This was an article originally written for the blog hosted by the Cleveland-based fashion label, KalliRaes, published on March 24, 2015.
I’ve always been a huge sucker for the girly things in life. I was one of those girls in high school that had a princess lunch box for an almost uncomfortable span of time, pulling it off behind a thin guise of irony. I have a small diva shrine in my room here at NYU and a much larger one at home in Ohio featuring the likes of Dolly Parton, Julie Andrews and RuPaul Charles. And as a lover of all things ultra-feminine, I’ve always held a passion for movies featuring women, especially coming-of-age stories featuring young women (like everyone’s favorite, Mean Girls). It turns out that in 2015, it’s a hard interest to maintain.
I was appalled when they saw the trailer for The DUFF for the first time. When I heard the voice over of the oh-so-dreamy Robbie Arnell breaking down the acronym (“designated ugly fat friend”) I felt my stomach drop into my feet. What the hell? The demoralized face of heroine Bianca, played by (the obviously not ugly or fat) Mae Whitman, said it all as token Hot Guy Wesley (Arnell) informed her that she was the DUFF of her friend group. Seeing and hearing such a cruel, unnecessarily disturbing acronym getting so much airtime seemed incredibly offensive.
I tried to fight the urge, but before I knew it, I found myself at the Union Square Regal Cinemas paying $15 to watch the thing. To be honest, as the first new teen movie I’ve seen since graduating high school, The DUFF filled me with a vague sense of nostalgia (and relief to be in college) that I’d never experienced. The movie was extremely dumb with lots of awkward references to social media and a small role for Ken Jeong of The Hangover. The screenplay attempted to backpedal, claiming that one “doesn’t have to be ugly or fat” to be the DUFF, only to be significantly less attractive than their friends. How comforting. All in all, it was a silly movie with a forced message– and easily something that could have been on the Disney Channel if a couple curse words were revoked.
The advertising campaign for The DUFF was extensive and admittedly genius. As a movie that was created with the intent of reaching middle school and high school girls, social media was used heavily in the marketing of the movie. Highly popular YouTube beauty gurus in circles of teenage girls were cast in cameo roles. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, all of the main platforms were full of sponsored posts for the movie, making it hard to ignore…and even harder to ignore if one is already an insecure fifteen year old girl. Suddenly, the insecurities irrevocably tied to puberty and very early adulthood are put behind a megaphone. “Oh my god, am I The DUFF of my friend group? Am I fat? Do my friends really like me?”
Another film recently released, for even younger female audiences, is Kenneth Brannagh’s re-imagination of Disney’s Cinderella. Obviously, Cinderella, and Disney films in general, come with their own very specific set of problematic elements in representing women. From unwarranted passivity in abuse and pervasive whiteness to dependence on handsome princes, Disney really includes it all, and Cinderella is no exception.
This rendering of Cinderella as a character is even more dreamy and passive than the animated version, something that’s seemingly impossible. In the climax of the animated version of the movie, Cinderella is fighting to get downstairs and try on the glass slipper (with the help of her mice friends, of course). In this new version, Cinderella literally cannot be bothered, spinning around her dreary attic and singing to herself as the narrator explains that Cinderella was willing to let her happy memories of the prince fade into the past, the same place where her memories of her parents have fled to. WTF? Not to mention, this movie sports an almost entirely white cast, except for one African-American male playing the right-hand-man to the prince.
The most questionable elements of the film (as something made for children) are the highly sexualized physiques of its main characters. Cleavage for DAYS. And on everyone, Cinderella, Stepmother, Fairy Godmother, random ball-goers and ugly stepsisters. The Prince (who is undeniably Ken-esque) sports an awkwardly tight set of knickers the entire movie. Most alarmingly, Cinderella’s INCREDIBLY narrow waistline, about half the width of her shoulders, is featured extravagantly in a beautiful, glittering ballgown. The film easily could have been silent, as the screenplay didn’t do much for the plot– making the visuals of the film crucial in storytelling.
If I’m a nineteen-year-old college student and I left this movie convinced to eat less, what would fourteen year-old me have felt on the walk back to the car? This is what concerns me. It’s been said a thousand times, but media has an unbelievable amount of power in the lives of its consumers, particularly children. Reflect on your own childhood and adolescence: did you dress up as a princess? Did you get a bad haircut hoping it’d look like Hayley Williams’ hair? Did you tie up your shirt a la Britney Spears, feeling her look? While I’m guilty of supporting The DUFF and Cinderella with my money, they’ve only bolstered the feeling that I personally am afraid that movies made specifically for young girls are still portraying us and our sisters as sex objects and dimwits.
But, like, duh, right? This is an obvious point. Of course we’re still being portrayed as sex objects and dimwits, and we’ve all read a thousand articles written by girls a lot like me expressing this same point: the media is unfair to women and the influence of movies in children’s lives is palpable. Why isn’t this changing? Why, with every sad little Buzzfeed link and Thought Catalog article posted on Facebook, are things not evolving?
There’s a lot of potential reasons. First of all, men still hold the vast majority of power in the movie business (and most businesses), which doesn’t exactly bode for realistic, fairly-representative media for young girls. It’s not that men are Satan and are trying to spur eating disorders, but artists make what they find appealing. A lot of guys think boobs are great, so there’s a lot of cleavage. Secondly, and similarly, sex sells, both to men and to women (Everyone knew 50 Shades wasn’t gonna be good, yet it still grossed over $85 million on opening).
Most of all, sexualized and one-dimensional representations of women are so embedded in our everyday culture that we fall silent and let them roll by, like irritating images on a Snapchat story or slides in a boring Powerpoint. The word “feminist” is stigmatized, seemingly having lost its meaning. Less and less people want to justify their beliefs to ignorant people.
This is what I hope changes. As a member of the age range most highly, yet inaccurately represented, we hold a lot more power than the movies make us feel that we do. As an older sister, cousin, and mentor to many younger girls, I feel a sense of responsibility to talk to the young women in my life about their realities and how movies and TV make them feel. What would my astute ten-year-old cousin Sophia have to say about the popular girls on the Disney Channel? Has anyone ever asked her?
As a young woman studying to become a voice in the media through screenwriting, TV writing and playwriting, I’m in a potentially potent position to have my voice heard through mass media. However, it’s just as important to have calm, clear and self-respecting female voices in the lives of each and every young woman through more than just a positive TV show. In an age where the images from the Internet are pumped into our brains from the moment we’re old enough to hold an iPad, it’s more crucial than ever to remind girls of what’s real and what’s not. Point out the shitty photoshop job in Beyonce’s Instagram post to your little sister. Tell your middle-school aged neighbor that you think she’s fierce, exactly how she is. Encourage the girl you tutor to write down her stories. She, and her thoughts, matter more than she realizes.