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Young women have their own take on empowerment

April 10, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I sat on a panel at the West Hollywood Women's Leadership Conference last month, featuring pioneers and activists. Its title -- "The F Word: Reflections of Feminism and the Portrayal of Women in the Media" -- made our mission clear.

So we panelists came armed with stories, symbols and statistics that reflected our struggle for equality:

The pain of being locked out of show business jobs "because we already have one female writer." The two-year battle to produce a segment on female genital mutilation. The excessive media attention devoted to the campaign wardrobe of presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And the cosmetics advertisement from a woman's magazine that featured a naked woman face down on the ground, her body stamped with a "USDA" brand. "As if she were a piece of meat," complained panelist Lisa Pinto, a regional director for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills).

"It's hard to comprehend why an editorial board would let this run," Pinto told the crowd, holding the page aloft. We should boycott, protest, complain. "How do they get away with this?" she wondered.

There was head-shaking and tsk-tsking among the all-female crowd, mostly middle-aged and middle-class.

But from a table near the back of the room, 25-year-old Emily Greener was wondering something else.

Is this what feminism is all about?


The ad was dumb, Greener conceded, when we met to chat the next week at a coffee shop in Beverly Hills.

"But it wasn't shock value to me. The image, the girl being branded as meat. Yeah, that's terrible, that's wrong and whatever . . . but it's selling a product. We kind of get it. It's not realistic that we would boycott the magazine."

Greener's "we" is 20-something women. They are our movement's beneficiaries, yet our notion of feminism doesn't resonate with them. "You hear 'feminism' and you think bra-burning, man-hating. . . . That's not us," she said.

Of course it's not. I've got daughters. I watch "The Hills." You guys are too busy fighting over boys. You consider bra straps a fashion accessory.

Greener didn't disagree. "We're a group that likes to get dolled up . . . look sexy. There's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is that the 'consumer culture' has become such a defining force in young women's search for identity. It's what you're wearing, what your weight is, rather than what you believe in, how you think."

Her observations validated what I hear from my daughters, and what I see.

"It's hard to find a community of girls that are not ego-driven to criticize and critique," she said. "We are trying to eliminate the cattiness, the gossiping, the inauthenticity. We've got so much going for us, but we're our own worst enemy.

"Your generation was 'us against them,' " she said, flinging back her long curly hair. "Our biggest problem is 'us against us.' And your brand of feminism can't solve that for us."


It wasn't lost on our panelists that feminism has an image problem. One panelist told the crowd about a poll of seniors at her daughter's private school that found only one of 125 girls considered herself a feminist.

Greener suggests we scrap the name. She's part of a team that has created an online, interactive magazine -- "> -- and wants to "rebrand" the notion of female empowerment. "We call it 'Bellism,' she said, because it reflects the importance of "defining beauty on your own terms, not fitting into a cookie-cutter mold."

But it's more than a question of terminology. It's the evolution of a movement that succeeds by making itself obsolete.

Our panelists were talking about politics and ideology. Our daughters are talking more about social equality.

"It's no longer, 'I want to be a doctor when I grow up,' " Greener said. "It's, 'I want to be the best surgeon, in the best city.' We've got no shortage of role models. That's what your generation has given us. . . . We expect to have it all."

If that's so, we've sold them a bill of goods. But I like the attitude.

My generation's work isn't done. There are still struggles on many fronts: employment discrimination, violence against women, threats to reproductive freedom. But we can't expect to enlist our daughters, then dictate the terms and direct their battles.

Our history is not their history. They cannot remember a time when abortion was illegal; when a star soccer player couldn't expect a college scholarship.

They can be grateful to us for that, but we should stop expecting them to pay homage.

We raised them to aim high and think for themselves.

Now, as panelist Katie Buckland noted, you've got "feminist strippers" who consider sexuality a route to female empowerment, rather than a reflection of male dominance.

Buckland, executive director of the California Women's Law Center, was not alone in branding the 20-somethings "politically inert" because they are not boycotting television shows, suing bosses, acting in concert with their elders.

"Young people don't realize they are part of a whole," she said. "They are acting individually, and that's unfortunate."

Or is it?

I'm a sister with Buckland in the struggle. But I say to Greener and her "Bellist" sisters:

You go, girls. (And we've got your back).


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