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Feminism for Sale

In the year 2000, after decades of wrangling with the myth of the ugly, hirsute, ball-busting women's libber, the culture has finally seemed to reconcile beauty and power, fun and feminism. But like so many other cease-fires in our society, this one was negotiated largely in the marketplace.
 
 
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You know her, the millennial urban liberated career chick. At least, you've seen her reflections -- in Bridget Jones well-meaning ditzy neurosis, in Sex in the City's mix of hard-edged libidinous glam and jazz-tinged wistfullness, in truckloads of randy female sex columnists and insouciant girl-power zines like Bust and Maxi. In the year 2000, after decades of wrangling with the myth of the ugly, hirsute, ball-busting women's libber, the culture has finally seemed to reconcile beauty and power, fun and feminism.

Like so many other cease-fires in our society, this one was negotiated largely in the marketplace. This new, shopping-and-fucking feminism is so ubiquitous right now in part because it jibes precisely with the message of consumer society, that freedom means more -- hotter sex, better food, ever-multiplying pairs of Manolo Blahniks shoes, drawers full of Betsey Johnson skirts, Kate Spade bags and MAC lipsticks.

It's easy-to-swallow feminism, feminism that encourages you to pamper yourself and get rid of guilt and waltz through life like Audrey Hepburn in "How to Steal a Million." Built on affirmations -- "You go, girl! Work it!" -- it doesn't make you feel bad about your vanity, as 70s feminism sometimes did, or hypocritical if you watch porn or wear glitter eyeshadow and miniskirts. It admits that consumer culture is often pleasurable and rewarding.

"I love clothes, I love the way they make me feel, I love makeup," says Janelle Brown, a senior technology writer at Salon who co-founded the online feminist zine Maxi. "I also don't let anyone step on me. I hold my own. There are things that I do that are stereotypically feminine, and there are things that I do that are completely unstereotypically feminine. I write about fashion and I write about geek stuff. I think that's what all women should be looking to do -- finding a balance between consumerism and feminism and recognizing that it's really hard to reject the basis of America. Fuck, we're based on capitalism. It's very hard to reject everything that that stands for and still live in America, so why not understand what it all means and figure out where your personal place in it is, without having to be one thing or the other?"

Thus Maxi combines articles about sexual harassment and updates on Norplant litigation with odes to hair products. In a piece about Vain, makers of Dirty Boy Dirty Girl hair goo and 2nd Day Shampoo "for marginally clean hair," Maxi editor Rosemary Pepper writes, "A little vanity goes a long way. Why not embrace your products, take a fashion risk, get out and have some fun with your looks? Don't get carried away, of course -- Narcissism is bad; it implies tunnel-vision and you may face evil mythical consequences. But on the other hand, a little vanity is good; it implies an appreciation of one's own image and lends a certain respect to viewers."

Many middle-class girls, no matter how serious or ambitious, can relate to this, which is what makes it so enticing. Go ahead, it seems to say, indulge yourself, treat yourself right. After all, we have a whole culture that tortures women with guilt; the last thing we need is a feminism that condemns our pleasures. "Unlike our feminist foremothers, who claimed that makeup was the opiate of the misses, we're positively prochoice when it comes to matters of feminine display," writes Debbie Stoller in "The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order," a compendium of Bust articles published last year (which, full disclosure, contains a piece by me.) "We're well aware, thank you very much, of the beauty myth that's working to keep women obscene and not heard, but we just don't think that transvestites should have all the fun. We love our lipstick, have a passion for polish, and, basically, adore this armor that we call 'fashion.' To us, it's fun, it's feminine, and, in the particular way we flaunt it, it's *definitely* feminist."

Who'd want to argue with this, to come out against beauty and adornment? Making feminism sexy has been a PR coup. Yet pieces like this one also second the culture at large, which is always urging us towards splurging, condemning thrift in the name of instant gratification. When consumerism is integrated into feminism, it dilutes one of our last bulwarks against full-bore materialism. The new, user-friendly feminism is delightful to partake of because it's always more enjoyable to go with the flow and revel in the world we have instead of yearning for the one we don't. Sadly, though, it makes it harder and harder to transcend the status quo, to resist the heady, pacifying pull of acquisition. Let yourself go, buy it, make yourself feel better -- the message is coming from all quarters now.

Feminism's latest incarnation is in many ways a direct reaction to its last one. The book that spurred the second wave of feminism, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," was a critique of a suffocating society that gave women little to do except shop. "One suddenly sees why manipulators cater to sexual hunger in their attempt to sell products which are not even remotely sexual," Friedan wrote. "As long as women's needs for achievement and identity can be channeled into this search for sexual status, she is easy prey for any product which presumably promises her that status -- a status that cannot be achieved by effort or achievement of her own. And since that endless search for status as a desirable sexual object is seldom satisfied in reality for most American housewives (who at best can only try to *look* like Elizabeth Taylor), it is very easily translated into a search for status through the possession of objects."

Consumerism created a tidy prison for women, and the 70s feminists wanted to bust out. "Friedan's 'Feminine Mystique' was a diagnosis of mass culture, pop psychology, women's magazines and advertising," says Susan Faludi, author of 1992's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." Friedan's book, she says, threw down the gauntlet before commercialism, "saying women are upset in this era because the commercial culture is trying to tell them that they should find meaning and happiness in the goods they buy, and that's a crock. Huge numbers of women responded to that." Some of the most popular, resonant feminist actions of the 60s and 70s -- like the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant and the sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal -- were direct challenges to consumerism. "On a very deep level, to re-embrace the commercial culture is to betray the agenda of the modern women's movement," says Faludi.

The thing is, by the 90s many younger women felt that the women's movement had betrayed them. Seventies feminism was perceived -- however unfairly -- as frowning dourly on makeup, romance and shopping, all real pleasures in many women's lives. In 1993 Naomi Wolf published "Fire with Fire," which castigated what she called "victim" feminists and urged a new power feminism that embraced beauty, sex and men, proclaiming "male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom." In a similar vein, Katie Roiphe indicted campus women's studies departments for inciting anti-sex hysteria. "The feminists around me created their own rigid orthodoxy," Roiphe wrote in her notorious 1994 book about date-rape hysteria, "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism." "In this era of Just Say No and No Means No, we don't have many words for embracing experience. Now instead of liberation and libido, the emphasis is on trauma and disease. Now the idea of random encounters, of joyful, loveless sex, raises eyebrows. The possibility of adventure is clouded by the specter of illness. It's a difficult backdrop for conducting one's youth."

This feeling that the women's movement had grown stagnant and puritanical spawned a new strain of feminism, one that surveyed at all the sex and pleasure that can be eked out of our world and said, resoundingly, yes, yes, yes! "YES" was the title of Tad Friend's infamous 1994 Esquire article on "do me" feminism, a piece which, however shot through with snide prurience and wishful thinking, captured the new hedonistic vibe in the movement. Bust praised now-defunct Sassy Magazine for understanding that "being independent is a cool thing, that girls make great friends, that boys are only part of the story, that the way you look doesn't matter all that much and that beauty comes in many shapes and colors, that you buy clothes because it's fun to buy things you like, fun to listen to music that floats your boat, excellent super fun to say yes to cute boys, yes to wild car rides, and yes to life." "Yes is a '90s thing" is the headline of a story from the online zine Maxi's Power Issue.

If this relatively new, amorphous but deliriously affirmative movement has a house organ, it's Bust, a zine founded in 1992 by Debbie Stoller and Marcelle Karp. Full of images of campy 50s pin-up girls and downtown rocker chicks and stories about strong, brilliant women alongside first-person narratives both humorous and heart-rending, Bust feels like the coolest slumber party in the world. While old-school feminism rejected the trappings of traditional femininity, Bust celebrates them as the totems of girl culture, arguing that they have been unfairly devalued by the patriarchy. The writers are grateful and admiring of what second wave feminists accomplished, but now, says Karp, "We're saying stop taking our fun away from us, stop taking away our candy and our toys and stop making us feel guilty about liking Barbie dolls and liking stilettos."

In certain ways, this ethos was born with the riot grrls, who reclaimed and revalued the detritus of female childhood -- barrettes, frilly dresses, pigtails -- all while letting loose torrents of hot, long-simmering rage. Bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear used punk to express what Carol Gilligan argued in her 1993 book "In a Different Voice" -- that American girls started out strong and confident, only to have their self-esteem eviscerated by overwhelming sexist pressures in adolescence. The audacious, pre-lapsarian girls Gilligan idealized became icons to a new generation of feminists. "Gilligan's study touched a nerve because it felt so right, making public something women had always known but had never quite been able to put their fingers on: that we had all been devilish little imps as children, who had clipped our own wings to fit into the portrait of a lady that was expected of us as adults," Stoller wrote in the Bust book.

The solidarity of girlhood friendships became a new model for feminist bonding, updating the older idea of consciousness-raising sessions. "For women of the Third Wave a good dinner party (or any gathering of women) is just as likely to be a place to see politics at work as is a rally," write Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in their recent book about new-school feminism, "Manifesta." They continue, "This need to get together for girl talk begins over soggy Tater Tots in the grade-school cafeteria, continues through endless confabs on the phone or on the sports team during high school, and is grabbed throughout adulthood in book clubs or beauty parlors, while lifting weights at the gym or running through Target or at work." Similar but more frivolous notions seeped into the mainstream as the Oxygen Network -- the women's Internet and cable channel -- hosted a talk show called "Pajama Party" where everyone wore nighties.

The underlying idea, that girl is good, is powerful. Women's magazines were quick to see that a version of feminism that celebrates the joys of shopping and primping is highly marketable. Jane Pratt, hailed as a girlie goddess for helming Sassy, launched Jane, with mixed feminism-lite, a highly confessional, colloquial voice, lots of sex articles and endless lists of things to buy. Then, this year, came Lucky, also headed by a Sassy alumna, Kim France. Billing itself as "the first magazine devoted exclusively, singularly, and fabulously to shopping," Lucky is where the girlie ethos reaches its absurd apogee. The almost article-free magazine presents itself as a fun, childlike refuge for the hardworking, liberated career woman. "I'd like you to think of *Lucky* as your personal shopping playground, overseen by that one friend who knows exactly which jeans are the most butt flattering; who will push you to try a color you're a little afraid of, or embrace a trend that seems just a bit too *too* for you to pull off," France writes in one editor's letter. The language is identical to much of that in Bust and Maxi -- "Embrace your products!" "Give us back our toys!" Inside the magazine is a page of prettily colored stickers to mark coveted items inside. A few say "Maybe?," but most, of course, scream, "Yes!"

Perhaps it's unfair to hold a consumer magazine out as evidence of an ideological failure. After all, it was certainly ridiculous when Time magazine juxtaposed a flighty TV character, Ally McBeal, with feminist pioneers like Susan B. Anthony to spuriously argue that feminism was withering. "Lucky is a catalogue under the guise of a magazine, an opportunity for Conde Nast employees to get lots of free stuff and do well with their advertisers," says Karp. "Lucky doesn't care about any kind of feminism."

This is true. But when Lucky uses the airy rhetoric of some new-school feminism, it's not just cynical appropriation. In many ways, Lucky's message and Maxi's message mesh, which is why France can frame it as a rejuvenating, girlie diversion from the battle for justice. As she says in an editors letter in Lucky's first issue, "[O]n days that are like most days in my life so far -- days when I don't settle the conflict in Kosovo, win the lottery, or establish a system of economic and social opportunity that creates true equality for all -- I'm willing to settle for the very real joy that there is to be had in finding the perfect kitten-heel pump."

Lucky addresses an archtypical women that's been constructed throughout the 90s, an image molded in the crucible of do-me, girlie and power feminism, re-appropriation and playful, self-conscious infantalization. This woman is horny, impetuous, tempestuous, sharp-witted, giggly and supremely self-indulgent. She's easy to relate to, reveling in contradictions and taking her pleasure where she can find it. She's also the ideal consumer.

Not all feminists see a problem with this. Speaking about Prada's new astronomically expensive lip gloss, Brown says, "We have to examine why we should be rejecting the $30 lip gloss. The really cynical reason is that someone's selling us something we don't need for too much money. A different side of that is that I buy that lip gloss and put it on and it makes me feel good. It's a different kind of therapy that a lot of women have felt guilty about because of feminism."

Lisa Miya-Jervis, Ms. Magazine contributor and editor of the zine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, argues that it's not feminism that's made women feel guilty, but the mainstream's demonization of feminism. "To say that feminists can be sexy and wear makeup is in some sense part of the backlash against feminism. Feminists have always been sexy and worn makeup," she says. "It's all well and good to say, 'I'm a feminist and I can wear lipstick, and consumption is fun.' But I think that to say that consumption itself is a feminist act can be pretty problematic. Saying that me wearing this lipstick is feminist because I'm proving that feminists can wear lipstick is just not that helpful." Just because women now have more economic power than ever before, she says, "why should we be using it to buy trinkets?"

Faludi is somewhat baffled that younger feminists blame her generation for inducing guilt. "This idea of, 'lets re-empower ourselves by asserting that feminists don't have to feel guilty for wearing lipstick,' misses the point. Feminism was never about telling women they shouldn't wear lipstick. It was about women thinking for themselves," she says.

When younger feminists paint their embrace of fashion as a brave defiance of the old guard, they're attacking straw women, Faludi insists. "There's this notable strain of resentment and anger towards the older generation of feminists, towards the mothers, and I'm not sure it's as simple as, 'the older feminists are denying us the right to be beautiful,'" she says. "It seems to me it's a much more internalized struggle that these women are projecting out onto an older generation. It's not clear to me what the older feminists did that was so terrible that incurred their distress."

Yet the distress, she believes, is genuine. Beneath the flaunting of supposedly taboo girlie things, Faludi suggests, is something sad and forlorn, a sense of "Why did you mothers abandon us in a world where you can't function without a certain level of display, in a world where everything seems to be about appearances and your physical marketability and your glamour?" The deeper problem, Faludi says, is that women feel shopping "is supposed to be the prime experience in the culture I live in, and it's really empty and meaningless and I feel really lost. When you feel really lost and adrift it's only natural, especially if you're young, to say what happened to these older women who were supposed to pass down some kind of legacy or beacon to help me figure out how to be an adult?"

What Faludi hints at is the fact that buying expensive clothes and designer makeup rarely amounts to anything as simple as having fun. In her book "Fear of Falling," Barbara Erenreich described the deflation following the elation of spending. She was writing about suburban household goods, but it's equally true of beauty products. "Anyone who believed that his or her life would be qualitatively transformed by a walnut television console or wall-to-wall carpeting, as the advertisements insisted, would have to confront the failure of these objects every day. They were the dead residue of ambition, hope, effort, hardened into lame, unloving objects." Acquiescing to consumer culture is politically troubling -- as Faludi says, there's a whiff of "I got mine, fuck you" about it. Beyond that, though, it also leaves out those who are fundamentally disaffected by an unprecedentedly materialistic world, women who aren't about to wear hemp sacks and head to the Michigan Womyn's festival but who also feel suckered instead of satisfied after a shopping trip. For many, consumer culture is a place of desperation as much as reinvention, as anyone knows who's ever found themselves in a nauseous, hypnotic, self-loathing frenzy under the fluorescent glare of department store lights

The celebration of girlieness is nice up to a point, but eventually cute and petulant just becomes pathetic, and credit card debt turns into a crippling burden instead of a sign of adorable irresponsibility. The answer isn't to stop caring about how one looks or to declare fashion off-limits to feminists. As "Manifesta's" Jennifer Baumgardner says, the consumerist critique is often overwhelmingly aimed at women, so that "if a feminist has anything remotely hip about her, she must be totally consumerist. Feminists get judged on that level so highly, just as we get judged on everything more severely."

At the same time, it would be nice if there was a strong, cool, feminist message out there to stand against the current of consumption. One that says sure, buying those $300 boots might be fun, but for that price you could get a roundtrip ticket to Paris and have an adventure that would make you a cooler person that purchases ever could. For that matter, you could donate money to a battered women's shelter and change someone's life, which is at least as uplifting as retail therapy. Such a voice won't get the kind of play in the mainstream media that Naomi Wolf or Sex in the City does, but it needs to be louder just the same. Instead of the endlessly echoing "Yes!," we need a feminist movement that can look at materialism and say, to quote Bjork, "There's more to life than this."