- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Maybe you've seen her. You may even know her. I'm talking about the "every woman" that American Express Travelers Checks has chosen to replace solid, stoic Karl Malden as the television pitchman (sorry, pitchwoman) for their products and services.
There she is on a pay phone during a luxury beach vacation in an exotic but fashionable Third World locale. "I can't understand it. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before," she stammers to a presumably disinterested member of the native constabulary, barely keeping in a torrent of tears and staving off a nervous breakdown.
Apparently she had turned around for "two minutes" only to have her bag containing both her and her husband's wallets (hers with "$500 in it") stolen by a cunning thief who has disappeared into the crowd. Along with out-of-focus, nervous camera cuts, her hysteria persists until it is intimated that that could happen to anyone.
So you'll be much better off with travelers checks if you, too, are one of those lucky late-thirty-somethings who've just been so darn successful lately you've decided to enjoy some pricey recreation where your imperialist Yankee dollar "go very, very far. Right, boss?"
Are viewers really expected to know anyone like this? Are we supposed to identify with her, feel her pain? I have no pity whatsoever for this woman, nor her mid-to-late-40s, harried out-of-town sister who, in the ad campaign's second spot, whines into a Manhattan curbside phone that, among other things, she "left $1,000" in the taxi she's just gotten out of.
Pardon me ma'am. But what in the world did you think you were doing with $500 in your bag on a Third World beach, distractedly sipping pina coladas while surrounded by skinny, hungry poor people? Of course you were ripped off. What's more, you deserved to be ripped off.
And you there, Ms. Out-of-Towner traveling unescorted in New York City with $1,000 cash on you. Where are you from? What kind of planning went into your trip? Though Mayor Rudy Giuliani would beg to differ, it's a miracle you weren't pick-pocketed or mugged or worse long before you ever got into that cab.
Had these woman been physically threatened and robbed of their valuables through no particularly stupid act of their own, then we viewers could reasonably be expected to have sympathy. But instead, these self-centered, unthinking, foolish women with no demonstrated respect for the real world around them essentially go about giving their possessions away to those more needy if not worthy. And then they fall apart about it. How can anyone generate sympathy for that?
The depiction of such women in the year 2001 is insulting on at least two levels. First, it revives the Victorian notion of the "hysterical woman" suffering from the vapors and whose emotional rantings need only be endured until they pass. Second, and more important, these depictions apparently are the advertiser's mercenary choice to embrace Victimhood Chic the concept that victimhood sells. I'm not even a woman, yet I'm so insulted by these ads I vow never to purchase an American Express Travelers Check again as long as I live and urge others to join me.
Unlike some old guard civil rights leaders who criticized Alcatel (and the money-grubbing children of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) for its recently controversial commercial featuring King's famously inspirational "I Have a Dream" speech, feminist leaders and writers have yet to comment on these spots. They've left it to me a patriarchical, oppressive, straight- white male to gin up some outrage with an AmEx boycott.
Maybe feminists don't watch much TV and thus haven't seen these offensive ads. Or maybe, as I suspect, they're ambivalent about them. On the one hand, they like having strong women depicted as capable of planning and executing an important solo business trip or vacation to the Big Apple or even taking charge with the necessary call to authorities after an emotionally jarring theft leaves a presumably wimpy husband with the need to gather himself.
On the other hand, feminist voices often rise in a chorus of victimhood when they believe it suits them. Didn't get an SAT score as high as the boys? You must be a victim of educational gender bias. And lower paid WNBA players must be victims of sports discrimination because it's impossible to believe that pro basketball fans actually prefer and are willing to pay more to see the higher paid NBA players who, not coincidentally, jump much higher and run much faster.
But as Aesop warned long ago, there are dangers in crying "victim" too often. Not only do you increase the likelihood that others around you including the boss who's trying to decide who to send on that next business trip and on up the corporate ladder may stop taking you seriously. But you also run the risk of subconsciously handicapping yourself in the face of naturally occurring competition that grows more fierce each day.
If you convince yourself that you can't win within existing rules, you begin to pursue rule changes through divisive politics and litigation. Eventually, you reduce yourself to a hysterical woman with a huge chip on your shoulder. And you simply don't leave home without it. Personally, I preferred Karl Malden.

Darren McKinney is a writer and media critic living in Washington.

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