Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction

Article excerpt

The untitled photograph by Sylvia Plachy on the cover of this issue is identified in her magnificent collection, Signs and Relks, as "Barbie Convention, Niagara, NY, 1992." In the photograph, a woman's shapely legs, emerging at the thighs from the right side ot the photograph, angle to her black high-heeled shoes across the tiled walkway of a pool. Sitting erect on her crossed knees is a Barbie doll dressed in a black and white striped bathing suit, the doll's shapely legs and black-and-white high-heeled shoes angled in symmetry with the woman's. With nothing more than her plastic hands to stabilize her perch on the uneven surface of a bent knee, Barbie seems to exhibit both poise and self-possession-indeed, because we see her face and not her owner's, perhaps more than the woman on whom she rests. Plachy's photograph wittily asks the question: Who is imitating whom? Is the doll copying the woman, or the woman the doll?

Plachy captures the iconicity of the 1950s with a more complex irony than we typically find in the endless recycling of images from that decade. On refrigerator magnets and birthday cards; in film and in television programming and commercials; in print advertising and on book covers-the 1950s are everywhere a part of contemporary visual culture. However, displaying an image that is recognizably "fifties" without some degree of sarcasm has become a rarity. Mere citation seems to produce irony, with caption or without. The refrigerator magnet or birthday card reproduces the 1950s to register incredulity that such an image could ever have been taken seriously. Ironically embracing the earnestness of the image, which is the hallmark of camp, the reproduction (or imitation) suggests that the fifties, however ubiquitous, remain zip-locked in a sensibility that lies safely in the past. Plachy's photograph refines this irony by tempering its distancing effect. The sheer beauty of the visual rhyme between human and doll suggests that the 1950s continue to shape the culture of gendered self-fashioning, even in parody. Plachy's photograph (and the Barbie convention itself) indicates that the 1950s remain serious, though not humorless, business.

Thinking about the 1950s has always been serious business in gender studies because "the fifties" has been used in American political debate to signify ideologies of home and nation that require women to relinquish their participation in the public world in order to fulfill their obligations to family. Nearly all scholars working on the 1950s in the United States make a distinction between their own critical revisions of the decade and mainstream nostalgia for the fifties as a time of prosperity, family togetherness, and national strength. Against the massive edifice of this ideal, a revisionary account has been mounted, primarily from the political Left and in the realms of gender and sexuality studies. This account, which began with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, redescribed the 1950s as an era of oppressive normalization, anxiety, depression, and simmering dissent. When Elaine Tyler May's 1988 Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era linked the domestic ideology first described by Friedan to Cold War politics, the metaphor of "containment" provided a frame wide enough to draw together a variety of social, political, and aesthetic phenomena into a powerful counternarrative of the period. Indeed, Homeward Bound remains the most often cited work on gender in the 1950s.

The best work in gender studies produced in the 1990s, Joanne Meyerowitz's Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1961 (1994), sought to complicate both the nostalgic idealization of the 1950s and the by then canonical narrative of containment. Meyerowitz was among the first to recognize that even the alternative vision of the 1950s had calcified into a form of conventional wisdom. Her own contribution to that volume revises the first revision of the 1950s, Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. …

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