Imagine a rich, new media landscape—one that extols complex heroines whose lives expand a young woman’s sense of the many ways that it is possible to be; one that de-emphasizes sexuality and appearance as the measures of a woman’s worth. Imagine energized women smartly banding together to solve social problems—using micro-financing to enable other women to launch businesses, for example—instead of leaning dependently on a paternalistic government. Before we look deeper into what our future could be, let’s consider feminism’s trek to date.
In the last 150 years, the United States has accepted a basic ideal of equality between males and females. Best understood, this ideal holds that men and women are first and foremost individuals who live by reason. As such, both men and women have the same requirements for freedom and the same potential for achievement. The belief in these core ideas is what Joan Kennedy Taylor, a feminist and Objectivist intellectual, called “the individualist feminist impulse.”
In the beginning of the American feminist movement, activists sought primarily to secure women’s political equality. Their landmark achievement was the 19th amendment (1920), granting women the right to vote. Other achievements followed: women were granted the right to participate in elections; own, inherit, and will property; work outside the home; retain their property and liberty while married; be protected from a husband’s violence; pursue the education and careers of their choice; get a divorce; and keep their children after a divorce.
“Second-wave feminism” is the name for the renewed activity and interest in the women’s movement which peaked in the 1960s and 70s. The second wave accounted for additional legal rulings about women’s reproductive rights, on rape, and against discrimination in schools and the workplace. Title IX, for instance, was enacted in 1972 and ended sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funding—it’s usually applied in situations where girls participate in school sports.
The second wave included a renewed interest in the moral inequalities that women faced, not just in political inequalities between men and women. Writers and cultural critics sought to persuade their readers that people ought to treat women as equals in all dimensions of life, not just those enforced by the law. Two of the foundational texts of second-wave feminism, Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, described the myriad injuries done to women’s psychological health by cultural norms that undermined their potential for intelligence, creativity, and independence. De Beauvoir and Friedan criticized these cultural norms and called for the morally equal treatment of women, i.e., respect for their full potential as human beings.
An Objectivist View of Feminism
The philosophy of Objectivism, as a type of individualism, holds that a woman is essentially an individual human being. Not only are women politically equal to men, but they are morally equal. Given that women, like men, must use their rational faculties to survive and achieve their values, Objectivism holds that women are subject to the same universal moral principles as men: a woman ought to utilize her mind, pursue her rational self-interest, engage in productive work, and take her life and happiness as an end-in-itself. She ought to engage with others based on the principle of trade, exchanging value for value. In business, this means the exchange of goods. In personal matters, it means the payment of respect, friendship, or love to those who affirm one’s deepest values. All of these are moral—the virtues and values a woman ought to pursue to best maintain her life.
The difference between the moral and political is force. Objectivism holds that the role of the government is only to protect its citizens from the initiation of force. This is where Objectivism parts ways with many of the goals found in second-wave feminism, which would have the government take positive actions rather than simply protect negative rights. Many of the goals that the feminist movement has sought to achieve by means of the government—equal pay for equal work, for instance—Objectivism would endorse as moral ideals, but not as political rights. (In fact, though, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963). This is in keeping with Objectivism’s more fundamental political value of the right to property: a hypothetical Mr. Misogyny owns his business, and thus he must be free to trade on his own terms, including paying women less, if he chooses. Morally, he ought to offer equal pay to women for equal work, because it is not in his long-term interest to alienate half of the talent available in society, or to falsely identify the nature of an individual based on the accidental feature of sex. But it is not the place of the government to force this choice upon him. Individuals could seek to obtain equal pay for women, without violating his property rights, by reasoning with him, protesting outside his business, or, most conveniently, simply working for someone else who will offer equal pay for equal work.
The political and the moral can and do interact with each other. Officials in government were convinced on moral grounds that they ought to grant political rights to women. Amendments to the constitution and legal rulings helped to promote the moral ideal of equality, by creating situations in which people came to embrace the ideal because they were forced to become accustomed to it in the first place. The juxtaposition of the two is best expressed in the second-wave feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” But the political and the moral (or personal) are different in principle. Political equality involves government’s enforcement of equal freedoms; moral equality consists in living by reason and one’s individual choices.
In America, women have achieved political equality. Women have achieved moral equality with men in many respects, too: a woman can attain an education and pursue almost any career of her choice. While some of these moral equalities have their roots in legal decisions, they have become willingly accepted by society. Few would doubt that most professional women are hired because the employer wanted that particular individual as an employee, not because the employer had to hire a woman (based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex). Similarly, at this point in time, schools, universities, and parents educate girls and women willingly.
Finally, in the moral context, the personal lives of women are valued more than they once were. In addition to Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, feminist writers such as Helen Gurley Brown, Rebecca Walker, Mary Pipher, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Eve Ensler, and more, all helped to bring widespread improvement in the way that America viewed women’s self-esteem, independence, competence, intelligence, and sexual freedom.
The feminist movement today pursues a variety of goals, both political and moral. There are feminist activists throughout the political spectrum, including conservative Christians, who argue for equality between the sexes but believe that abortion is to the moral and physical harm of women, and the Association of Libertarian Feminists, who argue that government is yet another oppressor of women and that regulation is to women’s detriment.
But the Left is where the majority of feminist activism and research takes place. Liberal feminists seek government regulations and reforms to assist women: federally funded day care centers, subsidized health-care and welfare benefits, and regulations of businesses to enforce the ideals of moral equality and distribute wealth to poor women. They frequently criticize capitalism as playing a part in the oppression of women—the idea is that by playing to the tensions and anxieties created by a patriarchal society, corporations are better able to sell their products.
One such feminist on the left is Susan B. Douglas, whose new book,Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, includes the leftist arguments above, but focuses on a unique thesis. Douglas zeroes in on popular culture as a perpetrator of sexism. She indicts the last 20 years of mainstream media—music, movies, celebrity journalism, TV shows, and news programs—for perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes and undermining the goal of equal treatment for women. The media does this by “taking account” of the positions of the feminist movement so far (that women can be as competent, wealthy, and successful as men), then re-establishing those ideas in a framework of sexism. Thus, the “Enlightened” in Douglas’ title refers to the fact that sexism today is not the same ignorant prejudice fought by the first and second waves of feminism, but rather, a reply to those battles and a new version of itself; the same prejudice, but now with rhetorical defenses such as irony and (alleged) self-awareness.
Girls and Trampolines
One of Douglas’s examples is The Man Show. The closing segment of The Man Show features scantily-clad women jumping on trampolines, while the camera tapes their bouncing breasts and allows the viewer to see their thighs, bras, and underwear. This is what an early feminist critique would refer to as sexual objectification—the woman is portrayed as merely being a means to sexual pleasure and gratification for men, rather than the subject of her own life, pursuing her own ends. But the shtick is also a reference to those feminist criticisms, and a reconfiguration of them. Here are the multiple messages that the show is sending to its audience:
- The first level is to take the camera’s viewpoint by itself, enacting what we might call simple sexism: the male gaze invading the woman’s privacy by openly staring at her body and peering under her clothes.
- The second level is the comic exaggeration of the act—this is not an accidental glance at a woman’s cleavage when she leans forward, or a glimpse of her slip when she crosses a leg. The women are vigorously bouncing in the air and their clothes are lifting almost entirely off their bodies.
- The third level is implicit and it comes from the first two facts together: it’s the awareness that depicting women jumping on trampolines for the sexual enjoyment of men is sexist. Parodying an idea implies knowing what that idea means. In order to choose what elements of an idea to exaggerate for effect, one must know which of its features are essential and which are accidental. In the case of women jumping on trampolines at the end of The Man Show, the scene does not depict the women foolishly falling off the trampoline to ridicule their clumsiness, nor doing acrobatic tricks to showcase their ability, because these are not the essential features of the message that the scene seeks to convey. The essential feature is women reduced to their sexual body parts—their shape accentuated by skimpy clothes, highlighted further by the sheer physicality of the activity: jumping up and down.
Douglas explains that it is:
“…understood that it is sexist and ridiculous to have bikini-clad women jumping on trampolines and, furthermore, that the guys who wanted them to do this were morons. This is the knowing wink: guys are so dumb, such helpless slaves to big breasts, and the female display is, in the end, so harmless, that a feminist critique is not necessary. Therefore, the objectification of women is now fine; why, it’s actually a joke on the guys. It’s silly to be sexist; therefore it’s funny to be sexist… sexism is meant to be seen as pathetic… [and] If there is no more sexism, then there is no longer a need for sexual politics, and sexual politics can be mocked and attacked. (13)”
The Man Show is “taking account” of the fact that it ought to portray women as equals to men—and explicitly flouting the moral obligation. It’s one of the easier targets in Douglas’ scope, but Douglas argues in Enlightened Sexism that the “shield of irony” is employed more or less subtly throughout the media to disguise underlying sexist messages.
“The F-Word” and the Future
However, Douglas ultimately seeks a solution beyond a more dignified portrayal of men and women in the media. What begins as a critique of rhetoric becomes a critique of capitalism. Like many feminist intellectuals, Douglas sees inequality of wealth as a social problem, especially to the detriment to women. Like Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, Douglas charges the media with selling out the female sex, but holds capitalism responsible for providing the money—and thus the motivation—to do so. And like many on the Left, Douglas sees government intervention as part of the solution.
The last chapter of Enlightened Sexism, titled “The F-word,” features two scenarios, one negative, one positive, both set “sometime in the future.” The negative scenario is an abjectly-styled version of our current culture. It includes a stressful living situation for a struggling young middle class family, the disillusionment of the former-feminist-activist grandmother of this family, and cultural and political trends that look ominous for the health and self-esteem of women. Jessica Simpson hawks a line of “Daddy’s little hottie” clothes for tots. There is a persistent wage gap. And social pressure of a conservative bent aims to split women’s identities between a “benevolent sexism” that extols a stereotype of passivity and nurturing motherhood and a “hostile sexism” that rejects women who exercise ambition and take on leadership positions outside the home. Young women growing up in this atmosphere feel pressured to develop sexual identities early on, and they feel that their worth is based on appearance alone. Men are still the predominant occupants of top positions in the media and in the government, while women are funneled into lower-paying “pink collar” jobs. Douglas explains, “The dumb blond, narcissistic ‘real housewives,’ cat-fighting, wedding obsessed, baby-obsessed stereotypes in the media mask and justify this inequality, as does the relentless blitzkrieg against women with power by the pit bulls of talk radio and cable TV news.” (299)
The positive scenario describes this same family and grandmother in a better situation. The mother receives generous benefits from her employer such as paid maternity leave and on-site daycare. This daycare is funded federally by “eliminating a tax loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay only a maximum 15% rate instead of the 35% imposed on top income earners… and by raising taxes paid by the very rich.” (300) Policy reforms include free mammograms and pap smears, and welfare has been reformed to more effectively serve poor mothers. There are a slew of cultural changes in the direction of women’s empowerment in magazines, television shows, academic criticism, and music. The “girl power” theme of the early 1990s has returned, and pop music artists such as The Spice Girls are touring and singing about powerful women. Young women all over the world are speaking out about pay inequities, sexual harassment, and degrading ads and television shows. They form a movement of “F-girls,” who infuse the feminist movement with energy through their activism and their internet presence, which engages in spirited dialogue with the surrounding sexist media. F-girl activists appear on television, write blogs, and speak out about who “deserves” wealth (poor women) and who doesn’t (Bernie Madoff’s wife). They call for free preventative care services for American women—mammograms and pap smears—and education for women in Africa. They picket the TV networks and cable channels that air sexist programs or neglect to hire women, until these situations are rectified. The F-girls also demand pay equity—meaning that women earn the same amount of money, on average, as men, which Douglas calls the “100% solution.”
In a critique such as Enlightened Sexism, it’s useful when the writer offers her “positive scenario,” as Douglas does in “The F-word.” To criticize a thing is to imply that it ought to be different, and a positive scenario shows us what it might be like if we acted on the author’s suggestions to make that difference.
Bringing Individualism Back In
The media’s “Enlightened Sexism” is problematic to the ideal of individual moral equality. To portray women as less intelligent and competent than men, as merely the means to sexual gratification for men, or as having inherently weaker integrity (i.e. gold-digging and cat-fighting), is an injustice.
But the solution should not involve government regulation, welfare, or increasing taxes on the wealthy in order to subsidize the incomes of those with less wealth. The legitimate function of government is to protect the political equality of men and women—their right to be free from the initiation of force. This means that every individual is equally at liberty to pursue his or her goals; every individual is subject to the same laws regarding property. But this isn’t to mean that every person will get an equal outcome, as Douglas suggests by her “100% solution.” Many of the welfare benefits that Douglas suggests should be political goals—educating women in Africa, providing free mammograms and pap smears—are beyond the scope of a rights-respecting government. If one wanted these goals achieved, the project might be taken up by private charities, NGOs, or even businesses seeking to invest in an employee base by offering such services, all without compromising the principles of individual rights to property.
In keeping with property rights and freedoms of speech, individuals seeking to create a rational society would not force media outlets to choose content that portrays women as equals, but rather, individuals should simply not patronize—should not pay—media outlets to broadcast messages they disagree with. Also within the context of the free market and property rights, people might protest against the companies they oppose (as Douglas suggests in her scenario), write cultural criticism about the shows and sponsors (as Douglas does in her book), or create shows of their own which promote different values.
To best engage with Douglas’s scenario, it would be useful to describe what an excellent society would be like for women. What kind of things would we see in the media, if the culture took on the attitude that women had the same potential for intelligence and ability as men? What kind of life could a woman lead, if she embraced her own rational self-interest and lived in a society that supported this decision? And how might this kind of society evolve from the one we live in now?
A media concerned with rational values would have, first and foremost, objectivity in its journalism. Less focus on sex scandals and policing the personal lives of public figures would mean a greater attention to their relevant activities. A female politician seeking to rise in this atmosphere would thus be held accountable for the content of her speech more than her “shrill” or “dominating” tone. Speculation about her policies, motivations, credibility, and competence would put less of an emphasis on her sex than on her individual performance, ideas, and qualifications.
Reality TV, as legitimate entertainment, would continue to offer the intimacy and spontaneity which is its strength over scripted television. But the creators of reality shows could focus their efforts on more dignified dramas. Shows might choose, as their subjects, intelligent women pursuing long-term goals and long-term relationships, and the obstacles and emotional nuances of these, rather than the erratic mood swings of touchy women overly concerned with others’ opinions. Instead of volatile cycles of break-ups and flimsy alliances, reality shows could provide both human interest and useful emotional examples by examining the conflicts that arise from people with truly different ideas and a commitment to constructive problem solving. To wish that glamour and gloss in celebrity culture would disappear is unrealistic—and not necessarily desirable. Shows seeking to portray the wealthiest few might provide more intelligent commentary by examining how it is that their subjects came to wealth. They could distinguish between those who coast on the money they were born into and those who seek to make their own way. They could distinguish between the socialite woman trying to secure a rich husband and the ambitious CEO creating a successful business of her own. In short, they could highlight the difference between Bernie Madoff’s wife and Shelly Lazarus, the CEO of Ogilvy and Mather Advertising, who has represented everyone from Ford to American Express and is responsible for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, advertisements which challenged conceptions of beauty as meaning a stick-thin body.
By encouraging a television gestalt which explores individual merit, cooperation between people, and protagonists that set an example rather than pandering to viewers’ sense of superiority, we could ensure not only a more respectful portrayal of women, but a better example of how relationships might be conducted between men and women in order to achieve their similar goals. Rather than a pre-occupation with “train-wreck” celebrities, we might choose to be fascinated by achievement in the entertainment industry and its requirements—after all, one can assume that it’s not difficult, decision-making wise, to ruin a career, spend all one’s money, abandon one’s principles, and destroy one’s health, but that success and the maintenance of one’s integrity is the interesting and rare thing.
The culture in adult media would, in turn, influence the culture of young women and girls. De-emphasizing sexuality as the measure of a woman’s worth and focusing on merits will lessen girls’ preoccupation with their looks and encourage them to focus on their creativity, talents, and goals. A wider variety of complex heroines will expand their sense of the many ways that it is possible to be. Girls fascinated with growing up and being “cool” will find confidence, self-acceptance, and intelligence on television instead of cat-fights, materialism, and sexual scandal. Girls seeking to individuate from their parents would find a more nuanced landscape of values to reject or embrace. Rebellion could entail pursuing alternative goals rather than self-destructive behaviors.
Combining the moral equality of women with a media culture which highlights productive work and individual merit could lead to free-market responses to women’s needs. Individual employers in this culture would not only be more sensitive to sexist stereotypes, but also more sensitive to the values they might offer to the female sector of society. As such, businesses seeking female talent would more often consider flexible hours or working from home for women during pregnancy, cooperating with day care centers to lower costs for working women with children, and providing health care packages. If insurance was left entirely to the private sector, companies could lower costs by providing packages tailored specifically to women’s needs, such as reproductive health and the exclusion of care for conditions unlikely to effect women, rather than the catch-all packages in government options.
In addition to the free-market responses to women’s needs, women can use the free-market to serve their own needs. They can pool their resources to form women’s banks to start their own businesses, similar to the current micro-financing projects for low-income women in the world today.
An emphasis on individual rights and merit is a much more consistent and powerful argument for change for oppressed women in other countries than the eggshell-walking multiculturalism present today. Globally-minded private business and charities could also promote the moral equality of women in countries where the plight of women is much worse than in America. Charities and NGOs working in developing countries can make it a condition of their assistance that communities involve women in the political process. They might also make aid conditional on ending harmful practices such as female circumcision or toleration of domestic abuse in a particular community. This is a way for the private sector to promote the political equality of women in unstable societies on the basis of voluntary and peaceful incentives, rather than the more volatile and difficult establishment of government in these areas. Furthermore, even less-developed communities that reluctantly include women in their political decisions and trade will quickly find that creation of value is the great equalizer: in communities starved for money and products, it will soon not matter to them whether these values are created by a man or a woman.
Excellent Societies, Excellent Women
Susan Douglas’s book, Enlightened Sexism, is a valid criticism of the moral inequality between men and women portrayed in the media. But the interventionist solutions she suggests are beyond the scope of the proper role of government, which is to enforce only political equality. Moral equality is better achieved by grounding women’s interests as individuals in rational values. Young women growing up in a more woman-friendly society, one which encourages them to pursue their self-interest and de-emphasizes the importance of appearances, will be better able to reach their full potential as excellent women.