Dictatorship by society

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Posted by HSG on June 14, 2005 at 21:03:13:

This site's frequent juxtaposition of fashion-based commentary and philosophical texts tends to strike first-time visitors as rather . . . unexpected. But Western thought offers considerable precedent for this kind of intellectual interplay.

Let's consider just one striking example of a "meeting of minds" between the world of popular culture and philosophy--a pregnant passage from The Hour of Decision (1933), the last work to issue from the pen of the great historian Oswald Spengler (author of The Decline of the West).

In the following excerpt, an uncannily prescient Spengler describes a characteristic of American culture which may be even more pronounced today than it was when the author made this observation. Spengler notes that, in America,

Life is organized exclusively from the economic side and consequently lacks depth, all the more because it contains nothing of that element of historical tragedy, of great destiny, that has widened and chastened the soul of Western peoples through the centuries. Their religion, originally a strict form of Puritanism, has become a sort of obligatory entertainment, and the War was a novel sport. And there is the same dictatorship there as in Russia (it does not matter that it is imposed by society instead of a party), affecting everything--flirtation and church-going, shoes and lipstick, dances and novels a la mode, thought, food, and recreation--that in the Western world is left to the option of individuals. There is one standardized type of American, and, above all, American woman, in body, clothes, and mind; any departure from or open criticism of the type arouses public condemnation in New York as in Moscow.

It may come as a surprise to find Spengler distinguishing America from "the Western world" (by which he means Europe). And the issue of a "great destiny," or lack thereof, is obviously a matter of debate, and falls outside the scope of this forum.

But it is hard to argue against Spengler's assertion that the North American public has long suffered under the yoke of a "dictatorship . . . imposed by society."

Is there not, in fact, "one standardized type of . . . American woman, in body, clothes, and mind," as Spengler claims? The media certainly makes it seem as if there is.

"In body"? Think of the fashion magazines and the lanky, size-0 models that they all uniformly use for their editorial layouts. Think of the cookie-cutter look of Hollywood celebrities, and how any starlet who takes even one step outside the mold (e.g., Alicia Silverstone, or Hilary Duff) is berated by the press, until she falls back in line with the media norm--i.e., until she once more embodies the "standardized type."

"In clothes"? Fashion certainly dictates its "trends" quite adamantly, and if one does not adhere to those trends, one runs the risk of being ostracized and ridiculed. And while the feminine fashions of the past several seasons have (fortunately) been tailor-made for the plus aesthetic, for decades prior to this, plus-size women were silently oppressed by the androgynous career styles that were mandated by the fashion industry, and which were entirely unsuitable for voluptuous figures.

"In mind"? Myrna Blyth's revelations in Spin Sisters give ample evidence of media efforts to endow North American women with "one standardized type" of opinion, on each social issue.

So if Spengler's assertion is correct (and it would seem that it is), then the real question becomes, why is this so? Why was a uniform image of the "American woman" instituted in the first place?--especially considering the diverse nature of the North American populace. Could that very heterogeneity have been precisely what led the media to prescribe a "standard size," and a standard look, for the female population--i.e., to create an illusion of unity through . . . sameness?

Regardless, today's younger generations appear to be rejecting this push for uniformity. Whereas teens once wished to "fit in," today they are more inclined to delight in "standing out." And now matter how fiercely the media tries to put the genie back in the bottle, and to prop up its illusions of a "standardized type of American woman," young girls today are no longer as vulnerable to that kind of pressure as they once were.

Let us hope that, in the future, young women will achieve even greater emancipation from the "dictatorship imposed by society" that dominated American culture for far too long.

Victoria Lewis (size 14) indulging in some curve-enhancing cotton candy, reminding everyone that it's fun to break the rules, and to relish the uniqueness of your curves:

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