Friday, March 4, 2011

Anne Hathaway and James Franco: Are We Their Role Models?

I didn’t see an ugly gown during the entire Academy Awards ceremony, did you? Everyone looked lovely. And Melissa Leo was the only over 50 actress to win an award, so not much to report on the Over 50 Front. (Except that an over 50 woman was the only one to use the f-word. You can dress’m up, but?) So on to the next subject: the ceremony’s host and hostess. Personally, I was a little shocked by their behavior. Early on, one of them (probably Anne Hathaway, since she did most of the talking) quipped that they’d been hired to attract a younger demographic. I figured the producers told them to be themselves to engage the 20-something viewers. Or perhaps, it was just an act; after all, they are actors. But from my den couch, I was surprised to see Ms. Hathaway being or acting the über hostess and Mr. Franco being or acting, well, the cave man. I found myself asking the television: “Really? Is this all the women’s liberation and modern parenting has accomplished in the last 40 years?”

Let me preface my ruminations before you read another word. I’m the kind of person who has many more questions than answers. So if you are expecting me to build a case for something here, forget it—please stop reading now. I’m just using this forum to share a few thoughts/perceptions with the hopes that other over 50 women might share theirs. Here goes…

Okay, I know Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the women’s movement has opened many, many doors for us. In fact, I have the closed door statistics of the early 1960s at my finger tips because I just read an article that referred to them. (The night after the Academy Awards I was sleepless in New York and tried to lull myself to dreamland by reading several articles about women in back issues of the New Yorker.) In "Books as Bombs," Louis Menand ticks off some of the statistics during her review of a new book, entitled A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, by Stephanie Coontz. Specifically, in 1963…
  • 73% of college faculty members were men
  • 95% of physicians were men
  • 97% of lawyers were men
  • Over 97% of US senators, Congressmen and ambassadors were men
And here’s another juicy fact: Until 1968, the help wanted ads in the New York Times were separated by gender. OMG!

We all know that opportunities for women have come a long way since then. Even the Academy Awards allowed a female to host (Whoopi Goldberg in 1994) eventually. And that brings me back to Anne Hathaway. She’s attractive, willing to talk in front of millions, exudes maximum cuteness, and can sing—all very impressive. But on Sunday, she seemed to be working so hard at it, desperate to win the audience’s approval. She seemed to feel it was her sole responsibility as hostess to make sure everyone in the audience was having a good time. She giggled with them, flirted with them, sang to them, shimmied for them, and so forth. She was what Friedan called the evening’s “sexual sell.” And, indeed, it felt like the early 1960s again, when the expectation for a woman was that she’d look pretty, would be the perfect hostess, and would support her man. And again, maybe Ms. Hathaway was being herself or maybe she was acting--I certainly will never know. But I had to wonder: Is this the behavior that someone of the younger demographic thinks is worth adopting or what other people expect from her?

By contrast, James Franco hardly exhibited a pulse. At first, I thought, “Okay, he’s going to play the ‘straight man’ of the host-hostess duo.” But as the evening went on, it was clear he wasn’t even going to play that role. The only reason I can imagine anyone would want to host the Academy Awards is for the cash. Is it possible that Franco needed the money (for college tuition?) so much that he signed up for something that was utterly abhorrent to him? Or was he just acting? Or was it something else?

My insomnia the other night also gave me time to read “America’s Top Parent: What’s behind the ‘Tiger Mother’ craze?”, a book review of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you’ve been locked away without a newspaper or TV and, therefore, haven’t heard, Chua’s book describes her “Chinese mother” approach to child rearing and compares it with the “Western mother” approach. The media have had a field day with Chua’s confessions of not allowing her daughters to have sleepovers or playdates, and demanding “A’s” and five hours of piano practicing daily from them. Chua believes that only a strict upbringing will produce successful children.

According to Kolbert, when the book first came out, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of the book. The excerpt received 5,000 comments within a few days. Apparently, “Western Mothers” don’t like to be criticized. What I find interesting are the two studies Kolbert touches on. First, she looks at the Programme for International Student Assessment—the annual study that compares academic achievement among students around the world. The latest report shows American students ranked well below many countries in reading (ranked 17), science (23) and math (31). But here’s the thing: In a second study conducted by the Brooks Institute, American students scored really high in self-esteem compared with students in other countries. For example, reports Kolbert, “Nearly 40% of American 8th graders agreed ‘a lot’ with the statement ‘I usually do well in mathematics,’ even though only 7% actually got enough correct answers on the test to quality as ‘advanced.’” In comparison, 18% of Singaporean students said they usually did well in math and 44% qualified as advanced.

So what does this have to do with James Franco? Well, his nonchalant performance on Sunday made me think: “Is he suffering from American-style self-esteem overload and that’s why he seemed to assume that anything (even if anything meant nothing) he did at the Academy Awards would be great?” The media like to portray him as a “wonder boy;” perhaps, he’s decided they’re right. Or, again, perhaps, he was just acting the part of the detached, "I'm-much-cooler-than-the-Oscars" young man because he thought that was what people wanted.

When I see people of the “younger demographic” behaving or acting like ancient stereotypes, I have two reactions. My first reaction is to feel guilty, responsible—even though they aren’t my children. At the risk of sounding like the “it takes a village” cliché, I feel we’re all responsible for the next generation, that we all must try our hardest to be good role models for them. I don’t want my children to think they have to act like a silly stereotype to be appreciated. And, by the way, I'm not totally against silly. Silly is a wonderful emotional release. But 3 hours of silliness and the absence of any more redeeming qualities--humor, intelligence, for instance--seems a little excessive. Then, again, perhaps, I’m being too hard on Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Maybe it’s developmentally appropriate for young men and women to go through a pre-30s extreme silly phase. Maybe I can’t expect a 20-something to rely on his/her intelligence, sense of humor and curiosity to be or act charming and entertaining. (Or maybe televised award shows are silly productions and the two young stars were acting appropriately?)

And that brings me to my second reaction, which usually comes a moment later. I think: “But is changing ancient stereotypes beyond our capabilities, anyway?” Twenty-something men often drive me crazy with their arrogance and bravado in the face of very little experience. (I’m thinking of overly protected 20-something boys who grew up in sleepy, safe suburbs.) But, perhaps, they are just behaving in an anthropologically correct manner. Historically, young men have had to provide and protect, yes? For centuries, future generations have depended on overly confident men who weren’t afraid to fight their enemies and scoop up fair maids to make babies. By the same token, women had to be willing to be scooped up. Maybe that sort of male fearlessness requires a large dose of cool, detachment. And maybe that sort of the young female willingness requires a large dose of giggling, flirting, singing and shimmying.