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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Faces of Feminism?

Unsure about your feminist role models? Confused as to who to fall in line behind? Fear not friends! Salient takes a brief look at three (arbitrarily-selected) media-endorsed feminist poster-children so that you won’t have to.

Naomi Wolf

Wolf’s glamorous wardrobe and luscious movie-star hair was arguably as influential in her rise to media prominence as her Yale education and feminist agenda, which is ironic for the someone whose most famous book is titled, The Beauty Myth: How Images Of Beauty Are Used Against Women. But don’t let that put you off the supposed “face of third-wave feminism.” Instead, be put off by the bewildering, and at times counterproductive remarks she’s made in her capacity as the cause’s latest spokeswoman. They range from, “only 48 per cent of women in the US use contraception regularly” (sourced from a 1984 psychology book called, ahem, Swept Away: Why Women Confuse Love and Sex) to calling for the removal of “Victorian-era” name suppression laws that protect the anonymity of sexual assault victims, or as Wolf refers to them, “sex-crime accusers”. She’s also claimed that the Burka defeats the male gaze when it’s worn as a choice, while simultaneously making the racist comment that Arab women are “as interested in allure, seduction, and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.” Who would have thought? In another book, Promiscuities, she comes up with (patent pending) “sexual gradualism,” essentially a system aimed at teenage girls that advocates ‘proper’ masturbation techniques for the purpose of prolonging virginity. For those who fail under this system, there’s always the option of abortion—at least, “dehumanized” abortion that Wolf, herself a proponent of the procedure, bizarrely defends by arguing that “Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die”. This logic, she states, will help the pro-choice movement reclaim the “moral frame around the issue of abortion”. In sporting terms, that’s known as an own-goal. Feminism has become a dialectical process, so where’s the harm in embracing Wolf’s eccentric views as just another side to the debate? After all, she’s garnered occasional praise from luminaries like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. Yet, as inextricable as controversy and feminism are, there’s a line between reasoned examination and opposition for opposition’s sake. Wolf seems to muddle that line incrementally each time she’s exposes herself to mainstream media. And let’s not forget the hair.

Joss Whedon

Media studies darling and fan-boy idol, Whedon first broke new ground in the television industry with the cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer and followed the sensation with Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. As a self-proclaimed feminist, Whedon explained that the concept for the series was to turn horror genre conventions on their head to produce the blondest, prettiest, most all-American demon-slayer he could think of. “It was pretty much the blond girl in the alley in the horror movie who keeps getting killed… She was fun, she had sex, she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it. Literally, I just had that image, that scene, in my mind, like the trailer for a movie what if the girl goes into that dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him”. He named his creation Buffy, and as the picture of ‘90s hipness, she and her lesbian sidekick Willow confidently defeated hordes of fanged muscle-men for an impressive seven-season run. But there were cons. Buffy’s first sexual encounter results in the loss of her boyfriend’s soul, and after his departure from the show, she is left scarred and emotionally ruptured for the remainder of the series. Faith is consistently punished for her sexual confidence, and even Willow and Tara’s much-lauded gay relationship sees the former descend into evil and become a season villain. The slayers—all young females with predetermined, inescapable destinies—are governed by an exclusively male council of ‘watchers’ who interfere in the girls’ lives. While an in-depth critique of the show is impossible here, there have been countless studies which engage with the problems of depiction and the reconcilement of purportedly feminist portrayals that carry arguably patriarchal overtones. Whedon’s Dollhouse has garnered the most controversy for its exploitation of female bodies as empty shells, wiped clean of memories and implanted with new personalities each episode to suit the requirements of predominantly male clientele. Though Whedon claims that he merely wished to experiment with the limits of identity and personhood, the fact that none of the characters in the ‘Dollhouse’ (really, Whedon?) give what can be construed as consent for the many violent and sexual acts performed against them has had commentators flooding the internet with outraged protest. Why is this important enough to distract you from your lecture? The success of Buffy heralded in an era of prime time television that featured female lead characters in shows like Tru Calling, Charmed, Roseanne, and Saving Grace. Whether or not their content was any good, Whedon’s influence was to thank for introducing safe-betting executives to the idea that women-centric stories could be popular and financially viable.

Michelle Obama

“It’s a bit disconcerting”, said the US First Lady on giving up her illustrious career in 2007 to help run her husband’s presidential campaign. Fast forward to 2011 and her sacrifice seems to have been well-played, or perhaps not, considering the backlash Barack has faced since the initial euphoria of his election as the anti-Bush. As a positive female role model, Michelle Obama deserves all the commendation she’s received. Salutatorian of her high school senior class, she graduated cum laude with a BA in sociology from Princeton and a J.D. from Harvard. Obama cultivated a healthy interest in activism, advocating for minority groups and providing legal aid for low-income citizens while still at university. When set loose on the working world, the trail-blazer applied her talents as an attorney, a director of a non-profit organization, an associate dean at Chicago University, and a VP for the state’s hospital board, during which time she brought home the proverbial bacon with a salary twice that of her senator husband. Not to mention finding the time and energy to raise two children. Even Simone de Beauvoir’s ghost would high-five such an accomplished lady. Although her feminist credentials seem bona fide already, her case acts as a reminder that powerful women are still bound by rules of political and social conservatism. There are rumours Obama intended to make affordable childcare and work benefits her patron ‘Issues’ yet, like Clinton before her, was ‘persuaded’ to tackle a less controversial subject like childhood obesity, which ticked more of the family-themed boxes and suited her profile as ‘First Mom’. Though she’s overseen the project admirably, the images of the former high-powered businesswoman with the gold-plated resume hoola-hooping her way to social appeasement speaks volumes about the pressures put on high-profile women to conform to traditional gender roles.

Be it pop culture phenoms, political leaders, or academic pin-ups, feminism is made visible though media-chosen figures. While emphatically denying the influence of a hypodermic-needle media model, most people- barring considered study in to the subject- formulate an opinion based on the collection of impressions they get of the chosen few. That said, accurately have these three been represented? We’ll let you be the judges of that. *

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  1. Zoe Reid says:

    Hi Fairooz!
    Nice article :)

  2. Fairooz says:

    Thank you Zoe!

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