Last week, I wrote a piece entitled “Designing Never Land: The Fairy Tale of White Girl Culture,” which appeared on the web magazine Role/Reboot as, “Is This What Straight White Women Really Want?” In it, I looked at demographic data from the website OKCupid, specifically the fifty most common interests or “likes” of white females, and wrote about the concepts they broadly represent to me in the context of consumer culture: Pastoralism, innocence/domesticity, and affluence.
A lot of strong reactions followed from both sides. Many women expressed appreciation, identifying with feeling different from dominant white culture (With you all the way. I don’t want that typical stuff either!) or enjoying the take on image branding in social media (As a marketing strategiest, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece). There was also a storm of personal offense, which I should have anticipated. I like horses! And flip flops! And riding horses while WEARING flip flops! (Just kidding about this last one – not something I’d recommend.)
If you’re a white woman, or any kind of woman, chances are you like or do at least one thing on OKCupid’s list of fifty terms. I love getting dressed up. Sometimes, the only way for me to unwind after a grueling day of teaching is to take a bubble bath or sip a glass of wine. The ending of The Time Traveler’s Wife made me run for the tissue box and pint of Ben and Jerry’s. And two days before reading comments from those who were personally offended at my characterization of country culture as “pastoral,” I was lounging with friends around a bonfire at what we jokingly deemed a “hootenanny,” a farm picnic and tailgating party that featured…you guessed it…a live country band. I had a blast. Let’s be real. If you take yourself too seriously, no one else will.
I wanted to write a follow-up to this article because there was so much I didn’t have the space to include in <1200 words, and after reading and listening to all sorts of feedback, I was left thinking. A lot.
Identity and Culture
Identity is a hotly debated subject. Is there such a thing as “personal identity,” is identity fluid or permanent, and who or what shapes our identity? No one wants to imagine that their interests and goals may not entirely be their own, but one way or another, in consumer culture, “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Collective consciousness is a thing. Symbolic interactionism – the “self” as social product – is a thing. We are all, in various ways and degrees, influenced by the fiction we read, the lyrics we listen to, the movies we see. In other words, popular culture.
I mentioned in my piece that “white culture” is rarely pinpointed, much less discussed among whites themselves. In comparison to minority cultures, it is seldom “otherized” and, in America, acts as a kind of default structure. Christine Garvin of the Matador Network notes that “where you settle often ends up being the culture you take on,” and in an American context, her statement seems reflective of the battle racial minorities face in assimilating to the dominant culture while retaining their own. Look no further than Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” for an example of this – in Walker’s short story, young Dee changes her name to “Wangaro,” hailing to her African roots in alliance with the ‘60s Black Power movement. What Wangaro doesn’t realize, of course, is that she is rejecting her personal family history (still “heritage” despite its white influences) in the process. And that’s the great struggle, isn’t it? How do we maintain our “self” – our “I” – without letting all that pesky social influence get in the way?
Because white heritage in America is often ignored, it’s only natural for whites to adopt the culture of where they’ve settled. This is probably why so much of white culture is tied to American nationalism: baseball, fireworks, guns, cookouts, and the red, white, and blue like. White female culture, specifically, is a mix of materialistic and romanticized consumer culture. Consider popular sites like Pinterest: Hairstyles, (low-fat) recipes, body obsession of all kinds, and quotes from Marilyn Monroe. Look at the themes present in Nicholas Sparks novels: A sweet preacher’s daughter softens and woos the school rebel, and though she is dying of cancer, love metaphorically “saves” her boyfriend (A Walk to Remember); A woman flees her abusive husband and is “saved” by a kinder, warmer replacement (Safe Haven). The second novel-turned-movie in particular rubs me the wrong way – something about the implication that an abused woman needs to be rescued by another man, and that abuse itself should be romanticized.
I’m not advocating for the banning of Nicholas Sparks novels. And no, I don’t believe that Pinterest is “killing feminism,” though the article by Amy Odell is an interesting little read. But I do believe that even after the bra-burning, Pill-popping crusades of the sexual revolution, there is still a tremendous push in popular culture for women to be, well, innocent, domestic, and pastoral. And above all, coupled. Discrimination against singles in our society (especially single women) is everywhere. You are not enough. You need a partner; a spouse. Why else have dating sites become so popular?
OKCupid and Age
I was asked if OKCupid’s study really qualifies as “research”? Of a sort. To me, “The Real Stuff White People Like,” is meant to be entertaining, although a lot of the comments on it are just as divided as they were on my article. One commenter notes: Most of the disagreeing comments seem to be either “I don’t like the results and the conclusions I think people will use them to reach,” or “I’m not the norm!”…For goodness’ sake, this is a study that, while done in a very scientific manner, isn’t meant for academic research. It’s meant to be fun things to do for the nerds running the site, and fun reading for the nerds using the site. Though it wasn’t conducted by tenured Harvard professors or Time magazine, this research is reflective of the interests, hobbies, and descriptions of the people on a particular dating website.
The objective of dating websites is to partner up their users, meaning that the list of data for each of OKCupid’s racial groups is influenced, in whole or in part, by what they believe the opposite sex will desire. Dating websites also notoriously attract a younger userbase, which is probably why sites like OurTime and SeniorPeopleMeet now exist. This age graph, included in a separate blog post from OKCupid, shows that the age of its male and female users spikes at 24, then sharply declines after 28-30. The fifty “likes” I examined made even more sense to me after viewing that graph, as did all the affirmative comments I received from women older than me.
It wasn’t long ago that I was 24…or 23…or 22…and you get the idea. And from middle school (the first years adolescents become really aware of gender) on, I rarely felt like I belonged to the dominant culture. I had female friends, but was always the black sheep – the one who didn’t understand why everyone spent their paychecks on polo shirts from Aeropostale or loved The O.C. so much. Not identifying with a lot of the things girls were supposed to like – romantic comedies, pop music, even the color pink – meant that I either felt left out of or was deliberately not invited to certain activities. And the challenge of being seen as “one of the boys,” when I truly did want the kisses and dates and relationships that seemed to come easier to more feminine girls, often made me wonder if I was doing something wrong.
Feeling “different,” especially during the teenage and young adult years, is a difficult experience in many ways and for many women. But there is something else that, through much observation, appears to be much more difficult – buying into the promise of the white dress and the man who will make it all go away, and ending up piecing together the broken fragments of a failed relationship or marriage because life wasn’t what you were sold.
There is a fine line between attacking products of the dominant culture and the women who value them, one that I admittedly may have crossed. I’m not saying by any means that horseback riding or decorating is evil. What I am saying is that in order to be a good consumer in a capitalist culture, it is important to recognize romanticized media packages as not necessarily representative of reality. Read your Glamour and your Allure – I’ve got a few dog-earred on my magazine rack at the moment – just be discerning while doing so. Third-wave feminism teaches us that there’s no wrong way to be a woman, but I’m advocating against what Jodi Picoult’s Change of Heart was, according to Janet Maslin’s review – “lacking any distinguishing characteristics.” And I’m not alone.