Lara Croft – Feminist Heroine or Busty Sex Icon?

Lara Croft’s character all started from a popular video game Tomb Raider which started in 1996. She takes form as a female British archaeologist in search of ancient relics and adventure, coming into contact with all sorts of challenges in the form of power-hungry/greedy men, snipers, mummies, jackals, and ancient monsters. She acquires all sorts of weapons for these reasons. As the game grew more popular, two movies were created with Angelina Jolie starring as Lara.

As a video game character, her appearance is generally known to be a dark haired girl with a backpack, short cargo shorts, wide hips with guns holstered to them, army boots, a green shirt (bra?), a tiny waist, and large breasts.

 video games tomb raider lara croft 2000x1600 wallpaper_www.wallpaperhi.com_20

In Dangerous Curves, Jeffrey Brown addresses the use of guns in the hands of a female heroine. “…the action heroine who exhibits a mastery of guns represents a woman who has usurped a particularly phallic means of power” (30-31). Lara Croft’s popularity hits both genders; many women identify with female empowerment, whereas many men find her image titillating. Is Lara’s grasp on guns a turn-on for men? For many feminists, Lara’s necessity for ammo and gun control is a problem because it signifies that the heroine still needs this object of masculinity. Lara’s character may not have been as popular with men if she were to have no weapon at all.

Lara Croft is similar to the character of Maggie in the movie Point of No Return where they ask, “’Does the rise of the aggressive heroine really pose a threat to men or does she merely contribute to male fantasy via the eroticisation of hardware and violence?’” (41). Maggie has both a hard-bodied image and a feminine “soft” side to her character.

In the movie version, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Angelina Jolie plays Lara’s part as an elite British aristocrat removed from romantic emotion and any stereotypical acts of a domestic female. It’s very similar to the description of Maggie being, “physical and self-reliant, murdering without remorse” (35). She is still sexualized, Angelina Jolie’s anatomy matches that of the video-game creating the same sense of the male gaze. 

In this clip, her butler presents her with a white dress and high heel shoes which she casts off and declares herself as not ladylike. Instead Lara Croft’s movie character is known to wear this outfit:

hot-angelina-jolie-as-lara-croft

It’s interesting that Lara’s costume changed from a green crop-top to a black undershirt. Is this the director’s way of identifying Lara as a masculinized character? In Dangerous Curves, Brown recognizes the “black undershirt” as being the standard costume worn by Slyvester Stallone in the Rambo series, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and “such muscular/masculine women as Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and Rachel McLish in Acres: Iron Eagle III” (35). Although in Lara’s case, the black shirt isn’t used to define her muscles; it’s used to define her breasts. She rejects the white dress for the black undershirt.

In conclusion, it seems that Lara’s character challenges the role of female heroism by not playing the part of a “woman in sheep’s clothing,” clearly, her body has all the shapes of a female’s curves. It is arguable though, that her large breasts are simply, “…a way to incorporate some ‘tits and ass’ into the action genre” (41).

Female Action Heroism in The Hunger Games

Jeffrey Brown’s article on action heroines and gender, Dangerous Curves, looks at the role of women in traditionally masculine roles, specifically in action films, where men tend to be the hero, while women are often portrayed as the damsels in distress. The article uses films Alien and Terminator 2 to show how women action heroines outplay this stereotypical role of many female leads in an action role. These films portray believable heroines that are not, “really only ‘boys’ in ‘girl’s’ clothing” (21), but actual ass kicking women that can be taken seriously and on the same level of their male counterparts.

OneKatniss everdeen 1 of the newest action/adventure film franchise to present to the public and millions of impressionable young girls, is the Hunger Games series, which features a teenage girl as the action heroine. The films are arguably some of the most positive portrayals of a female lead role taking the part of a traditional male role. In the above quote that suggests “hard body heroines as a male impersonator” (21), it is claiming that these action heroines may really only be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Let’s take a closer look at the Hunger Game’s female lead, Katniss Everdeen. One of the first scenes of her is when she is out in the woods hunting for food to bring back to her mother and younger sister. Katniss does not have a father, which seems to be important to her role in the story. Without an older man in her life, it is as if she takes on the role herself in the way she provides for her family and offers herself as tribute to the annual hunger games, in place of her sister Prim.

The appearance of Katniss is significant in her portrayal in the story. She does not have ripped abs or bobbed hair, and she even wears dresses and occasionally makeup. Her hair is often kept in a braid, which retains feminine elegance but is practical for hunting in the woods or battling in the games. Her clothing remains practical throughout. We never see her wearing clothes that are overwhelmingly masculine or foolishly tight or revealing that seek to show off her womanly curves. The outfits remain appropriate to the character’s life. Neither is her mental state exaggerated. We see her cry, but we also see her make decisions and even kill other human beings. Her doubts and breakdowns throughout the trilogy make Katniss resemble who she is: a teenage girl who is not immune or pretending to be immune to trials. She is both tough and weak at times, showing the fact that she is simply human, not necessarily a male impersonating a heroine role.  Katniss everdeen 2

Along with its honest portrayal of Katniss, the story does something else that is interesting in respect to the story. Here we turn to the role of men in The Hunger Games. There are two, Peeta, the bakery boy and chosen male tribute for the games, and Gale, Katniss’s best friend and hunting companion. As both males fall for the lead female, the story plays with this love triangle in interesting ways. Throughout the series, Peeta and Gale are portrayed as side shows to the story, the story being Katniss’s journey to overthrowing the tyrannical Capitol. The drama revolves around her, because she is the one who defied the Capitol in the end of the first story. It is as if the traditional roles of women, as distractions and loves interests in action films revolving around male heroes, are being switched to that of men (Peeta and Gale). It is appropriate to add in here the significance of Katniss and Peeta’s start of friendship and eventually romance.

During the early stages of the games, Katniss stumbles upon a wounded Peeta. Here Peeta portrays the stereotypical role of damsel in distress. The woman, who also happens to be the hero of the story, nurses the man back to health. At the end of the games, she saves his live again by refusing to kill him and threatening to eat poison berries if the Capitol did not allow them both to live. In this stunning reversal in traditional action film gender roles, the character, Katniss, carries the role well.

The Final Frontier … for Psychoanalysis?

The original series of Star Trek has garnered enormous amounts of attention among a wide audience since its initial airing in the 1960s.  Because the series has been attended to by so many fans and critics over the years, it is unsurprising that there have been many modes of criticism to dive into the series’ cherished content.

Originally aired in 1967, the Star Trek episode “Mirror Mirror,” can be distinctly understood in terms of Freud’s structural model and the clash between the id and the superego. Due to an ion storm and transporter malfunction, medical officer Leonard McCoy, chief engineer Mr. Scott, communications officer Nyota Uhura, and Captain James Kirk are dropped in a parallel “mirror” universe while their doubles are transported to the familiar universe.  In this mirror universe, similar to Freud’s idea of the uncanny, the familiar Enterprise crew and Federation are made unfamiliar and the friendly made sinister.  Typically the characters in the familiar Star Trek universe are thoughtful, driven, and (despite later series’ jokes at Kirk’s expense for failing at this) linked to a sense of duty to the benevolent Federation.  However in the mirrorverse, expressions of male dominance, violence, competition, and sexualization abound, making it a veritable playground of Freud’s id as opposed to the “moralizing conscience” of the superego represented by the familiar universe (Parker, 123).  By Freud’s definition, “the id is a seething cauldron of basic drives in their primitive, selfish and unorganized state,” (Parker, 123). For Freud, this included urges revolving around violence and sexuality.  In the most immediate way, we can understand the representation of the id in the mirrorverse as Kirk first does through differences in costuming. The conservative and plain Starfleet uniforms in the familiar Star Trek universe are placed into unsettling contrast with the phallic representations and heightened sexuality intrinsic to the mirrorverse uniforms.

starfleet uniforms typical

 Typical Starfleet Uniforms Characters from left to right: Mr. Scott, Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Leonard McCoy, Nyota Uhura, and Chekov.

This image is representative of the typical uniform worn by the characters while they roam the Enterprise and carry out their individual duties.  These costumes are notable in their simplicity.


mirror verse kirk and spock sword view

Mirrorverse Uniforms Characters from left to right: Mirror Spock, and Captain Kirk (minor characters behind)

 

The costuming in the mirrorverse is notably different.  One of the most personally startling differences is the addition of Spock’s facial hair.  Facial hair may in this case be representative of heightened masculinity and masculine expression.  This is distinctly different from the way that the familiar Spock grooms himself; the half-vulcan always maintains a well-groomed and completely shaven appearance, he also rarely expresses overtly masculine or dominant traits (only doing so when under the influence of a mind-altering pollen in the episode “This Side of Paradise”).  The other elements of costuming presented here are also indicative of expressions of masculinity and dominance which are absent from the familiar universe costuming.  The presence of swords in particular as a phallic representation is key to understanding the expression of id in the mirrorverse.  All high-ranking members of the crew carry these highly-sexualized weapons with them while on the deck of the Enterprise whereas the familiar crew does not typically do so with their phasers.  There is also the presence of the sashes with their long, hanging lengths of fabric in the front of the uniform and the decorative medals which display presumably masculine accomplishments.

In addition to overtly masculine and phallic traits of the costuming, there are also heavy elements of sexualization in some of the costumes as may be seen in the following screencap:

mirror sexualized uhura 2

Sexualized Uhura and Kirk Characters from left to right: Uhura, Kirk, McCoy, Mr. Scott

Here both Uhura and Kirk are sexualized in different ways according to their gender. Kirk’s arms, as a traditionally attractive part of a man, are exposed and highlighted by the lack of sleeves on the mirror costume.  Uhura’s midsection and legs, traditionally attractive parts of a woman, are also bared in an extremely revealing uniform.  This suggests a heightened sexuality that is also intrinsic to the mirrorverse and common to our understanding of the id.

The urge for display of phallic, sexualized, and overtly dominant features in the dress of the mirror characters is key to understanding them as direct representations of the familiar characters’ repressed urges in the id.  Though there is more to explore in this episode than costuming, the differences in dress of the characters is a surprisingly complete start to comprehending the differences between the superego-driven familiar universe and the id-driven mirrorverse.

Gamora: A Hardbody Action Heroine

While comics and their film adaptations still focus heavily around the male heroes, Marvel separates itself from DC comics by creating unique female heroes who exhibit agency within the story. DC, on the other hand, tends to just create female equivalents to preexisting male heroes (Superwoman, Batgirl). The most recent of Marvel’s female action heroes to hit the big screen is Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Gamora is a fairly simple character to understand since the writer’s of Guardians of the Galaxy seem to play off every trope explored by Jeffrey A. Brown in his book, Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture.

The first of these tropes often associated with the action heroine is that she is “often filmed to accentuate her body, but this new hardbody is not offered up as a mere sexual commodity” (25). Instead, her body is coded as “both object and subject,” or, in other words, “her body does not exist to solely to please men, it is a body designed to be functional” (25). The image above shows how creators are drawing attention to Gamora’s body using the tight leather outfit, but the leather also implies a sort of utility. The audience becomes aware fairly early in the film that Gamora is not just some eye-candy to accompany this group of male heroes, but her body was actually designed to be a lethal weapon; thus making Gamora the most dangerous out of the five. Also, she is considered to be one of the most covered up compared to her companions (looking at you Drax and Groot).

Not only is Gamora’s body a lethal weapon, even her fitting style stays within the guidelines of Brown’s analysis. Brown explains how the action heroine’s strength “is represented through the heroine’s superior ability in martial arts” (31-32). Starlord and Rocket rely on their guns, Drax and Groot rely on their brute strength, but Gamora is the only one who seems to have any martial arts training. While this initially seems to be a limitation to not allow Gamora to wield any sort of firearms, the audience becomes aware within the first few fighting scenes that Gamora does not need firearms or brute strength. The audience witnesses as the rest of the characters become bogged down by their weapons or lack of fighting skills, but Gamora never seems to fail with her martial arts fighting style.

Even though Gamora mostly exemplifies the female hard-bodied action heroine, she also incorporates some elements of the femme fatale. One popular example from the film where Gamora takes on the role of the femme fatale is the scene when she first encounters Starlord. Gamora casually leans up against the side of the building, eating some type of fruit, and starts to engage Starlord in conversation. Gamora expects Starlord to underestimate her, so she takes on this role to gain further advantage. After all, just a few moments after assessing her as no real threat, Starlord is then mercilessly attacked.

Despite being a stereotype of the hardbody action heroine, Gamora is still a rather enjoyable character since she exhibits one trait that is often lost to female heroes: a sense of agency. All too often, the male heroes are the ones to drive the plot forward while the female heroes just accompany them. Gamora, on the other hand, seems to be one making a lot of the decisions for the rest of the heroes. In fact, she is the one who not only convinces the others that they need to take the stone back from Ronan, but who also has a dramatic fight scene that determines the outcome of their entire plan. In short, Gamora is both a stereotype and innovative.

Hope for Teenage Girls: Character Development in MTV’s “Daria”

About twelve years after it went off the air, I fell in love with MTV’s animated series Daria, which is remembered today for its wealth of excellent writing, compelling characters, and genuine emotional impact. It also boasts a variety of interesting, complex female characters filling a variety of important roles in the home, in the school, and in the “real world.” These characters, it is fair to say, rule the men in almost every case. There are many ways to read Daria in as a feminist show, but what I want to discuss in this essay is Daria’s younger sister, Quinn. First, though, a smidge of context.

The Morgendorffer family consists of four players. Helen is a working mom, a powerful, intelligent, ambitious lawyer who often struggles with balancing her family’s needs with her work demands. Jake is a bumbling freelance consultant who struggles with feelings of inferiority due to his unstable relationship with his father and his inability to support his family. Daria is the older daughter. She is seventeen, erudite, and abrasive. Her intelligence makes her just strange enough to be weird, but gives her the confidence to be her own person with her few loyal friends.

Quinn, the younger Morgendorffer sister, finds Daria to be—to put it lightly—a shame. That is, for four seasons, she tries to hide the fact that they’re sisters. She has a high, nasally voice that makes her sound peppy, vanity up the wazoo, and a nice army of dedicated admirers to assure her that she is a goddess walking on earth. On her first day at Lawndale High, she is appointed vice president of the Fashion Club. And this is how she is for approximately three seasons (the show ran for five, with two films). People who don’t watch the show closely might be tempted to believe that this is what Quinn is intended to be: a superficial foil to Daria’s intellectual depth. People who hold this opinion are doing the character, and the show, a disservice, because, like all fifteen year-old divas, Quinn grows. She evolves as a human being, and this is the value of her character: she is a case study of a fifteen year-old girl and the way she is shaped by society’s expectations, but most significantly, she is capable of overcoming these limitations in the end.

Clockwise from top left: Jake, Helen, Daria, and Quinn

The Morgendorffer household is supported by a strong mother who obviously holds feminist values (she rants more than once about Daria and Quinn eventually competing in “a man’s world”), and, in comparison to her Fashion Club friends, Quinn’s character reveals these influences. Unfortunately, at fifteen, the pull of popularity and the desire to be accepted at school overpower any sense she might inherit from her mother. This is actually a fairly accurate picture of the kind of pressure that young girls still face in high school. Quinn can see how people treat Daria, who is known for her brain and, intellectually, soars over her clueless peers, and decides that it is easier to be bubbly and well-liked. Of course, it helps that she is attractive and outgoing—these qualities enable her to achieve her desired popularity. As she is praised for these qualities, she fixates on them even more until they define her identity. On her first day of school at Lawndale High she is elected vice-president of the Fashion Club; this can be seen to represent her conformity with society’s beliefs about who she should be. Her only concerns are clothes and boys, and she dresses well to please boys. Eventually she begins to realize how constraining these limitations are, and how much potential she truly has.

One of the benefits that Quinn enjoys is a gang of boys devotedly worshipping her. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie represent another challenge that teenage girls have to figure out in high school—the challenge of boys. Quinn’s dating life, in fact, is a fascinating subject all on its own. She is shown constantly going on dates with many different boys, manipulating the boys into buying her things and spoiling her, and talking to her friends about boys and the benefits of each one. Overlooking the shallowness, I believe that this is an area in which Quinn shows remarkable, is misused, intelligence. In every interaction between Quinn and a boy, Quinn is clearly the one in control. She is shown employing planners, schedules, and exhaustive lists to organize this part of her life. On top of that, it is always clear that the boy is lucky to be on a date with her, and they both know it.

What Quinn never does in the series, even once—that’s five seasons and two movies—is kiss a boy. For all that she and her Fashion Club friends are “boy-crazy,” their interest, or at least Quinn’s interest, seems much more strategic than sexual or even romantic. From boys, Quinn gets physical things, displays of affection that may boost her self-esteem, a sense that she is valued as a human being, and a way to bond with her female friends by sharing a hobby with them. On the one hand, this shows that Quinn is in control of her physical relationships; she has agency. On the other hand (and the show examines this idea a few times), it looks like Quinn lacks the emotional maturity to engage in a serious relationship. Whenever this comes up, however, it is concluded that there’s nothing wrong with that; the show tells the viewer that it’s okay to enter into a relationship with different goals, even though it doesn’t necessarily condone manipulating boys into buying you things (this is shown by the scorn that the other characters show in response to her serial-dating).

Later on, in the first movie (which aired between seasons four and five and was called Is It Fall Yet?), Quinn gets a tutor to raise her standardized test scores. For the first time in the series, she engages with a boy on a strictly intellectual level. When she tries to slack off during their session, he scolds her about wasting his time and hers, but he also tells her that he recognizes her intelligence and wants to help her. There are times in the series leading up to this when Quinn is revealed to be thoughtful, but no character has ever called her smart (barring the “Quinn the Brain” episode, where it was all a fluke), and she is surprised when she starts to develop feelings for her tutor. This reveals a problem with the way we treat young girls today: if all we expect from them is low-performance vapidity and sex, we will never learn their true potential. Quinn is excited by a relationship with a boy that challenges her intellectually, and her respect for the tutor allows her to develop genuine feelings of desire. By the end of the movie, she has achieved a clear improvement in emotional maturity and responsibility, and her grades improve.

After this experience, Quinn can be said to come into herself. She maintains her Fashion Club friendships, but with a seeming awareness of how empty it truly is. She continues to date, but she no longer neglects her schoolwork and begins to do quite well. Her relationship with her sister is shown to become very strong in this season. In the episode “Lucky Strike,” the teachers go on strike and Daria is hired as a sub in Quinn’s English class (just roll with it). When Quinn goes to her to ask if the test will be easy, “because if it’s not some popular people might not like it and might take it out on another popular person even though it’s not her fault,” Daria demands to know why Quinn is “defending the stupid when [she’s] not one of them.” Quinn gets a good grade on the test, then, in response to bullying from Fashion Club president Sandy, publicly admits that Daria is her sister.

By this point in the series, Quinn is shown to have realized her own skewed viewpoint and corrected her beliefs. Although she is merely a fifteen year-old girl in the eyes of society, she is shown to be thoughtful, capable, and in control, while she knows that she still has some growing to do. She recognizes the importance of her family ties, particularly the support she is given by her brainy big sister. This is why Quinn is my favorite character: her character growth is equally fascinating, refreshing, and exhilarating. At the end of the series, the Fashion Club disbands, but the four girls decide that they will continue to be friends and spend time together, valuing the individuality that each girl brings to the group. This is Quinn’s irrevocable liberation from the restraints of society. From this point, she is a strong, independent woman, and you’d better believe she’s a feminist.

Dollhouse Family “Conditioning” with Barthes’ French Toys

In Barthes’ book on Mythologies, he includes an essay about French “Toys” and their function for adult roles in society. He argues that the adult Frenchman looks at a boy child as “nothing but a smaller man” (53), and that the gift of toys and playthings prefigure what occupation or role they’ll place into as they get older. The material object of physical entertainment in a toy leads the child into believing that achievement in life is already made and available through purchase and ownership. Barthes argues that, “…the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it…He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready made” (54). Toys are therefore tools to adulthood and sold in stores to quench the creativity of invention in children.

We can find the same style of thinking and toy development in America. Take, for example, this adorable commercial advertising a dollhouse with a ready-made family and furniture included.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtTyG7CXqeg

America is a material country and commercials on television target children especially. This product is a dollhouse with “magic disks” which create the conversations between the dolls automatically. This inhibits the child playing from imagining their own conversations between the dolls. The roles of the dolls include a mother and father, a daughter, a baby and a pet dog. The father says, “I’m home!” assuming he’s been at his workplace all day. The mother says, “This room is a mess!” and “Time for dinner!” These phrases of conventional adulthood condition the small girl/boy playing with the dollhouse to know what acceptable family life looks and acts like.

I would say this product is specifically aimed towards little girls due to the fact that girl actors are playing with the dollhouse with enthusiasm, and no small boys are present in the commercial at all. The primary color is pink, a clear connotation to girl’s toys. Barthes writes about girls’ toys and their effect for adulthood. “There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies…This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother” (53). As you can see in the example I provided of the plastic dollhouse, the toy home “conditions” the (assumed small girl) what motherhood and the role of a wife is expected of her. She is expected to clean up after her daughter, and to cook for her husband.

The structure of the dollhouse is a plastic pink home gives the girl a setting of what a dream home might look like when she is old enough to live in her own home. This prepares the small girl to be an “owner” of a home rather than an inventor. The same way her father may buy her a dollhouse, her husband will buy her a real house someday. The phrases of her dolls’ conversations are her lines for adulthood and Tygo scripts them for us.

Holy Vanity Case, Batman!

Batman ’66, starring Adam West, was a revolutionary television show in more ways than one.  It was an in-color, cultural phenomenon, rife with Dutch angles and cliffhanger endings.  The POW!s and BIFF!s we now think of as synonymous with comic books actually originated in the show, not on the page.  And most importantly, for this writer, Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl rolled onto the scene.

Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon and Batgirl from Batman ’66

She literally rolled.  Not only could she tumble and stage fight right alongside Batman and Robin (Burt Ward), but she had her own motorcycle, a solitary version of Batman’s Batmobile.  In this way she was mysterious to chivalrous Batman, but he accepted this female crime fighter and soon the narrator began to refer to them as the terrific trio.

Insane!  Unbelievable!  Women can’t fight!  They are the helpless in Gotham that Batman must save, not rely upon.  But what was so great about the show and about Batgirl is that they existed outside of reality, but could talk back to it in a way that nothing else could at that time.  Everyone was watching this show, two times a week.  Kids could watch it with their parents, college dorms were packed, and in the third season, all eyes were on Batgirl.  She was continually outsmarting not only villains, but she was often a few steps ahead of Batman and Robin.  And she did it all with a female finesse that didn’t rely upon her being anything other than who she was.

In the original introduction of Batgirl, a nine minute mini-episode, we see how cool of a bat Barbara Gordon really is.  She is working her new job in the public library when Killer Moth bursts onto the scene and locks her in her office.  Here we see she has a calm attitude and secret closet where she transforms into Batgirl.  Jeffrey Brown, in his book Dangerous Curves, would classify her as a heroine who goes through a “complete reversal from victim to avenger” (37).  Her attitude changes as well.  When she emerges back into the library through a window, she finds Batman and Robin paralyzed in a cocoon.  She wastes no time in destroying her library to fight the moth men… and then pulls out a small makeup case.  Robin exclaims, “What a time to powder her nose!” Yet she nicely explains it’s an Electronic Batgirl Compact with a Laser Beam.  She frees them.  That kind of accessory makes Batgirl the kind of heroine that uses her femininity as a weapon to lower her opponent’s guard.  Brown points out that this kind of character “can feign vulnerability in order to best men in fights.”  It also makes her the kind of crime fighter that Batman and Robin respect.

So there she is.  Wrap her up and take her home.  The show did a great justice to women and women crime fighters everywhere.  But that would be too simple.  I’m sure, even if you’ve never seen Batman ’66, that you’re familiar with the “na na na na na na na na” Batman theme.  Well Batgirl’s theme from the same series knocks it out of the park.  No it doesn’t.  It pretty much ruins her.

But the creators of the show and the theme song must have seen their mistake, as, thank goodness, it only played twice at the beginning of the third season.  Not only is it jarring to the ears, but it introduces a level of romance and sexuality (Whose baby are you?) that is not only unnecessary for the show, but incredibly so for Batgirl.  The comics are different, there are many storylines where all three of them have romantic attachments, but in the show it’s out of place.  Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl was nobody’s baby, and she didn’t need to be asked about it either.  It was patronizing, and a shame, but the rest of her actions in the series can make up for it.  It was her know how and fearlessness that were primary attractions, that made women and men adore and respect her.

The best thing about Batgirl in Batman ’66 is that she fought crime like a woman, not a gender-disguised man, and had more courage than Commissioner Gordon or Police Chief O’Hara to go into action against the villains.  She was on level with Batman and, when costumed, was treated like a crime fighter, not an available female.  Though she was called a “beguiling beauty” by the narrator, her actions proved she was more than just surface fluff, and proved to be an important partner in Batman ’66 and the realm of female heroes.

The Mythology of Steak and How Americans Cheapened It.

In Roland Barthes’ short essay, “Steak and Chips,” he discusses the ways in which steak is a specialty and a cuisine. He details the numerous ways which a Frenchman may enjoy his steak, though it will usually be ordered saignant or bleu, as a way to keep the connection to the frankly carnal experience of consuming steak.

 

Barthes relays the experience as prestigious, comparing the shoe-like quality of a steak purchased at a restaurant to the succulence and thickness of one purchased in a bistro, and connects the image of the meat to images of blood. Throughout the essay, the idea of steak is elevated and made into something which seems like it almost shouldn’t belong to the poor.

 

Barthes’ ideas of steak stem from his experiences as a Frenchman. The ideas of steak in America are vastly different. In America, we expect our steak to be substantial, affordable, and cooked.

 

My first example of this is a commercial from a restaurant called Outback Steakhouse. In their commercial, they advertise four meals, each including steak, and one even including shrimp, starting at $9.99.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDba0uTTkDw

 

The commercial moves rather quickly but the main things Outback Steakhouse wants you to know are clear: they have decent portions, decent steaks, and decent prices. The flavor of the meat seems to be a side note, with the voiceover mentioning only the sweet flavor of the shrimp and that there are seventeen spices utilized to give the steak itself some flavor, rather than using the steak’s own flavors in the dish.

 

Barthes never mentions anything about portion size or price when discussing the experience of the mythological steaks. He only mentions the preparation. The above advertisement only mentions the steak’s preparation long enough to show that it is cooked and that it is seasoned. It is the centerpiece of the commercial and yet, it seems to fall into the background.

 

The next example comes from Golden Corral, which seems to give a brief nod to flavor but focuses mostly on price and quantity.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCUwvHzuo4c

 

The commercial quickly mentions that their steak is fresh, never frozen, and that the customer can choose four different flavors of wings but at that point it shifts the focus completely to quantity and price, quantity and price, quantity and price, The price ($10.99) stays on screen through the majority of the commercial and is repeated three times, and the words ‘all’ or ‘always’ and ‘many’ were repeated seven times in the duration of the commercial.

 

This idea of more food for less money is so important in American culture that some commercials have managed to forgo the experience of tasting and eating completely. While Golden Corral does make their food the main focus of the commercial, it is not the various options available for purchase but the prices they can be purchased for.

 

Though the final example, from Black Angus Steakhouse, seems to be about the steak, it still lets the steak itself fall away from the spotlight.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7a3sBeAr_s

 

This advertisement is, in a word, hectic. To summarize, there is a man, a bear, and a plate of food which Black Angus wants you to want. The individual items look small there are plenty of them and together they fill the plate, which is a neat trick. Eventually, it is revealed that the surplus of items is only $10.99 and the man scares the bear with a mighty growl. This commercial spends the least amount of time on price, steak, and even food in general, favoring the man and the bear. It is the farthest cry from what Barthes had in mind when he wrote his short essay and it is, in a way, the most American commercial of all.

 

In America we love to eat and we truly enjoy the idea of steak but we do not truss it up the way the French do or treat it like something extravagant and special. We expect it to be cheap and plentiful and available at every restaurant. It’s even available at most Chinese restaurants in the American section, though you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will suggest it to you. For Americans, steak is expected to be around always and without question so we’ve stopped concerning ourselves with how special it is and started worrying about other things, like how much we can get and for how little.

 

For the French, steak is an animalistic and primal experience meant to connect them to a little piece of the ancient men that they came from- they take their steak rare, consume the blood and let it sit in their teeth. Steak is a nature, an activity, an experience, and it is not to be trifled with.


For Americans, steak is simply and obviously a dish you can have at any restaurant for a cheap price. It better be a decent size, and it better be cooked just right or it will be sent back because in America steak is more of a right and less of a privilege. It has been so cheapened and so assimilated into daily culture that we have even gone as far as to attach it to silly jokes about men out growling bears.

Barthes in the Kitchen: A Review of Children’s Playsets

In his Mythologies collection, Barthes’s essay “Toys” summarizes some very dismal aspects of modern toy production.  Barthes describes that “all the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world,” and ultimately condition children for their adult roles in society (53).  He also discusses the way that modern toys lead a type of play that leaves the child, “as user, never as creator” by presenting activities that are “supplied for [the child] ready-made” and without the necessary application of the creative mind (54).

The presence of adult-like realism is apparent in many toys on the American market though perhaps most notably in the form of toys designed to specifically mimic adult jobs.  An example that I will use here is in the hyper-realistic kitchen set as advertised on Amazon. The effect of the role-funneling in this toy is twofold; on one hand it mirrors the dismal effect of toys in preparing children only for adult roles. On the other hand, the advertisement narrowly funnels children into already gender-biased and unequal roles in the workforce.  Currently the position of executive chef is still more often held by men than it is women, who are still more widely expected to be home cooks or more often lower-level positions if they do enter the culinary workforce. The playset makes an effort to maintain this unequal status-quo by depicting an enthusiastic, upright, young boy in chef’s garb standing next to the set in one photo and a smiling, kneeling young girl in conservative street clothes in another.  The underlying messages of these photos implies that this set will tend to funnel male children into the adult roles of “chef” whereas it will tend to, “‘condition,’” the young girl for, “her future role as mother” or housekeeper (53). Yet another boy (this one in loose vacation-type clothes) is depicted as not using the set at all but rather making an apparently shocking phone call next to the set, also dismally mirroring the gendered perception of men avoiding food preparation at home. This paired with the physical condition of the kneeling girl being lower than her chef-to-be or phone-call-making counterparts creates a message within the advertisement that cannot be ignored.

While the presence of a “user” versus “creator” role for the child may seem to lean towards that of a creator, the set undermines even its own good intentions on the matter.  Cooking itself being a creative act, the overt goal of the set might be to foster a familiarity and joy in creating food.  However the set itself destroys this opportunity and leaves the child instead as a user of uniform plastic foods that had already existed as depicted in several of the photos.  The children are not even encouraged to create or manipulate their plastic space, limiting their experience with the set further. Rather than be able to choose paint, brands, scenery, or what stocks their kitchen, the best these children can do to alter the environment of this set it to move the dishes around in their designated racks or peel away the very stickers that offer the realism of the set.  In this way the potential act of creation is undermined and the value of the creative experience of home-owning or cooking (which this toy presumably aims at) is torn away from the child.

Ultimately, it may be said that the whopping $230 (plus another $40 for shipping) that this product would cost might be better invested by parents in starter cookware for their children and a little time spent creating foods with their kids.  Though certainly this type of activity might still be structured around adult roles, the creative value of this exercise is innumerable levels higher than the farce of cooking that is presented by this playset and the hundreds like it on the market.

Steak, Gum, and What It Says About You

A question you hear quite often in a college classroom is: “hey, do you have an extra piece of gum?” It’s innocent really, friends sharing or even total strangers coming together, but what does your choice of gum brand say about you? Are you any different if you happen to have a piece of 5 Gum or a stick of Extra? The marketing companies for these brands seem to suggest that you are.

In his essay “Steak and Chips,” Roland Barthes discusses how steak—or rather how people take their steak—is indicative to how these people actually are. He refers to steak in France as “a basic element, nationalized even more than socialized” and goes on to say “it [steak] is the very flesh of a French soldier.” (63). Steak then is a way of being for the Frenchmen, rather than a simple luxury. The idolization is similar to that as a spare piece of gum in a college classroom, a way of bonding people together. However, Barthes describes that it is almost blasphemy to eat steak in any other form but rare. He describes that even cooking it to medium (or as he refers to: moderate) is an “unnatural state” and is “understood more as a limit than as a perfection.” (62). For someone to take steak in any other form but rare is to then go against the French culture.

While not nearly as extreme on the national level, American marketing companies do play into this idea. For something as simple as gum, it seems almost silly that there should be any difference in attitude toward the thought that someone preferred bubblegum to spearmint. Isn’t gum, just gum? For 5 Gum and Extra this seems to not be the case.

First, let us take a look at the difference in the commercials:  

For 5 Gum, chewing gum is about adventure and experience. Their tag line, “stimulate your senses,” suggests that when you consume their product, you should experience it in every part of you and not just through taste. The woman shown goes through a series of events that mimic the three flavors being marketed. However, she is protected by the glass tube around her. This seems to suggest that the gum itself is overwhelming but not to the point that the user would suffer any sort of pain. It’s intense but not too intense—a happy medium that the consumer will just want to eat up.

On the other hand, the Extra commercial is all about appealing to family values. The father and daughter shown illustrates that Extra gum brings families together. It has been around so long that its presence is now a part of your family. The tag line of the commercial, “give Extra, get extra,” suggests that by chewing Extra, you’re making memories with your children that will last forever.

So, put yourself back into the college kids’ shoes, if you were given a spare piece of gum of either of these brands, what would you think about the person handing it to you? Of course, most of us would just be thankful for the gum and move right along without a second thought, but marketing teams do not seem to feel the same way. To chew 5 Gum is to be bold and daring, but to chew Extra is to be rooted in family values. Just like the Frenchmen and their steak that Barthes refers to in his essay, our perceptions of people can shift just by the brand of gum they carry around in their bag.

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