect them, that they held a protest in Toronto on April 3, publicly condemning attitudes which blame and shame victims of sexual violence. They named it SlutWalk. Founders justified this decision in their online manifesto;

"Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. 'Slut' is being re-appropriated."

Change the word "slut" for the word "bitch", and you're left with a pretty reasonable explanation for the title of this blog. In naming it, and myself, Clever Bitch, I had hoped (perhaps naively) to preempt the most obvious epithet used to criticise opinionated females taking the wind out of its sails and the sting out of its tail. Yes, the writer of this blog is a Bitch. She's takin' it back.

Yet, while I thought of this move as empowering, an entire subsection of women resent the move to re-claim misogynist language. Not all participants in SlutWalk are advocates of reclaiming the word for our own use. Some march in outright hatred of the word, and refusal to accept that their dress or behaviour should warrant such a label. For them, reclamation of hate-speech is dangerously close to self-hate.

"Why stoop to their level?", asked a friend. "What can we have to gain in taking on the language that has been used to oppress us? If we start to normalise and identify with words like 'slut' or 'skank', in the end we just devalue ourselves."

She may have a point. Indeed, it can be argued that our reclamation of hate-language can work to feed, rather than undermine its legitimacy. Society may have been largely rid of the sickening racial epithet "nigger" by now, were it not for the African American community "taking it back". Despite the way the word is thrown around self-referentially by rappers, it doesn't appear to have lost any of its sting in an inter-racial context. Vis a vis, the world of shit that rained down upon comedian Michael Richards when he taunted a largely-black audience with the 'N' word.

"Taking it back" doesn't always work.

There is, however, a definite potential for the reclamation of hate speech. Take the word "queer", originally an adjective, which in a few short decades has morphed into the proud adjectival noun, "Queer". If the gay community can do it, can women do it too?

I have a dream...

Slutwalk will be held in Newtown, Sydney on 13 June.

Do you think that hate-speech can be effectively reclaimed and re-purposed by women? Or are we selling ourselves out?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tough Call

A few years ago, a bout of the flu and an overdose of daytime television catalysed a decision I had meant to make for years. Somewhere around the third consecutive day of infomercials broadcasting the wasted bodies and sad eyes of poverty-stricken children, I picked up the phone and said those fateful words, "Yes, I would like to sponsor a child." It seemed like such a straightforward decision. Then came the question that almost knocked me off my feet.

"Do you have a preference for the gender, age or location of your sponsor child?"

It had never occurred to me that you were able to select a sponsor child the way you might select a pet from a shelter. The question almost seemed offensive - as though I were being asked to play God with the futures of any number of starving children, to determine who was the most worthy of my sponsorship dollar. So I was surprised to hear myself smoothly responding;

"A girl, please. Give me the first little girl on your list."

Of course, I had my reasons. There is plenty of evidence that the weight of poverty falls the hardest upon women and girls. Where food resources and educational opportunities are scarce, it is daughters rather than sons who tend to miss out. I liked the idea of giving a little girl a hand up, ensuring she got enough to eat, sending her to school and maybe even paving the way for a tertiary education, meaningful vocational training, and a way out of poverty. It sat well with my beliefs as a feminist and underdog-supporter to help the person I thought was least likely to benefit without it. So, a little girl it was.

This decision never wore particularly heavily on my mind, especially when the photographs and letters from my sponsor child and her family evidenced that she was, indeed, happy, healthy, vaccinated, fed and attending school. Good on me, I thought. Pat on the back for helping out the little girl in need.

And then came the letter. My sponsor-family had moved out of the area, wrote World Vision. However, they have taken the liberty of assigning me a new sponsor child so that I may continue to help families in need. Accompanying the letter was a photograph of my new sponsor child - a little boy in Central America. They "hope this is not a problem".

Of course, it's a brilliant tactic to retain sponsors, as it's much easier to refuse a new sponsorship than to cancel one that you are already associated with. They gave me a face, a young, adorable face, to associate with my new sponsorship, one that I and anybody else made of less than 50% concrete would have terrible trouble refusing. But part of me was annoyed. This totally ruined my little feminist plan to promote the well-being of the global sisterhood! I didn't sign up to be thrown a random child, I wanted to choose, god-damnit! I should call them up and let them have a piece of my mind.

Then came the creeping fingers of moral panic, coldly up my spine. Was I seriously on the verge of abandoning a child in poverty because they were the wrong gender? Wasn't this male child also in need of food, schooling and medical care? Wasn't this the very type of sexism and gender-based system of privilege that I was seeking to avoid by sponsoring a girl in the first place? Stumped again, I never made the call. For almost a year now, I've been sponsoring the little boy, and never do I receive a statement from World Vision without feeling that churning feeling of reprehension in my stomach, knowing that I would rather sponsor a girl but also that it is morally indefensible to make the switch.

Our choices and prejudices about who to help creep up on us in other unlikely places. For example, I recently came across the disturbing fact that black cats in animal shelters are euthanased at twice the rate of cats of other colours due to far lower adoption rates.* Whether it's down to superstitious beliefs, individual evaluations that black cats are too "plain", "common", or "lacking in distinguishing features", or even latent racism, the fact remains that black cats are routinely overlooked. Several animal rescue groups have even begun educational campaigns encouraging potential pet owners to go for black when adopting a cat or kitten in order to redress this imbalance.**

I breathed a sigh of self-satisfied relief reading such articles because, happily, my beloved rescue-kitty is blacker than the Ace of Spades. I'm helping the problem! One less black cat euthanased! But, in consideration that only about one-quarter of dumped cats are eventually adopted out, I have to acknowledge that my choice was utterly moot in real terms. No matter which colour we choose to take home with us, another two or three cats of various colours are hitting the electricity. Adopting more black cats won't reduce overall euthanasia rates, simply skew them towards a more equal colour scheme. If this is equality, I'm not sure what the point is.

Of course, giving advantageous treatment to a statistically disadvantaged group, be it women or black cats, seems like the responsible thing to do. I recall that, at the shelter where I adopted my little Black Panther, the kitten who had received the most expressions of interest was a little tabby, missing an eye. Everybody wanted to adopt him, the workers said, because everybody thought that nobody else would. Everybody wanted to be the saint who helped the overlooked and marginalised, with never a thought that they were creating a new status of marginalisation for the supposedly "privileged". Their group may look stronger, but it is still comprised of vulnerable individuals, be they cats on death row or children in poverty.

Is this the area to which I verged in seeking to send my finite resources to a girl in poverty, rather than a boy? I hope I have made the right decision in the eyes of the world. A little girl will miss out, but, unlike my little boy, I will never see her face. More importantly, I will never look at either face and say, "I want to help someone, but sorry, I had something else in mind."

Would you choose the gender, age or location of a sponsor child?

And seriously - aren't black cats just awesome?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Are the kids alright?

You might not guess this at a glance, but somewhere underneath the Hollywood styling, designer accessories and buoyant coiffing is a little girl of ten years old.

... And if that's not scary enough, this photo was actually taken when she was nine. Her name is Willow Smith, and she's widely touted as the Next Big Thing on the pop music scene after the success of her first single, Whip My Hair. She's not the first child in her family to hit the entertainment scene in a big way before she even hits her teens;

Recognise him? That's Jaden Smith, as he appeared opposite Jackie Chan in the remake of The Karate Kid. If the parental penny hasn't dropped yet, here's a family portrait to jog your memory:

Yep, Will Smith's kids are looking to end up as famous and successful as their Mum and Dad. And not everyone's happy about it.

Author Terry McMillan recently tweeted that:

The Smith children already act like child stars. There's an arrogance in their demeanor and behavior. I find it incredibly sad. It feels like the Smith children are being pimped and exploited. Or, they're hungry for fame. What about 4th grade?

She further hit out against the gushing descriptions of the children in public media - often from the children's parents - describing their prodigal talent and enthusiasm:

These kids don't already know what they "love". Total bullshit. They're not prodigies. They think Hollywood is real.

And it was in this comment that she tapped the vein of the issue. The coverage of the Smith children has always been carried out with a considered, kid-glove professionalism that ensures a message of their empowerment and stomps upon the merest suggestion of exploitation. The army of managers, choreographers, songwriters, agents, stylists and make-up artists behind the scenes are played down as far as possible, and the resulting efforts touted merely as each child's "individual style", as though it was arrived at in the usual course of nine year-old experimentation, during an afternoon with Mum's pilfered makeup and jewellery.

Not pictured: realistic styling by a 9 year old.

In September 2009, then aged 9, Willow Smith told radio host Ryan Seacrest, "just be an individual, you can't be afraid to be yourself... and you can't let anybody tell you that's wrong". Neat, both in the sense that it would seem to both prove the child's utter commitment to their public image, and absolve any adult stakeholders in Willow's career should things go down the proverbial shitter. Listen to the child, people! She's not being exploited or marketed, she's a talented child, expressing her individuality!

Now, naturally the world is full of little girls and boys who would love to be actors, singers, rappers or the like. In fact, this trend is so common that in a recent survey of British schoolchildren, the most frequent answer to "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was simply; "Famous". Many of us remember our abortive childhood fantasies of rock stardom or Oscar acceptance speeches, and dreamed feverishly of "real" parents who would pick us up one day and turn out to be rich and famous, paving our way to the red carpets and superdomes of the glamorous people.

No doubt, offered the deal that the Smith children have been born into (mega-star parents, unlimited access to the gears of fame creation) we would have jumped at the chance as well. We would have recorded the singles, we would have starred in the movies. We would probably have loved it - and we probably would have said so just as enthusiastically as Willow and Jaden.

We probably would have thought pretty highly of ourselves, too. Not in our scene, the busboy actors and taxi-driving musicians looking for a break in an industry where it's always been about who you know. Not for us, the cattle-call auditions where children are seen and dismissed in their hundreds per hour. Not for us, the agony of forging a new brand in an industry already splitting at the seams; the talented rubbing elbows with the mediocre, the beautiful frantically exercising their advantage over the ordinary, the rejects by their thousands lining the exit corridor, bitterly stroking the fantasy of a big break that never came.

I can imagine any of us, styled to perfection and adopting our image as our individual style, sitting on a couch with Jay Leno, saying how we were "born to do this", speaking of our love and passion for our work. I can imagine us believing in the adoration, in the money, in the fame, perhaps even until it became integral to who we were. Would we ever be able to be happy without the flash of the cameras and screams of the fans? Would we ever know another desire for our future lives?

So is this exploitation? Or, as McMillan would have it, pimping? Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith didn't respond publicly to McMillan's tweet, but it's clear that their intention is to give their children the best possible foothold in the slippery Hollywood market. Talented though the children undoubtedly are, it is understandable to criticize the way that coveted movie roles and recording contracts have fallen to them as a birthright, and at an age where they will be more likely to internalise their success as the deserved recognition of serious talent than to recognise it as a lucky side effect of their parentage.

But yet, the sheer volume of tickets and albums sold seems to speak for itself in that, for now, the Smith children are at the top of their games, and we are happily spending plenty of money to see them play. Perhaps someone is being exploited, and perhaps it is us.

What do you think?