The Eagle Huntress: A Raving Review

aisholpan

Photo Credit: Asher Svidensky

 

I have a new heroine. She’s called Aisholpan. She’s 13 years old. She is The Eagle Huntress.

This is a raving review, not only of a beautiful piece of film-making (an amazing undertaking by novice Otto Bell), but of a girl showing bravery, resilience and passion despite the not inconsiderable obstacles of tradition and terrain. Set in the stunning mountains of Mongolia, The Eagle Huntress is a documentary that looks at the nomadic way of life, tradition and progress on an intimate level. As viewers, we are privileged to experience the coming-of-age of an extraordinary girl. Aisholpan is a trailblazer, but all the more for how unremarkable she is in other ways. She goes to school, looks after her siblings, paints her nails, has dreams of becoming a doctor. She lives in a world that is changing – straddling the nomadic tradition and the increasingly modern world.

Aisholpan’s forebears are Eagle Hunters: revered members of the nomadic tribes, bringers of food and fur, masters of the majestic Golden Eagle and, always, men. It is a male inheritance, a male ancestry. This is a celebration of non-conformity. This is a story not only about a young woman, but about the men around her that have the strength to correct a long-lived falsehood – that women are not strong enough, resilient enough, patient enough. Instead they are proud to say, ‘Women are more than enough’.

Aged 13, Aisholpan proves herself to be a robust and talented individual, regardless of those factors which others have proclaimed must exclude her. Even the proof of their own eyes will not persuade the tribe elders of their misjudgement.  Aisholpan’s victory in the festival is received with discomfort and disregard. ‘It’s proof of a sort’, concedes one of the elders. The objection remains that Aisholpan has yet to prove herself beyond the arena, that she must succeed in the wilderness, too – only then will she be worthy. The catch-22 is that the objective is one of which they do not think her capable.

All too often this is true for those who are female, non-binary, of colour. Going beyond the achievement of the male (or oppressor of any kind) does not guarantee triumph, it does not even guarantee equality. Yet, it has been said that the best revenge is success. Fitting, then, that the film ends with Aisholpan catching her first fox, having weathered the brutal conditions of the mountains. There is abundant proof of her capability and even more of her contentedness.

The role of the Eagle Hunter or Huntress is vital for survival; it serves both a practical and a spiritual purpose. The meat and fur provided by the day’s hunt will keep the families alive. The connection between the eagle and the hunter is sacred. It is a partnership built on mutual dependence; it is a significant connection with the natural world.

Particularly moving was Aisholpan’s attitude and outlook throughout the film. From scaling a mountain face to capture her eaglet to competing in the world-renowned festival (as the first female and youngest competitor), she approaches everything with a stoic calm and assuredness. Perhaps this can be attributed to her youth, but it is an attitude of which many young women are stripped early on. She turns an entire tradition on it’s head without missing a step. She is never disrespectful to her heritage, though; she is simply growing into who she is and has every right to be. Becoming an Eagle Huntress is not a child’s whim, it is an act of dedication and a sweeping aside of barriers that ought not to be there.

If in doubt, ask yourself, what would Aisholpan do?

 

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Worthy days

I’m all for lazy days. There’s nothing like that cat stretch under the covers when you wake up without your alarm. It’s a beautiful feeling. But, what feels even better is having a day planned around boosting your self-worth – worth getting up for. It’s a worthwhile thing to build into your calendar, maybe as a monthly thing. You can be as flexible or religious about it as you want to be; even thinking about saving the date will give you a little boost of yes!

It doesn’t have to be an entirely solitary venture, either. Maybe get a little crew together, write letters to praise each other to high heaven. There’s nothing more powerful than a bad-ass girl gang! (And nothing as destructive as girl-on-girl ‘this bitch bites’ bullshit) Or, meet up with a friend and give a mutual pep talk – big up artistry, knowledge, cookery skills etc… You’re a talented lot, so shout about it and remind each other when it slips your mind. No need to be bashful.

Get yourself in gear with a day doing what you do best. Don’t sit on your laurels. Keep yourself on the straight and narrow in terms of creative projects; sit down with your knitting and challenge yourself to do 5 rows, 10 rows, 40 rows… Sitting down and following through with one of your plans makes for a big boost in confidence. It also takes a bit of pressure off if you are working to a deadline. But, of course, taking these days can be anything you need it to be. It could be that you decide to revisit a childhood passion and do a few lengths at the pool or read back through a scrapbook that has nice comments in. If you like to lend a hand, check in with friends that might need a boost, or do your mother’s ironing while she’s out. If you regularly give too much to people, indulge in something that you love to do alone – read a book, shop without lending anyone money, start training for a race you’ve had your eye on.

Another route you could take for those oasis days is to focus exclusively and purposefully on your mental health. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • Trigger warning: Start a trigger/ worry diary and set aside some time each day to review the points you write down.
  • Bad hair day?: Draw a self-portrait of how you are feeling. Now draw one of how you want to feel and think about the ways you could achieve that happiness.
  • Target practice: Write a list of things you want to do that scare you. Share with someone who will help facilitate/ alleviate any fears surrounding your goals.
  • Careful: Think about any self-care practices you have and how to improve them. Try asking friends about their self-care practices and maybe try out any new ones.

 

The point is, relying on anyone else for your self-worth is never going to be that effective. Also, it takes time and concentrated effort to identify and deal with low self-esteem. Reap what you sow and all that.

 

Me, Myself and Merida.

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Merida is, by far, my favourite Disney princess of all time, ever. In real life, I’m probably more like Anna from Frozen, but I like to dream that one day I’ll be as bad-ass as Merida. And as ginger.

Princess Merida is a feminist icon. There, I said it. Not only does she rebel against the restrictions of female fashion and arranged marriage, but she proves why these things are unnecessary. She rejects her parents’ selection of suitors in the most spectacular and poignant way – by proving that she is her own mistress. She is the only one worthy of her own ‘hand in marriage’ and she makes no mistake in demonstrating to the world her worth. She is her own best suitor (see Tracy McMillan’s TED Talk on marrying yourself). Quite right, too.

Best of all, she is imperfect, as are her relationships. The crux of the film’s plot is the no-woman’s-land between mother and daughter. Of course, this all resolves itself in the typical fairytale way with a family group hug, but Merida is savvy enough to admit her mistakes and to allow her female role model to be equally imperfect and to love her anyway. I love Merida’s strength, but also how she develops tolerance over the course of the film.

Another thing that makes my heart sing about Brave is that the protagonist is a teenager. Adolescence is a difficult and turbulent time, but it is also a vibrant stage of awakening and self-creation which ought to be celebrated more in the media. Part of the appeal of films such as The Virgin Suicides, The Breakfast Club etc is that the characters are teens asserting their new selves in all their messy glory. Merida is no exception (apart from the fact that she is royalty). Being a teenager is a total ball-ache, catch-22 scenario (you’re not a child anymore, but don’t ever think you are mature enough to know your own mind) and it shouldn’t be. We should learn to listen to our young people and help them to shape their future. Merida’s initial rejection of her mother is understandable; she is denied the autonomy to decide on her future’s course. It is a painful reminder that she is at the in-between stage of life. We need to stop telling our teenagers that their opinions are invalid and that mother always knows best.

Merida is funny, athletic, generous, adventurous and a talented archer. These are all qualities that, in an older person, would gain her a great deal of respect and renown (although she is female, so, maybe not). She has an honest heart and is deeply loyal to her family. But my favourite thing about her is her loyalty to herself. She doesn’t compromise on her own aspirations, she rejects convention and still manages to be diplomatic when dealing with delicate masculine pride. I’d say she’s quite the catch.

MERIDA FOR PRESIDENT!

 

Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.

I’m a Feminist!

Ooh, you just cringed, didn’t you? Or was it more of a flinch? Maybe it was a knowing smile – a “middle-class, white, university-educated, 20-something girl thinks she’s got all the answers” kind of smile? Then, my dear, you don’t know me at all. But, frankly, my many neuroses aren’t the focus of this piece – it’s something much bigger than that. Call it what you want – gender equality, equal opportunities, anti-discrimination, sanity… it all boils down to the same thing. But we need to address the label, and I need to tell you why I’m proud of having it.

Names are powerful things. Example: Having someone spell your name wrong on an important document is irritating. Further example:  Calling a transgender person by the wrong pronoun is negating their true identity – it is an act of control and oppression. Likewise, telling someone that they cannot be a Feminist because they are a man or a model or a housewife or a Christian or because they wear make-up or are in a relationship or they like to be submissive in the bedroom or they are a man, is an act of control and oppression. If you believe in equality for everyone, regardless of gender, then you are a Feminist. Do not be shamed by your love of equality and tolerance.

If Feminism wasn’t a threat to what passes for ‘normal’, it wouldn’t sound scary, or be made to sound scary. Of course, there are people that go to extreme lengths with this belief system and, like any minority of extremists, their hatred comes to overshadow the essence of something which is based on love, tolerance and equality. One of the aims of Feminists is to remedy ingrained, fear-mongering ideas of women as having a multitude of negative characteristics. For example, the classic ‘hysterical’ woman is an argument long used by governments, husbands and employers in discrimination against women. It is easy to dismiss the anger or frustration of women, by citing ‘hormones’ or ‘hysteria’. For more on this, try this TED Talk by Robyn Stein DeLuca on for size. (PS: The 2011 film ‘Hysteria’ is just one of many reasons to love Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Likewise, the ‘angry Feminist’ trope is getting boring. Of course we are angry! Women are still not paid the same amount as men in equivalent jobs and still deal with sexual harassment as a normal part of their day. Don’t just take my word for it – read the @everydaysexism twitter feed or take a look at #everydaysexism or #wheniwas to see how our culture continues to undermine women’s freedoms and rights, starting when we are children. The most painful part of gender inequality is seeing people’s resignation to it; it is seen as a sad but hopelessly normalised ‘way things are done’. It’s time to kick that to the curb.

If we shy away from equality, we get in our own way. We should say what we mean and not trip over semantics. Don’t worry, shouting ‘I am a feminist’ won’t make a gang of death-eaters or snatchers come and drag you to the Voldemort. Besides, I find the prospect of Voldemort a lot more terrifying than people that want an end to inequality. We need to remove the fear from Feminist. Like Dumbledore and all-time-heroine Hermione say, ‘Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself’. And whilst Voldemort and his lack of hugging skills are deeply disturbing, he gets his comeuppance. If anything, the thing that should strike fear into us is socially ingrained sexism, but that is culturally gendered to be a ‘women’s problem’ so, why bother? Maybe it is because the word Feminist is also gendered female that people find it a threat. It’s an assertion of being ‘pro’ something – for women – which is misconstrued for being anti-men. And there it becomes a ‘man’s problem’.

Let us be straight – Feminism is the belief that those of all or no gender definition are and should be treated equally. It is a statement of human rights. It is a fight for an overhaul of a society which still teaches boys not to cry and girls not to be ambitious. It is the knowledge that physiologically we may differ, but that our rights and freedoms should not be impinged on because of these differences. It is the desire to put right centuries of oppression and dismissal based on something which is out of our control. It is everyone’s problem.

And trust me, Feminists do it better!