|Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, image from flickr|
Travis has already done an exceptional job considering the broad intellectual debts of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and so I want to take my post here in a somewhat different direction – tracking “the problem that has no name” through several pop cultural creations and considering their resonances, traces, and the palimpsest they create. When I teach a course on Women in Film, I always teach one of my all time favorite films Bonnie and Clyde (1967). One of my arguments about Arthur Penn’s fictionalized account of the (in)famous bandits is that – as with so many historical dramas – the Depression era piece is really about the sociopolitical climate of the 1960s when it was made. Bonnie and Clyde positions Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as attractive outlaws that take on the establishment and build an alternative family that lives both outside of the legal system and at a remove from more ordered society. Bonnie’s decision to go on the run with Clyde is clearly motivated by her desire to escape the confines of her gendered existence in her small town – the film establishes this in the classic opening shot of naked in her bedroom; she lays on her bed and peers through the bars of the bed frame, emphasizing the feeling of entrapment. When she spies Clyde attempting to steal her mother’s car, the entire conversation is shot from outside the house so that she is framed by the window and presented as confined to this sphere. Clyde convinces her to abandon her life in this small town for the excitement of robbing banks, but, following the increasing visibility of female sexual pleasure allowed in the 1960s, Bonnie has the greater sexual passion and is thwarted in her desires by Clyde’s impotency. Violence comes to stand in for sexual intimacy. When I teach Bonnie and Clyde, I ask my students to compare the opening scene to Friedan’s concept of “the problem that has no name” as we watch Dunaway’s skillful performance of a feeling of uneasiness and lack of satisfaction with her physical and economic confinement. Freidan is not writing about poor white women, but the emotional weight is similar.
To further illustrate symbol deconstructed in The Feminine Mystique, I show my students the music video for the song “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” by Eurythmics (above). The 1987 video opens with lead singer Annie Lennox dressed as a dowdy 1950s housewife with mousy brown hair. She sits knitting and tells the viewer: “Some women think that they don’t count. You have used that weapon against me. Did I tell you that I was lying by the way, when I said that I wanted a new mink coat? I was just thinking about something sleek to wrap around my tender throat. I was dreaming like a Texan girl, a girl who thinks she’s got the right to everything, a girl who thinks that she should have something . . . extreme.” The monologue – directed towards the patriarchal figure of the husband – speaks directly to Friedan’s argument. Writing about The Feminine Mystique in her book The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed says, “The happy housewife is a fantasy figure that erases the signs of labor under the sign of happiness. The claim that women are happy and that this happiness is behind the work they do functions to justify gendered forms of labor, not as a product of nature, law, or duty, but as an expression of a collective wish and desire” (50). Lennox’s unnerving opening speech suggests that domestic labor is belittled by the patriarchal system and that status symbols – the mink coat – are empty gestures that hide the homicidal rage of the housewife. As Ahmed illustrates, happiness is expected to paper over the systems in place that create the gendered division of labor. “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” shows Lennox’s character cleaning the house in fits of manic energy, surveyed not by a visible male figure but by the judgment of the camera, the ticking of the clock and the self doubt found in the mirror’s reflection. A small blonde girl – presumably the fantasmic projection of the housewife – wreaks havoc on the order Lennox attempts to create and as the song picks up momentum the housework becomes increasingly disturbing and the viewer expects a violent climax – especially as Lennox attacks various vegetables with knives and skewers. Instead of ending in physical violence, the video builds to a scene of the housewife at her bureau pulling off her brown hair – a wig – and replacing it with a big mess of Marilyn Monroe-style blonde curls. As she does this, the mirror flashes between Lennox’s now garish face, the face of a man in heavy makeup as in preparation for a drag performance, and the mischievous little girl. Both in her solo work and as part of Eurythmics, Lennox’s music video personae have always suggested the performative nature of gender – she is always camping on gender and showing herself as a female female impersonator (yes, that’s supposed to be repeated). In “Beethoven,” her roles – as dowdy housewife and than sexually free vixen – are both revealed as equally performed. The happy housewife is a fantasy undergirded not just by ideas about gender and home, but also by ideas about sexual repression and expression.
|Christina Aguilera's homage to Annie Lennox|
Christina Aguilera’s 2010 music video for the song “Not Myself Tonight” pays tribute to this video with a scene of Aguilera dressed in a skintight dress with a large blonde wig – the same outfit that Lennox wears as she escapes the confines of her home in “Beethoven.” In the newer video, Aguilera goes a step further setting fire to all the clothes in her closet, further emphasizing the ways in which gender can be put on and taken off. The triumphant final scene of “Beethoven” shows Lennox strutting down the street outside what appears to be a prison complex – the home becomes a prison that confines through economic and social control, and the lie of happiness as overriding personal desire.
Of course, the “you go girl!” feeling that we are to feel at the closing of the Eurythmics’ video requires us to ignore the class and race politics embedded in the fantasy of the housewife. Ahmed notes that, “Even as fantasy . . . [the housewife] evokes the embodied situation of some women more than others. After all, many women at this time were not housewives: for some women to work at home would be an aspiration rather than situation” (50). Drawing on black feminist cultural critic bell hooks, Ahmed writes that the liberation of housewives as a solution to their unhappiness absents the issue of who will be caring for the children and home if/when white women of the 1950s and 1960s enter the workforce. Friedan’s idea of liberation from the home “might also conceal the labor of other women” (Ahmed 51), meaning that lower class women, often women of color, would fill these domestic tasks as they had long before the creation of the post-World War II nuclear family dream.
In her 1970 essay “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” Frances Beale writes, “[It] is idle dreaming to think of Black women simply caring for their homes and children like the middle-class white model,” arguing that the “parasitic existence” enjoyed by white middle class women was a “phony” luxury never afforded by women of color (91). Beale sees Friedan’s housewife as living in “legalized prostitution” with her subjectivity reduced to “only a biological function,” but says that for Black women “the reality of the degrading and dehumanizing jobs that were relegated to us quickly dissipated this mirage of womanhood” (91). The Feminine Mystique suffers from the way it was taken up as being about all “women” by a mainstream (read: white, middle class, college educated, “pretty”) feminist movement of the 1960s that often failed to consider that deconstructing “the mirage of womanhood” necessitated inspecting their own privileges that intersected with their gendered existence. The happy housewife however remains a standard trope that flits across magazines, television ads, and various other media, in an ongoing discourse. Ahmed writes that, “The happy housewife retains its force as a place holder for women’s desires” (52), but in order to unpack its worth we need to be cognizant of the multiple subject positions held by this figure – it’s not accidental that Faye Dunaway, Annie Lennox and Christina Aguilera are all pale blondes. bell hooks argues that not only do blondes "have more fun" but that they are more likely to succeed due to "white supremacy and racism" (158). Frances Beale's message to the white women’s liberation movement remains important today: “If the white groups do not realize that they are in fact fighting capitalism and racism, we do not have common bonds. If they do not realize that the reasons for their condition lie in the system . . . then we cannot unite with them around common grievances or even discuss these issues in a serious manner because they’re completely irrelevant to the Black struggle” (99).
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
Beale, Frances. "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female." The Black Woman: An Anthology. Ed. Toni Cade. New York: Mentor, 1970. 90-100. Print.
hooks, bell. "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister." Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 157-164. Print.