A Woman Visible

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Is the Definition of Visibility Taking a Backwards Step?

I have been thinking a lot about what Sali Oguri said in an earlier post referenced in my last post (are you following me so far). She said (in part):

"This is a scary time indeed, what with the 1950s coming back en vogue--from the pages of fashion magazines to the Disney channel, I see the subversive quieting down of women and girls starting up all over again."
What is interesting about this quote to me is that other women are making the same observation. Right now I'm reading Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? In this book Ms. Dowd points out that many women are choosing the very life that was spurned twenty-five years ago by her generation of women. Instead of being at the top of the food chain at work, many women would rather be at home raising their children. I think that the magazines and the media in general have picked up on that trend and are maximizing their potential to sell and influence by responding to what women are saying that they want.

I'm not saying that women want to be quieted, or, as some men would say, put in our place. In fact, I think that's where the difference comes with women of the 21st century. We may be staying home, and raising our children (although I'm not part of that trend due to being divorced), but we are far from quiet. Many stay-at-home mothers are far from demure. They are active in their communities through volunteerism, through involving themselves in local politics, and through being visible in their children's lives. The doors are much more open now for that sort of thing than they were in the 1950s. Even if we're donning the pearls and heels of our grandmothers, we are not our grandmothers.
That being said, I find it interesting that many people still limit the way they perceive women to a few tired stereotypes. We shouldn't be surprised. When I think about the 1950s, as well as the 21st century, I am reminded, strangely enough, of the Victorian era. As much as we have fought to be visible in so many ways past these perceptions, somehow we always manage to slip back to these views:

Victorian Era

Angel in the House
In Queen Victoria's time, this was where you wanted to be as a woman. She is a woman that could clean the house, raise the kids, and look just perfect when her husband came home from being manly all day. She is a woman above reproach. No sordid affairs for her. No way. She didn't have time because she was doing so much for her family and her man. No time or need for formal education, in fact education for a woman was highly discouraged. In fact, many Victorians believed that education and (gasp) writing only made women hysterical. Maybe that explains my problem, eh? This stereotype was held up in literature, and in society. Ibsen challenged this concept at the end of the era in such plays as A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler. However, if a woman wasn't an Angel in the House, every one knew she could only be a fallen woman.

The Fallen Woman
She is also known as the "worldly woman." She was the woman many
married men of the Victorian Era would visit and even "keep" as it were. She was sexually promiscuous, knowledgable in the finer art of seduction, and was not a woman to be taken home to mother. Perhaps because of the Angel's uplifted position in society, the fallen woman had to take over the more base activities of nature. Afterall, the Angel wasn't expected to enjoy or crave sex. The fallen woman was often more educated than the wife at home, and despite the rhetoric of the era, which warned against consorting with "those type of women" or become one of "those women," were often sought after by men who found their marriages too stifling or boring.

What was considered bad behavior at that time would later translate into what literature calls "the New Woman." This woman was smart, able, and sexually aware. No wonder so many people during this period became afraid as more and more women became suffragettes.

My question is this--have our perceptions of womanhood really changed that much. We like to believe that Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem help to crush those perceptions in the seventies. I'm not so completely sure that our belief is well-founded.

Friedan and Steinem were products of the forties, fifties, and sixties. The fifties, in particular, seemed to step back to that Angel vs Fallen woman ideal. The favored women of the time were in both extremes.

Sexual Goddess

You could be Marilyn Monroe, the sexy, soft, fallen woman who moved from man-to-man both on the silver screen and in her own life. Her life was a mess, and everyone knew it but didn't care. She was sexy, and embodied what men secretly wanted in a woman (as evidenced by the fact that she was the first Playboy bunny).

Interesting enough, however, as much as men desired and fantasized over Marilyn, she was not the woman society wanted at home. She was had a role as a mother, or a wife as far as I can remember. She was just a slicked up example of the Victorian fallen woman.

Domestic Goddess
If you weren't Marilyn, your only real choice was to be June Cleaver or Donna Reed. June and Donna
were the Modern Era's version of the "Angel in the House." They were pretty, homebound women who raised their families, shopped, went to bridge club,made sure that breakfast, lunch, and dinner were on the table. And they did it wit their hair perfectly coiffed, their clothes perfectly feminine, and their pearls in place. They never broke a sweat and their husbands and sons were always happy to have her in the house. They were often the voice of reason in the house, but never the voice of leadership.

In other words---they knew their place. There was never a discussion of the need for them to work outside the home, afterall they were needed to take care of the kids. They were angels in the truest sense. I think that's why when Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) appeared in Airplane in 1980, it was so funny to hear her say, "Stewardess, I speak jive!" She set the image for as the acceptable woman. These women also provided the jumping off point for the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. After all the bra burning, marching, and divorce, have we really come that far? I'm not so sure.

Post-Modern Era

Desperate Housewives and Other Fallen Women

After all has been said and done about how far we've come, how we are woman, hear us roar. The truth of the matter is that our perceptions have circled around once again. Sali's observations are on track. In spite of our best efforts, society still wants to put women into the same categories we've already seen.

We watch shows like Desperate Housewives. These are women who are married but are doing every man that comes close to their neighborhood. If our society has moved forward, it is to recognize that the "angel in the house" doesn't necessarily just drive the kids in the SUV to school, and activities. She doesn't go home and dutifully clean the house, or play bridge every Tuesday. If we follow the logic of this show, she is a woman that is predatory. She is just waiting for the opportunity for her trusting husband to turn his back so she can go do her best friend's husband...and his best friend...and any other man in the general vicinity of her need. The secret life of the "angel" is that she is actually a sexual goddess. Who knew.

Society also tells us that being a single woman can only mean that we are shopping and searching for sexual pleasures. Shows like Sex in the City (which is a really funny show), elaborate on the desperate search by single women for the right sexual partner. These women may be accomplished, smart, funny, but their worth is place in their sexuality. Once they began to settle down, the show wrapped up and ended. Apparently, there's no such thing as Committed Sex in the City.

Domestic Superwoman

While we are being entertained by the sexual escapades of these women, we're being told something totally different by our society. Society tells women that in order to be successful and acceptable we have to be the best mom, the best worker, the best wife that we can be. We are being molded into the "Alpha Woman." The Alpha Woman is the "Angel in the House" taken to the next level. She breaks the Angel mold in that she is usually highly educated, driven, and has worked outside the home, but has returned to become the power of the house. On tv she is the woman that bullies her husband, babies her children, and does everything as perfectly as possible without messing up her hair or getting tired. She is powerful. She is cheerful. She is superhuman. We've all seen her, and she is all at once captivating and maddening. The only real difference between her and June and Donna is that she is willing to be loud, obnoxious, and push to get her way. What she learned from the woman's movement is that she needs to be in charge of the house, the relationship, everything because her man isn't smart enough or willing to do that work. She is the cynical angel.
I'm not so sure I like this stereotype anymore than I like the Victorian angel.

So, how far have we really come...I'm not sure. I do know that we should understand that women can't be categorized anymore than men. Unfortunately, I think society as a whole has a long way to go in gaining this understanding. As it stands now, we are spending a lot of time simply redefining stereotypes established almost too long ago to remember.


  • At 9:27 AM, Blogger Bill, the Wildcat said…

    Some really interesting points on the different roles women have had over the centuries. Frankly, I think the ideal is somewhere in the middle. After all, isn't the same true for the men? We're all, men and women, expected to do double duty these days: take care of the home and take care of a job. Not saying this is the way it works out, just that it should. And Lord! Why would any man want a sexually repressed wife? How boring is that? I know I'm glad women have gotten past the old saying, "Close your eyes, grit your teeth and think of England."

  • At 9:30 PM, Blogger Sali said…

    Hi again! I totally agree that the trend these days feels like the Victorian Era--single note perfumes are back in, long tiered skirts and big curly hair like Lillian Russell and check this out--it's no longer just the '50s trend but it's merging with the Country Western trend. Nature Girl is in, sexy is out! Have you noticed gauchos and big belts around you? Have you noticed new programs based on life in the country like Hannah Montana? The music that you hear on the radio and on TV and films sound more country to me than ever. The dichotomy you talked about is very much there, too--the muse of the moment in fashion seems to be Sophia Loren--there's a Disney girl who looks a lot like her except a very delicate, quiet version of her. On the beauty-fashion forums, the term "sexy" is very much attacked and "natural" and "soft" are being promoted as the current feminine aesthetic. I guess being sexy in the bedroom is OK as long as it stays there (and perhaps as long as we keep the firey hearth of the home burnin') and as long as we call it being "sensual", not that dirty "sex" word, oy vey.

  • At 12:26 PM, Blogger ididit08 said…

    I was just got on two little words that were written.. Oy vey. Yup those words do sum it up.. What are women today suppose to do? they have no cause like we did in the 60's. Nothing to gain substance from.No way to build character. Or be one for that matter... Why not go back into the world of being subservient. I would wouldnt you? Any women today should be thankful of us old enlightened women. We laid the groundwork and fought hard to gain what we got. I know for a fact that my bra was burnt many times, I've got the singe marks to prove it. and proud that I do.. Ladies don't let them fool you into complacency. come out where ever you and hike up your dress, cut away the bottom of that blouse and get you some platform shoes.. Woman unite and lets all get some Hagen Daz!!!

  • At 1:07 PM, Blogger Visibility said…

    Who says men are more complicated than women? From the looks of it, women can not be categorized at all. Changing eras or period brought out different types of unpredictable women category. Nevertheless, women are strong and dependent.

  • At 10:40 PM, Blogger Leeza09 said…

    That photo of the Victorian woman with the white fur collar - is it a photo of someone in particular, or can I use it on my blog?


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