Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

Female Celebrities Warp Our View of Real Women

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

As celebrity narratives increasingly dominate the national imagination, Caryl Rivers says we should worry about the restrictive and often passive roles that women play in these tales.

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Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Famous for Doing Nothing

Paris HiltonA lot of women these days are famous for nothing. Paris Hilton, the hotel chain heiress, claimed that she was the new Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe was an actress of high comedic talent whose best films live on. Hilton somehow came into national fame by scrubbing down a car in her teeny weeny bikini in a TV commercial in 2005 for the Southern California-based Carl's Jr. burger chain--hardly the equivalent of "Some Like It Hot."

Meanwhile, actress Heidi Montag recently got major press for undergoing multiple plastic surgeries. The Kardashians, a media-hungry LA celebrity clan, exploit family dysfunction and "The Anna Nicole Show" depicted the doomed actress in the process of unraveling. "The Real Housewives of Orange County" features a group of very rich, very vapid housewives just being rich and vapid.

How many female celebrities could you call "self-actualized," having accomplished something genuine, not simply looking good, having lots of kids or being victims?

Yes, there are some to consider.

Angelina Jolie may be most famous for being joined at the hip with Brad Pitt, but in her own right she's a U.N. ambassador for children and an accomplished actor.

Sarah Palin--whatever you think of her politics--got herself elected governor of Alaska and is making millions with her bestselling book.

Hillary Clinton certainly did it her way, Michelle Obama projects both glamour and smarts and Meryl Streep is famous for being perhaps the best actress on the planet.

The Exceptions, Not the Rule

These are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

If, as Gabler argues, "celebrity is one of the few things that still crosses all lines," uniting Americans with stories about people they all know (or have at least heard of), then their narratives are constantly playing inside our heads.

But the subtext of these stories is that women have limited roles in society, most of them traditional and subservient: beautiful cipher, rich housewife, scorned spouse, abuse victim, mother of many children.

In a "post-feminist" era, when many young women see the feminist movement as too strident, unrelated to their lives or simply as ancient history, the fact that celebrity narratives are so retrograde is mainly overlooked.

However, they deserve our wary gaze. They are of a piece with other narratives that say women have gone too far, that they outnumber men in college classes and are too ambitious, imperiling the family, their own happiness, male status and the natural order of things.

Why, one wonders, don't we see reality shows about women doing the exciting things they do in real life these days: performing cutting-edge surgery, training to be an astronaut, coming under hostile fire as a soldier, keeping the peace as a police officer or running a city as its mayor? Certainly such women would make for much more compelling drama than rich LA housewives.

Don't hold your breath waiting for such reality shows though. Expect more of the same: The next Paris Hilton, the next Anna Nicole, the next woman battered by her famous partner or betrayed by her famous husband, the next rich housewife, the next bevy of women trying to snag a Bachelor.

When it comes to women, "reality" is pretty restrictive.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England).

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Great article! I am currently in production on a documentary that does exactly what you ask...

Shows women and girls doing cool, exciting, amazing, adventurous things! There are women out there doing cool stuff, there just isn't anyone out there filming it.

I got tired of wondering and decided to tackle the project myself. Starting in August I'm heading out with a small crew on a motorcycle tour to film empowered (but not boring) women throughout the USA and Canada.

We're featuring some amazing girls and interviewing some really interesting women. Check it out at or on facebook at

There's lots of ways interested people can support the project and help it be seen!

During a time when it is hard to find women portrayed as the heroes they can be, I felt it necessary to point out the TLC 10-episode documentary "Police Women of Broward County". These women have children and family lives, as well as demanding careers as police officers. As a young woman myself, I would prefer to watch these women any day, rather than some over-hyped "reality" show with spoiled, non-talented women. We need to stop glamorizing the pretty-but-useless types and give credit to the real women in the world who are worth admiring.