Pierre Bonnard Nude Bending Down
I wore a skort to school on the first day of third grade. My mother had coaxed, threatened, and bargained before I agreed to wear this hybrid half shorts, half skirt that she had sewn from a beautiful piece of cotton madras for her obstinate daughter. I hoped to remain unnoticed, the loner kid in the schoolyard, but at recess I caught the eye of a precocious classmate with advanced knowledge of girl-boy stuff. “You got great legs!” she hollered loud enough for her entourage to turn and gape at my bare legs. I froze, horrified as if I were standing in my Wednesday underwear, while her friends wondered if their queen had extended an invitation to their circle. That she had said this with genuine surprise revealed her early lessons in female commodities. She may have overheard her father making a similar remark about another woman’s legs—children see and hear everything, after all, and she had adopted the phrase to hurl at me during recess on the first day of school.
So, to my mother’s chagrin, I never again wore the madras shorts with the pretty flap on the front and back, and I avoided the gaggle of girls at recess. But they had made me aware of my legs and I intended on keeping them in corduroys. Forever.
Today, my skort would be the equivalent of a burka—so chaste compared to the ubiquitous tank tops and teeny shorts. Children develop at their own pace, and it took me a while to catch up with these girls who had leapfrogged to adolescence, already sneaking blush and eye shadow to school, passing notes to clueless boys with rocks and dead lizards in their pockets. It is the oldest story. But so is the story of women being subject to standards and codes established by men. How can we shield our daughters from the onslaught of subliminal messages that make them anxious and insecure? Glossy magazines that run articles on what men find hot, and seventy five moves to lure men, elicit a yawn, at best, but not from vulnerable tweens and teens who regard them as textbooks. The magazine racks build shrines to Kim Kardashian while nourishing our girls on a steady diet of bedside astrology and sex tips. Our boys are equally subject to the media’s appalling portrayal of women, blindly following gender stereotypes. An entire generation is raised on American Idol where it has become the norm for aspiring fifteen year olds to be evaluated by lascivious old men and a femme fatale, then shepherded to Hollywood to be groomed and garnished, their ambition compromised.
Recently I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love because my husband’s paintings are in the movie and I love Ryan Gosling (even in his little brother’s clothes). When I told friends that the film left me shaking with rage, they looked at me like I was crazy, maybe a little simple: “Prudence! What’s the big deal?” “It’s just a movie!” It’s Hollywood for Christ’s sake!” Exactly! Hollywood thinks it’s okay for a young girl to seek advice from the school tramp on how to seduce the father of the kids she babysits. How about the parade of young women in bars who follow Ryan Gosling’s character home like zombies? Shall we just sit back and eat our popcorn? Do we really think twelve-year-olds won’t see this film because it’s rated PG-13? If they’re not, the Twilight series will supplement what they missed. This soft-porn soap opera inserts its fangs so cunningly, bewitching even parents who buy the books and accompany their ten, eleven, twelve-year olds to see the movie, where the distorted message seeps like an intravenous needle into their consciousness.
Women of my mother’s generation who fought to elevate our status in society from objects to people are taunted for their mommy jeans, not lauded for their efforts. A woman’s achievements, no matter how great, still pale in comparison to her looks. I realized this is all not just in my head when I saw Miss Representation, written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It’s a startling look at the absurd standards the media has created for girls, where beauty and sexuality are valued above intellect and competence. How do we create new leaders who reflect real women, not the bare, hypersexualized images on a screen? How do we surpass the term “girly girl” that diminishes us to creatures dependant on pedicures and glitter? The only way to rise above this is to push back, to take a stand against this degradation of women. Maybe skorts will make a comeback.