Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Beauty Myth

I have made it through more than 40 years feeling as though I know less about women the older I get, but it seems as though women are clearly having their moment, or at least their latest moment, the moment after Betty Friedan, Fear of Flying, bra burning, the ERA, the Phyllis Schlafly backlash, sky rocketing divorce rates, cracking various glass ceilings, the mommy wars and a lexicon of acronyms for white, upper middle class marriage and all its discontents and battles (don't believe me? Check - it's all there).  I half expect TIME to preemptively name this the Year of the Woman.  

In the past year, popular culture has made a meaningful pivot to consider the role of women in post-housing bubble America.  While TV has been feeding us a steady diet of Real Housewives, Kardashians, and other tripe that dates to Jessica Simpson being unaware that Chicken of the Sea was a brand of tuna fish and not chicken, Kristen Wiig's breakout movie Bridesmaids (which this viewer thought not particularly funny and about 20 minutes too long) heralded a string of potty-mouthed (and brained) TV programming that showed women could think dirty thoughts, do dirty deeds and have raunchy conversations about their vaginas and sex just like men joke about their dicks. Why scaling that particular comedic mountain was important is unclear to me, but nevertheless, Wiig spawned Whitney, Two Broke Girls, Don't Trust the Bitch In Apartment 23, and Best Friends Forever (any maybe one or two others, I didn't do an exhaustive check), all of which share a more ribald, and sometimes more cynical view of women's empowerment.  

Invariably, the protagonists are unmarried, or recently divorced or unsure whether they want to get married, or some combination therein.  In other words, marriage is still the alpha and omega - just as it was for Barbara Billingsley in the 1950s (look it up, kids), Mrs. Brady and a whole part of TV's family tree that holds up marriage and children as the defining role for women in society, it's just that today's female leads are more ambivalent about it, even though, deep down, we are led to assume they really do want marriage and kids, just like women of prior generations. Whitney Cummings may be a tart tongued ingenue, but she lives with a good hearted guy and fears/wants marriage.  The women of Best Friends Forever are respectively, living with a man and divorcing one (but already looking for her next mate). In this way, the language and attitude may be different, but the underlying theme is unchanged - marriage is to be valued and desired. 

The latest entrant to this genre is HBO's Girls, which examines the lives of twenty-something white women in Brooklyn navigating that delicate, and as portrayed in the show, aimless period of time after college but before any sort of responsibility is accepted.  As a commentary on entitled, upper middle class white people, the reviews suggest the show is a home run.  But if Lena Dunham is not archetypal for the majority of Americans who didn't go to a small liberal arts school and have accomplished artists as parents, the story she tells says something about middle class yearning, or more specifically, the idea that these young women were sold a bill of goods.  Having been coddled and babied growing up, with the "helicopter parents" and the shadow of 9/11, they have been birthed into an adult society they are ill-equipped to handle, the gains made by the feminists of yore handed back in the grimy hook ups on filthy couches, trips to free health clinics and a deep cynicism that would have those who fought for women's rights two (and four) generations ago, spinning in their graves (or leaping onto cable TV to bemoan.) 

Of course, in 2012, never has there been a time when art and life are further apart.  In the real world, there is, depending on who you believe, either a "war on women," or said war is just a manufactured drama made up by a bunch of liberals to make women hate Republicans.  Hilary Rosen stirred the mommy wars by indelicately stating something most people understand to be true - the wealthy have options to have a parent at home that the poor and middle class often do not - and when forced to make sacrifices in support of those actions, those with lesser means than Ann Romney have a better handle on what is important to women than she does (unless we're talking about which of one's two Cadillacs to drive.)  

Meanwhile, legislatures across the country have passed more laws restricting access to abortion than at any time since Roe v. Wade, the term "transvaginal ultrasound" is now widely known thanks to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Texas, and a near majority of U.S. Senators voted to approve a law that would have permitted any employer to refuse to provide contraception options within their health plans to their female employees based simply on "moral" objections. Mitt Romney bemoans job losses experienced by women but fails to mention that they have largely occurred in the public sector, where professions disproportionately represented by women, such as teaching, have been among the hardest hit by the cutbacks that have happened in states throughout the country.  

And therein lies the disconnect between the pretend world that Hollywood manufactures and the far more nuanced world we live in.  Ironically, all of this is playing out while the voices of those who are truly affected are rarely heard.  Lena Dunham is hailed as a voice of her generation, but what generation is that exactly?  Surely, it is not the generation of women whose boyfriends and husbands enlist in the military or the single moms in their mid-20s who did not have the luxury of attending pricey private universities. In the real world, where policies take away things like funding for Planned Parenthood and budgets are cut that remove teachers from classrooms, the laugh track does not cue the happy ending after 30 minutes.  

Hollywood produces what it thinks is profitable.  Tabloid magazines exist and flourish because people (primarily women) buy them.  As Americans, we enjoy piously judging celebrities, their flaws, weight gain, embarrassing photos and actions while being deeply envious of the lives they lead yet we wonder why the flesh and blood women in our lives are self-conscious about their weight, their looks and growing old.  Interestingly, rarely in modern times has the distance between what is being produced on television been so removed from the reality women are experiencing.  There is no Roseanne meditating on the paycheck-to-paycheck existence of blue collar America or Mary Tyler Moore representing the liberated woman of the 1970s. 

If anything, the entire movement runs the risk of collapsing on itself.  On the one hand, women have never been more accomplished - they matriculate into college, law school and medical school in greater numbers than men - yet continue to be underpaid for doing the same work, and are underrepresented everywhere from the CEO's boardroom to the halls of Congress. Perhaps their antennae is warped because the mixed messages society sends them about being career oriented  but having that dreaded "clock" ticking toward the oblivion that will be their barren uteri (?) at a time certain.  The closest analogue to where women are in 2012 is not in Brooklyn, but Manhattan, circa 1966 in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  There, women of another age are grappling with the problems and limitations that today's political reactionaries seek to relitigate - of sexual freedom, of being able to work and have children, of not being reliant on men to provide, of being able to make choices with one's life that are not dependent entirely on your ability to give birth to children.  Watching Mad Men through the looking glass of today's fixation on women is fascinating precisely because it feels current, which is sad.  One would have thought those battles had been fought and won once and for all. But like I said, I know nothing about women. 


  1. This is really thoughtful, thanks for writing it. As a female student, I agree that a lot of progress has been made concerning the status of women, at least in very general terms. We definitely have more options as far as what fields of work we can go into, but the odds are still quite significant. We are still fenced in by a weird, pseudo- 50's expectation of what is valuable in a woman's life, brought about by both men and other women. Marriage! Love! Children! Etc. Anyway, unorganized musings... I am really disturbed at how popular media presents women as well.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It is not easy to be a woman in today's society, I do not envy all the mixed messages culture sends you.