If you spend much time watching TV or movies and reading magazines, your perspective starts to suffer when it comes to real life. The way the media influences expectations isn’t just applicable to children and teenagers: we all get a little warped when we’re exposed to the fake worlds of fashion and entertainment.
During the Depression (the one that started in ’29, not ’92), the big movie studios made splashy, high-fashion, lets-all-have-fun films to help take people’s minds off the misery and hunger that they were living in. You could see a movie for a nickel then, and crowds thronged to the theaters to watch the world where people danced and drank champagne and wore marvelous clothes. Pretending that someone somewhere was having fun was the next best thing to being there.
Movies have changed a bit since then, with many popular films being based on audiences watching scenes of horror that would disgust less “civilized” cultures, where people aren’t inured to violence as a form of entertainment. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of feminine beauty to carry even the lousiest films out of the red and into the black. And if you can get them to take off their clothes (or find a body double to fill in), the film will be even more successful.
I love movies, especially good movies with strong plots and good dialogue and excellent acting, which is why these days I watch a lot of foreign films. But if I really, truly believed that the actresses I see on-screen look the way I’m supposed to, I’d get depressed and stay that way.
Fortunately, I have a strong reality orientation and a pretty healthy ego. I’m not going to look like Winona Ryder anytime soon, I guess, but I get by. And if I feel my reality slipping, I tune into a fashion show on the Entertainment channel and watch a half-dressed model slink down the runway like some sick animal seeking its lair. It’s hard to take media representations of female “beauty” seriously when you’ve just finished counting the ridges on a model’s ribcage.
So this morning I was watching an unending series of Jimmy Cagney movies and trying to concentrate on my work, but I kept getting distracted by Bette Davis, who played a nice girl, a nurse, in this 1933 movie. It was before Bette got her Bette Davis Eyes and the crazy, dark role she was later type-cast in so well.It wasn’t so much Bette who distracted me as it was Bette’s makeup. Her eyebrows were pencil-thin and penciled in, and her face looked pasty—stage makeup has changed a lot since 1933. If I hadn’t read the credits, I wouldn’t have known who she was: she was that ordinary (in an actressy kind of way).
So I was watching Bette fall in love with Cagney, and thinking about, how before she was freaky and noire and so very Bette, she was just another pretty girl in a film. And I wondered, what would have happened to Bette if she had happened on that crazy eye shadow and that hard-edged look she later acquired? Would she have ever become a Famous Star? Maybe not, but we’ll never know, because she was a great actress, and might have made it even with looking like just another pretty face.
This kind of brings me back to what I wanted to say when I started out. There’s the glamour and sophistication we’re “supposed” to have, that we struggle for and despair of ever having, and then there’s the real, day-to-day beauty that so many women exhibit when they’re doing the laundry or hauling the kids around, or buying groceries in their sweats with the hair scooped up in a ponytail and not a scrap of makeup.
What women don’t know is that men often fall in love with women who, for once, aren’t thinking about their looks. I had a friend once, a shy guy, who fell madly in love from afar with a woman he’d never noticed before. He saw her with the Brownie troop she was leading. She was wearing a goofy uniform and her long, chestnut (his word) hair was down, and she was playing tag with a bunch of little girls and laughing her head off. He fell so much in love that he couldn’t stop talking about how she looked laughing and running, with the sun in her hair.Years ago, I was sitting on one of the side-facing seats on a cross-campus bus. I was wearing a rayon summertime skirt, one of those Indian prints, not exactly a fashion statement. When the bus took a sharp turn, I nearly slid right off the bench. Not one of my more elegant moments. This sexy professor took one look at me, embarrassed and clutching the steel pole that had saved me from sitting in the aisle, and we were an item for a year.