American ideal

For a long time people have been trying to define the American woman, mostly for the purpose of mocking, dismissing or putting her in her place.

“There is no such thing as ‘the fast girl’ in America,” says one of Henry James’s Englishmen, meaning, of course, that all American girls are fast – and this is more or less the view of an ambitious new Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show, American Woman: Fashioning National Identity, roams over various fantasies of the emancipated American woman from 1890 to 1940, and there is a current issue of American Vogue on the same theme. The exhibit is pleasingly broken down into seductive, if random-seeming archetypes: the heiress, the Gibson girl, the suffragette, the patriot, the bohemian, the flapper and the screen siren, all exquisitely decked out, all involved in breaking rules, defying the old order.

The American woman emerging from this lush panorama of satins, linens and silks, is jaunty, slim-hipped, athletic, informal, independent, and free. Her clothes are the canvas for her modernity, says Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, who was also responsible for the Met’s 2008 show, Superheroes. And yet, does she really exist?

The thinking person has to acknowledge that the whole idea of the American woman is silly. There is no American woman, only millions of assorted American women: the huddled masses, the poor, the sick, the hungry and the very, very rich, the bluebloods, the Chinese immigrants, and the daughters of Pakistani taxi drivers, trying to go about their lives as best they can. And then, even if there were an American woman texting her boyfriend, or packing a snack for her three-year-old, she probably wouldn’t, in her essence, be all that different from a woman in Berlin, Belgium or Bombay.

So from the outset it might be tempting to dismiss the whole conceit of the American Woman as the clever creation of several corporate interests, or a highbrow marketing ploy. Gap is also involved alongside Vogue. Apropos of The American Woman, the clothes retailer points out: “Since 1969, Gap has provided women with the accessible American design they need to move forward with their increasingly multifaceted lives.”

But then one does have to acknowledge that literature produces her as well. Rewind to Henry James’s Daisy Miller (1878), the quintessential American girl embodying all of the archetypes: flirtatious and over-naïve, vulgar and sincere, rebellious and sweet. “It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady,” writes James. “She was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy ... but Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.” Daisy, flitting through Rome without a chaperone, picking up shady Italians, and soaking in the moonlight, is the essence of American womanhood, defiantly independent to the end. She says: “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.” In the novel, Daisy is appealing and adorable, and Henry James himself, the cranky old master, is rather fond of her, though he does have to kill her off from malaria for her casual attitude towards tradition, or as the Gap publicity materials would say, her “increasingly multifaceted life”.

But what are the museum and the magazine doing when they generate so much excitement about these “archetypes”, to celebrate them, to hold a gala ball to toast them, to devote pages of glossy magazines to them, when they are in essence glorified and gussied-up stereotypes. They are not entirely positive, either. One of them, at least, is a nasty interpretation of social mobility, a mean-ish spin on the American dream. “The Heiress” is meant to represent “new money”. She is “the robber baron’s daughter”, the vulgar, opulent girl trying to buy her way into society. Historically there were merchants’ daughters and all kinds of ascendant arrivistes, but isn’t there a certain dissonance to celebrating and feting one of the largely negative images of American womanhood exported round the world? And to celebrate her not because of anything she did or wanted or achieved but because she looked good and her family was wealthy?

In preparation for the gala, the Vogue editors tell us that they are “putting the finishing touches on our gowns for the May 3 fête and studying up on [the] country’s female archetypes – from Gibson girl to the Heiress.” In the mental picture this evokes of the diligent editors, prettily curled up with library books, as their ball gowns lie draped across an armchair in their sun-dappled dressing rooms, suddenly the archetypes are history, and not fantasy, not glossy white mannequins draped in the glamorous clothing belonging to a few privileged women who may or may not have represented anything larger than themselves; all of a sudden the archetypes are something to be “studied”. There is an uplifting highbrow sense of studying “our country’s female archetypes” that co-exists a little uneasily with the not-so-highbrow pleasure of viewing wildly expensive dresses from another era. This is the particular genius of the show: it feels like history and feminism, even if it’s closer to dreams and advertising.

And then, of course, one is a tiny bit limited in one’s exploration of national identity if that exploration is entirely circumscribed by what people wore. There are some deeply rooted national archetypes that did not make it into the Met’s interpretation of American womanhood because the clothes were not gorgeous or sumptuous or dramatic in any way, and were, in fact, mostly torn, dirty, make-shift, and inadequate: I am thinking specifically of the tough, hardscrabble pioneer women who populate our national imagination. In her memoir Where I Was From, Joan Didion writes of one of her forebears, who was said “to have hidden in a cave with her children (there were said to have been 11) during Indian fighting, and to have been so strong a swimmer she could ford a river in flood with an infant in her arms,” and another who, on one wagon journey, “buried one child, gave birth to another, twice contracted mountain fever, and took turns driving a yoke of oxen, a span of mules and 22-head of loose stock”. This uncompromising pioneer spirit, the sheer endurance, the unspeakable daring, may be the underpinning of the fun brazenness more liberally represented in the clothes in the costume exhibit, and in Vogue.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote famously that one is not born a woman but becomes one, and the same could be said for the American Woman, so it makes sense to look first at the American Girl. American literature and our mythology is littered with tomboys, with girls who get dirty, run fast, scrape their knees, break rules, and harbour secretly unfeminine ambitions. Think Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935), or Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868): our girls’ bookshelves are filled with the enduring fantasy of the glorified tomboy. Every culture has its tomboys, of course, but our childhood adoration of them, our total allegiance to their subversiveness is a testament to the power that rebelliousness and equality exert on the American imagination.

The “Gibson girl” archetype included in the Met’s exhibit can be understood as the 1890s answer to the tomboy. She was first dreamed up by Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator for popular human interest magazines such as Life and Collier. Her hair is piled up, and she is dressed in white frilly blouses, tennis skirts that go to the floor, a tweed bicycling skirt that is cleverly bifurcated. She is still wearing a corset, so she is hourglass-shaped, but sporty. She is the embodiment of the emancipated woman but she is not, say, working outside the home.

The flapper is the apotheosis of this tomboyish, rule-breaking American type in the 1920s. By day she is the “career girl” in the new knee-length skirts and, by night, she is smoking, listening to jazz, drinking gin, reading Freud. She is liberated sexually, androgynous in form. There were versions of her in Europe, of course, but she seemed to be imported from the new world. In France, the chic, gamine flapper was called l’Américaine.

These archetypes of American womanhood veer dangerously close to caricature, and there were cartoons satirising the flapper in magazines and newspapers. It’s also worth pointing out that the various archetypes of the American woman, with her energy, her freshness, her rebelliousness, are not embraced warmly or without reservation by the rest of the world. There is an ambivalence, a double edge of admiration and contempt; she is intriguing, but also, fast, materialistic, unsophisticated. She lacks taste, subtlety.

Along these lines, Andrew Bolton explains to me that glamour is very American. This surprises me. Is glamour American? He gestures towards the screen sirens of the 1930s and 1940s, and it’s true that these glittering Hollywood dresses were worn against the backdrop of a world falling apart, of breadlines and bombs falling. Is this wishful, blinkered glamour American, the dream over the life, the eternal lottery ticket of possibility over what is actually going on? We still export our screen sirens. There is, say, the dubious Hollywood glamour of an Angelina Jolie, who now has tattoos and goes all over the world adopting children behind big sunglasses. There again is American excess, idealism, gorgeousness, still there to mock and extol, to admire and to deplore.

Does the Met’s effort to pin down and define archetypes of American womanhood mean anything any more? Does the current issue of Vogue, which pigeonholes contemporary women into these types, like squeezing flesh into corsets, have any intellectual value? One can dismiss the quaint historical feel of the archetypes, the purely artificial imposition of types on to the unruly lives of real women. But if one looks at well-known American women today, one notices that some of the same fantasies do come into play. Michelle Obama, for instance, with her bare arms and strong biceps is our answer to the Gibson girl on her bicycle.

Part of the reason she has attracted so much interest is the newness, not just of her race, but of her relative youth, the aura of shaking up old ways. During her husband’s campaign, there was the question of whether she was too honest, too quick to speak her mind. Some wondered aloud if it might be best if there was a way to tone her down, but the country adored her. And magazines such as Vogue were quick to claim her as an icon of American womanhood.

As a nation founded on fantasy, busy dreaming and reinventing, and starting from scratch, we like the idea of the American Woman; we traffic in fantasies, build archetypes, are seduced by precisely these sort of national stereotypes, oddly stirred by them. We have hardly any history after all, so we like it when some clever curator at the Met, or a Vogue editor-in-chief (both English, I should note) makes one up.

We secretly love our suffragettes, our flappers, our screen sirens, our bohemians, even if they never quite existed, not as such, not in the world of the average woman in the Midwest; we secretly cherish that incorrigible tomboy, that vulgar flirt, that stubborn, independent pioneer girl, that infinitely romantic notion of American womanhood, that freedom and grit and spirit. We say to Europe, respectfully: you may hate us or love us, or both all at once, in a conflicted, tormented way, but there are no fast girls in America!

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University and the author of ‘Uncommon Arrangements’ and ‘The Morning After’

The American Woman opens at the Metropolitan Museum on May 5,

‘Gossip Girl’ as American Woman

Every spring the New York Metropolitan Museum holds a ball to kick off the new exhibition at its Costume Institute. The Ball always has a theme, which is tied to the topic of the exhibit. In the past, it has honoured designers such as Chanel and fashion icons like Jackie Kennedy, as well as feted more abstract notions such as “superheroes.” But this year the Met is going meta and guests like co-host Oprah Winfrey are faced with the challenge of analysing themselves, of pondering just what constitutes an American woman.

This is not a new question for me. I have spent the past two decades asking it. First, I worked towards a PhD in film history, teaching classes that dealt with issues of gender, nation and representation. Then my dissertation research led me to Hollywood, which in turn led me to a job where suddenly I wasn’t just analysing media images, I was a part of producing them. As an executive producer of TV’s Gossip Girl, I make my living creating images of American women. If only the show were currently in production, I could imagine frenemies Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf (pictured) attending the ball and discussing the notion of an American woman.

Me, I am Canadian but have lived in the US since I was 21, passing as a native more or less but still retaining the observational distance of someone who is foreign-born. I grew up inspired by the women in my family and hardscrabble heroines from the fiction of Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. For escape, there were the European beauties of vintage cinema (Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot, Monica Vitti). But, if I’m honest, the ladies who really inflamed my imagination were American. They were on TV and in movies, singing on records or selling things from the pages of glossy magazines. There was just something about them – a confidence, a forwardness of attitude, a certain modernity – that I found irresistibly aspirational. I still do.

As preparation for writing Gossip Girl, I spent two weeks at the Carlyle hotel in Manhattan, interviewing girls from the surrounding neighbourhood. These real-life Serenas and Blairs were beautiful and smart and shockingly sophisticated. They didn’t just know multiple languages, they’d actually travelled to the places where these tongues were spoken. Their favourite restaurants and bars were the most elite in the city. But school was important too – if not more important – and they were fiercely competitive about grades. They had the drive and constitution of the most wily Wall Streeters: work hard, play hard. So long as they got the grades to insure their futures, they had all the freedom in the world. This is the young American Woman today.

Now, born between the two Manson murders, with men on the moon and Woodstock in the works, I am not that old. But I am old enough to remember that, despite the fact that Charlie’s Angels all graduated at the top of their Police Academy classes, if it were not for the intervention of their eponymous benefactor they would have spent their lives (or at least the rest of the 1970s) as typists, meter maids and crossing guards. Lou Grant did not believe in equal pay for work of equal value, even when the work was being done by Mary Tyler Moore. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan was a nurse, not a doctor at the M*A*S*H unit. But one day, I knew, things would be different. And wouldn’t you know, 20 years later, when it was my job to contribute to the conversation about how to update Charlie’s Angels for a feature film, they kind of were.

Despite their travails, the girls and women I write will always triumph in the end. They will defeat the bad guys, overcome their daddy issues, outgrow their crushes, and take over the world. Just like the ladies watching them. What else would we expect from the American Woman? After all, the national rhetoric is built on notions of dreaming and overcoming, of fearlessness, progress, and hope.

Stephanie Savage is co-creator and executive producer of the TV series ‘Gossip Girl’

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