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Feminism For Sale

Find out the real reason the women’s movement is losing momentum, and why political action is the only way to take down the patriarchy

BY Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Back in the ’70s, we were obsessed with a band. We both had copies of their album and we listened to it constantly, memorizing the lyrics and then singing along. The record was such a huge hit that one of us even sang some of the songs in his elementary school choir, in a version of the Langley Schools Music Project. Yet, despite its mainstream popularity, this band promoted revolutionary ideas threatening—no, promising—to undermine the very basis of our society. Was it The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? Barry White’s Stone Gon’? Led Zeppelin’s rune-covered but untitled fourth album?

None of the above. The band was Marlo Thomas and Friends, and the album was a children’s recording called Free To Be… You And Me.

Marlo Thomas is best known today as Rachel’s mom on Friends, but 20 years ago she was familiar to TV audiences as Anne Marie from the short-lived but popular television series That Girl. She was also a staunch feminist who wanted to give her young niece some music that would allow her to celebrate who she was and who she might become. So Thomas gathered up a few of her celebrity friends, including Mel Brooks, Alan Alda, Diana Ross and Carol Channing, to record a kids-empowerment manifesto of songs, dialogues and stories.

For all its family-friendliness, the album was intended to be hugely subversive. Through bits such as Alan Alda’s story “William’s Doll” and the song “It’s All Right To Cry” sung by former NFL great Rosey Grier, it waged an all-out attack on one of our society’s core beliefs: that there are natural, intrinsic differences between men and women. From start to finish, Free To Be… pushed for a world in which children could grow up unconstrained by social expectations about how they should think and behave based on what sex they happened to be.

It is astonishing that in 1972, a recording pushing such a strongly feminist agenda could make its way into the official curricula of schools across North America. It shows just how far the feminist movement had come in the previous 15 years. Yet there is widespread concern that, since that time, much of the momentum has been lost. One area where this shows up is in the unbending refusal by many undergraduate women to identify as feminists (a tendency that drives many of their professors to distraction). These 20-somethings enjoy the benefits that were won in the hard-fought battles between the sexes, but won’t concede that the war needed to be fought in the first place. So despite the easy self-confidence with which these women are taking over universities and preparing to dominate the job market in the coming decades, the old guard feels the war isn’t over. The patriarchy remains fully in control, its apparent demise only making it that much more powerful. The fact that the “feminist” label is out of fashion reveals not just ignorance of past oppression, but widespread false consciousness. The true betrayal isn’t of the past, but of the future.

But what if these young women have legitimate concerns? When people say that they are not feminists, even though they believe that men and women should be equal, it implies that, in their minds, feminism is something other than simply a belief in the fundamental equality of men and women. The question therefore becomes, what is this extra baggage that feminism has acquired?

The answer is not hard to find. So-called first-wave feminism, which emerged in the 19th century and culminated in the extension of the franchise to women, was thoroughly suffused with the liberal egalitarian ideals of the era. By contrast, second-wave feminism, which emerged during the ’60s, became so deeply wedded to the critique of mass society that feminist theory has become in many ways simply another version of the countercultural critique. This has had the effect of importing into feminism many of the basic defects of countercultural thinking. In particular, the concept of “patriarchy,” which has dominated feminist thinking since the ’60s, is basically just a gendered redescription of what countercultural theorists called the “technocracy.” It is no wonder then that contemporary feminism is unpopular. Until feminists break free from this mental straightjacket, the chances of attracting any great number of recruits to the movement are slim.


The central idea of the critique of mass society is quite simple. We accept the more unpleasant features of mass society—the factory and the assembly line, the bureaucracy, the broadcast media, and so on—because of the tremendous wealth that this system produces, largely in the form of creature comforts and household consumer goods. But it is a Faustian bargain, because in accepting the benefi ts of mass production, we must also submit to its demand for uniformity and discipline. The capitalist system requires conformity to function correctly, not just among the workers who run the assembly line, but also among the consumers who buy the products.

More broadly, conformity is seen as a functional requirement of the entire social apparatus. According to this theory, our culture is an integrated system in which every sector and institution— including the state, the churches and the medical establishment— supports the others in reinforcing this demand for conformity. Advertising and the media play a particularly important role here, instilling in the populace a set of homogenous yet insatiable desires for mass-produced goods, and manufacturing mass consent for the workings of the system as a whole.

This theory encouraged radical critics to blame most social ills upon the totalizing system of enforced conformity that supposedly sustained modern societies. It also suggested that, in order to effect change, it is not necessary to engage in “traditional” political action in the manner of old-fashioned socialists. There is no particular gain to be had from forming political coalitions, lobbying politicians or working within the standard structure of party democracy. In fact, this sort of institutional change is likely to be counterproductive because it simply validates and reinforces the existing political order. People have become trapped in a gilded cage, and have been taught to love their own enslavement. “Society” controls them by limiting the imagination and suppressing their deepest needs. Thus what they need to escape from is conformity. And to do so, they must reject the culture in its entirety. They must form a counterculture— one based on rebellious freedom and individuality.

Theodore Roszak (whose 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture introduced the term “counterculture” into general circulation) referred to mass society as a “technocracy.” Yet he made it clear that the way the machine controls us is not primarily through force, it is by controlling the culture and ultimately by colonizing our consciousness. Thus, he argued that “the revolution will be primarily therapeutic in character and not merely institutional.”

What an extraordinary phrase, merely institutional! Yet this tendency to think that we are victims of a system of total control and manipulation, and so must always search deeper and deeper for the root causes of our oppression, is a habit of mind that was assiduously cultivated by the ’60s counterculture, and one that continues to exercise an unhealthy influence on the progressive left.

Feminists, far from being immune to this countercultural tendency, have basically bought the critique of mass society hook, line and sinker. Consider Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth, one of the best-selling feminist treatises of all time. One might expect to find in this book a sustained critique of the practices of the cosmetic industry. For example, women still face a “gender tax” on many products, being forced to pay more than men for deodorant and razors. The industry is also subject to extraordinarily lax regulation. While truth-in-advertising laws require that a chocolate chip cookie portrayed in an advertisement contain no more chips than the actual product, nothing prohibits companies from airbrushing and digitally modifying photographs of models in ads for makeup and foundation, even though this constitutes a clear misrepresentation of the product’s virtues. All of this might suggest a program of regulatory reform aimed at protecting consumers from these unscrupulous practices.

But Wolf has her eye on bigger game. In her view, the idea that problems in the cosmetics industry should be addressed through regulatory reform is superficial. The real problem resides in our ideological conviction that some women are more beautiful than others. This is “the beauty myth.” It is a “collective reactionary hallucination,” she says, concocted as part of a backlash against feminism by what she calls “the social order.” She argues that the idea of beauty serves “nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women.”

In Wolf’s view, it would be pointless for women to call for increased regulation of the cosmetics industry. This is “merely institutional” reform. What women need to do, she says, is free themselves entirely from the beauty myth, and create a new “pro-woman,” non-hierarchical definition of beauty, which would celebrate each different woman in her own uniqueness and individuality.

“The power structure,” she says, creates a series of beauty archetypes—such as supermodels, Barbie and Playboy bunnies— that represent the ideal of female beauty. These “formulaic” images are “endlessly reproduced” in the media, primarily through advertising. Women, in turn, are brainwashed by these images, and strive to conform to the archetypes, which reproduces the power structure. Thus when women stood poised to take control of their health, cosmetic surgery was introduced “to re-exert old forms of medical control of women.” As women acquired control over their own bodies through increased reproductive rights, the average weight of runway models plummeted, and “a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control.”

Because she believes that the power structure reproduces itself through control of images in the culture and through colonization of women’s consciousness, Wolf regards all politics as essentially cultural politics. Sitting around “deconstructing” advertisements in women’s magazines, defacing billboards that feature skinny models and otherwise “questioning the ideals of female beauty” in daily life are seen as subversive acts—in many ways more subversive than pushing for increased regulation of the cosmetics industry. (This fits with the more general conviction that taking women’s studies courses is somehow more feminist than, say, enrolling in engineering school.)

Of course, there are problems with this “beauty-as-conformity” theory. The first is that it conflicts with the obvious fact that beauty has an intensely competitive structure. People gain very tangible advantages from being beautiful—they are more likely to be promoted at work, they are more likely to “marry up,” they are more likely to be acquitted by a jury and they are more likely to get polite service pretty much anywhere. Yet they derive these advantages not from being the most beautiful in some absolute sense, but simply from being more beautiful than the people around them. Beauty, like all other aesthetic judgement, is intrinsically hierarchical.

At first glance, it would seem that this competitive structure— the desire to outdo, not to imitate—is what gives rise to the excesses of dieting and cosmetic surgery. All of these have the structure of a classic arms race. Consider Botox. Being injected with botulism to paralyze your facial muscles seems insane. However, it does have the effect of smoothing out wrinkles and therefore making you look younger. Unfortunately, how old a person looks is entirely relative. A woman can only “look 50” when compared with other 50-year-old women. This means that when a 50-year-old woman gets a Botox injection that makes her look 40, the action can be described in one of two ways. In a sense, she has made herself look younger. But in another sense, all she has done is make all the other 50-year-old women in the population look a little older. These women may then be motivated to get Botox injections just to retain position. If this leads all 50-year-old women to go out and get regular Botox injections, then their behaviour has become perfectly self-defeating. They will be right back where they started—all looking like 50-year-old women—except that now they will be paying a lot of money to look that way.

Wolf is clearly aware of this competitive aspect of the beauty hierarchy, but she downplays its significance. After all, if this analysis is correct, it shows that the beauty hierarchy is maintained primarily by women’s own behaviour (just as consumerism is primarily a product of consumer behaviour). To Wolf, and many other feminists, this smacks of blaming the victim. Thus she claims that the competitiveness is not innate, it is all just a divide-and-conquer strategy devised by the power structure. “Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another,” she writes.

Wolf’s claim that the “beauty myth” might be shrugged off is based upon a common fallacy. She notes that the archetype of female beauty has changed enormously over the course of history and that it differs greatly from culture to culture. On the basis of this observed variability, she concludes that there is no fixed “Platonic ideal” of beauty, nor can there be any biological foundation for it. She fails to note that even though different cultures have admired different physical traits at different times, there is no record of any culture that does not have some form of beauty hierarchy. (In the same way, even though different societies mark social status in different ways, there is no record of any society that does not have some kind of status hierarchy.) While the content may change, the structure is invariant.

So it would seem utopian, in the pejorative sense of the term, to hang a political program upon the abolition of beauty. What women need, above all, is an arms control agreement—to dampen down the beauty competition and limit the amount of time and resources wasted in the pursuit of this positional good. Of course, this is far too simple for Wolf. In the end, for her it’s not really about beauty or the cosmetics industry. In Wolf’s view, the cosmetics industry is simply one tool used by the power structure to repress women. And the central goal of this repression is simply to deny them pleasure. Thus the best way to rebel is simply to have fun. Here are Wolf’s final recommendations for female emancipation: “How to begin? Let’s be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Tolerate other women’s choices. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want.”

This isn’t feminism; it’s just the myth of counterculture in feminist disguise. She isn’t so much worrying about sexism as she is fighting for her right to party.


The most clear-cut impact that countercultural thinking has had upon feminism is the widespread popularization of the idea that we live under something called the “patriarchy.” This is not simply the platitudinous observation that we live in a male-dominated society. Scratch the concept a bit, and what one finds is that the “patriarchy” is nothing but Roszak’s “technocracy” seen through a pink lens.

Of course, while radical feminists of the ’70s agreed that patriarchy perpetuated itself through a system of total domination and control of consciousness, that didn’t explain how it got started in the first place. After all, despite some vague claims about matriarchal societies in the distant past, most of the available evidence suggested that all major cultures throughout history were patriarchies. If the patriarchy was supposed to be a distortion of the natural order, like the technocracy, then feminists needed an explanation for its near-universality.

In her 1969 book The Dialectic Of Sex, Shulamith Firestone suggested that the material basis of patriarchy lay in the basic biological differences between men and women, especially with respect to reproductive functions. According to Firestone, the standard-issue heterosexual family is an inherently unequal power distribution. This is due to four basic and natural differences between men and women: the physical dependence of women on men for survival, in part due to the debilitating effect of child-bearing; the long period of dependence of infants on their mothers; the psychological effects of the dependence; and the division of labour between the sexes that follows from these three differences.

Even though she found the origins of women’s oppression in biology, Firestone was in no way an essentialist about gender. She argued that the social effects of these biological inequalities persisted only because they were given a thorough endorsement by the culture, and that the key to a feminist revolution would be to create the social conditions in which “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” Through a combination of socialism and technology, Firestone believed, the biological family could be abolished. Among other proposals, she advocated socialized childcare, access to abortion and birth control and even artificial reproduction.

While not everyone associated with the radical feminist movement agreed with all of Firestone’s ideas (such as the suggestion that kids should be grown in vats), the argument that patriarchy was something that began in biology but was supported through culture had considerable appeal. In her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller argued that the origin of women’s oppression was not reproduction, but rape. It is the enduring possibility of being raped that keeps women in a constant state of fear and which has always enabled men to dominate and control all aspects of every society.

Brownmiller made some attempt to situate rape in its various historical and cultural contexts, but in the end she argued that the possibility of rape rests on physiology, “man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability.” Furthermore, she had no use for the distinction between being capable of rape and actually doing it. She argued that patriarchy owes its origins to “the creation of a male ideology of rape. When men discovered they could rape, they proceeded to do it.” Rape therefore serves as the enforcement mechanism that keeps all of the other patriarchal structures in place (it provides, one is tempted to say, “the violence inherent in the system”).

It is from Brownmiller’s arguments that we get the now-familiar feminist idea that rape is not about sex, but power. The fact that only a small number of men commit rape is of no consequence, since those who do so act on behalf of all men. Thus all men are implicated all of the time in the threat of rape, and all men benefit from the power that accrues to them as a result. The few rapists who are actually caught, charged and sentenced are merely the tribute that the vice of patriarchal oppression pays to the virtue of gender equality.

The argument, that women’s oppression begins at home and is sustained through a broad system of socialization backed up by the constant—if implicit—threat of sexual violence, offered a coherent analysis of the situation of women in society. It provided a powerful indictment of male power, and a strong motivation for a radical feminist political agenda. The only remaining issue was what to do about it.

Yet if this statement of the problem is correct, then there is only one plausible solution. Given that the rape threat is a direct consequence of male physiology, the only way that women can begin to free themselves is by disassociating themselves from men. This conclusion was drawn early on by Jean Baker Miller in a handful of books and articles she wrote in the first half of the 1970s. The basic political position was advanced as early as 1969 by the radical feminists of Cell 16. The members of this Boston-based group were hardcore, what Brownmiller called “the movement heavies.” With their militant program of celibacy, separation from men and karate training, they were in many ways similar to a hard-left vanguard group. And even though Cell 16 members paid lip service to the notion that gender traits were socially constructed, they made little attempt to distinguish the vilification of “maleness” from the vilification of men.

This line of thinking effectively transformed the critique of patriarchy into a critique of masculinity, while simultaneously embracing and celebrating female traits. When combined with the popularity and apparent successes of consciousness-raising, it led to a “woman-centred” approach to dealing with the patriarchy. More importantly, this approach made it almost impossible to avoid the suggestion that serious feminists should not be having sex with men. Traditionally, lesbian-baiting had been to radical feminism what red-baiting was to the labour movement. Political conservatives could score easy points with their constituencies by accusing “women’s libbers” of lesbianism. It also helped divide the women’s movement internally, by forcing everyone to own up to their convictions.

Seinfeld may have made “Not that there’s anything wrong with it” into a ’90s catch-phrase, but 30 years earlier it wasn’t so easy for even radical feminists to declare their equanimity with regard to sexual orientation. In fact, the majority of early second- wave feminist leaders were not just heterosexual, but antilesbian. Betty Friedan was particularly hostile toward lesbians, calling them the “lavender menace” and suggesting that the lesbians who had infiltrated the National Organization for Women were CIA agents. Regardless, the movement itself attracted a great number of lesbians, and as much as straight feminists may have wanted to keep sexual orientation out of the debate, the issue was unavoidable.

Lesbianism forced the feminist movement to push its assumptions about sex, power and patriarchy to their logical conclusions. After all, if gender was a social construction, wasn’t sexual preference equally constructed? Writing in the ’70s and ’80s, Adrienne Rich convinced many feminists that heterosexuality was a political institution. The idea gained currency that women were actually living under the patriarchal system of “compulsory heterosexuality,” according to which a preference for straight sex was actually evidence of a woman’s failure to break free from the “conformity” imposed by patriarchal society. As a result, heterosexual women were stigmatized by many lesbians within the movement as “male-identified” sell-outs. Since they were still sleeping with the enemy, when push came to shove how could they be trusted?

Perennial feminist issues such as birth control, access to abortion and subsidized day care therefore became stigmatized as “straight issues”—not really radical or emancipatory concerns. Lesbian feminists claimed that only a lesbian could have no stake in preserving the patriarchy, since even “liberated” straight women are still tied to men.

By putting lifestyle choices front and centre on the agenda, this new countercultural feminism ended up endorsing a utopian form of politics that focused almost exclusively on revolution through cultural transformation, and individual choice at the expense of collective action. The result was a significant retreat from the realm of the political. “The personal is political,” which began as a way of opening up the so-called private realm of the family to political scrutiny, was turned on its head. The focus on the psychological nature of women’s oppression gave way to the conviction that to change the world it was sufficient for women to change the way they thought and talked about it. This led to the subordination of politics to personal lifestyle choices, to the point where one’s hair length, choice of clothing or reading material, marital status and sexual preference came to determine whether one was considered sufficiently “feminist.”


Feminists soon came to understand that gaining freedom under conditions of social inequality could have very negative effects. In the ’60s, “sexual liberation” seemed to give many men the sense that they were entitled to have sex with whomever they chose. In the ’70s, the sexual revolution gave rise to a more disconcerting phenomenon— the extraordinary growth of the pornography industry.

For many feminists, especially during the ’80s, pornography came to be seen as a cornerstone of the oppression of women. It was perhaps inevitable. With its relentless depictions of male dominance, power and even violence in the sexual arena, the ideological content of pornography had clear affinities with Brownmiller’s analysis of the ideology of rape. And with the slow progress that was being made in establishing equality for women in the family and the workplace, it was natural that feminists would begin looking for deeper sources of women’s oppression.

In 1978, a group of anti-pornography feminists formed Women Against Pornography, led by theorist Andrea Dworkin and the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon. They claimed that pornography had nothing to do with sexual liberation because the sexual mores of the “swinging ’70s” seemed designed to subjugate and oppress women even more than ever. Writer and activist Robin Morgan went so far as to claim that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.”

Recall that in Brownmiller’s account, rape is not really a sexual or even essentially physical act. It is above all a symbolic act, one that speaks to all women on behalf of all men, reminding them that they live in all-encompassing regime of male power. The critique of pornography was built on the idea that the constant threat of male sexual violence was the basis of patriarchal power. Pornography was not about sexual pleasure according to this view, rather it was a form of violence against women that was nothing short of sexual fascism. Just as the Final Solution was seen as the logical extension of the technocratic rationality of mass society, Dworkin argued that pornography was the very essence of masculine desire, which manifested itself in violence, exploitation and genocide.

The first major push toward the “mainstreaming” of pornography occurred in 1972, with the wide release of the film Deep Throat in New York cinemas. Although the film was cheap, hardcore pornography, the filmmakers encouraged couples to see it together, celebrities openly discussed their impressions of it, and the term “blow job” acquired universal currency. (With all the buzz, the film went on to earn $600 million.) Yet, from a feminist perspective, this mainstreaming amounted to nothing more than evidence of the increasing banality of rape (an impression amplified by Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace’s subsequent claim that her performances in the film were coerced). The use of male sexual power over women was coming to be seen as natural and completely unremarkable.

MacKinnon gave this position its most forceful expression. In her 1993 book Only Words, she writes that pornography, like all hate speech, “is not a mere expression of opinion, but a practice of discrimination in verbal form, a link in systemic discrimination that keeps targeted groups in subordinated positions.”

Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, MacKinnon claims that pornographic depictions in a world of gender inequality have the same function and effect of rape: they silence women and entrench their subordinate status in society. If sex is speech, then speech is sex, to say it is to do it, and “unwelcome sex talk is an unwelcome sex act.” MacKinnon has no qualms about upping the rhetorical ante and, in one of her book’s most inflammatory passages, she writes: “When you hear the woman next door screaming as she is bounced off the walls by the man she lives with, are you ‘offended?’ Hate speech and pornography do the same thing: enact the abuse.”

Only Words caused quite a stir when it was released, in large part thanks to a rather bizarre and extended quarrel between MacKinnon and a hostile book reviewer, Carlin Romano. Since MacKinnon had denied the distinction between describing a sex act and performing one, the reviewer decided to describe the rape of Catharine MacKinnon, then challenge her to go to the police. Always game for a fight, MacKinnon went on to claim, in all seriousness, that she had been raped by a book review. Several other commentators weighed in to the discussion, resulting in a lengthy discussion that is generally acknowledged to have produced more heat than light.

One wonders, in retrospect, whether the entire debate hasn’t been overtaken by events. The idea that pornography represents the cornerstone of women’s oppression tacitly presupposes precisely the sort of cultural determinism that undermines so much of the countercultural analysis. The underlying idea of the feminist critique is that men are brainwashed by pornography just as consumers are brainwashed by advertising. In this respect, the feminist seeking to undermine patriarchy by firebombing the Red Hot Video rental chain bears more than a passing resemblance to the culture-jammer hoping to overthrow capitalism by defacing billboards.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, we now live in a world in which anyone with access to an internet connection can obtain an infinite quantity of pornography, of any type, from anywhere in the world, absolutely free, in complete privacy. Pornography may not be entirely mainstream, but it has become ubiquitous. All of the old rituals of male adolescence—the furtive glances at a friend’s worn copy of Playboy, the frowning gaze of the elderly magazine store clerk, the search for a place to stash the magazines—have become obsolete. In a sense, we are living through a strange social experiment. An entire generation of young men is now entering adulthood, having come of age in an environment that is completely saturated with pornography. It is, from the standpoint of the traditional feminist analysis, the ultimate nightmare scenario.

Yet what have the consequences been? While the prevalence of pornography has no doubt led to a large number of very bad first dates—caused by men with deeply unrealistic expectations about what women think is fun—it’s not clear that the results have been any more severe than that. The incidence of rape declined quite significantly in both Canada and the United States during the ’90s. Yet, from MacKinnon’s perspective, the past decade should have been apocalyptic. Life in our society should, at the moment, be absolutely intolerable for women of all ages.


As in all countercultural movements, it wasn’t long before feminists began to discover that there really wasn’t all that much conflict between their radical critique of society and the functional imperatives of the capitalist economy. Of course, there had always been a certain irony in the fact that, while Marxists were pressing for the abolition of “wage slavery,” feminists were busy demanding access to that very same job market. But few people realized just what a boon feminism would be for the economy. Indeed, one of the reasons inequality of wealth has increased so dramatically in the past 30 years, not just within wealthy industrialized nations but also between nations, is the number of women who have entered into the formal economy in the West. One of the major reasons the United States, in particular, is so wealthy is the very high rate of labour-force participation of its female population. And these women tend to marry men within their own social class, which significantly amplifies domestic inequality.

In this context, it is not surprising to find a number of prominent feminists beginning to discover their inner capitalist. Wolf, for example, despite the radically utopian nature of her analysis of beauty, found a way of making peace with the system in her second book, Fire with Fire. Along with a handful of like-minded “post-feminists,” including Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfield, Wolf now rails against the second- wave feminists who continue to portray women as unconscious victims, unwittingly indoctrinated into the phallocentric language of patriarchy. Paglia criticizes the “infantile” whining about America, men and capitalism, and Roiphe takes these “Victorians” to task for their prudish attitudes toward sex and pornography. The post-feminists say that what women need is an ethic that stresses not collective victimization, but personal responsibility and individual achievement.

There is a lot to dislike about all of this, and it is hard not to be suspicious about the political motivations of a small group of white, attractive, media-friendly, well-educated women suggesting that women’s oppression is state of mind, and that the solution is to not fight but to enthusiastically join the cutthroat world of capitalist individualism. Yet it is doubtful that Wolf woke up one day and thought to herself, “Hey, I’m rich, young, famous. Capitalism’s great!” Her emphasis on the psychology of oppression and the individualistic nature of emancipation is in one way consistent with her views in The Beauty Myth, and, for that matter, with the history of radical feminism. Power feminism is just lifestyle politics, which too many people on the left—from radical feminists to anti-consumerist activists—continue to see as the acme of political resistance. This becomes clearer when we note the curiously deep affinities between the post-feminism of Roiphe and Wolf on the one hand, and the socalled third wave of radical feminism on the other.

The frankly liberal (when not reactionary) post-feminists are opposed to the second wave’s entire approach to topics such as rape, pornography and abortion. In contrast, there is an emerging third wave of feminism that sees itself as neither opposed to nor incompatible with the radical feminists of the second wave. The editors of Third Wave Agenda, a collection of recent feminist writing, describe the movement as one “that contains elements of second-wave critique of beauty culture, sexual abuse, and power structures while it also acknowledges and makes use of the pleasure, danger, and defining power of those structures.”

Third-wave feminism has its roots in magazines like Bitch and Bust and the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s. Centred on feminist punk rock, it quickly expanded into a grassroots scene that involved young artists, artisans, performers and writers, all dedicated to exploring issues of women’s power and identity. There were annual Riot Grrl conventions, which in 1996 morphed into the SPRGRL (Supergirl) Conspiracy Convention, held in Portland, Oregon. Here is how Jen Smith, one of the contributors to Third Wave Agenda, describes the SPRGRL scene:

There were bands, performances, movies, fanzines and workshops that focused on women’s issues of voice, power, and identity. Exploring oppressions and privileges as well as possibilities, issues addressed included white skin privilege and racism, classism, sizeism, self-esteem, depression, domestic violence, and women’s self-defense, as well as how to make a video, how to fix bikes, and how to buy used guitars without getting ripped off.

The description of the convention continues on in this vein for another page—basically a long series of countercultural clichés. Third-wave feminists regularly accuse Wolf, Roiphe and Paglia of advocating a depoliticized, individualistic and pro-capitalistic feminism, but it is hard to see what any of the power feminists would find objectionable about the SPRGRL scene. The convention sounds less like a site of resistance than a trade show for female hipsters and entrepreneurs. This is run-of-themill culture jamming, and as with the choice between a pair of Nikes or the Adbusters Blackspot sneaker, the major difference between power feminism and the third wave looks to be aesthetic, not ideological: the third wave is a feminism of cool. With its focus on individual achievement, personal responsibility and DIY entrepreneurialism, these women are doing exactly what Wolf suggests: They are taking control of their own psychology and engaging in strategic alliances based on economic self-interest and economic giving back. They just get to listen to cool bands and wear funky clothes while doing it.

The suspicion that the third wave just is the cool form of power feminism is reinforced by the suggestion, by the editors of Third Wave Agenda, that Courtney Love is the Gloria Steinem of the third wave. What makes Love such a quintessentially third-wave figure is that she’s a mess of contradictions:

Glamorous grunge, girl and boy, mothering and selfish, put together and taken apart, beautiful and ugly, strong and weak, responsible and rebellious, Love bridges the irreconcilability of individuality and femininity within dominant culture, combining the cultural critique of an earlier generation of feminists with the backlash against it by the next generation of women.

One might also add that Love’s decision to have thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery has sent the wrong message to thousands of her young fans. In the fall of 2003, she overdosed on narcotics only hours after being arrested for breaking into her boyfriend’s house in Los Angeles. She was later charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance and, as a result, she lost custody of her 11-year-old daughter, Frances Bean. She told reporters that while waiting with her daughter for the ambulance to arrive, she tried to make the overdose “fun.”

Courtney Love as a feminist icon? Sure, why not. Free to be, you and me.


Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter are the authors of The Rebel Sell, published by HarperCollins, and wrote an article by the same name in the November-December 2002 issue of This Magazine.

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