"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rebranding Feminism–Or Is It Finished In Any Case?

Katy Perry, singer and Billboard’s Woman of the Year said "I'm not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women." This apparently set off a firestorm of criticism.  Noah Berlatsky writes in The Atlantic (12.7.12):

Understandably, many feminist writers don't see things this way. Instead, they find such rhetorical contradictions infuriating. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon, for example, explains with barely-restrained snark: "Let me just point out that if you believe in the strength of women, Ms. Perry, or their equality, Ms. Mayer, you're soaking in feminism." Madeleine Davis at Jezebel adds, with less restraint, "the ignorance and ridiculousness of Perry's comments—especially in the context of accepting the Woman of the Year award—is enough to set the teeth of any feminist on edge."

The issue is not, says Berlatsky, Perry’s convictions, but a branding problem – no one quite knows what Feminism is these days, particularly since women have made such considerable strides in every sphere of American life.  In the Seventies we knew exactly what Feminism was – it was a militant movement of women demanding in society’s laws, traditions, customs, and attitudes.  There was no Right Wing, Left Wing, or Moderate Wing of this particular party – it was all militantly angry, hostile, and incessant in its attacks on patriarchy, male dominance, and maleness itself.  Men were the enemy, pure and simple.  They had enslaved women since the first monkey-man dragged a woman by her hair into the bushes, had his way with her, and then forced her to clean up the cave; and it was time for this to stop.  We knew that women meant business.  They even had an IRA-style military wing which – it was reported – would stop at nothing short of physical emasculation. 

Feminist writers were in their heyday since college campuses were in the first flush of Postmodernist deconstruction; and academics looked at everything through the lens of race, gender, and ethnicity.  The oppressed were the heroes to these liberals, and Feminism was the avant-garde of a broader anti-capitalist, Marxist-oriented, materialist movement.  ‘Progressives’ let Feminists do the talking, and talking they did.  In the 70s excoriating, coruscating, and emasculating speeches, tracts, and proclamations by radical Feminists provided the phalanx of the ‘Progressive’ Movement. A Feminist in those days was a militant woman for whom men were the enemy.  It was not just about equality, but reducing men to their proper inferior status.  Men were incomplete women, Feminists said, Nature’s mistakes, created to be physically stronger but intellectually and morally dumber.  Women might need men, Feminists argued, but in an ideal world men would be enslaved to them, and offspring would be the result of women’s choices, not men’s. 

Forty years have passed, and women are back shaving their legs, wearing push-up bras, buying Barbie dolls for their daughters, flirting and acting sexy.  They can afford to do this, they say, because they have achieved most of what their mothers were fighting for, and could exchange battle fatigues for Victoria’s Secret.  Women take it for granted that they are the equals of men and point to their majority in Law Schools and Medical Schools, explain their absence from corporate boardrooms because they are fulfilling a part of life from which men, thank God, have been excluded – child-bearing and –rearing. Women seem to be more at ease with the notion that men and women are in fact different.  Women are more social, communicative, collaborative than men, for example; and while men are busy having pissing contests, women are building and creating a better and harmonious world.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a woman President? they muse; for the world would be a more peaceful place.

Last month, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said she was not a feminist because, "I'm not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day."

While this statement drove old-line Feminists crazy, it summarized many post-Feminist women’s position.  Like Carla Bruni they have achieved success on their own, and are confident in espousing traditional women’s roles – like family and children – with no compunction at all.  Many Feminists decried Bruni’s statement as retrograde. In the Seventies a traditional family role for women was a consignment to a bourgeois hell. A true woman would never be defined by an archaic structure (marriage) and a male-dominated role (motherhood). This neo-Feminist persistence is, according to Berlatsky, one of the reasons why modern women shy away from the appellation.

So, is Feminism now only a historical oddity? It seems to be for women; and most men understand that boardrooms and law schools aside, nothing much has changed between men and women. Feminism was never an issue for them, and is even less so today.  Women still fall for confident, virile, and strong men; and know how to attract them. Although women in the Seventies claimed that this type of man was a Neanderthal throwback, men knew better, and easily bedded Feminists and Southern Belles alike.  Men understood that women need to be listened to, and they patiently let the Feminist rhetoric blow over them like an inconvenient wind.  Men knew that when the tempest passed, they would be considered even more desirable because they cared.

Many ‘progressive’ men call themselves Feminists, but are looked at somewhat askance by their unrepentant male colleagues.  These New Age men have been coopted by women and have bought into a second-class maleness.  There is no doubt that men, largely unscathed by the Feminist succubuses of the Seventies, are deeply suspicious of women just as all men have been forever.  One need only read Shakespeare’s more famous screeds against women (by Posthumus, Troilus, Cymbeline, Othello, and Claudio to name just a few ) to know that this sentiment has been around for a long, long time. Women of course, hold tremendous power over men because they alone know who the fathers of their children are; and men resent them for that even today.  Jealousy seems to be hardwired into the male brain and it is easy for modern men – just like the men of Shakespeare – to conflate one woman’s infidelity to all women’s duplicity.  “Loving them and leaving them” has been one of the few ways to get back at them.

The issue, then, is really only a female one; and Berlatsky is correct in suggesting that the most essential element of Feminism for women is gender equality.  Since many if not most women feel that they have achieved it, they no longer have to espouse what they still perceive is the militancy of neo-Feminists.  He has implied that if only Feminists could convey this softer, milder, and more realistic message of equality, more women would adopt the Feminist label, and the movement would increase in relevance. In this more benign vision of equality, all choices including traditional marriage would be on the table, thus attracting more adherents.  Which is what this argument is all about in the first place – relevance, support, and above all donations.

However, the more homogenized the movement becomes, the less recognizable it is.  If the vision of Feminism becomes that of the housewife from Iowa and milking cows and baking bread become its emblem, it is doomed.  It is doomed anyway, rebranding or not, because most American women seem to be quite happy with their well-paying jobs, husbands who cook, and a little respect.  Not enough, perhaps, but at least more than their grandmothers ever got. 


  1. Why don't we just kill all men? I'm not joking. I'm male (and masculine - for good measure) and I would be OK dying for women's independence. I swear, I don't mind.
    Seriously, this is not a sympathy ploy. I'm dead on.

  2. @anonymous

    Uhh.... okay? You are an odd man...


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