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Monday, February 18, 2008

Where Feminism Has Gone (Wrong): Why today’s definition of feminism is detrimental to our work

As media-makers, our messages ride on the dynamism inherent to media forms: the direct and emotional impact on people, the ability to reach a huge and diverse population, and possibly most important in today’s web 2.0 culture, the speed at which media can be shared.

Independent and Hollywood media-makers alike gear their work toward user participation, and those working for social change are generally excited by the “viral” nature of social sharing of media (even if one does lose control over one’s product in order to obtain mainstream involvement). Women working for social change have looked to film as a powerful media in which they can bring female voices and struggles forth (it is no wonder that most of feminist art was also video art). Today, with film’s expansion into mobile, shareable media, women especially use the internet as one big “indie TV channel” where their messages can be heard loud and clear, skipping over years of festival circuitry and involvement in the commercial film industry—a capitalistic field reliant on connections, near impossible to break into, and generally “an old boys’ club.”

However, as a female indie filmmaker/feminist activist, I have experienced sexism, aversion to “the f-word”—usually predicated on assumptions that feminists are either mean-spirited men-haters or naïve pot-smokers—and bureaucratic coldness like that found within the commercial film industry. And what upsets me most, is that the majority of these experiences have happened with other women. Why?

The openness of today’s indie media platforms also comes with an over-abundance of available media, so the freedom to post and share one’s voice does not mean it can be heard over the cacophony of everyone else doing the same. Being indie is still hard, and being an indie woman filmmaker is even harder. While the film industry can be a harsh world where individuals use other individuals for their own gain, unfortunately, these inhuman standards are alive and well in the indie world too, as we each strive to make “my project” the one that “makes a difference.”

Current feminist media heroes are women who can break into the film industry (Sophia Coppola was the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing (she didn’t win but got “Best Original Screenplay”) for Lost in Translation, Halle Berry was the first African-American woman to win “Best Actress”), women who start their own film companies that comes to be known and profitable, women who star on TV and in movies who contribute to charities and women’s causes, women who break “female” stereotypes and are funny, loud, smart, and so on (see Ms. Magazine’s recent article “Comic Relief”). These women are an outcome of 70’s feminist efforts, showing the world through Amazonian feats of persistence and assertiveness that yes, women are valuable members of society. But these women are also ostracized and scrutinized for wailing away at the norm. It takes “balls of steel” to withstand this cultural critique.

We owe thanks to the strength and competitiveness of these women, for girls today aspire to be everything from lawyers to Oscar-winning film producers. But with all this feminist effort came a backlash, which I feel we are experiencing now. Women said, “Wait! Why can’t I like lipstick and sports? Why can’t I be a mother and a CEO?” We want it all. And why shouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, “wanting it all” has transformed into a tacit social understanding that we must be and do it all (read Courtney E. Martin’s book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, for more on this). We sift through today’s barrage of commercial images, our mother’s advice, and our own internal wishes and desires and conclude that we should be able to be and do all things, since after all, this is age of empowered women, right? We want to be pretty and smart. Powerful but not a bitch. Sexy but respected. Yet we find this a near impossible goal, and incredulously (and in some cases, jealously) wonder how on earth the women around us seem to be pulling this all off—making today’s “empowered” women experience and contribute to increased competition amongst women.

But women need to stop seeing each other as competition in the way of the powerful world of men. We need to stop believing that men hold all the power, and that “female” traits are not those that belong or contribute to power. We need to stop feeling that we must be perfect in order to deserve our power. Why aren’t “chick flicks” films that affect the public? Why is feminism the new f-word? Women need to recognize each other as sisters in the same fight–a fight that will go nowhere if we continue as individuals championing personal causes. It’s true that the personal is political. Our bodies are ourselves. The issues we care about at home are those we base our votes on. But in trying to liberate ourselves from the “female” roles and characteristics that suppress us (i.e. the all-forgiving, timid, nurturing mother/wife/family chef and maid), we have taken on the oppressive hard, cold, egocentric roles and qualities of maledom that we blamed for holding us down. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from each other and even from our own selves.

Gaining the American signs of success (wealth and possessions) is an extremely individualistic process. This mindset of individualism as the road to power, as the path to getting one’s voice heard, even to the “female” goal of bettering the world (which requires power and getting one’s voice heard), leads to isolation and tremendous amounts of singular work and struggle.

Jack Lemmon used to say (according to Kevin Spacey) that those who get to the top must send the elevator back down. There are not enough women who are recognized as having power, this is true, but that does not mean we do not have power. Those women who are in recognized powerful roles need to be open to the queries and efforts of women “below” them, whose powerful efforts to change women’s lives (or even just change the world) are halted by other women who harbor the “I worked hard to get here so you will too” attitude. And women who are not in recognized positions of power need to look at other women as allies, not as competition to achieving their goals (or even snagging that cute someone at a bar).

The world needs to be told that not just anomalous loud, fierce women can “withstand” the responsibilities of bearing their own power. Or that loud, fierce women are not an anomaly. Or that women who are shy, who wear lipstick, work at night, teach kindergarten, have a power that is just as loud and fierce as any feminist lobbyist or protestor, and that women’s needs and rights are still not met on a global scale.

The world needs to hear the voices of many women banding together.

What do women want to achieve with indie media? Beauty? Humanity? Meaning? Social change? While we’re so busy combating the unrealistic, damaging portrayals of women on the screen, behind the scenes we’re treating each other with little respect and interest.

Many women (and men) believe that feminism is over, that because the Vice President of Google is a woman, gender equality has been reached—and that by harping on women’s rights, activists are actually hindering the chance for women to simply be treated as people. However, even from my own personal experience and the experiences of my friends, I say that feminism should not call victory so easily (watch Google’s Vice President, Sheryl Sandberg, talk about women’s lack of professional confidence and how we can utilize user-generated content). Half the population of this earth is female, yet by rejecting feminist group identity for individual "success," we have pushed our quests for respect, confidence, and legitimacy into private and internal realms, where they become impossible one-woman efforts.

Whether you’re a grip, CEO, or teen girl playing with a camera, we all need to keep the broader community in mind. The effects of your media will be greater with collaboration, since the combined efforts of women involved in many types of projects can change society. If our voices come together in media, if we cooperate on the social change work we are each currently attempting to do separately, society will be forced to respect and value us. First, we must respect and value each other.

Some groups of women I enjoy working with who value each other and each other’s work include the REAL Hot 100, New Moon Girl Media, and the Fund for Women Artists, which is currently helping women across the globe collaborate on projects for Support Women Artists Now Day March 29th! Please share your work with these organizations and others…Let’s get to work ladies!

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