HEROINE OVERDOSE

The New York Times gets itself in girl trouble.


Michelle Goldberg
November 28, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

eighteen years after the New York Times settled a legendary sex
discrimination case, the old gray lady is still clueless about girls.
Last Sunday's Magazine, "Heroine Worship," had promise. A radiant
preteen girl graced the cover, wearing a T-shirt sporting a list of famous
women. A caption stretching across the page explained what was up:
"Inventing an identity in the age of female icons. A special issue."
Unfortunately, though, this special issue won't provide much help to
anyone trying to navigate their way through a postmodern girlhood. Instead,
it's devoted to female "icons" or, at least, to those women the
Times has designated as such.
"An icon is a human sound bite, an individual reduced to a name, a face
and an idea," explains Holly Brubach, the magazine's style editor. It's a
sad attempt to put a new spin on the old idea of fame. In an essay
apparently designed to rationalize the whole weird venture, Brubach
describes the power such icons ostensibly wield. "About to move on to the
next century, we call on various aspects of them as we reconfigure our
lives," she writes, "deciding which aspects of ourselves we want to take
with us and which aspects we want to leave behind." It's as if building an
identity were as simple as putting together an ensemble at Macy's or
ordering dinner at a sushi bar.
What is most dispiriting, though, is the paucity of choices. Of the few
articles about contemporary women, two are about models and the third is
about Playboy-Playmate-turned-MTV-dating-show-host Jenny McCarthy. We also
get the rest of the usual suspects Madonna and Oprah, as well as Martha
Stewart. (Writer Patricia McLaughlin defends the domestic goddess, claiming
that we despise her not for her cloying domesticity, but because "hating Martha
Stewart is safer than hating your whole life.")
The whole issue exudes a kind of retro sensibility that wouldn't be
entirely out of place in Esquire. In "Virgin Territory," John Tierney tries
to link a nightclub promoter's corralling of models to the mythical power
of the virgin. "'Virginal' might not be the first word associated with
today's models, but there actually is a certain purity to their cultists'
devotion," he writes. "Doormen and bouncers at clubs have the same mission
as guards at the Temple of Vesta: to ward off lustful males." In the end,
though, the only power Tierney ascribes to models is the power to "put a
smile on his face." Or, more likely, a pistol in his pocket.
Though the magazine cloaks itself in the fashionable notion of girly
empowerment, it never gets any further than this in examining the
relationship between women and the emaciated ideal. In his model
article, Village Voice columnist Guy Trebay rattles off a list of facts
about Naomi Campbell. Some of them, like the tidbit about Campbell getting
her start in Boy George's "I'll tumble 4 ya" video, are interesting. None
are enlightening. Trebay's only point seems to be that he can recite
obscure facts about Campbell off the top of his head. He asks, "Does this
mean, I wonder, that we've reached a critical stage in celebrity
pollution?" Or does it mean that Trebay has too much free time on his
hands?
Premiere writer Rachel Abramowitz's profile of McCarthy, who
until recently hosted MTV's "Singled Out," is similarly unenlightening.
Abramowitz seems to think that merely describing capitalism at work
like a dutiful student in Cultural Studies 101 counts as a kind of
critique. "No, she's not just another blond bimbo with a big smile,"
Abramowitz writes. "She's a cash machine." Apparently, cash machines are
big with the girls of today: "She professes not to care how others see her,
and therein lies her appeal as a Generation X icon: she has no seeming
allegiances to anything greater than the spirit of Jenny."
Well, more power to her. But the New York Times should know better than
to attempt to wrap this sub-People fare in a "feminist" package.
Ironically, though the editors purport to be reporting on those idolized by
the culture, the heroines that many girls really doworship
women from singer Ani Difranco to rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah
don't get a mention. Musicians, of course, are the ultimate icons to the
young, but the only rock star profiled in the magazine is Tina Turner. Instead of Patti Smith, we get Patsy Kline.
The contributors tend to justify their selections with vapid aphorisms.
"What is the difference between a literary icon and an ordinary writer?"
Cynthia Ozick plaintively asks. "The writer is sometimes read, the icon
almost never." Is this really true? What about the male writer-icons, from
James Joyce to Jack Kerouac, whose works are devoured by their disciples?
Never mind. Women are about image, not substance.
Some of the Times' contributors are openly hostile to their subjects
and to those who appreciate them. Dan Hofstadter's profile of Frida
Kahlo is more insulting than informative. "Kahlo's worldwide constituency
is composed not only of Mexicans and other Latinos but also of art
students, leftists, feminists, the genuinely ill, the merely miserable,"
Hofstadter glibly opines transforming Kahlo from an icon of
artistic suffering into one of mediocre degeneracy.
Old movie stars (from Audrey Hepburn to Mae West), get a little more
respect as does Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, after reading Brenda
Maddox's profile of the Iron Lady, someone who had never seen a picture of
Thatcher might come to believe that she was some sort of British Evita.
Maddox quotes Francois Mitterrand: "Ms. Thatcher has the eyes of Caligula
and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe."
To whom is this bland smorgasbord of possibilities supposed to appeal?
As Brubach explains, "Kate Axelrod, the 11-year old on our cover, stands
not only for the girls of her generation, whose identities are in the
formative stages, but for women of all ages, who tend to regard themselves
as works in progress."
Apparently, then, the "icon" for womankind is a child.


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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