Timing is everything when it comes to writing for a weekly. So, when Elizabeth Taylor died, I didn't have a chance to comment on her death. But as fate would have it, another notable woman died shortly after Taylor: Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman selected as a vice presidential candidate for a major political party. Ferraro's passing provided an opportunity to reflect on two very different women who, together, bookended an era.
Taylor's death was thoroughly reported, but The Onion online was, unsurprisingly, the least reverential: "Gorgeous 25-year-old dead at 79."
I got the joke. When Taylor passed, all the glamour shots of her as a young woman appeared everywhere. One Facebook friend wondered why photos of the "older, rounder, more wicked Elizabeth" were not posted. Oh, that's easy: because Taylor looks the same to some of us now as she did in her youth. And for a certain generation of Tejanos, she's much more than that movie star with the violet eyes or the woman who married all those men or the lady in those 1990s White Diamonds commercials. My fondest memory of Taylor was watching her as Leslie Benedict in Giant, the woman who swiftly dismantles Bick Benedict's (Rock Hudson) concept of Texas – a myth, similar to that of the U.S., that uses terms like "manifest destiny" to explain away the uglier side of exploitation. It was an idea that no one, particularly a Tejano, dared publicly question, so when Taylor's Leslie did just that onscreen, even if only in a work of fiction, it was astonishing to witness. When Taylor passed, it occurred to me that I'd never seen her on the big screen, only on TV. Yet, watching her in Giant on TV, even with commercial interruptions, did not weaken her wattage for me.
Taylor could have been nothing more than a beautiful woman. But as evidenced by the films she made later in her career and by her AIDS research advocacy following Hudson's death in 1985, she was clearly a smart woman and a brave one as well. She pushed for AIDS research at a time when admitting you had the disease or that you knew someone stricken by it could get you ostracized or worse. Taylor's outspokenness on this issue – particularly from someone revered for her physical beauty, and therefore, a big beneficiary of heterosexual privilege – was the act of a compassionate woman, aware of how her celebrity could be harnessed to further a cause. That she left most of her estate toward AIDS research seals her legacy.
Ferraro was not a bombshell in the style of Taylor, but her appearance on the small screen in 1984 was just as explosive when she gave her acceptance speech as the vice presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention.
"Occasionally in life there are moments which cannot be completely explained by words," Ferraro said early in her speech, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. "Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. Tonight is such a moment for me."
I would venture to say that any young woman witnessing that speech heard the cry from her own inaudible heart as Ferraro accepted the nomination for a role that was a heartbeat away from the presidency. Like Taylor, Ferraro was no angel. Both women spoke their minds and had their share of lamentable gaffes. The Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket lost the election to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – marking the beginning of the dark ages, some would say. Even so, no one could deny that a sense of hope and determination in a new generation of women was ignited by Ferraro's inclusion on the ticket and continues into the present.
Or does it?
Sarah Palin is no Ferraro, is she? What of Michele Bachmann? And Jersey Shore's Snooki (aka Nicole Polizzi) is a far cry from Elizabeth Taylor. Yet these are the luminaries burning brightly in today's constellation of stars. Oh, I know. It's always easy to say the good old days were better than the present. But with the deaths of Ferraro and Taylor, never has the passing of an era felt so hard or so final.
The University of Texas Student Engineering Council and Goodwill are hosting an electronic waste drive, Saturday, April 9, from 9am to 2pm at UT Parking Lot 53 (2922 San Jacinto). For more information, go to sec.engr.utexas.edu/ewaste.
As always, stay tuned.
E-mail Belinda Acosta at firstname.lastname@example.org.