So, I had a moment earlier this year where someone referenced the feminist classic the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and I realized that I hadn’t read it. It seems like something I should have read. So, I used one of my audible credits and I picked it up. And, then I spent hours cooking, cleaning and walking on the tread mill while Parker Posey read it to me.
Isn’t that the creeepiest image?
Anyway, this classic was originally published in 1963 and it addressed a problem that women who bought (and a society that sold) the fantasy that the most fulfilling thing a woman could do with her life was get married and have children and how that not only affected those women but also had ripple effects within society. I can see, looking back, how this was a revolutionary book. It is important to know and remember that women are people and that women, all women, have capacities and interests and being stuck in and reduced to one or two roles for any person is potentially trapping.
But, this book was definitely written in a different time and was focused on different issues than the feminism is now. For one, every time Friedan wrote “women”, I found it was almost always easier to take if I added “Middle Class White” before “women”. While Friedan was probably trying to write about an ideal (and, a societal image of what a “woman” should be is certainly something everyone woman-identifying person has to contend with much like the idea of what a “man” should be is something all men-identifying people have to contend with.) most of the data she presented was about a very particular kind of woman. As already mentioned, middle class white women. And, that’s fine, but the problems that middle class white women face are not always the same as the problems that working class white women face. Or, Middle class African American women. Or, working class African American women. Or, Trans women. Or, Asian American women. Or, Native American women. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
I am glad that I read it, though. It is nice to be able to look back and think about how much we have accomplished and to note how much work we still have to do.
I’ve found myself thinking about Libbi Bray’s Beauty Queens a lot in the past few days. (That link is to Beth’s awesome review of the book.) As Beth mentions in the review, Bray does a good job of capturing certain expectations about women. (spoilers ahead). In the book, there is a subplot about the Corporation, a mega-company bent on continuing to push into illegal markets and trades, and the beauty queens throw a wrench in the works by crash landing in the middle of the operation. From the moment of the crash landing, the queens are completely underestimated. As Beth said, “They are just girls so they are not that important. They won’t survive long. Right?” This part of the book captures how old ideas about gender still cling on even though advancements have been made. But, Bray did a good portraying another dynamic as well and this is what I want to talk about today. Changing norms have made some space at the top of many fields for women to succeed, but it hasn’t really leveled the playing field. Some women have an advantage over other women because of other ways our societies are unfair. This plays out in the book through the interactions of two non-white characters Nicole, an African American woman, and Shanti, an Indian immigrant. In the book, they know that there is only room in the top ten for one non-white contestant and that makes them leery of each other. They also know that their faults will be scrutinized more than their white counterparts, a subplot seen through the eyes of Nicole as she remembers the last time an African American contestant had a sex scandal and it ruined her chances of success (even though the consequences for white contestants wouldn’t be as severe).
This has been on my mind because some of those dynamics have been in the news recently. If you are at all interested in pop culture, you may have heard that the 2015 MTV VMA award nominations are out and that Nicki Minaj is not happy with them. After the release of the nominations she took to twitter and stated that she felt that her videos for Anaconda and Feeling Myself were slighted because of the type of artist she is and that other artists doing what she does in her videos are rewarded. She also stated that because she wasn’t celebrating particular types of bodies, she wasn’t getting as much love from the awards committee. I don’t watch a lot of music videos, any really, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of the videos nominated (although, I have seen Anaconda). Then, Taylor Swift took Minaj’s comments personally. I would like to suggest that part of the reason why Swift might take Minaj’s comments personally is that she knows that there is a limited amount of space for women at the top of her field and she works hard and is unwilling to give up that space. Minaj’s twitter criticisms are valid: as a society we do value certain bodies higher than other bodies and this is not only seen in how we reward people but also in how treat people in general.
Beauty Queen was an interesting book because it brought intersectionalism, the idea that people may be operating in a space under more than one type of oppression, into the conversation meant for teen audiences about how women are treated. And, while I found the book to be funny and moving, this broadening of the conversation of what feminism is and who it best serves might be the most important part of the book.