FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Flags, Gay Marriage, Prejudice & Preference

On the occasion of the Supreme Court’s legal mainstreaming of gay marriage, and the decision by US corporate, political, and media arbiters that yes, maybe, the official presentation of the Confederate flag by the State of South Carolina and its symbolism in the institutionalization and celebration of racism and rebellion against the federal government (as well as good ol’ regional pride!) should no longer be condoned or overlooked, I was reminded how malleable opinions can be.

Stuff that used to be OK is now abhorrent.  And vice versa.

If you’re as old as I am, you might remember this riddle: “A boy is injured in a car accident.  His father rushes him to the hospital.  The doctor comes into the emergency room and says, “I can’t operate on him.  He’s my son.”

Today, I imagine the reaction is WTF? What’s the riddle?  It’s his mom, right?

Well, back in the 1970s, when we rode dinosaurs to school, that was a real puzzler for me and my teen peers.  The idea that “doctors” were “men” was deeply ingrained, so that the “it’s his mother” reveal was a blinding insight that converted me into a committed feminist!

Well, anyway, it convinced me my conscious and subconscious were a grab-bag of tangled prejudices and received opinions.

And it’s made me more careful about regarding stuff that jars me as “wrong”, “abnormal”, “ridiculous”, etc.

And more careful about regarding stuff that pleases me as “right”, “normal”, “reasonable”, etc.

We all live in a world of manufactured attitudes, people.

Another example is attitudes toward female beauty, as I was reminded by On With the Show: The First Century of Show Business in America, by Robert C. Toll (New York, Oxford University Press, 1976) and its chapter on the evolution of American burlesque.  (I’ve already written about Toll’s documentation of the 150-year run of minstrel shows as acceptable and indeed paradigmatic American entertainment).

Toll writes:

“The first burlesque star to be crowned a “Queen,” May Howard [headed her own revue in the 1880s which was] “a leg show pure and simple,” explained the chunky star, who boasted that she would employ no woman who weighed less than one hundred fifty pounds.  The stocky woman with large thighs—some performers were even charged with wearing hip and thigh padding under their tights—continued to be the ideal until the turn of the century.

Here’s a picture—I guess a cigarette card—depicting May Howard.

mayhoward

A sea change in popular attitudes was marked by the rage for the “Floradora” girls in the early 1900s.

floradora

“Floradora” was a popular piece of musical comedy piffle that racked up lengthy runs in London and New York.  It featured a sextette of beauties dubbed “the Floradora girls”, who had their own weight—and height—requirements, as Toll tells us:

…Whereas May Howard in the 1880s featured short, hefty women, the six Floradora Girls, who created a public sensation in 1901 as ideal women, were each 5’4” and 130 pounds…”

The Floradora girls, it should be said, were charged with appearing fetching while looking fully clothed in a demure musical number, and didn’t have to do any burlesque-related heavy lifting.  Supposedly every one of the original Floradora girls married a millionaire, back when a million meant something.

Their type of lithe silhouette presented in various stages of dress and undress became a staple of the American musical theater, thanks largely to Florenz Ziegfeld & his “Ziegfeld Girls”, as documented in the public and secret work of Ziegfeld’s contracted photographer, Alfred Cheney Johnston.

800px-Hazel_Forbes,_Ziegfeld_girl_and_Miss_United_States,_by_Alfred_Cheney_Johnston,_ca._1928

I suppose you can analyze American aesthetic choices in aggregate and say “As the focus of work shifted from rural to urban, the sturdy farm girl was supplanted by the [malnourished] seamstress”.

But I think it’s more accurate to say that different body types and different body type preferences always existed and continue to exist, and it’s more of a question of what gets emphasized, endorsed, and advertised.

On the issue of “chunky” women, Ohio State University had an exhibit on burlesque and the curators had this to say about “beauty”:

The popular image of the burlesque performer was a large, tall woman, so powerfully-built that she was practically Amazonian.  Publicity for burlesque shows took advantage of this association, with posters depicting voluptuous, statuesque performers in the roles of military officers, charioteers, or even literal Amazon warriors.  This dominant female figure was fascinating and tantalizing, but like most aspects of burlesque, also a bit threatening.  Men loved to watch burlesque performers, but at the same time, they were afraid that her feminine power was too dynamic to stay safely confined to the stage.   In an era when women all over America were actively agitating for increased freedoms and legal rights, this was a very relevant concern.

Again, for Americans of a certain age, references to Amazonian women automatically elicit images of the women depicted by R. Crumb, the celebrated graphic artist and “underground comic” auteur:

robert-crumb-strong-girl2

Crumb’s sexual inclinations, indeed anybody’s, is too unique to generalize about.  But I don’t think he’s alone in his preferences.  As a matter of personal practice and artistic necessity, he’s just more up front about them.

So I would say that there is a broad spectrum of preferences and prejudices are innate both within individuals and society, and they are mutable and malleable, indeed more malleable than we would care to acknowledge.  They are shaped, expressed, and can apparently be changed permanently both by personal circumstance, and as a result of what society and state characterize as “good” and “bad” and “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.  And that’s a good thing…sometimes…and a bad thing…sometimes.

Just for the record, I think it’s a good thing that the US population is apparently becoming more tolerant of gay marriage and less enamored of the Confederate flag.   But…as to whether any attitudes are intrinsically “bad” or “good”, I guess I’ll leave that subject to the moral philosophers.  As a matter of human behavior, I think I’ve learned enough to be cautious about how and why I—and society—choose to label things…

Peter Lee edits China Matters and covers Asia for CounterPunch.

Johnston’s archive is on deposit at the Library of Congress.  Portrait of Hazel Forbes.

R Crumb image from Robert Crumb: The Modern Mundy

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail