The Feminine Mistake

Several years ago a woman I met at a writers' soirée tried to calf-rope me into saying I was a feminist. She argued that as long as I didn't disagree with some basic feminist precepts -- independence, gender equality, equal pay -- I was a feminist by deductive reasoning. She made it sound like the whole thing was a matter of being on a certain street whose name changed in the middle of town but whose course and scenery essentially didn't.

I argued back that while I may be feminist I was not a feminist, in the same way that I admire certain trappings of the Catholic Church, but that doesn't make me a Catholic. To me feminism was a culture and belief system that regarded liberation as breaking free of housewifery and sexual servitude -- a worthy idea, yet one that felt limited to affluent, bored-housewife types like Betty Friedan who had reached the presumed pinnacle of female existence in the late 1950s and early '60s and found no there there.

It was a journey many black women of the period had never taken, in part because they didn't have the means, but more because they were not regarded as archetypal American women whose observations and grievances might be specific to a generation, to say nothing of a gender. Whatever blues they had were confined to music and various tributaries of popular culture -- affecting as the music might have been, entertaining as it certainly was, it just wasn't real.

Just as well. Black women had much to break free of in the '50s (and the '40s, '30s and well before, and after), but housewifery was not at the top of their list. They were still working on making families solvent, a hell of a thing to do when blacks were systematically locked out of trade unions and every other kind of economic largesse upon which the American dream and its related suburban fantasies had been built, until that dream became institutionalized enough to prompt a critical re-examination by Friedan and her fledgling feminist ilk. Black women, still in the thick of their own ancient struggle with race, could offer agreement at best and honest indifference at worst -- what had white women and their problems to do with us? White women weren't exactly clamoring to include black women before me in the first new freedom movement; that the woman at the party was clamoring to include me some 30 years later moved me not at all. I was busy.

But lately I've been wondering if feminism has finally caught up with me, or I with it. I recently surprised myself by reacting with equal parts visceral and intellectual disgust to a newpaper photo of a young woman in a bikini, mouth agape, tongue poised and ample tanned cleavage riding strategically below the banner headline Girls Gone Wild! Maybe it's the new global order breaking down old distances, but I began to wonder in earnest, as Friedan had, what being a woman means these days.

In the age of post-post-feminism, we appear to be completing a circle that started out with the simple enough idea of rejecting the notion of women as objects and is now embracing that same objectification so long as women are in control of it -- following the old social-psychology reasoning that says a stereotype is best exploded if victims of the stereotype can claim it for themselves (see tortured musings on the use of the word nigger among black people for background).

The trouble is, for all that a woman may believe she's liberating herself by dressing skimpily and going wild in public, the public believes no such thing. A "liberated" woman still reads as a slut, whether she's slutty or not; unless the woman is Madonna, whose calculated hedonism has always been more about aggression than acquiescence, the overwhelming point is still her nakedness, not the purpose or symbolic meaning of it. (I made an issue of this in a story I wrote some years back called "The Butt," in which I proposed a black woman could never be skimpily dressed without being considered a 'ho -- we suffer more intensely from objectification than our white counterparts because of the extra, damning dimensions of race.)

Yet many women insist that this sort of turnabout is the ultimate progress, that the old rules are not being re-embraced but, to the contrary, are getting stood on their heads. Displaying décolletage is no longer playing to male whims but expressing empowerment, self-fulfillment and daring fashion sense; hunting for a man is not a desperate act but taking charge; being a housewife and mother is no longer confinement but the ultimate valid, and validating, choice. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and everything they do short of prostitution has great potential for affirmation. This all feels to me less like a second revolution than a shift in perspective -- the landscape's the same, we've only decided to view it differently.

I have to say that as a career African-American (and a pretty astute motorist), I've gotten expert at seeing through the rhetoric and high-sounding language to a rocky bottom that, alas, changes little over time. Though I wouldn't equate the black freedom movement to the feminist movement -- women as an oppressed group have actually made more gains than blacks in a shorter amount of time -- I would say that feminists, like lots of other groups on the left these days, are in the middle of a grave identity crisis.

Pubescent girls want to be most like Britney Spears, she of the trademark cleavage and definitive new album that features a cut called "I'm a Slave 4-U" -- what else? -- now on a music-video channel near you. Martha Stewart's a millionaire, but she made her millions doing the very happy-homemaker thing that Betty White savaged so neatly on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that beacon of feminist pop culture, not 30 years ago. MTM's contemporary corollary, the Lifetime channel, has round-the-clock "television for women," but many of its original movies are melodramas focused on obsessive relationships with men, kidnapped babies, the secret lives of madams -- about as original as the soap bubbles women used to generate watching this kind of stuff back in the days of Friedan. Even the one Lifetime show I watch regularly, Any Day Now, seems to be losing the political and racial edge that made it stand out to softer and more romantic story lines. While I'm glad the black character, played by Lorraine Toussaint, is being given a life beyond her activist-lawyer status -- now that's progress -- I don't see why she can't date and slay the demons of race in court at the same time. Aren't we entitled at this point to have it all, too?

All right, so I'm a feminist. For the moment. Maybe my real beef is with the whole American youth culture that has reached the limits of its illogic and officially frozen female maturity at 25 and our dress size at 4: There are no more viable women anymore, only viable girls. But it's hard to raise a protest when we've all acclimated so well to this. Oprah, the high priestess of self-acceptance and one of the richest and most influential people in the country, shed 20 pounds on the orders of Vogue magazine so she could appear on its cover a few years ago.

Neither am I above my own complaints; many's the morning I've frittered away in pursuit of something in my closet that didn't make me look fat, or flat-chested, or unfashionable, or -- God forbid -- old. It's sobering to think that I sometimes couldn't seem to make it to the office at all, where I am paid to sit and employ all the intellect I can muster on a daily basis, until I was dressed right. Harriet Tubman, not to mention Betty Friedan, would have my head.

Worse, if I'm lucky enough to make it out the door in an ensemble I like, I worry immediately what the world will think of it, especially the male world, whose reaction is still my barometer for determining if what I have on is too sexy, and therefore inappropriate, for polite society. I can close my ears, but more often I've headed back home in the middle of the day, chastised by the same snug jeans or sheer blouse that felt so triumphant in the solitude of my bedroom.

If getting hooted at on the street is supposed to be taken as less of an insult and more of a compliment to our post-post-feminist confidence, I'm woefully out of step with the times. Which is as it should be -- black people by historical definition have always been on a different social trajectory than everybody else. But, speaking merely as a woman, I wish I weren't: I don't really mind confessing in the end to a bit of envy of the Girl Gone Wild, who glories in her exposure and just doesn't give a damn if the world rushes in -- feminists, oglers, racial fetishists and whoever else. I should be so liberated.

Erin Aubry Kaplan writes for the LA Weekly, where this article first appeared.

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