I’ve been asked the question that titles this post more than once.
Last week I posted this bit about women and the importance of saving money “just for themselves”. It’s one of those tips that I think young women in particular need to hear. Another tip I often give to my women’s studies students regards their consumption of media: if it’s too hard to subtract, add.
To state the obvious, there’s a lot of sexist, misogynistic media out there. Some of it is in the form of crude advertising aimed at men; much of it in the form of “women’s magazines” which focus on beauty and fashion. Television shows like “The Bachelorette” or “America’s Next Top Model”, magazines like “Vogue” or “Cosmopolitan”, movies like “The Ugly Truth” — all send a troubling message about gender, about appearance, and about the capacity of any of us to find enduring happiness outside of narrowly defined roles. It’s not worth reiterating all that’s upsetting and demoralizing about mainstream media’s portrayal of women. But though many of my students find these magazines and television programs and films to be troubling and damaging to their own sense of self-worth, many also find them hard to give up. Over and over again, I’ve heard my women’s studies students describe reading fashion magazines or watching sexist shows (or, increasingly, looking at mainstream pornography) as “guilty pleasures.” And as a feminist, I’m wary of that phrase.
Obviously, we want to work collectively to reshape the ways in which the media portrays women — and men. It’s a given, too, that every dollar we spend is a vote; buying magazines which promote a narrow definition of beauty, for example, rewards and encourages the publishers and the advertisers. To the extent that we exercise choices within our consumer-driven capitalist system, we are at least partly responsible for those choices. The magazines and movie tickets we buy and the websites we visit matter; our behavior is tracked by curious advertisers and marketers eager to know “what works.” They are already rewarded enough for their contempt for women; why give them more of our precious dollars?
On the other hand, the reality is a bit more nuanced. Many women’s magazines which reinforce a narrow and destructive beauty ideal also feature first-rate writing by women on a wide variety of feminist subjects; magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan have run serious pieces in recent years on reproductive rights and pay equity; Seventeen and Teen Vogue have addressed eating disorders and sexual harassment. Those articles get more readers than comparable pieces in the feminist media; indeed, it’s entirely plausible that many women first encounter serious feminist analysis (whether they realize that’s what it is or not) within the pages of magazines like these.
Hectoring folks to give up magazines or TV shows that they enjoy has its merits, but too often, it perpetuates a stereotype of joylessness. While there is indeed little that is funny about sexism, there’s not much point in encouraging humorlessness in the young. And so rather than insisting that aspiring feminists and feminist allies give up all use of sexist media, I think it’s far more worthwhile to encourage them to augment their regular diet of mainstream infotainment with explicitly feminist material. Rather than soliciting a pledge to give up reading Cosmo, why not encourage a young person to read Bitch or Make/Shift or Ms too? And yes, there is feminist-centered pornography as well. For so many people whose erotic fantasies are conditioned by and fueled by imagery, it may well be better to redirect some of that energy towards different material rather than to insist that they surrender it altogether.
This “both/and” rather than “either/or” approach extends well beyond reading or viewing habits. Particularly for those for whom feminism is something new, or antithetical to the values with which they were raised, living out radically egalitarian values in every aspect of life right away is difficult. Embracing feminism comes as naturally as breathing for some; for others, it proves colossally difficult. And for those who find themselves experiencing internal tension between their feminist values and the habits, responsibilities, and pleasures to which they have become accustomed, it’s important to offer the reassurance that yes, it’s okay to live between what you already accept to be true and what you are not yet ready to give up.
Feminists don’t issue citations for laughing at a sexist film, or spending an hour engrossed in “America’s Next Top Model.” After all, we live in a world so thoroughly saturated with misogyny that few if any of our public or private pleasures are untouched by it. Seeking out feminist media, seeking out feminist community, seeking out feminist inspiration is something we can do even while we can continue to live, work and on occasion delight in aspects of a decidedly unfeminist culture. And if you’re not ready — and perhaps never will be ready — to extricate yourself fully from that culture, you can still embrace the alternative worldview that feminism offers. If you’re not ready to subtract, just start adding.