So yes it’s another one of my feminism posts but it’s late at night and I feel like writing about something so why not! Over the weekend I was talking with my sister about her women’s studies classes and it got me thinking about the differences between the ideal woman of her era and of mine.
When I was in college we talked about a cycle of female imagery that we saw in the 40’s and 50’s. From Rosy the Riveter of WWII to the June Cleavers and Donna Reeds of the 50s.
I particularly remember analyzing I Love Lucy and how the working woman of the war had been turned into a silly, foolish, klutz always needing to be rescued and scolded by her husband (btw I think some of the episodes are very funny but that does tend to be the theme- Lucy get’s in trouble, Ricky groans and then saves the day)
I remember thinking that such a cycle was an oddity of the past and surely wouldn’t be seen again in my enlightened future. Little did I know that I had already seen it in the change from the 80s to the 90s.
Then we have seen it change again in 2000’s and 2010s
See if you recognize them and if my descriptions ring true.
Feminist Fantasies- What I mean by that is the kind of woman that is put out as the ideal or ultimate example of womanhood.
1980’s feminist fantasy-
Well, the formation of the 80s ideal really started in 1978 with films like An Unmarried Woman with Jill Clayburgh and then in 1979 Kramer vs Kramer with Meryl Streep. Both movies are about women dealing with divorce- one forced upon her, another by her abandonment of family.
While Streep never seems quite happy after leaving her family in KvsK, Clayburgh is happier, and by the end of the film grateful for her husband’s cheating ways. She’s liberated and free to experience all the new things suburbia and housewife life could have never taught her.
So the fantasy of the free woman starts…
Then the next decade you had women “learning” all kinds of things from divorce or not marrying. Working Girl, 9 to 5, Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, Broadcast News, When Harry Met Sally all have women that rebel what’s expected of them, are independent and strong. Even if they found love it was a very ‘don’t put me in a corner’ kind of love- no rescuing required.
On television we saw young women living together (The Facts of Life) and old women living together (The Golden Girls). There were also women cops, attorneys, executives and even the mothers were kind of tough girls (Growing Pains, Family Ties). Even the cartoons of the 80s featured independent women. I mean Smurfette is the only woman of her species…
So then the 90s
The fantasy woman of the 90s technically started in the late 80s and it is what I call the ‘perfectly balanced. I can do everything woman’. No person exemplified this more than Clair Huxtible from the Cosby Show. I realize the show ended in 1992 but I still think it influenced that generation of girls more than the 80s.
Clair was a fantasy woman for any era. A lawyer married to a doctor with 5 kids in a seemingly perfect brownstone neighborhood of Brooklyn. Never once did the show discuss the problems such a lifestyle would face- daycare, family abandonment issues, latch key kids etc.
They got around a lot of it by having Cliff’s office at their house but the idea that someone like Clair wouldn’t have a nanny was a true fantasy. Who needs a nanny when the modern woman can balance home, work, life, community so well? Sigh…
Another great example of the 90s superwoman is the movie Baby Boom. It’s a charming movie but the ultimate in feminine fantasy. Diane Keaton plays a busy career woman who literally scoffs at the notion of home and family creeping into her work. Then surprise her distant cousin dies and gives her a baby as an inheritance.
Now the workaholic must allow a baby into her busy schedule. At first she’s overwhelmed but eventually (spoiler) she quits her job, moves to Vermont, dates a hunky vet and starts a gourmet baby food company that her former employer ends up offering a bid on which she turns down so she can run her little company and take care of her baby.
What I think is amazing about this movie is there is no even semblance of ‘let’s try to make my old world work with this new world of family’-a dynamic you’d have seen in the 80s. In the 90s, it was this illusion if you retooled things and moved them around you could balance everything- even dating the hunky vet… (Murphy Brown would be a TV example of a Baby Boom type story).
Then we get the 2000’s. I was already in college at this point so most of my female life fantasies had been fully entrenched by that point but there was definitely a shift. The independent power woman of the 80s, and the perfect balancer of the 90s gave way to a dichotomy of women on one end of the spectrum or another. The fantasy woman of the 2000’s was either a heroine or a villain.
Villains you ask? What I mean is someone we might have lauded in the 80s as ambitious and accomplished became an ice queen who never took time for life. Nowhere is this more true than in 2006’s Devil Wears Prada- a favorite movie of mine.
The career and image obsessed Meryl Streep (twice on this list. I guess she’s just an all around fantasy woman!) doesn’t have time to even pick out Christmas presents for her kids or have a stable relationship within home or the work environment.
In one of their first interactions Streep’s character Miranda gives a list of things for Emily to do. It is remarkable how this same list would have been seen as great in the 80s and 90s but was definitely the sign of a witch here:
“Details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout….Yes to Michael Kors’ party…Call Natalie at Glorious Foods and tell her no for the 40th time. No! I don’t want dacquoise. I want tortes filled with warm rhubarb compote. Then call my ex-husband and remind him that the parent-teacher conference is at Dalton tonight. Then call my husband, ask him to meet me for dinner at that place I went to with Massimo”
Perhaps it is an improvement that such multitasking is even acknowledged as opposed to Clair Huxtible it being all tucked under the table? And I must admit I relate to this movie because when it came out in 2006 I totally had a Miranda boss who made my life miserable. What can I say- sometimes people live up to the female fantasies of their era.
At the same time you had the ambitious ice queens of the 00’s you had the ‘desperate to be married’ and be loved group of women (like I said a dichotomy). Every movie starlet of this era played the part of ‘I can’t get a date to save my life and all I really want to do is get married but I have to work’. JLo, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Hiegel, Sandra Bullock to name a few.
The ultimate example of this type of needy, desperate woman is in JLo’s The Wedding Planner where her lonely character has to be rescued from a runaway dumpster (you read right) by the hunky doctor (quite the comparison to Baby Boom…). She then sits and plans his wedding to another woman as the chemistry percolates. (huge hit I might remind you).
The description on Imdb says a lot about this end of the fantasy woman of 00s. “Mary Fiore is the wedding planner. She’s ambitious, hard-working, extremely organized, and she knows exactly what to do and say to make any wedding a spectacular event. But when Mary falls (literally) for a handsome doctor…or will Mary finally get to be the bride herself? When it comes to love, you can never plan what’s going to happen.”
Some of these desperate women were actually quite likable and funny because let’s be honest those women exist and there will always be cream in any trend. Bridget Jones for one was just witty enough to make it work (and the fact it is based on one of the best books ever written Pride and Prejudice helped).
So, what’s the fantasy woman now? What is the image none of us can live up to? I would say we have abandoned the desperate woman rom com (literally only 2 released last year)and embraced the tough, grizzled warrior woman (Hunger Games, Divergent, even Snow White is a warrior). You also have the crass, grizzled, foul-mouthed comedic female characters such as in Bridesmaids.
Even Bella was turned into a warrior at the end of the Twilight movies!
That or we have reverted back to the more submissive roles of the 50s (again we are talking about media here). You have Bella needing to be rescued at every turn and the women on Mad Men falling sway to the alpha males in their lives (I realize that show is set in the 60s but it still can be emblematic of a type of current fantasy).
It’s like the idea of being objectified for sex is suddenly a desirable thing. (The Mad Men website literally has a quiz ‘which of Don’s women are you’? Not which character on the show but Don’s women)
The women on Mad Men are also kind of a tough talking and world-weary type you see a lot lately. I even read an article the other day about how the CDC did a study and that women report being more exhausted on a regular basis than men. (Duh!). To me that is interesting when you think of the cycle of women. Are we trying too hard to be the warriors?
Clair Huxtible was tired once and Cliff took her to a hotel for a night and then she was fine. In 2010’s even in our fantasies the women are tired from all the fighting, and warrioring they do. Interesting. (I mean can you imagine Miranda Priestly admitting she was tired? No way!).
The warrior woman also demonstrates an undercurrent of boldness and leadership while being an inherent part of a movement or team. Part of that is probably due to social media and the dichotomy it gives women between isolation and togetherness. So, the ideal woman is the warrior with a dash of fatigue and dependence thrown in.
What do you think about the ideal or fantasy woman throughout the years? What have been some that have tantalized you or perhaps made you work harder (fantasies are not always negative)? What do you think are current trends? What women do you wish you could be more like? Or am I totally off on the idea of a fantasy woman changing in different eras?
Even minutes after writing the post I have thought of many other women roles and parts I could have mentioned. What women came to mind as you were reading my post?