Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why I'm a Feminist

I started thinking about this post about a week or so ago, after Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke -- a Georgetown Law student who testified before Congress in favor of insurance coverage of birth control -- a "slut" and a "prostitute."  I'm not going to bother linking to the video, or to one of the many stories online now about the controversy.  Unless you've been living under a rock for the past week, you've heard it already.

I've self-identified as a feminist since college, after I took a media and cultural studies class that talked about the theories and attitudes behind feminism.  Prior to that, I don't believe I thought about gender activism much.  In my young life, I had never felt repressed or restricted because of my gender.  I had grown up with family and teachers who told me I could do whatever I wanted.  If I thought of feminism at all -- and I'm now ashamed to admit this -- I thought of the angry, man-hating "womyn" often satirized on television and in film.

But in that class, I started to see the subtle, yet insidious, ways gender roles are reinforced in media and film.  Take, for example, a movie like Clueless.  Cher, the heroine, is depicted as flighty and shallow, concerned only with clothes and boys, until she falls in love with her activist stepbrother Josh and changes herself so he'll like her.  Or Sex and the City, where intelligent, educated women with successful careers spend entire episodes talking to each other solely about men and fashion.  Or any of the numerous romantic comedies and romance novels where thirty-something (or even twenty-something!) women, often with successful careers and social lives, are ridiculed or pitied by their families and friends for not being married (The Wedding Date, Picture Perfect, Bridget Jones' Diary, 27 Dresses, et al).  (In contrast, when was the last time you saw a movie about a guy being harrassed by family and friends because he isn't married?)  Or even take the not-so-innocent 1978 musical Grease, where the grand finale features goody-two-shoes Sandy dressing in spandex and leather to woo her biker bad boy.  No one remembers that Danny spent a good chunk of the movie going out for sports teams and going all All-American High Schooler to win Sandy, because as soon as the spandex and platform heels came out, there went Danny's letter sweater.

I was also introduced to a new idea of feminism, one in which the main idea was that both men and women should be treated and regarded equally in society.  Well, of course, I thought, I believe in all that stuff.  My professor then went on to point out that, as a woman especially, why wouldn't you be a feminist, when the only requirement is the belief in male and female equality?

Since then, I've been subjected to questions -- from boyfriends, from friends, from coworkers -- as to why I would identify myself as a feminist.  After all, men and women are equal now, right?  Women can now vote and go to college and get jobs and do whatever they want.  What more could we ask for?  And if there are movies and books and television shows and comics out there that perpetuate stereotypes, so what?  It's just entertainment, right?  No one actually watches Grease and thinks, "Gee, I really need to give up my poodle skirts and cardians and start wearing spandex and heavy makeup."  It's not like anyone even wears poodle skirts anymore, anyway.  I'm clearly reading too much into it.

But then comes a debate like this.  Should private organizations be required to provide insurance coverage for birth control, even if such medication violates the core beliefs and principles of that organization?  But instead of discussing that point, Limbaugh resorted to calling Fluke -- who had done nothing more than testify her point of view to Congress -- a slut and a prostitute, and saying that Fluke should post her sexual encounters online.

Limbaugh has since apologized for his statements.  Whether because of genuine remorse, or because his advertisers starting fleeing from the show, I don't know.  It doesn't really matter.  The fact is, Limbaugh himself has acknowledged that his remarks were inappropriate and uncalled for.  So why does it matter?

It matters because a discussion that should be about the authority of the government and the rights of private institutions has instead focused on women's sexuality.  If a woman advocates for having birth control subsidized by insurance companies, it must be because she's having so much sex.  Let's overlook the fact that women take birth control for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with sex, including regulating their periods, lessening painful periods or heavy periods, managing hormonal disorders and ovarian cysts, and even clearing up acne.

But let's pretend, just for a minute, that every woman who takes birth control is taking it for contraception, that they are sexually active and choosing to use birth control pills to prevent pregnancy.

So what.

That's a statement, not a question.  So what.  What does it matter?  Don't women have the right to have sex with whomever they want, whenever they want?  If one woman wants to have sex with one person, or one thousand, how is it anyone's business but her own?

Yet so much of this debate has focused not on whether the government should force private institutions to subsidize birth control in their insurance plans, but on whether we should pay women to have sex.  And every time the debate turns in that direction, there's that unspoken -- or, in Limbaugh's case, spoken -- accusation: that women having sex are bad and dirty and whorish, that it's not acceptable for a woman to have sex, outside of marriage, possibly with multiple partners.  Subsidizing birth control will encourage more women to have sex, and that's not okay. 

Yet we also live in a society that often encourages men to "sow their wild oats," so to speak, to go out and have sex with as many different partners as possible.  If it's not actively encouraged, it's at least overlooked.  Certainly men who do so are not subjected to the same cruel rhetoric as women are.

Yes, we live in a society that allows us to educate ourselves and get jobs and pursue our own happiness -- no matter what our gender -- and I'm grateful for that.  But we also live in a society that still holds double standards for men and women.  And it's not only bad for women; it's bad for men, too.  We still live in a society that teaches men to view women with sexual histories as sluts.  We still live in a society that teaches women to feel ashamed of their own sexuality.

And that's why I'm a feminist: because we're still not equal.