Nina Funnell is one of Australia’s leading young feminist writers. A lifelong feminist, she became a vocal advocate for women’s rights after surviving an abduction and sexual assault in her final year of college. She pressed charges and went public, and in the process, became an activist. She now travels the country speaking to high school students about sexual violence and how to prevent it, and she sits on the board of the New South Wales Rape Crisis Centre. In 2010, she was recognized for her courage and her convictions when she was became a state finalist for the Young Australian of the Year award.
A regular columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and a Researcher at the University of New South Wales’ new Journalism and Media Research Centre, Funnell spends most of her time writing and thinking about how culture affects young women. Her research focuses on media coverage of “sexting” among teens, a line of inquiry that seems to involve watching a fair bit of Dr. Phil (if you think she deserves a reward for enduring this horror, you should vote for her to win Australian Cosmopolitan’s next Fun Fearless Female award!). It was a real pleasure to sit down with Funnell and pick her brain on sexting, consent and the state of youth feminism in Australia.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Nina Funnell.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to be involved in feminist activism, and what led you to your area of research?
Nina Funnell: My interest in feminism was first triggered at the age of 7. My year group was asked to put on the school play and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was selected. I immediately realized that there were only two (speaking) female roles; the innocent virgin and the sexually rapacious ‘whore’ queen. I started a petition stating that females should be able to try out for the male roles and vice versa. The petition was successful; the evil queen was played by a boy and I was assigned the role of Sleepy the dwarf.
All went well until the dress rehearsal. Standing in my hessian pants and itchy beard, I suddenly caught sight of the maids-in-waiting, all of whom were dressed in magnificent fancy dresses. Jealousy overcame me and I immediately forgot my little grassroots victory. I marched back up to the head teacher and asked, “why can’t a girl like me be a male dwarf in a dress?” This was my entry into gender and identity politics. As I got older I realised that what my 7-year-old self was trying to ask is, ‘how can women have access to the same roles and opportunities as men without having to surrender their femininity or alter their identity in the process?’
Throughout high school and university my interest in feminism grew and evolved. I majored in gender studies and was involved in the women’s collective at The University of Sydney. In my final year I was violently physically and sexually assaulted by a man who abducted, bashed, strangled and assaulted me at knife point.
I survived the attempt on my life and using my background in gender and media studies, I decided to speak out publicly about violence against women. I now sit on the board of the New South Wales’ Rape Crisis Centre and on the NSW’s Premiers Council to Prevent Violence Against Women.
Last year I toured around Australia speaking to 15, 000 high school students about rape myths, victim blaming mentalities, survivor support and the crucial issue of active consent. I continue to work as a spokesperson for survivors of sexual assault and I write a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald on a range of feminist issues.
I am also writing my first book which is based on my PhD research on the issue of teen-sexting and the complex consent issues involved in the production and distribution of sexually explicit images. Most of all, I’m interested in the ways in which “slut-bashing” discourses show up in debates about technology, privacy and sexual representation.
CA: Who is your favourite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?
NF: It’s a tough call but I can’t go past Kat Stratford, the lead character in the film “10 Things I Hate About You.” As a teenager I remember clapping my hands with delight at seeing a bright, articulate, young, feminist female character critiquing “the oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education.” Her views on prom (“an antiquated mating ritual”) and the chauvinistic, popular school jock (“I guess in this society being a male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time”) also thrilled my inner sassy young feminist.
In real life I adore my mentor, the feminist extraordinaire Professor Catharine Lumby. She is an amazingly insightful and feisty woman, but I particularly admire her personal ethic when it comes to mentoring and supporting other women – particularly us young ones.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
NF: Recently a young Australian woman named Kristy Fraser-Kirk launched a $37 million lawsuit against her former employer, David Jones, after the board turned a blind eye to her allegations that the CEO, Mark McInnes, had sexually harassed her. Following this, designer Alannah Hill insensitively remarked that she would have loved it if McInnes “had touched me up.” If this wasn’t bad enough, Hill went on to make an apology – of sorts. “I’m here with a priest, I’m on my knees and I’m doing my confession,” she told Melbourne’s Fox FM radio station. Hill said her business partner was “furious” about her comments so she was going to hold a “sorry sale” later that week, donating half the proceeds “to some sort of a women’s shelter or sexual abuse [charity]“. Asked what she would do with the other half of the funds, she said: “I might pass them on to the nice girl with the hyphen in her name. I’ve forgotten her name.”
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
NF: I constantly hear established feminists remark that “young women just don’t identify as feminists anymore.” And no doubt increasing young women’s involvement in feminism is a challenge. But every time I read comments like this all I hear is “I don’t see you, I don’t see your politics, I don’t see your work and I don’t value your contributions. You are invisible to me.” This is hardly empowering for young women who do identify as feminists. More to the point – it is young men – not just young women who need to be introduced to and included in conversations about feminism. This to me is a far greater challenge. After all it seems pointless to do conscious raising work with only half of the population.
In Australia, right now, 1 in 7 teen boys think it is permissible to hold a girl down and force her to have sex “if she has flirted or lead you on”. This isn’t surprising when you look at the magazines they read. A recent edition of FHM had a “manhood quiz” that allocated “10 man points” (the maximum possible) for having sex with a girl when she has told you she does not want to. There seems to be little point in running feminist-positive articles in women’s magazines if young men’s magazines – and the broader patriarchal culture – continue to promote rape positive attitudes and more general misogynistic values.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
NF: Well, I already live on a desert island and my three staples here are vegetarian lasagna, red wine and my lovely (pro)feminist boyfriend. Throw in a few good books (and internet connection) and it’s not a bad way to live.