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American Cinderellas? The Case of the Self-Made Woman

Workin’ 9 to 5

What a way to make a livin’

Barely gettin’ by It’s all takin’

And no givin’

They just use your mind And they never give you credit It’s enough to drive you Crazy if you let it.


It’s a rich man’s game No matter what they call it And you spend your life Puttin’ money in his wallet.

Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”

They can beg and they can plead, but they can’t see the light, cuz the boy with the cold, hard cash is always Mr. Right!

Cuz we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.

Madonna, “Material Girl”

The myth of the self-made man can also be related to women, as has already become clear by the (more or less successful) self-made women we have already encountered in this chapter. Still, there seem to be crucial points in which the female success myth departs from the hegemonic male one, to which it appears to be connected asymmetrically and in complementary fashion. For one thing, self-made women are not part of the foundational narrative of self-making, and even more recent female exemplars often follow a skewed logic that tends to define female success not in terms of work as productivity, but more often in terms of the kind of work that goes into maintaining and improving one’s physical attractiveness. Thus, we may well speak of the prototype of the self-made woman as being shaped somewhat paradoxically by a process of ‘othering.’ Ann Douglas has diagnosed a “feminization of American Culture” as having accompanied the shift to an increasingly consumption-oriented economy in the 19th century that lastingly gendered the relations of production and consumption: The “sentimentalization” of culture “was an inevitable part of the self-evasion of a society both committed to laissez-faire industrial expansion and disturbed by its consequences. [...] [S]entimentalism provided the inevitable rationalization of the economic order” (Feminization 12). In that sense, women were both

the stewards and prisoners of sentimental culture; theoretically reduced to affect and relegated to domestic space, women oversaw the cultural role of their own social and ontological captivity, which provided the moral rationale for an increasingly economically competitive society. (Gould, “Revisiting” ii)

Being interpellated not as producers/workers but as “consuming angels” (cf. Lori Anne Loeb’s book of the same title) by the discourse of economic wealth and social mobility which propped up the newly emergent consumer economy, women entered it as customers and as male status symbols - i.e. as passive subjects or rather objectified non-subjects - or not at all. Women’s upward mobility thus depended on their relations to men: The boy in the Alger story who becomes the protege of an older benefactor is replaced by a young, attractive girl/woman who is similarly elevated through male assistance according to a patriarchal logic in which women’s function is precisely not to become independently successful but to further highlight male success by yielding to men’s efforts at changing women according to their ideals. American cultural productions also often use an Americanized version of the Cinderella tale to circumscribe female success, for example Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1901), in which the titular character, a country girl who goes on to become a successful actress, however ultimately leaves both male mentor figures with whom she has relations in the course of the novel; Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), which ends with protagonist Lorelei Lee, another provincial girl, marrying into high society; or Garry Marshall’s Hollywood romance Pretty Woman (1990), which tells the love story between Vivian Ward, a prostitute, and a rich businessman. Whether Carrie Meeber, Lorelei Lee, and Vivian Ward would more aptly be called self-made women, businesswomen, or “sexual entrepreneurs” (Harvey and Gill, “Spicing” 52) is a question that cannot easily be answered. As female success often seems circumscribed by and limited to marriage as an arena in which the exchange/ circulation of social capital, economic capital, and libidinal energies is only thinly veiled by the ideology of romantic love, it is no wonder that we also encounter more critical treatments of marriage in American literature and culture, for example in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905), which ends with the tragic death of protagonist Lily Bart, a young woman who refuses marriage and fails to live up to the (double) moral standards of New York high society. With regard to Wharton’s novel, Lauren Berlant notes that “the linkage between conventional gendering and failure feels both melodramatic and mundane,” and wonders,

“what are the consequences if you try to ‘quote’ the normal practices identified with your gender and you fail [...]?” (Desire/Love 61). In the context of a newly emerging women’s movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women themselves critiqued white middle-class women for partaking in relationships based on what Olive Schreiner for instance has called “sex parasitism” (Woman 78); after all, these women could be considered to be complicit in maintaining their own socio-economic dependency, which Charlotte Perkins Gilman described as follows:

We are the only animal species in which the female depends on the male for food, the only animal species in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation. With us an entire sex lives in a relation of economic dependence upon the other sex, and the economic relation is combined with the sex-relation. The economic status of the human female is relative to the sex-relation. (Women 5)

From a gender-specific perspective, the Cinderella story as the (inverted) correlate of the male success myth thus defines the capital and opportunities of women differently from the capital and opportunities of men. Whereas we do find straightforward narratives of upward mobility, more often we encounter narratives of self-making that are concerned with women’s outward appearance and with the work that needs to be invested in order to conform to socially defined beauty standards. Beauty contests constitute a notorious example of socially accepted cultural practices and forms of female self-making aiming at recognition, fame, and economic gain, of which the Miss America pageant is especially prominent. Invented as a marketing strategy by Atlantic City hotel owners to extend the holiday season beyond the Labor Day weekend, it took place for the first time in 1921 and, in spite of several interruptions, is still an extremely profitable venture. Ironically, 1921 was also the year women were allowed to vote in national elections for the first time, as Susan Faludi notes (cf. Backlash 50), which shows that emancipatory efforts conflicted and overlapped with discourses and practices that objectified and commodified women and their bodies. More broadly, Lois Banner suggests that

[t]he history of beauty contests tells us much about American attitudes toward physical appearance and women’s expected roles. Rituals following set procedures, beauty contests have long existed to legitimize the Cinderella mythology for women, to make it seem that beauty is all a woman needs for success and, as a corollary, that beauty ought to be a major pursuit of all women. (American Beauty 249)

Banner goes on to say that “the Miss America pageant is a striking example both of the breakdown of Victorian prudery in the early twentieth century and the strength of Victorianism in a specific setting” (ibid.). In order to ameliorate the overtly sexist, objectifying implications of the beauty contest, which to this day is considered the most important part of the competition, the winner of the pageant is now awarded a college scholarship.

Overall, female self-making runs counter to the conventional American work ethic. Rita Freedman comments on the Disney television film Cinderella (1997): “Hard at work in her clogs, Cinderella was ignored. Transformed by her satins and slippers, she conquered the world” (Beauty Bound 68). Thus, we may even speak of a somewhat perverted work ethic that encourages women to spend all their material resources and time on the exhaustive and narcissistic task of selfmanaging and self-disciplining their bodies (cf. Gill and Scharff, “Introduction” 7). The fact that more and more women undergo surgical treatment before entering the Miss America contest (cf. Wolf, Beauty Myth 266-67) has given rise to renewed criticism of the competition.

Illustration 4: Margaret Gorman, the First Miss America

(1922) © Bettmann/CORBIS

In a more recent postfeminist discourse, female self-making more radically (and quite literally) refers to self-transformations achieved through cosmetic surgery.

Thus, Elizabeth Atwood Gailey discusses as “self-made” the women who undergo cosmetic surgery on reality television series such as The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210 for “the promise of status elevation and enhanced economic opportunity” (“Self-Made Women” 109). Here, as Gailey points out, “[w]omen are either portrayed as material objects - little more than a collection of (often almost cartoonishly) formulaic body parts - or, equally limiting and pathological - as self-exploitative, entrepreneurial agents who are more than willing to use their bodies to ‘get ahead’” (ibid. 110) or to have signs of aging or pregnancy and childbirth removed in a spirit of “responsible self-management and care” (ibid.). This sort of female self-making constitutes “a liberation requiring utter submission to social authority” and complete conformity to normative gender ideals:

Performing perhaps the ultimate act of the “self-made” subject, women who undergo cosmetic surgery on these shows not only personify the exercise of political power through women’s bodies, they reveal themselves as paragons of the neo-liberal doctrines of selfhelp and self-sufficiency. They are, in every way, then, “self-made women,” products of the hegemonic alliance of patriarchy and global capitalism. (ibid. 118)

Speaking to individualist, neo-liberal notions of empowerment, emancipation, and agency, this kind of self-making in the spirit of a “postfeminist sensibility” (Gill, “Postfeminist” 147) at the same time can also be considered as a practice which enforces conformity rather than individuality and deprives women not only of their agency, but possibly even of their lives, as made-over women, by being surgically remade again and again, ultimately may literally come undone.

Another cultural script about female self-making addresses women conventionally as wives and assigns them a supporting role in their husbands’ self-making and rising in the world. In How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in His Social and Business Life (1953), a book adhering to the prototypical “conformist sensibility of the 1950s” (Watts, Self-Help Messiah 485), Dorothy Carnegie, who tellingly refers to herself rather as Mrs. Dale Carnegie, counsels wives on how to increase their husbands’ success by making them comfortable at home, boosting their egos, and - most importantly - by not pursuing careers of their own, while she herself de facto took over her ailing husband’s business around the time of her book’s publication. Beside patriarchal conceptualizations of female/wifely success as coextensive with the success of their husbands, there are also other - quite ambivalent - images of the self-made woman for example in cinema, in which career women are often represented negatively as deficient single females.

In the 1950s, a watershed moment for gender conservatism, movie stars like Doris Day in many films played businesswomen who give up their careers for the sake of a man, and in the 1980s, successful female professionals are also often confined to narrow stereotypes, for example in Fatal Attraction (1987), in which Alex (Glenn Close), the successful editor of a publishing company, starts terrorizing Dan (Michael Douglas) and his family after he refuses to continue their affair; Susan Faludi compellingly reads Alex’s deterioration as signifying the pathologization of the businesswoman in American culture (cf. Backlash 112-13, 122-23): Self-making and professional emancipation in the film’s logic lead to the character’s psycho-social disintegration because her career cannot compensate for her lack of a husband and family. The romantic comedy Working Girl (1988), in which we follow Tess McGill’s (Melanie Griffith’s) rise from secretary to successful businesswoman, represents female professional ambition and success rather positively; however, the character of Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), Tess’s boss, does reinforce the stereotype of the scheming and callous career woman, and as she is also Tess’s major antagonist furthermore disavows any notion of female solidarity (cf. Faludi, Backlash 128-29). Whereas “Hollywood representation is characterised by an insistent equation between working women, women’s work, and some form of sexual(ised) performance” (Tasker, Working Girls 3), in Working Girl, this performance is ultimately relegated to the sidelines, as the protagonist in the end earns her deserved recognition, which is symbolized by her moving into an office of her own in the final scene. It should be noted though that this largely positive representation of female professional success must be considered as more of an exception than the rule in Hollywood films as well as American popular culture in general.

Investigating self-made women in relation to self-made men obviously operates within a binary opposition; J. Halberstam has noted that “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (Queer Art 2). Beyond the reproductive paradigm, Lauren Berlant is asking us in her book of the same title to consider the “cruel optimism” that underlies the American dream of success and prosperity, which is as alluring as it is out of reach for most people: “The fantasies that are fraying include, particularly, upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy” (3). In fact, focusing on the avenues of self-making heralded by hegemonic versions of the success myth may just accustom one to a sense of permanent anxiety, or what Berlant calls “crisis ordinary” (ibid. 9). Rather than to adjust and succumb to this sense of crisis, J. Halberstam suggests reading failure “as a refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and prof?it, and as a counterhegemonic discourse of losing” (Queer Art 12). A feminist and/or queer studies perspective on self-making can contribute to such a critical reading by asking us not merely to include women into the dominant logic of self-making, but to question the premises of growth, reproduction, success, and gain that connect the success myth to capitalism and to normative conceptualizations of social structures and institutions such as the family.

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