By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Several years ago a woman I met at a writers’ soiree 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, like Normandie turning into Irolo or little Santa Monica into Burton Way. 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 Weekly cover 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 decolletage 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. Normandie became Irolo for no good reason, and despite the same profusion of office towers and pokey traffic, we’re declaring it a new street.