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CATHY YOUNG

Feminist excess revisited

AFTER LAST November's election results, kicking the feminist left when it's down just doesn't seem very sporting -- particularly at a time when people who openly advocate female subordination as part of their creed have a disturbing amount of influence on the right. But that's all the more reason to be exasperated when feminism devolves into irrelevancy and silliness just when a sane pro-equality message is needed most.

Exhibit A: A recent Slate.com essay by Laura Kipnis, professor of media studies at Northwestern, telling readers that "there's simply an irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and femininity." According to Kipnis. "Femininity . . . tries to secure advantages for women, primarily by enhancing their sexual attractiveness to men. It also shores up masculinity through displays of feminine helplessness or deference." Meanwhile, feminism "strives to smash beauty norms" and "demands female equality in all spheres" -- but alas, it has failed to eradicate women's (even feminists'!) infuriating desire to be beautiful. The problem, Kipnis hectors, is that "the beauty culture is a heterosexual institution, and to the extent that women participate in its rituals, they, too, are propping up a heterosexual society and its norms" -- norms which supposedly subordinate women to men.

And here I thought this kind of rhetoric had withered away some 30 years ago, except for a brief flare-up in Naomi Wolf's 1991 bestseller "The Beauty Myth." But no. Never mind that in the intervening years, the equation of femininity with helplessness or submissiveness has been thoroughly exploded in popular culture. Our ideals of feminine beauty now include athletes and the strong heroines of television shows like "Alias," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," or "Xena: Warrior Princess," more than capable of holding their own against men.

Kipnis's polemic is not only tripe, it's self-defeating tripe. If you tell women that they must choose between feminism on the one hand, and beauty, femininity, and heterosexuality on the other, there goes 99 percent of your target audience (newsflash: beauty and femininity are not exclusively heterosexual turf).

Exhibit B: An article in another respected liberal Web magazine, Salon.com, defending patriarchy's latest victim: Jennifer Aniston. The former "Friends" star, author Rebecca Traister complains, is being "pilloried" because her split with husband Brad Pitt was apparently caused by his desire for a child and her desire, at 35, to postpone motherhood and focus on work. Traister is seeing red over "a regressive and scary message to women": The only thing that matters is "our ability and willingness to reproduce," while putting professional ambition first is stigmatized.

Just where Aniston is being "pilloried" is unclear. To Traister, simply reporting that Aniston is (according to her friends) reluctant to have a baby or that her grueling filming schedule for the next three years would leave little time for it, reeks of disapproval. In fact, nothing that's been said about Aniston approaches the nastiness of Traister's jabs at Pitt for being too outspoken about his desire to be a dad. Besides, shouldn't feminists be candid and admit that if you're a woman in your mid-30s and want children, waiting much longer is not a good idea? Or that, for most people, parenthood is a vitally important part of life?

Exhibit C: On the op-ed page of The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd gripes that men are egocentric babies who want submissive women, not equals. Her proof? An alleged trend of powerful men marrying their personal assistants, secretaries, nannies, and the like (illustrated by a couple of movies and a couple of anecdotes) and a couple of recent studies, one of which, from the University of Michigan, shows that men regard a subordinate as a more desirable wife than a boss.

What's that all about? Well, the male college students in the study were shown a photo of a woman and asked to estimate her desirability as a marriage partner on a 1-to-9 scale. When the woman was described as their hypothetical assistant, she got an average rating of 6.4; a co-worker got 4.9 and a supervisor 4.2. (Women gave men an average rating of about 3.1.)

Whatever this tells us about how men interact with women in real life, even in theory the higher-ranking women were hardly rejected. Of course there are men who are still intimidated by female ambition. But there are millions of women who have successful careers and successful marriages. Why not pay a little more attention to those couples, and a little less to the well-worn men-are-pigs theme?

With feminism like that -- well, you get the idea.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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