Friday, May 19, 2006

Feminism and Pop Culture

I just finished reading Rebecca Traister's article on Salon about the rise of young female celebrities who are overly sexualized, superficial, and dumb. I came away from the article confused. Traister seems to make two points, neither of which are particularly well fleshed out: the criticisms of teen culture are overblown and, at the same time, the teen culture carelessly sells the image of "unthreatening femininity." I think Traister did a particularly bad job of supporting this last point. Of a four-page article, she only addresses this argument in the final quarter-page. Her prime example is a "Harvard graduate student" who "liked the 'idea' of dating a dumb girl."

Traister wants us to be alarmed by this admission, but it left me annoyed. By citing his place and level of education, Traister is setting this man apart from--and above--the average man. Are we supposed to think that he is more enlightened than the average man? And if an enlightened man wants to date a dumb girl, then surely all unenlightened men out there would also want to date dumb girls.

But is he more enlightened because of his education? All types of people make their way to all types of institutions to pursue all types of degrees. For all we know, this guy could be a sexist, chauvinist, homophobic man who suffers from low self-esteem. Why should I take what he says as evidence of the doomed future for smart "threatening" girls? One example is not enough to support Traister's opening argument about "unthreatening femininity."

Also, this guy has, actually, "dated only smart girls." He's never gone through the motions of dating a dumb girl. The "idea" he has about dating "dumb girls," is probably similar to my "idea" about dating a musician who works at a coffee shop during the day and plays random gigs at night, or about dating a surfer who back packs around the world looking for a good wave, or about dating a Wall Street broker with a great apartment in Gramercy. I am sure I will never actually date any guys like this, but it is interesting to imagine what life would be like with these people who are so different from me. If this "Harvard grad student" regularly dated "dumb girls" and said that it was great because he could boss them around and treat them like trophies, then I think we could possibly have more to be concerned about (but don't forget, he could still be sexist with low self-esteem).

Traister calls these ditzy, sexy women "images of unthreatening femininity." This makes me wonder two things: who are they unthreatening to? and why is the opposing image necessarily threatening? Traister does not explore either of these two issues.

Regarding the first, I can imagine scenarios in which people from both sexes find this image threatening (not unthreatening, as Traister claims). I know plenty of guys who would be intimidated by these girls' attractiveness and would not want to date them because of it. I also know plenty of girls (myself included) who would be intimidated by this.

Regarding the second, why are intelligent women threatening? I can't wrap my head around this. Is men's self-esteem so delicate that it is damaged when they meet an intelligent woman? That just seems pathetic to me. I would appreciate comments about this because I really just don't get it.

My final point about this article is that Traister frequently notes that there are not many good role models for girls: "Adolescent girls still have no female president to look up to, and too few artists and tycoons and athletes and activists." I agree that it is encouraging to see people like you pursuing high-power, high-status careers. Or, put another way, it is discouraging if you see no one like you pursuing high-powered, high-status careers. But, I wonder if kids really look to pop culture or celebrities for role models. I certainly never did. I always looked to people in my family, friends, teachers, or leaders in my local community. Another problem I have with Traister's statement is that it implies (as do many discussions on this topic) that girls can only look to women as role models and boys can only look to men as role models. Why is a girl limited to looking to Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice as strong political figures? Why can't she look also to Barak Obama, Al Gore, Howard Dean? Why is a girl limited to looking to Mia Hamm and Michelle Wie? What about Tom Seaver or Tiger Woods? I hope a girl can call Martin Luther King, Jr. a role model and a boy can call Mother Teresa a role model.

I think people connect with other people's inspirational stories (and therefore consider someone a role model) because they come from a similar background and they are empowered to think, "If they can do it, so can I." Background is not limited to gender, so why should role models be limited to gender?

I think that the images these young women portray are scary and I do not support the objectification of women. But Traister came to this article with a set of prejudices that is not fair to the people she is writing about (impressionable girls, men, her readers). I think of the feminist movement, and many other equal rights movements, as a struggle to make others realize that you can't generalize and stereotype a group of people. People have all sorts of differences and you can't assume that people of a certain share every quality, belief, or desire. It is frustrating when people fighting stereotypes of one group, stereotype another group.

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