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.