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November 13, 2012
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[Here's one I've had on the back burner for while. It finally came together after I'd seen the film "Miss Representation".]

"You've come a long way, baby."

Remember that one? By 1968 women had come so far that Madison Avenue designed a cigarette just for us. Since then, they have taken us on quite a merry romp in the "updating" of womanhood. In TV and movies, we have seen our roles transformed. Where once the female role was to provide utilitarian set decoration - a buxom girl with a steno pad off in the corner or a nurse poised prettily two paces behind the wealthy male patient or distinguished doctor - women characters began to take center stage in boardrooms, courtrooms and, of course, bedrooms. Women could now be the initiators in sexual encounters, a situation apparently both exciting and unnerving for the mostly male minds concocting these plots, as suggested by the easy transformation of female sexual aggressor to female maniacal murderer or tough-girl avenger.

Hollywood had it all figured out: If a good looking woman looked good on the periphery of the action, imagine how she'd look in a tight dress and high heels pleading the case center stage. And when the bound-and-gagged, ripped-bodice, helpless, virginal-but-damned-sexy victim character wore thinner than the nightie she was invariably abducted in, she could be replaced with the even more scintillating spandex-clad cat-woman character, whose punches and leg kicks showed off her curves. Over time, the female super-hero or anti-hero has "evolved" to the degree that she is also freely shown being hit herself. The violence in both directions has become more real, leaving the heroine looking very much like the old image of victim - bruised, cut, bloody and barely dressed.

On to the commercials, thanks to which basic bodily functions have been introduced as acceptable material for public discourse. Acne and hemorrhoid creme, sanitary products, anxiety medication, and every other remedy or product for any and every real and imagined condition, are out there front and center. Women may now be found all across the airwaves frankly discussing formerly unmentionable subjects. I do not deny that on some level this is progress. The time is long past when real, human issues may not be exposed in "polite society." But the time has also passed when we can equate the crashing of taboos with genuine liberation.

Extreme Extreme Makeover, Collage by Zelda Gatuskin
my collage "Extreme Extreme Makeover"

What we would like to see now are images of women that are not traditional - by which I mean, that are not the way men traditionally portray women. We want images that are actually realistic, meaning, how women really see themselves and want to be perceived by others. It would be refreshing to see portrayals of women created by women, portrayals of men created by women, and portrayals of men and women created by men who are not invested in the marketing power of pigeonholing and demographics.

I lament the ubiquity of the man's business suit as much as the bright-tight version of professional-wear favored by today's on-screen female "role models." In both cases the effect, if not the objective (though I think it is the objective), is to strip us of individuality in order to make us more predictable and easily-manipulated consumers. The man's suit and the grooming that goes with it de-sexualize his appearance while imbuing him with the power of conformity to a system in which his "type" is favored. Conversely, the woman's "uniform" and attendant cosmetic enhancements are meant to accentuate her sexuality, so that, however much wealth is evident by her appearance (and it takes considerable resources to look that good), she is first and foremost female. The man is a power figure to be followed; the woman is a figure of desire to be pursued.

Each generation that has tried to resist these stock identities has found itself in yet another battle for self-acceptance, often on the losing side. As more actual women (not the TV kind) reject the fashion dictates of Madison Avenue, the marketing geniuses turn their attention to the men. These days, men are equally the target of commercials intended to make them "need" something special in order to be acceptable. It is now essential that they perfume their bodies, condition their skin, soften (darken or increase) their hair, increase their virility (via medication or the stock market), flatten their tummies, and make themselves more "interesting."

Call me a curmudgeon (she of the tube top, hip-huggers and frizzy hair), but the younger generations' piercing and tattooing backlash to this Madison Avenue version of beauty and grooming looks a lot like self-mutilation. I admit, I'm not getting much traction for my theory that their heavy-metal style represents a deep, internalized self-loathing - certainly not from the young people themselves. One-on-one, "kids today" strike me as smart, confident and not at all self-hating. Their loathing is directed at societal bullshit and hypocrisy, and it is their right and duty to wage a creative campaign to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Each generation must fight that battle for primacy in envisioning the world they will inherit. Unfortunately, spontaneous, organic rebellion that emerges within any group these days is quickly trended and friended to death, with the "market" appropriating every new word and gesture for mass franchise: Young men and women who rejected over-hyped, mass-produced "fashion" and adorned their very bodies with ink and hardware have seen their style go from fringe to accepted to institutionalized via increasing refinement and reproduction by the purveyors of mass culture. Thus we find a relatively new stock character added to the hall of TV "types"- a goth-punk-styled, geeky young woman. She happens to be very pretty as well as very smart. She is empowered by virtue of her braininess rather than her figure - but let's face it, she still looks like a dress-up doll.

What I see generally in mass media entertainment is, whether consciously devised or not, an effective program of desensitization to violence, vulgarity and verbal viciousness. About "entertainment" violence, suffice it to say that if you spend half an hour surfing TV channels (you'll get plenty of movie trailers and video game ads in the mix too) you may come away with PTSD from all the shooting, burning, bombing, slashing, crashing, stalking, dissecting, threatening and torturing you will be exposed to. Likewise, verbal viciousness is sufficiently on display in print, radio and TV "news" that I will not elaborate on the point here, except to note that the nastiness and lies - nothing new, especially in the political arena - are now disseminated with lightning speed so that resulting disputes may escalate with equal rapidity. By "vulgarity" I do not refer only to sex debased to something like a joke, or debasing to one or more individuals, but images that are just plain gross and stupid. For example, we now have animated personifications of things like dirt and snot - though that latter word has yet to be used on-air. I suppose "snot" would be keeping it a bit too real to fulfill the marketing purpose, which is apparently to make "mucus" (dust, fat cells, germs, stomach acid, ants, roaches, weeds and unsightly growths) at once cute and killable.

Oh my. Cute and killable. That seems to be the same agenda Madison Avenue has for women. "Here, sweetie, have a cigarette." "Put on this bikini and run for your life." Meanwhile, the straight-laced types you might expect to defend our worth and integrity have fallen back to a notion of female "honor" that relegates us to, 1) the actual role of childbearing and rearing, and 2) its many metaphorical variants in society, such as office mommy - she who props up and cleans up after the overgrown boys in suits. It would be funny, or it would be irrelevant, except that women are not paid at all for their work in the home, and are not paid equally to men when they work outside of the home. And so we too exist in a prolonged version of childhood - financially dependent, disempowered, insecure about our identities, uncomfortable with our bodies, ripe for exploitation. The resulting tension leads to poor relationships between the genders and across generations. This is a battle that no one is winning, though some are banking on it, and laughing all the way. It's been going on at least since someone penned the venerable Adam and Eve tale - and that guy still has the pen.

The mass media is a massively wealthy and powerful cadre of elites who literally control the landscape and soundtrack of our lives. How long will we remain "babies," allowing them to drum into us the same simplistic messages of fright or comfort or desire or superiority or insecurity or hostility, like bedtime tales in rotation? Wake up. Grow up. The medium is not the message. We have to take responsibility for the message. Until we do, we'll keep getting the same old fare - reactionary condescension and amoral marketeering designed to make us feel like we're going somewhere, when we're really just tripping over our high heels.

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Copyright © 2012 Zelda Gatuskin

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