0502 - 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
anti-wrinkle drug with a name that memorably combines the words
"botulism" and "toxin." Expensive injections of
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 post-feminist 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 PC -- 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 ultra-thin 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 one in
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.
Versión en español
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive
Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.