It was a comment from my friend Sue, one of the smartest women I know, that crystallized what has been on my mind for some time. Her comment, a propos of the Oscars, had to do with the roles of black actresses who seem to get wide recognition and acclaim only when playing the same role that won Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in “Gone with the Wind”, and the beauty myth glamorizing underweight and “waifish” women while labelling more generous proportions as “plus sizes”. As if it mattered, as if a woman’s hair or body shape should have a place in a conversation about acting.
Sue was asking if this is what we, and the women before us, fought for. In a country where politics are entering the bedroom and the doctor’s office, I have been amazed at how dimmed the female voice has been, as if younger women, who are enjoying the fait accompli of their right to choose, equality in the workplace, access to reproductive care, were not aware of the danger of all those amendments that are chipping away at Roe vs. Wade, of the legislation that aims to control our choices and our behaviours. Or, worse, as if they didn’t care.
This week, I was grateful for Sandra Fluke and the controversy that dim-witted Rush Limbaugh started. The Georgetown University law student has been fighting for years for the right to have contraception covered by the Jesuit University healthcare plan. Her face and her words became public when she testified in front of a Democratic congressional pane,l and then went on to being ridiculed and offended by the commentator who has become the “soul of the Republican Party” (and what a black soul that is). But Ms. Fluke held her head high and soldiered on.
I find it hard to believe that sex and contraception are at the core of a Republican primary and that a candidate like Rick Santorum still has political life left in him. As much as I might disagree with a conservative woman in matters of economics or public policies, how can any woman, across the entire spectrum, just sit down and take it when men, sorely lacking a sense of time and timing, are trying to turn back the clock? It’s contraception and abortion today, it will be preaching for women to stay at home and reproduce tomorrow.
And why aren’t women in entertainment speaking out? While I don’t expect young women to take their cue from Nancy Pelosi, I am not seeing many role models out there. Could it really be that this generation’s preoccupations are solely steeped in Kim Kardashian and the assorted coterie of starlets that populate reality shows and mediocre sitcoms? If a Martian were to stand in line at the grocery store, trying to catch a glimpse of who we are, we would come across as obsessed on when Princess Catherine is going to get pregnant, what drugs was Whitney Houston taking, how Julia Roberts’ twins are doing and whether Ms. Jolie and Mr. Pitt are fighting again.
In the meantime, women of my generation are busy cleansing, working out, nipping, tucking and botoxing, remaking themselves in the image of what they think youth should look like. At 40 or 50, youth has gone. Better deal with it before we start looking like bad caricatures of our former selves or, in the best of cases, expressionless mummies.
So, is this what we fought for? The inability to grow old gracefully under the pressure of a society that still marginalizes older women? Or for a generation of younger women who watch events unfold but still choose to tune into “Jersey Shore”? Maybe we rested on our laurels a bit too long or, when we passed the baton, we didn’t deliver a clear set of instructions. It seems there is a lot more work to do.