Saturday, June 30, 2012

153: The Self-Empowered Woman: BRAVE/Merida

Dear Followers,

Last week's top grossing movie, BRAVE, represented another milestone for women. After 17 years of feature filmmaking (and a dozen box office hits) Pixar has given audiences it's first female animated protagonist. 

Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the film's heroine, is a doer rather than a princess who is merely waiting to be rescued. She rides a Clydesdale named Angus, and lets her long orange-red curls frame her face like an unruly mop of sunshine. At first, naysayers worried that only girls would buy tickets for a film that didn't have a traditional male hero. But those concerns evaporated when the box office results of $66 million proved otherwise.

The story line is that Merida's mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) has invited local clan leaders to visit and compete for Merida's hand in marriage. Like many mothers, Queen Elinor would like her daughter to be more ladylike and pay more attention to her appearance. Merida's father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) represents the world of masculine freedom, hearty laughter and adventure. Like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Merida is a wiz at archery because her father has given her a bow and taught this spunky princess to feel right at home in the great outdoors. Audiences can't help but identify with both mother and daughter when Queen Elinor tells Merida "A lady does not place her weapon on the table."

The photo above is of Brenda Chapman, who is considered a pioneering figure in animation. She was the first woman to serve as head of story on Disney's The Lion King, and she also worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, Ratatouille, Up, Toy Story 3, and a host of other animated features. 

Chapman spent six years on BRAVE, which was inspired by her relationship with her daughter. She told the Los Angeles Times "I have this daughter who is very strong willed, very independent natured...I wanted to do a story about a mother and a daughter and what that relationship is like, the struggle...I love fairy tales and I wanted to do one that wasn't a spoof--something with contemporary, modern women and families. It wasn't just the mother and daughter, but a contemporary kind of family set in an old world fairy tale." 

After creating Merida and working on the film for six years, Chapman had "creative differences" just before the film was ready to be released. Although she remains with Pixar, she now shares directing credit with Mark Andrews. 

Historically, the animation industry has been dominated by men (much like the whole field of engineering, i.e., software, technology, etc.), but that is changing. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks recently announced that "almost every producer of our films is a woman." And today, at USC's Division of Animation and Digital Arts, at least half of the students in both the bachelor of art and masters programs are women.

Looking forward to your comments... 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

152:The Self-Empowered Woman: UNC & ZONTA

Dear Followers,

I've been out of touch recently because--thanks to force of nature Sonia Cooper (Cooper & Holly)--Tony and I (plus the ever-enjoyable Ed Broderick) spent the last week in Colorado, where I had two keynote speaking engagements. The first was at the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley), where I spoke at the graduation ceremony for Las Chicas Matematicas, and met amazing young girls (14-18) who knocked my socks off with their ability to problem solve and work with numbers.

The next event was a Meet The Author fundraiser where I met local Colorado writers, and learned about the amazing work that ZONTA International does on behalf of women everywhere. ZONTA was founded in 1919, and has over 30,000 members in more than 1,200 clubs in 68 countries (see the map above). Some of the statistics they use to remind women why they should join ZONTA appear below: 

70% of the world's 1.3 billion "absolute poor" are women
2/3 of the illiterate adults in the world are women
2/3 of the children not in school are girls
60 million women who would be alive today are "missing" due to gender discrimination violence
Every year, over 40,000 women in developing nations die from pregnancy-related causes

To remedy those depressing statistics, ZONTA International strives to:
IMPROVE the legal, political, economic, health, educational and professional status of women through service and advocacy; 
WORK for the advancement of understanding, goodwill and peace through a world fellowship of executives in business and the professions; 
PROMOTE justice and universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
BE UNITED internationally to foster high ethical standards, implement service programs, and provide mutual support and fellowship for members who serve their communities, their nations, and the world.

For more information:

It was an honor to speak to so many enlightened and enthusiastic women last week, and the memories of my Colorado author tour will stay with me forever.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

151: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dr. V Mohini Giri

Dear Followers,

In the past, I've written about a variety of  troubling women's issues around the world: child prostitution in Cambodia, genital mutilation in Africa, Saudi Arabia refusing to allow women to drive, Afghanistan making it hard for girls to attend school, Japan's use of "Comfort Women" in WWII, Somalia's Islamic Militia terrorizing nomadic women, etc., etc., etc.

Today I'd like to introduce you to Dr. V. Mohini Giri, who has devoted her life to human rights and gender justice in India and South Asia. Currently, she is best known for her work on behalf of widows in India. These women, once their husbands die, are "highly stigmatized," and she must never 1) remarry, 2) dress differently (see the photo above), 3) fend for themselves, and 4) eat only once a day. Currently there are about 40 million widows in India (this means eleven percent of all Indian women) who are struggling against this cultural prejudice.

Vrindavan (which is "the city of widows" and has always been considered to be a holy place for Hindus in India), is where 15,000-20,000 widows have congregated and live on the streets: some have been there as long as 30 years. The women there pray for seven to eight hours a day in public, and in exchange they receive a few rupees and one cup of rice.; most widows also beg on the streets, in Dr. Giri's words "it's depressing and demeaning."

Dr. Giri speaks nine languages and has earned eight honorary degrees, in addition to the postgraduate degrees she earned as a student. She is famous in India for her work to empower women economically, legally, politically and socially. She was lucky enough to have a father who had studied at Harvard, and encouraged her to complete her education and be of service to others (even though he died when she was only nine years old). A widow herself, her father in-law was the former President of India from 1969-1974, and during that time she was very active in social welfare causes related to the Indo-Pakistani war.

According to Dr. Giri, the biggest obstacle to ensuring that older Indian widows be treated with respect "is patriarchy. They don't change--they think they are superior. Slowly women are breaking their silence, but only the educated ones." An organization called Guild of Service was established to help women in need. In addition, Dr. Giri runs the Ma Dham Shelter where women can live in a group environment, learn a skill, and receive room and board.

In spite of the overwhelming challenges she faces, Dr. Giri remains optimistic: "I have hope for the future when I see the women in this country today and women all over the world...When I see the grassroots elected women leaders speaking about gender budgeting in the government's fund allocation, my heart fill with pride. These are women who until a few years back could barely sign their names...Aren't dignity and love absolute elements of life for every woman, man, and child? Isn't the woman born into this world with the same rights as the man? Without the woman could there be any harmony within the family, community and environment? No nation can develop without the woman's well being."

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

150: The Self-Empowered Woman: P.D. James

Dear Followers,

It seems fitting this week--when so many eyes are focused on London due to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee--that today's blog be focused on another amazing white-haired much-admired Englishwoman. I have been a fan of P.D. James ever since 1980, when I read Innocent Blood, which was her first best-selling novel in America. By now, of course, her dozens of books have earned her millions of fans around the world.

Born on August 3rd, 1920, in Oxford, England, Phyllis Dorothy James is today referred to as Baroness James of Holland Park (OBE, FRSA, FRSL), but when she was younger her life was far from enviable. She grew up during the Depression, and when she was a teenager her mother was in a mental hospital. That meant that James had to care for her younger brother and sister. At age 16 she had to leave school and go to work because her family was always in need of money (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Even though her jobs included work in a tax office, as an assistant stage manager for a theater group, hospital administration employee and civil servant work with the criminal section of the Home Office, James always wanted to be a writer (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

In her words "I never doubted that [writing] is what I could do and wanted to do and psychologically needed to do...I think I was born knowing it. From an early age I used to tell imaginative stories to my younger brother and sister. I lived in the world of the imagination...writing was what I wanted to do--almost as soon as I knew what a book was." 

Raised as an Anglican, James--who is a Lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society--has made no secrets of her religious faith. "At a very young age, I moved away from the idea of the benign gentlemen up there in the sky. I think I always believed that God was not visible. I always thought of him as an in-dwelling spirit...I do continue to believe in the existence of God, that he is loving and that it's possible to be in contact with him...I do believe in redemption through love. That is my religion..." (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). 

In 1941, James married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an Army doctor, and they had two daughters. But when he returned from World War two he suffered a mental breakdown, ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and she had to support the family (12: Hard Times). In 1968, she took the civil service open exam and began work in the Home Office. In her words "They didn't normally want people who'd left school at 16, and very few women were successful. But I was number three in the country on the exam" (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

James began writing books in the mid 1950's, and her first novel Cover Her Face (published when she was 42) introduced readers to the perennially popular Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. With strict work habits instilled in her from childhood, the detective novel appealed to James' pursuit of perfection. She told an interviewer "A detective story is very easy to write badly, but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into 80 or 90 thousand words--not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters...It takes me as long to develop the plot and work out the characters as to write the book. Sometimes longer." (10: The Critic Within). In those days, she would write from six until eight am and then go to work; she retired from her work in government service in 1979.

Never afraid to speak her mind, James recently ruffled feathers after she visited Sommerville College, Oxford and took note of the portraits of the first woman to graduate from the college versus those who are currently enrolled "If [those first female graduates] came back today, they would be horrified to see what kind of society we live in...So often this so-called independence means that you are paying someone else to do your work--you go out to work in order to earn money to pay the woman who is looking after your children. She is enjoying your children instead of you." And as a sitting member of the Tory side of the House of Lords, she became an outspoken opponent of political correctness (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

P.D. James has enjoyed a vastly successful career writing crime fiction, and in the genre she is as popular as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell and/or Patricia Cornwell. Obviously, she has spent decades being fascinated by mysterious death (7: Magnificent Obsession).

The young woman who for decades was never able to attend university (or start a career as a young writer)somehow managed to brilliantly--if belatedly--make her dream come true. She now has seven Honorary Doctorates and over a dozen major writing awards (8: Turning No Into Yes). James has always referred to her two daughters as "an absolute delight," and she has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren (16: Intensive Motherhood). 

When asked what her detective fiction said about her, James--who is now 91 years old and still writing--replied "That I am a woman who likes life to be ordered. In a long life, I have never taken a drug or got drunk...because the idea of being out of control is appalling to me...What I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation of murder...It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."

Looking forward to your comments...