I wonder sometimes about how far the feminist movement has really come over the past forty-four years since I began teaching in Northwest Indiana. In many ways the movement has made great strides in politics and in the corporate world, but in the media women seem still to be of interest primarily because of what they’re wearing, how much weight they’ve gained, and how they wear their hair.
In the fall of 1969 when I began teaching high school, girls were still on shaky ground before the Equal Rights Amendment was passed. Betty Friedan had made an important stride for women in her book THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE in the early 1960’s, but teenage girls in Northwest Indiana (and elsewhere) still believed that wearing the right hairstyle, eye make-up, and clothing would validate their lives for the only purpose society still offered through marriage and having children, just as most of their mothers had done. America was on the brink of a powerful feminist movement, but most of my female students in 1969-1970 were as yet unaware of the options that were coming to them. In some ways, that value system hasn’t really changed.
Certainly most female movie stars are in the limelight due primarily to their visual appeal, a standard of perfection that is easily shattered if the poor women gain even five pounds. The first thing said about each concerns what she is wearing. So and so stuns in her bikini or Ralph Lauren gown. Even the Duchess of Cambridge (wife of Prince William) has constant media attention, but that attention is due to her pregnancy, her hair style, and what she’s wearing. Almost nothing is said or written about what she thinks or feels about issues of the day or even about her own life (if she has one). In that way, women (at least those who are famous) are still mere mannequins in the media, held up as icons, not of thought or ideas, political issues or social change, but rather as visual paragons of such perfection that the average woman, though captivated by the ideal, must see that perfection as unattainable. The dieting industry alone is probably one of the richest sources of unending income in the country. The cycle from half a century ago is still firmly in place and likely to continue in terms of society’s infatuation with a pretty face and lovely clothes on a woman over any interest in what she thinks, feels, and accomplishes. When was the last time you read about what a man was wearing or how he cut his hair as the most important issue in a news article about him?
This brings up the question about how much our values in some areas have really changed over the past forty years. It’s not wrong to be concerned about looks and fashion, but when that concern becomes obsessive to the exclusion of real interest in social significance and thought, women are once again reduced to the status of paper dolls, to be admired only for their appearance. Imagine Madame Curie, Golda Meir, or Margaret Thatcher in a swimsuit competition. Absurd? Of course. The main message we are sending to young girls should not be based solely upon how they should look but how they can also actually help to change the world for the better through politics, science, the arts, charity, and the media. That change has begun and come quite a long way since 1970, but there’s still a long journey ahead for us all, at least through the media. Barbie and Ken are alive and kicking. JB