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Friday, April 13, 2012

Jennifer Lawrence, Repair Feminism's Brand. Please. (Hilary Rosen)


"His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing."

- Democratic political strategist Hilary Rosen, referring to Ann Romney, wife of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, via Fox News

By now everybody has seen Ms. Rosen say this on the news. Undoubtedly they've thrown shoes, when they heard this obnoxious statement. 

It brought me back to the anger I felt as a young mother, entrepreneur, and doctoral student as people observed me with the kids and asked, finally, "Do you work?" 

Yes, actually, I used to think, enraged at the kind of mindset that produced such condescension. Do you?

I was able to let it go pretty quickly though because the point she was trying to make was clear to me. It was her communication strategy that failed, though the essence of her statement may have some merit: The Romneys may not be able to understand what it's like to be poor.  What it's like to hold down two or even three jobs, and still not be able to eat.

Basically, Rosen was trying to play feminist to score points for the Democrats. But what she failed to understand was that the conventional brand of feminism, which she represents, is off-putting to the average person. In sociology we call it "othering," setting up YOUR side as virtuous (good, virtuous, poor and oppressed) while THEIR side (you invent the sides) is evil, scheming, rich and oppressing. Gender, class, race all intersect into a mishmash theory of the few against the many - "us."

I don't get the feeling that Rosen hangs out with impoverished women of color holding down two or three jobs who still can't feed their kids. I don't get that feeling about the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O'Neill, who offered an academic defense of Rosen that was just as off-putting as the original statement. In her words:
"Do Mr. and Mrs. Romney have the kind of life experience and if not, the imagination, to really understand what most American families are going through right now?"
Gee, Ms. O'Neill, I don't know; do you have the life experience to judge them and look behind their closed doors?

Which is why even though feminism may be theoretically right, the people who formally represent the "brand" sometimes do it more harm than good. ("Those angry, man-hating feminists...")

The Republicans don't have it right either. Frankly the "gun-toting right-wing bear mom" approach, or whatever it's called today, is off-putting too. Just like the Democratic strategy, ironically, it fails as a brand because it relies on hatred and othering at a time when people want unity and peace.

To me, "Republican feminism" feels like a a bad mix of fantasy thinking that includes "Mad Men"-like nostalgia (except it's not ironic), uber-religion, hyper-high-heels-femininity, stodgy traditional religious adherence.

That doesn't mean feminism is dead though. Only that it needs other spokespeople.

If you ask me I would vote for Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is the star not only of "The Hunger Games" (2012) but also of "Winter's Bone" (2010), where she played a very similar character. (Not coincidentally, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," featuring a similarly strong type of female lead (Rooney Mara), came out in 2011.)

What do the Jennifer Lawrence (and Rooney Mara) characters have in common? What makes them so appealing?
  • They are oppressed as women, but refuse to see themselves as victims.
  • When they are attacked, they fight back with everything they have.
  • They not only have, but excel at skills associated with femaleness (caring) and maleness (fighting).
  • They celebrate family and love (even if they're "damaged,") and refuse to shut off the "feminine" side of themselves.
  • Ultimately they see themselves as individuals, without being stereotyped into or rebelling against prescribed gender roles.
I'm a lifelong proponent of equality and it's a subject I studied in graduate school. Obviously there's lots of ways to think about it, and no single formula is going to work for all. But the spirit of 2012 is not about hating and anger and "othering" anymore, if it ever was; we as a nation are tired of war.

This blog post represents my personal opinion about feminism, a cause that matters a lot to me, not a polemic for or against a political party. In fact I find parties to be relatively meaningless.

What I want to see happen, what I wish for is a deeply rooted insistence on unity against divisiveness. I want truth-telling. I want to see people stand together against injustice and be compassionate for the foibles and mistakes that come out of being human.

I disagree with the president of NOW; anyone can imagine that they walk in someone else's shoes, if only they have the courage to stop hating. Hate is just the illusion of strength against the certain knowledge of one's weakness, and it is always a waste of time.

(Well it was worth a momentary dream, wasn't it?)

Have a good evening and good weekend everyone, and good luck!