Monday, August 6, 2018

Bodies as Bait: Betty, Veronica, and Me

My idea to write about Betty and Veronica started when I wore this yellow dress, and decided to pose in front of this yellow house - which just happens to be Archie Andrews' house in Riverdale, the TV show based on the characters from the Archie comics. 

I'll be honest: This middle aged woman watched one episode of Riverdale and found it unwatchable, so I'm only going to write about it a little bit. Instead, this post is about the Archie comics, and their impact on me when I was an impressionable child, just starting to wonder where puberty would take me, and what my teens would hold for me. I'm assuming that their influence on me is similar for other girls, past and present.

The short version? Their impact was abominably sexist! The girls are obsessed with being desired by painfully generic boys. How does a girl possess a boy's desire? With luring him with her perfectly adorned, perfectly proportioned, impossible body, of course. Could comic role models for girls be any worse?

This is all perfectly clear to me now, at 47, but it was not in 1980, when I was ten. With beginnings like that, it's no wonder I have body image issues. 

And I do. Big time. As I chose photos of myself for this post I barely recognized the old, fat, round-faced cripple I have become. I was disgusted and depressed. Even worse, I felt that my appearance is some reflection on my value as a human being. I know I'm not supposed to feel this way about myself. I know a good feminist like me should be able to rise above this kind of cultural conditioning, but I can't, not always. Are you the same way?

How could we rise above it, when we are inculcated from birth with cultural messages telling us that we must be young, thin, pretty, desirable to men, and... well, that's just about it. The constant message is that our value begins and ends with this and this alone.

Of course, the Archie comics are not exclusively to blame. They are not the exclusive deliverers of this message. But they are part of a myriad of societal pressures that add up to an impenetrable monolith of dictates and judgments with which women and girls struggle every day. Rather than attack the entire monolith in this post, I will target one element of it, and try to illustrate just what makes these comics so insidious. 

Archie, I'm coming for you!

A note: Archie and some of his gang have been around since the early 40s, but I am not making much distinction between their past and present. First of all, in doing research for this post, I found that the comic's same themes, story lines, and problematic attitudes can be seen throughout the decades. The fashions change, but the sexism doesn't. Secondly, the comic books themselves often recycle decades-old stories, so several generations of children have read exactly the same stories. That's great for learning about fashion history, but not so great for updating attitudes.

Dress: Old Navy; Shoes: Cobb Hill; Brooch (worn in hair): heirloom; Daisy earring: a gift from a friend when I was a child; Sunglasses, bracelet, and sunflower earrings: vintage
But let's talk about my outfit for a bit. I bought three of these Old Navy sundresses just before a heat wave hit, and I've been living in them ever since. So have a lot of other women I've spotted sweating and suffering in the heat.

(Style note: Old Navy's sizes tend to be very generous. Their plus sizes are much too large for me. Their "straight" sizes go up to  XL. I'm wearing an XL.)

I think my dress was something that Betty or Veronica might wear. 

The dress itself reminds me a lot of 1970s sundresses, the kind that were in style when I was reading Archie comics ...

Barbie dress patterns from the 1970s
... and dressing up my Barbie in fashionable little outfits. Honestly, can anyone tell Barbie and Betty apart? I thought about writing more about Barbie in this post, but I figured, "Why bother? Barbie and Betty are indistinguishable anyway. When I write about one, I write about them both."

I'm sure that one of the things that makes these sundresses such a hot seller this summer is their smocked backs. They keep the top in place and make bras almost unnecessary. Every woman knows the pinching, sweaty, hot discomfort of bras in the summer. Every woman is looking for alternatives. These  dresses come close. I'm not wearing a bra in this photo shoot and, to be honest, I'm self-conscious about it, but I did it. I wouldn't have without that smocking.

Smocked tops were extremely popular in the infamously braless 70s and early 80s, but they were smocked all the way round.

This is me, probably about nine or ten, tiny, totally flat chested, in my own little, smocked sundress. I had just had my first and only, fashionable haircut and blow-dry, and I was wearing what I thought was a very sexy dress. 

It breaks my heart that I even thought about being sexy at that age, but Smother was pimping me and telling me that men just couldn't help themselves around my sex appeal, so it seemed natural to me to think of myself in those terms.

Besides, any little girl was bound to think of herself that way at least a little bit. How could she not, with all the cultural images telling us to do so?

I know I was not the only one who saw myself in this light. I saw this in the way my classmates used a fashion trend that went hand in hand with smocked dresses: tube tops, or "boob tubes."

In grade four, most of the girls, with or without breasts, began wearing tube tops with the express purpose of playing a particularly vile and sexist schoolyard game. I'll let my nine year old self describe it to you. 

Here's what I wrote in my journal at the time (I'm going to correct my nine year old spelling):

"Would you believe she [my friend] even wears those god awful strapless tops, just so she can play with the girls. 

My ten year old drawing of the schoolyard game the girls and boys played in my small town in grade four.
Oh by the way the game they play is boys chase the girls and when the boys catch the girls they pull down their tops."

Girls were getting the message, never plainly stated but always clear: our bodies and their adornment were for boys. We were their prey, and we were supposed to want it that way. In fact, we were supposed to dress accordingly. 

We were nine.

Nothing much has changed. 

So here I am, 40 years later, still evaluating myself based on my sex appeal. And I find myself lacking, unattractive, even repulsive. Have you felt that way too? I'll bet anything you have, no matter how objectively beautiful you may or may not be. It's not right that you have felt that way, but it's really not your fault - or mine.

But my shoes. One of the ways I deal with my soul-killingly low self-esteem is to tell myself that, even on the days when I don't feel beautiful, I still deserve to wear beauty. That helps.

So: on with the beauty. I think the flower earrings are a nice touch with this dress. The yellow, daisy ones are vintage, but I've owned the white ones for about 40 years, since right about the time I was reading Archie comics. Some family friend, the nice, non-raping kind, gave them to me, along with a matching necklace. I was over the moon about them. I'm very sentimental about such things.

In keeping with the floral theme, I added this gaudy but fun, vintage bracelet.

And two of my grandma's David Andersen butterflies, one on my dress ...

... and one in my ponytail.

Just like Betty's ponytail, right?

Except, of course, I'm nothing like her at all. No-one can live up to a drawing.

At least the sunny yellow fits in with Archie's world, though.

His is a world full of cheery yellows. Perhaps it's the visual equivalent of the mandatory exclamation points at the end of every single utterance in Archie comics. 

For real! Check it out!

Obviously, my size is another impediment to my blending into Archie's world.

Big girls are only welcome as the butt of jokes. Our very existence is a sight gag ... 

... even as our size and power are threats to Archie's manhood. Is he afraid of and disgusted by larger women because he wants always to be the one who can assault and cause pain, not the one who can be assaulted?

You and I both know that the Archie comics are not the only place we have encountered a woman's size as a joke and an insult to men's eyes. I was a thin child, but my best friend was chubby and one of my close friends was fat, so I witnessed what they went through on a daily basis. I cut my teeth on a world full of fat girl jokes, in school, at home, on television, in movies, in books, in comics ... everywhere.

So, yeah, there are days when I hate my body, and, when I hate my body, I hate my self.

Then there's my age. Real people age, but no-one in Archie comics does. 

Even Betty's mother is a comely, ever so slightly thickened version of Betty herself. While her father actually looks middle aged, Betty's mother doesn't, naturally. 

Or not naturally, actually. 

People age - or die. Those are our choices. When I first saw Luke Perry as Betty's father in Riverdale, I nearly fell over. He's so old! What happened to his forehead

What happened to mine, for that matter?

The brooding, young hero of 90210 ...

... has been replaced by fresher blood, and this replacement will himself be replaced soon enough. But women are replaced faster, and, after that, unlike Luke Perry, they're likely to disappear from Hollywood productions altogether. If they do still get work, they've usually had so much plastic surgery, they're barely recognizable.

Forehead wrinkles on women's faces?


While many of the women disappear ...

I guess the men get to be wise elders?

While we're looking at Riverdale heroes, young and old, sitting on the steps ...

... of this very house, let's talk about the house for a minute. Most people in our neighbourhood know this is the Riverdale house, or at least know that the Riverdale house is somewhere nearby. We mostly know this because filming sometimes blocks traffic on our side streets. I've heard people complain about the blocked traffic, but I've never seen any fans outside, checking the place out or hoping for a glimpse of its stars, and I doubt I ever will see that. 

You see, I live in what is often called Hollywood North. If you don't live here, you'd be surprised to learn how many movies and television shows set in America are actually shot here in Vancouver. This includes a lot of schlock productions, but it also includes quite a few hits with big name stars. We're used to the film industry, the daily humdrum of trailers, cables, lighting, food trucks, and dozens of ordinary workers looking both over-worked and bored. Film-making is a lot of "hurry up and wait." There is no glamour in it for us.

Virtually all of us know people who work in the film industry. Virtually all of those people work behind the camera, not in front of it. Many of us have worked in the industry ourselves. Even I have, ever so briefly. We know something of the massive amount of behind the scenes, grunt work that goes into creating the glamour you see on screen.

Photo by Wendy D
Of all the people I know who work in film, and I know a lot of them, I know only a few actors, only one of whom looks like that image of glamour and beauty we all want to see on screen. With a brief hiatus in what she calls her "ingenue years," she's been a working actor since her teens and, unlike the vast majority of actors, she actually makes her living acting. But, her acting chops not withstanding, she's petite and beautiful. And she knows what to do to enhance that beauty to look the part. Sure, it's partly genetics, but it's also hard work, and a hell of a lot of artifice. 

Naturally, I enlisted her help when I was planning my look for our wedding. I remember her earnestly giving me bra advice that only works for skinny-minnies like her. The advice was useless for my large breasts, though her sincerity was cute. But those learned, breast management tricks, along with countless other beauty tricks, are part of what keep her in film.

Though she is one of the few who is able to live up to the glamorous facade of film, she knows as well as anyone that's it's all a false front. What better example of this than the literal false front of Archie Andrews' front porch?  

Is anything as good as the front it presents? Are we ever seeing the real thing - or the real person?

Regardless, no matter how much I primp and pose, I don't even have what it takes to create the false front, not for Archie ... 

... not for television ...

... and not for the movies.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Archie comics came into being as an effort to attract movie fans, specifically fans of the Andy Hardy movies, a comic series about the teenage mishaps of a young boy played by Mickey Rooney.

The movies were squeaky clean, life lessons for the young Andy and, by extension, for the young people watching the movies. Andy was girl-crazy, of course, and, for reasons unclear to me, was constantly bombarded by the affections of a plethora of astonishing beauties, more fashionable than any small-town girl I've ever known. Andy was chaste. The girls were chaste. 

In real life, Mickey Rooney, the actor who played Andy Hardy, struggled with addictions, married eight times, and was rumoured to have a voracious, sexual appetite which included countless prostitutes who, for a price, satisfied his more distasteful desires. 

See? Nothing is as it seems, especially in the slick world of Hollywood.

The similarities between the movies and early Archie comics are unmistakable ...

... right down to Andy's jalopy ...
... identical to Archie's. 

Is it any wonder, then, that Betty and Veronica look more like movie stars than like small town, teenage girls?

1950s porn and pinup star, Bettie Page
Movie stars... or porn stars? 

Veronica's inception predates Bettie Page's fame, but the fact remains: Veronica's look was one calculated to appeal to male desire ...

... a point brought home even more pointedly when we learn that Dan DeCarlo, one of the men who drew her, also drew cartoons for porn magazines.

Meanwhile, it seems likely that the progenitor of Betty Cooper ...

... used Betty Grable as one of his models for Betty's appearance.

Grable's image was the most popular pin-up during World War II, and I've heard it was often painted on American fighter planes.

Bettie Page and an unknown woman
How old were the girls (and boys) reading Archie comics then? How old are they now? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Are pin-ups and porn stars really the best models of burgeoning womanhood for them to try to emulate?

Add to this the fact that virtually all the writers and artists for the comics were and are men, and Betty and Veronica's adventures look less like children's stories and more like insidious instruction manuals on how to become sexually desirable to men, right down to teaching girls to diet before their bodies are even fully grown.

And, make no mistake, tween girls were and are seeing in them glimpses of their own futures, not as they will be, but as they think they will be, as they want them to be, or believe they should want them to be.

I read them the most between the ages of nine and twelve, as puberty started with vague, wistful feelings of desire, and then ravaged me with its pains, swellings, mood swings, stretch marks, and blood. 

At the time, I was living in an extremely isolated, hateful, little, redneck, mill town in the mountains of British Columbia. Population: 4,000. One stoplight. Three television channels, one rock station from Spokane, one movie theatre, CBC Radio, and a library so small, I quickly read all the children's books and had to get special permission to start in on adult novels. In this stultifying environment, I looked around for models of teenage life and womanhood and found very little that appealed.

But I liked the Archie comics. I thought, I really truly thought, that puberty would soon transform me into a beauty like the girls in the Archie comics. I couldn't wait.

I have a vivid memory of being about eleven, walking along the railroad tracks with my best friend, and telling her how I couldn't wait till puberty made me look like Betty or Veronica. Then, I told her, when we had breasts, we would have power over boys. We'd be able to get them to do whatever we wanted them to do. 

What I wanted to do with that power over boys - men - was to get one to fall for me and take me away from this hell. Take me to the city. Get me out of here! I imagined it would be like in the Bob Seeger song, Roll Me Away: I'd get on the back of his motorcycle and I'd get the fuck out of there!

Man I thought breasts would be powerful! But I did not think I would be powerful. It never occurred to me that I would reach a time when I could free myself. No, whatever power I would have would be second hand, through my body, and my ability to use it to manipulate men.

Of course, it's not surprising that a sex trafficked child would think of womanhood this way. I'd only ever been valued for the pleasure my little body could arouse, and the money it could earn. I thought that, when I had a woman's body, the men who wanted me would no longer be the sick kind, and I'd be old enough to transform the worth of my flesh from pedophile's rapes, into negotiations with "normal" men who wanted access to my body. For the first time in my life, I would have control over the use-value of my own body.

But it wasn't just my home life that fed my belief that a womanly body = power. 

I had plenty of models of this in the wider culture. The Archie comics were just one example of this. What the comics did not provide for girls was any sense of actual female, sexual desire. Female lust? What's that? (On the rare occasions that we do see it, it is portrayed very negatively, in the form of pathetic, desperate, overly aggressive, unattractive girls like Ethel. But we'll get to that later.)

Instead, by cultivating our female sex appeal, women and girls were supposed to incite male, sexual desire. Our desire - was to be desired. Men's desire for us gave us the power to manipulate them. Boys and men were to be manipulated into doing our bidding and thinking it was their idea. This was female power: not doing things ourselves, but getting males to do it for us.

And we were to do this while maintaining the constant appearance of female helplessness and male strength, female passivity and male action.

It was expected that this would include trickery and outright lies. That was fine. 

My current situation lends a sickening irony to this childhood formula of feminine power. I actually am helpless now. I am crippled to the point that I need Beau's help with virtually every aspect of my physical life. He cooks, cleans, runs errands, feeds the cats, makes the beds... He even helps me get dressed. Do you think I can do up the buckles on these shoes? I can't. But he can.

And I'm financially dependent on him too. I shouldn't be. I worked hard for my tenure at the biggest local college, and a contract that guarantees income replacement should I become too disabled to work, which I most certainly am. But my insurance company claims I am not too disabled to work, and my union has done nothing to refute this claim, so I am enmeshed in a lengthy and expensive legal battle, during which time I receive no income, not one single cent. It's been over a year - so far. 

And who do I rely on to take care of the bills in the meantime? Who do I rely on for food, clothing, and shelter? My man - one of those boys through whom I wanted to gain power when I was a helpless, little girl of eleven. The irony sickens me. When I met Beau, I had long ago given up those foolish, sexist, childish dreams and built a life full of my own power and the attainment of dreams that had nothing to do with my love life.

Look at me now, Betty.

Unlike me, the girls in the Archie comics were not interested in anything but boys (except fashion, which we'll come to later). They were not interested in academics. They had no other hobbies, no dreams, and no ambitions. Just Archie.

They also had no close, stable friendships with other girls. Betty and Veronica might be considered friends, but only when that friendship didn't interfere with what was really important: getting a boy. They did not support each other emotionally. They did not share their dreams with each other, and bolster each other up in the attainment of those dreams. 

They couldn't. They had only one dream, and it was the same dream: attaining the affections of the bland, almost generic Archie. This meant that Betty and Veronica, and all girls, really, could only ever be competitors. 

It's a common story: women are like cats with each other, fighting over men. But I've never actually seen this. Instead, I've heard a lot of straight men telling us that we're like this, telling us that we have no other interest than men, and telling us that even our relationships with other women are defined by our desire for men. Remember: Betty and Veronica were seldom written or drawn by women.

And, in a world like that, where girls had no interests and no intellects, the only thing about girls that could interest boys - was their bodies. But you had to have the right kind of body.

And that body was impossible. 

But I didn't know that when I was a kid. I didn't know that those tiny waists did not come with large breasts, and large breasts did not come with tiny waists. You couldn't have both.

Unless you were a drawing. Flesh and blood are a little less cooperative in fulfilling impossible male fantasies.

That fantasy body changes over the years. If you read recent Archie comics, you'll find that all of the "attractive" girls are frighteningly thinner than they used to be. Once upon a time, Miss Grundy's lack of sex appeal could be attributed to her lack of curves. Now, her body is almost indistinguishable from the girls' bodies. But they still have impossible breasts.

Regardless of what type of body was en vogue at different times in the Archie epoch, the central fact remained the same: Girls' bodies were their boy-bait, and they had to put that bait on display.

And this brings us to fashion. Archie's girls were allowed one interest other than boys: fashion. But fashion was closely allied to their interest in boys because clothing was their way of adorning their bodies to make them more attractive to men. 

Betty and Veronica did not age, but their fashions did change over the decades, from Dior's New Look ...

... of the late 40s and early 50s ...

... to the boots and raincoats ...

... of the 70s.

That was something I could relate to, something I could really enjoy in a setting where there wasn't much joy.

One of the many fashion designs I drew when I was twelve
Nor was there much creativity, but my own creative impulses were already latching onto fashion as one possible form of personal expression. 

I know for sure that the Archie comics influenced my fashion imagination.

But even fashion, the one interest and form of creativity these girls could have, was really only about attracting boys. Take the 50s and early 60s fashions of Givenchy, Dior ...

... and Balenciaga, for example.

When they hit the runways, they were the subject of frequent jokes and derision by the male artists and writers who created Betty and Veronica. The message was clear: It was a mistake to follow fashions that did not show off the female form - because fashion was only about attracting males, and males want to see the female body.

Women dressing for themselves? What? Why?

No, it was better to be out of style than to be unattractive to men, because the real point was, after all, the body, not the fashion.

With fashion, the girls intentionally made themselves prey to predators, and then passively awaited the supposedly natural outcome. Supposedly this was a kind of feminine power, but if it was, it was one that could quickly become powerlessness.

If this doesn't call to mind rape, gang rape even, I don't know what does. But we were to believe it was funny, natural, normal, the healthy expression of male and female sexuality. With messages like this, how could young girls and women know that they could speak out about sexual harassment and sexual assault? I sure as hell couldn't. 

(I want to be clear, of course, I am in no way suggesting that girls and women who wear form-flattering clothing are "asking for" rape.)

But God help the girl who reversed the roles! This only happened if the girl was desperate - because she didn't have the right body to use as bait to get the boys. Out of desperation, she became the hunter - and it was disgusting. After all, even though girls' only goal was getting a man, she couldn't let it show.

Boys, on the other hand, lost none of their sex appeal by being predators. That was their natural role in life: to hunt ...

... not to be hunted.  

When they were, the rape implications were far more obvious. A woman pursuing a man was a violation. A man pursuing a woman was not.

It could only happen if the women were too physically vile to be the objects of pursuit. They were usually too fat, or too old, or, back in the day, too thin. They were ugly.

This forced them to become masculine, and aggressive. This forced them to become feminist (and, yes, even lesbian). An inability to attract men was, in men's minds, the only reason a woman might want more than the passive role of waiting to be pursued by a man. 

See what I mean? These "old maids" (i.e. unmarried women over about 25) seek and can't find husbands (even though they hate men) because they're ugly and old - and that's why they want the vote. But wait, this isn't an Archie comic. This is an anti-feminist cartoon, decades before Betty and Veronica hit the scene. But the sentiment is the same. So is the image.

And it's the same today too. If you doubt me, try voicing any feminist ideas on the internet and see how long it takes for men to attack you by saying that you're ugly, fat, and sexually undesirable. They won't refute your ideas. They'll refute your body.

Forget feminism. It's funny, and just plain silly.

Female power? Female autonomy? Women who don't need men? 

Cute. And ridiculous.

Now, while we're looking at these girls cutely asserting their power, breasts large, prominent, and nearly touching, let us talk again about the one salient and powerful feature of Archie's girls: their bodies. Look not at the colour but at the black pen work in the outlines of their curves. Their bodies are beautiful ...

... like calligraphy.

Even before puberty hit, I knew I was attracted to women. Before I started reading Archie comics, I was reading Asterix and Obelix, my eyes following the calligraphy of Mrs. Geriatrix's wife with a kind of aching longing that I would only later recognize as lesbian desire

I am by no means the only one to have felt that Betty and Veronica should be lovers. 

You can't draw girls like that and expect pubescent children to be innocent of the possibilities. After all, DeCarlo, the same man who drew this ...

... drew this. 

It just seems natural for Betty and Veronica to get together.

I used to feel guilty for having these thoughts about them. I thought it wasn't feminist.

But I think maybe I was wrong. 

If you remove Archie from the equation ...

... you remove all that competition between Betty and Veronica ... 

Me and a friend, around 2003. (Note that I'm wearing a tube top.)
... and replace it with something subversive: a world where boys are unnecessary and girls aren't just friends and allies. They're lovers too.

The lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich said something similar, in her 1980 essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". She wasn't talking about Archie comics, but, remember, in 1980, I was a little girl in the boondocks, sipping from the cup of sexism, and trying to glean some alternative visions of my future wherever I could, even in Betty and Veronica.

Now there's an idea I can get behind.

And on that happier note ...

... of women having interests and autonomous lives of our own ...  

I shall leave you with a sneak peek at the subject of an upcoming post: our new kittens!

(I'm sharing this with Style NudgeStyle Crone, Not Dead Yet, Tina's Pink Friday,Fashion Should Be Fun, and Elegantly Dressed and Stylish.)

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