Jane, Barbara, and Michelle

[For a little bit of context at the end, this was written in January 2009, just before the Obamas moved into the White House.]

Ascriptions of motivation are problematic at best. Generalizing from those ascriptions compiles layers of problems upon surface like varnish upon wood, taking an individually rich and textured bit of wood and turning it into a smooth, nearly uniform plank. The analysis of Jane Fonda and Barbara Bush (“Jane Fonda, Barbara Bush, and Other Aging Bodies“) commits all these errors, providing a specious and somewhat sanctimonious argument for the very real systemic discrimination and oppression of women through the manipulation of body images. Yet, as varnish may make the grain of the wood more visible, so does this analysis. What it lacks in generalizability (though the authors seem keen to do so), it provides a great deal of data for detailed introspection – both in regards to these two women, and also in regards to our own lives.

In Fonda (whom the authors seem to dislike), the authors highlight the contradiction between the control of the body and the freedom of liberation. They claim that the hyper-controlling need of fitness gurus is another attempt to control women through their bodies, and that Fonda’s participation in such is less about feminism than it is about hypocrisy. While there are elements of truth in their statements about body control, one wonders if they’d make the same judgment about the discipline, rigor, and effort needed to achieve the skills and status necessary to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

The authors are also correct in noting that Ms. Fonda’s body-building style led towards a more muscular body does approach maleness, and that having plastic surgery for her breasts (and other types) also conforms to gendered types about femininity. They allude, however, that these things are hypocritical on the face of it; how is it not possible that Ms. Fonda wished the control and power of maleness without surrendering the feminine? Are they ignorant that weight training and decreasing body fat results in a reduction of breast size? It appears that they wish for Ms. Fonda to conform to a body image – their own. At what point does surgery (or any other body modification effort) become unacceptable or acceptable? Gender reassignment? Tattoos? It is impossible to disentangle the effects of societal control with personal decisions; different intentions can manifest in the same (or similar appearing) behaviors. Holding up the apparent contradictions in Ms. Fonda’s life can serve as a call for self-reflection and self-examination, but little more.

Likewise, the (much less harsh) criticism of Mrs. Bush makes presumptions of intent (and assumptions that magazine reporting is accurate, a problem in itself). They accurately point out that Mrs. Bush has traded criticism for her appearance for renouncing her existence as a sexual being; however, I disagree with their assertion that this is challenging the mainstream notion. It appears to me that the idea of the matronly grandmother is a completely mainstream idea, and one that still resonates strongly. I ascertain this through the common revulsion reaction to the idea of elderly people having sex. This seems to be a significant part of the mainstream path for women, and Mrs. Bush has stayed significantly within it.

It will be interesting to see where Ms. Obama takes this trend, and how well she is able to buck it. She has already been feted by many magazines and shows; leading up to the inauguration, it was easy to see comparisons between her and (then) Jacqueline Kennedy. How will this strong, independent woman challenge the ideas of beauty and age?

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