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!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hooray (?!) for Hollywood

With the Academy Awards coming up in just a few days, it might be fascinating to look at the Best Actress categories over the decades, to see what kind of archetypes, stereotypes, professions, or lack thereof, the leading actresses portrayed. Movies are such cultural barometers that I expect we’ll find some interesting trends here. I’m going to look at eight years, in each decade starting from 1938, so that I can end with 2008’s winners. I’ll list the nominees in this category, and briefly describe the woman’s role in the film. The first name in each set is the winner for that year. Thanks to Wikipedia for making this information so easy to research!

Bette Davis - Jezebel, as Julie Marsden (a strong-willed southern belle)
Fay Bainter - White Banners, as Hannah Parmalee (a peddler)
Wendy Hiller - Pygmalion, as Eliza Doolittle (another peddler made over into a fine lady)
Norma Shearer - Marie Antoinette, as Marie Antoinette (the French Queen)
Margaret Sullivan - Three Comrades, as Patricia 'Pat' Hollmann (the tubercular love object of three German soldiers)

Jane Wyman - Johnny Belinda, as Belinda McDonald (a deaf girl who is raped)
Ingrid Bergman - Joan of Arc, as Joan of Arc (the sainted teen warrior)
Olivia de Havilland - The Snake Pit, as Virginia Stuart Cunningham (the wife of a financier, who finds herself committed to an “insane asylum”
Irene Dunne - I Remember Mama, as Martha 'Mama' Hanson (a loving mother)
Barbara Stanwyck - Sorry, Wrong Number, as Leona Stevenson (a spoiled, bedridden millionaire’s daughter)

Susan Hayward - I Want to Live! as Barbara Graham (a prostitute and drug addict convicted of murder)
Deborah Kerr - Separate Tables, as Sibyl Railton-Bell (the meek daughter of a manipulative mother)
Shirley MacLaine - Some Came Running, as Ginnie Moorehead (a poor “bad girl” with a heart of gold)
Rosalind Russell - Auntie Mame, as Mame Dennis (the eccentric aunt of an orphaned nephew)
Elizabeth Taylor - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as Margaret 'Maggie the Cat' Pollitt (a striving wife)

Barbra Streisand - Funny Girl, as Fanny Brice and Katharine Hepburn - The Lion in Winter, as Eleanor of Aquitaine (tie) - Barbra as the film star and comedienne Fanny Brice and Katherine as one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages
Patricia Neal - The Subject Was Roses, as Nettie Cleary (mother of a troubled WWII soldier)
Vanessa Redgrave - Isadora, as Isadora Duncan (the flamboyant dancer)
Joanne Woodward - Rachel, Rachel, as Rachel Cameron (a repressed schoolteacher)

Jane Fonda - Coming Home, as Sally Hyde (a veteran’s hospital nurse who falls for an injured vet)
Ingrid Bergman - Autumn Sonata, as Charlotte Andergast (a world famous pianist paying the price for having neglected her children)
Ellen Burstyn - Same Time, Next Year, as Doris (a housewife who meets the same man once a year for more than two decades for an affair)
Jill Clayburgh - An Unmarried Woman, as Erica (a spurned wife who finds work, liberation, and happiness)
Geraldine Page - Interiors, as Eve (an interior designer left by her husband and neglected by her daughters)

Jodie Foster - The Accused, as Sarah Tobias (a working class girl who is gang raped)
Glenn Close - Dangerous Liaisons, as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (a manipulative 18th-century marquise)
Melanie Griffith - Working Girl, as Tess McGill (a secretary who works her way to the top)
Meryl Streep - A Cry in the Dark, as Lindy Chamberlain (a religious mother accused of killing her baby)
Sigourney Weaver - Gorillas in the Mist, as Dian Fossey (a biopic of the American zoologist)

Gwyneth Paltrow - Shakespeare in Love, as Viola De Lesseps (the daughter of a wealthy merchant who disguises herself as a boy so she can star in a play)
Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth, as Elizabeth I (yet another depiction of the powerful Queen of England)
Fernanda Montenegro - Central do Brasil, as Dora (an embittered old woman)
Meryl Streep - One True Thing, as Kate Gulden (a cancer-stricken mother)
Emily Watson - Hilary and Jackie, as Jacqueline du Pré (biopic of a British cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis)

2008 (winner not yet determined at this date)
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married, as Kym (a recovering drug addict coming home for her sister’s wedding)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling, as Christine Collins (a single mother in 1928 whose son goes missing)
Melissa Leo - Frozen River, as Ray Eddy (a desperate single mother who gets involved in human trafficking)
Meryl Streep - Doubt, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier (a nun)
Kate Winslet - The Reader, as Hanna Schmitz (a Nazi guard)

What stands out for me is that, with the exception of biopics, where the actress is portraying a historic or inspirational character, their roles are very often mainly defined by their relationships to others—mothers, wives, daughters, lovers, victims. In a couple of cases here, if a mother is more defined by her profession, as in the case with 1978’s Autumn Sonata and Interiors, she pays a heavy price for alienating her family. Outside the family fold are roles of queens, prostitutes, general “bad girls” who either stay bad or go good, nuns. Few interesting professions or even adventures. The roles that go outside conventional narratives are usually based on real women, like zoologist Dian Fossey and dancer Isabella Duncan. In years not covered here, there are biographical films of Erin Brockovich, Camille Claudel, and Isak Dinesen, among others, depicting outside-the-box female lives. It’s as if screenwriters can’t begin to imagine fictional roles for women outside the standard narratives.

Best Actor Roles are filled with flawed men defined more by what they do than their relationships with others. There are businessmen, lots of boxers and soldiers, musicians, criminals, lawyers, spies, cops. Movies with strong (even if flawed, like Erin Brockovich) female protagonists are rare—just as rare today as ever. And two new popular movies (not Oscar caliber by any means), Bride Wars and He’s Just Not That Into You, play on tired female stereotypes.

I’d love to hear some recommendations for good films with strong female protagonists. I’d like to recommend, believe it or not, Little Women (1994), with Wynona Ryder playing Jo March, an autobiographical depiction of the book’s author, Louisa May Alcott; and My Brilliant Career, also a semiautobiographical film about the Australian (female) author Miles Franklin.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Best-Selling Women

Daphne Du Maurier

In troubled economic times, books and movies are necessary forms of comfort and escape. I’ll be doing a couple of posts about movies in the weeks ahead as we head toward the Academy Awards; but now I’m going to look at what Americans were reading during the 1930s—the era of the Great Depression, and which of the bestselling books of that decade were written by women.

As everyone knows, what makes it to the best seller lists these days is not necessarily what endures and is most often not literature. I had no idea what to expect when I explored the lists of top 10 best selling novels for each of the years of the 1930s, but what I did find floored me! At least forty percent of the 100 top selling novels of that decade were by women authors, and of those, many have endured and have indeed become classics. Others were by authors whose names are perhaps less familiar now, but who continue to be well regarded, and perhaps now underappreciated. Ellen Glasgow is one of them.

Take 1931. The #1 selling novel is The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. At #2 is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. The #3, #4, and #5 novels were also by women, but whose names were not familiar to me. #5 was Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes. This won the year’s Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The following year, The Good Earth remained at the top spot, and Pearl Buck also occupied the third spot with another novel titled Sons.

In the years to come, the names that grace the top-selling fiction list, both male and female, are literary legends: Isak Dinesen, Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne Du Maurier, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. And get this: Virginia Woolf made the list in 1937 for The Years. Do you think that, with its dense, complex language, a Virginia Woolf novel would make it to today’s best seller list? I would bet against it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was the #1 novel both in 1936 and 1937.

Just to give the men their due, some of the names on the 1930s lists include Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and George Santayana.

I don’t think that there’s a dearth of good fiction these days, but the best novels are not necessarily those that are read by the public in droves. What makes it onto the top-selling lists is awash with formula fiction by both men and women. I went through the list of top 10 novels for each of the years 2000 through 2008. Compared to the 1930s, what a letdown!

The percentage of the top-selling novels by women is less than 25%. Taken as the sheer number of women, it would probably be even less, since a few of the women appear multiple times—Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, and, sigh, Danielle Steele. Cornwall and Evanovich write crime/mystery novels, and I haven’t read any, so I can’t be judgmental, but it seems safe to say that they will not be handed down to future generations as classics. By the way, women authors are currently an even smaller minority on the non-fiction bestseller lists than they are on the fiction lists. Some of their bestselling male counterparts who appear multiple times on the 2000-2008 lists include Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and Tom Clancy. Lots of formula fiction from both female and male authors.

Notably absent from this decades lists was J.K. Rowling, due to some “rule” made about who can or can’t be on the list. No doubt, she has been the top selling female author of this decade, or indeed any decade. Of all the books on the current lists, I would bet that she would be the one of the only, if not the only, authors whose works will endure.

The few non-formulaic female authors appearing on this decade’s list include Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones, one of my least favorite books), and Sue Monk Kidd (Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, both of which underwhelmed me). No one is nearly in the league of Virginia Woolf or Isak Dineson, and no books are nearly as compelling as the more accessible yet wonderfully written Rebecca or Gone with the Wind. We can’t entirely blame the publishing industry for this. They give the public what they want. It’s painfully apparent that the paths of literature and commercial fiction are nearly completely divergent.

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this post!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tough Times for Mistresses

A mistress in better times: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress of King Louis XV of France

Last week the New York Times ran an article titled It’s the Economy, Girlfriend. It centered on a social group in NYC of mainly young women in their mid-to-late twenties who have formed a support group they call Dating a Banker Anonymous. They meet once or twice a week to commiserate over the Wall Street banking fallout and how it affects their relationships with their hard-charging, alpha-male boyfriends. Or ex-boyfriends, or married boyfriends. In addition, they’ve started a blog they bill as “free from the scrutiny of feminists.”

As the article states, they invite like-minded gals to join “if your monthly Bergdorf’s allowance has been halved and bottle service has all but disappeared from your life.” I have no idea what “bottle service” is, and the owners of this blog claim that much of it is tongue-in-cheek (though it doesn't come off that way). Bottom line: said alpha males are losing great chunks of their income, if not their jobs altogether, and thus, apparently lose their appeal.

The girlfriends, as they bill themselves, are clearly disappointed over what they are no longer getting, from vacations, to gifts, to regular sex and/or attention. Are these girls, in the traditional sense of the word, mistresses? defines “mistress” as a woman “who has a continuing, extramarital sexual relationship with one man, esp. a man who, in return for an exclusive and continuing liaison, provides her with financial support.” Taking out the word “extramarital” these Dating a Banker girls seem to fit the definition. I suppose many of them hope that the banker boyfriends will eventually become husbands (that is, if they can keep their jobs and bonuses), but these gals are clearly in it for richer, not for richer or poorer.

Perhaps investment banking (at least as we once knew it; good riddance!) and high-stakes trading are still male bastions, but if these smart, educated like money so much, WTF don’t they at least try to make more of it themselves? Most of them hold “glamour” jobs, something to do until a ring is slipped on their fingers. Most of the girls in this group are dating (or have broken up with) single guys; a few are seeing or are on the outs with married men. Apparently some wealthy men are finding that it’s too costly to maintain a wife and a mistress in these trying financial times (violins, please).

Mistress: Such an old-fashioned word, such a dated concept. Why do these young women want to perpetuate it?