The Way We Were & the Way We Should Be

There are many reasons to love The Way We Were. Number one: Robert Redford’s 1970s-era face. Number two: Barbra Streisand’s 1940s-era wardrobe (and in the name of equal opportunity, also her 1970s-era face). The 1973 film is a favorite of romantics and, among many women, is considered a must see (for reference, see, Sex & the City, season 2, episode 18, “Ex and the City”). For me, with my interest in romance and relationships and the 1960s and 1970s, the movie is a perfect representation of the shift from a happy ending-driven cultural world to a universe in which there is recognition that we may love and we may lose and the reasons for loving and losing are complicated.

thewaywewere

But the film is more than a tear-jerker and more than a representation of changed relationship norms, and I have been thinking of the movie non-stop in recent weeks (and months) because of the central tension of the film: Streisand’s K-K-K-Katie’s inability to be light, and Redford’s Hubbell’s ongoing reluctance to go heavy. Such is Katie’s desire to be with Hubbell, she joins him in leaving dark and serious New York City and embarks upon a new life on the ever-sunny and boundlessly optimistic West Coast. Integrating into the inner Hollywood circle, the pair inevitably find themselves amongst the lefties and intellectuals who’d long populated that biz. Katie, in particular, with her 1930s Popular Front background and fervent sense of social justice and the importance of free speech, becomes embroiled in this world. When she travels to Washington, DC to take part in the famed House Un-American Activities Committee interrogations of politically-minded Hollywood writers and producers and actors, she pushes Hubbell to his breaking point. He is exhausted by her talk of principles and encourages her to remember: there are principles and there are people. Katie is shocked. In a withering and syllabically-accentuated rebuttal, she responds: “People *are* their principles.”

If the world is divided into Katie’s and Hubbell’s, I am emphatically and without hesitation a Katie. True story: I was in a bar with one of my best friends; she left to go the bathroom; when she returned, I was finger wagging at the person we’d *just* met after he told me he neither paid attention to politics nor did he vote. Why had the conversation even gone there? Because I can’t not. And when I was a young Karen Dunak, I wished – man, I WISHED – I were not like this. But, baby, I was born this way. When I learn that people don’t talk about politics, I am aghast. What do they talk about? And I love books and movies and sports and other things that are not politics. But I am enmeshed in the world around us, fully conscious of its opportunities and inequalities and unable to ignore the ways in which American democracy and those we’ve elected to enact it live up to the nation’s values or fall short. Also: I am a historian; argument is my business.

And so I, like Katie Morosky, firmly believe people are their principles. And right now, and in the days and months leading up to right now, the seemingly endless time of and after the 2016 election cycle, people have revealed themselves fully. The political posturing of the Republican Party and its members, affected in an effort to shore up the President-elect, who ostensibly represents their Grand Old Party, has revealed the ideological fragility of that side of the aisle. In their willingness to wage and their determination to win a culture war, Republicans have stood by a bumbling but aggressive bully who is an affront to free speech and American democracy (and some might suggest, human decency). What’s more, the party of patriotism, as Republicans have claimed themselves for a generation at least, have shown an absolutely absence of concern for national security and, relatedly, for a clear division between public service and private gain. When I write to my representatives, I implore them to be people of principle rather than party operatives. But it seems my (and more than half the population’s) plaintive cries are falling on deaf ears. Now, more than ever, people are their principles.

I know there are those who look on, amused, to some degree, by the spectacle of American politics in 2017. There are also those who think four years isn’t so long. We’ll have the chance to get it right next time, they suggest. And four years isn’t really that long for the native born, the financially secure, the insured, the employed, the half of the population who don’t have to fear unwanted pregnancy, and all those who enjoy the various privileges a certain combination of identity markers can convey. The Hubbell’s would rather turn inward, to family and work, maybe even their local community, and allow the broader world to play out, avoiding difficult discussions or the cultivation of hard views. But this is the time and the place for hard views and the difficult discussions of those hard views. When Katie traveled to DC to support her friends at the HUAC hearings, she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, clearly and visibly with child. Hubbell berated her for the private risks she took in being so vocal in her public support of those whose rights were being violated. Katie’s views for her time and place hold strong for ours: There are risks to speaking out, but the risks of remaining silent are far greater.

 

Advertisements

A Severe Impact

It’s summer. I’m supposed to be immersed in the past. I’m meant to be writing about Jackie Kennedy and the 1960 campaign, about women at mid-century looking to the future and wondering what it will hold, about mass media’s ability to craft narratives about and for women and about women’s agency in shaping those narratives. And I am. But I keep getting dragged back to the present, right now, thanks to the ongoing barrage of truly heartbreaking information related to the violent rape committed by and the infuriatingly lenient punishment given to Brock Turner.

brock-turner-mugshot-2

In the ways that my worlds of work and the world are colliding, today I read this, from an essay in a 1978 collection about the portrayal of women in mass media: While alleged bra-burning and women’s rejection of the accoutrements of femininity regularly appeared in journalistic reporting of the women’s movement, “the other issues of women’s liberation were less prominent: the extent and implications of women’s lower pay scales; the chronic and clear-cut (to women) discrimination in education, job, and credit access; the stereotyping by the media of women as trivial-minded, unreliable, and mercurial; and the invidious administration (or non administration) of rape laws.

Well. Some issues, it seems, just won’t go out of style. Except that here, in 2016, it seems the law had worked. Turner was found guilty on three counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person; sexual penetration of an intoxicated person; and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. But the sentencing. Oh, the sentencing: six months in county jail, of which Turner is likely to serve three. Everything old is new again.

I have felt vague-to-full-blow nausea with each new revelation from the Brock Turner case. Beyond my horror at Turner’s own abhorrent actions (and having just realized he’s APPEALING THE CONVICTION), like so many others, I am disgusted by the apologist language being used to refer to the violent, violating rape he committed and the attempts to shield him from the consequences of his brutal, brutal attack on another human being. In requesting parole for his son, Turner’s father wrote, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve….That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” His words clearly resonated with Judge Aaron Perskey who delivered the sentence and declared, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Beyond the very conscious word choice – “action” rather than “violent rape” – both parties underplay the severity of the crimes committed by Turner and instead pine for what might have been. First of all: that ship has sailed. This is a topic for another time, but these claims about the rape as a “first offense” and being so out of character for Turner…I have my doubts. If you have this in you to do when drunk and prone to “foolish”actions aka INTENSE PHYSICAL VIOLENCE, you have this in you. And you’ve long *had* it in you. But more importantly, this didn’t happen to him. HE DID THIS. HE COMMITTED THIS CRIME. AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON. And that other person? She will live with this terrible, terrible attack for well beyond the next “20 plus years” of her life. As for “severe impact”? Yes, this “action” will have a severe and lasting impact on her. As she noted in her beautiful and terrible and brave letter to her attacker (https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.qdJE4Wa9D#.id8LNQrzX): “It is embarrassing how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life, always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.” Every day, she is working to get back to herself, but what happened, she read, “stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.”

And the “severe impact” goes even beyond Turner’s victim. I’m set to visit one of my best friends next week. We’ve been excited to see each other and get our girls together again. In an exchange about this case, I emailed, “We’re teaching them about the buddy system next Friday.” And she responded, “Seriously. How early is too early? Probably never.” My daughter is two. Hers is one. And this is our thought process in raising them to face the world. Their lives are the ones likely to never be the ones that we dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. The same can be said of the lives of all women and all girls living in a world where the threat of sexual violence is real, but the consequences for that violence remain only vaguely defined and unequally applied.

And yet. While I despair, I do not only despair. Also from the aforementioned collection of essays, re: women and media: “The media report women’s issues selectively and, apparently, through a man’s sense of the world.” I know we can argue about how much has changed, but the response to the Turner case – the outcry, the indignation, the rage – that tells us things have changed. Are changing. And for the better. If you’ve not read the letter written and read by the woman Turner attacked, do so now (link above). Her willingness to – again – relive what happened to her, to vocalize how it’s affected her: that is bravery and determination and the steel will to have a voice and make it heard. As she notes, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” Until today. Bravo to Buzzfeed for printing the letter in full. And for all that we can say about Facebook and Twitter and social media more broadly, the sharing of that letter, the dialog it opens up: that is magnificent.

In Danielle McGuire’s incredible At the Dark End of the Street, she writes about the importance of black women’s voice in naming the physical and sexual violence they endured and by whom in the Jim Crow South. They motivated communal action in response to the ongoing threat posed by white men who faced little recompense for attacks on black women and black girls. They motivated communal action against a broader system of inequality and injustice. Today, I saw McGuire tweet about the young woman raped by Turner and her letter with the notation of the importance of #testimony. I don’t know what consequences this sentencing will have for Judge Perskey. Or the consequences the case will have for Turner and his victim. I don’t know. But my hope is that the young woman’s voice, the publicity afforded it, and the awareness generated will shape conversations and viewpoints so that acts like these do, in fact, have a severe impact on future responses to and punishments for sexual violence of this kind.

 

“She has kept me on the warpath”: Of Mean Girls, First Wavers, and Female Friendship

When my Youth in Modern America class discussed Mean Girls, I asked them to consider whether or not the female friendships presented in the film were authentic. Among the men in the class, I got the sense that this question seemed entirely beyond their purview (despite the fact that I’d asked them about the authenticity of numerous representations in the past, all of which they’d seemed to find reasonable requests for consideration). I then asked how the female friendships of the film seemed different from the male friendships with which they were familiar. One student suggested that boys were more willing to confront each other face to face whereas girls resorted to talking behind each other’s backs. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. “Probably just nature,” he responded.

At which point I pretend spat and said, “I hate that.” Pedagogy. Master class.

Admittedly, I am the worst. But the good news, I guess, is that I didn’t stop there. I asked students about the gendered nature of raising up children and about patterns we had identified over the course of the semester: about which emotions were/are legitimate to display, based upon sex; about which characteristics were praised versus those that were/are discouraged, based upon sex; about the ways in which kids – and then teens – were/are measured by parents, by teachers, by peers, based upon sex. Where did kids learn to behave as they did? The home, presumably. And school, of course. But after a semester of considering American youth’s experience – with the majority of our consideration taking place in the 20th century – students knew the media and the marketplace played substantial roles in suggesting (directing? mandating?) the proper behaviors of boys and girls. Female agreeability, flexibility, and acquiescence remained fundamental elements of getting along. Appearance and attractiveness – denoted by the response a girl received from the opposite sex – were likewise key to fitting in. Rocking the boat was not part of the path to popularity.

Obviously much has changed since women’s liberation challenged gender binaries and advocated on behalf of equal rights and opportunities for American women. But old habits die hard (as I am learning when my daughter [WHO IS TWO] has learned and says that certain behaviors are “not ladylike” [she did not learn that in our house]). Even in Mean Girls, a millennial classic, a very 21st century film, the girls, for all their “power,” continue to be measured and evaluated on an antiquated system based on looks, goods, money, and heterosexual appeal. The power the mean girls wield is related directly to how well they adhere to the tried and true elements of the popularity scale. And even as they are mean, they pretend, outwardly, they are not. Only among friends do they reveal their animosity and hostility, for those in and outside the group.

Mean-Girls-Where-Now

Susan Douglas has written beautifully about the problematic nature of the “queen bee” girl bullying “epidemic.” She suggests the phenomenon is a kind of red herring. The bullying that cuts to the core of high school girls’ coming of age experience is much more often sexual harassment administered by boys than girl-on-girl meanness. She suggests also the anxiety about the rise in “girl power” run amuck is directly related to the increasing rate of girls’ success when compared to their male peers. She also critiques the call for what seems to be an ever-increasing thinness. As girls gain power, they are encouraged to take up less space. Hunger, Douglas suggests, might contribute to bitchiness. The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, I think, was published before the publicity dedicated to girls’ and women’s increased devotion to maintenance of the thigh-gap, but Douglas anticipated its rise as she noted that girls, at younger and younger ages, named losing weight as their number one goal and often identified their appearance as the greatest obstacle they faced in their pursuit of happiness.

In any case, all of these considerations were my motivation for assigning the film (and a chapter from Douglas), but as I find with topics that that encroach increasingly on the present and with sources students feel they already know, this was a hard sell.

But I think the experience of talking about these things in the classroom was good – for them, and maybe more, for me. Because there is no rest for the wicked, I’ve been reading for a US Women’s History class I’m teaching next semester (A NEW PREP). Because the most recent works I’ve read considering 19th century women’s rights work are books I’ve read to my aforementioned daughter (read: intended for children), I’ve needed to engage in a reintroduction with the basics. And so I’ve turned to Jean Baker’s Sisters, which is wildly readable, and very much dedicated to a reclamation of the first wavers’ public AND private lives, which I love. Baker argues that key women’s rights ladies – Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul – often appear in historical consideration as dehumanized figures, all work and no play, all politics and no pleasure. In fact, they’re fascinating and not only for their dogged commitment to the suffrage cause but also for the ways in which they attempted to integrate their views of sex and gender into their own lives, in competing and often contradictory ways.

So where am I going with all this? Friendship is the thread here. I now am obsessed with the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (I know ECS is a problematic figure for many reasons – but please, just give me this). Besties dedicated to breaking the oppressive bonds of patriarchy? Tell me more. Opposites in looks and disposition, clashing over key issues but keeping arguments in-house in order to present a united front? Not to mention recognizing these arguments were an essential part of their friendship? MORE, NOW. Yin and yang in their writing, research, and philosophizing? Oh my God. I just died of happiness. The ghost of Karen Dunak will complete this post. Wrote Stanton of their pairing: “In thought and sympathy we were as one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytic in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric…” What’s more, Anthony had been the force, Stanton claimed, that “kept me on the warpath.”

films-not-for-ourselves-alone-details

SBA & ECS, Bosses

Ever since I was just a baby historian (aka five minutes ago) and I first read Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s “Female World of Love and Ritual,” I have loved the idea of a distinct women’s culture, forged between and among women as a means of support and solidarity, a place where men, for all their power, were superfluous. A thing I especially love about this world is how women recognized in each other particular elements of knowledge and strength and understanding that were ignored by or, I guess more accurately, were invisible to men, not knowing what to look for. Certainly, in my research and reading and teaching, concentrated much more in the 20th century than the 19th, I have seen remnants of this culture and argued for its ongoing value.

Women needn’t be denied rights in order to find solidarity among other women. Certainly, I haven’t found that to be the case. But I have also found an understanding of women’s rights and roles – the challenges to and infringements upon – enhances camaraderie among women. Recognition of the often competing responsibilities of public and private life and the challenges of integrating political principles into private relationships has yielded some of the most important discussions and solidified some of the most important relationships of my adult life.

I wouldn’t say Mean Girls is anti-feminist. It certainly attempts to communicate a feminist message in calls to limit girl-on-girl crime and in its concluding statements about the value of individualism, self-expression, and acceptance of difference. But more consideration of how the mean girls came to be so mean would’ve been welcome, and would’ve done much to reveal the institutions and mechanisms that indicate to girls what it is society will value in them. This, I think, was fundamental to Anthony’s and Stanton’s friendship: seeing the world in which they lived and their part in it, how it shaped them but also limited them, how so many of their private indignities were linked to their limited political power. It was with those considerations that they not only forged their friendship but also endeavored to improve the world beyond their beloved pairing.

When Pop Culture is Good, It’s Really, Really Good

There are many good things about having a baby. But there are enough places on the internet to tell you what they are that I will not do so here. Instead, allow me to address a very serious drawback to raising up a child: the fact that the responsibility of raising up said child severely (SEVERELY) cuts into one’s television and film time. For a person like me, who loves (LOVES) both TV (we’re living in a golden age) and movies, the extent to which my beloved viewing time was limited cut me deeply. I’m only just now catching up on past seasons (and sort of not even really: there are about 20 unwatched Walking Deads on my DVR right now) and films released since August 2013.

So I’m a good year plus late in coming at you with my views on Obvious Child, the abortion rom-com directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, which was released way back when in 2014. But having watched this film in the same week that I watched the travesty known as the first GOP Debate of the (2015-)2016 campaign season, my thinking about this film isn’t progressively fading. I just keep thinking about it.

m_350_oc_1sht_V1.indd

I’m sure the beasts of the GOP potential presidential pool would be/are unmoved by this film, or are moved to indignation and outrage at an adult woman making choices of her own volition in a safe and responsible manner, given their obvious self-satisfaction at their collective efforts to limit women’s reproductive freedoms. Admittedly, I’m part of the choir to which this film is preaching (except that it’s not preachy AT ALL), but it struck me as such a smart, thoughtful, and human way of discussing the importance of reproductive freedom. I assume, again, a year plus later, I don’t need a spoiler alert here, but just in case: I’m about to go into some plot detail.

Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, begotten during what appears as though it will be a one-night-stand, Donna (played by Slate) visits a clinic (Planned Parenthood?), has her pregnancy confirmed and schedules an abortion in this clean, safe, legitimately medical location. She’s not happy about the pregnancy – or the abortion – but she is certain that this is the correct decision for her, at this time. That is never in doubt.

In the weeks between the scheduling of the abortion and having the procedure, she considers the implications of what she’s decided. She is surrounded by supportive friends, one of whom has had an abortion. Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) is strong and independent, and serves as our for-real feminist voice when she assures Donna she has no obligation to share news of the pregnancy with Max (Jake Lacey), the one night stander. It’s her life, and her body, and her responsibility to pay for and live with the consequences of her decision (and, again, the decision is very, very clear). She also is surrounded by supportive family, including a mother who reveals to Donna her own abortion, performed on a kitchen table in an apartment in New Jersey during the 1960s, when abortion was illegal. There is kindness and understanding all around. And an effort to bring humor to an unfortunate situation, in a kind of ‘we laugh to keep from crying’ spirit.

There is romance, too, with some of it coming during the one night stand – but much of it coming after Donna and Max have slept together. Unexpectedly, they cultivate a kind of relationship, during which Donna knows she’s pregnant and planning to have the abortion, while Max is unaware. But when Max does learn of the pregnancy and the intended abortion – during Donna’s stand-up routine (she’s a comedienne, FYI), no less – he ultimately finds her at her home on the morning of the scheduled procedure and accompanies her to the clinic, where he offers his unequivocal support. After the abortion, they spend the afternoon (longer?) together, and he sees to her comfort. There is some melancholy, but there is also the sense of possibility, the idea that life will go on.

In interviews, Robespierre has discussed her desire to create a realistic film, one that women of her generation could look to and see something of themselves. Thinking of reality v. fantasy, the obvious comparison is between this film and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit about an unplanned pregnancy, in which the word “abortion” is never spoken (“shmashmortion,” yes; “taking care of it,” yes; “abortion,” no). In many ways, Knocked Up is a very funny film, but there is an awful lot of gender stereotyping going on there (bossy, driven woman, man-child stoner, enforcer mom, fun dad, etc., etc., etc.). And it’s a stretch for us to *really* believe Alison (Katherine Heigl) would actively pursue a relationship with a very ill-advised hook-up, Ben (Seth Rogan), upon discovering her pregnancy. It would be one thing if she’d decided to keep the baby and go for it as a single mother. The push for romance here is contrived – as often happens in contemporary romantic comedies. And the premise that both Alison and Ben need to (and do!) change to make the relationship happen pushes my capacity for suspended disbelief. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is far more realistic. Twenty-something Donna, coming of age in the twenty-first century is certainly savvy enough to a) realize her own level of immaturity and ill-preparedness for raising a child; and b) have a sense of the success rate of partnerships based upon an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is the best decision for her, and she is capable of making and facing it.

Beyond thinking about Obvious Child’s relationship to other films and to the present-day extreme politics of Anti-Choicers, I was struck, too, in thinking about the film in the context of Katha Pollitt’s recent New York Times op-ed “How to Really Defend Planned Parenthood” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/opinion/how-to-really-defend-planned-parenthood.html?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0). In rejecting the claims asserted by their Anti-Choice opponents, Pollitt argues, Pro-Choice supporters should be adamant about the importance of reproductive freedom, regardless of the root of the unplanned pregnancy. Rather than defending women getting abortions based on the parameters of the Anti-Choicers’ shaping of the debate, Pro-Choice activists should seize on the realities of women’s lives and the right to choice they ought to possess as human beings, full stop. She writes,

“We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.

…[T]oo many pro-choice people are way too quiet. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause. I suspect most of those women had someone who helped them, too — a husband or boyfriend, a friend, a parent. Where are those people? The couple who decided two kids were enough, the grad student who didn’t want to be tied for life to an ex-boyfriend, the woman barely getting by on a fast-food job? Why don’t we hear more from them?”

Part of the power of Obvious Child is that it does what Pollitt is asking in its very vocal and very unapologetic discussion of abortion, and a woman’s right to have one and move on. And it is a smart film to make direct reference to abortion’s history – when Donna’s mother discusses her own illegal abortion, to which her mother had driven her “in the family station wagon” and after which she had danced at a cousin’s Sweet Sixteen party, it is a moving moment for both mother and daughter. Even after that abortion, her life had turned out pretty great. She didn’t celebrate the memory, but she didn’t wallow in regret. In our current political climate, that’s radical. And her view is the view shared across the characters of this film. Abortions, we know, are not new; they have a long, long history. Making them harder to come by, making them illegal and unsafe, won’t make them go away. And keeping them safe and legal doesn’t make them easy, just humane.

Here and elsewhere (the classroom, the bar, my house, etc., etc., etc. ), I’ve argued against the idea of popular culture as throwaway culture. An advertisement is not just an advertisement. A song is not just a song. And a movie is never just a movie. All of these cultural forms (and countless others) are shaped by and/or in response to political, social, and economic factors of their time and place. And of course, recognizing that, and then seeing everything coming at you with that understanding can be (is) exhausting. But when you see a source, and for me, Obvious Child is that kind of source, that provides a perfect example of the power of popular culture to communicate messages that are in dire need of being communicated and to make visible experiences that are often relegated to private life, it’s also pretty incredible.

 

Mad Men and Strong Women

In these, the final days before Mad Men is done and gone forever, I have been LOVING the post-game analysis. In our world of market fragmentation and DVR’d viewing, I’m so happy to have a number of tried and true locations where I can go to get other people’s assessment of fashion, plot lines, character arcs and conclusions, writing triumphs and failings. I don’t agree with all points put forward, but as a person who fully believes and regularly proselytizes about the importance of media and popular culture as so much more than *just* entertainment, I love the seriousness with which authors approach their celebrations and critiques.

The last two episodes leading up to the series finale (“The Lost Horizon” and “The Milk and Honey Route”) have had these writers (and many viewers) losing their minds – and for good reason. I basically did not breathe for the entirety of Joan’s meeting with vile Jim Hobart and then breathed fire until the episode’s conclusion; I rewound and rewound to rewatch and rewatch Peggy 1) roller skate through her abandoned workplace while Roger played the electronic organ and then 2) walk into McCann like the baddest bad ass on planet Earth (or any other planet); I reeled at Betty’s terminal cancer diagnosis; and I wept at her matter-of-fact “when I die” letter to Sally. I could write forever and a day about all of these things.

But I’m trying to focus. The work I’m doing right now (in the world of research and writing) is about how the radical ideas of Second Wave feminism – primarily women’s rights to compete freely and fairly in the public and professional world, to manage their sexuality without consequence, to make decisions based on personal preference rather than cultural expectations and social standards, and to see themselves and be seen by others as equal to men – became mainstream. And very clearly non-feminist Betty Francis, in the last conversation we may ever see her have with her girl, rang just about every bell for me as I thought about this show and what it does to tell the history of a time and place to which I’ve committed much of my professional life.

Despite Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis, New York GOP big wig, the person she expects to take charge after her death and to whom she gives her list of instructions for burial is her teenage daughter. Henry, Betty tells Sally, won’t be able to handle it. Having seen him turn to Sally to convince Betty to receive treatment (a task at which he’d failed), having seen him weep in Sally’s dorm room on her twin bed, and having seen teenage Sally awkwardly comfort this grown man, that seems true. Don Draper, off in the hinterlands, seems not even a thought in anyone’s mind. Betty is right: Sally is the logical choice to see everything through.

bettycancerseason7

Betty, of that forgotten fifties generation, too young for World War II glory and too late for “the Sixties,” had done what she was supposed to do and ended up knee-deep in the Feminine Mystique. Even when she was finally happy, maybe she wasn’t. Baby Boomer Sally had watched her mother with a keen eye, vowing since little girlhood to avoid all the traps into which Betty fell. But of course there’s little escape from parental influence, for better or worse (we’ve seen Don tell Sally this directly), and it may be a long time from 1970 until Sally finally sees her mother as more than her mother and as a person caught in a larger web of cultural expectation and social limits. For me, Betty’s letter to Sally is one of the spots to which Sally can return, their conversation and Betty’s approach to her death as evidence of a more complicated woman than Betty likely ever appeared in her daughter’s eyes.

bettysallyseason7

In telling Sally she appreciates her independence, that she’d worried because Sally “marched to the beat of [her] own drum” but now saw what an adventure her life would be, Betty reveals something of how she’s changed over the course of the sixties. But make no mistake: she’s still old-fashioned. In asking Sally to be responsible once she’s dead, Betty is working on an old trope: women can handle things men can’t. They have a reserve of strength men do not. For Betty, this is not about empowerment; it’s about nature. This is an idea with a long history, the underlying message being something along the lines of men enjoy status as the public face of the operation, but privately women are the backbone of the enterprise.

But where all of this may be obvious to Betty, a matter-of-fact way of the world, my sense is that Sally, coming of age alongside Women’s Liberation, and again, looking at the world with that keen eye, is likely to call bullshit on this idea. Or at least on the fact that women are “stronger” but simultaneously subjugated to a secondary status, a behind-the-scenes pat on the back. Before the 1960s, what was known in “women’s culture” about women’s abilities, about what they endured and what they sacrificed, would, by the 1970s, become much more visible in American culture more broadly. As public conversation shed light on what had been assumed as “private” issues, many women, young and old, began reconsidering the assumed way of the world. And being the unsung hero, the known (but largely uncelebrated) support for American men wouldn’t cut it for the Sallys of the world.

For those who’ve “never really faced inequality”: How nice! But it’s not just about you.

Generally speaking, I live in a world where my Facebook feed is best described by the phrase “preaching to the choir.” The lefties of my life – from college, graduate school, and my current university – post on a fairly predictable host of issues and from fairly predictable perspectives. I’m fine with this. I often agree and sometimes share and am happy to have yet more fuel to add to my fire on any number of topics. I like my little like-minded world where I can pretend everyone cares about racial & gender equality, legal & economic justice, environmental protection, celebrity gossip, and the real and hopefully forever comeback of rompers and overalls. All of which is to say that when I come across the alternative perspective, I’m often taken aback. Wait, what? People don’t think like us?

Then I analyze. Then I stew. Then I rebut, sometimes publicly (keep reading, please).

My feed recently featured an article entitled “Big Bang Theory Star Just Said the Most Conservative Thing on the Internet,” from youngcons.com (Young Conservatives: http://www.youngcons.com/big-bang-theory-star-just-said-conservative-thing-internet/#2hLUbfp1E7QLxGAu.99). I clicked. Why, oh why, did I click? Because I just cannot resist.

This Young Conservative article declared that Kaley Cuoco’s recent Redbook feature interview would have “liberal feminists yanking out their underarm hair and screaming not-so-sweet sentiments into her virtual ear via social media.” Well. Let’s not even get started on what radical feminists might think.

When asked if she is a feminist, she responded, “Is it bad if I say no?”

It’s not. If people choose to reject the idea of social, economic, and political equality between the sexes, that’s their business.

The Young Conservative piece speculated that part of the interview that would really raise feminist ire against Cuoco was her statement “I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him.” She’s talking about making this man, her husband, dinner. Fine. Whatever. She claims that she likes feeling like a housewife. Also fine. And just speculating her, but she probably particularly enjoys feeling like a housewife because a) she’s not; b) cooking is approximately 1/100 of what being a housewife is about; and c) she can stop feeling like (or pretending to be) a housewife whenever she wants. Good thing feminists pushed for women to have choices of this kind.

I am a for real feminist. And I will tell you right now I don’t care that she likes cooking a meal for her husband. I have been known to cook a meal for my husband as well. Cat’s out of the bag.

I do, however, take issue with other parts of the interview. And the fact that the Young Conservatives piece didn’t recognize the problematic nature of the following statement, for me, reveals just how little those on the other side of the feminist debate really understand about feminism. The quote, re: feminism: “It’s not really something I think about,” she said. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around… I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.”

Record scratch.

First, let’s take a minute to discuss The Big Bang Theory, of which Cuoco is a star. I feel fine about this show. It’s not uncommon that someone in my house is watching this show. But it is not a program that features particularly enlightened views of sex or gender (or race, but whatever). Cuoco’s character, Penny (no last name – unlike all other main characters), the failed actress, waitress, community college student turned stellar pharmaceutical rep is regularly the butt of jokes for her a) stupidity; b) sexual promiscuity; c) drinking. In the world of super-smart nerd scientists, she has street smarts, but they’re of the kind where she sends in a check for the less-than-required amount to pay her electric bill, along with a picture of herself in a bra, all in the hopes that she’ll get a bit of an extension. Cuoco, in landing this part, a dream job, I’m sure, may not have faced inequality, but she’s MAKING BANK on exploiting tired – and often sexist and unequal – views of gender and sexuality. I will not even engage with the episode in which she and the “girl scientists” go to Disneyland and do the whole dress-like-a-princess thing that apparently you can do at that place. (Sidenote: I don’t even *not like* TBBT, and I’m sure experts of the show could argue opposite points to those I’ve made, but my evidence is not wrong.)

princesses

Second, and much more importantly, I take issue with Cuoco’s “It’s not really something I think about” and “I’ve never really faced inequality.” How nice it must be not to worry about issues of inequity that half the population faces daily and without respite. How easy it must be to think only of yourself and not give consideration to other people and their experiences. How simple it must be to ignore your privileged position and thus ignore the realities of people’s lives as they struggle in a system that, at its core, privileges certain segments of the population over others.

Again, it’s okay not to be a feminist. I accept that. But I will not accept a political perspective – even one that’s as seemingly unintentionally political as Cuoco’s – based pretty clearly on willful ignorance and limited regard for any experience beyond one’s own.

So yes, as a feminist (albeit one with shaved pits), I have beef with Cuoco’s sentiments. But for reasons apparently unanticipated by the Young Cons.

To come back to my Facebook feed: another article caught my attention more recently and prompted me to put to paper the ideas floating in my head about Cuoco’s Redbook interview. California Magazine (Winter 2014) published an article that asked “What Stalled the Gender Revolution?” and answered “Child Care that Costs More Than College Tuition” (http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/what-stalled-gender-revolution-child-care-costs). Ummmm…YES. As author Tamara Straus reported, “A 2013 report from Child Care Aware noted that as of 2012, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, day care is more expensive than one year of public college tuition—and that was among a cohort of faculty, people with the highest levels of education.” RECORD SCRATCH AGAIN. I know this stuff, and my jaw still hit the floor.

1941 Conference on Day Care

A working mother drops her son at a federally-subsidized nursery school in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, a half a million children received care in such centers. After World War II ended, they were closed. Please note: better support for working mothers in 1943 than in 2015.

Straus also states, “Feminism isn’t a prominent social movement in this country anymore. And one reason for this is blazingly clear: We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.” Those who are unaffected by the inequity (ahem, Ms. Cuoco) ignore that inequity, or even worse, and this is the true crime, believe and willfully perpetuate the idea that it isn’t there.

The individualism that emerged at the end of the Second Wave, as the Second Wave weathered attack by increasingly conservative forces of the Reagan Revolution and the Religious Right, is precisely what contemporary feminists must combat. The personal is political, but it’s our collective personal that should be motivating our political activism. Shout out to Tamara Straus for writing so beautifully what we in my world – virtual and in-person – so often discuss: “My plea to the remaining feminists out there is this: Let’s find some class solidarity and make government-subsidized child care a campaign issue. Let’s identify and vote for candidates who see affordable child care as a legislative necessity. Such family-friendly demands would make sense to low- and middle-income women. They would bring more people back into the feminist fold, and they might even revitalize a movement.” And to that end, I’ll answer Cuoco’s question of “Is it bad if I say no?” in this way, the way a politically engaged interviewer might have: It would be better if you said yes.