When i was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, it didn’t matter that my parents were some of the earliest feminist leaders on the East Coast, that I grew up watching their activism from up close, or that I saw them live (not just profess) equality between the sexes. It didn’t matter that I was a girl hooked on Ms. magazine from the very first year it was out, that I regularly flipped through my mom’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, or that I ravenously collected Wonder Woman comic books. Nope, none of that mattered. Not when it came to sex and male-female relations. When it came to that all-important thing, tv was my truth. At least, at first.
In place of children’s bedtime stories, my older sister and I got nightly doses of intense live drama depicting the struggles of people in pain, people pushing for change. While the United States was in the midst of great social upheaval—from the civil rights movement and anti-war protests to fights for gay and women’s rights—my parents’ theater and the plays they put on fiercely, heatedly enacted these struggles. Sucking our thumbs and dragging around our baby blankets, my sister and I got front-row seats night after night.
My mother and father were partners. Throughout my childhood there was never any expectation that it should be any other way. They jointly ran the theater. They jointly ran our home. My mother did half the playwriting, half the directing. My father did half the child care, half the housework. My mother discussed politics while she changed the car’s oil. My father discussed his feelings while he scrubbed the toilet. And they both initiated the cuddling that sometimes happened late at night when our living room was full of pretzels, beer, music, and artist-activists. This was my earliest and most intimate example of how men and women should relate: as respectful equals.
One of my parents’ plays ran for years. How to Make a Woman debuted in 1968. It dramatized how society shaped and limited women’s lives, and the role men played in the process. The right idea at the right time, the play received rave reviews and catapulted my parents, along with many others around the country, to the front lines of a relatively new initiative called the “female liberation movement.”
After each performance, the men and women in the audience sat in separate rooms, deeply absorbed in talking about what it was like to be female, what it was like to be male. In 1968, this was revolutionary. It was an era marked by the embryonic beginning of men’s and women’s consciousness-raising, the impetus behind one of the most important social change movements in U.S. history. And starting at age 5, I was privy to hearing—night after night—groundbreaking, honest, exploratory discussions of how oppressive gender roles and relations were in America.
Boy, was I bored.
my mom threw a fit whenever sexism was on.Even as a 7-year-old child I understood; it was her duty. A feminist leader could not be expected to stand idly by as her daughters watched bikini-clad women throw themselves at the well-dressed, not-a-hair-out-of-place James Bond. Even if—especially if—he had valiantly saved them from the evil villain.
But we loved 007. When his movies finally made it to tv it was like we had found religion.
“Oh, god, do you have to watch this sexist crap?” She’d reach for the off knob.
“Mom! That’s our tv show! Put it back on! We want it on! Put it back on!” If we went on long enough without pausing for a breath my mother would get exasperated and we’d be left alone again.
Somewhere in me, though, I knew my angry and scowling mom was onto something. Something wasn’t right in tv-land. To begin with, female skin was everywhere.
Short skirts, tiny shirts—tv women wore distractingly little. Over and over again the camera lingered, then zoomed in on where their clothes met flesh or were extra tight. The repetitious shots soon trained me to automatically focus on these special areas. I started looking for the plunge of a neckline, the length of a leg, the curve of a breast way before the camera went there.
And then there was that look. Those tv women, they’d stare straight at me, head tilted down, to the side, eyes fully opened. They looked like they wanted to say something that maybe they shouldn’t. Like they had something secretive and adventurous on their minds and were trying to tell me without speaking. I learned it as a facial expression that often came just before, or just after, the showing of skin, like that famous line made when breasts—housed in a low-cut shirt—were pushed up and together.
Television men, I noticed, never had that same expression. Instead, we’d see close-ups of their faces after a pretty woman passed by or after we’d zoomed in on that famous line. Those men looked happy—really, really happy—in a strange, pained kind of way.
when i was 8, ogling men and clueless women filled my life each Friday night.
I’d try to get out of going to the theater so I could stay home and watch Love, American Style. The theme never changed. Sneaky men tried to get blondes, brunettes, and redheads to smooch or unwittingly reveal themselves. And somehow, on a weekly basis, in a series of vignettes, countless women fell for it.
A boss might purposely drop a pen and then a secretary wearing a miniskirt would bend over: “Oooh, here, let me get it.” The man’s eyes would bulge at the sight of her straining behind. Amazingly, she wouldn’t notice—until he’d start chasing her around the desk, that is. In another skit a sunbather might rub oil on her body without seeing the three panting men hiding behind a toothpick-thin palm tree. Or a woman might coo: “Tsk, tsk. My clothes are all wet from the rain. Do you have something else I could change into?” Her date would hand her a skimpy robe and apologize with an excited grin, “This is all I have.” Then, with innocent, doe-like eyes, the woman would nod and take it, proving to all of us watching that she had no clue she’d be nearly naked—and quite vulnerable—in mere minutes.
These women were dumb.
They really bothered me.
And though I had never met anyone like them in real life, these tv women were, unfortunately, members of my tribe. Even if I didn’t want to, I had to acknowledge that they belonged with me in the Clan of Femalehood. How embarrassing.
But in spite of my hatred for them, regardless of my embarrassment, I was riveted. If I watched the show, I was sure to catch numerous glimpses of the womanly curves I was fast discovering I craved. I hated how dumb the tv women were, yet I also couldn’t wait to see the results of their stupidity: near nakedness. So I watched, and in the process I learned important things. Rules, lessons for life—basic and fundamental, like:
Certain things are naughty. Women are the keepers of these things. Men want these things. Women try to hold onto these things because they feel bad about themselves if they give them away. Men feel great about themselves if they get them.
Men persist, often with no results, and the longer they persist the greater their chance of getting these things from women. Often, women have to be tricked into giving them up. Men find all kinds of ways to trick them.
Certain female body parts are the naughtiest and thus most crucial, like chests and rear ends. Legs are important too, but not as stop-dead-in-your-tracks, have-a-hard-time-breathing as the others.
Exposed female skin, especially the crucial stuff, is good if you are male, but bad if you are female. (I’d seen more than one tv woman shriek and wildly hop about trying to cover her top and bottom with her insufficient hands.) To get around this good/bad contradiction, men will try to sneak glimpses without women noticing. (Even better than a glimpse is a touch!)
Those rules were easy enough. But there seemed to be more, and they were more complicated:
Women act like they do not want male attention. Acting like they do means they like giving away the naughty things, and that is bad.
Women really do want male attention. Badly. Not because they want to give up the naughty things but because of one simple fact: A woman’s worth is based on whether or not she gets this attention.
Women work to get male attention. They do this by trying to look attractive. Attractive means having a face, hair, and body men like. It means showing off skin or wearing tight clothes. Unattractive women are not worth the time of day. They lead lonely, sorry lives.
There. I was now prepared for womanhood.
What surprised me the most was that the things I heard in my parents’ men’s and women’s groups—things like how come we needed to say “woman” and not “lady,” and why husbands should change diapers, too—seemed so irrelevant. The groups never addressed the important rules from Love, American Style.
My parents were so out of touch with reality.
And anyway, even if my mother and father did manage to show or tell me something about male-female relations in that huge, sprawling theater they practically lived in, it all seemed so insignificant compared with what I was learning from the 14-by-16-inch screen in our living room.
I doodled on scraps of paper. women, always women. More and more they became what I thought prettiness was supposed be: ample breasts and hips; small waists; long, painted fingernails; heart-shaped lips; bikinis. I had the sense that I might have gotten this image of pretty from a warped and unfair world, yet I continued to enjoy the tingly feeling that swept through my 9-year-old body when I drew tiny bathing suits over curvy figures. The tingling was an unclear sensation, something I was both distinctly and yet barely aware of at the time. But one thing I knew for sure—all by themselves, drawing and the feelings it gave me were fully satisfying. Pages and pages of these bikinied women filled my scrapbooks.
I’d seen other cartoon women before, in Fritz the Cat and Zap, the comic books only adults read. I flipped through them at the house of a friend of my parents. The females in these comic books had big breasts with big points in the middle. As they walked, drops of something splashed out from between their legs (what, I didn’t know—but I felt sure it had to do with sex).
I was intrigued by these pictures of my gender. And also repulsed. Something wasn’t right, but I didn’t understand what. One thing was obvious though: A female was nothing but a thing for the mischievous, almost evil-looking males. With eyeballs bulging out of their cartoon sockets, they were always ready to bother her, to try to get something from her. I kept away from making doodles as naughty—as bad—as those scenes. Though sometimes, sometimes when I drew a picture of a pretty woman, before I knew it, right beside her there would be an evil-looking guy. I didn’t think I wanted him there, but I felt a strange compulsion to add him to the picture. Wasn’t he supposed to be there? He would spring out of my hand and push his way through my pencil onto the paper whether I liked it or not.
When i was 10, I had a friend who wanted to try some grown-up things. I did, too. It was unspoken but clear: We were not exploring our own sexuality; we were exploring that of the adults around us.
In our sex play we took characters from our favorite Saturday morning tv cartoons—like Josie and the Pussycats (all girls) and The Monkees (all boys)—and placed them in Love, American Style–type situations. But we loved those characters and didn’t like to see any of them suffer—or inflict pain. So when we really wanted to get down to business, we used anonymous nobodies. One nobody was the man, another nobody was the woman. The man would get lucky; the woman we pitied.
The stories were always the same. The woman would somehow lose her ability to say “no,” then lose her clothes. Maybe she got drunk, maybe she was too tired to resist. Maybe she got so tired, she fell asleep. That was when the one of us playing the man would jump into action. Eyes wide and fixed on “his” semiconscious prey, hands eager to touch, “he” would pretend to slip off “her” shirt to find full, swollen, enormous breasts. (No matter how big we had decided they should be at the start of the game, by the end it was hard to make them big enough. Nothing short of gargantuan satisfied us.) Then, silently, we’d both just stare at the imagined breasts—the imagined naked, humongo breasts—neither of us knowing what to do next. If only Love, American Style would one day go as far as we did, then maybe we’d know what to do. But it never did. So invariably we’d just stare for a bit at the nonexistent breasts and then start the game again, giving the other one a chance to play the man, the role we both wanted so badly.
I had a long list of make-believe stories I played out in my head, whole soap operas of people and animals that existed only for me, like the good-witch friend who lived in the clouds, or the family of penguins who lived in my belly. They kept me company when there was no one to play with. The characters evolved as I invented dilemmas for them to figure out. We held lengthy conversations about everything and nothing.
But one of my imagined stories did not evolve. The characters and I did not interact. The same scene repeated again and again. It was a story about a telephone call, sort of: A man phones a woman. She has just gotten out of the shower and has a towel wrapped around her head. Somehow she forgets to use another to cover her body. She also forgets the phone has a video screen. (My story took place in the future, and I figured all phones would have them.) The man calling can see her naked. He stares at her body. She doesn’t notice. He becomes eager to go to her house right away. The woman doesn’t have time to put clothes on before he’s at her door. He convinces her to let him in. Once in, he reaches for her. She avoids him. He tries to catch her. She rushes away. They run around and around a couch. Sometimes she is caught, sometimes not. I rarely got that far. The fun was in the staring at her body and the chase. The fantasy gave me a thrill I didn’t understand. I repeated it in my head about once a month.
Wonder woman was my heroine. i collected reissues of the ’40s comic books where she fought off the Nazis. She had muscles you could actually see. She jumped over buildings. She never acted dumb. She never tried to look pretty. And though her suitor, Steve, wanted her to be his, she never said that was what she wanted too. More important, she never ever stopped doing what she was doing in order to be with him. Her crew of girlfriends spent more time with her than he did. Poor Steve. But it was for the best. There were always those pesky Nazis to take care of.
My secret wish was to be Wonder Woman. I had a huge hand-painted picture of her on my bedroom door. It had been a prop in one of my mother’s plays. This Wonder Woman, my Wonder Woman, was nothing like the one on the new tv show. I hated the tv one. The tv one went against everything my Wonder Woman stood for: strength, intelligence, and independence. The tv Wonder Woman was a frightening mix of the strong woman from the old comics and the dumb, bubbly girlies from Love, American Style. But the bubbly girly part canceled out the strong woman part. How could I take my heroine seriously, even as she saved the world, if all I could see (and my eyes kept going there, even when I didn’t want them to) was pushed-up, heaving breasts and a long line where they met and mushed together? I rarely watched the tv show. It made me sad to see my heroine reduced to a body in a bathing suit.
One day, a new friend came over after school. It was 1973. We were 11 and I was introducing her to the women’s movement. If Marnie could be made to understand Wonder Woman, or, say, Ms. magazine, she could understand me.
“This is Ms. magazine. It’s written by women and it’s for women. It’s nothing like Seventeen or the other girl magazines. It’s more…more…”
Real? Natural? All I knew was that it was what I wanted to be. And that Seventeen and the other girl magazines made me feel like I was way off base. It was like they thought they were right and I was wrong. I hated the Seventeen girls almost as much as I had hated the ones on Love, American Style a few years earlier. But I was older now and didn’t feel compelled to examine their every detail, to learn all I could from them, like I had with Love, American Style. In fact, I only looked through Seventeen when I was at the dentist’s office. And sometimes at my friends’ houses. And I guess also when I went to buy candy at the drug store—but that was only, like, every other day or something.
Anyway, Ms. had no flashy photos of dressed-up women, no fake smiles and lip gloss. It had pictures of women in skirts or pants, sometimes smiling and sometimes sad or even mad. There were also stories about women and girls who were dealing with important things, like how to stop your boss from touching you or how to keep the boys on the playground from pushing you off the monkey bars. And it had stories about gutsy girls, like those who wanted to be astronauts.
“Here, you can borrow this.” I put the magazine in Marnie’s bag and picked up my next teaching tool. “These are my Wonder Woman comics.” I held them to my heart for a brief second, I loved them so much. I placed the comics on top of the Ms. magazine already in Marnie’s bag.
“Pissa,” Marnie smiled. Our latest word for cool.
We walked downstairs and my new friend biked away with the homework I’d given her strapped to the rack on the back. As I waved goodbye, it dawned on me what had just happened. By teaching Marnie these things, I had changed. I was no longer simply the daughter of feminists: It appeared I had become a feminist in my own right.
I watched Marnie peddle away in the direction of the disappearing sun. My mother and her feminist friends were always struggling with important, heavy things—getting mad at this person or that institution, or feeling hurt by this magazine ad or that law.
A feminist. Me?
“I’m a feminist,” I said, testing it out loud. It was ok, but I still had my doubts.
When Marnie was out of sight, I headed into the house. A feminist. I wondered if I had a choice. Was it possible to go back once you’d reached a certain level of understanding? Once you’d done certain things?
I didn’t think so. Besides, I didn’t want to turn back. I began circulating Ms. magazine and Our Bodies, Ourselves among my new fifth-grade friends. I lectured students and teachers about their language (firefighters, not firemen). I enrolled both myself and Marnie—who I found out was being beaten at home—in a women’s self-defense course (at the time this was the cutting-edge thing in the women’s lib movement). When Marnie’s parents stopped beating her after our very first class, I knew I was on to something big.
Soon after realizing that I was a girl-feminist, something happened. One evening, while replaying my telephone story in my mind (take number 201), I identified with the woman for the first time. I had never once thought about seeing it through her eyes before. It was then that I realized: Hey, she doesn’t want to be touched!
Until then, whenever I had rehearsed the story, I never felt it was hurtful in any way. And why should I? I always identified with him. He—we—were so excited by what was happening. All that female skin: breasts, legs, and a chase around the couch! Wow! Great!
Upon reflection as an adult, I now understand. Love, American Style always identified with the man. James Bond movies did, too. Just about everything in the media was seen through the man’s eyes and the man’s attitude. I joined in, as I was expected to, ogling and rubbing my hands together greedily along with the rest of them.
But when I identified myself as a feminist, things changed.
“Why do I keep having him try to touch her and chase her when she doesn’t want that? What was she doing answering the videophone and the door naked anyway? No one is that dumb! Why do I have her do stupid things—again and again?” I thought.
Suddenly, I saw the story wasn’t right. It was wrong. It was…sexist. I had heard that word many times from my parents, but had never used it myself. I now felt sure, though, that the word could be applied to my story. A story I had chosen to rehearse over and over. Well, not anymore. Then and there I decided: Feminists don’t make up stories where women are dumb, where women get hurt. And I never did again.
I didn’t miss the fantasy. In fact, I never thought about it again. It was as if I’d found some way to pretend the awful thoughts never existed in my pure mind, as if I was too ashamed to remember that I was once the author of such anti-female stories. Interestingly, after purging the scenario from my life I never found another to replace it. Perhaps the woman-as-prey/man-as-vulture fantasy was the only one available to me, so by choosing not to use it I was left with nothing. Certainly, tv didn’t offer other options for how males and females could relate sexually, and, being a child, I didn’t know enough about sex to think up alternatives on my own. Thus, I was left fantasyless, which didn’t bother me—it’s actually something I never even thought about until I became an adult.
One more thing happened after I decided to stop my bedtime scenario: Essentially, I turned into the loud, constantly battling, constantly offended feminist I feared I could become. All things sexist became almost unbearable for me, especially media images that disrespected female sexuality. Throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, in the ’70s and ’80s, while soft-core porn pushed its way into the mainstream—into tv programs, advertising, movies, magazines, and MTV—I became hypersensitive to the hypersexualization of young women. Each new portrayal of my fellow females as a sex object/toy/tiger felt like a personal attack on my ability to define my own sexuality. Each new image sent me into a raging rant. God help the sexist jerks in my path; I had become my mother, only more so.
The dichotomy i experienced as a girl growing up—a world immersed in the idealism of second-wave feminism, yet filled with the realities of everyday sexism—was certainly confusing. But it was also enlightening, for it was this very dichotomy that helped foster my awareness of the difference between what was and what should be. It was what made me a girl-feminist dedicated to a world where women and girls were not victims of their sexuality or simply recipients in their sexual experiences, but rather where they were in charge as active participants, as respected equals—in fact, just the type of relationship my parents had shown me in both their work and personal lives.
So in the end, when I was a child, though my parents lost plenty of battles to the tv and other enticing media surrounding me, they ultimately—thank goodness—won the war.
And as time went by, I continued to embrace the feminist activism they had modeled for me. I jumped down people’s throats less and began to educate and organize more. I started an organization dedicated to replacing sexist and racist depictions of women in the media with positive images. I led workshops on female empowerment and offered training sessions on dismantling sexism (and assorted other -isms). But, to be sure, I still believe that one of the best ways to fight the way young girls (and boys, let’s not forget) get indoctrinated in our culture is to make a noisy stink. Loud, constantly offended feminists rule! Hell, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
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