Friday, June 22, 2007

Celebrity Women: Helplessness in a Jar

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.


Anonymous said...

While I agree that the Paris-PreRaph comparison isn't entirely apt, there is still a glamorization of weakness in women and strength and independence in men, even down to the "men don't ask directions" or "women don't go to the bathroom alone" maxims.

But you are right to parse the issues. Paris has significantly more in common with Mel Gibson than with Plath's iconic Esther Greenwood. We like watching the popular kids break down, shave their head, go on antisemitic rants, and otherwise humiliate themselves because it lets us feel better.

The proof that we like our women weak comes elsewhere, in the news articles covering Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi's clothing choices instead of their policies, rape cases in which the victim is not allowed to say "rape, assailant, victim, sexual assualt, or sexual assault kit". Or the fact that 3 out of 4 bankers are women, they represent fewer than 1 in 5 of the top execs. Naiomi Wolf, despite her brilliance elsewhere, missed the point.


MOG said...

Also, while Worf's point that we idolize these crazed women on television is somewhat true, we as a culture are pretty fascinated with anyone who doesn't deal with life well. You mentioned that fact that it is not just women who are being portrayed as weak and crazy on TV, and I agree, and would even take that a step farther. The media loves to focus on anyone who makes a scene. And, since very few balanced people make scenes, they are boring. I mean, in all honesty, how interesting is watching successful, balanced, happy people? As the majority, they are nothing new or interesting. It's only when someone fails to keep up with the expectations that the average person places on themselves that they become an anomaly, and anomalies sell. Not only does it make for more drama, but also allows the "normal" folks at home to have someone to feel somewhat superior to. I mean, if Paris can't keep her shit together and she has all that privilege, then I must be much stronger than her, since I've overcome way more obstacles.

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't think we simply pity Paris, Britney, etc. Despite their over-the-top lifestyles, we do still hold up their images as models of a certain postmodern beauty, sexiness and even entrepeneurship.

And in that context, I think Wolf's analogy does work. We get a thrill out of seeing these successful (yes, successful) women fall apart.

Having said that, there are many differences, as you and the commenters note, between these eras.

Jesse M said...

This comment is a little delayed, but I feel I should leave it anyway. Thanks for the input, Tref, Mags, and Bernie...

Bernie, I appreciate the acknowledgement, and I think the differences I pointed out in this post are genuinely important. I think we're a better culture because we're not so hung up on idolizing and cherishing the fragile beauty of pale waifs.

However, looking back on this, I see that I was, in sense, ignoring all the progress that has yet to be made in order to defend the progress that's been made so far. It's true... we need more entertainers like Joss Wheadon to step up and represent strong, nuanced female characters, perhaps in lead roles, and perhaps more often in the news and E! I don't want to congratulate TV culture for going halfway, and thereby give up hope for it going further.