March 5, 2010

Jessica Simpson's fall from grace and The Price of Beauty

I was flipping through my weekly research in the form of People Magazine when I came across an article on Jessica Simpson and her latest project, exploring the “Price of Beauty,” a new VH1 reality show.

I used to hold up Jessica Simpson as the poster girl for good press because she “followed the rules.”  This was years ago, obviously. This was when she was “thin,” proclaimed her virginity until her marriage to Nick Lachey and played the stupid but sweet nice girl. While Christina Aguilera was getting all sorts of bad press during her Dirrty chaps phase and other wild, hot young things of the time were getting equally negative and judgemental coverage, Jessica was flying above the radar. To me, she represented the new young woman of the Bush Jr years, a sort of virginal throwback to the 1950s in the form of a nonthreatening and loyal (to her daddy and her husband) good girl. It was about this time, approximately 5 years ago, that I had begun to notice ever increasing mediated messages that focused on staying home, baking brownies and seeking marriage as the ultimate forms of female fulfillment. Yes, that’s always been a theme for women but I had begun to notice a ratcheting up of these values throughout the media culture and Jessica Simpson was the epitome of this new young female role model being offered to young women and men.


May 13, 2009

Gender and Star Trek

….by Jennifer Weiner.

When the ads for the new film started running, I should have been suspicious. “Not your father’s Star Trek?” What was wrong with my father’s Star Trek? I liked my father’s Star Trek! But still, there I was, on opening day, with a bucket of popcorn, surrounded by what looked like the entire staff of several area comic-book stores.

There was much to love about the movie. Kirk was hot, and Spock was cool, and their relationship felt just right, at once edgy and familiar. Unlike the earlier outings, where a shaken camera connoted a collision, danger, and/or black holes and time warps, the special effects were, indeed, special.

I’m not so much of a nerd that I couldn’t handle the way the film chucked continuity and ignored some of the original show’s rules of the road (although, note to J.J. Abrams: if a Vulcan is bonded and his spouse suddenly dies, he either dies, too, or ends up in mortal agony, and should not be depicted just calmly hanging out on a transporter pad. Okay, fine, maybe I am that much of a nerd).

I was even okay with the way the plot recycled Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (in “Khan,” the villain deploys a Doomsday weapon because he believes Kirk was responsible for the death of his wife. In “Trek,” the villain deploys a Doomsday weapon because he believes Spock was responsible for the death of his wife….and let me just add that, in the all-important categories of “pecs,” and “scenery chewing,” Eric Bana is no Ricardo Montalban.)

Honestly, I didn’t have a problem until about midway through the film…at which point I realized that every single lady on screen was either a mother, a ho, or an intergalactic hood ornament.

That sounds like more of the same and exactly like your father’s Star Trek.

February 6, 2009

The high cost of traditional gender roles in a recession

Last spring, long before the impending financial armageddon began it’s death spiral, one of my young female students told me that in another one of her classes each person was supposed to make an introductory statement including their name, major and future aspirations.  Typical first day stuff. My student was taking my “Women, Work and Family” class and her other class was an introductory class in the department of “Family and Consumer Sciences.” This department houses programs such as family studies, nutrition and food science, fashion merchandising and interior design.

The entire class, she tells me, was populated with 18-19 year-old women and every single one said that in the her plans for the future included “doing nothing.” “Doing nothing” included shopping and grooming appointments.  Ever the critic of traditional gender roles, gender roles, that mind you, never represented the majority of the population even while the mass media shoved these images of gender coupled with the nuclear family (heterosexual mother and father, man and woman, in a monogamous, romantic, legally and religiously sanctioned marriage with their own biological children living on their own property) down the public’s throat with homogeneous, middle-class, white sitcoms, I was surprised to hear that these women didn’t even want to work and exchange their domestic skills for the money the man made in the public sphere.  They just wanted to shop and have some other woman (an immigrant woman? woman of color? lower class/working poor woman?) take care of the house and children. Yeah, that’s realistic.

I was alarmed that these young women couldn’t recognize a fact that seemed clear to me.  We were not ( and are definitely not now) living in the same economic climate.  My class was assigned Stephanie Coontz‘s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap for the semester and Coontz compares the climate post WWII with the contemporary economic landscape prior to last fall’s economic house of cards being blown down (the signs were there for quite some time).  Post WWII saw growing infrastructure, investment and production in the United States. We can’t even compare to the economic state experienced at this time.

But, it was realistic for these young women and, really, I’m not surprised when I think about it further.  These teenagers had grown up in a similar cultural climate as women during the post WWII era in which domestic propaganda was unleashed in high volumes to urge women out of the work force and back in the home.  These teens had grown up in the conservative Bush climate for 8 years in which “family values” and religion had been tossed around with ever increasing frequency, television shows promoted endless consumption and the dumbing down of the American female, and becoming obsessed with the baby bump and celebrity marriages to the point that a public female figure was always asked about her marriage, cooking skills and highlighted her desire to be a mom.  Celebrity career second, natch.

Deborah Siegel‘s article confirms what many of us have know for quite some time: even if we, as women, wanted to stay at home to bake sagging cakes, birth and bathe babies and have an afternoon snack of tranquilizers, WE CAN’T AFFORD IT! “Traditional” (this is in quotes because upon cross-cultural and historical investigation it becomes clear that there’s nothing traditional or normative of these gender roles or the fallacy of the nuclear family) gender roles can’t be supported or sustained in this economy.  In fcat, they were not sustained for long.  By the 1970s women were launched into action by many variables including (surprise??) the economy.

I wonder about these young women in that other class.  What are they dreaming of now or are they planning for their future by being practical?  We can’t all marry a millionaire despite the claims that is is possible.


Remember that economic downturn of the 1970s?  It was part of what catapulted egalitarianism into the future.  Women went to work in droves because of a change in the culture — but for economic reasons, too.  Feminism and recession have gone hand in glove.  So if these Times couples come across as anachronisms, it’s because, statistically, they are.  They are operating from a model that is no longer widely popular in part because it no longer works — especially in times like these.

Could it be that the Times meant to provoke?  Because the gender mythology that courses through the article is as irksome as the class fantasy it conveys.  Says Framingham State College sociologist Virginia Rutter, “The reason why reading an article like this one is so galling isn’t because we resent the rich — but hey, it is a little galling to read about the people who have to curb their luxury vacations to luxury weekends — but because the suffering we are experiencing is a consequence of the privilege the guys on top were enjoying.”  In other words, these couples’ traditional gender roles were “purchased” through inflated Bush-era incomes that allowed executive wives to opt out of the workforce and hire a nanny too.

For couples like the Berrys, downsizing means replacing that fulltime nanny with a more “cost-effective” au pair and thinking about schools other than Harvard for the kids.  Loss is relative, and the Berrys’ pain is no less real than mine. However, highlighting such stories accentuates the gap between the haves and have-lesses.  I’d rather see stories with a wider range of families, a more realistic sample, portrayed. Recession is a leveler, and it’d be nice to see more level coverage.