Still not good enough
from Barbie to Botox
Endless media messages
convey the stubborn presumption that women can never be good enough
By Norman Solomon
IN A TWIST of fate, obituaries appeared for the inventor of
the Barbie doll just as a $50 million advertising campaign got underway
for an expensive antiwrinkle drug with a name that memorably combines
the words "botulism" and "toxin." Injections of
Botox are already popular among women eager to remove lines from their
faces. The ad blitz of mid 2002 is certain to boost the practice.
American women between the ages of 30 and 64 are the prime targets,
and 90 percent of them will be hit with Botox pitches a minimum of 10
times. Launched with a paid layout in People magazine the first
week of May ("It's not magic, it's Botox Cosmetic"), the print
ads use before and after pictures. Network TV commercials are also part
of the campaign.
To many minds, we live in a postfeminist era when denouncing sexist
strictures is anachronistic. People who complain loudly about media
images of women are apt to be derided for political correctness. But
another sort of P.C. what might be called "patriarchal correctness"
continues to flourish today as a media mainstay, and not only
in the realms of advertising and mass entertainment.
Newsweek's April 29 edition, looking ahead to "Companies
of the Future" and "The Office of Tomorrow," featured
one woman on the cover. Wielding some kind of futuristic gadget, this
prototypical office worker was ultrathin and wore several-inch spike
heels as she sat in a transparent chair with a subtle yet distinct resemblance
to a martini glass.
Despite all the progress for women's rights and against rigid gender
roles during the last few decades, it's chilling to take a fresh look
at routine depictions of women in mass media. Beauty-is-skin-deep renditions
of what it means to be female help to explain the allure of Botox shots
that cost about $500 and lose effect within four months.
When we think about loved ones, we probably aren't very concerned about
their wrinkles. But acculturation runs deep, and began early. In a society
seemingly at war with nature while consequences range from ozone
depletion to water pollution to pesticide-laced crops it stands
to reason that such hostilities would extend to our own bodies.
After 85-year-old Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, died in late
April, some news stories noted that Barbie's plasticized and
idealized proportions were virtually impossible for girls to
live up to. The New York Times reported that "if the 11
1/2-inch doll were 5-foot-6, her measurements would be 39-21-33."
London's Daily Telegraph put the figure at 39-18-33.
According to the Times, "one academic expert calculated
that a woman's chances of having Barbie's figure were less than 1 in
100,000." Styles change. And for the past third of a century, new
waves of feminism have effectively critiqued a lot of such destructive
role-modeling. We may prefer to think that Barbie-like absurdities have
been left behind by oh-so-sophisticated 21st-century media sensibilities.
But to thumb through the Cosmopolitan now on racks is to visit
a matrix of "content" and advertising that incessantly inflames
and cashes in on obsessions with seeking to measure up
to media-driven images.
Back in 1985 legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown made
a candid statement about the relationship between her magazine's articles
and its ad revenue: "Having come from the advertising world myself,
I think 'Who needs somebody you're paying millions of dollars a year
to come back and bite you on the ankle?' " At the time, Cosmopolitan
was under fire for printing cigarette ads while staying away from articles
about the terrible health impacts of smoking. Today, Brown's comment
still applies more generally to mainstream media particularly
television and magazines in relation to countless ads. Large
amounts of dollars pour in from advertisers hell-bent on stoking women's
unhappiness with their bodies and promising relief if only the female
is willing to part with some cash. Meanwhile, media outlets rarely challenge
the unspoken assumptions and manipulations behind advertising.
Satiric anti-ads in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine include
a full page filled with close-ups of two sets of lips along with the
words "Perfectionism is a malignant force in our society."
That tag line begs for probing the question of what we mean by "perfection."
Ads that saturate pervasive media keep claiming to offer perfectly marvelous
products; they're functional as surrogates and substitutes for the wondrous
complexities of nature. Media veneers frequently sparkle with apparent
high regard for women. Yet indications abound that much of the advertising
industry's idealization of fabricated female images is based on contempt
for real women who, like nature as a whole, must lack the sort
of mass-produced uniformity that can be readily packaged and sold. Endless
media messages convey the stubborn presumption that women can never
be good enough but should live and buy and ultimately die
trying. First Barbie, then Botox.
Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive
Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.