Popular Culture: I’m Terrified for My Daughters

I have two young daughters and, in some ways, I’m really excited that they are growing up in this generation. These are amazing times to be young and female with so many opportunities available to them. More women than men are graduating from college and earning graduate degrees. We see women at the highest level of government, business, education, sports, and the arts. Though a glass ceiling still exists in many fields, it seems to be much thinner than in the past and on its way to being broken completely (though it will, admittedly, still take a while). So it would seem that the today’s world will be my daughters’ oysters.

But not so fast.

I’m also terrified for my daughters because, though our society has made huge strides in the way women are viewed and treated in the academic and professional worlds, there is ample evidence that we have taken several giant steps backwards in how women are viewed and treated in other arenas.

This regression is most evident and most powerful in the role that women play in popular culture, but such distasteful and demeaning treatment also exists in places I expect to be more evolved.

As someone who writes and speaks frequently about the nexus of culture and child development and as a relatively new parent (my girls are 6 and 4), I’ve had my concerns about the world in which my daughters are growing up. But two recent publications and some subsequent investigations on my part have really raised the red flag on the world that my daughters will inhabit.

A recent New York Times article described the appalling behavior of men (or should I say boys?) toward their female counterparts on college campuses (supposedly the highest common denominator in our society) around the U.S., even at schools that I would have expected more of. For example, at Duke, a fraternity sent emails to female students inviting them to a Halloween party with the following missive, “Whether your [sic] dressing up as a slutty nurse, slutty doctor, slutty schoolgirl…,” I don’t need to continue; you get the point.

Of course, boys will always be boys (sadly), but my real concern is that hundreds of recipients actually accepted the invitation, costumes and all. And it was noted that, while guys at these parties dress, well, like guys (meaning their usual slovenly selves), the girls are “dolled up” (double meaning intended) in tight and short dresses, high heels, and make-up.

Perhaps all of this stereotypical college-guy behavior is just their sweet revenge for their distaff counterparts leaving them in the dust academically. And the stereotypical female behavior is a way to dumb themselves down and bolster the emasculated male egos, thereby appearing more attractive to the men and increasing their chances of finding one to marry.

And a new book, Confidence Men, by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind exploring the role of women in the Obama White House, further tainted my view of women’s place in our society today. Suskind suggests that, despite Obama’s raised-by-his-mother sensibilities and Michelle’s strong presence, the usual boys club was in session at the White House and the behavior of the male members of President Obama’s staff in their treatment of their female counterparts was only a slightly more mature version of the frat boys’ behavior I just described. The former communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying,  “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” So women are invited onto the field during games these days, but aren’t actually allowed to play.

Now let’s turn our attention to popular culture, our society’s lowest common denominator. Have you watched television lately? What you’ll notice is the dearth of unattractive women. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching reality TV, a procedural crime drama, or situation comedies. It’s even infected cable and local news where the female newscasters and reporters seem to have stepped off of a beauty pageant runway (hang in there, Candy Crowley!). Admittedly, the guys are getting prettier too.

One of the most critically acclaimed and popular shows on television, Mad Men, and two new shows, The Playboy Club and Pan Am, promote the fantasy of 1950s woman power as if those days of yore are worthy of a return engagement. Yet, though these shows are wrapped in the guise of “proto-feminism,” at their core, they traffic in the same old messages about beauty and sex as their sole form of currency.

The occasional Susan Boyle notwithstanding, a woman has to be young, beautiful, usually white and, Megan McCarthy notwithstanding, thin to make it in popular culture these days, though overweight Black women seem to be acceptable (sorry if that is un-PC to say). And this “lookism” extends to popular music in spades and is even creeping into classical music as well.

And don’t even get me started on celebrity and fashion magazines! Okay, here I go just a bit. I was waiting to get my hair cut the other day and decided to do a little research. I flipped through issues of People and Us and I can tell you that I didn’t see one page without a photo of a young, beautiful, and thin woman. And what really kills me is that the distaff denizens of these periodicals are vilified for being both too thin and too fat; they have to be perfect. Now that is a bar that no woman shouldn’t be required to clear.

So, where can unattractive women find work in our popular culture these days? Women can’t even just be funny anymore. Back in the day, ugly women could harvest a mountain of jokes from their lives (think Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and Rosanne Barr). These days even female comedians have to be attractive (think Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings). Now radio may be the only show-business hope for unattractive women.

Films have historically been a bastion of taste and sophistication among its more crass popular-culture brethren, at least when it comes to portrayals of women. But, with the release of Bridesmaids, women have decided to lower themselves (or they’ve been forced to by the screenwriters) to the same truly inane and moronic level of humor, involving genitals, flatulence, and sexual acts (all guaranteed to get a laugh) that is so popular among the males of our species.

Perhaps this shift is a sign of progress, not a regression, that signals a new level of equality for woman. If this change is any indication, maybe women are finally becoming one of the boys in whose club it is now acceptable for women to get drunkenly stupid, swear like a sailor, and pass gas (okay, fart) with pride. Maybe only when this happens will the boys allow the girls to become full-fledged members of their club with all attendant privileges. But I doubt it. More likely, this decline is simply another step in the subjugation of women for the pleasure and profit of the men who control popular culture.

Now where was I? Oh yes, my daughters. Where does that leave them? Well, my wife and I do our best to shield them from these messages. They don’t watch TV, have seen only a few old-school movies (like Annie), and have only fleetingly seen celebrity and fashion magazines in the supermarket checkout line. And we never talk about physical attractiveness or what they look like at home. Yet, they still get message that looks matter and, yes, even at their age, of sexuality, from their peers and misguided adults.

I guess all my wife and I can do is continue to downplay physical appearance, protect them from inappropriate messages about sexuality, and instill in our girls the values and attitudes about women that will enable them, if they so choose, to rise up to the glass ceiling and perhaps even smash it.

Or, we can pray to the almighty gods that they grow up to be really pretty.



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