Time magazine’s June 1998 cover featured black-and-white head shots of aging white or fair-haired Susan B. Anthony, Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, alongside a color photo of youthful TV series cult icon “Ally McBeal”. Under the photographs ran the red banner: “IS FEMINISM DEAD”? The cover article [Feminism: It's All About Me!]by Ginia Bellafante lamented the rise of narcissism and body fetish among contemporary young women, self-proclaimed “post-feminists.” Bellafante criticizes the representations of feminism promoted by female hedonistic “Gen-Xers”, yet she offers her own depoliticizing images by representing “responsible” feminism as white and bourgeois. Established black feminists or feminists of color (such as Alice Walker, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Chrystos, Paula Gunn Allen) who contributed to women’s liberation struggles in the “second wave” go unmentioned in Bellafante’s report. This suggests that “Is White Feminism Dead?” would have been a more appropriate title for the cover and raises the question: “Why aren’t black women considered feminists?” or more bluntly, bell hooks’s bold query: “How can racist women call themselves feminist?”
Had the author researched more, she would have found that hooks’s writings convey in a more succinct and holistic fashion her own argument about gender venality. In 1991, hooks wrote:Although the contemporary feminist movement was initially motivated by the sincere desire of women to eliminate sexist oppression, it takes place within the framework of a larger, more powerful cultural system that encourages women and men to place the fulfilment of individual aspirations above their desire for collective change…it is not surprising [then] that feminism has been undermined by the narcissism, greed, and individual opportunism of its leading exponents. A feminist ideology that mouths radical rhetoric about resistance and revolution while actively seeking to establish itself within the capitalist patriarchal system is essentially corrupt. While the contemporary feminist movement has successfully stimulated an awreness of the impact of sexist discrimination on the social status of women in the U.S., it has done little to eliminate sexist oppression.
Bellafante mentions only one black woman – and then as a postfeminist – Rebecca Walker, the daughter if Alice Walker. She describes the former’s body-image anthology To Be Real, as “a collection of airy – sometimes even ludicrous – mini-memoirs explaining female experiences.” Perhaps Bellafante refers to the younger Walker’s anthology only because it includes high-profile white feminists such as Naomi Wolfe. Regardless of why this book was chosen, Bellafante contends that its politics reflect the erosion of the militancy and focus of white feminism as found in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Freidan’s Feminine Mystique, and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics.
That Bellafante considers these texts “radical” seems consistent with TIME’s erasure of contemporary black feminism and radical white feminism. Despite the racial amnesia, class driven feminism, and the artificial schism she wedges between black and “nonblack” feminism, Bellafante does make important points about mainstream feminism. Citing her key literary personas, Bellafante argues that these feminists “made big, unambiguous demands of the world and sought absolute equal rights and opportunities for women, a constitutional amendment to make it so, a chance to be compensated equally and to share the task of raising a family. But if feminism of the 60s and 70s were steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession.” She cites a TIME/CNN poll reporting that education is largely the determining factor in whether a woman identifies as a “feminist” (53% of white, college-educated urban women and 60 percent of white women with postgraduate education and no children consider themselves feminists).
Bellafante traces the current denigration of feminism to Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and the “syndrome” it inspired among white, affluent females: Female power lies in female sexuality; such “power,” in relation to influential men, transports women beyond “victimhood.” In the “syndrome”, the article maintains, can be found the banality of the “Spice Girls”, the “girl power” of Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After, and Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities. The arguments in these and similar works are based on “feminine” power, which offers little advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment, full employment, or reproductive rights but many accolades for the “warrior trope” of the seductress. Feminism, when tied to traditional political activism and demands from state authority and institutions for women’s liberation, has lost much of its meaning. In such situations, the term is applied indiscriminately. According to Bellafante:Female singers like Meredith Brooks and Alanis Morisette are installed as icons of woman power (alongside real artist-activists like Tori Amos) simply because they sing about bad moods or boyfriends who have dumped them. In the late 60s, when the label was applied more sparingly, no one thought to call Nancy Sinatra a feminist, and yet if she recorded These Boots Are Made for Walkin in 1998, she’d probably find herself headlining the Lilith Fair.
Bellafante’s critique says little about the class nature of postfeminist politics and the ways in which self-advancement and gratification are the measures of success for the materially affluent. Most of the young women she criticizes are graduates of Ivy League schools and presumably possess and sense of entitlement and privilege. This is in keeping with the feminist elders – Friedan, Millet – she applauds, who are also beneficiaries of an elite formal education and its attendant privileges. Bellafante blames the shift in emphasis for white, affluent women from activism to sexual displays partly on academe, quoting Barnard College professor Leslie Calman: “Women’s studies, a big chunk of it at least, has focused increasingly on the symbols of the body and less on social action and social change.” The white “Old Guard” feminists are dismayed by their progeny’s depoliticizing, self-obsessive excesses, although supposedly they are only following instruction. Itself preoccupied or obsessed with the young, white female body (enshrined or vilified as seductive siren, from Marilyn Monroe to Monica Lewinsky) mainstream media such as TIME fail to consider the activist role of antiracist feminists. Displeasure and fetish over the display of white “girl power” obscure political issues raised by radical white feminists and other progressives.
Joy James, Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics
The glitziest affair in recent months was a reading of The Vagina Monologues, a performance piece about female private parts by Eve Ensler that attracted Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder and Calista Flockhart, among others. The actresses had come to raise money to fight domestic violence, but the cause seemed lost amid the event's giddy theatrics. Featured were Marisa Tomei on the subject of pubic hair (sample line: "You cannot love a vagina unless you love hair"); Glenn Close offering an homage to an obscene word for female genitalia; and, finally, the playwright delivering three solid minutes of orgasmic moaning. The Village Voice called it "the most important and outrageous feminist event" of the past 30 years.
Fashion spectacle, paparazzi-jammed galas, mindless sex talk--is this what the road map to greater female empowerment has become? If feminism is, as Gloria Steinem has said for decades, "a revolution and not a public relations movement," why has it come to feel so much like spin?
Ginia Bellafante, Feminism: It's All About Me!, Time Magazine 1998