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Posts Tagged ‘patriarchy’

Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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I say we leave it up to the kids. More below.

Writing in The Nation last week, Katha Pollitt threw some love at Julie and Julia, the feel-good foodie movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell, the 20-something blogger who tried to channel Child by cooking her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” What Pollitt liked most about the movie was the fact that it was about adult women finding meaning through work:

What I loved most of all, though, was that Julie & Julia is that very rare thing, a movie centered on adult women, and that even rarer thing, a movie about women’s struggle to express their gifts through work. Not a boyfriend, a fabulous wedding, a baby, a gay best friend, a better marriage, escape from a serial killer, the perfect work-family balance, another baby. Real life is full of women for whom work is at the center, who crave creative challenge, who are miserable until they find a way to make a mark on the world. But in the movies, women with big ambitions tend to be Prada-wearing devils or uptight thirtysomethings who relax when they find a slacker boyfriend or inherit an adorable orphan. Among recent films, Seraphine, Martin Provost’s biopic about an early-twentieth-century French cleaning woman and self-taught painter, is practically unique in its curiosity about a woman’s creative drive. More usually, a woman’s cinematic function is to forward, thwart, complicate or decorate the story of a man. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s elusive girlfriend in (500) Days of Summer, Zooey Deschanel has all the external trappings of individuality–aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes–but she has no more inner life than Petrarch’s Laura. She’s there to break the hero’s heart and rekindle his ambitions. What will she become? Someone else’s wife.

I read this piece after a long Sunday afternoon of a breakneck email back-and-forth relating to Marcus Buckingham and the happiness gap, which Shannon wrote about so eloquently yesterday. Much of the backchat centered around sexism: Why on earth would we look to a male to define, understand and proffer solutions for our own particular brand of angst? The answer was the obvious. We’re still living in a man’s world. Or, if you prefer the loaded term, a patriarchy, where most of the social structures were set up by men — to benefit men. Men dominate for the simple reason that they can.

Which made me wonder: some 50 years after Betty Friedan ignited the second wave of the women’s movement by writing about the “problem that has no name”, why are we still pleasantly pleased to find a movie about grown-up women who have lives apart from their significant others? Why do we let men (and the editors who publish them) take our conversations away from us? Why were we shocked and amazed that Hillary made it so far into last year’s primary season — all the while secretly acknowledging to ourselves that she could never win the presidency? Why do we still earn 71 cents on the dollar — and then come home and do the laundry? Why, in fact, do I still use terms like “Why women” (just hit search) in my posts?

No wonder we are undecided.

I came of age during the bra-burning era — which, by the way, never happened — at a time when I was known as a “women’s libber.” That dates me, yeah? At my first job out of college, my co-workers (mostly women several years older than I) were almost all involved in consciousness-raising groups, and brought those conversations into the lunch room and break rooms. There was momentum: we were prepped for change, and by god, we were going to make it happen.

But see above. We didn’t. And having been along for most of the ride, I’m frustrated that the movement seems to have stalled.

Why are words like “patriarchy” still part of the lexicon? Why, after Pat Shroeder broke ground in 1973 by becoming the first woman from Colorado to be elected to the U.S. house of representatives – and the first woman to make a legitimate run for president — why are women so woefully underrepresented in the House and, primarily, the Senate? Why are we tempted to use the same loaded  rhetoric of 50 years back without realizing that, just maybe, we need to change strats?

Back in the day, feminism was fueled, to a certain extent, by anger. And it was appropriate: Wake up, women! Embrace your oppression! Fight the patriarchy! That, we got. But moving from anger to constructive action? Seems to me the movement might have gotten so stuck in the rhetoric that it not only closed the tent, but couldn’t pull the trigger.

(As an aside, these are questions for the next generation: What was the last thing you read about NOW? What do you know about EMILY’s list — and do you even know what EMILY stands for?)

One of my friends who was part of Sunday’s bang-a-thon is from Sweden, where this type of conversation is probably close to obsolete. In her country, where there is both gender parity and equality, she suggests, it may be due to their social-democratic-ness: “It’s normal to look at society as a structure and ask yourself who will benefit — and how it can be changed to benefit other groups.”

Why didn’t we think of that? Is it possible that the anger that was so successful as a wake-up call ended up immobilizing us as much as complacency might have? Rather than building a coalition, as President Obama, who achieved the impossible last November, was able to do, did we end up alienating those we needed as allies?

I have no answers. Which is why I’m hoping the twenty and thirty-somethings might pick up the mantle and go forward with some fresh ideas.  Third-wave feminism has been dubbed by some “do-me feminism” or “Sex and the City feminism.” I have to wonder: do we need a fourth wave?

I vote yes.

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