Monday, June 27, 2011

Forever Cute

[Image: Zooey Deschanel dressed in pale pink in the sunshine holding up a heart necklace]
Sorry this is so long, but I have a lot to say:

I enjoyed this thoughtful post from What Tami Said: Who is the black Zooey Deschanel? No one really tries to identify a black Zooey, though, because what she is really asking is, can a black woman pull off a cutesy, innocent/sexy, intellectual yet vapid little-girl aesthetic? Does society give black women room to define themselves in this way? As Tami pointed out in another post, a white woman streaking her hair pink is seen as whimsical while a black woman doing that is seen as "ghetto." Both posts and comment threads I highly recommend reading.

[Image: Nicki Minaj, also in a pink dress, making cute face, and with pink hair, literally impersonating a child's toy.]

While there understandably wasn't much love given to this trendy eternal-little-girl persona on a post about how this mode of self-expression is unfairly racially exclusive, or examination of why white women might choose this on a blog that isn't about white people, I think digging deeper in this issue is actually very pertinent to Tami's question. I realize many women use cutesy-ness to be transgressive, that there is deeper meaning at work for many lesbians, sex workers, forty-year-old women who've defined themselves differently in the past, and many many more situations. But this is a mega-trend and since 80% of people don't seem to think deeply about anything at all, I'm going to assume 80% of the trend followers haven't thought deeply about this either. And to be as clear as possible, the "cutesy" I'm talking about is what I think of as Etsy, alternative precious weddings, Real Simple Magazine, cupcakes obsessives, DIY tissue paper pom-poms, and yes, Zooey Deschanel's persona. And no, I don't have a problem with people who are into this stuff (or Deschanel). It doesn't make you stupid or shallow. I myself enjoy a stiff drink even more if it's pink and coordinated with a pastel retro tablescape.

Let's say a white girl doesn't like being sexed up like a reality star. She doesn't enjoy the Barbie persona, doesn't enjoy the snap judgements or the way people treat sexed-up women, doesn't enjoy the harassment, doesn't enjoy the objectification. Let's say she doesn't want to focus her life on male attention, either. But she also wants to stay within the acceptable limits of what girls do. She's not about to grow out her pit-hair and spend tedious hours reading up on The Male Gaze. She doesn't want to be one of those Icky Girls. She wants to be a girly-girl, but on her own terms.

Louise Brooks, in a boyish bob, cupid's-bow lipstick and sailor costume. She was extremely young in these photos and a poster-girl for "boyish" figures, i.e. small-breasted and straight-hipped.

Probably the only time a woman in her 20s or 30s remembers feeling free of The Sexiness is early childhood. It's just about the only time in a woman's life where she is deemed "ok" by society. Hopefully it's pre-dieting, pre-making sure you keep your legs together when sitting in a skirt, pre-skeevy-uncles, pre-slut-shaming, pre-prude-shaming. This would not be the first time women rebelled by channeling childhood. Remember the flappers in the '20s who flaunted "boyish" (aka pre-pubescent) figures and loose clothing like a little girl might wear? Louise Brooks? Or the Sixties, when mod and Jackie-O prep styles both made women literally look like dolls (oversized hair, big eyes, clothes that were cut to make limbs look tiny and disjointed, that hide the waist and breasts)? It's a subtle way of saying, "I'm not a sex object. I'm a 'person,' not a 'woman.'"

Jackie O in doll-like dresses. Notice the proportions of head to body because of her bouffant, and the way the clothes slice her into movable parts. Compared with cinched-waisted, pointy bazooka dresses from the '50s these also downplay her breasts and waist.

And then there's the way the current trend (at least as opposed to other trends) centers itself around "female" experience, not performative femininity. For example, tweeting about adorable kittens, as Deschanel did, is basically for a female audience. Sharing childhood experiences is another big element ("Omg remember Thundercats/MyLittlePony/Full House???") and that is also about female community. People like Deschanel seem to be developing a sense of humor that is based around appealing to other women both on the cute level, the "our experiences are worth sharing," level and the girl-friendly gross-out level (I'm using "female" and "girl" as abstract ideas here). The guys in their universe can either get with the program or be relegated to the sidelines.

And it's not just "girly" ideas you can share, but intellectual stuff too. There's a strong current of liberal arts education, contemporary art/film/music awareness, and political awareness that comes rolled into this mega-trend, probably because of the affluence of the mainly white, slightly older participants.

And best of all you're still a good girl. You're still a desirable employee, a good daughter, a cute girlfriend, a good student, a good consumer.

So why is this a new (ish) trend? Why now? I know people in every decade believe women are being hyper-sexualized more than ever before but... I think women today are being hyper-sexualized more than ever before. Women in the workplace has been well-established since the '80s, and since the liberal '90s there has been a growing conservative backlash fetishizing domestic labor at the same time that working is just what women do. That requires delicate balance.

Also women--particularly middle-class women--are experiencing a decade-or-so-long no man's land between adolescence and doing traditional "grown woman" things: getting married, having kids, owning a house, having a Career-with-a-capital-C. Today there's often college, a few shit jobs you have to take where you're not treated like a real person followed by some fluff occupations while you're trying to figure stuff out, some hit-and-miss career moves, dating around and having a few long-term relationships, crazy room-mate situations, basically a time when you want to play around for a while and for the first time in history you can. Or for many, a time when you want to be treated like a grown effing adult but aren't. You graduated and haven't been able to get a job (any job!), or you have a humiliating job, or you have to move back in with your parents. Again, this requires a delicate balance and I think the eternal little-girl trend addresses this for lots of women.

Manet, "Bar at the Folies-Bergere." I think we all know how she feels.

But of course there are major, major problems with this, and I haven't even gotten to the issue Tami brought up yet. First, due to porn and legions of pervs, little-girl-hood isn't as desexualized as most would like it to be. In fact grown women infantilizing themselves is a huge turn-on to a lot of men. Because of the focus on female, not male appreciation I mentioned earlier I think many women can knowingly overlook this. Furthermore since there is a huge hipster-cute-little-schoolboy-aesthetic trend among guys, these women can often find plenty of men who share the childhood mentality instead of being pervy consumers of female sexualized infantalization. But I wouldn't put these guys in the majority. And while little girls may be mostly free of sexual stigma they aren't particularly powerful in society. Giggles and fantasy don't get you very far in a board meeting or an argument. The main problem with this persona: there is NO room for anger, power or raw sexual energy-- I'm talking about MAJOR HUMAN EMOTIONS here.

Deep breath. And here's my other point:

I think the media (mostly owned and/or run by white affluent men) uses black people and black stereotypes to be a fantasy outlet for white people who play by the rules. Black "bad-asses"--characters like Samuel L. Jackson's in Pulp Fiction and Shaft, and heavily produced personas like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent--function as fantasy outlets for white men and, somewhat, to white women, to the extent that many white men will, instead of expressing anger or misogyny in their own words, simply imitate black stereotypes. It's a way of saying the ugly shit you want to say but still having it be a joke (and a way to quickly earn my disgust).

Thus black women's stereotypes that get hyped in mainstream media are a directly related to white female fantasy (in addition to the old Women-of-Color-as-Exotic-Sexual-Deviants male fantasy). There's anger, power, raw sexual energy. I've seen many white women who, instead of simply standing up for themselves, imitate the neck-roll, finger-waving image as a way to say "Seriously, get out of my face" but in a cute, joking way. Even many positive-sounding phrases of empowerment used by white women are derived from black women because of the "power" fantasy: "You go, girl!" "Preach it sister!" "Right on!" "Tell it like it is!" etc. Plenty of white women directly imitate black women shown on MTV to express sexuality, too. I once saw an all-white, all-female Southern church group out at a bar being very prim and tittering until some music came on and a few of them ran to the dance floor and started booty-dancing and rolling their hips. They quit after a few minutes, all of them collapsing in laughter. They got to express their sexuality but not get in trouble for it because it's just a joke! A fantasy. Part of why reality shows seek out the same black female knock-down drag-out dramatic situations over and over is that there isn't any other viable female anger/power fantasy on TV. As the white girl cutesy trend has grown the angry black woman stereotype seems to get played in heavier rotation. White people can identify with certain black characters as fantasy, then imitate them to express emotions and attitudes that are forbidden.

I think Tami does a great job explaining why this is extraordinarily unfair to black women, both in this post and her entire blog, so I don't have much to add to that. But I'll point to the positive aspects of cutesy-ness I listed earlier that I didn't think were touched on in the post as a viable tool (however problematic) women use to circumvent societal pressure that is being denied Black women and other women of color. I also hope women who subscribe to the cutesy trend will give it some thought and perhaps develop some way to make it work for a full range of human emotion, including anger. Finally I hope that if any readers have ever thought of stereotypes assigned to Black women as Not Their Problem, that this post has illuminated just one way in which stereotyping Black women is gross and demeaning for all women, part of a system that sucks for everyone.


Laiima said...

Got here from Pandagon. Lots of food for thought. I'm white, and too tall and weird (and too old) to pull off cutesy-girly, so I never really noticed the phenomenon outside of Zooey Deschanel's movies. But I think I am guilty of appropriating things said by WOC, without realizing that's what I was doing. I'll be more careful in the future.

Ciana Pullen said...

Welcome! Ha, "too tall and weird!" I definitely identify with being too weird to pull it off. For me that actually applies to a lot of trends...

And I have totally appropriated expressions from WOC. I don't want to police anyone b/c it's a complicated issue but it certainly bothered me that the only "normal" way to express a common emotion in a common situation was to mimic an offensive stereotype.