For my recent birthday, some dear friends gave me a t-shirt celebrating Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As you can see, it is fire-engine red and amazing.
I wore it the morning after my birthday to clean up the minor wreckage of a good dinner party. This sartorial choice wasn’t a statement open to some post-umpteenth-wave of Feminism ironic interpretation along the lines of, "we’re now so evolved as society in terms of gender equality and identity, a lady such as myself can freely choose to do the duties of a repressed housewife, even while wearing the garb of revolutionary propaganda." That is silly bullshit that I hope you read in a funny snooty parody voice.
I was thus garbed because I wanted to wear my new shirt, the kitchen was littered with dirty dishes and I don’t much like living in filth, and it was my mess to clean up.
I find even the ghost of an idea that we’re in a post-Feminist society absurd.
As an example of how I fear we’re backsliding as Feminists in important and emotional ways, working at the high school, I keep overhearing clusters of boys worrying about how to pull off a good “prom-posal,” which is apparently now a thing. I hear girls giggling about how they hope they’ll be asked. One boy is making a daily series of riddles and clues for his date—presumably him actually asking her to prom is the treasure. Another is planning to buy red roses for everyone in his math class, have them one by one present the roses to his girlfriend—also in math class—and then he would come in last and give her a white rose and ask her to prom.
Prom is not my issue here—if teenagers want to get gussied up and dance and canoodle and have healthy consensual sex lives, more power to them. Similarly, I am 100% on board with Romance—although I’m guessing that these kids haven’t learned yet that Romance is not really rose petals and pink hearts and proms, but someone bringing you Gatorade in the middle of the night when you have a violent stomach flu, or waiting up for your bus until dawn, or putting tennis balls on your walker and salt on the icy steps, or any of the other millions of ways that people demonstrate their actual, practical, messy love for each other.
In fairness, I didn’t go to my high school prom and so have no frame of reference on this allegedly all-important aspect of high school life in America. Aside from being painfully—almost snobbishly—shy, I had a track meet the next day and, while I was a lackadaisical athlete, that was a simple excuse to avoid what I at seventeen suspected would be a lot of fuss over nothing. The school dances that I had attended always ended up with me in the bathroom with one upset friend or another, dealing with some mismatch of expectations and reality. No matter how many teen-age rom-coms I watched, I suspected that real prom wouldn’t be much different than past dances, and having my mum make me a beautiful dress just to hang out in a fancier bathroom somehow didn’t appeal.
So, really, I’m not one to talk about proms per se. But, my issue with the prom-posal situation is that is seems both horribly stressful and indicative of trends that cauterize teenage girls as passive Princesses in need of asking, with the expectation that they will be asked and in a certain way, or they are not correct. Flipping that, this script for life requires that teenage boys are the actors, the one who gets to make the choice of what lady to ask, who pick the cast and create the lines. Ladies should just sit around and wait with absurd culturally engrained expectations to be asked to the dance, to life. Dudes should steel up against any fears of rejection, but remain emotionally open and Romantic, and pick a lady by doing something traditional but unique, memorable but not super weird. To culturally pressurize these traditional gender roles at young and emotionally fragile ages seems cruel and, therefore, against the Feminist agenda I believe in.
At the same time, I am mentoring a trio of high school students in a Feminism seminar this spring. We are compiling a list of readings and videos and music to study and explore. We’ve got Emmaline Pankhurst and Ida B. Wells and bell hooks and Betty Friedan and Wonder Woman and videos of 100 years of beauty in Black-American, White-American, and Iranian culture and more all set up and ready to go.
These students already know so much more than I did at their age about Feminist history and literature. On the other hand, I grew up with red and yellow and blue Legos and no Disney princesses. They are at once reading Angela Davis, and expecting rose petaled prom-posals.
Their emotional dichotomy seems different and somewhat more dire, to me, than cleaning the kitchen while wearing my Betty Friedan t-shirt. Or the common challenge of hating the Patriarchy and loving men.
If we read and know these things, but do not articulate them through our lives, does it matter?
Stéphane Hessel was part of the French Resistance in WWII and spent his long life working to resist various threats to human life and dignity. In his small and effective book, Indignez-Vous!: A Time for Outrage, he wrote about how, when he was young and resisting Nazis, it was almost easy because the enemy was so clear cut. Now, with globalization, instant communications, climate change, mass-marketing, and all the rest, the outrage is still easy, but knowing where to direct one’s indignation and action is more nebulous.
Last summer, someone asked me if I could give some examples of sexism and gender inequality still happening in this world. Similar to and as a part of Hessel’s nebulous enemies to be resisted, I feel that sexism is so subliminally and systemically omnipresent that it took me a minute to catch my breath and form words.
Sexism is everywhere and Feminism needs everyone—women, men, and those who have yet to make up their minds, as Lola says in Kinky Boots.
How we respond to this need depends on how we each get up every morning, what we put on and how we are in the world, what we ask for and what we expect from each other every day. Never mind International Women’s Day, it’s always Human Day.