The Feminine Mystique that never died


A padded bikini top by Abercrombie and Fitch, marketed to 8-year-old girls. Much fuss was made about the “push-up” (i.e. cleavage-creating) shape of the bra, and the premature sexualization of little girls it seems to create by making them appear to have developed breasts at an age when most are still flat-chested.

If you ever want to know just how far we haven’t come, read Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking first book, The Feminine Mystique, sometime.

Sure, you’ll think at first that we’ve come very far indeed since 1963, when it was published; nowadays, for instance, it’s no longer the norm for women to write “housewife” in the census blank reading “Occupation”. But that may be the only thing that’s changed, other than maybe the fashions. And even the fashions make me wonder. For example, it’s very fashionable once more to be a professional housewife, as all the TV shows with “Housewives” in the title give us to know.

But if you think that dressing little girls to look like grown-up (or merely teenage) sexpots is some evil new development, Betty Friedan can disabuse you of that notion quite firmly. Here, in a passage from the first chapter, titled “The Problem That Has No Name”, she tackles the pressing, cutting-edge issue…of premature sexualization of girls:

By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for “married students”, but the students were almost always the husbands. A new degree was instituted for the wives — “Ph.T.” (Putting Husband Through).

Then American girls began getting married in high school. And the women’s magazines, deploring the unhappy statistics about these young marriages, urged that courses on marriage, and marriage counselors, be installed in the high schools. Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high. Manufacturers put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten. And an advertisement for a child’s dress, sizes 3-6x, in the New York Times in the fall of 1960, said: “She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.”

Emphasis added.

“She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.” At an age when she hadn’t yet heard that boys have cooties, the average little girl of 1960 was already being groomed to catch herself a man. Honestly, other than the silly, stilted language of advertising (which will always be silly, and stilted), what’s really changed?

Nothing. That’s right: NOTHING.

Premature sexualization of girls, often hyped in the media as some new and sinister development of our oversexed times, is actually as old as the hills. (So is complaining about premature sexualization.) And in fact, if you lived in the hills during the time Betty Friedan was writing her book, the odds were good that you’d be a child bride, or at least know quite a few of them.

But here’s the thing: None of them wore fake boobies of foam-rubber, or Abercrombie Kids push-up bikini bras. They were all ultra, ultra conservative in dress and religion both.

The old-fashioned bible-based family values of the fundie-Mormon polygamists held that girls must be married off, and set to breeding, practically as soon as they started to menstruate. Since the average age of menarche is 12, and was back then, too, child brides were a real, and not-much-talked-about, fact of life in the Golden Age of Wholesome Family Values, the 1950s. That is, until the polygamist town of Short Creek, Arizona, was raided by the feds.

Short Creek was raided in 1953, a full ten years before The Feminine Mystique came out. The raids shone a harsh light on polygamist practices, most sensationally child marriage. But the polygamists haven’t gone away, nor have their mores loosened one whit. They’ve gotten even more conservative, if anything. In the 1950s, they dressed much like any other modest housewife, in dresses that hit slightly below the knee. But now, they wear those long calico dresses that look like they were ripped straight out of Little House on the Prairie. And they are still engaging in the premature sexualization of girls through forced child marriage.

There is really not that much separating the FLDS from the reactionary fundamentalism of the Ayatollah’s Iran, which forced all females to wear the chador and halved the legal marriage age for girls from 18 to 9. Other than, maybe, the fact that there are fewer “plural” wives among present-day Iranians!

Meanwhile, we in the oh-so-much-better-than-them modern west live in a culture of unabated sexism and sexualization, not only of little girls, but of everything. Even genderless inanimate objects have been sexualized; Sigmund Freud would be left wondering if a cigar really is just a cigar, ever. In the 1950s and ’60s, North American girls were directed to be “man-traps”: pretty, sexy, educated enough to hold up their end of a conversation, but not smarter than the guys; they might work outside the home for pin money (or to put their menfolks through school), but they would consider housewifery and motherhood to be their full-time careers — after catching themselves a suitable husband, of course. In the current climate, it’s not enough for a female to be merely stylish, pretty or even beautiful; you have to qualify as slammin’, bangin’, fuckable, hot. Brains? What are those? Ewwwww, grey matter — not sexy. You have to be always “down” for sex, even if you don’t really want it. That, or risk being a nonentity. Even an 8-year-old knows it.

Yes, the 1950s were an awful time to be female; the career vistas for women had shrunk since the 1930s and ’40s, and as Betty Friedan indicates, they were still shrinking apace. But beneath the eroding veneer of 1970s social progress, this is still a bad time for girls and women — even in the sexual sphere, oddly enough. Because if you’re dressing and acting mainly to please others, and doing so from an early age, how on Earth can you expect to know, much less dare to demand, what pleases you? It’s as hard as trying to form a facial expression when all your muscles have been Botoxed into a state of permanent, wrinkle-free paralysis, à la Real Housewives of Upscale Wherever.

And no, this is not freedom, nor is it a product of feminism; it’s the old Feminine Mystique, mutated and updated. Meet the new sexism, same as the old, old, old sexism.

But there is still the chance that something might change. Girls are now being encouraged to speak out against premature sexualization and other distortions of feminine body image.

The question is, will any of them hear the call over the perpetual roar from the mutant Feminine Mystique that still pervades our media and ad-saturated culture?

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2 Responses to The Feminine Mystique that never died

  1. Inversius says:

    The feminine Mystique indeed. A sometimes perspicacious Australian commentator, Phillip Adams, coined the phrase Corporate Paedophilia to encapsulate the various means by which unbridled capitalist media exacerbates this problem. He errs in seeing this as a relatively newish phenomenon, however his perspective is worth reading…
    (BTW this was published shortly before The Australian became the thoroughly noxious right-wing rag it is today)

    • Sabina Becker says:

      I think what really clinched, for me, the connection between the Feminine Mystique and consumerist capitalism was when I read what one of Friedan’s interviewees said: “A housewife is someone who buys things for the house.” BINGO! And of course, she’s socially conditioned from an early, early age to do just that. It starts, I think, as soon as the doctor (or nurse, or midwife) says “It’s a girl”. As soon as the sex is known, the gender-specific conditioning starts.

      And yes, corporate pedophilia certainly seems to play right in to that — girls are very knowingly being targeted by marketers for a sex-specific, and specifically sexualized, role. It starts with toy commercials (Barbie, anyone?) and just keeps going from there. And since all little kids want to be big kids, and sexuality is as grown-up as it gets, it’s inevitable that sexualization is going to start early. Has done so for a very long time; even in the “good old days”, the age at which a girl was considered marriageable was frightfully low. Shakespeare’s Juliet was only 14, and to hear her father and her nurse talk, she was considered overripe to marry. Back then, marriage was usually the way for upper-class families like the Capulets to consolidate wealth; a precursor to modern capitalism with all its corporate mergers. (Still is, with the various royal families!) So it made sense, albeit perversely, for girls to be married off (or betrothed) while they were still children. That tells you something about the tenor of the times…and again, how little has really changed!

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