Girl Talk: Overcoming the Madame Bovaries
There's a sociological observation in Brendan Cowell's book, How It Feels, that reads, "Lonely people are drawn to clutter because it makes them feel popular". Similarly, there are those of us who fill our lives with useless junk – material or otherwise – to fill those glaring gaps of inadequacy.
Madame Bovary (aka Emma), the beautiful but foolishly self-indulgent protagonist of Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel – subject of a modern (Penguin Books) makeover by Lydia Davis – sought escapism from her boring marriage, motherhood and provincial life via romantic novels, high-fashion magazines, the acquisition of "the finer things" (on credit) and affairs, resulting in a cautionary tale of modern relevance.
To be mediocre, banal, bourgeois was Emma Bovary's greatest fear. But she foolishly sought out to foil reality in a way that betrayed her betrothed, sent her household into debt and ultimately brought about her demise, taking the concept of "escapism" to a careerist level. Her life cluttered with silly choices, her health ailing, her finances, relationships and prospects all exhausted, from her convent school to her early grave, the only option left, she felt, was to opt out altogether.
But how many of us could relate to this tragic fictional figure? How many of the celebrities we glorify walk in her footsteps?
"Women’s magazines have promoted the ideal woman since the beginning. Godey’s Lady’s Book, first published in 1830, set the tone," says Allison Gamble, an editor at PsychologyDegree.net. "Its pages held fiction, poetry and articles on such 'ladylike' subjects as housekeeping, cooking and dressmaking. Completely absent were articles on controversial topics such as slavery, women’s suffrage or anything else that detracted from the image of woman as a content and compliant housewife. As such, the advertising industry found Godey’s Lady’s Book an ideal vehicle for promoting such merchandise as corsets, kitchen equipment and patent medicines. Through the 20th century and into the 21st, women’s magazines have remained a top advertising venue."
When put into context with recent research by ACP Magazines/neuroscience company Neuro-Insight about the "deeply immersed and engaged" level of audience/reader involvement with magazines and the intensity of the emotional reaction, without discounting a person's free well, ability to make choices and common sense, the role of women's media in psychological decision making and the formation of the sense of self should not be discounted.
"Whether or not women buy the advertised products, they certainly buy the ideal woman," says Gamble. "Women often blame themselves, sometimes unconsciously, for not meeting the ideal. The media reinforces this at every turn. While eating disorders and lagging self-esteem among women are not created by advertising alone, the psychology of advertising has been creating an impossible ideal for women since its inception."
Fostering emotional resilience, media awareness, practical life skills and positive real-life role modelling in young women is a start to ending the creep of Madame Bovary Syndrome. For those in too deep, perhaps the floods, the earthquakes and the cyclones, if not the political upheavals, the global unrest, has provided some perspective on the ephemeral issues of entitlement, materialism and ambition; the precursor to affect some change, to seek help, to cast away the burdens of expectation and its commensurate self-loathing in favour of a life measured by a different set of standards in which "escapism", "fantasy" and "imagined reality" (what is life, after all, without hope and dreams?) plays only a cameo role?
Flaubert's vulnerable leading lady has had a modern makeover; it's high time the mediums that aided and abetted her downfall – 155 years later – get one, too.
Girl With a Satchel