Monday, May 04, 2009

Wolf Whistles

Naomi Wolf (the author of The Beauty Myth) reviews Jennifer Scanlon's biography of Helen Gurley Brown in the Washington Post and takes that opportunity to give us a no-calories-light version of feminist history. The title of the piece summarizes it:

Who Won Feminism?
Hint: She's the diva who ran Cosmo

That's Helen Gurley Brown who supposedly advocated an exchange of dinners and trinkets for sex for single women and who also firmly believed that women can pull themselves up not so much by their bootstraps but by their garters.

Wolf implies that the Third Wave of feminism is the (slightly slutty) daughter of Helen Gurley Brown, not the daughter of the Second Wave feminists, those humorless nags with lots of armpit hair. That's evil step-mothering for you! But the bio-mom won:

And guess what? In the long battle between the two styles of feminism, Brown, for now, has won. Just look at the culture around us. Ms. Magazine, the earnest publication that defined feminism in the 1970s and '80s, has been replaced on college women's dorm room shelves by sexier, sassier updates such as Bitch and Bust. The four talented, smart -- and feminist -- women of "Sex and the City," who are intent on defining their own lives but are also willing to talk about Manolos and men, look more like Brown's type of heroine than "Sisterhood Is Powerful" readers. The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.

This quote explains why I call Wolf's views of feminist history light-and-fluffy. She replaces actual history with stereotypes that are partly the creation of anti-feminists and homophobes ("ugly feminazis just can't get laid" is not that far from the "hirsute Amazons") or with plots which make feminism harmless ("Girls Gone Wild" is not that far from "sexier and sassier"). Real feminist history is a lot more complicated, much more interesting, not that easy to plonk into simple boxes and not about the personalities of feminist women themselves. It's about the issues. It's also quite a lot harder to research.

Sigh. I come across like one of those humorless nags, don't I? I did try to write it differently, something like this:

Revolution should be fun and painless and have lots of men giving me head and you can wrench my lipstick from my cold, dead fingers, sweeties! Let's have the Chippendales come in and strip for us, ladies, while we remake the world in our image (presumably by using all the vast financial resources, political machinery and societal powers we already obviously have acquired to, say, help the women in Afghanistan).

That's still nasty. And still judgmental. Sigh. There's no hope for me. Also, I firmly believe in women's rights to be sexual creatures, in the rights of all humans to decorate themselves, to laugh and to have fun. But why should I have to choose between serious armpit hair and fun sex, hmh?

Wolf's conclusions are not bad, and she does recommend a merging of those views. She advocates combining the messages of the Second and Third Waves of feminism to create a grass-roots movement, and I'm all for such a movement. But no other social justice movement is EVER criticized for not being funny enough or sexy enough. No other social justice movement is EVER expected to sell itself in the way feminism is expected. It's as if feminism is a new pair of shoes or something; an item women can easily do without, an item they might not be able to afford (because the societal costs of being a feminist can be considerable). So the movement must sell itself, I guess.