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Are Bikini Baristas 'Bad Feminists?'

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I won't Iditarod my way into the spectacle of Sarah Palin appropriating feminism as her very own dogma. But it's just one recent example of women having what can be most diplomatically described as a classification problem.

Men are lucky they don't have to deal with this much. "Boy toy" is the most degrading male label that shows up in the tabs these days. But for women, it seems the lines between empowerment and degradation continue to move around like it's 1959 (blame Mad Men if you're macho enough).

Today, the Iranian state news website called Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the French First Lady, a "prostitute." Former supermodel and current activist, maybe. And someone who, coincidentally, just called for the release of an Iranian women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. But how did hooker get thrown in there?

Maybe we can get Mr. Ahmedinajad to define his terms. That would help on the nuclear thing, too.

Locally, women and their roles have also been pushed up into the news. In Fremont, women in bikinis are serving coffee at a drive-through, including a 16-ounce "C-Cup" for $1.85. Heh.

The jokes are bad but the business, Your Coffee Cups, is whipping competitors and raising fat tips for the servers. "I have more time for myself," San Jose State student and bikini-ist Samantha De la Cruz told the Oakland Tribune. As added value eye candy, she makes twice what she used to earn selling wood at a Lowe's store.

Does that make her a "bad feminist?"

In the Pacific Northwest, where all coffee entrepreneurial hustles, including this one, seem to start, the Trib says there have been reports of servers flashing customers for bigger tips and customers doing the same for better thrills. Not in Fremont, the owner and servers insist. "They don't make you feel like a stripper," says another bikinista, Rosanne Ortiz.

Which, even if they did, might not be such a terrible thing, according to a new study from the University of Leeds, right across the channel from Ms. Bruni.

Most British lap dancers surveyed said they chose to work in that, uh, position, because they earn more. They are "motivated by career and economic choices, not coercion," the report says. One in four has a college degree.

University of London professor Dr. Belinda Brooks-Gordon told the BBC that "one of the most striking things (about the study) is job satisfaction and of course the money. With the money they can earn they can work shorter hours and combine it ... with undergraduate ... and postgraduate education."

We might consider that a "student/stripper" category on the resume. And just when it seemed the whole Madonna/Whore cultural thing had been beaten into hackneyed obscurity by more realistically complex formulations about women.

Dr. Brooks-Gordon also said she'd be OK with her daughter dancing in laps because "as a mother, I'd want my daughter to choose whatever she wants to do in good working conditions and safe environment."

On the same show, club owner Peter Stringfellow (OK, there's a decent joke in there somewhere) compared his lap dancers to Hollywood performers who wait tables while waiting for acting jobs. His employees "can be socially clever. They have to be smart. They're not dummies."

What an endorsement.

So where is the precise tan line between nuturing empowerment and sexual degradation

Thank God some borders are still painfully clear. Last week, feminine hygiene company Summer's Eve stepped in sexist poo with its ad urging women to have deodorized privates if they wanted to get a raise at work. Lissa Rankin, an ob/gyn and author of What's Up Down There was asked by the company some months ago to be a spokeswoman for Summer's Eve's new "empowering" campaign. She declined. Good move. Now that she's seen the "hiring tips" ad, she writes on her blog, "Yikes. I swear, it's the opposite of empowering." But women and others "made such a stink" that Summer's Eve pulled the ads not already in print and fled to Twitter for apologies all up and down.

Maybe the ad campaign would work better in Iran.