Good News For Future Women

I know! When do you read that kind of thing on this blog?

Ever-suspicious of the popular, I was easily put off of Olivia by this article, about how kids-these-days-is-spoiled is the latent theme of much new popular kid lit.

Olivia, who has been the subject of seven books, terrorizes her little brothers, tells baroque lies—after sharing a tall tale about her summer vacation, she breezily tells her teacher that it’s “pretty all true”—and deposits dozens of outfits on her bedroom floor while accessorizing for school. In her anarchic spirit, she is a descendant of Maurice Sendak’s Max, the wolf-suited boy from “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963). Though Max is also impressively naughty—he chases his dog down the stairs while brandishing a fork—his mother is not amused by his antics. He’s sent off to bed without supper. After painting the wall, Olivia gets a brief timeout, but she’s soon being served a delicious pasta dinner, and her elaborate bedtime ritual remains undisturbed.

Yeah, I like precocious kids. But, you know, at least the kids in The Cat in the Hat are afraid of what their mom will say if she finds the disaster the Cat hath wrought. Don’t kids these days have a superego?

But then I saw that Falconer’s newest Olivia book is about Olivia getting angry at the princess regime of girlhood. She rejects it and seeks to topple the ballet class conventions.

Right on, sister!

So then I saw this article, about how advertisers are stunned (STUNNED!) to discover that advertisements whose hooks depend on stale gender norms actually TURN OFF a growing number of consumers.

The article could be better. For example, are men sad they can never be as beercanmanly as the dudes on TV? Or are they just offended that this is the sole mode of representation of masculinity on TV? I’m guessing (hoping for) the latter, but the article is fuzzy.

There’s also the sad last sentence: “He said: ‘We haven’t been as good at marketing our brands to women as we need to be. Historically we’ve had the same belief that says if you target men then the women will follow but having been married for 15 years I know from experience that that’s not the case.'”

Sigh. Old ball and chain ruining all his fun. Having her own opinions and all.

OK, leaving aside those bumps, the article actually cheered me up. If more and more advertisers actually employ creativity and originality, they’d have to toss aside these tired tropes. These myths about who we actually want to be. It takes a little bit of, you know, imagination, to come up with something else besides gossipy penny-pinching housewives and lusty mancave beerdrinkers.

And finally, the Olympics. Girls’ Women’s gymnastics. This reflection on their dual cultural role moved me and made me think that the kids may be all right.

They are self-esteem, body-positive heroes! Hurrah!

In girl world, gymnasts are superheroes not just because of the tremendous power they explode from tiny, ropey bodies, but because they are survivors and infidels. It is difficult to be an American teen-age girl and escape the venom of bodily insecurity that can slosh around inside a woman for the rest of her life. Somehow, through force of will and constant repetition, élite gymnasts have (for a night, at least) seemingly earned total faith and trust in their bodies. They can land blind. It’s a coveted state of mind.

But they’re also symbols of the kind of discipline and self-deprivation that our founding cultural norms have valorized. Including, you know, the bodily discipline that girls need to achieve what amounts to success in our world.

In the recent blogosphere flap-up about the girl who got cosmetic surgery to avoid being bullied, Jessica Valenti pointed out that girls know that they are worth exactly what culture thinks they are worth, according to their distance from impossible beauty norms. The closer they are, the better they are. Everyone knows this, despite encouragement to embrace inner beauty and whatnot.

There may be a bit of head-shaking over young girls going to drastic measures to feel beautiful, but we never seem to question the idea that feeling beautiful is a worthy goal in the first place. We should tell girls the truth: “Beautiful” is bullshit, a standard created to make women into good consumers, too busy wallowing in self-loathing to notice that we’re second class citizens.

Girls don’t need more self-esteem or feel-good mantras about loving themselves—what they need is a serious dose of righteous anger. But instead of teaching young women to recognize and utilize their very justifiable rage, we tell them to smile and love themselves.

Olivia isn’t trying to be beautiful. Nor are those Olympians.

But it’s hard, hard work to live life that way. Harder than flipping 2 1/2 times and then landing on a 4″-wide balance bar?


Maybe it’ll be easier in a generation. Very often, I think it will be.

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4 thoughts on “Good News For Future Women

  1. Melissa says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Love this post. I have to admit I am skeptical that advertising will or has become less gender-grody. I feel like every commercial wants to make me throw up. I tense up as soon the commercials come on and I see a married couple. R and I have been talking a lot about sexism in how the gymnasts are portrayed. For example, the way they are always (unlike other athletes) referred to by their first names, and quite often by their nicknames (Aly, Gabby). Also, the video montages emphasize them as sweethearts and little girls, showing pictures of them as toddlers in their leotards. The questions they get in interviews are about nonsense like whether they like Justin Bieber. They are seldom asked about their athleticism, which is what actually defines them. They are hard core athletes! Same with the women volleyball players — so many questions about their bikinis and so few about their serves. Disgusting!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Melissa, I know what you mean about advertising. I try to avoid it, which means I don’t see much TV. At least, much TV that isn’t streaming on Netflix. I’m not in a sports fan household, though!

      I saw on Twitter an amazing clip of Anne Hathaway dealing with the exact same issue these athletes deal with: constant questions about her diet plan. Instead of questions about the actual movie that, according to all the reviews I’ve read, she stole.

      She kept saying to the interviewer “Why do you keep asking me this? Are you on a diet? Are you trying to fit into a catsuit? You look great!” It was impressive!

  2. Gene says:

    Girls have it hard. No question about it. Try explaining to your girls how to accept their desire to be attractive to “boys” and to, yet, avoid unwanted attention and stay safe. My mom wrote 600 peer reviewed pages on the subject of gifted girls and their struggles…and I, her son, still struggle with how to teach my own daughters.

  3. Inder says:

    GAAAAAH. I’m trying to optimistic about all of this, but I periodically wonder if it’s getting worse, rather than better. I try to remind myself that the awful advertising, etc., is actually a sign that feminism has been successful – otherwise, such an intense backlash would never be necessary! But it’s hard, especially when you’re raising little girls.

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