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The Image of Helplessness

By Naomi Wolf
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Every year, a high point on my calendar is taking my now 12-year-old daughter to the Glamour Women of the Year awards. Each time, we're more delighted and impressed with the coolness, style and competence of the women honored -- including the inevitable starlets and entertainers.

Last year, actress/rapper Queen Latifah brought ranks of New York schoolgirls to their feet, screaming with glee, as she gave a rousing speech about empowerment; actress Anne Hathaway shone an inspiring light on women in the military. These stars reflect the true situation of American women: High levels of competence, idealism and all-around effectiveness are by now pretty much the norm out there in the land of reality.

But this kind of empowered, right-on female role modeling scarcely registers in the pop culture landscape. There, a young woman sobbing helplessly in the back seat of a police car as she's hauled off to jail is the new Miss America -- the new mass icon of popular fascination.

Most American women are becoming ever more comfortable with their capabilities as they break into new professional roles, learn how to do electrical wiring or automobile maintenance, tackle life insurance, IRAs and tax planning on behalf of the many configurations of family they are nurturing, or even put their lives on the line as warriors in Iraq. They are surprising themselves and the culture every day by not falling apart as they take on tasks that the prefeminist world was sure would lead them to collapse in a heap, needing smelling salts.

Yet at the same time, the culture seems increasingly obsessed with showcasing images of glamorous young women who are falling apart -- sometimes seriously, even fatally.

For a long time, hotel heiress Paris Hilton seemed reasonably cool-headed, if amoral, in the limelight. But cool-headed isn't trendy, so she managed to get herself arrested for drunk driving, broke her probation, went off to jail, was released, was sent back to jail, and is now on display everywhere weeping helplessly at the horror of incarceration.

We've followed (I confess, I've followed) the meltdown of pop music queen Britney Spears with a mixture of concern and voyeurism: A young woman who seemingly has everything -- money, beauty, talent, two gorgeous children -- spirals through one drama after another of near-baby-dropping, surreal sexual exhibitionism, head-shaving, drunkenness, rehab and redemption. And the narrative curve is poised to begin anew.

Actress Lindsay Lohan just sent into the world scenes of herself menacing another young ingenue with a knife -- erotically? maniacally? druggedly? -- and the tabloids are full of pictures of her passed out in the front seat of a car.

And of course there is the tragic end to the spiral of our era's Marilyn Monroe -- Anna Nicole Smith, another woman who had money, fame and beauty but who, at a time when women are raising children successfully under all kinds of circumstances, died of a drug overdose shortly after giving birth to a baby girl.

It's not that there's a new surplus of drug-crazed, alcoholic or unstable starlets. Women (and men) in the entertainment industry have suffered from drug addiction, alcoholism and more since Hollywood was first built among the orange groves. It's that, for complex reasons, the culture is making a narrative of tracking such starlets' out-of-control behavior and turning that -- rather than their dating, shopping and performing -- into the central drama.

And the celebrity media, as writer and editor Tina Brown notes in her new study of the late Princess Diana, are in a symbiotic relationship with their subjects. So these starlets surely are showcasing or reinforcing their out-of-control behavior to stoke media interest. And the spiral grows.

Why are we so interested in these kinds of images?

Periods of tremendous positive growth in women's roles and opportunities always generate a counter-reaction that comes in the form of images. In the mid-19th century, middle- and upper-middle-class British and American women were experiencing a period of comparable growth. They were learning leadership in new women's organizations aimed at ending prostitution and child labor and tending to wounded soldiers. Their education levels were skyrocketing. They were becoming more capable than ever. As a direct result, the myth of woman as the "angel in the house" became more pronounced. The female images idealized in popular culture -- take a look at the pre-Raphaelites' paintings or consider Dickens's beauties -- were those of women pale and weak with tuberculosis, those who died young and frail, who could barely raise themselves up from their languid sickbeds.

The 1920s were a precursor of our own time. In an era in which women had just been granted the right to vote and were moving forward with great seriousness -- forming groups to stop lynching, building settlement houses and cleaning up Washington -- the popular press was full of Paris Hiltons. News accounts reveled in drunken debutantes frolicking in fountains, cocaine-addled Hollywood starlets dead in perverse circumstances, and the ubiquitous flapper, who was devoted to pleasure and had not a serious thought in her marcelled head.

What value is there in such countervailing images -- the shadow to women's increasingly bright reality? The first is psychological. On some deep level, there's a generalized feeling that women's vulnerability equals the guarantee of receiving a reliable supply of their love and care. There's an anxiety that if women become too strong, too independent, we won't be able to count on them to nurture and they won't need love. Because men, children and (not to put too fine a point upon it) the whole edifice of human civilization depend on women's willingness to nurture, it's scary to take a step into the unknown -- to see if women will continue to love if they're really free to choose whether to do so. (We will, of course, but it will take a generation or so of proof for everyone to calm down about it.)

At a time like this, the broken, out-of-control ingenue -- who clearly can't manage without lots of help -- is reassuring. And, I'd say, seductive.

And that's true even for women themselves, who may find an element of escapism in these scenes. Women these days are taking care of business at a high level with great elan, and sometimes we get tired of our own competence. We've also noticed by now that the more able we are, the greater the responsibilities assigned to us. So reading about Britney leaving her babies at home (bad mother!) to dance drunk on tabletops (bad mother!); or reading about Lindsay passed out after partying too much and clearly not worrying about call times, bills to pay, dogs to walk? Yes, it gives many of us the thrill of feeling morally superior. But it's also a way to tap into a yearning for regression and irresponsibility -- even a fantasy of not being so competent, of letting it all go to pieces and having someone else clean up the mess -- that millions of us generally have to suppress as we make our way successfully through the daily checklist and get it all done.

In the past decade, feminists such as Gloria Steinem joked that women could "have it all" but might also have to "do it all." She meant work in the office and at home, do paid labor as well as the lion's share of child care and housework.

Maybe that's what leads to our fascination with glamorized images of women who apparently can't do any of it.

naomirwolf@gmail.com

Naomi Wolf is the author of "The Beauty Myth" and the forthcoming "The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot."

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