Friday, April 27, 2007

Feminism 2.0

There have been a good few articles or TV programmes lately that highlight the stigma the the word "feminism" has among a surprisingly large number of girls and women. The tired old "I'm not a feminist, but" prefix that so many girls use without thinking pretty much sums it up. I certainly used it a good deal when I was a teenager, as did most of my female friends. It roughly translated as, "I'm not a whingeing do-gooder who wears an iron chastity belt and never has any fun, but..." Feminism was in need of a makeover for my generation, and I wonder if it has finally arrived.

Last week, Jessica Valenti of wrote a piece for The Guardian - in manifesto format, no less - where she laid out some basic, immediate, obvious reasons why being a feminist is not only smart, but cool. She's even written a book about this, couching it in terms that teenage girls can relate to, which has got to be the most important age at which to educate about feminist values. With all the "hairy man-hater" (as Valenti puts it) stereotypes that abound about feminists, only the most mature, confident and self-possessed teenage girl is going to be able to stand up and call herself one. Once you're into your 20s and you've "found yourself" it's much easier to take a feminist stand on political and social issue just because it makes so much sense and has such a huge impact on your personal freedoms. But as a 16-year-old? Most girls at that age are too preoccupied with losing their virginity or getting their crush to notice them to question their self-respect.

Valenti says that she has "wanted to write the book I wish I'd read as a teenager" on why feminism matters to everyday life. I haven't read the book yet, but I intend to, and will post a review here when I do. I've got high hopes, but at the same time I'm ALL too aware of how difficult it is to get the average teen to take this kind of thing seriously and without labelling it as (a) boring, (b) stuffy,(c) irrelevant and, worst of all, (d) uncool. It's got to be presented so, so carefully, because even if a girl reads it and secretly agrees with what's written, if she thinks she'll get laughed at by showing it to her friends, she never ever will. And then the message will be lost. That's how fragile teen girl confidence is.

It may sound silly, but another reason that I think feminism may be getting slowly easier to sell to the younger generation is down to the likes of Beth Ditto. I have no idea how cool The Gossip are among high school kids in Britain, even less so among their North American counterparts, but the last time I glanced through a copy of NME in Borders, they were plastered all over it, so I imagine they must be somewhat popular among people under the age of 21.

During the reign of the Spice Girls and their so-called Girl Power, how likely were we to see someone like Ditto - an overweight lesbian from a poor single-parent upbringing - actually managing to make it in mainstream pop? That's right, n.e.v.e.r. Don't ask me what has changed since, but the fact that Ditto (or the Scissor Sisters' lovely matriarch Ana Matronic, for that matter) is right there in the face of every kid who watches Popworld or CD:UK sends out a huge, screaming message to girls that it's okay to be different - people will still like and respect you in a way that a well-meaning school counsellor wouldn't have a prayer of achieving*. And speaking of counselling, Ditto has just launched her own fortnightly advice column in G2. A pity it's not in CosmoGirl or Heat or any other of those poisonous beauty/celeb rags aimed at teen girls, but it's a start nonetheless.

* It might not sound like feminism in itself, but it's an important step towards girls being able to stand up for who they are and question unthinking conformity. Once you have that, it's a lot easier to be confident enough to start standing up for other girls who are also struggling with questions of personal identity and freedoms. And then, hey presto, you can call yourself a feminist. With bells on.


At April 28, 2007 2:12 pm, Blogger Graeme said...

But isn't riot grrl more or less analogous to this? Of course Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear or Heavens to Betsy weren't all over the covers of magazines, but they were in Sassy Magazine and a lot of girls read that.

I'm the first to admit that I'm out of touch with youth culture (I recently bought a hip hop CD because it got a good review in the fucking Guardian--how pathetic is that?) but I have to wonder if there's anything quite like the underground music (well, mainly punk) scene of 90s now? By that, I mean music that was to a large extent explicitly political, whether that was Bikini Kill or Los Crudos or Chokehold or whoever. The music itself isn't going to change much, but it is an effective tool to politicise young people--it certainly worked that way with me--and I think it would be a shame if there wasn't anything equivalent to that now.

At April 30, 2007 9:54 am, Blogger Little Atoms said...

How many people really read Sassy, Graeme? I certainly only recall it as being a distant dream for most of my female friends as a teen - something you'd heard about but had zero access to.

being optimistic, people like Beth Ditto, Karen O, even Lily Allen do present role models for girls being cool and conscious on their own terms, which is great. But again, I'm now at the age where if I actually approached a teenager to ask them about all this, I'd get arrested.

Speaking of being out of touch and all that, CD:UK hasn't been on for years, Lady M.

At April 30, 2007 4:43 pm, Blogger Lady M said...

"Years"? "Out of touch"??... Are you sure, Little Atoms? I'm sure it was only a year or so ago that I last heard that stupid whispering logo thing they used at every advert break. What can I say, I've lost interest in this country's pop music TV programmes (on terrestrial, anyway) ever since Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver left Popworld. The new girl is very cute, granted, but it's all so much recycled starry-eyed pap. We deserve better!

As for Sassy, if I recall correctly, Graeme has spent some years living in North America, where I imagine it was much more easily available than in Britain or Ireland (I should know, but to my shame I was always more of a Seventeen girl myself).

I have to say I laughed out loud when I saw your hip-hop/Guardian comment, Graeme. So true! And I'm not even 30 yet, Jesus, what's happened to me.

As for Riot Grrl, no, I don't think you can compare the kind of music coming out by the ladies listed above, simply because what's coming out now is aimed at a much wider audience and is therefore more accessible. I really do think that makes a difference. The aim isn't necessarily to politicise, at least not right away, it's to empower and project a message of self-confidence. It speaks to girls on a much more basic level.

Not every teenager in the 90s was listening to Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy, simply because it was never on mainstream radio, and unless you were blessed with in-the-know older siblings or happened to grow up in NYC or London or wherever, Top 40 radio was practically all you got. It's easier to access music from "politicised" bands these days thanks to the internet and whatnot, but I would hazard a guess and say that most kids are still going to stick within the confines of what's popular, at least to begin with. So the fact that there is more mainstream pop and rock music around that is made by strong, confident women who don't fit the traditional popstar mould is, well, a step in the right direction.

(And the sub-editor in me remains stubbornly suspiscious of any movement that relies on deliberate misspellings to prove a point. Unfortunately there tend a be a few of these within the feminist movement, what with "grrls", "womyn" and so on. Tsk.)

At April 30, 2007 8:42 pm, Blogger Graeme said...

Little Atoms, I'm a Canadian currently living in Britain and so I'm talking about North America with regard to Sassy--I have no knowledge about British teen magazines in the 90s. In any case, it was widely read--not more so than Seventeen or other teen magazines--but it was in the mainstream.

Lady M, you're absolutely right that it's a tremendous step in the right direction that empowered, strong, and self-confident women seem to be more in the mainstream than they were. I'd like to see a more explicitly feminist orientation to this, but it's a good start. In any case, it gives young women a place to start. Young men...that's a can of worms I don't want to open now.

Also, Simon Amstell is a genius.


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