Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Dreamed . . .

I remember the famous Maidenform “I Dreamed“ ad campaign from when I was a very little girl. If I am not mistaken, it is the longest running series of ads in print ad history. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the ads depict an attractive model, clad in a costume that allows the Maidenform bra to be revealed. She is doing something fun or daring in the ads. The implication is a cross between if you dream it, you can do it, and this is so outrageous it can only happen in your dreams.

The campaign began in 1949 and ran through 1969 in its original format, “I Dreamed I... [did such and such] in my Maidenform bra” but then continued with variations on this theme which have continued into the new millennium. The dreams started out rather tamely, with “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra” and “I dreamed I went strolling in my Maidenform bra” in its early stages; then got more imaginative throughout the 50s; just a few examples—”I dreamed I broke the bank in Monte Carlo...” “I dreamed I was a toreador...” "I dreamed I played Cleopatra..."

By the early 60s many of the ads in the series (and there were a ton of them) took on a real action-adventure flair— “I dreamed I walked a tightrope...“ “I dreamed I was a knockout...“ (referring to boxing in a double-entendre) “I dreamed I took the bull by the horns...”

In the late 60s and early 70s, as more women were opting for serious careers, Maidenform dropped the fantasy element of the ads. By the 80s, the ads depicted women in their skivvies, performing their high-powered jobs (doctor, attorney, businesswoman) in a campaign with the slogan “The Maidenform Woman: You never know where she’ll show up.” Women everywhere disdained these ads and they were pulled. Here’s an example on the left, below.

Fast forward to 2005, smack in the middle of the previous He Who Shall Not be Named administration’s era. Here is that year’s ad. We’re back to dreams. Yikes! this one scarcely needs comment (despite this particular "dream" coming true, this is definitely not a nursing bra. Or the breasts of a real mother of a 4- or 5-month old). What’s next for Maidenform? A campaign titled “This feels right.” I haven’t been able to find images.

The endurance of the “I dreamed” ads (they are now quite collectable) speaks to how little it takes to fire the imagination of a nation of unfulfilled women. That ads for basic lingerie could spark the yearning for expression, adventure, daring and sometimes a bit of outrageousness speaks volumes. No wonder these fantasy-filled ads were so popular in an era when women lives were defined by domesticity.

Wait . . . hasn’t the average, contemporary woman’s life gone back to being defined largely by all things domestic? I wonder if Maidenform shouldn’t go back to that “I dreamed” campaign.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sluts and Studs

I've done several versions of this limited edition artist's book titled Sluts and Studs (and its companion, Tomcats and Trollops, which shows vintage photos of couples). I'm not the first artist/writer to explore the dichotomy between male/female sexual language, but it continues to fascinate. The images are from the 40s and 50s, and most of the language harks from an even earlier era. A sexually prolific man is a Stud, Romeo, Ladies' Man, or at worst, a Tomcat, Rake, and Womanizer. He is to be admired, or just a bit naughty.

Sexually active ladies are called, on the other hand, Slut, Tramp, Nymphomaniac, or variations on prostitute: Tart, Floozy, Strumpet. The dictionary definitions, which I've designed as part of the endpapers, only emphasize the contrast in language even more.

There still seems no term for a woman who is sexually active in a healthy sort of way, the female version of stud, perhaps. A recent movie (I Love You, Man) used the more recent word, Cougar, which I understand refers to a sexy older woman, but I'm not sure it has a positive connotation to it; there is a tinge of the predatory about it. If anyone knows of some recent sexual terminology along these lines, please let me know. It's a subject I'd like to continue to explore through my artwork.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grab that Brass Ring Already!

I’ve been thinking about why so many women are underearners. Most of the answers are obvious: cultural conditions, economic trends, the fact that women have only been in highly paid professions for such a relatively short time, etc.

A few statistics from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research: For full time workers, women made 77.8% of what men made in 2007. Translated into real salaries, this means that that average salary for a full time female worker in the U.S. that year was $35,102;for a full-time male worker it was $45,113 (before taxes). I wonder if these average salaries have eroded in the last year, what with the poor economy.

As an artist and writer, a recent article in the journal of the National Museum of Women in the Arts caught my eye. Women artists between the ages of 45 and 54 (years when we should be at the top of our professions) earned only 67% of what male artists in this age group made. And by the way, women artists are less likely to have children, according to this report. I can just imagine the thinking, because once those were my thoughts, too: “How can I have a family? I want to devote myself to my [art, writing, singing, acting, etc.]. So not only do many creative women forego having a family, they give up on making money, too. Not exactly a win-win.

Sorry to say, but even in a higher-paying profession like medicine, female physicians make 15 to 25% less than their male counterparts in nearly every area of specialty. Female attorneys salaries recently slipped to 70% of their male counterparts, as compared to 77% in 2005.

I’m reading an interesting and helpful book titled Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny. She quotes Betty Friedan: “The enemy isn’t men. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” The underlying theme of the book is that until we learn to value ourselves, we can’t fully realize our potential. Of course money isn’t the answer to everything. But it’s symbolic, often, of self-worth. As Stanny points out, it’s not that underearners don’t work hard. Some of the hardest working women she interviewed were the most chronic underearners.

I love this quote from the book: “What scares us most about financial success is not that we may fall short but that we may actually take flight and discover that we are, indeed, ‘powerful beyond measure’ (this alludes to a quote by Nelson Mandella). For many of us, that’s the very thing we’re trying to avoid.”

Certainly, cultural forces, conditioning, and real discrimination shape the wage gap. But I do believe that it's also a product of women’s perception of self-worth and self-esteem, or lack thereof. To close that gap, we’ve got to feel we’re worthy, and deserving. I’m working on it, how about you?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Taboo Subject Not as Taboo as it is Today

This is the cover of the March 1956 issue of McCall's magazine. Apart from the announcement of an excerpt of Sloan Wilson's new novel, the only headline is The Kinsey Institute Report on Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion. Remember, this is 1956. It is pre-Roe v. Wade, the decision legalizing most abortions, handed down in 1973.

The purpose of this post is not to debate abortion. No one would deny that it's a difficult subject. But it is one that needs to be discussed, and rarely is, by anyone aside from the far right. Can you imagine one of today's popular women's magazines featuring a headline for a sober, objective article on abortion on the cover, along with the celebrity interviews, diet tips, and decorating and shopping advertorials? Truly, it's almost unimaginable.

Nothing I could say would be as surprising as tone and content of this article, so I'll just let it speak for itself:

"Unwanted pregnancy," says the new report of the Institute for Sex Research, "has been a problem of mankind since probably the appearance of the first mammal meriting the word human... [note from me—the aforementioned sentence implicitly accepts the concept of evolution; I'm not sure today's ladies' mags would even want to get into that debate, either]

"Since the dawn of history prospective mothers have met this threat through some form of abortion, and the new Institute report showe just how frequent abortion still is today. It proves to be a modern social problem of far greater scope than most people ever would have dreamed.

"Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion is the first large-scale study ever made on this highly secret and elusive subject; it casts the bright light of statistical knowledge into a murky area where it was previously impossible even to make an informed guess."


The article proceeds to unveil statistics regarding age, social class, abortion deaths, and other data, in a dispassionate report. The conclusions are not really as important as the fact that the magazine and its advertisers were wiling to highlight this content and make it important. The article promises to be continued in the next month's issue, focusing on wives, widows, and divorcees, promising to "present the candid facts about the sexual activities, pregnancies and abortions of the growing group of women who have been separated, divorced, or widowed."

Surprised? I was. Abortion was discussed frankly at a time when out-of-wedlock pregnancy certainly carried a lot more stigma than it does now. Abortion continues to be a taboo subject in mainstream media, recent movies very much included. Think Juno, Alfie, Knocked Up. It's a subject not to be touched with a ten-foot pole, let alone examined. How can there be better solution to a painful problem if it is so difficult, if not impossible, to discuss?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

For the Exciting Woman with a Job!

For my ongoing media/cultural comparisons between today and yesteryear, I looked at several issues of popular magazines aimed at young women. I have in front of me several issues of Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Charm (which was later incorporated into Glamour) from 1956 to exactly 50 years ago--1959. The focus of these magazines is fashion and beauty. And oh, what fashion. I'm no fashion plate but I just melt when I see these beautiful, classy, affordable clothes. Where are they all? I scour vintage stores and all I see are corny Ethel Mertz-type dresses and other unattractive schmattes. But I digress.

What is the subtext of these magazines? That you are just biding your time, working at a nothing job until you find the man of your dreams, get married, and become a housewife? No, no and NO! The featured articles treat their readers and their professions and aspirations very seriously. Here are some of the features in these issues:

Charm, August 1959 is billed as the "special issue for the young tycoon." The lead article is "Are You Afraid to Be a Boss?" The articles in the Jobs section include What Makes a Young Tycoon, and Young Tycoons: On Their Way Up. In addition, there is a long feature on traveling in London (independently!) and "Boom in First Novelists" which very interestingly features the very young Philip Roth and John Cheever. What foresight! It also includes several female novelists such as Nora Johnson, whose first novel was The World of Henry Orient, later made into a film starring Peter Sellers.

Glamour, January 1956 ("the fashion magazine for the girl with a job") punctuates their fashion spreads with articles such as "24-hr. mothers with 8-hr. jobs," a lengthy discussion of the issues facing working mothers, and some solutions; Careers for women in the armed forces; an in-depth article on various forms of insurance; and In Your Future—Job, School News to Come.

Mademoiselle, January 1957 featured a thoughtful article titled "Who belongs?" discussing the inclusionary/exclusionary aspects of culture; Around and about MirĂ³ (about the artist); two short stories; profiles of several colleges; and not least, an in depth article titled "14 professions: what to study and where." What do you think Mademoiselle was proposing as professions to young women in 1957? Nursing? Teaching? Yes. But the other professions profiled were: Engineering, Architecture, Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, OT/PT, Pharmacy, Extension Work, Dietetics, CPA, and Actuarial Work. The article following, titled "The Best College for Me," briefly profiled 14 colleges by current students who spoke about how much they earned with part-time work at the college and why the college suited them.

I wondered, what the hell happened? These magazines are giving young women the message to take themselves and their careers seriously, to be well trained, well presented, and ambitious. Many of the professions above were then not hospitable to women until well after the feminist revival of the early 70s, and some are probably still not. I know female MDs (I have one), female dentists (I had one, and know a few others), pharmacists, and architects. I don't know any female engineers (maybe software engineers) and I don't know too many people, male or female, dying to be actuaries. But women in these professions are still in the minority, despite their swelling ranks in universities.

Fast forward. I hadn't looked at Glamour magazine since I was in my twenties (which still seems to be the demographic). The focus is still on fashion and beauty, though not in very classy terms. The other sections in today's Glamour are Health and Fitness (which are mainly about dieting and body image) and the big one, men and relationships. The underlying message is How to get your man, and in particular, How to hook him in with sex. Every issue blares at least one sex headline: 10 Things He's Thinking About When He's Having Sex (do we really want to know?), A Sexy Move to Heat Things Up in the Bedroom, 16 Sexy, Sneaky Acts of Seduction. By the way, in the 1950s versions there were no "How to get your man" articles. The rest is basically about shopping. No real articles on careers, or college, or culture. In one issue the closest it got was "Secrets of 5 women millionaires," which was basically a 5-part celebrity interview—in fact many of the full-length articles are celebrity interviews.

So the question is, does media shape culture, or just reflect it? Do young women want Glamour to instruct them on how to give a better blow job rather than enlighten them on art and literature and professional issues? I'm really not sure. All I know is that looking at today's Glamour was excruciating in comparison to its 1950s counterparts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

True Confessions

Today is the one-year anniversary of the day then-governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, gave his terse resignation speech, having been identified as “Client 9” at the same type of prostitution ring that he had prosecuted when the state’s Attorney General. And there was his wife, Silda, at his side, another victim of the public humiliation reserved for the wives of very public figures. Though she looks here as if she’d struggled through many sleepless nights, she looks like a lovely person. No one knows what goes on behind the closed doors of any home, let alone a governor’s mansion, or even, looking back to Bill Clinton, the White House. One has to wonder, what would make a man of this kind feel he needs to pay a prostitute $4,000 for a 4-hour session?

If you go back to True Confessions, October 1955, Dr. George Crane, Ph.D, M.D, says, “The wife, not the other woman, is to blame when a marriage starts to fail.” And he elaborates, “Yes, women have always been frigid as compared to the masculine standard. For woman was not designed anatomically to be a passionate creature.” His advice? “A good wife must adopt Shakespeare’s adage that all the world’s a stage and we are but actors thereon. A topnotch wife must be a talented actress in her own boudoir! She must train herself to show ardor and delight on many occasions when she really isn’t hungry for intense affection.” In other words, behave like a prostitute, albeit an unpaid one.

Thank goodness that advice-giving “Doctors” like Crane are dead and buried! Whew! Oops—not so fast. Following the Spitzer debacle, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the syndicated right-wing advice-giver, went on the Today Show and said this about the issue, “When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings, sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs.” This statement blazed around the print and electronic media, as variations of “Dr. Laura: It’s Silda’s fault,” and “Dr. Laura blames Spitzer’s wife.” This may be a bit overstating, but the message is still, if we don’t act the ego-stroking slut in our relationship, our man will seek someone who will.

No, men “cheat” because, as anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, monogamy is the most challenging of all marital models. Humans, like other mammals, are not naturally monogamous—throughout most of human history, societies have been polygynous. And in many cases, women were not expected to remain faithful to the same partner for life, either. I love her quote that “Humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.” Many of us, especially women, love the ideal of being mated for life, like swans (supposedly) are; but in this we’ve chosen a most daunting task. So, what’s the answer? Apparently, no one knows—not Dr. Crane, not Dr. Laura, and apparently, not even the brilliant, thrice-married Dr. Mead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Can Women's Hands Do?

Women's magazines of the 1940s and 1950s featured many ads showing women's hands (and thus creating an entire category of work for "hand models")—graceful hands with perfect nails, doing mostly domestic chores, and in some cases, shopping. Though today’s most popular women’s magazines rarely, if ever, feature “hand models,” I wondered whether they imply that women’s hands should still do the same things as they did sixty years ago. Or, do these publications somehow convey a broader idea of what work women might do with their hands—brain surgery, technical work, sculpture, farming . . . I wasn’t sure what to expect.

So, I picked up early 2008 issues of Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Quilting, and Family Circle. I didn’t even need to consult the ads, because now, many articles are “advertorials,” rolling content and advertising into numerous short, mind-numbing chunks. Sorry, ladies. According to the bland, white world of women’s print media, the main purpose of your hands is still to cook, clean, polish, wash, do needlework, and shop.

What are you waiting for? Take off your gloves, buy the recommended products, and get to work!