Last week, a man called me a feminist in his comment on my post about the differences in the male and female brain, which also happens to be the theme of the current Scientific American Mind magazine.
The point is, he used the term as if it were a dirty F-word. If I believe there is still work to be done to ensure the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes then I must be an out-of-touch aging maniac.
Is he right? Doesn't the media prove that feminism has done its work and it's time to move on? Female surgical residents on Grey's Anatomy outnumber and outsmart the men. Other top shows feature female police chiefs, detectives, lawyers, judges and even tough-as-men reality show contestants. Women are anchoring the evening news, championing laws through congress, and featured on more tabloid covers than men.
Who needs feminism anymore?
In her new book, Enlightened Sexism: The seductive message that feminism's work is done, Susan Douglas suggest there is a large gap between the media and the how the vast majority of girls and women live their lives. Douglas says,
"What the media have been giving us, then, are little more than fantasies of power. They assure girls and women, repeatedly, that women's liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless, and more held in awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional, and political parity with men, and we can expunge any suggestions that there might be some of us who actually have to live on the national median income, which for women in 2008 was $36,000 a year, 23 percent less than that of their male counterparts."
So is Grey's Anatomy a ruse? According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, last year 49% of medical school graduates were women and 47% of medical school residents were women. However, only 32% became surgical residents, with only 12% choosing neurological surgery. The greater number of female than male residents doing brain surgery on Grey's Anatomy is a bit out of proportion to reality.
Should television represent reality or are nighttime soaps just fantasy and entertainment? I do like the issues the women face on Grey's Anatomy. I blogged about an episode that explored what women often give up in relationships at the expense of their dreams. In the show, Christina tells her boyfriend about her near-marriage experience. She described her relationship as a process of giving herself away to him, piece by piece. In tears, she says to her current lover, "That will never happen again."
Comments on this post were both positive and negative, with some people saying that all relationships require a give and take by both sexes. Yet overall, the consensus was that we should not give up what is essential to our happiness.
I think the issues writer Shonda Rhimes covers her shows are current and relevant, and I like to watch my nighttime soaps. But I think it is important that women and girls know when the set-up doesn't represent reality. Sexism is still alive and well.
According to Susan Douglas, the top five jobs for women are still secretary, nurse, elementary and middle school teacher, cashier and retail salesperson. Although these are honorable jobs, they aren't honored by those who think their salaries should be barely above poverty level.
Even women with advanced degrees still make only 70-80 percent of the salaries of their male counterparts. The number of women in powerful government positions in the United States is paltry; we rank 69th in the world in the number of women in national legislatures. When I Googled "women TV news anchors," half the listings were dedicated to showcasing the sexiest and leggiest of the women reporting the news.
In my research for my upcoming book, Wander Women: How High-Achieving Women find Contentment and Direction, I identified that many accomplished women feel restless, going from job to job and often from relationship to relationship in three to five years. Many are leaving the corporate world altogether to start their own businesses as they search for fulfillment and the elusive "something more" they know is out there but can't quite define.
Is this phenomenon a product of the fantasies dished out as reality they see on television, in the movies, and through the songs they sing? Are they taught to believe they can accomplish anything and then they bump into the harsh realities of a life that still presents sexist roadblocks to their dreams? I often hear the complaint that these brash, bold young women have an air of entitlement at work. If they have worked hard to earn their degrees and get relevant experiences, shouldn't they come in with high expectations? How can we turn their entitlement into empowerment instead of dashing their hopes and leaving them feeling discouraged and restless to move on? I believe that we still need to work at making sure the promises made to young women aren't broken by the sexism that still exists.
Like the man who called me the f-word, many people think the barriers to the advancement of women no longer exist. Who started this rumor? On the flip side, I know many men who are feminists, who have seen what their daughters, wives and mothers have had to put up with and do not feel this is right.
It is not the time to become ambivalent about sexism. It is not the time to call feminism a dirty word. Enjoy your television shows, but be careful about which ones you feel reflect reality. Or better yet, let's work together to make real life live up to these images of female power.
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