Through the Glass Ceiling, and Beyond

Through the Glass Ceiling was one of my favourite- if not my very favourite- childhood films.

I was extremely excited when I discovered that the Leeds Animation Workshop had released it on DVD, as my multiple VHS copies had taken some serious beatings from re-watchings.

Becoming reacquainted with the story and characters all over again convinced me that I hadn’t been attaching fond childhood memories to my feelings about the film, it really is that fantastic.

This was proven even further when I set about luring as many people as I could up to my bedroom, simply to force them to watch it.

It’s a totally rewarding hobby- everyone laughs in all the right places and gets gleeful that anything this awesome exists at all.

At the same time that I discovered that Through the Glass Ceiling was available on DVD, I also realised that the Leeds Animation Workshop had produced many other short films on various topics. The excitement that I felt took me back to the pre-amazon days, when you might find out that an author you adored had more books than you’d previously suspected by browsing the shelves of a bookshop. Nowadays it’s very easy to chase up everything created by a writer, director or musician by looking them up on the internet, but I remember a time when cultivating an obsession was a little trickier.

It’s not that often that I get to be so pleasantly surprised that something exists. I might not have read/watched/listened to something yet- but I tend to know that it’s out there and be planning on working my way around to it. But not only was it great to know that there’s plenty of other stuff produced by the same people who created Through the Glass Ceiling, two of the films are its sequels and feature the same main character.

I’m not sure I remember the last time I’d wanted to squeal so much.

No Offence is the first of these sequels. It deals primarily with the issue of harassment at work- touching on sexism, racism and homophobia. As it focusses on the workplaceand the settings aren’t always wildly different to the real world- it may not have quite as obvious a wide appeal as Through the Glass Ceiling, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less valuable.

I really like the fact that it follows up on the fairy tale-esque happy ending of Through the Glass Ceiling by looking at the trials and tribulations of the now Queen Ella once she’s gained the castle she wanted. As in real life, getting the job or career that you craved can turn out to have plenty of problems of its own.

Ella discovers that having an equal opportunities policy is not, in itself, enough to ensure that the workers in her kingdom are free from harassment. After a string of disappearances she decides to disguise herself, in order to investigate exactly what’s going on.

No Offence again uses elements from fairy tales to explore these points. Some of these are a little more obscure than the incorporation of ones like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood into Through the Glass Ceiling. Although references to nursery rhyme characters such as Bo Peep and The Old Woman Who Lived in A Shoe are likely to be familiar to a wide audience, the elements taken from Bluebeard and Baba Yaga might not be as immediately identifiable.

As someone who’s a big fan of fairy stories and folklore it was really fun to see these interwoven into the story, and the paralleling of Bluebeard’s traditional key with the more modern computer disc was a nice touch.

Ella discovers that Bluebeard is at the heart of the problem she’s facing. He’s gotten several gnomes under his spell, and disposed of others who got in his way. The bewitching of these gnomes seems to serve as an analogy for the effects of patriarchy, and it’s rewarding to see a more complex approach than one that simply paints men as evil. These gnomes are portrayed as unthinkingly reaping the benefits of the situation, but as also suffering seeing as they’re under a spell, and it’s only when Ella lifts the enchantment that they gain autonomy.

Ella’s guided on her quest by a wise woman, and the cat that she lends her (which literally jumps out of the bag at one point). Like the fairy godmothers- and the magic laptop they gifted her with- from Through the Glass Ceiling such handy helpers might seem as unlikely a boon as the other fantastical elements of fairy stories, but I do think they have a real life counterpart. The benefit of asking for advice from others- be they family, friends or workplace mentors- cannot be overstated when one is facing a problem.

I think No Offence really captures the complexity of sexual (and other forms of) harassment in the workplace, and why it can be such a difficult problem to address. There are realistic characters and stumbling blocks- such as complicit women who don’t view it as inappropriate, and issues to do with how to dress in the workplace- which I think would resonate for a lot of people.

What makes this so useful is that it isn’t an easily dismissed overly earnest training video that cheesily restates policy and/or sets out what basic acceptable behaviour is. By taking real life problems and transporting them to a fantastical setting it forces viewers to address the core issues, rather than allow them to roll their eyes at something that appears obvious. On the surface most people would agree that harassment is unacceptable, but it’s often the small, endemic things that can really cause huge problems. I certainly think that the discussion booklet which accompanies the DVD is a very useful resource, as it allows the nuances of the topics discussed in the short film to be teased out and looked at in detail.

Ella’s story is continued in the charming Working With Care. It deals with the difficulty of juggling a working life with caring responsibilities- whether those are to children or others (an elderly relative, for example, or someone who is ill). Although Ella and her husband, Prince Charming, agree to raise their children according to principles of equality, he seems to unthinkingly prioritise his career over hers. Equality in principle does not necessarily mean equality in practice.

Over the years her fairy godmothers have functioned as a support network for her, however they’re over 500 years old and are unable to help out or get around as much as they used to. Ella in fact comments that they need fairy godmothers of their own. It’s not only issues of mobility- physical and mental health problems (for people of any age, be they relatives or not) may require care.

Working With Care explores issues of provision, prompting Ella to suggest serious reform of the health service. It also points out how difficult it can be to find information on what services are available, how oversubscribed they can be, and how susceptible they are to being cut by evil enchanter types. References to “meals on wings” and information “at the bottom of the garden” place this squarely in the fairy tale world of the previous two films, as do characters like Snow White (whose career languishes in a glass box in the forest) and Jack and Jill (who are interested in a jobshare).

The film looks at how responsibilities can have an effect on various people, not just mothers (or parents). Ella’s experiences on the road trying to find the answer to the riddle of balancing work, life and care (while the Respite Fairy gives her a break) underline the point that both men and women can both be carers- of people in various situations. The set-up at the dragon’s palace also highlights the fact that this balance isn’t only about finding a solution to problematic responsibilities. Employees and their families are human beings with lives that they ought to be allowed to actually live.

As the accompanying booklet adds, policies ought to be in place to allow employees the flexibility to further their education, participate in voluntary work or perform their civic duty by becoming a local councillor perhaps. The riddle that Ella is questing to solve is not simply about work and care, it’s about life too. As the response of Ella’s staff to the ruthless Queen Meg attempting to invade their castle demonstrates, happy employees tend to be the best, and most dedicated, workers. Allowing flexible patterns of work makes economic sense, as does genuinely listening to the opinions of the workforce and implementing their suggestions.

The fantastically titled Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics also deals with equal opportunities, although it doesn’t feature Ella. It was interesting to see a whole host of different characters that had been created by the Leeds Animation Workshop, and the fairy tale elements which had drawn me in in the first place were still present- from the Yaga name-drop to the carriage which magically transforms into pumpkin soup.

It’s mainly focussed on women and girls having equal access to scientific education and careers. It features a very traditional father who refuses to teach any of his scientific knowledge to his daughters, believing they ought to be cooking and sewing with their mother, and who wants his son to follow in his footsteps instead.

The androgynous identity-swapping twins, Joanne and Joseph, reminded me of a somewhat similar pair in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, where Alanna disguises herself as a boy so that she can be become a knight while her twin brother Thom pursues the magical career he yearned for. In Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics, Joanne and Joseph both have a thirst for all knowledge- they don’t want anyone else to tell them what they ought to be learning. The film neatly demonstrates that demarcating certain types of knowledge or skill as belonging to only men or women is nonsensical- especially by pointing out the similarities of chemistry to baking.

I feel that less and less do people come up against the explicit “girls can’t do science” attitude that Joanne gets from the Bigotrees. However, it’s certainly true that women are under-represented in the sciences and that successful female scientists aren’t particularly well-known to the general public. Women may be less likely to be hired because they might take career breaks in order to start a family, and those that do often find it difficult to get back on the career track. There’s a long history of women’s contributions to science being hidden and ignored, and there’s often resistance to re-establishing their reputations.

Expressing the importance of women in science, and providing corresponding role models to women and girls interested in STEM subjects, is a large part of making women feel like they can be part of scientific endeavours. But as the film demonstrates, perhaps science’s reputation also needs cleaning up. Rather than being portrayed as difficult, dirty, dangerous and damaging environmentally, other aspects of science can be focussed on. For example, the ready co-operation between Joanne and her (invisible) female colleagues is often seen as an important aspect of feminist and women’s values, as well as the underpinning of successful science.

I felt that this was an interesting exploration of the way that women are systematically discouraged from scientific involvement, with a hopeful twist. It was just as enchanting as any of Ella’s tales, and the titles of the books written by Zod- and his children- which appeared on the bookshelves at the beginning and end of the film were adorable. As with all the films, I think that the booklet which comes with is invaluable- it’s replete with statistics, discussion questions and plenty of information on female scientists.

All of these short films (and plenty more treasures!) can be purchased from the Leeds Animation Workshop, who offer bulk discounts- the details of which can be found on their order form.

One thought on “Through the Glass Ceiling, and Beyond

  1. Pingback: Come Out & Play « Pop Culture Playpen

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