I was once given a homework assignment that I’ve never quite handed in. As a student in Tufts University’s History of Women in the 20th Century class in the winter of 1992, I was asked to cut out and collect the obituaries of women that ran in the New York Times over the course of the semester. I’d never read an obituary, and though the Times was our family’s informational Bible, I’d only ever spent time with it to help my dad with the crossword puzzle. “What should I be looking for?” I wanted to ask.
A week or so of looking answered the question. It was a loud silence, a ringing absence, a crater of emptiness. There were hardly any women remarkable enough to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Female obits were so scarce, in fact, that it was always a little thrill to come upon one and put my scissors to use. (In 2018, the Times started a feature called “Overlooked” to bring to light the lives of women and people of color whose achievements had gone unnoticed by the paper since its founding in 1855. Through their own investigation, they found that over that time only 15 to 20 percent of obits recognized women.)
The moments I spent communing with the obituaries section shed light on what I’d absorbed about womanhood up to that point in my life, and what I viewed as my likely range of life choices going forward. That project clarified three pieces of indisputable evidence: a) Girls and women mostly did not matter to the world; b) Girls and women who did matter mattered mostly for their sexual allure; and c) Girls and women who were doers, makers, creators, businesspeople, scientists, leaders, choreographers, writers, or humanitarians were rare as gold.
It’s 31 years later, and I’m revisiting the obituary assignment because Supermodel Tatjana Patitz and actress Gina Lollobrigida recently passed away—Patitz at 56, a Gen X-er like me, and Lollobrigida at 95, born a few years before my father. Their New York Times obituaries led me to reflect back on the feminine iconography that’s followed me throughout my life and to wonder what—if anything—has changed between 1992 and 2023.
Like most of the notable women I found, their riches and fame were due to their commercial sex appeal as performers. Patitz had an ethereally beautiful face and long, thin frame, and “La Lollo,” as she was known, had darkly striking eyes and mouth, large breasts, and a tiny waist.
Tatjana Patitz and Gina Lollobrigida were minor representatives in a massive, generation-spanning pantheon of sex goddesses that were my earliest, strongest, and most enduring cultural influences. The list included Marilyn Monroe, Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Rita Hayworth, Pamela Anderson, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Anna Nicole Smith, and Jane Russell. (Ms. Russell, Wikipedia tells me, “made her motion-picture debut in ‘The Outlaw’ (1943), a story about Billy the Kid that went to great lengths to showcase her voluptuous figure.”) As a kid and teenager, I was mesmerized equally by the sirens immortalized in black and white in our coffee table collection of Time Life photos from the ’40s and ’50s and by the sirens in living color that populated my TV, striding haughtily down catwalks, wandering aimlessly, or sprawling weirdly on the sets of music videos, decorating movies with quiet agreeability. They never said much, if anything.
I was such a naïve girl, so unquestioning of any purported authority, so helplessly absorbent. I was the easiest mark. I let all those images seep into me, settle in, and establish a review board. Though they approved of the compliance that defined my early interactions with men, they’ve never had anything nice to say about my appearance. I did, very early on, think about whether I might find a way to meet their standards. I knew my breasts would always be inadequate, my frizzy hair and chubby cheeks, hopeless. Ditto my torso, arms, ass, hands. But when I was about 12 or so, I did take heart in the iconic photo of Marlene Dietrich’s hair falling over her sleek legs. I learned through the caption that she had “the best legs in the world.” Maybe, I conjectured, I could take up the mantle of best legs in the world for the next generation, since mine didn’t look too bad in shorts, at least from the side.
I was surprised to eventually learn that Ms. Dietrich did not only have the best legs in the world, she also talked—with a distinctive accent that placed her in a specific place, here on earth. She laughed. She had a daughter. She died. There’s a little twinge of surprise whenever one of these symbols reveals herself to be human, by getting wrinkles, getting sick, getting arrested, getting fat, dying. Each revelation smacks me once again out of a state of hypnosis. To this day it’s weird to read that Tatjana Patitz and Gina Lollobrigida did things—cared for animals, created sculpture, raised children—other than goddess-ing.
A lazy conclusion could be that nothing’s changed. The goddesses will always get the most ink, and for every female obit in the New York Times, even after their 2018 recognition of their past discrimination, there are still four or five male. Girls are still absorbent. They get the message. But twenty years ago there were only seven Fortune 500 businesses run by women, today there are more than 10 times as many. In 1985, the year I turned 13, there were 24 women in Congress. There are six times as many now. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor used to be unique, now the court is nearly even divided by sex. We have a female Vice President. We’re free to act out of coarse self-interest, or with integrity. We’re free to lie, publicly, and we sometimes do. What’s far more miraculous is that we’re free to tell the truth.
I stopped paying attention to popular music around the turn of the millennium, but one of the chart-topping songs of the moment has been the soundtrack to this essay. The 26-year-old former American Idol contestant called Jax apparently wrote her hit “Victoria’s Secret” in response to a bullying incident. Chelsea, the middle school-aged girl she babysits, was told she looked “too fat and too flat” by her friends while shopping for a bikini at a Victoria’s Secret store at the mall.
Jax’ song goes:
God, I wish somebody would’ve told me
When I was younger that all bodies aren’t the same,
Photoshop itty bitty models on magazine covers
Told me I was overweight
I stopped eating, what a bummer
Can’t have carbs in a hot girl summer
If I could go back and tell myself
When I was younger, I’d say, “Psst”
I know Victoria’s Secret,
Girl you wouldn’t believe
It’s an old man who lives in Ohio,
making money off of girls like me.
Cashing in on body issues,
selling skin and bones with big boobs…
I know Victoria’s Secret, she was made up by a dude.
The old dude who lives in Ohio is Les Wexner, the billionaire owner of sex goddess supply store Victoria’s Secret, as well as the long-time patron of the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.
I don’t quite buy the humble origin story of Jax’s song. It’s obviously a sleekly polished product and not—as we’re left to infer from the TikTok video that introduced it to the world—a recording she made spontaneously on her phone. Victoria’s Secret cashes in on body issues, Atlantic Records cashes in on the woman calling out Victoria’s Secret, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
But this song! These lyrics! This combination of chutzpah, cultural license, and the creative platform to publish and monetize this takedown of one of the core architects of late 20th-century feminine misery is for me nothing short of a revelation. The feeling of sweet complicity I have listening to it is the same I felt thirty-one years ago coming upon the extraordinary obituary of, say, a female Naval engineer. The engineer’s bold stare, and Jax’ bold voice, both speak to me of a world of possibility. They tell me that capitulation is not the only option.
Imagine what might have been the URLs of the websites for the sex goddesses of the ’40s, ’50s, ’80s, and ’90s if they’d accurately described what those women did in the world. What did they do, exactly?
Jax’ URL is jaxwritessongs.com. She’s a maker, a doer, a creator, an owner. She wears oversized clothes that give no hint of her proportions, and she has a messy blond updo that looks like a big pin cushion. Her song reached the number 2 spot on the Adult Top 40 by sticking it to one of the men behind my nasty internal review board. Now he’s forced to absorb her message. Jax’s name has infiltrated Les Wexner’s Wikipedia page, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.
Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future her name will also infiltrate what will no doubt be his very lengthy New York Times obituary, and there won’t be a damn thing to do about that, either. For women of her generation—of my teenage daughters’ generation, too—it’s no big thing to speak out, to be loud, to tell the truth. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to a crater full mostly of silence.