Feminism in the Era of 'Girls Gone Wild'

Laura Sessions Stepp worries about young college women and fears that their much-touted sexual freedoms will damage them in the long run, making them somehow ineligible for marriage and commitment in the future. In the Valentine's Day issue of the Washington Post, where Stepp hangs her journalist hat, she wrote a long piece bemoaning how college women were ruining their chances of attaining decent marriages by putting off the hard work of dating, instead replacing it with low-maintenance "hooking up." The blame for this sorry state of womanhood lay with overt ambition, according to Stepp, who quoted one young woman after another who refused to waste time and energy on romantic entanglements, preferring to concentrate on their studies and extracurricular activities.

Naturally, Stepp's rampage against the anti-romance attitudes of young women netted her more than a hand-wringing article in the Washington Post. Her concern has erupted into a full-length book, titled "Unhooked." Everyone these days wants to hear how young women have lost their way, especially if the author can blame feminism for it, which Stepp does, pointing to '70s era feminist writings that argue against the compatibility of career and marriage. Hiding anxiety about women's gains behind a story about how independence turns women into sluts is a strategy that never goes out of fashion.

If this sort of anxiety about young women and sex stayed with conservatives, it would be one thing, but the practice of writing about the degraded state of young womanhood has expanded and now has also become part of feminism. The book that opened the season was Ariel Levy's "Female Chauvinist Pigs," which proposed that young women have translated the concept of sexual freedom into embracing the same misogynist version of sexuality that has been the currency in traditional porn.

Levy traced what you might call the "Girls Gone Wild" sleaze culture and documented the attempts to repackage sexual exploitation as somehow empowering. While Levy has a point that there's something ridiculous about the sleaze culture promoting itself as "empowering" for women, the alarmist concern that young women are derailing the cause has been criticized by other feminists as overstated.

There's nothing new with the argument that there's something "empowering" about rejecting feminism and peddling yourself to men for use for sex or reproduction. Crack open Susan Faludi's classic on the backlash against feminism in the '80s, and you'll see variations of that argument in every aspect of the backlash pressure. From the fashion industry to the right-wing noise machine's arguments about "natural" gender roles, Faludi detailed how proponents of the backlash endlessly argued that women are supposedly happier being more feminine and helpless, happier at home with babies, and happier without being in the male world of the rat race. The argument that women feel more empowered shaking their ass in lingerie than in drawing that man-sized paycheck in the male-dominated rat race only differs from the '80s backlash on the surface. And yet it gets mistaken for "third wave feminism" all the time.

In her New York Times article "What's Wrong With Cinderella?" Peggy Orenstein conflated the "empowerment" language with actual feminism, when she identified cultural phenomenon like "Porn Star" T-shirts and making out with your girlfriends to impress frat boys with third-wave feminism. It was a dark spot on an otherwise interesting article about the marketing pressure on young girls to play at being princesses.

Liz Funk, another self-identified feminist writer, made a big splash in Internet circles when she wrote an article also identifying young adulthood as a distressing time for women. She characterized the freedom to drink and to go to clubs as damaging and risky for women, particularly in terms of rape. The story left the same impression drawn by Laura Sessions Stepp, that the seeming gains of feminism have actually managed to hurt young women.

By realistic measures, though, feminism has been anything but a tragedy for young women. Because of feminist gains, young women now make up more than half of the students in college. The gains are reflected in law and medical schools, which are also half female now. Girls' athletics have grown exponentially since the '70s because of Title IX. The worry over young women and sex is somewhat misplaced as well, especially considering the decline in teenage pregnancies throughout the '90s, a decline that was attributable to increased contraceptive use, a huge feminist goal.

Young women growing up now have more than a few T-shirts proclaiming "Girl Power" to motivate them. Not only do they have their own accomplishments so far as a generation to look upon, but they are growing up in a world where they have an array of role models. A young woman in the "Girls Gone Wild" age bracket is going to school in an era where we have a female speaker of the House, and Katie Couric has managed to break into the authoritative position of night-time anchor. We still have a long way to go in terms of equity in numbers in prestigious positions like this, but young women these days are no longer constrained as much as women in the past by the notion that there are some jobs that are permanently closed off to women.

If young women are doing fine by themselves by picking up the books and working hard and presenting a very real challenge to male dominance, then what should we make of the "Girls Gone Wild" stereotype? The notion that college age women are wasting their potential somehow by acting like nothing more than sex objects is paralleled neatly by the notion that the kindergarten set of girls that are supposedly rejecting their feminist parents in order to embrace the fluffy princess phenomenon, pushed mostly by the Disney company. In fact, the princess marketing has something of a "gotcha" element to it, as if the miles of pink and lace present an irresistible temptation for the inner delicate flowers of young girls. The more likely story is that the relentless drumbeat of marketing the Princess line has made girls feel that they're missing out if they aren't a part of it.

The grown-up version of Disney's Princess line is the TV show "The Pussycat Dolls," where the symbol of belonging is not a pink lace princess dress, but a feather boa. Granted, the Pussycat Dolls are highly sexualized, but the marketing push is the same as the Princess line, the story being one about how women and girls find themselves irresistibly drawn away from participation in the real world and towards feminine accoutrements and being on display rather than being active. And these messages are coming, as they always have, from marketers that are more interested in protecting male privilege and making money than everything else. The co-option of words like "empowering" from feminists should be taken for what it is, a backlash wolf in feminist sheep clothing.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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