New Girl(s)—Looking for the Allure in Feminism
The author, who delivered WMC's Girls' State of the Union Message last year, explains why image counts when appealing to teens and young women.
"You can't be what you can't see." One of myriad poignant quotes from "Miss Representation," the documentary on the urgent issue of literal "misrepresentation" of women and girls in media having very real consequences, this one stuck with me for a clear reason: since a young age, I've relied heavily on the inspiration I derive from feminist role models.
However, image is important, and many of my role models come from the pantsuit generation. That represents a new challenge for our time. While I gained inspiration from these women in my childhood, many young women aren't exposed to feminist ideals until later in life. When you're a teenager, being seen as "cool" and "hip" may seem like the highest of goals; so a teenage girl—even one who understands the importance of fighting for women's rights—may not instantly derive inspiration from people who remind you more of your mothers and grandmothers than of your sisters or yourself.
Having role models who are close to us in age allows us to see that having power and influence is not the unique domain of older women. Power and influence must be seen in the hands of young people from diverse backgrounds who can command influence with charisma. To put it in crude terms: in order to reach out to the greatest number of potential young feminists, we have to bring sexy back. That is to say, we need to make the action of standing up for yourself and women's rights worldwide as attractive to young women as the alluring lives of Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga. With my generation, both indubitably have more name recognition than Susan Rice or even Hillary Clinton. Rice and Clinton kick ass on substance, but in the media environment surrounding young girls, we are trained to seek style. Changing that equation has to start with leaders who we can relate to—not only in how they look, but in how they speak, act, and think.
Movements that are effectively catalyzing change and attracting feminist involvement from the young generation feature young, hip, college- and high school-age role models. Our ability to see ourselves in them is key. Quotes like Hillary Clinton's rousing "Women's rights are human rights" are soundbites worth sharing, one that can be used to spark action globally. But it's contrasting voices toward the same goal that can often be more effective in appealing to my peers. I'm talking about the raw, furious, not-going-to-apologize-for-being-angry, and deeply authentic writing and speaking of women like Soraya Chemaly (a blogger on feminist issues at Huffington Post), Jessica Valenti (founder of feministing.com, which expands awareness for the college and high school-age crowd), and Tavi Gevinson (whose journey from fashion to feminism made for an enthralling TEDxTeen talk). Chemaly, Valenti, and Gevinson are sophisticated, passionate, eloquent...and as their writing shows, they also aren't afraid to swear with every expletive in the book. That isn't a bad thing. When Zooey Deschanel of the show "New Girl" caused a social media mini-maelstrom with her statement, "I want to be a f***ing feminist and wear a f***ing Peter Pan collar. So f***ing what?" I was gleeful; her defiance of tired image stereotypes and pride in being "a f***ing feminist" is likely to draw many of my peers to the cause.
In much the same way, Jessica Valenti's Tumblr embodies the unique brand of feminism that can catalyze action from teenage girls. In tone she's relatable and authentic. Where she—and the reader—can't fathom words to respond to indignities (like the outrageous quote of a California judge on rape: "If someone doesn't want sexual intercourse, the body 'will not permit that to happen'"), she uses the hallmarks of social media communication, memes or GIFs (a moving image format). In response to the reprehensible quote from the judge, one of Jason Bateman shaking his head with the words NO NO NO flashing at the bottom. The tags on that Tumblr post? "Rape culture" and "assholes." Over the course of one link, a GIF, and two tags, she expressed her disgust powerfully, and the reader feels uniquely empowered too in this shared comprehension of a giant issue through a quickly understandable communication medium. In addressing such a disgusting quote—part of a larger issue which she covers in both previous and later posts—with the immediately recognizable communicative norms of social media, Valenti exudes both substance and style: the kind college and high school-age girls who might not otherwise declare themselves feminists can relate to.
This isn't to say that I don't look up to the amazing women who first drew me to the feminist cause. I grew up a member of that stereotypical legion of young feminists for whom Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Gloria Steinem were veritable mother goddesses. (I mean that literally. After I had the chance to meet Gloria Steinem, I had to restrain both a laugh and a nod at a friend's reaction: "Yay! Omg!!!! How was meeting Gloria Steinem? Was it like a thousand showers of awesome and happy showered down from the Mother Goddess as badassery emanated from her face?")
But if feminism is about sisterhood, then its continuance is reliant on the burgeoning ranks of role models who look and act like sisters to us. That means women we don't put up on pedestals, because they are deeply relatable; they put their flaws and foibles on display as much as their inspiring accomplishments. If "we can't be what we can't see," it's time for many more girls and young women to step up and be seen as the faces of feminism.
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