One of my favorite all-time characters on television is CJ Craig on "The West Wing" (a show I discovered via Bravo reruns). She's calm, confident, competent, on top of things without being "mannish" or unfeminine. Rarely it seems do we see a woman on television who is all these things without being a 22-year-old babe -- you know, the smart (-ass) vixen with a snarky sense of humor we see so often. (Not that that's bad -- I loved "Dark Angel", for example for its sexy snarkiness.) I'd like to think that if I had gone beltway, I could have been like CJ.
So why is it I cringe just a little whenvever she femmes up for, say, a black-tie event in the show? She looks great, but it's such a shock to see her so traditionally feminine among her colleagues. Is it how she becomes a bit objectified, being on display like that? It's not like she's revealing an inner slut or anything. On the contrary, she still carries herself with that inner strength and sense of self that I see when she's in her (beautifully tailored designer) business suits. Where does my inward cringe come from?
For that matter, why do I admire her for not being "mannish"? Is there a thin pink line women must walk today in order to be respectable?
Madonna or whore?
I missed the bra-burning days. But when I was growing up, distilled (and distorted) attitudes were clearly established: to be a liberated woman, you had to remove womanliness, because to be womanly in the general sense embraced by mainstream culture was to be objectified, which was not good because being objectified undercut anything and everything else you did. Don't shave your legs, don't wear make-up, dress in man-cut suits at work, shun fashion.
Yet I was already drawn in the opposite direction. My favorite TV character during childhood was Samantha in "Bewitched". I was too young to know that being the stay-at-home housewife (and then mother) was considered a politically incorrect role model. I just saw a woman who was in charge. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
What did I know from feminism? My mother was a college instructor and attorney, but we never really talked about feminism. I read her subscriptions to Bazaar and Madamoiselle and Glamour and Vogue very uncritically, except maybe for some relief that we weren't supposed to wear those really weird '60s fashions any more. (I didn't know that the '70s were worse until later, when I reminisced over [and subsequently burned] all incriminating photos.) But one things I did get out of my television indoctrination was that one was not supposed to be anything like Serena -- self-consciously sexually alluring, free-spirited, undevoted to any man. No, she was a troublemaker. She upset the balance of things. She was a trickstrix. But all that was "all in good fun." Yet what really seemed to play underneath was this sense that she was part of some dark, unrespectable, almost degenerate world where women were not wives. Yikes!
So there it was: my foundling education -- which was reinforced by attitudes and characters and worldviews portrayed in my other favorite shows of the time, "Nanny and the Professor", "Star Trek" (especially Yeoman Janice Rand) and "The Bionic Woman". All in all a far cry from Gloria Steinem.
This bubble in which I grew up was popped by pop of the '80s -- namely Madonna. "Lucky Star" put her on the map, and it seemed like the traditional and feminist cultures totally freaked. How dare she be so sexual! How dare she dress so provocatively! How dare she play up sweet! Pat Benetar she was not. No swagger and fist for Madonna. I was too old to start wearing my underwear outside of my clothes, but my world was rocked all the same.
Diane Dees, LCSW, DCSW describes the cultural moment:
Enter Madonna, belly button exposed, telling us that she feels "like a virgin, touched for the very first time," and that it "feels so good inside" (Steinberg & Kelly, 1984). She stands on the stage, self-assured, cocky, the bad girl extraordinaire, who happens to bear the label of history's purest and most idealized mother figure. She wears rosaries and crucifixes to trivialize the idea of supreme suffering (Worrell, 1985), and she tells throngs of adoring girls:
Unlike the others I'd do anything
I'm not the same I have no shame
I'm on fire (Madonna, 1983).
She is at once the adolescent girl's projected narcissistic self and a send-up of the girl's mother, who the adolescent has come to realize is far from divine (Kaplan, 1984). Wearing Fredericks of Hollywood corsets and tight skirts, Madonna not so subtly puts down the femininity of the teenager's mother, which, though it is an obvious part of her behavior, the daughter may perceive as phony (Giovacchini, 1979).
My take is that Madonna was not putting down femininity but rather was reclaiming it -- not just as a source of power (the power of beauty) but as a right of every woman to have without shame, without apology ... and without subsuming oneself to a man. But it sure took a while for that message to take. The conservatives railed at the sexuality of it all, while the feminists seemed to view Madonna as a betrayer of The Cause. Here Gloria had so emphatically doffed the Playboy bunny suit, and Madonna seemed to sing and dance away from that, wearing only lingerie and self-consciously throwing us back to the '50s with her cultivated postmodern Marilyn Monroe image.
Madonna was blazing new territory -- a sexual empowerment that was vampier and more in your face than Twiggy or Goldie. She was a sort of post-free-love Bettie Page.
Of course, around the same time, the backsliding in feminism had begun with the final defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment after 59 years of trying.
Attacked by hysterics on the right and a new brand of sexualized culture in their midst, it seemed that feminism was dying, if not dead already. Not that I had any awareness. I was too busy sleepwalking through my life, trying very hard not to face my own reality. Pot helped. I don't remember much of those days now. I hope that at least I had fun. Probably not. I was still getting over not being able to zap things into and out of existence with a twitch of my nose.
What do men want?
Maureen Dowd created something of a stir in the blogosphere with a column titled, "Men Just Want Mommy", in which, citing a study that concluded that (news flash!) men would rather marry women in subordinate positions, as well as the British study we discussed earlier about IQ and marriage appeal, she wrote:
So was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? The more women achieve, the less desirable they are? Women want to be in a relationship with guys they can seriously talk to - unfortunately, a lot of those guys want to be in relationships with women they don't have to talk to.
All in all, it seemed like a rather innocuous little rant by the snarky columnist. And she made some very good points about our popular movies these days, featuring many love stories with women in subordinate roles -- a far cry from "Tracy/Hepburn movies more than a half-century ago, [where] it was the snap and crackle of a romance between equals that was so exciting. Moviemakers these days seem far more interested in the soothing aura of romances between unequals." For every Erin Brokovich, it seems there are 27 maids, secretaries, wedding planners and hookers playing the heroine. On these pages, Jae chafes at the weak female roles in the media:
God forbid a woman be sexy AND have thoughts and ideas of her own!
This, I believe, is largely media-induced. Movies and television are saturated with pretty girls with intelligent sidekicks. Rarely are the two parts found in one whole. And if they are, they're either played off as "odd" (The gothy forensic scientist on NCIS) or are *so* pretty that the intelligence takes second fiddle.
But then I read Jessica's take at Feministing:
Firstly, Dowd's assumption that young women or women in the service industry are somehow NOT smart and are more likely to â€œserviceâ€? men in their personal life is just disgusting.
And I'm sorry, but the last time I checked, feminism wasn't a fucking dating service! If some asshole doesn't want to date you because you're smart and successful, is it the fault of feminism or the asshole?
I don't really buy into these studies, and Dowd's questionable examples from the notoriously vapid movie industry don't lend her argument any more credence. Let's give men some credit; I feel like most couples I know are of equal intelligence. No?
I'm with Jessica on most everything there ... except the last part. Maybe it's personal bias, but to me it seems that the women are usually the smarter ones in the couples. But rarely do they let the men know it, let alone challenge the men in authority on a given subject. If she does, the man will hear no end of it -- from the other men.
Jory at Pause comes at the dating/coupling dynamic from a different angle:
I had just ended a relationship with a Paper Man (translation: a man that looks good on paper, but whose loyalties tear easily). I wondered why I could never seem to make things work with Paper Men. Either they shied away or remained distant towards me. Secretly I found them boring, but I didn't stop trying to get one to wrap his starchy arms around me. There seemed to be a thrill in the conquest, but I always ended up with paper cuts.
Likewise my friend always ventured for the unattainable, the inappropriate woman. One who always seemed to be confused and conflicted over her feelings for him. Just an admission of interest from his object of desire was enough to send him into an obsessive, doomed-to-fail infatuation.
Watching and witnessing each others' love lives we discovered something: love was not luck; love was a choice, despite our unwitting desire to turn it into a lottery. We had been under the assumption that if we made love difficult and painful, the windfall should our luck change would be that much more mindblowing. We also didn't want to risk the rejection of not being wanted by someone we knew was our match, lest we find that we were never to be truly wanted, or happy. Better to perpetually postpone happiness rather than find that it doesn't really exist. I suppose knowing we were responsible for the outcomes in our lives had been too much to bear.
But what do we say about the hookups that do happen, and how we find our roles in them? Sofia of Volsunga views the question through the lens of age discrepancy:
Young men are seen as more able to give informed consent to sex, and to enjoy it for what it is, than young women. Older men who sleep with teens are seen as sexually deviant, and the girls as sad decieved fools looking for father-figures. But there must be a point when this changes, because later in life, in the media at least, such relationships are portrayed as positively reputation-boosting for the older men; is it possible that at some borderline point, the young women in question represent both prey and trophy?
The power dynamic seems unavoidable, whether it's a tango or a hunt. We can't get away from the carnal desires that drive us. What we collectively as women have gained over recent years is ownership of our desires. No more "Ramblin' Rose" horrors. No more party line that places the miniskirt within the realm of subservient slut. And men -- some men, anyway -- seem to have backed away from engaging the sexually aware goddess-woman.
I wonder: Does this alleged dynamic observed in the cited study arise because men don't want to feel subservient to the person who controls the sex?
Echidne looks at the study itself, and questions its conclusions:
Well, consider how the explanation completely ignores societal effects. In the United States, the Southern Baptist Church explicitly advocates female submission in marriage and so do the Promise Keepers. Many individuals probably still hold these beliefs, though it's interesting that men appear more likely to do so than women. Also, there are still many more female subordinate jobs out there than female bosses. A female boss may be something that is viewed as an anachronism by the study subjects, so that the occupational category in itself may serve as a signal that the women whose pictures are marked with the boss label are somehow aberrant.
Laura at 11D also wonders at the conclusions:
That study doesn't necessarily show that smart guys go for cheerleaders. Maybe smarter women don't need or want to get married. Maybe dumb women are more likely to get divorced.
Maureen's baggage aside, does she make a good point? Do men really want to jump a non-English speaking maid in a uniform over an award winning columnist?
Well gee, if the award-winning columnist is going to be so upitty ... yes! Okay, sarcasm aside, is a smart, opinionated woman considered too difficult or challenging to the typical man? If so, why? Is it possible that the pleasures of male privilege are too good for men to give up for high-minded notions of an egalitarian love relationship? My suspicion is that anything is possible when love bites, but perhaps many, if not most, men are more guarded when engaging a smart, opinionated woman in conversation. Yes, men will love the banter. But how many would enjoy it if she seemed to best him in knowledge and ability over and over again?
Of course, most of us have learned not to do that. Sometimes it can be dangerous, but usually it's just heartbreaking to see the guy wilt. Okay, I admit it: I'm a sucker for the fragile male ego.
So we're complicit in the game. He strives to dominate not only because our culture demands it, but also because he's working to tame his lover. And we go along with this -- because it can be delightful, and because we want him to be happy. Nobody likes to see a whipped boy. And as long as he doesn't get abusive, we're happy to stay. The perqs can be nice.
Because in a way I think we're also taming him. By surrendering to his desire to dominate, to penetrate, we actually gain a measure of power. He feels like he's taming us, but we're taming him, too. The spark and fire of new love ... or at least fresh carnal desire.
So maybe I should rephrase the question: Does the male dominance dynamic exist because women do not want to give up the female power that comes from surrender?
What do we want?
I want to be connected to someone. I want to be ravished. I want to be pampered. I want to pamper someone. I want to be respected. I want to be fucked. I want to seduce. I want to be consulted. I want to be directed. I want to have the final say. I want him to clean the toilet. I want it all. Why shouldn't I?
Is there any stronger declaration of feminist empowerment?
Amanda at Mouse Words writes about female sexuality in our culture:
The biggest problem is shame. Being attracted to boys was something that was only discussed amongst the girls I knew as an ethereal thing, really. Oh, we talked about sex, but only in the culturally approved terms where sex was something done to us or something we held back from in order to get respect. Speaking of yourself as a sexual agent was the verboten subject. I remember reading a magazine aimed at teenage girls where someone wrote into an advice column wondering if something was wrong with her because she made out with her boyfriend and her panties got damp. I have no idea if the question was made up, but my friends and I were appalled. This, we said, never happened to us. We were probably all lying; I know I was.
With all this shame and embarrassment, is it any wonder that women routinely report well into adulthood that they really, well, don't have those feelings? Even nowadays, young women don't often know the language to name their feelings. Of course they can't express them. And practice makes perfect. Women are behind the sexual curve much of their lives, especially if they live in subcultures where sexual experimentation is discouraged throughout their lives, which is probably most subcultures still in America.
Is there any stronger declaration of the need of feminism in our culture?
In talking about her own healthy libido, Kameron of Brutal Women tells us:
And it took me forever to come to grips with it, because "girls aren't supposed to feel that way." Girls aren't supposed to think so much about sex, and though I'm still emotionally a serial monogamist, I recognize that the myth of the libido-less female just doesn't apply to me in the least.
I think we're raised to be afraid of our bodies and what they desire: sex, food, strength, and so we don't listen to our bodies and acknowledge what we want.
If you want to know what a lot of female hysteria/wackiness is about, I'd say it's this: being taught to be a non-person, somebody who's not supposed to feel any sort of desire for anything at all, and trying to operate on that level.
That'll drive anybody batfuck insane.
Is there any stronger declaration of feminists' reclaiming sexual power? What stronger issue for women than our reclaiming our own sexuality? Yes, women can be sexual. Yes, women can feel sexy. Yes, women can want the full dynamic of romantic love and lusty sex. No longer must the woman be the obedient housewife or the depraved slut, the career fe-man or the asexual vegan hippie.
And so I'm truly puzzled that Maureen Dowd seems to think feminism is dead. Echnidne notes:
[S]he keenly latches to anything, anything at all, that could be used to prove feminism is pointless, a failure, and dead in any case, even if the piece of news she uses is obviously total crap. What is it with Maureen and feminism? What is it with women who insist on denying their only existence? For that's what Maureen's rantings boil down to: that no woman in her position should exist.
Maybe Maureen is just looking at feminism from an older perspective. An attractive woman who does not work at hiding her sex appeal in public, perhaps she takes her own sexual freedom for granted and measures feminism only in terms of career and defeat of male privilege. In that case, perhaps she's onto something -- that the feminism she knows seems to have fallen off the map.
Christine of ms.musings finds some validity in Dowd's criticism of movies, placing it into a broader context:
And what about Pretty Woman or Maid in Manhattan? We've always had this Cinderella fantasy of lower class women winning the love and affection of wealthy, more powerful men. These unequal relationships, it should also be noted, are tied as much with our class-based fantasies as romantic/gendered ones. These are mini-justifications of the American Dream.
Having said that, how do women get to enact their class-climbing American Dream? By latching themselves onto an upwardly mobile man, of course.
In 1987, Andrea Dworkin wrote :
Intercourse is frequently how we hold on: fuck me. How to separate the act of intercourse from the social reality of male power is not clear, especially because it is male power that constructs both the meaning and the current practice of intercourse as such. But it is clear that reforms do not change women's status relative to men, or have not yet. It is clear that reforms do not change the intractability of women's civil inferiority. Is intercourse itself then a basis of or a key to women's continuing social and sexual inequality? Intercourse may not cause women's orgasm or even have much of a correlation with it--indeed, we rarely find intercourse and orgasm in the same place at the same time--but intercourse and women's inequality are like Siamese twins, always in the same place at the same time pissing in the same pot.
[Aside: Rad Geek has more on Dworkin and how she is often misunderstood.]
I would like to think that the past 20 years have been about getting past this reality, that female sexuality has become recognized as its own power, without the slut-whore implications or suspcions that by opening her legs she has submitted to a subservient role in the patriarchy. I would like to believe that women today can be feminists and sex kittens. I would like to see that we can address the problems of male privilege and the patriarchy without de-sexualizing women by proxy or by merit of victim status.
I would like to see us all not blame each other for all the various ways we still are disadvantaged, powerless and even abused by this male-dominated culture in which we find ourselves. We shouldn't be victims blaming victims.
Can feminism just be feminism?
With a legacy of a zillion "types" of feminism, and the seeming disconnect between each faction -- especially the "second wave" of the '70s and the "third wave" of the '90s -- can feminism simply be feminism, period? It may be a challenge. When young women consider the older generation outdated, while the second-wavers go around believing feminism is dead, it's enough to get you to throw up your hands, give up and watch "Desperate Housewives" over frozen margaritas.
In "The End of Feminism's Third Wave," published in Ms., Lisa Jervis, cofounder of Bitch magazine, points out:
It's just so much easier to hit on the playful cultural elements of the third wave and contrast them with the brass-tacks agenda -- and impressive gains -- of the second wave: It's become the master narrative of feminism's progression (or regression, as some see it).
But when has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative? After all, the oft-repeated notion among self-described third-wavers that those labeled as hopelessly second-wave reject humor, fashion, sex or anything else that might be fun is just a slightly â€” and only slightly -- more nuanced and polite version of the stone-faced, hairy-legged manhater whom we all know to be a myth that originated in the sexist culture at large and was cultivated and amplified by conservative, antifeminist and/or just plain clueless journalists and pundits.
I do not despair. I try to feel optimistic. After all, we've come a long way, baby, since the days of bra burning. (We're smoking less, too. That was getting pretty bad for a while.)
And yet it's somewhat shocking to see just how minimally conditions have changed since then. Here we are living in a society today where feminity can be government-regulated, where birth control is being made harder to obtain, where sex education is disappearing from our schools, where women still have to cope with violence while receiving little protection from the government. And we're facing the very real possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned and that we will lose sovereignty over our own bodies, and the Democratic leadership may back away from defending it.
Feminism is dead? C'mon, Maureen! Buck up, girl! We all have work to do!