Monday, June 22, 2009

Naomi Wolf's Iconomania

Icons are made to be loved and adored. When your rational faculties are overwhelmed by your passion for an icon, you suffer from iconomania.

Witness Naomi Wolf's now famous article about Angelina Jolie in Harper's Bazaar. Link here.

Willa Paskin has captured Wolf's iconomania well. Writing on the Doublex blog, she called the piece: " absurd, overwrought, swooning, love letter to Angelina Jolie, the woman who, in Wolf's analysis, most fully embodies 'having it all.' It is just about impossible to read this piece and simultaneously remember that Wolf is a serious feminist and a thinker." Link here.

Virginia Postrel took issue with Paskin, for being too charitable to Wolf. She wrote: "...I do not regard Wolf as a 'serious feminist and a thinker.' She's a feminist, certainly, but neither serious nor a thinker. She's an emoter whose work typically generalizes from her narcissistic neediness to the 'female experience.'" Link here.

Is there anything left to be said?

Let's try. First, Naomi Wolf is a celebrity intellectual who pretends to be able to grasp great ideas and who then disseminates them to a larger public.

In this role she is definitely influential. Point that I noticed when I first started hearing women drawing life lessons from "The Beauty Myth." See my blog post here.

Feminism aside-- because no man is qualified to enter the debate over who is or is not a good feminist-- I consider Wolf a major figure in promulgating the values that define the therapy culture.

As her Jolie piece makes clear, she follows the basic therapeutic principle that getting better means rewriting our personal narratives and making our lives into enacted fantasies and dreams.

I will not burden you with references to the eminent psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who have been hawking these ideas. Any therapist who has suffered the influence of psychoanalysis has likely bought into them.

What matters is that it is Naomi Wolf, not the graybeards of the therapy world, who is selling these ideas to American women.

Take Wolf's assertion of Jolie's iconic status: "Her persona hits an unprecedented level of global resonance... because she has created a life narrative that is not just personal. It is archetypal. And the archetype is one that really, for the first time in modern culture, brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation."

Or this: "...Jolie's image is not just a mirror of one woman but also a looking glass for female fantasy life writ large."

Not only does Wolf traffic in images and illusions; she is proud of it. Worse yet, she is such an accomplished mythmaker that she completely ignores reality.

Iconomaniac that she is, Wolf simply forgot to think.

Do you believe that Angelina Jolie's "global resonance" matches that of Princess Diana?

And does Wolf seriously believe that a pretty-boy actor with bad skin is the ultimate alpha male? More than the future King of England? More than the President of the United States?

As for the Jolie narrative, Sadie Stein of sets us straight: "Brangelina are totally enigmatic; we don't know anything about them except the Harlequin-worthy synopsis."

But... why Angelia Jolie and why now?

Apparently, feminism is losing some of its luster because its mythic promise of "having it all" seems beyond the reach of mere mortals.

So Wolf counters by transforming a mediocre movie star and homewrecker into the woman who has it all. Thus, Wolf is telling young women that they can have it all, because Angelina does.

If they do not, the fault lies with a patriarchy that forces women into choosing one life path to the detriment of another.

In Wolf's mind, here's the deal the patriarchy offers women: "The deal is that they may realize one aspect of their personality, but at the expense of many others. And the deal is usually that if they choose 'too much,' a terrible punishment one way or the other awaits them."

Say what? I assume that Wolf is not telling everyone to go out and develop a multiple personality disorder. But if she is saying that women who choose "too much," who overreach, are punished, this sounds awfully familiar. It is the stuff of tragedy. The Greeks called it hubris, and applied it equally to men and women.

All human life involves choices. When you choose one path you are usually closing off your access to another. An individual who can choose all paths at all times is simply not human... she is a goddess.

But when you tell women that they should aspire to being goddesses, you are telling them that they should strive for perfection. Unfortunately, this is going to make them chronically dissatisfied with what they have.

Remind me of why this is desirable?

But Wolf knows that Angelina Jolie is not real. She is a fiction. As Wolf says: "Her icon status now has more to do with our dream life as women than it does her career choices solely as a film star."

Icon is a nice word for it, but Wolf is working with caricatures and stereotypes. When she praises Jolie for taking another woman's husband, she justifies it by saying that "self-entitled... males ... have traditionally taken what they wanted and let the emotional chips fall where they may."

Have there been men who have done as much? Yes, there have. And have there been women who have trampled on custom and gotten away with it? Yes, there have.

Does that mean that we should all behave that way? I think not.

More pertinently, are those who behave this way exemplars of the truth of human nature? Not at all.

Even if amoral men have been doing this from time immemorial why does that make it a right and desirable way for anyone, man or woman, to behave?

No comments: