When Time magazine asked, with its infamous 1966 cover story, “Is God Dead?” it was a warning. When its June 23 issue asked, “Is Feminism Dead?” it was a pronouncement, an answer phrased in the form of a question, as meaningless a formality as on the game show Jeopardy! If there was panic in the first headline, there was relief in the second, after all, some people believe God exists.
Whether feminism still exists or ever did is a speciously structured question. First of all, its terms must be defined: What does “feminism” mean? Who are its adherents under this definition? How have their numbers changed relative to the movement’s heyday? Time isn’t dumb enough to try to define anything; the piece complains about Hollywood stars dabbling in protest performances and ascribes irrational descriptions such as “sex-positive feminist” at random. A colorful, reader-friendly sidebar hammers home false distinctions: Then: Helen Reddy/Now: Spice Girls; Then: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party/Now: Vanessa Beechcroft’s fashion models as art, as if this is all the evidence we need to prove the debasement of feminism.
It’s easy to make a case for something by positing the favored example against a diametrically opposed one. Time’s either/or proposition is plumb unrealistic; worse, it’s unanswerable. Getting drawn into example-driven arguments without any empirical grounding leads only to a spitting match over semantics or outright fisticuffs. A close look under the rock of Time’s logic reveals some unsightly creatures: Do they really mean to suggest that the Spice Girls’ popularity proves that every prepubescent female is a willing tool of the patriarchy?
If we grant that women’s lives have changed since the early lib days, and that Helen Reddy’s hit single was a legitimate expression of feminism for the time, then why shouldn’t, say, Lucinda Williams’ new record be considered a similar contemporary text? “I Am Woman” was a trend cash-in as blatant as “Convoy”, if beekeeping had been all the rage, Reddy would have sung about that, but it parroted the right catch phrases. This year’s The Vagina Monologues, a compendium of “interviews” with women about their sexuality, simply screams old-time women’s lib, with its clinical title and emphasis on self-acceptance in the examining room. But both the shock value of the word and its candlelight-and-speculum thing are irrelevant in the ’90s, or so we post-boomers hoped. The fact that its creator, Eve Ensler, believes this stuff needs to exist shows what’s wrong with feminism, her unease is manifest in the way she has crafted these monologues for irony and pitifulness. If women won’t say they’re uncomfortable with their sexuality, Ensler will make them say it, ain’t sisterhood grand? She mocks her subjects and trivializes their narratives: “I haven’t been ‘down there’ since 1953,” one elderly woman supposedly states. “Oh, it had nothing to do with Eisenhower.” Ha, ha, bite me.
Time senior writer Ginia Bellafante isn’t wrong in arguing that feminism has been debased, but she makes her case with such deck-stacking and special pleading that it is immediately bankrupt. In between sneering at The Rules and “Clinton-loving feminists,” she manages to prove two axioms of modern feminism that will prevent any real progress for women as long as they persist: 1) it is presented in terms of its expression in popular culture and 2) expressors of popular culture tend to be anti-woman.
No one does more harm to women than stupid women and men who call themselves feminists. Journalism is notorious to insiders for the unsisterly attitudes of successful women toward their female colleagues. Mary McGrory’s gracious dismissal of CNN’s intrepid correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who was recently engaged to State Department spokesman James Rubin, “I know you,” she purred, “you’re Jamie’s girl”, was only a rare public example of the kind of pulling-up-the-ladder cattiness that pervades the business.
McGrory is at least sensible enough to pose as a real journalist in her work, a discretion unmatched by girly writers like New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd, who allowed herself to be drawn into a scandalette over whether she did or did not throw a hissy fit over a Prada purse, finally stating publicly, “I don’t even like Prada.” The girly of the hour is Miss Nina Burleigh, the former Time White House correspondent, what are they putting in the water cooler over there?, who confessed in Mirabella magazine to having felt “incandescent” when caught in the president’s undiscriminating high beams. Burleigh’s public squealing, sighing, and power-lusting did not stop her from whining about her subsequent press treatment in the New York Observer, noting that former friend Dowd had pinpointed her, Burleigh, as “one of the women Maureen considers responsible for the death of feminism,” and primping, “For the record, I’m a brunette.”
Most of the information Americans get about feminism comes to us by way of media’s most flagrant pin-ups: female pop stars from Madonna to the Spice Girls to L7, whose very existence in the male-dominated music world is burdened with baggage; academicians such as Katie “Rape-Schmape” Roiphe and Camille Paglia, full of tantalizing but garbled theories on feminism and sexuality; and lip-smacking fictional creations that make conveniently absorbent straw women. Asking the public to respond to these exceptions and anomalies is a diversion technique picked up from politics, where contention over subjects like flag burning is turned into national conflagration so we won’t have the mental space to think about the fact that some Republicans are trying to do away with public education. Distract the people with a shiny thing, ooh, look, it’s Ally McBeal!, and we’ll gamely start batting at it, forgetting just how many cents on the male dollar woman are making.
Ally McBeal is the brainstorm of that dangerous man, the TV producer and self-professed feminist David E. Kelley. The character’s thumb-sucking, toe-digging, knock-kneed behavior; her obsession with a hunky ex; her parodic desire for a baby; her do-me office wear; her whining, neediness, and emotional infantilism should give the lie to the notion that she’s a feminist icon. But people still argue about her relative value to women because Kelley has positioned his fawnlike heroine as a realistic and positive embodiment of the ’90s Woman. Buy the character, buy the psychological accessories Kelley has assigned to her, although they’re made for a different doll entirely.
British novelist Helen Fielding may have been over her head when offered a chance to turn her weekly Independent column, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” into a book. This gossamer look into the minor modern obsessions of a 30ish unmarried Londoner, her daily caloric intake, number of cigarettes smoked, and progress report on the potential bed partner of the moment, has insurmountable problems built into it, most of them literary. British bad-boy novelist Will Self complained that calorie counting and smoking make for trivial literature, which is truish if not quite the point. A distinct whiff of sour grapes hangs over this remark; after all, Self was the hot young book thing du jour whom Fielding (along with her pal Nick Hornby) recently displaced. Whatever one thinks of the book’s content, let’s just say she’s Cinderella with incipient lung cancer, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a structural house of cards. But Miss Jones is, like Miss McBeal, discussed in terms of her emotional nutrition value for female consumers. It’s as if the function of entertainment is different for women, who need to learn and profit from a series of role models, while men can enjoy and then discard books and television shows.
All of these single ladies on the rampage, flirty pop songs, and dirty books posing as empowerment texts make for sexy cover stories and heated talk at in-the-know dinner parties, but none of it is real. In a culture whose intellectual stratum has acknowledged its own shallowness, shallowness is now mistaken for intellect, or at least meaning. As long as the measure of a person’s feminist allegiance is the degree to which she likes Ally McBeal, no solid advancements in equality, heck, parity, are likely. In the meantime, real people, like the “hard, strident feminist of the ’60s and ’70s”, Kelley’s phrase from Time, have been shoved to the back burner to burble apologies: My Mother Worked and I Came Out Okay cringes one book title in the self-help section. Sisters, we must band together, shoulder to sh, ooh, look, Ginger Spice nude pictures in Penthouse.