Posted by: *carrie* | April 6, 2010

Are we approaching another backlash era?

I’m in the midst of reading Susan Faludi’s Backlash. The book first appeared in 1991 – so I’m not exactly discussing new information. I am, however, discussing relevant and important information.

If you’re not familiar with it, Faludi’s book argues that American culture, both pop and political, during the 1980s encompassed a backlash to the progress women made during the 1970s.

You’ve probably heard that fashion trends happen in a 20-year cycle. My mom jokes that she just saves her clothes, because they’ll be back in style eventually. Gains and push-back can often happen in the same manner.

Almost 20 years after Backlash first appeared, after Riot Grrrl and sex-positive feminism and during the continued growth of Third Wave Feminism,  is it possible we’re seeing the same pattern?

Faludi begins her argument with “Myths & Flashbacks”. She lists some statistics designed to frighten women into having children,  sooner rather than later. There are more statistics and stories about the “man shortage”, designed to remind women that their number one goal should be landing a man, which leads to becoming the ideal wife and mother.

Marriage is being challenged in all shapes and forms now. The “sanctity” of marriage. Gay marriage. Who should marry. Who shouldn’t. What about polygamists and trans and genderqueer people?  How do we define marriage? While the left continues to push in favor of equality in marriage, the right continues to uphold marriage as some absolute mandate of society. But only in a heteronormative, God-fearing society, the society which they wish to dictate to everyone else.

There are happily child-free couples, who can join child-free groups. Yet, the magazines that clutter the checkout line at my grocer are still full of celebrities and their offspring. It would appear Hollywood, if not the rest of America, is having another baby boom.

Faludi continues to delve into popular culture. If there’s one thing you should know about Third Wave, GenX feminists, it’s that we love to analyze pop culture and its larger meaning in our world. I am no exception here.

The 1980s, as Faludi asserts, were filled with films of macho men. If women were there at all, it was typically in the background as a mother (good) or an overbearing boss (bad) or an evil femme fatal (also bad).  We don’t even need to break out the Bechdel Test .

So what about current films? Some of 2009’s Best Picture nominees, and most talked about films, were UP, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, and Avatar. (spoilers ahead). UP managed to show a partnered, fairly equal-looking marriage, where in old age, it was about still the man’s journey and adventure. The Hurt Locker is a war film, where the female character with a few seconds of screen time is relegated to stay-at-home mom. Inglorious Basterds is another war film. There’s a major female character, whose purpose (while sympathetic) is to provide an opportunity for her to enact revenge, aided by men. Avatar had more women than the aforementioned films. Of course, the woman who was outside the patriarchal system is played up as a tough scientist who gets her redemption by dying. The other women, the Na’vi, share hunting and other responsibilities with the men of their people, yet the men still choose any woman they want as their wife and a man (never a woman) ultimately becomes the leader.

We’ve made some strides from the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon style films (which I actually really enjoy). We’re absolutely kidding ourselves if we think we’ve come all that far.

I will throw in here (and anytime I can make it at all seem relevant) that my favorite film of 2009 was Whip It. Notable because it’s a film about a girl. Directed by a woman. Written by a woman. Starring women. It’s a story that really does have wide, mass appeal. (Who doesn’t love coming of age stories?) And it was marketed, wrongly, as another ‘chick flick’.

Moving on to television. The 1980s included shows like Married with Children and Family Ties and The Cosby Show. Television showed us that the nuclear family was the ‘norm’. Even in families where the mother worked, she was shown being a mother, almost never actually in her job.

Wading through current popular television shows can be a bit murkier, as we have to find our way through all of the reality TV drivel. Shows like The Bachelor and Flavor of Love, which are positioned around the idea that women need to compete over men, and that these men are worth competing over. (Hint: We don’t, and they’re not). Looking at scripted shows, Desperate Housewives stands out as a show that normalizes the nuclear family. Even while the stars of the show engage in all kinds of anti-nuclear-family, God-fearing-behavior, it’s important that they retain their positions within their family structures.

Faludi discusses television shows in the 80s that removed the mother from the equation all together, which brings me to the abomination known as Two and a Half Men. We see a kid growing up between his (seldom-seen and always-made-to-be-evil) mother’s house, and his uncle’s house, where his dad is an apparently permanent houseguest. The men of the show are the dad, who actually is probably an average guy, but he screws up a lot, and the uncle, who is financially successful, but a mess otherwise. I wouldn’t mention it, other than it’s (apparently and inexplicably) one of the most popular sitcoms currently on the air, and it’s telling us that these two men are a preferable choice in child-rearing than the mom.

I can state with some confidence that we’re not experiencing the level of backlash in pop culture that happened in the 1980s, but I do see the trends that are there. What I can also state, is that the politics are already well on their way there.

Politics do tend to ebb and flow. Faludi discusses the politics of the 1980s, most specifically the New Right. The New Right was the conservative and religious wing of the more conservative America. The rhetoric of the New Right is as strong as ever: pro-family, pro-life, smaller-government. (Hi Teabaggers!)

The New Right positioned the nuclear family as the ‘right’ family, with the husband ‘head of the house’ and the wife happily in submission. They even managed to get several women to support this stance. Of course, these women were able to do so by not doing anything they actually advocated.

Sounds kind of like Ann Coulter, a woman who thinks her opinion is valid enough to write books and act as political pundit, saying that she doesn’t believe women should vote. It’s kind of like Sarah Palin standing up for abstinence-only education, while her young daughter, presumably a recipient of this fail-proof abstinence-only education, is pregnant.

For some reason, lots of people, including those who don’t even own their own uterus, think they can decide what choices I make with my body.  Unfortunately, this war on reproductive rights is long from truly won. Under a banner of religious righteousness, anti-choice activists continue to keep a focus on something that should be done and over with, which takes away resources that could be going to other women-friendly causes (like finally passing that pesky ERA or something).

While the pop culture is fun and fluffy and does provide a window into what we’re experiencing, the politics are where the backlash war needs to be stymied. I don’t think we’re in a backlash era as prevalent as the one in the 1980s, but I think the time is ripe for one to emerge. The best way to prevent and fight it is to keep pushing for women leaders; in politics, in local governments, in business, in the media. And to keep ignoring the messages about what women “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing, and do what you, as a person, want and need to do.

I just started reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. In the introduction, she actually mentions Faludi’s Backlash. Douglas states:

…[E]nlightened sexism is more nuanced and much more insidious than out-and-out backlash. As Susan Faludi amply demonstrated, backlash involves a direct, explicit refutation of feminism as misguided and bad for women. Enlightened sexism is subtler.

Whether it’s an out-and-out backlash or a case of enlightened sexism, feminism’s work is still vital.

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Responses

  1. The backlash is continuous – though it can change form.
    Take the Suicide Girls phenomenon: a successful attempt to absorb radical attitude into the porn industry, so every girl/woman becomes a bimbo.


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