Girl Talk: Overcoming the Madame Bovaries

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.

How sad.

But how many of us could relate to this tragic fictional figure? How many of the celebrities we glorify walk in her footsteps?

Emma's ultimate undoing was the gaping disparity between her romantic fantasy life – informed by the books and magazines she voraciously consumed and those aristocrats with whom she kept company in the local chateaus – and the perfectly okay real life she was dealt.

"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 "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


Alison said...

Great post Erica - completely agree.

sarah ayoub said...

I've had Madame Bovary in my bookshelf for a long time but have never read it. This post has inspired me to read it and think about my own desire to fill my life with pretty things at the expense of seeing what I do have as a blessing (all the time at least)...

Natasha said...

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary tells us the pressure of strong branding. It's painful,and it's heart breaking. We'll surely learn a lot from classic books. How about the daugther of Emma? By then, one will need to decide.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post Erica. However, this post reminded me of my pet hate - when people (not you Erica - probably more Cowell and Gustave) take pot shots at other people who like to read women magazines and like to buy nice things etc (ie., clutter as Cowell says). I find people who like to look down their noses at other people are generally projecting their own insecurities on to the other person/people. In psychology, this is called projection bias. So for instance, if someone is uncomfortable with their own spending habits or tries very hard to control their own spending tend try to ease their own discomfort by judging other people who spend money or buy nice things by labelling them as “insecure or lacking any emotional depth or lonely” etc. That’s why I don’t buy into other people’s criticisms unless they have scientific proof to back their observations up and/or use non-judgemental terms and balanced viewpoints. So for instance, if someone says that a study was done (a good valid reliable study) which showed people who were in credit card debt or spent above their means or had "clutter" were also very depressed and lonely (again this construct would have to be clearly defined) then I would take that observation on board. Sorry for the long winded reply. I just don’t like people who judge other people and make them feel guilty based on their own insecurities (again not you!! I am talking more about Cowell’s passage and Gustave’s whole missive to Madam Bovary). You are great when presenting your opinions – you present both sides and take a balanced view. Plus you make people think. I love your blog!! And just to add - people keep spending money on the things you love (within your means of course)! You can’t take it with you.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Anon, thank you for adding your two cents. I absolutely know where you're coming from and have given this a lot of thought, even prior to reading your comment, which just helped solidify my thinking.

I am prone to the Madame Bovaries. Forever weighing up my beliefs/values (informed by Christianity, family, etc) and my wants/desires (informed by 'the world', but also my heart/mind).

What you've articulated is spot on - as Lady Gaga (?!) said of herself, you are participating in the culture while trying to deconstruct it (like living in your own skin while trying to deconstruct that). The same goes for blogging and, as you say, writing.

While I'm aware of my 'projection biases', insecurities, inadequacies and lacking (i.e. I am fully aware that not everyone develops eating disorders, for example, or that everyone is of the same faith), one can't help but put the 'self' into, arguably, any examination of humanity, and literature, and religion. And, as a Christian, striving towards a more 'righteous' life, while shedding the former self (i.e. the detritus that doesn't serve the purpose; keeping the 'true self' that God created for some purpose), is what we're called to do (and, by golly, that's a humbling experience*).

But it's in that cross-section between truth and understanding, in the commonality of experience, that hopefully we can elucidate part of what it means to be human and feel less alone in our development here on earth. It's those very same glimpses of authentic humanity that, I think, draw us to media like magazines... and to op-shops, movies and cafes where we spend our money (there's a whole other post in that).

While I do like to share my faith, the lessons I've learnt and my evolving world view (to be devoid of opinion altogether would make for rather bland reading, though balance has its place), if my 'projection' ever turns into judgement please pull me up (that said, I personally differentiate between getting a 'conviction' through something I've read, which makes me feel emboldened to undertake some change in myself or my life, as apposed to condemnation, which just makes me feel like shit).

Thank you for being both encouraging and adding (so comprehensively and earnestly) to the dialogue.


*Bonus Biblical segue for those who care to read on: In Romans 7, Paul talks of the 'war within'; of the frustration (and despair) of wanting to do what's right by God but failing abysmally because he's, you know, human, and liable to fall short of the mark – but nevertheless pushing on towards the goal by buffering oneself with the word of God (the gospel)/acceptance of self as a sinner/acceptance of Christ as saviour/obedience to God, and, praise the Lord, GRACE...

In my own 'doing over', I've had to come to grips with ambition, selfishness, material desires, lust, envy, pride, cynicism, gluttony, narcissism, self-righteousness, guilt (still dealing with that one)... you name it. My friend Mez put it best when she said I was like a thorny rose bush who had been pruned and was now ready, almost, to bloom again. There's hope for the Madame Bovarys – though they may still project their works-in-progress onto the world.