When I was a teenager, Woody Allen movies were the available cinema for a small-town kid with hopes of becoming an intellectual. But, looking back, I wish I had never heard of him. I think Annie Hall had something good going on, with Annie’s unselfconscious independence, but there was also Manhattan, and then later Husbands and Wives. And, all those other ones that DIDN’T include a middle-aged-man fantasy of the worshipful teenager. (Wait, were there any?)
Maybe Allen made the movies he made because he was reflecting the life he knew, but for me, as a teenager and later a young woman, all I saw was that young women were attractive if they flirted with and tantalized older men, in a way that fed that older man’s ego, while the poor beleaguered man suffered a miserable homelife with a harridan when he wasn’t fake bumbling around at the cute young thing (if you don’t believe me just watch this scene in “Husbands and Wives”).
So, if I went with popular culture, my possible roles were housewife or hottie (or, hottie then housewife) and if I went with “intellectual” culture, my choices were to be a gamin tease or bitter harridan.
There’s been a lot written lately about safe spaces and safe language for marginalized groups. I have mixed feelings about this because I think there’s a lot of value in open debate and vociferous airing of disagreement, and I think we lose something when we’re afraid to disagree for fear of upsetting someone (news: life is upsetting).
That said, I wish, wish, wish, that when I was a teenager, I had seen something more. I wish that the women of Woody Allen’s movies weren’t held up to me and girls like me as the only hoped-for future. Or, that if that was all we were shown, that our culture was far enough along at that time to critique Allen’s motives instead of holding him up as a genius.
When I was in high school popular culture taught girls that being pleasing to a man was the ultimate goal. It wasn’t unreasonable, when one considers the price of not pleasing, which could well have been a life of poverty. But, whether it was realistic or not, it took me years to understand how damaging it was.
Going deeper – when you’re a kid, you look around you, at the world, to try to understand how you’ll fit into it. You look for role models and you look for signs about how it all works. It’s part of developing your identity.
So, as a girl, I looked around and saw … women as objects. Women as art. Women as things.
I used to think that I didn’t like seeing other women objectified because it made me feel less attractive. There is something to this, but it was more about knowing the world was telling me that the best I could hope for was to be treated as the object of the highest desire. Not as human, with ideas and plans and desires of my own, but simply an object. These images told me that none of that was important, because the women who mattered, mattered because of the desire they could provoke.
There was this time in 10th grade when I was out selling band tags (but not at band camp). We stood at intersections and sold tags to support our school’s music department. One man … a middle-aged, grown man, came up to my group – teenaged girls in jeans and puffy jackets and vests, and said that he was looking for the girls in hot pants. Did we know where he could find the girls in hot pants? He was referring to the school dance troupe, who performed in leotards and pantyhose, and were in fact out that day in hot pants.
At the time I felt diminished. Today I’m also grossed out. A middle-aged man feeling entitled to look at girls’ bodies. A man saying that the unsexy girls in puffy jackets didn’t matter – what mattered was his opportunity to look at girls’ bodies. Girls, reduced to our bodies by an adult.
I’m glad things are finally changing. I’m glad that the schoolgirls of today can find the language to speak up for themselves, and support in popular culture that will allow them to fight back against being valued only for the reactions they provoke in others.