I have been troubled more and more over the past year or so by a sense I get that this may be a very dangerous time for women. We seem to be at a point in history where many of the goals of early feminists are at least on their way to being realized. So–and I’m sure you can see the big giant caveat in what I’m about to say–as a white, educated, relatively rich woman living in the U.S., which is of course the only perspective I can credibly speak from and also the perspective from which this entire entry will necessarily be written, I find it pretty easy to make my way in the world. I can look at various aspects of my life and point to lots of concrete ways in which the feminist and civil rights movements have improved my life materially (in terms of workplace equality, access, legal recourse, and just simple ability to live day to day more or less safely and unimpeded) compared to what it would probably have been like had I been born 50 or 100 years before I was.

Again, I occupy an extremely privileged station in life. I also have no children, so I haven’t had to navigate any challenges and pitfalls that may still exist around motherhood (especially raising girls) in general, to say nothing of single motherhood. And thank god I have never been raped or otherwise sexually abused or attacked, so I haven’t needed to test the gap between today’s “enlightened” lip service and legislation, and how society actually responds to, and how well the court system actually functions to protect, rape victims. (You might say that as long as there are robust legal protections in place, it doesn’t matter if society still to this day questions, judges, disbelieves, blames, mocks, and tries to obliterate rape victims in a way so cruel and vile that just the shock of reading this entry and those that prompted it hit me like a blow to the stomach, but obviously lawyers, judges, and lawmakers are human too, and these apparently not-so-passé, not-so-“underground,” explicitly and specifically misogynistic attitudes are going to filter into how the system actually functions.)

In any case, it’s easy to see–and this is hardly an original observation; actually probably nothing in this entry is an original observation since it feels so important to me but is coming out all trite, but anyway–why young women who are privileged in similar ways to me, who are perhaps currently embarking on entry-level jobs at engineering firms or major corporations with non-discrimination policies and sensitivity awareness training once a year, or who are staying home with their children, or who are otherwise having a relatively easy time of it, might reject the feminist label and even the ideology. After all, what do they need it for?

As this complacency has set in, however, there seem to be some sinister trends afoot. Please note that the following initial list of things that concern me is wildly anecdotal and based more on “a feeling I get” than anything more concrete. But I wanted to try to explain what is contributing to my vague feeling of unease, and then flesh it out with observations from folks who I think have considered the issue and better crystallized that unease.

  • Toys, activities, and standards of behavior for little girls seem to be reverting more, not less, to traditional gender roles. “Princess” idealization, so-called junior slutwear and makeup for young girls all teach girls from a young age that traditionally-feminine behaviors and appearance are of the highest importance. Some appearance pressures are cloaked in the scaremongering of the “obesity epidemic.”
  • The “Christian” modesty backlash to provocative clothing for girls and teens (while welcome in its simplest manifestation–comfortable, modest clothes for girls) is equally troubling to me. The message of the movement seems to be that Christian boys and men are unable to control themselves, so it is the job of girls to control the level of “temptation” they present through their outward appearance. At the same time, aspects of the movement are coyly hypersexualized to as great an extent as anything in mainstream culture. What is the purpose of introducing the concept of “sexual purity,” apparently defined as “not kissing people,” to very young girls who probably weren’t putting a lot of thought into kissing or abstinence anyway until you brought it up, or wearing a t-shirt that essentially says “You’re hard for this but you can’t have it!”? At least a shirt reading “Virgins Are Hot,” described recently at Feministing, and one I swear I stumbled upon previously that said “Nada Until Yada,” seem to have disappeared. Let us pray that “Purity Balls,” and the creepy associated general concept that your dad is the “keeper” of your virginity, which IME is pretty prevalent among certain groups of young Christian women, start to go the same way.
  • The “blow job culture” among teenagers and pre-teens is really troubling to me. Messages promoting safe sex and the idea that women have a right to derive pleasure from sex have gotten through, but among girls and younger women these ideas seem to translate as “blow jobs are sex, and you’d better learn to derive pleasure from them or there’s something wrong with you.” I’m certainly not passing judgment on blow jobs or women who enjoy them (I mean, I do, although it’s a mixed bag and the nuances of that enjoyment are sort of beyond the scope of this entry). It’s the cultural trend that is disquieting.
  • Staying fit and pretty seems to still be just as much women’s “job” as it always was, but parenting and paid work are also supposed to be full-time commitments. It seems to be a given now that to get ahead, you have to look good. Whereas I think at one time that concept was subject to at least some questioning and distaste, it really doesn’t get challenged now.
  • Similarly, disliking high heels, uncomfortable or constricting fashion, or onerous beauty routines, even if you don’t make that big a deal out of it, seems to draw “lazy, hairy, man-hating whiner” accusations, from men and women alike, pretty quickly. “Opting out” of “looking good” doesn’t seem to be much of an option anymore, even among young feminists.
  • Perhaps also similarly, things like distorted, hypersexualized bodies in Second Life and CGI movies and video games, routine Photoshopping of magazine photos to remove any and all “undesirable” features, and increasing popularity of plastic surgeries seem to create the appearance of an ironclad, self-evident beauty ideal that everyone should aspire to, and empower people to judge that any given woman “needs” WLS, teeth whitening, hair extensions or highlights, waxing, a tan, a boob job, or to “get rid of” cellulite or love handles or other features that in reality you can’t “get rid of” without surgery. I’m not referring to the beauty ideal per se here, but the extension of it where we now idealize not just rare body types but literally impossible-to-attain (because they’re fake) body types.
  • Similarly again, “Maxim culture” seems to continue to influence us as a society to believe that “empowerment” consists maybe to some extent of kicking ass as a woman, but primarily of looking really sexy and giving men hard-ons while you do it.
  • People appear to know intellectually that a woman’s appearance isn’t really relevant to most topics where her work, parenting, writing, etc. are being discussed, but as The Rotund points out, they just continue to put the most misogynistic, anti-fat, ageist crap front and center at every possible opportunity when a woman is the topic of discussion. Actually that’s what’s scary to me about a lot of this stuff–by this time people know with their brains that there are trends in society that are harmful to women, but they just don’t seem to care. They view their right to see only sexually desirable women at all times as more important.
  • We seem to feel that an appropriate response to misogynistic behavior intended to provoke or annoy in the workplace (such as email forwarding of sexual jokes, or display of photos that objectify women) is to “fight fire with fire” by displaying beefcake photos ourselves, or forwarding our own sexual jokes that stereotype and objectify men instead of women.
  • The perceived “innate” differences between men and women seem to be getting more, rather than less, ingrained in our culture. As always, mention of these “differences” functions mainly to subtract weight and seriousness from women’s concerns.
  • Talk radio, especially morning comedy shows, is often extremely misogynistic, not to mention racist, and there is no indication that this is becoming less socially acceptable.
  • Essentially, it feels to me like our society has “conceded” the battleground of the workplace in bare terms of providing women equal opportunity there (and again, I can go even this far only to the extent that my own experience has borne it out–many serious human rights issues that have been mitigated for me still exist for women who are not as privileged as I am), but further burdens on women have been accumulating in the meantime, related largely to appearance, sex, and forcing women to relate in “traditionally masculine” ways that can be demeaning to women, especially at work. (Much of this can be summed up by the ubiquitous “You’re just too sensitive” accusation whenever someone is upset or offended.) I feel like I am expected to put effort into “understanding” this mode of relating and conform to it, but no corresponding increase in respect or value has accrued to “traditionally feminine” ways of relating.

So, here are the more fully-formed thoughts of people smarter than me, as promised.

First, on an episode of The Story entitled “Why I Want a Wife,” Judy Brady had the following observations as she looked back on 37 years in the women’s movement:

There are certain things that have changed for the better, but they are surface things. I don’t see… again, I have to go back to my understanding that real change for women cannot come unless there is real change for all people. And I see that as having gone backwards. We are in much worse shape now, in this country, than we were 37 years ago, in terms of numbers of people in prison, I mean there are any number of indicators you could point to. So no, I can’t say that I am encouraged. You can show me that more privileged women have more privileges. But you cannot show me that there has been a change for the country as a whole, for the better, for most of its people.

I don’t care if they [young girls] wear skirts up to their backsides, or have their overweight midriffs hanging out. That’s not my issue. That doesn’t hurt them. The [high heels] do. And yet they are embracing them. They are embracing that which causes them pain and crippling… [My daughter] saw, as a school nurse, what the young, 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old women were putting themselves through. High STD rates, high pregnancy rates, because they felt the social pressure to be, not just sexually active, but very sexually active, without, of course, any enjoyment in sex itself.

I do remember the 1950s as a really horrible time. Very repressive, right after the Second World War, when the country was pushing women back into the home so that the returning soldiers could have the jobs. But I don’t think we were in as much physical danger, if you will, from repression against women. Emotional danger, maybe.

It is hard to know how to balance all of these concerns. I recognize that Brady’s time is largely past and that parts of her commentary in that episode are kind of hidebound. I also acknowledge that in a literal sense, makeup and high heels and email jokes (so, in other words, concerns that are largely the purview of privileged women who have the time and money to worry about that crap) should not exactly be put at the top of the list of urgent issues facing women today. Women are poor and sexually exploited and being raped and having their children taken away. But at the same time I have a strong sense that the act of scoffing at and denying all of the significance of such “small” concerns, or implying that reservations about the sort of out-of-proportion role of blow jobs in current society mean nothing more than that you hate sex, could have really insidious consequences.

I think, in other words, the misogyny that people are really referring to when they express concerns about symptoms like makeup, high heels, the time and effort expended on “looking good,” etc., is still alive and well, and somewhere on the continuum with tolerance of exploitation and rape as elements of mainstream society. This is certainly not to say that individual people who choose to wear makeup or high heels or get a boob job are contributing to a “rape culture.” These are personal choices that should be treated as such–choices that are made for personal enjoyment or career advancement or any number of other valid reasons and do not necessarily have political implications, or if they do, their utility to the individual woman may outweigh these implications.

If I have concerns about these elements, it relates to what their popularity in current culture means in a larger sense (strong pressure to wear makeup can imply that looking good is your job as a woman, strong pressure to always wear high heels instead of “ugly” shoes can imply that beauty is more important than your ability to work or escape effectively, strong pressure to get breast implants can imply that it is a woman’s obligation to endanger her body to meet beauty standards). These things make me concerned that dropping even a tiny corner of a tapestry that is done except for, like, one stitch, while you work on the rest of it, seems like it might cause the whole thing to unravel and endanger your current work as well.

Via The-F-Word.org, Christina Ricci expressed similar concerns to Brady’s in a recent interview:

I think people are learning to actually aspire to be objectified. It’s like the highest form of flattery for teenage girls. The culture we live in right now seems to reward behavior that we used to frown upon. We used to teach our daughters not to be like this…

We don’t really know what’s going to happen to this generation of children. I just know that things seem wrong to me. I mean, I just feel like sexism is alive and well, and misogyny. And we all like to pretend that it’s not. That makes me feel a little crazy.

I guess that basically of sums up what I was trying to say in this entry. Things just seem wrong to me too, I’m concerned that they are getting more wrong instead of less, and I’m not sure what to do about it.