January 14, 2004
Brave Women and Wimpettes – reality does a switch and so do the dreams

Adam Tinworth links to this photo-essay about fashion photography. Fashion is foreign territory to me, but some of this I definitely got.

model.jpg For example. the caption to this picture (Number 22 of 28) reads as follows:

Today, 30 years into feminism, we have models who look not just weak and unsophisticated, but also dumb and victimized. Academic feminists haven't complained because the models are supposedly playing a subversive role and subversion is inherently politically correct. Moreover, many of the young photographers are female. But now we've moved into "fashion vérité" and the models still look stupid. Is this how women in fashion see themselves?

The gist of Ms. Lehrman's complaint is that fashion models used to look like Lauren Bacall in her pomp, and now they look like under-age wimpettes.

Well that was as long as this post was going to be, but then I remembered someone else saying all this. One of my favourite middlebrow writers is Susan Isaacs. And that's where I got that word "wimpette" from.

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Isaacs' quite recent (2000) non-fiction book Brave Dames and Wimpettes:

What brave dames have in common is that they're passionate about something besides passion. Yes, Jane Eyre loved Edward Rochester, but her lifelong quest was not for love but for justice. Brave dames, then, are self-sufficient, active, dynamic, three-dimensional heroes who see past that picket fence. They may love their children, but they also love the work that takes them away from them. They may be interested in men--and often are successful in their relationships with them--but they rarely spend their time mooning over a man. Nor are they full-time victims, either of circumstance or of villains. The message of the movies, books, and television shows they inhabit is that you can care about home and hearth and also the world beyond them. You can do well, do good, or simply do. Brave dames can be strong and active, but they are not only about kicking butt. Like Marge on The Simpsons, who is often the lone voice of decency speaking out against her town's and husband's flaming stupidity, they are moral.

And here, because it says all this so very clearly, is what the plug for the book above that excerpt says:

In this thoroughly witty, incisive look at the role of women on screen and page, Susan Isaacs argues that assertive, ethical women characters are losing ground to wounded, shallow sisters who are driven by what she calls the articles of wimpette philosophy. (Article Eight: A wimpette looks to a man to give her an identity.) Although female roles today include lawyers like Ally McBeal and CEOs like Ronnie of Veronica's Closet, they are wimpettes nonetheless. A brave dame, on the other hand, is a dignified, three-dimensional hero who may care about men, home, and hearth, but also cares--and acts--passionately about something in the world beyond. Brave dames' stories range from mundane (Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to romantic (Francesca in The Horse Whisperer) to fantastic (Xena: Warrior Princess), but whatever they do, they care about justice and carry themselves with self-respect and decency. For a Really Brave Dame, think Frances McDormand as the tenacious, pregnant police chief in Fargo.

Well, yes, I see that. But try this for an explanation of Modern Woman and her dreams. If it's wrong, you can tell me. My ego isn't on the line here. I'm new at this kind of thing. But here's how this all might make sense, in a way that no women need feel especially ashamed about. (We men are another matter.)

Fifty years ago, women were all stuck in the role of Wimpette, and many secretly dreamed of being Brave Women. Now, women can all be as brave as they want to be. Their problem now is that they have to be Brave Women all the time. Many can manage this. But many can't, and secretly yearn to be Wimpettes, which is the thing you now aren't allowed to say. Oh you can say you want to be a housewife, but woe betide your Modern Woman if she dares to say that she'd like to be a weak and dependent housewife, or a weak and dependent commodities trader for that matter. The women now all have these exhausting, macho jobs their grannies fought so hard for, and now they have to disguise their inner Wimpette under a façade of Brave Woman.

The men don't help, because while the women have been becoming Brave Women, huge numbers of the men have gone wimp on them. And the last thing a wimp man wants is a wimp woman to worry about.

Ergo, womanly dreams, as performed in the fashion photos and the most cutting edge TV shows, are now Wimpette dreams. Ergo, Ally McBeal – Ms. High Powered Lawyer but a Wimpette – because the Wimpette thing is what you are now not allowed to be for real. Only in your dreams. Only on the telly. Only in the fashion mags. Reality has done a switch and so have the dreams.

Remember that great scene in Ally McBeal where a Feminist Battleaxe, having selected Ally McBeal as Woman of the Year, or some such thing, then tells her she'll have to damn well shape up (get rid of that "thin thing") and put some backbone into herself, and generally live up to her responsibilities as a FemaleRole Model. You are going to have to be strong, Little Missy, whether you like it or not, you hear me girl!! That's what Modern Woman is now up against.

Well, perhaps you didn't see that, because when I – wimp that I am – was watching that, you were watching The Dirty Dozen with your Superheroic Rich Husband.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:20 AM
Category: Photography