09 November 2005

the "f" word revisited

The New York Times Magazine featured an essay "What's a Modern Woman to Do?" from NYT columnist Maureen Dowd adapted from her forthcoming book, Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide. The essay takes us through the trajectory of feminist culture in the 60s and 70s to today's reactionary Cosmo-culture.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this essay and found the article provacative in raising some important questions regarding women's attutidues toward the sexual politics of the day. As is described in the Salon article about Dowd, her writing, and feminism at large, there has been strong reaction from women protesting Dowd's implication that feminism is dead. The Salon article was right to point out that Dowd touched upon a nerve because it has a certain truth to it. Today it sometimes appears that women are complicit in their objectification. Wielding one's sexual prowess is seen as an essential part of a woman's skill set, and having the brains to boot is a perk. Some would argue that feminism today is using our sexual faculties as empowerment. Others shun the concept of feminism either overtly or unintentionally (see my other post on the ambivalence over feminism). The cartoon at the top of this page illustrates this nicely.

Then there's the type of girl/woman who embraces the dumb-is-cuter mentality, for example by wearing the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts pictured here (see pics at right...the worst is not even pictured here, a shirt with the words "Freshman 15" and then the signatures of 15 males below it). Talk about a lack of integrity. I am currently fascinated with the aspiration of young women these days to be the Maxim Hometown Hottie.

And it seems that these messages are being socialized in children as well. Take the freakish looking Bratz dolls (see pic below) which are even more freakishly popular amongst young girls. Is it me or do these Bratz dolls get collagen injections??? Barbie doesn't seem so bad anymore. At least she was an astronaut and then had a disability at some point.

When I first started thinking about the state of feminism, I felt anger and resentment towards women and their complicity towards these new, but equally as detrimental gender roles and stereotypes. However, as much as women's personal choices and responsibility is a factor, we can't lose sight of the the bigger picture and the systemic forces at play. The central intelligence in the gender wars lies in our society's economics, and guess who calls the shots there...(surprise!) MEN. Perhaps there is a trickle-down effect of economic disparity (where women earn 76 cents to every dollar earned by men and women of color fare worse - with Black women and Hispanic women earning 65 cents and 54 cents, respectively to every dollar earned by white men) into cultural norms.

It seems that this issue is the old "chicken and the egg" conundrum. As in most debates, there seem to camps pitting economic vs. cultural explanations, but it's probably impossible to say which is the real root of the situation. Given that economic analysis is not my forte, I speak more from the psychological/sociological perspective. It seems to me that the idea of a strong, successful woman is threatening to most men. And for women, there is sometimes a fear that she will end up alone. But adding sex into the mix gives the impression that a woman's power is more palatable...though in reality it is still oppressive by virtue of the fact that a woman's power through sex is dependent upon man's deeming it worth something. There seems to be a lack of consensual respect for a woman's right to find her own sphere between conforming to a "man's world" (which is what some argue was the first wave feminists' goal and now outdated) and going the other direction into the world of domesticity and Playboy bunnies. Is this period of Desperate Housewives somewhere in between? Perhaps, but it seems that we still have a ways to go til we find our way home (with or without the help of men).

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