Are you a feminist?
A loaded question. But why?
When I was in college, I drove a car I inherited from my mom, a cute Cabriolet convertible which came affixed with one piece of flare: a bumper sticker that read, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Radical indeed. A neighbor asked me if I was going to take it off. Take it off? “Well, you’re not a feminist are you?” she asked. I was too stunned to come up with a response other than, “I’m female–of course I am!”
At its core, that simple sentiment–that women are equal people–is, indeed, what the movement is about. But somewhere along the way, it came to mean a great, tricky, amorphous Something Else. Something that carries a stigma, to this day. Something that has young women yes- or no- but-ing, when they’re asked whether or not they claim the F-word.
Even Lady Gaga, who, as far as I can discern, isn’t exactly afraid of scandal, as it seems that she’s famous primarily for her disinterest in wearing pants, went out on a limb to clarify that she isn’t a feminist. In an interview, she says:
You see, if I was a guy, and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, grabbing my crotch and talking about how I make music ’cause I love fast cars and fucking girls, you’d call me a rock star. But when I do it in my music and in my videos, because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you’re judgmental, and you say that it’s distracting. I’m just a rock star.
-Are you also a feminist?
I’m not a feminist–I, I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars, and muscle cars.
What, exactly, is her point? That a feminist, by definition, must hate men and beer and bars and muscle cars? In one sentence she makes reference to the inequality of the treatment she receives, attributing it to her gender; yet in the next, she disowns the label ‘feminist’ on grounds best described as woefully shallow and stereotypical?
And yet. Who can blame her, or any woman for that matter, when no less than the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, head designer for Chanel (which, it should be noted, was created by a barrier-busting beauty, Coco Chanel), lobs a cutting insult at feminists in the upcoming issue of Harper’s Bazaar–in an interview in which he was role-playing, answering the questions as though he were Coco Chanel herself. When asked if Chanel was a feminist, Karl-as-Coco said:
I was never a feminist because I was never ugly enough for that.
And any smart marketer/designer/schoolyard bully knows, the quickest way to a woman’s Achilles is to call her ugly. And if the immediate association we’re encouraged to make is “feminist=ugly,” well, it’s no wonder that women don’t want to go there. But I think there’s more to it.
Still fuming over Lagerfeld, I came across a nugget in yesterday’s Daily Mail, entitled “Let’s put the fun back into feminism.” Fun and Feminism in the same sentence? Yes, let’s. In it, writer Hilary Hazard puts it thus:
But [our mothers' and grandmothers'] success has proved a double-edged sword for our generation. Women have come so far that it’s easy to think we’ve reached the end of the road. The burning sense of injustice that fueled feminism through the fifties, sixties, and seventies has given way to apathy.
So perhaps our reluctance has more to do with this notion that feminism is passe than that it makes us ugly? That reminded me of a comment from Lauren O, in response to Barbara’s recent post in which she cites an article she wrote about how today’s young women refuse to identify themselves as feminists. Lauren, a recent college graduate, hit the nail on the head, saying:
It’s great that feminism has come far enough that they don’t have to deal with many of the egregious injustices that women in the past had to deal with (and probably an indicator of class and race). On the other hand, it’s really the cleverest and most sinister way to stop feminism before it even begins: just convince young women that there is no sexism and that their lives are perfect. You can go on paying them less, under-representing them in government, and treating them like sex objects, and they’ll see it as equality.
Touche. And then there’s also something else. Something that has a little to do with the judging we women are so quick to heap upon our sisters. After the requisite mentions of beauty pageants, who is and isn’t protesting them, and the beauty industry as a whole, Hazard delves into meatier territory, taking on none less than icon Germaine Greer, and a dig she recently threw at Brit Cheryl Cole, calling her “too skinny to be a feminist,” and Hazard’s own not-so-pretty treatment of a pretty office worker named Anna, who, loaded down with coffees, crashed into the glass doors of a crowded conference room, a la Ugly Betty:
The feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which still divides women by image is all in our heads. The so-called glass ceiling which keeps women in their place might actually be a glass door which, had I held it open for Anna, might have made her life a lot easier.
It’s essentially the same conclusion Barbara came to yesterday, in her post about the trouble with typecasting:
I so agree with what she says about room for personal contradiction when it comes to feminism. (And, in fact, didn’t a certain intolerance for that contradiction once push some feminists out of the tent?) But it’s the either/or that gets us into trouble.
So maybe it’s not the ugly or the worry of appearing passe that’s the problem but this notion of either/or, and the problems with labels in general (John Hughes would be so proud). Maybe by picking fights with each other or fixating on labels, we’re doing nothing but diluting the issue. And the issue is this: we, women, are at a unique place in history–we’re children of a young movement, as Greer herself said, a movement still with work to do. Work involving how to contend with the choices we face: to one generation, to have options at all was the Holy Grail. But now that we have them, we’re stuck, reportedly unhappier than ever, stuck in analysis paralysis, and full of judgments we thrust upon each other. Is there any question there’s more work to be done?
And why have we stalled? I tend to think it’s partly because we’ve seen some success, and partly because we narrowed feminism’s definition so much that we don’t think there’s enough room to fit us all, with all of our contradictions and nuances. But imagine where we’d be if we stopped picking sides and signed on to the same team, one with room for everyone from Coco Chanel to Lady Gaga. Could it really be possible?
Maybe. But I think Coco would probably prefer that Ms. Gaga put on some pants.