So I’ve been away for quite a while, but I’m back and full of ideas. My excuses for being away so long: traveling, living out of a suitcase for three months, enjoying only sporadic internet access, moving across an ocean to Germany and into my first apartment (shared by my love, whom I affectionately call “der böse Deutscher” [“the bad German,” for those who care to know]). And oh, my computer broke . . .
Anyway, the important thing is that I’ve got a lot on my mind these days and a number of posts planned out, including an imminent one on some things that I’ve been noticing about my new home (and not just the recent neonazi attacks and threats of terrorism, either). I’m sure my change of location will have an impact on my blogging topics- naturally, I’ll be able to grasp more of German pop culture than US pop culture. However, since I have the benefits of the WWW and a great deal of German pop culture comes out of “die Staaten” anyhow (thanks to the Marshall Plan), I anticipate that I will still be approaching and analyzing many products of the US media, if from a different angle. Indeed, I look forward to observing the ways in which US media does or does not translate into a German context.
First, however, I’ve got some old business to take care of. Back in July I was in the US visiting friends in Massachusetts and I decided to utilize some time before a group showing of Transformers to wander around the mall. I ended up in a fairly average dollar store, the sort of place I always love to browse. Among the products offered were several very interesting ones, including a reserve of beat-up composition books displaying the twin towers of the World Trade Center . . . it seemed that they had become so pitifully, suddenly anachronistic that no one had bothered to buy them after 9/11/2001.
What really struck me, however, were the products aimed toward girls and women. And since gender is always a recurring theme on this blog, I decided to do an experiment, that is, photograph the things I saw and blog them later. After all, being a (pop) cultural critic isn’t just talking about celebrities or watching six straight hours of Making the Band 4 (although I gladly do both of these things)- it’s also about being open to making observations anywhere, even if it’s off the map of the commercial mainstream.
So, here we are.
The Modern Working Mother & Her To-Do List: Insert Your Face Here
The first product that caught my eye was this photo frame. Here we have the modern working woman. She’s professionally dressed and organized. She’s got her cell phone in hand, a paper under her arm (ostensibly the New York Times), and a few things in her bag (a book, bottled water, and a baguette). What’s more, she’s got her very own to-do list. The list includes a number of different activities, some denoting work (“conference call,” “finish market analysis,” and “client lunch”), one a personal goal (“start weight-loss program”), and the other two hinting at family or social caregiving duties (“make brownies for bake sale” and “recital”). She’s the modern superwoman. She’s got everything under control, seems to be successful, and yet there’s always something seemingly lacking; why else would she be planning to start a weight loss program? Furthermore, why is she starting a weight-loss program when she’s already attractive and apparently only carrying around bread and water in the first place? The most striking about this product is that it is a picture frame, that is, not just a depiction of the hectic lives working women lead but instead a direct invitation to every woman to adopt that body, those clothes, that list.
The Emptier, the Better
I took a look at these drinking glasses and thought they were pretty cute . . . then I really started thinking. Each glass, from top to bottom, has three stripes with three descriptive phrases which demonstrate a progression from most reserved/unconfident to most outrageous/self-confident, each accompanied by a change of font as well. They are the following:
Pink: goody two-shoes; feelin’ frisky; naughty girl!
Blue: a little bit shy; social butterfly; life of the party!
Purple: bad hair day; lookin’ good; damn, I’m beautiful!
So, when you start with a full glass, you are apparently shy, unattractive, and prudish, by the time you’ve finished you’re not only less socially inhibited, but you’ve become sexually liberated (code word: naughty) and beautiful, too! I don’t know what is meant to be drunk from these glasses, but I’m guessing it’s not your morning orange juice. Now don’t get me wrong; I have no objection to a little alcoholic libation now and then. And I won’t deny that alcohol often temporarily makes people loosen up and feel more confident. But that’s not to say that drinking more should be equated with feeling or becoming somehow better. What bothers me most about these glasses, actually, is that they are marketed specifically to women (triggered by the “feminine” pastels, the cutesy fonts, and of course, the evocation of “girl”), as if, through the magical powers of alcohol, our daytime worries are cast aside so that we may live out nighttime fantasies or, in other words, a woman needs some sort of substance to switch from that “lady in the street” to the “freak in the bed.” Which is, after all, more of a male fantasy.
Pressure & A Wedding to Remember
Here we have two of the books offered to girls. First, Girls Under Pressure by Jacqueline Wilson, a novel for adolescent girls (12 years old and up according to Amazon) about a teenage girl’s struggle to fit in and her flirtation with eating disorders (clearly evidenced on the cover by her overwhelming disgust for the piece of pizza). According to the glowing review by Jennifer Hubert on Amazon, “fabulous British author Jacqueline Wilson keeps her trademark funny bone firmly in place while simultaneously raising some sobering questions about issues like eating disorders and teens’ overemphasis on appearance.” While I don’t necessarily agree with Hubert that “[w]rapping serious messages in a sugary comical coating is always the best way to make the medicine go down”- after all, the sugary strategy is the same one employed by various media and advertising to convince young girls that they need to focus on their appearance- but I am certainly glad that the “medicine” here seems to be a positive message about body image.
That said, I am disturbed by the second book I have pictured here, Barbie’s A Wedding to Remember, which is aimed at an even younger audience (as you can see in the excerpt at this site, it’s practically a picture book). A synopsis for this gem: “Barbie’s best friend, Monica, is getting married! There’s tons to do before the wedding, from planning the surprise bridal shower to picking out the coolest wedding present to buying the perfect dress. Join in all the fun when you read Barbie’s bridesmaid’s diary!” Throughout the book, perfect Barbie writes to her ever-trusty diary about her predicaments, one of which is, much to her surprise, TOO MUCH SHOPPING. At the very end of the book there is a space labeled specifically for the reader to make plans for her future wedding. Although there is a certain ambivalence in Barbie’s evident stance toward marriage in the book (she seems to look forward to it, but does not see it as an imminent necessity), there is a sense that the potential readers of this diary (young girls) should nevertheless, like Barbie, be reverent before this miracle until, someday somewhere, they should be graciously chosen for the bestowal of its charms. A Wedding to Remember seems to both almost foretell and instigate the anxieties later expressed by the characters in Girls Under Pressure.
Supermans to the Rescue!
This is the one product I photographed that isn’t exclusively marketed to women. In that sense, it may seem out of place with the rest. However, these mugs DO tell a story about a specific brand of masculinity, which is also a story about gender told to all of us, and therefore one relevant to representations of femininity. Here we have three mugs depicting a determined, extremely chiseled Superman (who, on closer inspection, looks like he’s been doping). Alone, one of these mugs might not have caught my attention- we are so used to seeing these superbuff male figures that another rippling biceped Superman is hardly special- but something about seeing several of them in a row just struck me with its brute force and reminded me of Tough Guise, a film made by Sut Jhally about the image of masculinity propagated by mainstream media in the US (watch the trailer here). Alhough Superman has been around for many decades, his body has undergone a continuous process of muscularization, one that Jhally, among others, criticizes as a cause for an unhealthy image of masculinity in mass media. These mugs, depicting that all-American hero Superman, not only ascribe physical superpower solely to men, but also promote the worship of superdominant, superaggressive masculinity, a trend that is echoed in all outlets of pop culture, from baseball doping scandals to 50 Cent videos.
The last thing that I photographed in the store was a number of mirrors. Not only is there an evident contrast between the mirrors from left to right in color and shape (“masculine” squareness and bold colors, “feminine” roundness and pastels), the mirrors on the right have something that the ones on the left quite obviously do NOT have- the sticker with the brand name “Impressions” and a woman’s face depicted as she applies lipstick, her mouth open in semi-ecstasy. This is apparently what we are supposed to see when we look in the mirror. From the very purchase of this item, an ideal of beauty- white, clean, cosmetic- is placed in the customer’s mind. As if it is the picture on the glass that reflects back on the customer and not the other way around. Like any product, this mirror is advertised as a status symbol that confers beauty and power onto the consumer while the other side of the transaction is masked- namely, the transference of money and influence to the company that has produced the product. The paradox is that, while these companies are marketing their products to women, they are not only often perpetuating unrealistic or unhealthy standards of “femininity,” but, all too often, excluding women from their own boardrooms and positions in which they could achieve real status.