The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Deirdre Macken

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.

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