Spinsters, Sluts, and Soccer Moms
Settling on stereotypes as the topic of their most recently published battle, the Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, aptly titled Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers, focuses on all those notions of femininity that praise, degrade, and segregate women during all periods of their lives. Less of a book presenting research on how stereotypes are made and perpetuated, this guide serves more as a laundry list of the assumptions that piss the Girls off, complete with photographs and colorful insets of random information. "We want to mitigate the power of female stereotypes over our lives," the Girls say in their introduction. "In the following pages we will investigate the origins, histories, and namesakes of some of the most beloved and the most notorious female stereotypes of our time. By taking a closer look and poking holes in some auras, we will praise the good ones, take back some of the negative ones, and propose ways to escape them if we want." So, in less of a review and more of a bulleted synopsis, here are the things the Girls have to say:
- Stereotypes begin at a very young age. Whereas babies used to be dressed almost identically, regardless of sex, after the 1920s color-coding babies came into popularity and persists today. Young girls can be either Daddy's Girls or Tomboys. Daddy's Girls often grow up to have successful careers and have close relationships with their fathers. The gender-opposite -- the Mama's Boy -- is not such a positive term, which may be a comment on the power women have over their sons. Tomboys are expected to grow into ladies and are feared to be lesbians if they don't. Many female athletes turn to modeling as a way of expressing their femininity. The Girl Next Door is the sweet, trusting, conventional girl and, ironically, is the girl upon whom Hugh Hefner based his idea of Playmates. The Bimbo, or Dumb Blonde, "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." The femme fatale/vamp is the woman who uses her sexuality to destroy men, whereas the Bitch has evolved over the years to mean something powerful and less derogatory than its original meaning. Who has sex with whom, how frequently, and for free or pay have provided the stereotypes of slut, pinup girl, bombshell, prude, nymphomaniac, butch, femme, and bull dyke.
- Sometimes a fictional character or actual person becomes the basis of a stereotype. Florence Nightingale selflessly devoted herself to helping the sick during the war and eventually ran her entire nursing station. Aunt Jemima has persisted as the southern Black woman ready to serve food to her masters. Betty Crocker is the woman able to answer any baking question, and whose image has changed over the years to reflect a more modern version of the typical American woman. Flappers flaunted their sexualities and their free spirits; Carmen Miranda was the typical Latin woman, a sort of pre-J.Lo; Mother Theresa's name "became synonymous with selflessness;" Rosie the Riveter gave homage to the women running America while men were away at war; and Lolita is the young girl out to nab a man beyond her years.
- Women are no less subject to stereotypes as they grow older. They are presented to society, most significantly male society, as Debutantes, and marry well to become Socialite wives. Gold Diggers are not so different from Socialites in that wealth is their main criteria for marriage, except that a Gold Digger will marry any man for his money. Trophy Wives are younger women married to older, more powerful and successful men, usually the second marriage for the men. Hollywood helps to perpetuate this stereotype by placing younger women with older leading men, but the actors themselves do their fair share of holding it up, the Girls citing Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones as one example. The Soccer Mom is a white suburban woman of middle- to upper-middle-class standing, in a traditional marriage whose main task is managing her children. The opposite of this is the Stage Mom who also considers the management of her children a full time job, but often as a way of living out her own failed opportunities. Filling out this category is the Supermodel and the Lady Exec, one relying on her feminine wiles to further her career, the other imitating men to work her way to the top.
In their final chapter, the Girls present a collection of ethnic dolls, each portraying a racial stereotype that is offensive only because it is so unbelievably true. Humor is the main weapon employed by the Guerrilla Girls throughout their treatise, which makes for a quick and entertaining read, but it would have been nice to have been presented with some of the more sound research that went into creating the book. Instead, the Girls give an our-opinion-is-the-right-opinion in their descriptions of the evils of stereotyping, which only serves to detract from the actual point. One thing the Girls seem to forget is that stereotypes exist for a reason, and though I do agree that they do more harm than good, they would not be born were it not for those who fit and perpetuate them. Instead of showing several sides of the argument and allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusion, the bold language is meant to shock the reader into agreement. But the Girls are correct in that it's easy to forget where stereotypes originate and exactly what they mean: "Stereotypes are living organisms subject to the laws of cultural evolution: They are born, they grow, they die and/or change to fit the times," they say. "The Guerrilla Girls are still waiting for the day when everyone will think of the Feminist as a positive stereotype. Don't let us wait too long." With that statement, their point is obvious: to not be a stereotype, but to be oneself. That, beyond anything else the girls enforce, denounce, or flog in their discourse, is something with which no one can argue.
Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes by The Guerrilla Girls