Reportage

They’re not stupid girls

Maybe if I act like that, that guy will call me back,

What a paparazzi girl, I don't wanna be a stupid girl,

Baby if I act like that, flipping my blonde hair back,

Push up my bra like that, I don't wanna be a stupid girl.

 

IN THE CLIP for her song Stupid Girls, spiky-haired twenty-six-year-old American singer Pink (real name Alecia Moore) mocks her celebrity contemporaries: pop singer Jessica Simpson, actor Lindsay Lohan and heiress Paris Hilton. In the video clip, Pink - who calls herself a feminist - sends up Simpson's bikini car-wash video clip, Lohan's famously bad driving and Hilton's vacant paparazzi smile.

"In the '50s, women were supposed to just smile and stay in the kitchen. Now we're supposed to just smile and run around and look sexy. The big difference is, instead of men telling us to do this, we're doing it to ourselves," a clearly frustrated Pink told the New York Daily News last year.

She's not the only one who feels that the current crop of young women have taken the status of women backwards. Australian feminist Anne Summers will tell anyone who'll listen that we have reached "the end of equality". Body Shop founder Anita Roddick has criticised pop stars like Beyoncé and Kylie Minogue for portraying sex work, lap dancing and what Roddick calls a "pimp or whore" culture as cool and sexy. And in March this year, Germaine Greer gave Australian women a serve for not protesting about a television ad for Holden four-wheel drives that poked fun at men for lusting after cars and women. "How much humiliation are you women up for?" Greer asked at an International Women's Day function on the Gold Coast.

The message from feminist activists from the '60s, '70s and '80s is that young women today are letting the team down. Just as Summers famously accused my age group of Generation X-ers of dropping the feminist baton, now the female members of Generation Y are criticised for using and abusing the freedoms won by the warriors of the first and second waves of feminism.

As a lecturer in journalism at two Queensland universities over the past five years, I've spent a lot of time with Gen Y women. My impression is that the reality of being a young woman in the new millennium is more about complex value shifts than turning back the equality clock as some of the older feminists simplistically imply. It is true that most of these women don't call themselves feminists and don't wish to ally themselves with feminism, but there are many indicators that young women have absorbed feminist messages and are living feminist lives.

 

THE SUCCESSES OF feminism sowed the seeds of its failure, argues Generation X-er Rebecca Huntley, author of The World According to Y (Allen & Unwin, 2006). Huntley believes "Y women" take gender equality for granted. "Young men and women have internalised feminism to such an extent that many of them question its relevance as a social movement."

It's a relevance thing. My father served in World War II and used to get frustrated because I didn't recall the details of war history the way he did. I told him: "I wasn't there. I don't engage with it like you do because you lived through it." Gen Y women did not live through the second wave of feminism; for many of them, it has passed into history.

Very few young Australian women today realise that thirty or forty years ago a woman could not get served in a public bar in Queensland - that Sigrid Thornton's mother, Merle, chained herself to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane to highlight this injustice - or that women could not get a bank loan without their husband's signature and had to resign from the public service if they married.

The history of feminism as a social movement is heavily embedded in the social studies and civics sections of school curricula, but it's an optional study stream along with the history of race relations, the environment movement and unions. A friend who teaches at a prominent Brisbane high school tells me that most teachers choose not to teach feminism and most students choose not to do their assignments on it. Does that lack of knowledge mean feminism has failed? The current bad image of feminism is all about the fictional hairy-legged man-hating lesbian, not the glamorous feminists like Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf - not to mention Doctor Greer, who was a bit of a hottie when she posed nude on the cover of Oz magazine.

As someone who was a feminist activist throughout the 1990s - campaigning for improved portrayal of women in the media - I reckon we should not get too hung up on the labelling or image of feminism. The truth is: feminism worked. It took. And the way young women are living today is the evidence. There is still a long way to go, but we should recognise and celebrate the effects of feminism on young women today.

A few years ago, the Demos Foundation in the United Kingdom did a massive survey of what they called the "Seven Million" generation - the seven million people in the United Kingdom aged between eighteen and thirty-four. Their report was called No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake, and it found that "the cultural and economic enfranchisement of women is deep rooted and irreversible": "The advance of women in our culture and parts of the economy is shifting the debate away from the assumptions both of defenders of more traditional values and of an earlier generation of feminists. An older agenda of rights ... is being superseded by a much more complex set of issues: overwork for some, underwork for others, discrimination against men as well as women, sexual harassment by women as well as men; coping with cultural barriers to male adaptation as well as the remaining barriers for women."

The study found that British values have been feminised to the extent that core values can readily be identified as feminine. Surveys of schoolgirls in the United Kingdom found they have greater self-esteem, are happier than their male peers, are more ambitious, are more likely to want to continue in education, and are less likely to want to start a family when they leave school than boys.

 

THESE FINDINGS WOULD not necessarily translate directly to Australia, with its highly masculinised culture, but some of the value shifts voiced by young people in Britain are evident in Australia.

For example, Sydney magazine editor Louise Stansfield is twenty-seven years old and an articulate spokeswoman for her generation. She edits Frankie, a successful magazine going into its second year that is targeted to women in their twenties. Frankie has a rebellious tone and offers an alternative to what Stansfield calls "formulaic, stereotypical publishing". Frankie is an interesting mix of fashion, art, popular culture and think pieces written by young freelancers. It might juxtapose a piece explaining in simple language the situation in the Middle East with an article on the best second-hand shops along the East Coast for buying funky sunglasses. The magazine's slogan is: "Change is one thing I don't mind." In short, Frankiemixes it up and celebrates the choices young women have today.

Stansfield, who took women's studies at university, attributes many of the freedoms she enjoys today to feminism, but doesn't call herself a feminist. She has a more thoughtful approach to gender issues than perhaps some of the older feminists give her generation credit for. "I wouldn't associate myself with Germaine Greer. She represents an unbalanced view of feminism. She comes across as anti-men. I wantedFrankie to be man-friendly."

(The editorial of one issue says the magazine was called Frankie as a gesture of welcome to male readers.)

"When Greer criticised Australian women for not protesting about that Holden ad, I felt really angry because she was patronising Australian women as a whole. Does she really think we are stupid enough to take that ad seriously? The ad didn't take power away from women; it took power away from Holden. The men in my life don't support those ads - they are smart and educated and believe in equality. They are not old school," Stansfield says.

Stansfield's views and values have gained serious traction with her target audience. Young women and men have written to the magazine and to forums like Triple J and web logs expressing their approval of theFrankie ethos. Fourteen-year-old Alexis emailed Triple J to say: "It's simple yet effective. No Paris Hilton, just real shit and I love how it's so eccentric ... no bullshit about boy/girl relationships and Jessica Simpson style makeup and wishy washy clothes." Josie wrote: "I'm a fifteen-year-old living in a world where people assume teenage girls are reading magazines about 'how to kiss a boy with braces'. I hate those magazines with a passion and I pity my friends who read them. Frankie is new and I love it. It's mature, creative and above all it doesn't tell me where to place my tongue in his mouth."

"Who's to say I wouldn't be a feminist activist if I couldn't live my life the way I want?" says Stansfield. "But I don't really distinguish myself as a woman. I don't feel restricted in any way. I've never faced any walls in my career. My friends all have careers and we are not under the rule of a man in any way or getting their dinner when they get home. Is that because of feminism? Definitely. I think women my age are travelling well. They have got their heads on right."

 

IN MY EXPERIENCE of teaching Gen Y women and men for five years, they do largely "have their heads on right", but they also have some things to learn about the history of feminism. Before they diss feminists like Germaine Greer for being too hard-nosed, they could learn a bit about why the warrior women had to slice off one breast to use a bow and arrow to pierce some sense of justice into men's hearts. It hurts a bit to hear young women say how disfigured the warriors are from the battle for the freedoms that young women enjoy.

But the way Gen Y girls feel about feminism and whether we need to keep lobbying for structural gender equality may change when they have children. Rebecca Huntley quotes a study that found 93 per cent of young Australian women believe that if both partners are working full-time they should share the housework and child-rearing equally, but only 80 per cent of Gen Y men share that view.

For now though, as Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo (HarperCollins, 2000), points out - worldwide the emphasis on activism and politics and social change has shifted from issues of discrimination, sexuality and gender to corporate governance, poverty, foreign affairs and globalism. Feminists don't need to take this personally.

There has been a complex shift in values that has not been mapped in Australia. The authors of the Demos survey of young people mentioned above conclude that, for the women's movement, there is a fundamental problem. "The very identity of the movement is predicated on the need for a separate agenda for women," they write. "In the post-equality generation the convergence between men's attitudes and women's cannot be ignored. Young men and women increasingly have similar attitudes not only to work and politics but even to feminism itself. In terms of political tactics, women's issues should no longer be seen in isolation."

If you look at the Australian women in the vanguard - the under-thirties elite, university-educated and pushing the boundaries - and compare them to the same elite in the past four decades, it's clear that womenhave come a long way. Young women today have a more sophisticated analysis and framing of social issues, they are more confident, increasingly free, less vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. They are not only ordering drinks at the public bars, they are winning pub trivia competitions. They are not deluded about the problems in society, including the continuing problems for women.

After five years of hanging out with young women in a university environment, I find my Gen X cynicism slipping off a bit. I look at young women and young men today as they listen respectfully to each other in tutorials, as they choose to write their assignments on issues of social injustice and write them with great compassion and empathy, and I feel refreshed. I reckon they are alright. 

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