Youthful feminists today who have not themselves experienced the struggles of the 1960s may feel lacking in cultural resources to claim as their own since the once radically differentiating “edge” fueled by free love, political activism and bohemian lifestyles have been incorporated into the bourgeois mainstream. Drawing on the work of Dick Hebdige and Elizabeth Wilson, it seems that the fact that the adjective “bohemian”, in its contemporary usage, conjures images of celebrities like the Olson twins instead of evoking the deviant identities and subcultures of, say, early 20th century Greenwich Village has profound implications for aspiring social activists today, particularly feminists.
As radical theorists of ideology and cultural studies have roughly indicated, any purposefully divergent dissent expressed through the language of speech, art, music or style is subject to incorporation by the dominant ideology, rendering the oppositional meaning of auditory, visual and stylistic protest incommunicable. For example, New Women in early 20th century New York City, considered as a collective social group in a cultural field (1), challenged bourgeois sexual norms by leading “alternative” lives abundant in love affairs with women and men alike. Today the conventional ideological reality (2) actually encompasses the very activities that decades ago would have had the ability to powerfully disconcert dominant cultural norms: simply explore the general themes of magazines such as Cosmopolitan. Among many contradictory statements and sentiments within such texts, there is a theme of Cosmopolitan that seems to espouse liberty for women in the sexual domain, a liberty that is couched in one of the following ways: “make sure the man pleases you; demand your rights in the bedroom (3) because your pleasure and that of your man are of equal importance.” (4)
Also, consider the recent meanderings of the popular writer for The New York Times, Maureen Dowd. Dowd appears in “learned” spheres (5) to be a new, credible reference and a source of inspiration for the relatively sluggish feminist movement. There is no fundamental questioning of the prevailing ideologies of sex and gender in Dowd’s work; however, there is instead an intellectually uncritical and unintentionally regressive assertion of a sort of feminism that consents to the basic premises of the ideological structure oppressing women. For instance, in her article “What’s a Modern Girl To Do?” Dowd references The New York Times writer John Schwartz as reporting: “Men would rather marry their secretaries than their bosses, and evolution may be to blame.” According to Dowd, when women step up into more powerful positions they inevitably “suffer”: “there it is, right in the DNA: women get penalized by insecure men for being too independent.” Importantly, Dowd is not against feminism in general. (6) She wants women to gain power and that notoriously vague concept, “equal rights.”
However, Dowd’s particular feminism jibes beautifully with the biological determinist ideology described and countered eloquently by Lewontin, Rose and Kamin in their book, Not in Our Genes. Biological determinist arguments are employed to maintain, among other things, the institution of patriarchy by appealing to “natural” explanations of the status quo; such arguments claim that it is exclusively biology -- not culture or environment -- that dictates how men and women relate to each other. According to biological determinists in general, there is no use trying to change inequalities because these inequalities are rooted in ineluctable biological facts and cannot be altered. (7) Again, notice the overt determinism of Dowd’s work: “It was naïve and misguided,” she writes, “for the early feminists to tendentiously demonize Barbie and Cosmo girl, to disdain such female proclivities as shopping, applying makeup and hunting for sexy shoes and cute boyfriends and to prognosticate a world where men and women dressed alike and worked alike in navy suits and were equal in every way” (my emphasis). Especially note the use of the word “proclivities,” implying that biology, not culture and an oppressive ideology of gender, are responsible for so-called “feminine” activities such as the consumption (8) of cosmetics or spicy clothes and the continuous pursuit of “the hot guy.” (9)
The aim here is neither to criticize Dowd’s individual work and The New York Times’ purported credibility, nor to argue that this particular writer’s work is tainted with biological determinism (though I have done so). I am also not blasting Cosmopolitan, Seventeen or Maureen Dowd for either their “fake” co-optation of sexual “deviance” or for “fake” feminism. (To distribute “fake” and “real” labels is to engage in a fearful practice reminiscent of the authenticity debates and claims of the Salem witch-hunts, the Reign of Terror, Nazism and the House Un-American Committee activities). The questions I am concerned with pertain to the practical implications of the commodification and mainstreaming of the “spirit” of (sometimes formerly) political positions for prospective feminist activists today. Cosmo and Dowd’s work are only two prominent examples of such a mainstreaming of a kind of feminism, usually associated with the so-called “leftist” media. There are a readily available plethora of articles, publications and media reports that feature either the commodification and ideological usurpation of historical symbols of protest or that contain mainstream feminist arguments predicated on biological determinism. Not only are such arguments, especially from The New York Times, internally incoherent, but they can also confound more radical and fundamental dissent that would seek to attack patriarchy outside of the logos of the dominant discourse.
Thus, journalists such as Maureen Dowd and “liberating” sexual literature such as that found in Cosmopolitan actually posit a subtle, frustrating quandary for contemporary feminists. This quandary provokes several thoughts in my mind, some expressed through the following questions and popular culture observations:
1. Especially in the late nineteenth century, women were not supposed to have sexual desires, there were extreme social double standards in marriage, and respectable bourgeois women were to be chaperoned. Simultaneous to these norms, urban bohemians forged new attitudes towards women’s sexual freedom, but now these formerly scandalous, marginal attitudes are encompassed by mainstream ideology through the style of female celebrities. Today, it is apparent (and documented in Lauren Greenfield’s photo essay Girl Culture) that girls even as young as four are absorbing and imitating the sexual styles of our popular stars. So, how does the ideological symbolism based on images like that of Jessica Simpson transform my social identity and my material reality as an individual “female” figure in this culture? Along the axes of race, class, gender and sexuality how does this ideological construction of the female sex object today translate into social realities for different kinds of women inhabiting different cultural loci in America? Most basically, what kind of freedom -- if any at all -- can be gleaned from the pages of Cosmopolitan? To what extent might this be an illusory freedom, locking women into a “liberating” identity of elusive ideological confines?
My primary fear, in the abstract, with women’s magazines is the de-politicization of sex and gender within its pages. Perhaps if in the early 1900s Emma Goldman would have had a premonition that in the future there would be magazines galore encouraging women’s sexual satisfaction (however inconsistently), she would have been pleased. Now, she’s most likely stirring in her grave. Would it be desirable and is it possible to somehow politically divorce the concepts of sexual justice and freedom from the ideology of, say, Cosmo?
2. Regarding articles and pieces similar to Dowd’s: who can say that the “leftist” American media is unconcerned with feminist issues? We have The New York Times, NPR, the Jon Stewart show. (Sorry, but I laugh when people refer to the Times and NPR as deviant left-wing institutions, almost as much as I do when others define debates about “gay issues” around whether Tinky-Winky is or not). Here I ask: how much more difficult do these media sources -- importantly perceived by the majority as “left-wing” -- make a radical popular debate that would wish to focus on deconstructing and revealing basic ideologies of sex and gender that are always operational even during the most mundane activities? How do conventional “leftists” in prominent media sources crystallize the framework of popular feminist discourse in such a way so as to structurally impede the progress of more radical critiques of the patriarchal or capitalist system?
It seems to me that there are ideological areas open for dissent, but these spaces in discourse can actually be juggernauts to radical feminist protest. The system that is more encompassing of discordant views is, in the long run, ideologically stronger than the totalitarian regime that suppresses all forms of dissidence. Some may voice feminist concerns in the “public” sphere with relative ease -- that is, if the arguments are kept within the flexible confines of the dominant discourse or even inadvertently serve to reinforce that discourse. However, it takes an immense amount of creativity and energy to publicly and popularly uncover the very structure of the prevalent discourse, and then consciously protest and argue from various other bases. For radical activists and writers, it is a challenge -- though not an insurmountable one -- to convey an intended message of defiance when in our “open” society commodification and incorporation (10) threaten to translate subversive meaning through a dominant logic and semantics.
I have used this article as a tool -- for myself and, hopefully, for any readers -- with which to begin to assess some basic obstacles a new generation of feminists may confront in their daily, material lives. Though I am relatively uneducated about the details of feminist history and theory, I simply intended here to explore issues that seem relevant for feminists of younger years -- in their teens and twenties. It appears that many people of my generation don’t believe that we even need to be “feminists” anymore -- though there are still inequalities, they say, in America we supposedly have nothing to combat or struggle for. I hope that, for any readers of this meager article, there will occur at least an intensified awareness and questioning of the deeply rooted but rarely acknowledged ideological impediments to a radical and rigorous feminist critique.
Jessica Polish is an undergraduate sophomore. Her interests
include, but are not limited to, cultural studies, urban theory,
feminist theory, philosophy, Marxist theory and history, especially
modern European history. She can be reached at:
1) This as opposed to considering them
each separately, as individuals and particular cases. See the work of
David Ley and Bourdieu.