Women as superheroes: Society, Storytelling, Technology (5)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 5 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

We all love Wonder Woman, we do. My childhood memories tell me that it was the only show with a main female protagonist, and I was glued to the telly when she was on. Until I had girls, I had forgotten that I had minded about the lack of females on TV until the day I watched part of the James Bond movie Die Another Day with my girls and they kept making me replay the scenes in which Jinx was centre stage. They didn’t want to see Bond.

I didn’t want to see Bond, I wanted to see women living out loud and having adventures. I have blogged about women centre stage before, mentioning: Suffragette, Spy, Star Wars, Hunger Games and The White Queen. And, after watching the Ghostbusters (2016) the all female reboot, I was so looking forward to Wonder Woman (2017), as I was expecting a modern day women-centred interpretation of a favourite from my childhood.

What a huge disappointment. I will just state up front: Wonder Woman is a male idea of a female superhero (or self-actualised woman), which would be par for the course if it had been produced by an all male team, but it wasn’t.

Paradise Island is a male fantasy of women warriors, honestly it was only missing some mud-wrestling, and it’s so patriarchal, all those sexy women – liminal women: an extraordinary phrase used by A S Byatt and @IsabelWriter in her fabulous poetry collection Don’t ask – hanging about, waiting for Ares to come back whilst preserving (probably fondling and worshipping) relics donated by Zeus. This pressed all my patriarchal buttons until it got worse and we saw that Paradise Island has permeable boundaries, and none of these women were monitoring the perimeter. Really?

Permeable boundaries is another fabulous phrase which resonated with me when I read it first in Ann Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident’s Daughter. She says that women are trained from birth to have permeable boundaries, so we can be invaded, serve others, not listen to our own self-actualisation, etc. Nowhere to date have I seen it better demonstrated than on the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman (2017).

So, hot (he tells her lots of times) Steve Trevor washes up on the shore and a glorious woman can’t take her eyes off him, even though she has lived for an eternity, and she follows him in his quest, to war: A war in which he doesn’t treat her as an equal, he tells her to be quiet, talks over her, renames her, denies her her identity and heritage, tells her how to dress, how to look, how to be, and expects her to toe the line. He then nips off to be a hero leaving her to endure a supporting role in her own movie!

The whole (clunky) plot fits right into the hero’s quest as defined by Christopher Vogler as the masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess and his updated female interpretation of the hero’s quest which sadly fits Wonder Woman’s journey in this film: Grapples with emotions as a romantic heroine, looking for the missing piece romantically. I’ll spare you the bit about homemaking. Yes please – feel the rage.

I am totally with James Cameron‘s criticism of this film when he says that she looks spectacular but seems to be designed to appeal to 14 or 18 year-old males. Looking at her half-brother Ares you don’t see him wearing a skimpy outfit which shows off his sexy form. Gods are supposed to have beautiful physiques – Diana does and add insult to injury, she is referred to as a God never a Goddess. Though, it works the other way with the female scientist – who was an anachronism if ever I saw one – she wears a mask because she is beautiful but has to be scarred to seem unattractive ‘cos she’s evil – a clumsy attempt as Chaucer put it in The Canterbury Tales as an outer manifestation of … inner characteristics. At no point does the film take us anywhere new and empowering, though it got rave reviews saying it did.

And, I get it. I do! I wanted Wonder Woman to be empowering and I wanted to write great things about it. But all it does is reminds me of those times when you want something so badly, like that job, that friendship, that interest in your book, to be good for you, and you want it so badly that you ignore the signs, you know the ones: the creepy, fake, lame behaviour which you think that with enough energy and patience you can turn into something else, but you can’t. All that happens is you feel betrayed by someone’s lack of integrity and you are left feeling that you’ve been had.

Lillian Robinson wrote a fabulous book about female super heroes called Wonder Women which aligned her joy of comics with her work as a feminist. She had lots to say about how Wonder Woman was created in 1942, and her creator Charles Moulton or William Moulton Marston had an interesting home life with his wife and children and girlfriend and children all living in the same house. Consequently, he thought Wonder Woman and her gang (which included Etta Candy) would conquer the world with some sexy lovefest which overpowers men’s need for domination and war.

Also, Wonder Woman’s magic lasso was really a symbol for using her wiles and feminine sexy powers to get a man to tell her anything. Her bracelets were to control her savageness. Anger is never accepted from any female – we have seen this from The Taming of the Shrew to Little Women’s Jo March. When women mature, they accept male domination, get behind the scenes and distract the menfolk by getting busy. Consequently, if Wonder Woman’s bracelets are chained together she loses her power, and Robinson had to wade through a lot of S&M themed editions as well as Marston’s copious lovefest fantasy notes to understand what was really going on.

Wonder Woman may be super powerful but she is not like Batman or Superman all muscly as she has to remain super sexy and attractive, with those magnificent breasts which stand up on their own in those metal breastplates. This means that she was super slim in the 40s and super toned in the 80s. She has always kept up her babe-status but is one of the rare female superheroes allowed to grow up: Super Girl for example never becomes Super Woman. She remains just a non-threatening girl. We don’t want our women fully grown, we want them malleable.

Robinson also points out that the term Superwoman is used to describe women who do everything, have a family, have a big career, run a home, which suggests potential exhaustion and no balance. There is no male equivalent. Men never talk about having it all. Men don’t need to have that conversation. So where does that leave us with self-actualised women and female superheroes?

Normally, at this point I turn to turn to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it explains most things. However, this time I can’t. Maslow only used two women in his group of self-actualised people, which Betty Friedan pointed out in 1963. Though, Maslow himself said he never expected the psychology community to swallow it whole and cite it indefinitely, he wanted it to be debated.

So, what I guess I am asking now is: What does a superwoman look like when viewed through a female perspective? And, fiction aside: What does a self-actualised woman look like look through the eyes of another self-actualised woman? I am asking because, that’s the movie that I want to see.

[6) Religion]

Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 1 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

[2) Bodies]

Semiotics: Finding meaning in storytelling

Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

We like patterns and signs to reduce complexity into something more manageable, and then we like to construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work because we like to feel that we know what we are doing, like we have some control over how the world works, so that we can say that everything is ok.

But in order to find meaning, we create meaning and when it feels right to us, then we say that it is so and we interpret signs, logic and symbols in that way. However, semiotics is not the study of what meaning is, but the study of how meaning is created.

In her book Semiotics and Storytelling, Bronwen Martin says that it is not just signs which help us make meaning, but also the approach of the Paris School of Semiotics led by A J Greimas which is a complete way of understanding a text, and everything it has to offer us.

The four principles

Meaning comes from the universe. So, there is no meaning without difference. There is no light without darkness, and the world only takes on shape with contrast. There are four principles which facilitate our understanding in any given text:

  1. Meaning is constructed by the reader. In the same way as the no function in structure principle. When someone comes across an artefact without instructions, then they will find a completely new purpose for it, depending on what they need it to do.
  2. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains.
  3. Story structure underlies all human communication. It seems that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to these patterns are the most likely to be believed as truth – they resonate. In order to be human, we must have a goal or quest, and from there, we have our experiences which we try and understand and make sense of (as the study of phenomenology: the study of the structure of experience, does).
  4. There are three levels of meaning in a text: the narrative level which contains the story-structure; the figurative level, which looks at time place and character; and the deep level or thematic level which links to our inner mental world with its concepts of good and evil.

The narrative level

Any narrative is a change of state or movement from one opposite to another: From life to death, or from conflict to harmony. It can be sudden or progressive where the hesitation has us on tenderhooks and we feel that it may still be possible not to complete the transformation, and that there could be an alternative ending. If a story is long, then it may have multiple transformations which are known as episodes.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp defined 31 story functions and seven character functions which A J Greimas reduced to six actantial roles: sender- object-receiver, helper-subject-opponent which he then put onto three axes of human action: desire, power and communication:

  1. The axis of desire: Any quest is motivated by a lack – of love, knowledge, truth – which leads to doing, transformation.
  2. The axis of power: A story may contain two subjects who quests are in opposition, they could be pursuing the same goal, or one subject takes the other as its object like a stalker.
  3. The axis of communication: The sender is the motivator for the quest and when the receiver receives the information, they are ready for the quest to begin and the action begins too.

Then, there is the canonical narrative schema (or global narrative programme of the quest) which has the sender and receiver negotiate (a) the initial contract to set up the quest which is then followed by (b) the competence stage when the subject (receiver) has the ability to carry out the quest, and (c) the performance stage when the actual event happens. Finally (d) sanction is where the outcome of the event is revealed and interpreted.

The story of any individual in a narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator. Often the confrontation of subjects results in the transfer of an object of value from one subject to another by test or conflict, or by a gift, or exchange.

Sometimes the narrative is interrupted by an active force or persuasion which causes a new quest and narrative to begin and leads us into a new direction.

The figurative level

The figurative level describes and creates our sense of time, place, and character, with descriptions which use our five senses. This level is important in storytelling and is also used in news stories to quickly set the scene and anchor it in our reality.

At this level we are looking for lexical fields or figurative isotopies. So, house, shop, car, factory belong to the isotopy of the city, whereas wind, rain, sun belong to the isotopy of the cosmic. We look for those relating to time and space and those which repeat themselves.

Then we look for differences: high and low, light and dark, to gain sense and meaning, and which link us to the thematic or deep level.

The deep level

The deep level concerns our inner world, our thoughts, and once we know where transformations occur and what is at stake then we can figure out what that means to us.

Then, it is time to ask: Where do the values come from? Martha Beck says that she was surprised when collecting folktales in China as they were never about falling in love, they were always about getting rich. So, in any story, we need to ask: What tradition are the values linked to? And does a story strengthen or challenge the status quo? Does it echo dominant cultural beliefs?

There are so many myths, so much resonance of stars as souls, a desire to return to an original unity, songs as a yearning for beauty and the sacred, we often don’t recognise them explicitly.

But, then if there are gaps or ambiguities in a text, does this allows us to fill them with our cultural heritage and assumptions? Does this render a text more universal? Or more truthful?

After all what is truth? Is the narrator truthful? Is the point of view true? Semiotics is concerned with the feeling of truth because it is the only measure of truth which human kind has been able to devise, no matter how far we think we have come.

Love the machine, don’t rage against it

Humans C4 courtesy of The Guardian
Humans C4 pic courtesy of The Guardian

The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet. – William Gibson

I was glued to the telly during the Channel 4 series Humans which is set in our present day but with a fictional history of robotics. In this alternate present, robots, who are known commonly as synths, have advanced to the point that they look, walk and talk like humans.

However, they have replaced many humans in the workforce causing high unemployment, protests, and rioting. (They have their own twitter hashtag #WAP – We are people). Smart and computer-savvy teenager Matilda rebels at school because if the synths do all the jobs what is the point of her working hard to try and get one?

But, it is not all bad, synths do all the chores around the house. How fabulous is that? Looking on the tie-in Persona Synthetics website, I could get Sally the synth to do childcare, cooking, and personal training.

What a shame household-synths are just fiction, even hoovering robots, which do exist and look very cool, wouldn’t do much to alleviate the repetitive household tasks of cooking and cleaning. Alas, I just don’t see a robot coming onto the marketplace anytime soon to keep my home running efficiently. Nor, do I see them taking over the world and turning me into a battery.

Derek Thompson in Atlantic magazine is not so sure. He thinks it won’t be long before technological advances have made such an impact on our society that there are no jobs for people.

In his article A world without work, he says that robots are everywhere: Operating theatres, fast-food counters, checkout screens, and in the sky flying as drones. Currently in the US, manufacturing is on a cyclical upturn so we can’t really see where else robots may be stealing jobs until recession hits, which is when employers turn to technology to cut costs. The effects of replacing humans may not be seen until the next recession, or the recession after that. But in the meantime Thompson says Airbnb has cut hotel jobs and Google’s self drive car threatens the most common American job of all – driving.

As humans, we adapt very quickly. Ask yourself: Would I trust a car without a driver? I trust the DLR and that doesn’t have one. What about black cabs? Would I miss the friendly banter of a London cabbie? I think I’d manage.

And, research has shown that even areas in which we imagine robots wouldn’t be as useful, such as in the field of psychology, people are very happy.  This is because they believe that robots don’t judge them like humans naturally do.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle took robots into old people’s homes and found it heart wrenching to witness one woman talk to an emo-seal about the loss of her daughter. However, I have to agree with Genevieve Tran’s comment below Turkle’s Ted talk 

The elderly person confiding in an electronic emo-seal is no different from a person praying to a god, who may or may not be there, or talking to a pet that definitely doesn’t have a grasp of life or death, but can give comfort by its presence.

And that is the point of  inventing anything: to give comfort and to make life more comfortable for humans.

Making life better

Since the beginning of recorded time, humans have always created things or artefacts to make life easier and/or better. For example:

These solutions probably created lots of new jobs such as butchers, engineers, drivers, night soil collectors, jobs which still exist today.  Ghanaian night soil collectors I am sure would welcome robots and technology to help solve their sanitation crisis and worry less about being replaced or robots taking over.

The fear of humans being replaced by computers

Joel Lee is worried too and has written a blog post to reassure himself that humans will always be needed in the creative arts, professional sports, healthcare and medicine, education, quality assurance, politics and law.

Poor Joel! The comments below his blog say that computers can do these things already. I haven’t checked all the links but they sound reasonable enough: Computers create art. An IBM mainframe is working with doctors to diagnose cancer, betters than doctors do. And neural networks are reasoning up a storm in many areas. As for sports, I remember when Chris Coleman was manager at Fulham FC and was asked why his team had no one English in it one Saturday. He answered by saying that he would put out a team of aliens if it allowed him to win a game. So, I am sure he would definitely been open to a team of robots.

Technology creates  jobs too

Technology may take away jobs but there are new jobs which could not be done without a computer: biomedical scientistsquantitative analysts, anyone working with big data: big data engineers are in fields from manufacturing right through to food production and hospitality along with big data architects who structure the big data, to name but a few.

However, these are highly skilled jobs in which you have to be skilled at the domain and skilled in computing. So, for example in hematology in biomedical engineering you have to know everything about blood and a lot about computing.

But, never fear there are loads more jobs with varying skill sets which didn’t exist before computers such as: twitter feed manager, video game designer, website manager, usability consultant.

I guess if machines got clever enough they could do these too. A quick google round the Internet shows me that a lot of people are upset about the idea that computers may one day do away with all jobs.  But really, if we are so advanced why do so many boring jobs still exist today? And why are new boring jobs springing up all the time?

Humans do jobs computers should do

In one of writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcasts, Elizabeth talks to Missy, a Florida call centre worker, who has to follow a script when talking to people who phone up to sort out their insurance. Missy is not allowed to deviate from the script or engage with the human on the end of the line in any empathetic way otherwise she is reprimanded. Consequently, Missy describes her job as the most boring job in the world.

Surely this is a perfect job for automation – it doesn’t seem to have been designed with humans in mind inside or outside of the call centre.

The paradox of work

Sadly though, Missy is not alone. Investors In People published a survey at the beginning of this year which said that 60% of UK workers are unhappy in their jobs, citing lack of job satisfaction.  The majority of people who work are doing for the money to pay for the things we need: food, shelter, etc., the things at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Two years ago the Swiss voted no to universal wages which is a scheme which would ensure that everyone, who was legally entitled to work in Switzerland, whether working or not would be paid a basic income.  Key supporter Enno Schmidt’s argument was that a society in which people work only because they have to have money is: no better than slavery. Instead, a universal income would allow people more freedom to decide what they really want to do.

The Guardian ran an article about writers on the dole saying that unemployment benefits have given many writers the freedom to learn their craft without starving. Imagine, if everyone got paid something without the need to explain themselves at the job centre. Oooh – no more jobs for the job centre workers.  Interesting.

It wouldn’t be enough though would it? Because we define ourselves using a premise which is false:  The more we do, the more we are worth. And so those people who used their universal wage to lie on the sofa and watch telly – very happily indeed,thank you very much – rather than tackle the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs such as status, reputation and self-actualisation, sadly, would be judged lacking. We judge everybody including ourselves.

And, this is perhaps where robots and computers can teach us something new and liberating, like the robot psychologists who don’t pass judgment. If we could all just be more flexible with our interpretation of worthiness and our expectations of how things like call centres should work (especially those ones in which humans are forced to behave like robots),  then perhaps we could learn to love the machine and not rage against it.