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Posts Tagged ‘empowerment’

“Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of the bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl.” And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan magazine, few can argue that HGB was not a gamechanger.

Don’t get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is, the thing that feels, to American women in the year 2012, so obvious as to be unnecessary to even mention, is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.

In the New York Times’ “99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” writer Edith Zimmerman explores the “global juggernaut,”–a phrase which is no exaggeration:

Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations–including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:

When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.

That’s pretty wild. And honestly, it’s pretty important.

Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don’t need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen”). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don’t depend on a man for anything.

“So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life–get it for yourself.

And, she championed the “mouseburgers”–women who didn’t come from privilege, pedigree, or Princeton. Her book “Sex and The Single Girl” was published one year before “The Feminine Mystique.” Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.

And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing), or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.

As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive–knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains–clearly, we’re making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it’s our job to keep running with it.

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All of the hullaballoo about Summers Eve’s latest ad campaign (you know, the one that hails the “V”? Ironic, when you consider that the product for which the ad in question shills is one that disturbs a healthy V’s natural, self-regulating biology, one that’s counter-indicated by medicine, and one that carries the implicit message that your body, as it is, is bad. Hail the V? My A__. Oh, and those ads are racist, too), has left me obsessing over a bigger issue, one that has nothing to do with douche.

The aforementioned bigger issue is this: how these glossy messages of “empowerment” hijack and cheapen the conversation about what it is to be a woman, diverting our collective attention from important conversations and messages that could be truly empowering. So often, it seems that we’re terrified of the nuance, the deeper, more complicated questions, and so we attach ourselves to a quick, slick slogan. Girl Power, served up by a woman who calls herself Baby Spice? Or, as Rebecca Traister so eloquently explained in a piece in Sunday’s NYT Mag, a raucous call for an end to victim-blaming… while marching a “SlutWalk” in our underwear?

Don’t get me wrong: We’re all for Girl Power, and an end to the hideous pattern of victim-blaming that continues to rage against survivors of sexual assault. And we’re pretty fond of our Vs. But what about the rest of us? What about the feminine aspect, that je ne sais quoi that makes women women?

I can hear those knees jerking already!

When you say men and women are different, surely that must mean that one or the other is deficient: that’s a message used to denigrate women! The brain science is inconclusive! Gender is different than sex!

To discuss the feminine as something real, something distinct, yes, different even, well it’s still perceived as dangerous. Threatening. Historically, it makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Plotted against a timeline of the modern workplace, women are still relatively new to the game. It made sense that, upon our initial entree, our strategy was to blend in, to play like the boys, even to look like them (one word: shoulderpads). We downplayed our differences, fearing that if men smelled fear, insecurity, or Chanel #5, we’d be at an immediate disadvantage. Or maybe kicked out of the club for good. But isn’t it possible that every time we choose not to own our own womanness — and all the differences inherent to that womanness, like empathy, inclusiveness, compassion, collaboration, holistic thinking — we do ourselves and our gender (hell, humankind) as a whole a disservice? After all, isn’t there something more essential, more divine to being a woman than simple possession of a V?

They’re valuable qualities (and frankly, whether they’re born of nature or nurture… does it really matter?). And men possess them, too. But  in our culture, it’s those more traditional masculine qualities — linear thinking, assertiveness, individualism — that are prized. So, while men leave their feminine untended, women are all too often taught to shy away from their own. All of which leaves humanity as a whole operating in a rather lopsided fashion. But what if we could allow room for both to thrive?

It’s complicated to get at, though. We like proof in these parts, and the science remains controversial. Suggesting that women and men are different is too vague. Invites too many fears. (It’s proven, after all, that women perform worse on math tests when they’re told they’re being given the tests as a measure of how women are at math, compared to men.) And maybe that’s why these sorts of silly V-power messages fly. Real conversations are too risky. We’re too afraid that by honestly exploring a more complex idea, we might inadvertently give up some ground. But if we could begin to see this conversation as necessary and beneficial — for everyone, not just women, but men, too, who could use a little encouragement in terms of awakening to and cultivating their own feminine sides — maybe we would all benefit.

So, hail to the feminine — and the masculine, too.

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