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From Welfare Girl to Biker Chick, whatever lifestyle or habits woman lead, theyre bound to a stereotype which either do good or bad. What have you been called? Daddys Girl? Dumb Blonde? Feminazi? Are female stereotypes based on universal truths? Are they overactive fantasies piled on top of one another? Why does our culture produce so many categories for women?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stereotype” as a simplified conception or idea that gets invested with speacial meaning by a certain group of people. An archetype is slightly different: It’s a model or an ideal from which duplicates are made.
Think of it this way: A stereotype is a box, usually too small, that a person gets jammed into. An archetype is a pedestal, usually too high, that she gets lifted up onto. Some archetypes can be stereotypes, like a Mother Teresa or even a Bombshell. But there are lots of stereotypes that would never be considered archetypes: Trophy Wife, Bitch, Gold Digger, etc. Stereotype or archetype, it’s rarely a girl’s own choice: It’s a label someone else gives you to make you less or more than you really are.
Some stereotypes are positive (The Girl Next Door), but many more are pejorative (Old Maid, Jewish-American Princess, Welfare Queen). Lots of them reduce a woman to a sex object or insult her by implying she’s a prostitute (Wench, Slut).
There are stereotypes that grow out of religious myth. The Virgin/Whore dichotomy evolved from the contrast between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene during the life of Christ. Lilith, the Bitch Goddess, was Adam’s first wife. She demanded equality, got kicked out of paradise, and was replaced by Eve.
Other stereotypes are rooted in the exemplary lives of real women, like Florence Nightingale, or in the tragic lives of others, like Marilyn Monroe, the embodiment of the Dumb Blonde/Blonde Bombshell. Some are invented to sell products (Aunt Jemima). Some, like Lolita and Vamp, were conjured up by poets and novelists. Others have mutated over time. Broad and Ho, for example, used to refer to prostitutes, but later came to refer to any female of the species.
Stereotypes are living organisms, subject to laws of cultural evolution: They are born, they grow, and they die and/or change to fit the times. They have an umbilical connection to language: They gestate in popular culture and are born in everyday’s slang.
The most prolific progenitor of stereotypes today is the media: movies, TV, music, newspapers, and magazine. Media-specific stereotypes leap across borders and cultures with terrific ease. For instance, young girls today in every part of the world and in every ethnic or economic substrata imaginable get bombarded via TV and the Internet with the Rock Starlet stereotype: A thin, young, long-haired (usually blonde) woman with her shirt way down to there to show her cleavage and way up to there to bare her middriff, grinding into a phallic micrphone. Stereotypes like this have great power. In fact, psychologists are convinced that the projection of stereotypes leads to stereotyped behaviour. For years, the belief that girls were inherently inferior at math trickled down to a shockingly small number of women confident enough to enter careers in Science. If this Rock Starlet stereotype persists, I think it could make human cloning irrelevant. Many of us will be virtual clones already.
I want to mitigate the power of female stereotypes over our lives. Every stereotype has a history or at least a few good stories behind it. I will begin by considering the top stereotypes, the ones that follow us from crade to grave, from Daddy’s Girl to Bitch. Then we’ll take a spin through some of the stereotypes that surround all the varieties of our sexual selves. After that, we will go behind the lives of real and ficitonal women who have become sterotypes. Some invented their own stereotype (Carmen Miranda), some had it thrust upon them (Tokyo Rose). I’ll also look at occupational stereotypes, from Gold Digger to Supermodel.
A Daddy’s Girl is the apple of her father’s eye. And she’s proud of it! Daddy is so wonderful and important, and she is so special to receive his attention. A 1977 study of women executives found that all of them had an especially close relationship with their fathers, much closer than with their mothers. On the surface, the idea of a Daddy’s Girl is innocent. But scratch the veneer and all sorts of forbidden meanings, obsessions, even sexual implications emerge.
By the 20th century, “Tomboy” was a label for a physcially active girl who liked to do the same physcial things as a boy – in other words, a jock. At a time when girls were expected to stick around the house and learn to cook, clean, and sew, a girl who liked sports was thought of as unfeminine. I see it a little differently. Girls who were Tomboys took a look around and saw boys had all the luck: They could run, jump, play sports, and express themselves physically. These girls ignored what was expected of them and joined in the fun! Tey didn’t necessarily want to be biological boys; they just wanted to do what boys always had the freedom to do.
A Tomboy was amusing and accepted, but at puberty she was expected to “grow out of it” and become ladylike. If she didn’t, and kept up her boyish behaviour as an adult, well then, maybe she was…homosexual. Many parents feared that a Tomboy daughter might grow up to be a Lesbian. Female gym instructors were always suspects.
Now, The Girl Next Door. According to OED, she’s a “trusting, sweet, and faithful but imaginative woman.’ She is the familiar, the unexotic, the undifferent, a mirror of conventional family values. She’s almost always white. The Girl Next Door is pure, loyal, and would never think to question authority. She’s Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts. She’s NOT Madonna or Lucy Liu. The Girl Next Door may have morphed into an educated, working, sexual being, but she isn’t an endangered species. She still stands for what most men still want in a woman: Sweetiness, obsequiousness, loyalty, and a good piece of you know what!
“Bimbo” started out gender neutral – from the Italian word “bambino” (baby) – and became progressively female. In the flapper era, a Bimbo was a terrific person of either sex. By the 1930s, detective novels made a Bimbo the opposite: A dope, a bozo, either male or female. Somewhere between the Second World War and the 1960s, a Bimbo became exclusively female: Usually a beautiful, curvaceous blonde with tight clothing, high heels, and a not-so-high IQ. In the mid-1980s, the media became obsessed with the illicit female sexual companions of famous men. One after another of these women – from Donna Rice to Jessica Hahn to Gennifer Flowers – were canonized as Bimbos in the press. The Bimbo stereotype was born! Today’s Bimbo is a young, ambitious owman who has sex with an older, powerful man in order to become famous or self-important. She’s babelicious with big tits and sexy clothes, and she’s so gullible she does and believes everything he says. She also happens to be white. Variations on Bimbodom have emerged, too: Bimbette (a very young Bimbo), Jumbo Bimbo (stewardess who is a Bimbo), Bimbo eruptions (Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades), Bimbo control (the job of keeping the former to a minimum), etc. Then, of course, there are the male counterparts: Himbo and Hunk.
Bimbos prove the tiresome, sexist assumption that women can’t have both beauty and brains. Men and other women feel superior to a Bimbo because they assume she’s dumb, easily dominated, and usually humiliated.
Call a woman a Bitch or a Ballbreaker and what image comes to mind? A strong, aggressive female who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, suffers no fools, and takes no nonesense. Not bad personality traits. Confusion over the acceptable use of “Bitch” abounds. One noted linguist thinks it’s such an insult that we should stop using it to describe female dogs! Contemporary street culture plays fast and loose with the word “Bitch”, using it so often it has come to mean not a difficult woman but any female at all, and often any man who deserves to be belittled. The BBC Standards Commission recently ruled that it was okay for a comedian to call the Queen of England a Bitch on air because the word is no longer offensive, it just means any woman. In a 1995 survey of men and women in the U.S., 93 percent of the respondents felt it was “very inappropriate” for men to refer to women they don’t know as Bitches. Another survey the same year produced a different result: Fewer than half the participants felt Newt Gingrich should apologize to Hillary Rodham Clinton for calling her a Bitch. What’s a girl to think? Obviousoly, Bitch is a stereotype in transition. A developing culture of unrepentant Bitches can be found everywhere! There’s Bitch magazine; there’s a growing industry of Bitch-empowerment books.
Carmen Miranda spent her first 5 years in her native Portugal and her last 15 in the U.S. But to the world she was always Brazilian. Americans loved her films, but South Americans felt way they were superficial and offensive. Down Argentine Way was banned in Argentina. Brazilians were annoyed that Carmen portrayed herself as the embodiment of their country, but her music mixed Brazilian samba with Caribbean rumba. Some believed it was a disgrace that she preferred to be a financially successful one-dimensional stereotype in the U.S. rather than a flesh-and-blood artist back home.
Although her public persona was relentlessly upbeat, the life of the Latin Bombshell did not have a happy ending. In her last roles, Carmen Miranda played a parody of herself, mouthing lines that made fun of what she had become. Scripts continued to be written in her early fractured English when she no longer speaks that way. Driven by her work schedule and ignoring her own health, Carmen Miranda collapsed in the middle of an appearance on the Jimmy Durante show in 1995 and died the next day. In death, she became a Carioca again. It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened to Carmen Miranda if she had stayed in Brazil. Her talent and ambition were unquestionable. She was star material from the getgo. What kind of an artist might she have become if she were not the exotic ‘other’ but the best among many?
A Tokyo Rose is an evil female traitor who uses her sexuality to beguile and betray. The stereotype grew out of the tragic story of Iva Ikuko Toguri d’Aquino, an American. The dutiful daughter of Japanese immigrants, Iva graduated from UCLA, and then left for Japan as her family’s representative at a relative’s sickbed. That was 1941. When the war broke out, Iva was trapped in a country whose language she didn’t speak and where, as a U.S. citizen, she was an ailen enemy overnight. Her relatives didn’t even want anything to do with her! She found a job as an English-language typist for Radio Tokyo. There she caught the attention of an Australian prisoner of war, Charles Cousens, who had been ordered to write Japanese propaganda. He thought Iva’s voice was strident and sexy, perfect for a new radio show.
So started the ‘Zero Hour,’ a weekly radio program broadcast throughout the South Pacific on Sunday evenings. Iva and more than a dozen other English-speaking women appeared on it, each with a pseudonym. Hers was Orphan Ann ‘ an apt description of her situation. None were named Tokyo Rose.
Orphan Ann would come on the air with a message like this: ‘Greetings, everybody. This is your number-one enemy, your favourite playmate Orphan Ann from Radio Tokyo. The little sunbeam whose throat you’d like to cute…’ This was supposed to demoralize the GIs. But Allied commanders thought the messages actually built up morale and helped instill a fighting spirit, sort of like those drill sergeants who use insults to motivate. The generals gave Iva a citation after the war, especially because she refused to denounce her U.S. citizenship.
But the U.S. governemtn took a different view. They imprisoned her for 12 months in Japan. In 1948, when she wanted to return to the States, there was a public outcry to lynch her, led by Walter Winchell, the American Legion, the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, and the Los Angeles City Council, whose members officially opposed her return. They feared she might incite other Japanese Americans who had just been released from internment camps. Her husband was disallowed in the country; she miscarried their child. The press flung the label ‘Tokyo Rose’ at her. And it stuck. Although there was little real evidence, she was put on trial. It became a media event and cost half a million dollars in 1948. The judge refused the jury’s request for a dismissal. The jury then pinned a single count on her. Iva Toguri became the first American woman convicted of treason. Sentenced to ten years, she served siz behind bars and was released in 1956. No one else who participated in the radio broadcasts was ever incarcerated or even charged.
A Gold Digger is a woman whose ambition is to find a rich husband. ‘Gold Digger was a Flapper-era term first used in the 1920s to describe a modern woman who pursued a man, known as the Gold Mine, for his money. A guy did the same with women was a Forty-Niner. Marilyn Monroe specialized in Golder Digger roles, most notably in How to Marry a Millionaire ans Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Gold Diggers mirrored the cultural clich’ that when men search for in a mate, they are interested in what she looks like, and women, in turn; want to know how much money he makes.
Men were angry about being bossed by a woman. To assuage those fears, Female Execs acted like ‘one of the boys’: They donned power suits, talk tough, and learned to play goft. That worked pretty well, but didn’t erase he myths and misconceptions that cast the Female Exec as an imposing, scary woman who works long hours and is a horrible Bitch when she has her period. If she was single, the Lady Boss was even scarier because her whole life was her job. If she had a husband or partner and kids, she was seen as not focused enough on work. She also was thought to be too emotional and lacking the self-confidence needed to get to the top.
First, stereotypes are always in flux. It’s amazing to observe how time, specific events, and sometimes individuals have influenced the evolution of a particular stereotype. A Bimbo may be a dumb blonde white girl today, but who knows, maybe someday Bimbo will come to mean a supersmart black female astronaut!
Second, the media has mind-boggling power when it comes to generating new stereotypes and keeping alive the old standards.
Finally, female stereotypes have not begun to catch up with the tremendous changes in women’s lives formented by the libreation movements of the 20th century ‘ civil rights, feminism, and gay rights! By empowering you to create your own stereotypes and to reject the ones our culture tries to squeeze us into. I am sure the world will be a much better place from sexists and misogynists everywhere, but most importantly have fun along the way, never it take too personally.
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