Like it or loathe it, a woman’s appearance means something. Whether you wear heels or Doc Martens, no “choice” can be made independently in a consumer culture. Free will does not exist. Such was the revelation I found in my college media studies curriculum after Professor John Schott handed us syllabi that would challenge our deeply held beliefs about soap operas, Madonna videos and Cover Girl commercials. Symbolic language? The object and the objectified? Semiotics? Jacques Derrida?!! What the fuck??
Let us cool our Prada boots while we return to the thoughts that began our chapter, a consideration of the second wave’s flaws. Betty Friedan opposed lesbian leadership in NOW for many reasons, one of which is how they looked. Many lesbians of the time didn’t sex up their drag the way Marlene Dietrich did—they took off their bras, let down their hair, and rubbed off their makeup. I see no problem with this, but remember: I was born in 1971. My cultural touchstones were the rough and tumble kiddos on Sesame Street, not prim maidens like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. Once upon a time the sight of a woman in pants was so transgressive as to inspire revulsion: not because the pants were ugly by themselves, but because the act itself was so outrageous as to be unfathomable. Susan B. Anthony stopped wearing bloomers when she sensed they were distracting people from her suffragist message.
Her words didn’t matter as much as her clothing. Sound familiar?
Over time, the pants really did get ugly, and someone heard something from someone about the burning of a bra. The fact that no bras were harmed during the 1968 Miss America protest is a truth so persistently rejected that the story remains a long entry in the debunking website Snopes.com, right up there with alligators in the Manhattan sewers and death by Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. The message was clear: FEMINISTS BURN BRAS. According to Newtonian physics, without the support of sturdy underwire, perky tits will eventually droop. According to the marketing department at Maidenform and the pages of Playboy, girls with droopy tits are gross. Therefore, feminists are gross. QED.
When I ask around for nominations for Best Feminist in America, no one names Friedan, who inspired the Second Wave, or Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who kick-started the first. Almost every single person will name Gloria Steinem. A fine feminist, to be sure: a powerful activist, writer, speaker, and thinker. But you remember her before all others because she is very, very pretty.
Much of the Third Wave has consisted of studiously breaking down this feminists-are-ugly stereotype, and not just because heterosexual feminist women were getting desperate for a lay. Women of the Second Wave who rejected consumer culture were brave in numbers. The times were a-changin’, and plenty of men were breaking down long-cherished beliefs themselves—resisting the draft and militarism, embracing androgynous hair and clothing, recognizing their part in perpetuating discrimination.
Reagan’s election in 1980 and the defeat of the ERA in 1982 brought all the marching to a grinding halt. The communal spirit of the Second Wave fragmented. Reaganites declared a new era of rugged individualism, of freedom. Not the freedom that comes from constitutionally-enshrined gender equality, though; this freedom was that of the lone cowboy riding into town with nothing but a knapsack and a gun, free to blast his way to prosperity in pursuit of the American Dream. There were no cowgirls in Reagan’s America. His pal Schlafly made sure they were all at home, boiling diapers over an open fire.
Second Wavers in Reaganland soon realized that opposing the forces of capitalism required a lot of difficult emotional work. To delve inward for clarity is much more challenging than, say, purchasing a finely woven shirt that telegraphs that confidence for you. If self-acceptance is available at Macy’s, in a Chanel bottle of beveled glass, then to the mall we shall go! Sitting in the lotus position is for suckers.
Oh my god……I can’t believe I use DEODORANT. I want to smell pretty. So much for being radical.
*Come on, could that REALLY have been said by anyone other than Courtney “Pretty on the Inside” Love? She may not understand sobriety, child-rearing, or anything else about human relationships, but she sure as hell knows about power, baby!