Friday, May 07, 2010
Beyond the Pole
A couple weeks ago, our family rustled the newspaper’s movie list long enough to find one that two adults and two teenagers were all willing to see, the PG-13 comedy, Date Night, with Tina Fey, one of our funniest – and most feminist—writer-comediennes. It was Tina Fey, on her TV sit-com “30 Rock,” who taught everyone that Valentine’s Day is also Anna Howard Shaw Day, a date celebrating this 19th century leader of the American Women’s Suffrage movement.
Date Night earned tepid reviews for its recycled plot of a date night gone bad in the Big City. My interest here, though, is that two-thirds through the movie, I could see the plot twisting in a direction I have come to know too well—a shady club door opens to throbbing music, hazy lighting, leering men, women dancing in undies … yup; another a strip club scene.
It has become almost obligatory for movies and even TV shows to work strip clubs and pole-dancing into stories that sure don’t need them for plot development. Don’t worry – I’m not going to linger on these dens of iniquity; my question is why, now, these scenes have become a narrative norm. Why in so many CSI shows or spy flicks does the female investigator or detective have a pole dance up her sleeve? (Not easy when you’re only wearing fringe.) We sure don’t expect our male heroes to break into Chippendales dances in every other episode.
In Date Night, the strip club scene is supposed to be funny, but it’s not much fun, frankly, to see a smart feminist comic squeezed into a tacky stripper teddy. My first thought was YUCK, and my second was: This is the perfect metaphor for our schizophrenic culture, as women have made enormous progress, and yet are still squeezed into sexist stereotypes.
Consider these facts: 10 years ago, the top job in the U.S. for women was “secretary.” Now, with more women than ever in college, the top job for women is: secretary – and Secretary of State doesn’t count. A year out of college, women earn 80 percent of their male peers’ salaries. Ten years later, they earn 69 percent. * Put these numbers next to strip club-influenced sexiness as a cultural expectation of women, and it’s clear we still have a problem.
This problem has a name, as I learned from communications professor Susan J. Douglas, whose sharp and entertaining new book captures this strange empowerment-and-backlash media moment in its title: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. When Professor Douglas spoke at Saint Mary’s College this year, she said something I’d missed—that, interestingly, the media over-represents powerful women in show after show; think about all the strong women – especially women of color – who dominate TV shows, as lieutenants and detectives on “Law and Order,” as head surgeons, and as judges in peoples’ courts. If you just watched TV and skipped NPR, you’d think women ran the world – not true. (Try this test: skim the photos on Google news every day for a week and see who’s making news. Men, men, men, mostly—until you scroll down to the “entertainment” section.) Susan Douglas argues that this fictitious over-selling of women’s empowerment in the media effectively gives culture permission to promulgate girls-gone-wild, strip-club sexism, because it seems that “feminism’s work has been done.” Her term, “enlightened sexism,” suggests that sexism now is done with winking irony, pretending that women are equal, thereby justifying the return of old-fashioned objectification. It’s the Tina Fey problem.
A couple weeks ago, obsessed with these ideas, I spent eight very strange hours at the local mall with friends, staffing an information table on Equal Pay Day, the day that marks how far into this year women had to work to earn what men made last year. This year it fell on April 20. We sat eagerly at our table, with flyers and statistics about the gender and race pay gap, trying to ignore the Zumba demonstrators gyrating to Latin music right next to us. We got the brush-off about 50 times for every person who was willing to stop. I understand; I, too, have been on a “mall mission,” not wanting to break my stride. But in more than a few cases with mother-daughter duos, the daughters stopped to read the literature and the moms dragged them onward to Abercrombie. Kids get unfairness. I think adults sometimes have gotten too used to it. I want girls to know that stripper poles don’t have to be part of their repertoire. And for boys to know there are better places to put their money than someone’s garter. And for all of us to know that garter money, even if it’s made to look fun, will never equalize the pay gap.
[Statistics from Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Co. 2010. 3.]