In 1981, the New York Times described the problem of the incredible shrinking woman:
an unusually low tolerance for the poisons contained in hair sprays, floor waxes, feminine deodorants, junk food, spaceage glues and paints, water softeners, vitamin supplements, food preservatives, artificial colorings and flavorings, plastic wrappings, nondairy creamers and air fresheners.
Doesn't that sound like any Whole Foods shopper who checks her eco-labels? However, rather than describing the chemical-sensitivities of some upwardly-mobile, post-modern working mother, this article was reviewing Lily Tomlin's vintage comedy, "The Incredible Shrinking Woman." Rober Ebert summarized the plot 26 years ago:
As Lily Tomlin slaves away in her suburban dream home, her husband (Charles Grodin) gets big raises and promotions for advertising home-care products. And eventually one of those products (was it the dye? detergent? glue?) causes Lily Tomlin to start shrinking.
Her wedding ring begins to fit differently whenever she comes into contact with a toxic puddle. Meanwhile, evil corporate powers like World Management Organization, a consortium of Third World Chemicals and other generic, Acme-sounding entities, plot to shrink lesser parts of the world.
This should be the theme film of the Environmental Working Group, which tracks the dubious chemicals in household products. Who doesn't sense their skin, hormones and very DNA recoiling from the torrent of spanking new, mundane, everyday goods and goos laden with profane pollutants like plasticizers and pesticides?
"Do we really need another cute little doll?" pleads Tomlin's character. "Do we really need another soap that eats away germs when it eats away your life?" She eventually resorts to a Barbie wardrobe and into the arms of a faux Ken doll. Her neighbors brag to TV cameras about introducing their little neighbor to EST--another jab against the coziness of commercials, brainwashing and subdivisions.
By the time the credits roll, of course, you'll see that one small person really can make a difference! "These people were so big, the only way they could get any bigger is by making the rest of us smaller," says Tomlin, victorious (or is she?) after all.
Corny but charming, the supersize sets with cotton-candy home decor to make Pedro Almodovar envious are other renting points. I still can't find it on Netflix, but luckily TISW just showed up as a freebie on Comcast cable. Plus, star Lily Tomlin doesn't get enough props anymore as the innovative, one-woman-show who helped pave the way for Tracey Ullman and others. Tomlin's SNL skits included the girl in the humungous chair and the prototypical snotty phone operator with disc earrings.
The term "Incredible shrinking woman" has been borrowed by happy weight-losers as well as by women who call diet a four-letter word, by other size fetishists, by microphilic bloggers, by magazine writers to discuss eroding abortion-rights laws and by fans of the anime phenomenon known as koonago. Sure, feminism is implied in the flick, released during the U.S. divorce boom of all time, just before the mid-80s ubiquity of shoulder pads and red-stiletto powersuits.
Include this title in that library of mom-friendly, eco-themed films alongside, say, Blue Vinyl and Erin Brockovich or whatever. My mom bought TISW used on beta cassette, and it was one of the only movies we could both watch without yelling, crying or cringing. Moms have long gone green before the rest of us. You can't blame breasts and fetuses for being at the end of the food chain, collecting so many pollutants, so that the alarm sounds first in their tissues.
I'll welcome any nostalgic poke at the chemical-industrial empire. We might look back someday at even the silliest pop culture proof, maybe via comedies like these, that we've known for long enough that there might be a better way to engineer the ingredients in what we eat, slather on our skin and coat our countertops.
Still, chemicals in anything from paint to microwave popcorn bags have never been tested for their long-term, low-level health effects--or tested at all for what they do when mixed together. Europe just started requiring companies to label 35,000 ingredients in products we ingest or inhale every day--a monstrous effort of to-be-determined effectiveness.