Feminism 3.0: Women and Media

Women working for social change have consistently looked to media as a powerful way to bring female voices and struggles forth, whether through billboard "liberation," appearances on national news or feminist video art. With today's expansion into mobile, shareable media, female filmmakers especially use the internet as one big "indie TV channel" where they can speak out to a large public, skipping over the years of festival circuitry and involvement in the commercial film industry otherwise necessary to being highly recognized.

Independent media supposedly eschews this world of profit values in order to communicate in a more free, honest, and genuine manner. But, as a female indie filmmaker/feminist activist, I have experienced sexism, aversion to "the f-word" -- usually predicated on assumptions that feminists are either mean-spirited men-haters or naïve pot-smokers -- and bureaucratic coldness like that found within the commercial film industry amongst colleagues and independent media makers. And what upsets me most is that the majority of these experiences have happened with other women. Why?

The Western mindset of individualism as the road to power, as the path to getting one's voice heard -- even to the culturally-classic "maternal" goal of bettering the world, which requires power and getting one's voice heard -- leads to isolation and tremendous amounts of singular work and struggle. As we each strive to make "my project" the one that "makes a difference," we reject feminist group identity for individual "success" and push our quests for respect, confidence and legitimacy into private and internal realms where they become impossible one-woman efforts.

Whether a grip, CEO or teen playing with a camera, the effects of our media will be greater with collaboration. Since combined efforts of individuals can change society if we cooperate on the social change work we are currently attempting separately society will be forced to respect and value our messages. First, we must respect and value each other.

Where Feminism Has Gone (Wrong)

Many people believe that feminism is over because the Vice President of Google* is a woman -- that gender equality has been reached -- and that by harping on women's rights, activists are actually hindering the chance for women to simply be treated as human beings. However, in my experiences from offices to conferences, my colleagues' experiences from the catwalk to the cutting-room, I say that feminism should not call victory so easily. (Watch Google's Vice President, Sheryl Sandberg, speak on today's incomplete "equity" and her confidence in user-generated content.)

The sexual, financial, and social freedoms women may enjoy today are the outcome of two generations of feminism. But ironically, in realizing the beginnings of the power and autonomy past feminists fought for, we have gained autonomy from each other and a distaste for feminism, losing community. (Hear author Deborah Siegel talk about feminism's rifts and universal hopes over the generations.) Women lash out against feminism, asking, "Why can't I like lipstick and sports? Why can't I be a mother and a CEO?" We want it all. And why shouldn't we?

While the prior generations' feminists may have found strength in sisterhood as they rallied politically, today's woman struggles to enact her empowerment individually, trying to seize every avenue open to her. "Wanting it all" has transformed into a tacit social understanding that we must be and do it all. We want to be pretty and smart. Powerful but not a bitch. Sexy but respected. But this conflation of "empowerment" with "being and doing it all" is harmful.

When I think of all the women I know and have crossed paths with, I see how we exhaust and even physically injure ourselves trying to reach this near impossible goal of existing as opposites, and incredulously (and in some cases, jealously) wonder how on earth the women around us seem to be pulling it all off. (Read Courtney E. Martin's book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.) Whether shying away from the "feminist" label or not, we women are constantly comparing ourselves to each other; increasing competition. Instead of finding inspiration in fellow females' achievements, we add them to our own lists of things to accomplish. Where is the empowerment to be one's self, to speak out frankly, in all this pressure? Where is the camaraderie and partnership building that can result in social change?

Swimming with the Sharks

Through my experiences with women in media, I have seen that hard, cold, and egocentric behaviors are not inherently male, but simply oppressive ways of being that anyone in power might adopt. I have come to believe that we are mistakenly perpetuating the value system that we sought to dissolve. In trying to liberate ourselves from the supposed "female" roles and characteristics that suppress us (i.e. the all-forgiving, timid, nurturing mother/wife/family chef and maid), we have taken on the roles and qualities associated with patriarchy that we blamed for holding us down.

When we fit into these suits, we alienate ourselves from each other and from our selves. When women's efforts to change female life (or change the world) are halted by other women who harbor the "I worked hard to get here so you will too" attitude, we let our disenchantment with going it alone -- the solo endeavor to gain individual recognition and financial security -- prevent our ultimate goals of a just and healthy world.

Women need to stop seeing each other as competition in the way of the powerful male world.

We need to stop feeling that we must be perfect to deserve our power.

We need to recognize that our overall hopes and goals are the same, and stop the entanglement in identity politics that blinds us to this fact.

Why is feminism the new "f-word?" Why don't we call films that affect the public "chick flicks?" While we're so busy combating the unrealistic, damaging portrayals of gender on the screen and page, behind the scenes we often treat each other with little respect and interest, when really, we need to recognize each other as sisters in the same fight -- a fight that will go nowhere if we continue as individuals championing personal causes.

What kind of change might we make if we took a more communal perspective? I am not advocating a complete subjugation of the individual but am suggesting a balance, where individual outlets and collaborative power could coincide. Jack Lemmon used to say (according to Kevin Spacey) that those at the top must send the elevator back down; positive mainstream changes will occur when women in recognized powerful roles are open to the queries and efforts of women "below" them, and women of all kinds look at each other as allies, not as competition to achieving their goals (or even to snagging that cute someone at a bar).

Come Together

It is true that there are not enough women recognized as having power, but that does not mean we do not have power. For a social shift to happen, the world needs to hear many voices banding together: media-makers should commit to using collaboration to foster social change. When we welcome diverse feminist identities into our work -- "feminists" in my book are people, including men!, who think women deserve respect as humans -- the message that women's needs and rights are still not met on a global scale becomes much harder to ignore.

Your actions now will come back to you in wonderful and unexpected ways later -- I have experienced this!

I challenge us all to set collaboration as a new indie media standard: find the potential ally in each new contact. When we regard each other as members of a team rather than as competitors, our individual aims will have farther reach and deeper impact.

Ways that we can come together to make positive change

  • Be willing to promote projects you admire and value along with your own.
  • Create events and tools that help media-makers work together.
  • Be part of events that celebrate how media on various themes are related.
  • Be yourself, even when you're "networking!"
  • Throw house parties to bring together people who genuinely care about the power of media to affect social change -- and who actually want to meet each other.
  • Involve yourself in blogging and online media communities to help change public apathy to empathy and action.
  • Keep your colleagues in mind as you work, and take the brief seconds necessary to forward pertinent information such as grant and job openings, articles and so on.
  • If someone contacts you for suggestions and assistance, help them.
  • Continue to reach out in this collaborative manner to organizations and individuals whose work you respect, even if their shell is hard to crack.

Strong organizations who value communal perspective

*Sheryl Sandberg is leaving her post at Google to be the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook as of March 24, 2008.

This article was originally published on MediaRights.org, a project of Arts Engine, Inc.

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