Monday, July 11, 2011

Twenty-first Century Feminism

Erica Jong published an essay in the New York Times last weekend about modern attitudes towards sex, entitled “Is Sex Passé?” Basically she says that young women of today have turned their backs on the freedom her generation won. Jong argues that these women want to regress to a 1950s ideal of motherhood and monogamy, and/or want control more than passion.

I'm a woman born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom and am thus an heir to the feminism of Jong. I've considered myself a feminist since I was 12, (although I have long since abandoned that for humanism, by which I mean liberation for both sexes—men needed to be freed from cultural ideas of manhood).

Jong’s article sounded to me like the standard cliché of a crotchety old woman blaming the younger generation for not being as good as hers.

Ms. Jong speculates that the reason today’s women feel this way is because they are, like every generation, doing the opposite of whatever their parents did. I believe Jong is evading the responsibility of the legacy of her feminism.

Maybe the truth is there was something missing in the feminism of the 1960’s; maybe it wasn’t so free; maybe feminists weren’t being completely honest with themselves about what sexual freedom really means. Maybe today’s youth looked at the adults that were produced by 60’s feminism and said, “No thanks, that doesn’t look very good to us. We’ll try something different.” Every woman I know under the age of 45 thinks 60’s feminists and their struggles are completely irrelevant to their lives.
Jong writes:
Not only did we fail to corrupt our daughters, but we gave them a sterile way to have sex, electronically. Clearly the lure of Internet sex is the lack of involvement. We want to keep the chaos of sex trapped in a device we think we can control.
Just as the watchword of my generation was freedom, that of my daughter’s generation seems to be control. Is this just the predictable swing of the pendulum or a new passion for order in an ever more chaotic world? A little of both. We idealized open marriage; our daughters are back to idealizing monogamy. We were unable to extinguish the lust for propriety.

Maybe Ms. Jong that’s because you never really extinguished the lust for propriety in your generation. I experimented with sexual freedom when I was in my 20’s and learned how hard it is to break the sexual taboos of one’s society. I think the assertion by Jong that this was what feminists of her time achieved is quite absurd.

I met a lot of that generation’s feminists in the late 1970s and early 1980s and their chief distinguishing characteristic seemed to be their denial of sexuality. They would wear leggings under skirts to avoid any chance of bare skin being exposed. They would dress in ways that made them unattractive to men. But at the same time they were still engaged in the retro-actions of shaving their legs and armpits and using makeup. These women weren’t free at all; they were deeply confused about how they should relate to sex. They didn’t want to be “sex objects” anymore, but they were conflicted about their bodies. They couldn’t shake free of our “Barbie” cultural ideal and be beautiful naturally.

Today I looked at photos of Erica Jong as she is in 2011 and her hair is coiffed and she wears makeup. Women—even old feminists it seems—still have a long way to go to be free of this need to emulate an external ideal.

I see this every week on Bill Maher’s HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher”—the men almost always dress in suits and tie, their bodies completely covered to their necks, while almost all the women wear colorful low-cut cleavage-revealing tops. In addition their faces are made-up (no doubt their spike heels are hidden behind the desk), and as a result they don’t seem serious to me. They’re using their sexuality to speak for them, rather than what comes out of their mouths.
Why can’t women stop using makeup? Just think about the words: a made-up face. Artificial. Hiding the truth.

I think feminism of the 21st century should be about women being comfortable in their own bodies as they are. Being more like men in that they accept their faces the way they are.

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