lost women
June 2, 2004 02:16 PM

A woman who has dropped out isnít even a slacker or a loser or a beat poet or a romantic or a drifter. She is hardly worthy of mention at all... (from lilyrepublic)

I've been meaning to respond for awhile to this, and the entry behind it. It sparked a lot of thinking for me.

It seems that the path of legend for women is blank. Not blank, but relatively so. Lily talks about failure as her specific example, but there are missing legends for women's success, too. There isn't a female Jack Kerouac, but there isn't a female Horatio Alger, either. There just aren't that many legendary ideas of women.

There are, of course, iconic literary figures. But most of them seem defined in cohesion or counterpoint to men, to marriage, to being a "proper" woman. And entirely too many of them are Jane Austen characters (literally or in essential similarity). The companion of the drop-out, the failure, the artist who just needs to discover himself, the savantish baseball league inventor, the rogue, is I just just the loose woman. Or the reformed loose woman. Some woman defined by her sexuality or lack thereof.

Yeah. That's weird.

There are sources other than popular legend for better icons. There are some good religious/mythological archetypes for women to look to. There's a whole subset of Jungian feminists focused on just that sort of thing. There are wandering women in myth; you could think of Demeter as a sort of righteously angry beat poet, par example.

What the television tells us, though, is another thing.

The popular sitcom format is a formula. It's a formula for holding your attention well enough to sell you things while creating a feeling of entertainment. It's designed not to provoke thought (there is television designed for that, it's just not sitcoms) but to be consistent. You get relaxation out of it. Advertisers get a semi-captive audience.

So, in order to be consistent, this type of tv has to present the simplest image possible. Men are stupid at household stuff and don't remember their kids' names. Women entertain notions of elaborate projects and end up dependent on men. Kids, most of the time, are the least stupid people on your tv. It makes you feel better about yourself, not just with the Schadenfreude, but (as I mentioned in reference to chick lit some time ago) because people being stupid and surviving and continuing to be loved means that you can survive and stay lovable. [I should really get a job professionally reading things into things. I'm very good at it.]

So, sitcoms are the worst and silliest we are (assuming, of course, that the sitcom even remotely represents your social and economic situation). But advertising is aspirational. In between scenes of people failing at everything and making the worst choices possible, you watch ads that target what you'd like to be. Ads geared at women tend to show them perfectly thin and perfectly balancing every aspect of their lives cause we're kinda obsessed with that as a culture - women as jugglers, the body as a project. And probably women in focus groups knowingly chuckle at these ads... don't I wish? they might think.

Advertising is odd. It enforces these ideas of what we're supposed to be by showing us what people in focus groups say they want or wish they could be. It makes sense. Products associated with our "best" selves seem more desirable.

Who is the "best" woman from a pop culture perspective? Is it a beautiful one? One attached to someone successful? If so, maybe the romantically failed and redeemed woman is found in the Cinderella story. Maybe she's the girl who takes off her glasses over the summer to become a cheerleader in the fall. Maybe she's defined in relation to someone else. It seems sad to think of women as defined not as successful or failing but as with someone failed or successful.

Definitely weird.

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I have to say though, sitcoms depict people as they would like to be. The house of the Seavers, or the [random sitcom family aside from Rosanne] is always the more-perfect-than-most-of-us house. It is better decorated, despite the fact that it might indulge in country kitsch. Also, how many sitcoms depict the "clueless dad". Perhaps the sigh of women in the the focus group of "don't I wish" is "yes I do that, but don't I wish I looked like that. TV replicates all of our lives, but tries to make us more of what we want to be, en masse, in percentages of the viewership. We want to see us as how we would like to be. Clearly, because men and women are different that manifests differently. It is ourselves in our own eye, and that is what television sells. I don't know how women should grow up. I don't know what ideal mentor a woman should have. I know how you did, and the measure of your character, and the fact that your parents expected you to be smart, and they didn't coddle you. And you were. I have watched my sister grow up like me in the same household, though differently, and I can only discern two things. 1. Men are overtly held to be more accountable. And actually violently (sometimes, or in the threat of violence) accountable for their mistakes. 2. Women become more sexually appealing in their youth then men do, and in a sense have power and danger to deal with at a younger age.
These are the differences that I can ascertain. And it does matter, but I have met many women where that is not a liability. I wonder sometimes if what you crave is a northern experience. Or an urban non-southern one. Not so much to change your ideals, which I value, but to expose you to a clime were people are not so caught up in the Va version of womanhood, which seems to be without power, or as much of it, to the one where there are powerful women that confound one's sense of weakness and power. One in which you can seperate out traditional expectations and find which parts of womenhood are empowering and which aren't.

these are the thoughts of Trey on June 3, 2004 02:45 AM

I don't think we should look to television to mentor us in any way. It's interesting to theorize about, but as you and I both said only represents what's already out in the culture, anyhow.

The same could be said for any form of popular culture - literary, whatever. It's a distorted reflection, generally a benign one (I still contend the specific format of the sitcome may show us situations that reflect ideal, but the people are still at their silliest, by the way). What I started out to say in this post was that it's interesting to me that there don't seem to be predominant themes of things like the "self-made woman" or the "girl drifter" in any part of the so-called mainstream; the image of woman in art/legend/whatever is still oddly defined in companionship. Which is odd, because that doesn't match the culture.

Or maybe it's not that odd, when you think of where the masculine counterparts to those non-existent themes come from. They're all very 19th century. Maybe it's just a problem of looking in the wrong place, then; maybe the Jack Kerouac/Horatio Alger/whatever themes are themselves outdated, so there's no need for a female counterpart.

I'm not getting what this has to do with geographical culture, though. Explain?

these are the thoughts of april on June 3, 2004 10:39 AM

The literary women I use as my mental models are those of Dorothy L. Sayers, in particular, the women in Gaudy Night.

Can't stand Jane Austen. And I don't watch sitcoms, because I hate that the women are generally stupid and that the kids are smarter than everyone else put together.

these are the thoughts of Natalie on June 6, 2004 02:11 PM

this was really great. i can't even think of anything more to add. just great.

these are the thoughts of kim on June 11, 2004 11:42 PM

This is an interesting subject. The only possible equivalent I can think of for a Jack Kerouac might be Dorothy Parker. Carolyn Cassady, who lived in a sort of plural marriage with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, is an obvious association. I always looked to rock and roll for my counter culture heroines - Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithful, Bianca Jagger, Chrissy Hynde, Stevie Nicks, Sharon Osbourne. Then there are the Witches - Z. Budapest, Starhawk, Margot Adler, Diane Stein, Shekhinah Mountainwater, Merlin Stone, Mary Daly. I love Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley. The women of the Suffrage Movement are great role models. Mary Cassatt, and anyh woman who manged to get her artwork shown before the 21st C. I can't think of anyone from TV, but there's an actress or two - Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda come to mind. Janeane Garofolo and Margaret Cho are pretty good counter culture icons.

these are the thoughts of Morgaine Swann on June 12, 2004 09:05 AM

I went to this awesome lecture on women beatnik poets last year, and one of the presenters made an excellent point. She showed a photo of the usual cast of Beats in India, and asked, well, Who do you think took the picture? There were female beatniks, but they were invisible to the culture at large because they were behind the cameras, not in front of them.

these are the thoughts of Kerri on June 17, 2004 09:00 AM

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