THE arrival of International Women’s Day on March 8 sends commentators into a frenzy of measurements. How are we doing this year? What have we gained, what have we lost? It’s like lining your kids up against the doorjamb and marking their height — some years there’s more progress than others.
This year is more exciting because it’s 50 years since Betty Friedan kicked off the second wave with The Feminine Mystique and 50 years since poet Sylvia Plath became the patriarchy’s most famous victim. A half-century is enough time for histrionics to turn into history, so let’s line ourselves up against the doorjamb and see how we’re faring.
First, Plath’s legacy isn’t faring well. A halfcentury after she died with her head in the oven, her publisher has released a 50thanniversary issue of her only novel, The Bell Jar, and they’ve given it the full chick-lit treatment: gay colours, red lips pouting over an open compact case. The book has a Mad Men look that makes a lie of its tragic contents and author. As one critic said, ‘‘ If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself . . .’’ Friedan’s legacy has been treated with more respect but one wonders what that 1963 housewife and magazine writer would have made of the movement she provoked as it settles into middle age.
The first thing that’s obvious about ‘‘ the problem that has no name’’ is that it’s become ‘‘ a name with a few problems’’.
Feminism, whether it comes with a big ‘‘ F’’ or a little ‘‘ f’’ is a name that’s more often whispered than shouted; more engineered than reclaimed and crops up in the strangest of places.
The weirdest home for ‘‘ F’’ rhetoric recently was in the latest issue of GQ, which featured Beyonce Knowles on the cover and spread(eagled) throughout the issue, sparking controversy not because a pop star was posing provocatively but because she was expressing feminist views (as those who bought the magazine for the stories noticed).
‘‘ How can a woman pose like a porn star and talk like a feminist?’’ asked the critics.
Whether she should lose her ticket to the next National Organisation for Women conference is moot, but more interesting is the idea that feminism can be used to boost the brand power of celebrities.
Beyonce isn’t the only pop star to round off her appeal by expressing ideas of independence and equality. Everyone from Madonna and Pussy Riot to Katy Perry (I’m not a feminist but . . .) has stiffened her image with statements on the role of women.
Feminism adds a depth to the shallow pool of celebrity. The expression of an ideology of independence bolsters an image that might appear too superficial and self-absorbed to be often resometimes taken seriously. When pop divas talk of women’s rights, they give the impression they’ve thought about things other than how many sequins to wear on their bodice. When they empathise with the plight of working women, they make us believe they sometimes look out their limousine windows. And this is OK with their publicists, as long as the pop stars are still willing to ponce about for the pleasure of men. The celebrity brand now includes being a dancer, singer, human rights campaigner, wife, mother, vegan, millionaire, cupcake maker, pole dancer and feminist. Feminism is a handy accessory. The only problem with this catalogue approach is what happens to feminists who don’t embrace the pole-dancing or muffinmaking opportunities that a public life presents. Think of Hillary Clinton, who was pictured getting angry with a Senate hearing recently and earned the front-page headline, ‘‘ No Wonder Bill is Afraid’’. Or our Julia, who won world headlines when she spoke of the perils of being a woman in parliament but gets grief over her choice of spectacles. Feminism doesn’t work magic for their brand. It follows them around the corridors of power like a dirty word. It’s baggage they must tote carefully — unless they want to lose the sensible suits and do a spread for GQ.
What would Betty think? Could she have imagined that a powerful woman could only safely claim to be a feminist if she was also a fox? One thing’s certain, she wouldn’t have picked the lolly-red cover of Plath’s book for a silent scream from suburbia.