‘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 video clip for her song Stupid Girls spiky-haired American pop 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 (which led to a crash) and Hilton’s vacant paparazzi smile. It’s worth a watch!
‘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. 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 Beyonce and Kylie Minogue for portraying sex work, lap dancing and what Roddick calls a ‘pimp or whore’ culture as cool and sexy. ‘The reality (of the sex industry) is not cool’, Roddick told the Evening Standard. ‘The reality is dark and evil and appalling and unregulated.’
Beyonce has also been criticised by feminists for the lyrics to her song Cater 2 U where she tells her man that she lives to serve his every need – from domestic to sexual.
In recent years, Germaine Greer gave Australian women a serve for not protesting about a television ad for Holden four-wheel drives which poked fun at men for lusting after cars and women. ‘How much humiliation are you women up for?’ Greer asked women at an International Women’s Day function on the Gold Coast.
Don’t get me wrong, these points are mostly well taken and I adore Pink. However, I’m going to argue here that the “Stupid Girls” don’t represent the younger generations and that feminists of particular eras should not expect future generations to do feminism exactly like they did.
The message from feminist activists in the 1960s, 70s and 80s is that young women today are letting the team down. Just as Anne Summers famously accused my age group of roughly 40 to 60 year old Generation Xers of dropping the feminist baton, now Generation Y (aged roughly 25-40) are copping it 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 twenty years I spent a lot of time with Gen Y women and men. My impression is that the reality of being a young woman in the 21st century is more about complex value shifts than turning back the equality clock as some of the older feminists simplistically imply. Sure, in these hyper-sexualised times, the preciously sexual Lolitas and posturing blondes with Chihuahuas in their handbags gets the lion’s share of media attention. But for every young blonde icon of today’s ‘raunch culture’ there is a young woman critiquing the ‘pornification’ of women. Yes, there was Britney, Jessica and Paris, but there is also Gwen Stefani (whose latest song is an intelligent and raw meditation on the bittersweet achievement of friendship with your ex), Pink (clearly awesome) and extremely down-to-earth Missy Higgins.
It is true that most Gen Y women don’t call themselves feminists and don’t wish to ally themselves with feminism. But putting the labels aside 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. 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 Two 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 Dad. 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 and for many of them it has passed into history.
Very few young Australian women today realise that 60 years ago a woman could not get served in a public bar in Queensland or 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 used to be all about the fictional hairy-legged man-hating lesbian, not the glamorous feminists like Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf, not to mention Ms Greer who was a bit of a hottie when she posed nude on the cover of Oz magazine.
As someone who has been a feminist activist all my life – mainly 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.
These days around 70 per cent of young women use contraception compared to around 30 per cent 50 years ago. Young Australian women are performing better in school and tertiary education than ever before. The number of women entering Australian parliaments and leading political parties is increasing. The issues around body image continue and there is concern about the rising number of teenagers having cosmetic surgery. However, advertising campaigns, women’s magazines and mainstream television increasingly portray women in a diversity of body shapes.
There has not, to my knowledge, been any large scale research on the values and attitudes of Australian young people but 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 UK aged between 18 and 34. 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. A 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 be readily identified as feminine. Surveys of school girls in the UK 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.
Obviously these findings would not translate directly to Australia, with its highly masculinised culture, but some of the value shifts voiced by young people in the UK are evident in Australia.
For example, former Sydney magazine editor Louise Standsfield is an articulate spokeswoman for her Gen Y tribe. She founded Frankie, a successful magazine targeted to women in their twenties and thirties (and beyond because I still read it in my 50s). Frankie has a rebellious tone and offers an alternative to what Standsfield calls ‘formulaic, stereotypical publishing. ‘Our research has proven women want a magazine that celebrates who they are without leaving them feeling unsatisfied with their body image or their status in life’, she says.
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 beside an article on the best second hand shops along the East Coast for buying funky sunglasses. It has recipes for chocolate fudge brownies and articles on how to build your own coffee table. The fashion is pretty, flowery and feisty at the same time and retro chic items like Holly Hobbie are big. The magazine’s slogan is: ‘Change is one thing I don’t mind.’ In short, Frankie mixes it up and celebrates the choices young women have today.
Standsfield, 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 wanted Frankie to be man-friendly. (The editorial of one issue says the magazine was called Frankie as a gesture of welcome to male readers.)
‘When Germaine 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. To me the ad embarrassed the makers and Holden but not me. Holden will lose female customers. It would make me angry if there were more ads like that. The men in my life don’t support those ads – they are smart and educated and believe in equality. They are not old school.’
Standsfield is a cool, intelligent, liberated and educated young woman but she does vocalise a return to some of the conservative values Australian research has been finding among young people.
‘Me and my friends are all for the old style values that I feel feminism disregarded. I’m all for staying at home with the kids, cooking big beautiful home style dinners. And I’m all for husbands doing that too. The men in my life divide the housework 50/50. I don’t like the hard-nosed image of feminism. You can be gutsy and determined without having to tread on people’s faces to get what you want. I think it’s the quiet ones who get what they want sometimes. I believe in old-fashioned values like politeness and showing respect for elders.’
When told about the legal position of women in Australia before the second wave of feminism regarding drinking in public bars, getting bank loans and working in the public service, Standsfield is surprised.
‘I don’t know what if feels like not to have experienced the effects of feminism. Who’s to say I wouldn’t be a feminist activist if I couldn’t live my life the way I want? But I don’t really distinguish myself as a woman. I don’t feel restricted in any way. I feel free. I’ve never faced any walls in my career. My generation are not downtrodden in any way. 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.’
Standsfield says: ‘It’s sad that Britney Spears and Pink are held up as the symbols of my generation. It would be good if there was something in between that like Australian singers Claire Bowditch and Sarah Blasko. They are just cool girls, they are sweet and they do their thing.
‘I think women my age are travelling well. They have got their heads on right. They understand freedom of choice and they understand the old style traditions. There are a lot of twits out there and there always will be. But we are a on a steady incline to goodness and self-satisfaction and freedom.’
Standfield’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 the Frankie 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 make-up and wishy washy clothes.’ Josie, fifteen, 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.’
This is pretty feisty stuff for a fifteen year old. In my experience of teaching Gen Y women and men for twenty years they do have largely ‘have their heads on straight’.
But to be fair, the majority of young people are not deeply engaged with history. It’s only when they reach mid-life and have a significant amount of real world experience and pain behind them that history becomes meaningful. It took the deaths of my father and grandfather, who served in respectively in the two World Wars for me to engage with war history, Gallipoli, the ANZAC legend and the Kokoda trail. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of Australians are commemorating ANZAC day. Throughout my youth, had I been any more bored by ANZAC day I would have been in a coma. It wasn’t until my 30s, with a renewed interest in world history sparked by September 11, I find myself a bit more interested in war history and geopolitics
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. The World According to Y 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 childrearing equally but only 80 per cent of Gen Y men share that view.
For now though, as the author of No Logo Naomi Klein points out, worldwide the emphasis on activism and politics and social change has shifted from issues of discrimination, sexuality, gender to issue of corporate governance, poverty, foreign affairs and globalism. Feminists don’t need to take this personally.
There has been a complex shift in values which has not been mapped in Australia. The authors of the Demos survey of young people concluded 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.’
I personally agree with this point about intersectionality. Addressing racism, disability disrimination, poverty, climate change and LGBTIQ+ rights is as important to me as women’s equality. None of us are free until all of us are free.
It is wrong to say that feminism has failed or gone backward or is taken for granted by young women because there are still sexist ads and billboards around and there is still significant gender inequality. Sure we still have a long way to go before gender equality has been achieved throughout the world. Feminism was never going to eradicate gendered behaviour completely just as politicians cannot promise that no child will ever again live in poverty.
But it’s clear that women have come a long way. Young women today have a more sophisticated analysis and framing of social issues, they are more confident, freer, less vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy 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. The #MeToo movement is just one example of young women bringing about massive social and cultural change.
After twenty years of hanging out with young women in a university environment I find my Gen X cynicism slipping off a bit. I looked at young women and young men as they listened and commented respectfully and supportively to each other in my tutorials and in online discussion boards, as they chose to write their journalism assignments on issues of social justice and wrote them with deep compassion and empathy and I feel refreshed, hopeful and inspired. I reckon the kids are alright.
In fact I believe the younger generations are our only hope. Only through generational and gender change in political leadership do the looming climate and political catastrophes threatening the entire planet have any chance of being genuinely addressed. I believe women are best placed to lead the much needed turnaround and I have faith that they can and they will.