Monday, 24 January 2011

The Princess, the Cowgirl, and 17%

When I was a little girl, my favourite movies where the Sisi-films; the ones about Elizabeth of Bavaria, the Austro-Hungarian empress. Sisi was as independent and kind as a female monarch could be, she loved animals and wore beautiful gowns. I'd wear my mother's maxi-skirts tucked under my armpits and danced about in our living room to Strauss. I was probably 8 years old or so, and that was the extent of my "princess phase". As far as I can remember, I never insisted on wearing pink and a tiara. My Barbie dolls had their pretty gowns, but they also had daytime jobs. They were hardly princesses.

Reading a review about "Cinderella Ate My Daugher", a new book by Peggy Orenstein, I learned that until the age of 7 or so, children rely on only external signs to determine their sex. In essence, they think that if they look like a girl, then that makes them a girl also. This stage in developmental psychology explains the rigidity of some 4-year-olds who only agree to wear pink. To target this market of girls wanting to bid high on their "existential insurance policy" (Annie Murphy Paul's term), Disney established their Princess line in 2000, with more than 26,000 items, whose sales in 2009 reached $4 billion. When the princess phase is over, girls these days turn to Bratz and Moxie Girls or other sultry portrayals of women: Orenstein says that these dolls' "hottie-pink 'passion for fashion' conveyed 'attitude' and 'sassiness', which, anyone will tell you, is a little-girl marketing-speak for 'sexy.'"

Fast forward to our grown-up lives, and all of a sudden that sassiness is just as uncool as the princess-play-pretend. The Barbie and the Bratz fly out of the window when we realize that in order to pass for a to-be-taken-seriously type of woman, we can no longer wear head-to-toe pink, or show off our sassy, sexy passion for fashion at the workplace without being ridiculed. (Just look at the characters of Sex and the City, how awfully weak they became after they turned from ordinary, working women looking for love into superficial, compulsively shopping ditsies looking for Mr Right.) And yet, there is that uncomfortable "woman at work"- stereotype, who wears oddly ill-fitting trouser-suits and a short haircut in order to fit in: she is serious, cold, and somehow something must be wrong with her: surely she no longer aspires to be swept off her feet. (Well, what man would want to? She wears trouser-suits. Maybe she isn't a woman after all.) In Finland, the female politician is often either tabloid-material like Member of Parliament Tanja Karpela, whose past as the former Miss Finland certainly hasn't helped her cause, or asexualized entirely if her wardrobe is plain and she wears no make-up: president Tarja Halonen, whose reseblence to Conan O'Brien is no secret, is the perfect example. And yet the former Miss Finland did actually get elected into the Parliament and later became the Minister of Culture, and the former chairman of an organization for sexual equality and LGBT rights became president Halonen. I have a feeling that this could not have happened in the United States.

I was shocked to find out recently that only 17% of the members of the US House of Representatives are women. The United States lags behind China (21%), Iraq (25%) and East Timor (29%). In Finland, 40% of parliamentary seats are occupied by women. A similar figure rings true in countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, Cuba and Rwanda. In order to fit into the American political landscape, women here have long adopted Annie Oakley / Calamity Jane - speak: Nancy Pelosi famously declared that "There's a new Congress in town", while Hillary Clinton announced that "we can't be patsies". Gabrielle Giffords is described by a colleague as "tough as nails", and then, of course, you have the Mama Grizzly shooting caribous in Alaska. It seems that in this country, "frontier womanhood" is the model for a powerful female.

This is also the message put forward in the February issue of Vogue, which celebrates American style. I wonder if it is just me, but Vogue's pioneer-rant and the declaration that "This is the land of the free: We never stop moving - ever-forward, WESTWARD HO!" is not only ridiculous but totally inappropriate. (All countries have uncomfortable histories, but the pioneer phase and the fate of Native Americans is particularly troubling in this context.) American style might celebrate "practicality and comfort", but it is far from what Vogue calls "stripped of silliness", if the way to portray it is to go back to the wild, wild west. That says an awful lot about the way the portrait of the American Woman, in fact, is not powerful, at least to a foreigner like myself.

I have never really thought about what it is like to be a woman in this country - I haven't lived here long enough, and I haven't grown into the culture. Somehow I have always linked bra-burning feminism to the United States, but it seems like the reality is something entirely different: that powerful women in this country operate in separate spheres, like those of literature, art and entertainment. It is not to say that there isn't true power in that, but I am deeply disturbed by that measly 17%, I am shocked by the $4 billion spent on princess gear, and awfully uncomfortable with the frontier woman. What say you, my dear American readers? What lies between the 17%, the princess and the cowgirl?

Vogue photos: here


Cynthia said...

I think there's a couple of things. 1. The TV is an incredibly powerful driver of our culture, and the TV shows all sorts of things that girls should not want to be, and they do get absorbed, and 2. Feminism just isn't finished with its work yet. I doubt you'll find anyplace in the world where it's truly finished, but here, the Republicans have recently managed to tarnish the word, just as they have with "liberal". I think it's making a comeback, though.

Milla said...

Wow, yet another awesome post! Thank you. While about as American as you, I'd like to add in my 2 cents all the same.

I think that American society is in many ways more "family" oriented than the Finnish and one of the female roles that is very prominent in the collective imaginations is that of the homemaker. Albeit in the her latest incarnation as the soccer-mom. In Finland mothers and workplace mesh in a very different, more fluent manner. Here it seems a woman truly has to make a choice between her professional life and her family. Perhaps this in part contributes to the 17% figure.

The sexual politics here seem more explicit, the roles more narrow here, the rampant objectification of women hardly a topic worth mentioning, an accepted fact. I think America has always (or at least for the last 200 or so years) been a hotbed of new ideas and radicalism, and certainly did it's part in brining feminism to the forefront of our culture; but women's lib took a slightly different turn here than it did in Europe. A short-lived radicalisation, rather than a long-term political change...

It's a very strange country, I guess.

Someone said...

A MAJOR thing that keeps women down here that does not operate similarly in Nordic countries: people being beholden to Christianity.

Most Americans have been indoctrinated into the female-controlling dictates of religion, and it is something they cling to no matter how bad it is for them.

It was really clear to me as a girl that Christianity was not my friend and I grew out of it quickly.

It is extremely sad to me that this force of evil against women is not seen for what it is by most here. The USA has paid it deference for far too long; it hides behind lies that it is good for us and if you speak against it you are practically put on a hit list. Christianity today is one of the most insidious of all cultural mistakes. I wish people would wake up and get rid of it - especially women. It does nothing but harm to us.

Hattie said...

Mmm, such a thought-provoking post. Your point of view, having not grown up here and been desensitized to the negative aspects of American culture, is so shrewd and insightful. I always enjoy your perceptive commentaries on this country.

Charlotte said...

My god--that's a mighty big question you're asking there, pardner. Your observations are astute and accurate, as usual. Contradictions abound everywhere--the "western woman" is no more authentic than the "princess." It's just another sales pitch to buy into, an easy stereotype that doesn't leave room for contradictions, and real life is all about contradictions.

That the US hasn't been able to elect a woman as president while Germany has is a great pondering point, if you look at the modern history of the two countries.

I don't have much to add to what you've already said, except to say you've hit the nail on the head once again.

Rad in BK said...

Waves, another brilliantly written post. But as a student of politics, I do think one of the most cited explanations for the difference between the gender disparities in our Congress (and the Senate is such an anti-democratic antiquated body that I shan't discuss it). We have this strange primary system that is based on cults of personality and favors more extreme politics. The single member districts based on geography creates a virtual two party system, and the lack of any proportional representation/list system shuts out anyone who isn't a Republican or a Democrat. Since parties don't get to pick candidates (and impose quota systems and place women high on a party list), women in the US who run in primaries face more male challengers than those primary races that don't have female challengers (a colleague of mine from my graduate school did a study of this a few years ago), although once women win a primary, they win elections to Congress at the same rates as men. So, institutions matter, and ours are old, favor stability and moderate politics over representation.
As for the princess/cowl girl stuff, I think American understandings of feminism are heavily based on liberal political ideologies, and individual choices (seemingly made in a political/social vacuum) are privileged over structural and cultural analyzes of gender. "Princess" an "cowgirl" are two "choices" that post-second wave feminism offers young girls. "Sexy" and "asexual" are two options offered to working women. I hear "feminism equals choice" on blogs and other forums all the time, and while I disagree, it seems that feminism (or the fruits of feminism) in the United States is often understood within a consumerist, individualist model, and therefore larger critiques of the production of the "sexy," "sassy," and "feminine" don't get questioned readily.
(Sorry for the novel).

poet said...

Totally. This is part of why I moved back to Europe! Thanks for another well-written, thoroughly reflected post!


The Waves said...

Cynthia: You are very right; feminism is not finished anywhere, not even in Finland, where women still get paid less for certain jobs compared to men. As for the influence of TV, I bet that has a lot to do with the way girls grow up to see what they can or should do when they grow up. The types of women we see in TV here aren't exactly powerful.

Milla: I fully agree with you regarding the more traditional family structure here vs Finland. It is funny how here the label of "housewife" doesn't really have a negative connotation, whereas in Finland it takes you back to the 1950s and our grandmothers.

Someone: thank you for sharing such a bold argument! I guess all forms of monotheistic religions tend to have that tradition of keeping women at home, but for some reason this doesn't seem to apply in the Nordic countries, which are predominantly Christian. I wonder if it is not Christianity itself, but the people who choose to interpret it here who are at fault..?

Charlotte: I do feel like those contradictions and extremes are more visible here than elsewhere; it seems that in many ways this country thrives on polar opposites.

Rad: Thank you so much for explaining the two-party aspect in this! I always knew about the political system here creating all sorts of issues regarding representation, but I never thought of the gender aspect of it. I checked the figures for the United Kingdom, whose system operates similarly to the US, and their percentages are 22 (lower house) and 20 (upper house), so definitely similar to what we have here. I know that there is a lot of commotion in the UK about the LibDems wanting to change the system there; I wonder how long it will take for something like that to be discussed here?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Waves!!!!!! CR

Someone said...

Waves, I would like to address what you said here: "I wonder if it is not Christianity itself, but the people who choose to interpret it here who are at fault..?"

My answer is, unfortunately NO. The anti-woman attitudes of this religion are permanently built into its texts and can ALWAYS be retrieved, renewed, and emphasized by conservatives no matter how society evolves. This is one of the dangers of conservatism (i.e., not allowing change but enshrining old ideas as if they have permanent relevance and as if they are always more valuable than new ideas).

There are other huge problems with the beliefs but here I speak only of how that system affects the lives of women.

There is no reason to give the religion a pass; as I noted, doing so allows it to continue operating insidiously. (Besides, if it were not anti-female there shouldn't be a way to interpret it as such.) It is by not examining history and the way things have actually operated, and believing "well, it's not THAT bad" that these things continue to expose us to evil.

Finally I'll note that no, the Nordic countries are not Christian in the same way as in the US. As far as we understand it here, most in the Nordic countries are only very lightly "Christian" and generally operate without the fervor and belief that people do here. You will not find a majority of Nordic people doubting the truth of evolution and trying to prevent women from having choices like abortion, or being vocal against gay marriage or people living together without marriage. Nordic people don't generally drench themselves in religion and make it the main hallmark of their identity, constantly spewing judgments from a point of view entirely circumscribed by it. It is a different world altogether here and utterly shocking how primitively many people here "think" (I use that word advisedly).

I will note though that most of the US that fits the above description lives in areas we have come to designate as "red" politically. There are "blue" areas where the non-religious like myself and my husband have the chance of living in peace. We are not all insane.


Lain said...


Another amazingly thoughtful and detailed post. I love reading your blog for the unique perspective your bring to analyzing our culture. I would love to see you and Chris move to the South for a while to see your perspective on our unique interpretation of American culture.

I do not have much knowledge of politics and women, but I have personal experience in business. Less than 1% of Fortune 500 and 1000 companies are run by women. This makes our congress seem like a hotbed of diversity. As a woman on the executive track for a very small (by Fortune comparisons) company, I can speak to my experience with this world. I have been in some form of supervisory leadership for 15 years. For perspective I have been working professionally for 18, so I was quite young when I started.

I have struggled for years to find the perfect blend of respected, intelligent, warm, friendly, serious, approachable, yet authoritative characteristics, that seem to define our male business leaders, yet leave us women out. I’ve been called every name in the book, been accused of using my female qualities to get jobs, been told I was too cold, too mean, too “friendly,” too aggressive, too weak, too talkative, not talkative enough. Interestingly enough, in this time, I have been fat, thin, everything in between, eventually having a chest reduction. Because you see, men can just be men in business. Its their game. They know all of the nuisances and they control the rules. It seems when we learn them, the rules change. As I have moved up, I have learned to play “one of the boys” and have come to realize, that all (I am characterizing American men) men, no matter their role in business, see our physical attributes first, then our intangible ones. The thinner (and blonder) I am, the better I get along with my male counterparts, but the less respected and authoritative I am perceived to be. During these times, I am seen as using my feminine side to get ahead. Conversely, the fat and darker haired me, was a real witch, feared and respected, but not invited to play along in the sandbox.

I wish I had an easy answer. As long as princess gear sells and little girls and little boys are given the distinction, I do not see our culture changing.

Please continue observing us and posting on it. I really enjoy reading you.


Franca said...

I came to this very late, apologies. I haven't been reading blogs properly for about three weeks.

This is an excellent post, thank you! I can't comment on america, I've never lived there and actually the only place I even vaguely know is new york. I do recognise many of the things you talk about in your post, but I do think (assume, hope!) that things aren't as bad here in the UK. I think there are more shades in between the sexualised/powerless and the asexual/powerful but emotionless.

I see a lot of commentary on american fashion blogs about people being worried about dressing 'too feminine' or unprofessional at work and therefore not being taken seriously. I always find this slightly baffling. Maybe this reflects my position as a super-educated, middle class person working in a certain field but I have never felt that my clothes or appearance have had that much to do with my career success. I wear colourful, un-smart and sometimes downright silly clothes to work, and while I think that it has sometimes made people assume that i am younger and therefore more junior than I am initially, I'm pretty confident I've won people over by generally being pretty bloody good at what I do. I have never felt objectified, and I don't see anyone around me me being objectified. I can only remember one single direct experience of sexism in the almost 5 years i have been at my work - nothing to do with clothes. There's a feeling for me that definitely things are getting better in many areas. So maybe the US will change too, I don't know.

I don't really know where i'm going with this, I've strayed so far from what you were writing about! But thank you anyway, it has made me think. I've been planning a post on feminism, and i'm definitely going to do it now!

also, i'm submitting this to Beautifully invisible's link love, if you don't mind:

Anonymous said...

patronage. The problem is not the lack of capable women, but with the way the system itself is constructed. big dollars and lip service to democracy.

Eyeliah said...

We have the same issues in Canada. It's rare to be beautiful and taken seriously thats for sure.