Via PopPolitics, I discovered a fascinating look at images of beauty and weakness. It's written by Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth. The basic idea is that our current celebrity trash culture is obsessing with women who are helpless and falling apart, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, rather than paying any attention to the many women who are successful in their personal and professional lives. Wolf points out that this is part of a historical mass-media trend... depicting and idolizing the frail, wilting women who vindicate the men who get to handle them "delicately."
This is an important cultural trend to note, and I'm not going to argue that it's outright inaccurate. We DO see a lot of fucked-up women on screen, and a lot of them come complete with a "perfect life" celebrity archetype: Paris the spoiled playgirl, Britney the suddenly-successful teenager falling prey to the world of stardom. I DO wish we'd see more powerful women in entertainment media, praised and exalted for their strength and femininity.
However, Wolf forgets some important nuances that differentiate the classical "fragile beauty" ideal from the real-world sensibilities she's critiquing. We see Britney and Paris and Anna Nicole very differently than we see Marilyn, or than 19th century artists saw their figures. Back then, it was a privilege for women to be frail, and a mark of status for a man to protect someone sickly and helpless. They were genuine glass trophies, good for fretting, gossiping, and watching over the household.
Today there's a different spirit in the postmodern air. Nowadays, instead of idolizing the culture of helplessness, we shake our heads at it to distance ourselves from it. Anna Nicole wasn't beautiful because she was nuts... she was a comedy act. She was the big Other, the person we watched voyeuristically to escape from our own perfectly reasonable lives. Okay, so it's not portraying women in a good light, per se... but I think at least we're conscious of the excessiveness, the exceptional nature of these absurd celebrity specimens.
And it's not just women who inspire this kind of voyeurism, either. We put the same bubble of amusement around Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Ozzy Osbourne, and more recently David Hasselhoff... we love them, but mostly because they're comically surreal, and because our lives look nothing like theirs. Further, there have, in fact, been reality television shows where dozens of humorously-demeanored men had to crawl all over one another for the favor of the female character. You've seen I Love New York... don't try to deny it. The bottom line: I don't know if we can expect a realistic, intelligent portrayal of a female OR of a male on mainstream television.
If you really want to get a look at the social outlook on women, look at the actual social world, where outlooks are played out. Dating habits have very little relationship to these cultural obsessions with mania and frailty. In the world of everyday romance, women aren't held on pedestals because they're a burden, or because they need to be protected. We call that "high maintenance," and the vast majority of us look down on it. The same goes for men... Tom Cruise may be a heart-throb for a lot of women, but that fan club has gotten MUCH smaller since he started preaching the Word of Hubbard, and I don't think many women are saying, "He's been so HOT since he went crazy!" Normal men (and women) would have the same problem: crazy, unbalanced, and mania-prone aren't compliments.
But still, we can appreciate the occasional celebrity public humiliation and self-destruction, because they're behind glass (i.e. a television screen). They're the spastic, convulsing rejects of our collective self-image. Amusing specimens. Don't give them too much more credit than that.