Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We've Come A Long Way, Baby?

I'm just old enough to remember a time when cigarette ads still aired on television. I'm also just old enough to remember when the phrase "women's lib" became mainstream enough for advertisers to pick up on it and recognize the "liberated woman" as a potential demographic for certain products that had traditionally been considered to be the domain of male consumers. One ad campaign that stands out in my mind is the one for Virginia Slims cigarettes.

The premise of the Virginia Slims ads - both the tv commercials and the print ad campaign - was that, among the freedoms newly liberated women could and should enjoy, was the freedom to smoke cigarettes. The print ads would feature two photos. The first photo would be a b&W or sepia-tone image, depicting an "old time" scene of a Victorian woman having to hide to enjoy a good smoke, and invariably being found out and publicly humiliated. The second photo would be a color image of a gorgeous, hip, fashionable, modern woman (usually a super model, such as Cheryl Tiegs or Christina Ferrari) openly enjoying a drag on a long, glamorous Virginia Slims cigarette. The campaign slogan? "You've come a long way, baby!"

A novel concept: consuming carcinogens and buying into the tobacco industry's big lie as a feminst statement! Was this really what the Women's Liberation Movement was all about? According to Madison Avenue, it certainly was.

Note: A whole montage of Virginia Slims TV commercials is available for free viewing and download. A must for anyone interested in advertising trends, marketing directed at women, and the media's tendency to get the whole point of feminism wrong every, single time.

Another Liberation Movement
On the weekend of October 11/12, tens of thousands of gays and lesbians descended on our nation's capitol to protest blatant, government sanctioned discrimination and make a profound statement: ENOUGH. We have had enough of waiting, enough of having to hide, enough of hearing about young queers whose shame has driven them to suicide, enough of gay-bashing, enough of paying our taxes and serving in the military and contributing to society and still being denied our civil rights.

Ever since the Stonewall riot, gays and lesbians in America have been staging a liberation movement. The march on Washington D.C. in early October was the loudest, proudest organized gathering of queers the nation has seen. It received widespread media coverage. A-list celebrities were on hand not just for photo ops, but to vocalize their support. America's gay rights movement has evolved from a handful of pissed off patrons of a local gay bar to a national phenomena. In this respect, we really have come a long way, and Madison Avenue started courting the Pink Dollar long ago. What, though, is the struggle all about? What freedoms are we really fighting for?

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Gays and lesbians have the attention of the mainstream media. If ever America were poised to hear what we have to say, and what freedoms we demand, that time is now. But what are these freedoms? As someone who identifies as both a lesbian and a feminist I know the freedoms I place the highest value on are about full inclusion and representation, official and significant recognition of my relationship, and protection under the law. I also place great value on the freedom to be out and proud, without fear of violence or recrimination.

I've known enough chauvinistic dykes to know that not all lesbians are feminists. I know it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. When I see the little bit of freedom and visibility the lesbian community has managed to secure being squandered on desperate challenges to a soap opera star to pose in her underwear, it kills me a little bit inside. Is this really what being an out and proud lesbian in 2009 is about? Begging a heterosexual woman to send a tweet, show some skin, play along and pretend she's a team player for just a little bit longer? Is this in any way different from the sleazy guy who shoves a dollar bill in the g-string of some down-and-out single mom, and reckons it buys him the right to cop a feel? If so, if this is what gay liberation is all about, then the only conclusion I can draw is that the Women's Liberation Movement and the Gay Rights Movement are mutually exclusive and cannot co-exist.

I refuse to believe this.

The Gay Rights Movement I'm a part of isn't any more about defending the rights of lesbians to act like twelve year old boys in their objectification of heterosexual women than the Women's Liberation Movement was about defending the right to become unwitting victims of the tobacco industry. Madison Avenue, Hollywood and network television will almost certainly cheapen whatever strides the gay and lesbian community makes. The idea that factions of the lesbian community seem more than willing to help them in this sickens me. The idea that factions of the lesbian community are so comfortable behaving in ways that the Women's Liberation Movement has rallied against makes my blood boil. This is true: people have died defending the rights of both women and homosexuals. To what end?

If this is what Stonewall has ultimately resulted in, have we really come a long way, baby?


weltatem said...

You probably know Ariel Levy and her book on "raunch culture" called "Female Chauvinst Pigs?" Here's a great exerpt:

I think it boils down to an issue of empowerment, which can never be total, unambigous, or completely liberatory. It's a matter of gaining a clear understanding of what is being lost and what is being gained; to continually create and defend the space to become more and more like our better selves.

Snapper said...

No, I don't. I'm a virtual illiterate, when it comes to this topic. I don't read *any* feminst theory, because I really believe feminism is more about common sense and regular, old "playing fair" than anything else. That piece is interesting,though. For some reason it reminds me of a 35+ yr old women I know who, a few years ago, started wearing one of those short, plaid skirts, white knee socks and chearleading shoes, because her 45 yr old boyfriend thought school uniforms were sexy. I found it disturbing that she considered it a liberating, feminist move to indulge her bf's fixation with 16 year old girls. I found it pathetic and sad to see a bright, attractive 35+ year old woman wearing a 16 yr old's get-up.

Also, for the record, I'm not against 12 year old heterosexual boys and their reactions to women in panties, either. It's when 40 year old men and women exhibit that 12 year old behavior that I start having trouble.

Soaps&Politics said...

Kudos!! This is a very thought provoking blog post. The tweet example given is wonderful. Some of said actress's fans have been borderline for months but last week was the line in the sand for me. Unfortunately the follow through on the actresses part also made me squeamish.

jarocks123 said...

Thanks so much for bringing this issue to the fore. This behavior is simply appalling and were these men behaving this way, the lesbian community would be offended. I think the basic rule of thinking whether you would want anyone treating your mom, your sister, your girlfriend or your daughter in such a way is a good one to follow. I have a hard time believing any of these women would answer in the affirmative. As for the actress following through, I can't speak for her, but I think that many women tend to go along with this stuff so as not to make waves. They may regret doing so later, but they simply alter their behavior so as not to encourage it, but the offenders unfortunately never have to change their behavior. I'm not a beatiful actress, but I would guess that she probably has become inured to this stuff over the years. Happens to all women and undoubtedly more to the more pulchritudinous of the population.