What it is to be a woman in Cleo from 5 to 7


Watching Agnes Varda’s 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 last night inspired me to write a post about feminist films, something that I’ll continue to do as a reflection on portrayals of women historically in the mass media. Finding important references to feminism, be it in books, films or art, is often difficult and you have to spend hours trawling on the internet (!), so I thought my blog could provide people with some extra help!

I thought Varda’s classic discussed everlasting feminist issues, such as the trappings of female beauty and the prevalence of everyday sexism towards the beautiful so simply, and it was incredibly refreshing to see a classic French film discussing these issues instead of simply fawning over a sweet, fluttery-eyed naïf.

We see Cleo, a singer based in Paris who is praised for her good looks and grace, awaiting the results of a cancer test. From 5pm to 7pm, in real-time, Cleo matures dramatically as she rudely confronts the meaning of her own life and the matter of death. Varda majestically captures Cleo’s regression as she realizes the vacuity of her own life, and her eventual maturity, as she comes to the realization that true life should be seized when you may have little of it left to enjoy.

Cleo does away with her lover (who treats her like a princess clad in feathers and sugar) those who write her music (who do not respect her obvious talent for singing) and tries to forget her own material beauty. At the start of the film, she states: “Ugliness is a kind of death… As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive more than others” and is constantly looking in mirrors at herself. However she soon realises, when whispering “everybody spoils me, nobody loves me”, that unless she makes strives beyond just physical beauty, she will always preserve herself as a sex kitten with a cherubic face – always loved, sadly never respected.

In 1960s Paris, supposedly at a time when women could live independent, fashionable and liberated lives, it’s sad that Cleo could only do away with her obsession with beauty and perfection, and try to live a life where she could be respected for more than her looks, when faced with possible death. That shows that it’s only (some might think sadly) in extreme circumstances that people make the grandest changes to their lives.

Varda portrayed that even when women are given new positions of power, such as being celebrities, it is an endless struggle to deviate against the norm of a sexy, beautiful, successful female.

Cleo was constantly struggling against that role, and what is great about her is that she matures and finds relationships that are meaningful to her, casting off her old shackles. She grows as a person and decides to question her objectification. You can only hope, at the end of the film, when she receives the results of her medical results, that she can live to find herself again and again.


“It takes a great deal of courage to design your own image instead of one that society rewards”

I don’t want to be really reductive and suppose there is a typical woman, or a stereotype, as that degrades the amazing variety of female identities out there. However, when I was reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch over the past few days, I found some sage wisdom on what to do if you decide to design your own visual identity as a female, instead of one that society rewards. What if you don’t want to go to huge effort to look immaculate all the time? What if not wearing make-up doesn’t make you want to flee for a life lived under a rock? Here’s a useful quote that you can find on p.165:

In some ways the operation of the feminine stereotype is so obvious and for many women entirely unattainable, that it can be easily reacted against. It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along. Of course, a woman who goes her own way will find her conditioning is ineradicable, but she at least can recognise its operation and choose to counteract it, whereas a man might find that he was being more subtly deluded.

Support for a ban on page three from those at the top is vital


David Cameron insists that he won’t support a ban of Page Three, unlike Ed Miliband, because, he says, there is a difference between newspapers, which parents could keep away from children, and the internet, where young people could stumble across hardcore pornography.

Does Cameron not understand that The Sun, the highest circulating newspaper in the UK, shines brightly everywhere? It dazzles in shops and cafes where you’d take your children at the weekend, it lights up adults’ waiting areas in crèches, illuminates supermarket cafes posing as drawing paper for children to scribble on, and even sparkles on pavements. I can’t count how many times I saw page three discarded on the street on my walk home from school, presumably by young boys interested in flashes of what they’ve not seen yet in the flesh. I wonder how they got hold of such naughty material?

If David Cameron knew more about young boys like those that went, from time to time, to my school in Doncaster, he’d know that hiding something from people doesn’t mean they won’t try to seek it out independently. He seems to naively believe that parents can save their children from enjoying black market sweets when deprived of them at home, taking a drag of a cigarette from a classmate who was old before her time, or even pouring through naughty magazines. What’s particularly sad is that Cameron is showing how far reaching his disconnect is from the common man, however many Ryanair flights he might take, or Cornish pasties he might eat at train stations.

If a young boy aged eight notices page three in a café amongst his bright crayons, he might ask what the woman is doing. He might then see similar things on advertisements and maybe, when his school friends get their hands on a porn magazine aged fifteen, he’ll see nothing unusual in what the topless girl with a huge smile is doing. That’s because he’s been used to seeing women represented in this way in magazines, newspapers, in film and on TV for so long. There’s something wrong with that.

David Cameron should think about the bigger picture. I’m not calling for the birth of a new puritanical world, The Handmaid’s Tale style, but stating that Cameron should perhaps look at the ways that women are portrayed across mainstream media and consider how this might impact on our behavior in regards to consuming online porn.  If women are portrayed as hot sexpots everywhere, men (and women) develop a taste for it and will pursue that kind of titillation (which is so reductive) in different ways.

We need a leader who might want to talk about the ways that the hyper-sexualisation of women in our media has an impact on the way we view women in society. In fact, it’s not just how we view women, but how we view sex.

We need someone who’s not afraid of speaking out against against major corporations like News International. We need people at the top to make bigger gestures. How else are things going to change, when street protests fall flat?

Hopefully Ed Miliband’s support of the No More Page Three campaign isn’t just gratuitous, eager-to-please opposition politicking.

Miley’s ‘twerking’ tells us nothing about female sexuality

“Sex is one of the most interesting things we as humans have to play with, and we’ve reduced it to polyester underpants and implants. We are selling ourselves unbelievably short.”

Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

The furore surrounding Miley Cyrus’s making of history by ‘twerking’, licking hammers and propping herself on a giant metal ball – although sexually provocative – tells us nothing about female sexuality. Also, instead of inspiring women, it seems to be driving more women to hate women.

Again, we’re met with the same boring, plasticine images of a female celebrity jumping around with no clothes on, in the name of ‘making history’. What I really don’t understand is how Cyrus intends on ‘making history’ post Madonna or Rihanna, without even taking the Wife of Bath into account. We should spare a thought for John Aubrey’s ‘young wenches…who get upon a table-board and wabble to and fro with their buttocks as if they were kneading of dowgh with their a-’, back in 1868, or the controversy surrounding Manet’s Olympia in 1865. This display of wanton sexuality in public is definitely not new.

Cyrus’s behaviour also doesn’t really tell us anything substantial about how women want to express themselves sexually today (if she intended to spark that debate). As feminist icons such as Germaine Greer have stated countless times, with all its make-up and thin bodies, air brushing and great lighting, Cyrus licking a hammer is unreal sexuality; posed and distorted. If Cyrus tells us anything about female sexuality in 2013, she only emphasises just how conformist we are in our attitudes to it and how accepting we are of reductive sexual imagery. In a time when we’re sold Fifty Shades of Grey and it becomes a worldwide bestseller when critics ridicule it, it’s time our mainstream media feeds us something with more substance.

I’m sure lots of young women admire Miley Cyrus and her music because she is rebellious, in the same way as Rihanna or Lindsay Lohan might be. It’s not true rebellion though, is it, when this kind of behaviour is now becoming the norm in the mainstream pop and fashion worlds. She could be truly rebellious by sending out useful messages to young women about exploring their potential through their intellect and talents, instead of through their looks (cue Lily Cole). As Sinead O’Connor rightly pointed out, Cyrus sending out the message that young women should be valued more for their sexual appeal than their creative talents is not a message of empowerment or liberation for women.

Media reporting on Cyrus is also turning women against women, as tabloids scrutinize everything she does and focus in on her ‘eccentric’ behaviour in typical freak show style. More and more women then find themselves commenting on this media reporting and saying negative things about her personality and her body – all in the name of women’s liberation.

We definitely shouldn’t live in a world of censorship and sexual expression is something that should feel natural for everyone. However, when The Sun’s Page Three still exists, women are still harassed in the street and women constitute almost two-thirds (62%) of those on low pay and are not given senior roles in work, a female role model, like Cyrus, should consider sending out positive and meaningful messages to her fans.

Rather than seeing images of female desire or that cater to female desire, we see mock-ups of living mannequins, made to contort and grimace, immobilized and uncomfortable under hot lights, professional set-pieces that reveal little about female sexuality. In the United States and Great Britain, women rarely – and almost never outside a competitive context – see what other women look like naked; we see only identical humanoid products based loosely on women’s bodies

From Naomi Wolf’s 1991 text, The Beauty Myth