From bra-burners to Britney Spears: Feminism has followed a strange trajectory since its conception

    I was accosted the other day on Library Walk by a team of do-gooders who wanted me to help with a production of “The Vagina Monologues.” Of course, I didn’t quite understand that they were “do-gooders” until they explained that they were a group working against violence toward women; before that, I was rather confused why they were asking me to help with their play. Because their purpose was so admirable I decided to humor them for a while, but I walked away contemplating exactly why it was the whole affair struck me as somewhat strange.

    Feminism today is an obscure word. It seems to be floating in a decently undefined and malleable plasmasphere. We are far away from the ’60s or ’70s, when feminism clearly evoked images of bra-burning and otherwise angry women. Today, it seems anyone can claim to be a feminist. Is this because there are no longer battles to be fought, or is it simply because they are more subtle?

    Whatever the exact cause, the irony can run very thick at times. There is the lurking danger in our society for feminism to do a pendulum swing; now that we are sexually liberated, we are completely free to make sex objects out of ourselves to our heart’s content. When the likes of Britney Spears explain their music and videos as merely “self-expression,” I am not entirely sure that’s the kind of self-expression that early activists discarded their supportive garments for — corporate society has always, after all, been more than willing to allow women to express their sexuality. So the question begs to be asked: Is that all these women have to express? Spears might aspire to be like Madonna, but Madonna is an artist, and she is, well, a nice piece of ass.

    After my encounter, I decided to spend an hour or two in the bookstore, reading the entire script of “The Vagina Monologues.” Not a bad play, and it’s an appropriate selection about women’s issues, but it also helped me realize what was confusing me: I don’t entirely see why sexuality — as embodied by the apparently mystical vagina — is the starting point for female empowerment. There has been a mystification of female sexuality that runs entirely on emotion; if you really want to be non-sexist, there is nothing more spiritual about a female orgasm than a male’s. Yet, somehow, a physical organ is worked up in this play to the point of worship. Of course, it is analogous to female empowerment and self-discovery in general, but the fact that this is all done through the medium of the vagina is an anachronism; the feminist movement needs to expand beyond sexual liberation.

    I was raised in a relatively conservative family, perfectly nuclear with Mom, Dad and sibling. I lived in a small country town that could hardly be called worldly. Yet never once in my entire life have I felt sexually repressed by patriarchal institutions. Growing up, it wasn’t concerns about a sense of shame my girlfriends talked about — it was their sense of annoyance that they hadn’t yet lost their virginity. How many girls out there lamented in their diary that they were unable to participate in those racy latenight sessions of “Truth Or Dare?” The pressures on all sides, from peers to the media to those evil teen magazines, were pushing us to believe that as girls, one of our primary purposes was to have crushes on boys and be objects of sexual beauty, hence all those bulimic episodes in the school bathroom.

    I haven’t been around long enough to know if this is nothing new, or perhaps getting worse, but I do not think this was the style of feminism intended by the activist generation. Their feminism has largely been hijacked — people like Spears really believe they stand for self-empowerment and sexual liberation, rather than blatant exploitation, and the whole social discourse gets polluted. An entirely new feminism is now in order; the generation of girls born after the activist years are now young women, and there should be new priorities in what feminism addresses. I would like to know, for example, why I cannot carry on a conversation with a guy at a party without people assuming I want to sleep with him that night. I would be interested in discovering what is going through the heads of young models who willingly subject themselves to objectification. I also wonder why so many wonderful girls insist on treating themselves like fast-food restaurants with make-out drive-thrus.

    Feminism should first and foremost be about self-respect. Only from this starting point can young women start to discover and empower themselves. Anything built around a structure lacking this central foundation will ultimately flounder, no matter how sexually liberated we are. Ultimately, it isn’t even about women — imagine a world where we all based our interactions with one another on respect — where we all valued ourselves and each other as highly as we ought to. You certainly wouldn’t have Spears making millions off future eating disorders, that’s for sure.

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