Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Clothes Make the Woman

As Washington DC smothers under a blanket of intense heat and humidity, my little family has been sheltering in place from the ongoing heat tsunami. We've spent the last few evenings in the cool comfort of our basement, watching movies together. Through the joys of streaming Netflix, we've been indulging in some blast-from-the-past cinema, delving into some of the best that the 1980s had to offer.

The boys, particularly my tweener, are often reluctant to explore the cinema of this era. It's old! It's stupid! The music is terrible! Their hair frightens me, Dad!

As I've not seen most of these movies in twenty years, I'm always a little reluctant to trust my memories of their quality. Sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised, as when we watched the still delightfully entertaining "Little Shop of Horrors." Sometimes, I can't believe I paid money to see a particularly wretched movie, as in the case of the stinktacular "Conan the Destroyer." We ended up having to turn that one off when our brains started to bleed. Usually, though, I'm able to successfully predict whether the kids will like a film or not.

Last night, we settled in with "Short Circuit," a amiable bit of 80s fluff about a robot that comes to life. I'd predicted that the boys would love it, and I was dead on. The humor was right up their alley. But what struck both me and the missus was the lead actress. Yeah, it was Ally Sheedy, which was a blast from the past, but that wasn't what got us.

It was the way she was dressed.

She was the love interest. From the dialogue, it was clear that the men around her...and the robot...thought she was attractive. And she was. But her clothing was remarkable in it's modesty. Long flowing skirts. Comfortable, loose-fitting blouses. Long slacks. This was not a prudish movie, either. It had rather more profanity than I'd recalled. It's humor was indistinguishable from the humor in a contemporary action comedy.

Yet the female lead wore clothes that nowadays would identify her as a Mennonite.

The image portrayed of women and what constitutes dressing attractively was radically different less than a generation ago. I watched a smidge of Top Gun the other day. In that 80s-fest, Kelly McGillis was supposed to be over-the-top sexy. But she mostly dressed...well...rather demurely by today's standards. When I go back to pictures of that era, the yearbook images of the girls I knew who were wild , provocative, and a tiny bit dangerous...the clothing that at the time was so...err...intriguing...looks like a burqua compared to what I encountered the last time I went to the mall.

Back in the 80s, the area around my home church was one of the seediest places in DC, a meat market of porn shops, drug dealers, and prostitutes. The clothes that teen girls wear today to go out..and sometimes even to go to more skin than those on the streetwalkers who'd sometimes solicit me on my way back to my car after I left the church. I don't say that by way of judging the character of the young women who wear them. It is simply an objective assessment of the amount of fabric involved.

I do wonder what impact the significantly increased sexualization of women has on our culture. Even a significant portion of modern feminism seems to have conceptually acquiesced to the market-driven idea that women are primarily sexual beings. Sex is, or so the argument goes, an integral part of a woman's empowerment. That it is useful for selling product is just a side effect.

I don't quite buy that. I think...and not just because I'm an old fuddy duddy, dagnabbit...that the sea change in cultural expectations about women's appearance isn't a positive development for 1) the psyche of women and girls and 2) the way in which men and boys learn to view the women around them.