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Chauncey Zalkin

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A Better Way To Represent Women

Posted: 10/18/11 05:55 PM ET

Feminists have always railed against the belittling and inaccurate portrayal of women on TV and in movies. It's been an uphill battle against the tight circumscription of roles dictated by magazines and fortified by generations of well-meaning mothers trying to help their children make their way in the world. The conflicting messages have varied: find a good man, marry him, settle down. Do business a man's way. Do business a woman's way. Cut your hair. Wear blue. Follow this course. Take these steps. The ultimate takeaway is: Don't listen to your intuition; here's a legion of advisors to tell you how you're doing it wrong.

Some media outlets have wised up, putting out what they see as empowering, nurturing messages, the soft touch of community and understanding, strength and resilience against a backdrop of women reaching for the sun or cuddling on the couch with a cup of tea. These messages of empowerment register as cloying, overly sunny and just a tad bit unrealistic. The overall sense is that thou doth protest too much. That it needs pointing out that we have value.

Thanks for the pep talk, but you're still missing the point. We are not goddesses, divas or supermoms any more than we're bitches, shrews, sluts or nursemaids, and the damage of getting it wrong has been accumulative, making the picture of a woman's role seem quite grim and hopeless when it's really far from it. Look at women's ascent! It's everywhere!

Look at June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media and the person behind the launch of the game-changing Ted Talks. Look at Zaha Hadid -- there are few architects as powerful in the world today. Look at kick-ass Flickr creator Caterina Fake and Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley. Look at Rashmi Sinha, CEO & Co-Founder of Slideshare. Look at the woman who is helping me share this article with the world (Arianna Huffington). Women are not a group to be rocked, coddled, and soothed -- they're a force to be reckoned with.

A few months back, the Korean art biennale in Gwangju announced the selection of six female curators from all over Asia (Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Bombay, Iraq, and Jakarta) to lead the 2012 biennale. Though it's fantastic news, it's not revolutionary: Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima headed up last year's Venice Biennale for Architecture, and there are countless other examples of female leadership in everything from arts to culture to business to sports. On July 28th, Keiko Fukuda, a 98 year old judo Sensei got her 10th dan black belt (she's the only living disciple to the founder of this Japanese martial art).

Living in 'socialized' Europe for 5 years has given me the distance to see American beauty ideals, media, and even the role of marriage in society in a different light. Sure a lot of the superficiality, pettiness, and striving for physical perfection exists in the Spanish and French gossip magazines, but my limited language skills have allowed me to avoid the cover lines of women's magazines for five years. My conversations have thus changed. I almost never talk about fashion or beauty or celebrities because I have nobody to talk about these things with. There were no Us magazines lying around at Barcelona dentist's office. When I announced my engagement last year to friends in Europe I didn't get the gasps of delight and rush of hugs that I know I would have gotten in America. They said great but basically so what.

European women just don't care about the status symbol that marriage bestows on American women. Two Swiss friends of my husband, both in long-term relationships and one with a baby on the way, stated they would never get married. Another Italian friend looked at us with a blank stare. Even friends in Japan seemed non-plussed. I can't say that wasn't a bit disappointing but it all contributed to a change in my perspective.

I returned to the states last month and the one thing that's stunned me is the bombardment of information like 'who in Hollywood earns the most money' and chirpy advice on how to improve one's chances of finding a husband. It's really time to update the look and feel of media for women to fit reality. We don't need to rely on the trappings of yesteryear. We can define ourselves thank you very much. While everyone benefits from solidarity, community, and inspiration we need to see accessible examples of women defining themselves so we can reach out for support and guidance along our own distinct paths.

So how to represent women now? There a lot of women's stories to tell -- and not because of the freakish oddity of well spun success stories or as a way to feel bad about ourselves, because unlike the women in those 'success stories' we are flawed and human -- but because all of society can learn from the way women are taking the lead in both thought and action. The recent rise of women is one of the biggest signposts of a shift from the old paradigm of top down hierarchical systems to networked based, socially driven collaborations and humancentric enterprise. That's why we need to capitalize on female innovation and 'change the ratio.' These are the stories we need to tell our daughters, friends, and neighbors so it becomes the fabric of their belief system. Not so they can feel inadequate but good about what's inside them and free to persevere along the lines of their intuition.

 

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