Where the gals are

Forget grrrl power: The new feminine mystique is neurotic, self-absorbed and still boy-crazy, according to a current crop of pop-cultural heroines.


Laura Miller
May 18, 1998 4:30PM (UTC)

Remember the old pop feminist complaint about the lack of "strong female
characters" in movies, television and novels? Now that TV offers us Buffy,
Xena, Agent Scully and dozens of competent and committed policewomen,
doctors and spaceship captains, Toni Morrison climbs the bestseller list
and even the latest James Bond movie features (in Michelle Yeoh) an action
heroine who can hold her own alongside 007, maybe it's time to retire that
particular beef. But wait -- although insecure, needy, man-obsessed women
characters who brood incessantly about their appearance may be getting rare
in entertainment directed at co-ed or male audiences, you can still find
plenty of them -- just look for them where the girls are.

From the comic strip "Cathy" to TV's "Ally McBeal," from chick flicks like
"Walking and Talking" and the forthcoming "I Love You, Don't Touch Me" to
popcorn novels like Laura Zigman's much-hyped "Animal Husbandry" and the
British bestseller "Bridget Jones' Diary," female basket cases abound.
No one seems to be griping about them, though, and that's probably because
their existence can't really be blamed on men. Women, for the most part,
create these characters, and it's female audiences who gobble them up with
so much enthusiasm.

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Granted, no one really wants to see the kind of character that some
feminists once called for: brilliant, accomplished, sleekly independent,
politically unimpeachable -- in short, a tedious paragon. It's
understandable that women might turn with relief to stories about mere
mortals, someone they can identify with rather than feel inferior to,
particularly when they need a few laughs. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones
begins her diary with an impossible to-do list of self improvements,
including "develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of
substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain
boyfriend," demonstrating how easily a principle intended to unleash women
can be twisted (by women themselves) into yet another task to fail at. In
the end, feminist nostroms about what women could be swiftly mutated
into a new, but still unfulfillable, list of things they should be.

So when Zigman's depressed protagonist wallows in a slough of worthlessness
after being dumped by her patently duplicitous boyfriend and lies awake at
night moaning, "Why me?" (when the more obvious question is: Why him?),
we're meant to chuckle with rueful recognition. Isn't that just like life?
And, of course, life -- or, more precisely, love, because these stories are
always ultimately about the travails of romance -- sometimes is like
that. On the other hand, life is like a whole lot of other things as well,
things like adventure, inspiration, faith, vocation, idealism -- none of
which ever seem to surface when our perpetually crestfallen heroines occupy
center stage. It can be refreshing to see the mucky, inglorious aspects of
contemporary women's lives reflected in books, TV and movies for a change,
but a little bit of this stuff goes a long way. And there's a whole lot of
it going around.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

After repeated exposures, the lonely gal heroine -- whose love life never
works out, who pines for the wrong guys and who's having a really good day
when she can scrape together enough shreds of self-respect to tell one of
them off -- starts to feel just as suffocatingly limited as Martha Stewart.
It's as if the icons of femininity that women create for themselves must be
either flawless, like Martha, or a total mess. "I feel ashamed and
repulsive" scribbles Bridget Jones after a Cathy-esque junk food binge, "I
can actually feel the fat splurging out from my body" -- this despite the
fact that she weighs a perfectly normal 130 pounds. She can't allow for, or
live with, any middle ground between fashion-model slender and "flabby body
flobbering around."

For Bridget, feminist ideals likewise mean either emulating an impossibly
detached "inner poise" or indulging in sodden they're-all-bastards raging
at the local pub with her pal Sharon. This impasse is partly the heritage
of the ham-fisted cultural analysis of feminism's second wave, which
devolved into op-ed page homilies about "good role models" and "strong
women" without ever getting at the root of the problem. Surprisingly, sometimes tackling the problem can be as easy as learning from the other side. For example, pop
culture is just as full of idealized images of masculinity -- take James
Bond, again, who looks, dresses, fights, loves, shoots and drives better
than any real guy ever could. But men don't seem to have the same love/hate
relationship with Bond that women have with supermodels. They can walk out
of the latest 007 (or Bruce Willis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger) movie,
well-entertained and with a bounce in their step -- not muttering bitterly
about "unrealistic standards." While masculinity's more excessive demands
can lead to chronic social woes ranging from war to domestic violence, the
average guy is happy just to win every once in a while, while the average
woman wants to be perfect.

To maintain the appearance of thinglike perfection presented by someone
like Stewart or Kate Moss requires constant vigilance and unending effort.
That's a lot of time to spend working on yourself, but Martha's not the
only one logging in lots of time with her own navel. In one episode of
"Ally McBeal" the Zeitgeist's darling collars a co-worker in the powder room
and launches into a litany of disappointment. She expected, by age 28, to
be married, pregnant with her first child and on track to make partner at
her law firm, she wails. "Ally," the other woman replies, "can you tell me
what it is that makes your problems so much bigger than everybody else's?"
Ally takes a deep breath, squares her plucky little shoulders and says,
"They're mine." In fact, in "Ally McBeal," everybody else's problems are
always Ally's problems. Every case her firm tries is just another
opportunity for her to reflect on Issues Important to Ally, whether it's
monogamy, romance or her own biological clock. Whenever she blunders into
someone else's personal dilemma, the conflict turns out to be little more
than a Lesson for Ally to Learn.

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For it turns out that daunting perfection and chronic self-loathing have
something in common (beside their complete alienation from reality): They
both require precisely the same massive amount of self-absorption.
Fielding's "Bridget Jones' Diary" riffs on Jane Austen's "Pride and
Prejudice" to the extent that the good egg Bridget finally winds up with is
named Mark Darcy. But, although Bridget lives a much less constrained life
than Elizabeth Bennet, reading about her feels much more claustrophobic
because Bridget's mind and self are so much smaller. By the end of
Fielding's book, it's not plausible that a brilliant "human rights
attorney" like Mark Darcy would really fall for Bridget; she's certainly no
Elizabeth Bennet. Of course, Mark's own work only interests Bridget to the
extent that it labels him a stellar catch, bearing the imprimatur of
liberal do-goodism in addition to having all that money.

Bridget begins each diary entry with meticulous accounts of her weight and
the calories, "alcohol units" and cigarettes she consumes. Like Ally
McBeal's washroom confession, bringing this kind of secret, compulsive
self-monitoring into the open air wins an immediate, knowing laugh, but
the revelation quickly begins to curdle once exposed. At some point, you
start to wonder whether this kind of humor isn't just a way of getting
comfortable with the neurotic legacy and restricted worldview of
conventional femininity, when just 20 years ago women dreamed of kicking
off those traces. That wry, isn't-that-just-like-life grin segues so easily
into a shrug; how could life, then, be any other way?


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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