Giving Feminism a Makeover

DEAR Feminism, Hi. How are you? Guess what? Another decade is done and people are starting to wonder where you have gone. Did you head into permanent seclusion, hiding in a cabin somewhere with J.D. Salinger?

It’s not that you’ve been shunned or anything. Backlash, sure. Shunned, hardly. Most people think you have been good for the gander – we still hear about your contributions to society in 101 college courses, Wikipedia, cocktail conversations.

A lot of people like what you stand for, but don’t want to be you. I like you, too. That’s why I am here to help.

But feminism, it’s time for you to rebrand. Think of me as your Oprah on makeover day.

A lot has changed since you were coming up in the world.First things first: the name has got to go. I know, I know, you like it; it’s important to who you are. But think about what it did for Puff Daddy and get back to me.

You remember how in 1983, Gloria Steinem published “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions,” a collection of stories chronicling her journey as a feminist so far? I was zero years old.

Steinem suggests “bottom line” regular acts to support your cause: “Writing five letters a week to lobby, criticize, or praise anything from TV shows to a senator; giving 10 percent of our incomes to social justice; going to one demonstration a month …”

Feminism, this is simply too much! Many women in my generation like watching TV because it has gotten better. There are even funny women on TV, like Tina Fey, who make us laugh out loud. And though she may not be writing letters to senators, she did a pretty darn good job of impersonating a governor.

Steinem, like you, was worried about future women, whether we would be able to enjoy strong career ambitions “without worrying about being thought ‘unfeminine.”‘

Almost 27 years later, I would argue the answer is yes. A lot of us grew up in families where our moms worked and our dads cooked veal scallopini some nights. As 20-somethings, we’re getting married later and entering all arenas of the work force – there are even women plumbers now!

We’re constantly improving and it’s time for you to improve, too.

The first step in rebranding is to figure out what people think is wrong with you. I’m not going to sugarcoat this, feminism, because this is necessary for your survival, so here goes.

I decided to conduct my own poll. I interviewed medical students, law students, hairstylists, black, white, Catholic, Jewish, gay, straight, tan and pale – women and men in their 20s. All 15 or so agreed to talk about you, only if I promised not to use their names.

I decided to just say the word “feminism” without leading it in any one direction to see how people responded.

“What do you mean by feminism?” was the response of half the women and men I sampled.

Overall, the empirical evidence was, well, a mess. Feminism, you are kaleidoscopic in the reactions you cause.

To some, you stand for equal rights in the workforce; to others, you’re about babies, marriage or sexual freedom. You’ve become about as tough to define as America itself.

Most agreed that our generation is embracing femininity and going for the career. They want both. Where you fit into that mix is unfortunately much less clear.

“The feminist movement had to overcompensate for inequalities in gender. They were coming from the revolt perspective,” said one recent law school graduate. “Now, we are dealing with getting our femininity back while forging ahead in corporate America … We work with society rather than against it.”

Yet not everyone saw the current state of mind as perfected. One med school student, who called it “complacent,” said: “The average female our age doesn’t think about the fact that they’re making 25 percent less than men, even though we say, ‘Well, we’re women. We get to be a doctor now.’ Every woman is so stoked just to be a doctor.”

“We’re better and worse,” said one Hollywood assistant. “We’re amorphous; we’re confused – when do I have kids? Will it ruin my career?”

Even in the workplace, “women aren’t afraid to be women anymore.”

Many of us love to throw a good pie crust, knit, wear mascara and, like 20-something men, are trying to make careers for ourselves all the same. Yet one business school student strongly disagreed with this mixed notion.

“Women are reclaiming femininity and calling it feminism. Feminism is gender equity. It has nothing to do with making pies. It’s not about overcompensating by using domesticity as empowerment.”

Pies or no pies, in your comeback, I’m not asking you to lose the glasses and go panty-less like Paris Hilton. I’m asking you to relish our kaleidoscopic qualities so we can again relish you.

Feminism, feminine-ism, Lady Gagaism, or no “ism” at all: It’s good to have you back. Love, Nicky

Originally published in the Pasadena Star News, December 30th, 2009

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