Why Harsh Judgements of Women and Men are Harmful: The Pressure to Live Correct, Morally Perfect Lives is Forcing Us to Live a Remake of The Truman Show

In a recent Huff Post Travel blog, a woman tells of being searched by Vermont border guards who disapproved of her sexy underwear and looked “scathingly” at the condoms they discovered in one of her bags. About a week later in the airport at Montreal, she was detained for several hours and insulted by customs officials for travelling with a married man. A few days after that she was detained at an Aruban airport and again interrogated by customs officials. By then it dawned on her that she’d been blacklisted across a security network spanning several cities for the condoms and travelling with a married man.

A young couple I work with recently told me how they’d been humiliated by a New York State trooper while on a picnic at Bear Mountain. He noticed a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc by the food on their blanket and dumped it on the grass. Then he searched their belongings, found condoms and demanded to see proof they were married. When they were unable to provide it, he launched into a diatribe, accused them of immoral behavior and told them they were lucky he didn’t arrest them.

A psychology professor speaking at a recent conference on marriage and family therapy suddenly launched into a rant on Anthony Weiner’s sexually suggestive links on Twitter. The professor rambled on for a good three minutes, shocking even the most conservative members of her audience, all members in good standing of the American PsychologIcal Association.

Another couple I work with told me of their daughter, a lovely 15 year-old, who quoted erotic passages from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in her high school literature class. Her teacher was shocked and sent her to the school principle who told her she’d be suspended for three days and the supension would be recorded in her school transcript. The girl’s father, a lawyer, was quick to remind the school principle of his daughter’s first amendment rights and he quickly backed down.

More troubling than the above is the recent decision by New York City educators to ban controversial subjects from New York City school tests, their rational being that the banned topics “could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students.” Among the full list of 50 banned topics, these well intentioned censors saw fit to include: Dinosaurs, Aliens, Birthdays, Bodily Functions, Death and Disease, .Divorce, Halloween, Loss of Employment, Movies, Rap Music,Terrorism, Sex, Slavery, Vermin (rats and roaches), War, Bloodshed, Witchcraft and Sorcery. Imagine Max, the delightful young boy in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, taking an essay exam in a New York City classroom, prevented from using any of these topics as he tries to describe his adventures on the Island of Malicious Beasts in Sendak’s story.

By far the most troubling of these scenarios is the manner in which Mattel’s line of American Girl dolls is now being marketed to little girls. Since being acquired by Mattel in 1998, the American Girl collection, originally owned by the Pleasant Company founded by former schoolteacher Pleasant T. Rowland, was gradually phased out and archived, which is the doll industry eupehemism for buried on a nice farm. The original collection created by Rowland in 1986 consisted of inspiring historical figures: A Scaninavian farmsteader Kirsten; a Victorian aristocrat Smantha; a World War II patriot Molly; Felicity, a tomboy from colonial days; and Addie who courageously escapes from slavery on the eve of the Civil War. Each doll had a story in which the heroine faces a major life challenge that she overcomes and then grows stronger as a consequence. Mary Ann McGrath, professor of marketing at Loyola University, describes the original American Girl dolls as “…stories from history… about strong girls facing crises like slavery and the depression in strong ways.”

Today, Mattel advertises and promotes My American Girl as a collection of dolls that look “just like you!”. The current catalogue begins with My American Girl offerings, followed by Dress Like Your Doll and the 2013 Doll of The Year. The girls now include Saige, white and upper-middle-class; McKenna a gymnast; and Lanie, an amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast. These girls never experience crisis. Their engagement in the world is limited to local activities like bake sales to help save a school arts program or a victory for the organic food movement achieved by persuading a neighbor to stop using pesticides. Virtually all of the historical figures that made up the original collection have been replaced by bland, parochial, politically correct ciphers who lead lives without serious conflicts or real engagement in the outside world. It’s hard to avoid the feellng that Saige, McKenna and Lanie could be living another version of The Truman Show in which the main characters lead pleasureful, self-centered lives also totally devoid of conflict; completely unaware that they’re playing roles in a carefully orchestrated story created by a team of clever advertisers, producers and directors.

What does a brief recap of the above scenarios suggest about American culture?

  • A woman blacklisted at airports for carring condoms and travelling with a married man.
  • A young couple humiliated by a policeman for drinking wine and carrying condoms in a state park.
  • A psychology professor ranting against Anthony Weiner in the middle of a seminar on marriage and family therapy.
  • A teenager severely censored for reading Nabokov in her literature class.
  • New York City educators banning controversial subjects from school tests.
  • The Mattel Corporation’s advertising and promotion of homogenized, conflict-free  American girl dolls leading perfect lives.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrays a modern utopia in which everyone is conditioned from birth to value consumption and all conflicts such as governmental failures, international disputes and inner psychological turmoil are practically non-existent; a world in which words such as death, disease, divorce, slavery, etc. are never seriously discussed or even thought about. In Huxley’s story, a World State, much like the powerful, behind the scenes advertisers, producers and directors who run The Truman show, control societal conflict by encouraging universal consumption of the drug soma, a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hang-over free holidays. Soma tablets, taken in various doses with water, coffee, other drinks, or mixed with food or dessert, take users into enjoyble states in which they experience a richly colored, infinitely friendly world where everyone is good looking and, above all, delightfully amusing; much like Saige, McKenna and Lanie in the American Doll world of Mattel.

In this quasi Brave New World, it’s not the the woman harrassed by border officials, the young couple humiliated by the state trooper, the people in the audience subjected to the professor’s rant againt Anthony Weiner, the children who are prevented from using “bad” words in essays (the very same kids who deeply identify with Stendak’s young hero Max and made Where The Wild Things Are a best seller) or the teenager censored for reading Nabokov in her literature class; nor is it the millions of little girls now growing up playing with Mattel’s sanitized girl dolls. It’s really the customs officials, the state trooper, the psychology professor, the school principle, the New York City educators and Mattel’s sophisticated marketing team who are on soma, as they slowly, often imperceptibly,  harm the girls, boys, women and men they seek to influence.

When working on an opera adaptation of his book, Sendak gave the monsters on the Island of Malicious Beasts, the names of his relatives: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile and Bernard. I’d suggest the following roles for the above enforcers in an Off-Off Broadway mini extravaganza:

  • The customs offcials playing condom sniffing border hounds.
  • The state trooper as Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses.
  • The psychology professor as Lady Chatterley’s Lesbian Lover
  • The school prinicple as Humbert Humbert obsessively singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
  • The York City educators soliciting contributions for a Sanitize the Children Fund, and
  • Mattel’s markeing team playing slightly inebriated characters from Madmen, peddling the slogan LSFFC: Local Styles For Finer Children.
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