Love and Femininity in America

Who is Courtney Love? The answer to the question poses a dilemma for modern women. Love, a woman who has successfully transformed herself from stripper to grrl-rocker to rock-star widow, and now, in her latest hit movie Man on the Moon, authentic actress, has gone mainstream. Sporting her new post-plastic surgery nose and a heart of gold, Love has come a long way from ripped baby-doll dresses and smeared mascara, baby. But in the process of her transformation from druggie iconoclast to Hollywood hipster, has she betrayed her most fervent fans, young women?

While you still find more web sites devoted to naked pictures of Love, a l her stripper days, than film biographies, Love has certainly made an impact on the silver screen. Her last major role, in the 1997 hit The People vs. Larry Flynt, earned her a Grammy nomination, and she has appeared in such Indie flicks as Feeling Minnesota. With her role as Andy Kaufman's girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, in this winter's Academy Award contender, she has firmly broken with her counter-culture past and moved into the Martha Stewart world of model homemakers. Watching her nurse the ailing Kaufman makes visions of Florence Nightengale dance in one's head, a definite breakthrough for a woman who had been addicted to drugs for years.

Love used to wear the frilly accoutrements of American femininity to her rock concerts. Her signature was baby-doll dresses and lacey see-through T-shirts. But instead of prancing around like Shirley Temple, Love snarled bad-ass lyrics through her smeared make-up as she shredded the oppressive emblems of womanhood. Her fans, mostly young women dubbing themselves riot grrls, reveled in her rejection of Barbie-doll femininity. Once, in their fervor, they tore off all her clothes after she threw herself into the mosh pit.

Then, Love got a nose job and started wearing Versace. Now we see her in Man on the Moon as a cowboy-hat-wearing, sweet-talking, vulnerable young woman. Without the slightest hint of irony, Love has become everything she formerly despised.

Or, has she? Love epitomizes the self-created, self-driven woman of the '90s. She has successfully catapulted herself into stardom, helped only by the untimely death of her husband, the slightly-more-infamous Kurt Cobain. Her recent transformation is simply another step onwards and upwards for a woman who remains a role-model for women seeking to blaze their own trails towards success. Simply in step with the times, Love has moved beyond the angst/heroin/rock days of the early '90s to embrace prosperity and mainstream culture with a vengeance. Who was she kidding anyway? She wasn't out there to make a statement against American culture, she wanted to be American culture.

The bitter taste of betrayal is still in some mouths. Love has not yet abandoned the band which first make her name in the industry, having recently come out with another hit album just last summer. While this bodes well for the future of riot grrl-ness, her original fans fear that Love has wandered (and stripped through) the world from New Zealand to Oregon and come home to Hollywood to roost.

What does it mean that one of the most outspoken critics of American gender stereotypes has come to embrace those stereotypes with sweet sincerity? For one thing, it means that the counter-culture shtick isn't selling anymore. We are back to the age of boy-bands, homogeneity and Gap uniform-like clothing. The hard-core rappers of the late '80s are gone--now you're more likely to hear rappers endorsing their favorite type of soft drink than saying, "Kill the pigs." The pre-teen girls that used to scream themselves hoarse at Hole concerts are now shrieking to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

As the old adage goes, popular culture changes even more quickly than the time it takes to buy a new pair of jeans. But this isn't a nostalgia trip, we are talking about the future of femininity of America.

In this aspect, the demise of Love's riot-grrl image is a step backwards for American women. There is no longer a viable image of American femininity in the media other than these pre-pubescent teen idols. Even popular women singers like Sarah McLaughlin have declined in the ratings as their teeny-bopper counterparts have topped the charts. Where have all the strong women gone? Many have gone the way of Love, and frankly, it's all of our loss.

Without a strong woman superstar, even should she be characterized as a lesbian or a slut, many girls and women are left with only one dress size to try to squeeze themselves into. Not only that, but in crafting their success, many women are learning that the rebellion is over, it is all about playing the game. Where Love once clamored for women to change the rules, she is now playing the perfect hand.

Granted, women will always choose their own paths to success, and Love is not the only star to undergo multiple transformations, (Love has obviously taken her cues from Madonna, the pioneer of tactical image changes). What media icons like Love do is not so much craft American culture but indicate its general state. It's just that the state we are in now is dangerously one-sided in its images of femininity.

The fluctuations of popular culture are too many and too frequent to chart any certain path with accuracy. And certainly a singular case, such as Love's, is not itself an indicator of any major cultural shift. But the subtleties of American culture cannot be measured on a chart or by using statistical analysis, all we have are these anecdotes and career choices to look at and judge with. Our cult figures, our bad boys, our outcasts and our idols all tell us important things about ourselves and the culture we live in.

Women today should look carefully at the Courtney Love career trajectory and decide whether the path of assimilation isn't merely the path of least resistance. They must decide whether it is better to embrace a plurality of femininities instead. After all, even those who were never riot grrls want to discard the out-dated Barbie Doll stereotypes, changing the rules of the game once and for all.

Meredith B. Osborn '02, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.