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?