Feminists usually aren't all that scary to me. But tonight I wimped out on asking a question of two who teach at the Oregon State University Women Studies program.
We were into the Q &A and guest speaker portion of the Salem Progressive Film Series showing of "Killing Us Softly 4," a documentary about advertising's image of women. Sexy, skinny, silent, and childish is, of course, promoted over sexless, fat, assertive, and mature.
The movie showed the filmmaker, Jean Kilbourne, giving a talk. As she made a point, we saw photos and videos illustrating how advertisers present an image of idealized femininity that is far removed from everyday female reality.
(Along this line, for someone who is 68 Kilbourne looked pretty good in "Killing Us Softly 4," almost exactly like her Wikipedia photo. My wife and I suspect she dyes her hair. And that either she has great genes or embraces feminist plastic surgery.)
Now, I'll confess that as I watched the advertising examples from Victoria's Secret, Gucci, and many other companies, countless times my male mind wordlessly responded with Wow, that chick is hot!
Yet in the late 70's, along with my young daughter and feminist first wife I listened a lot to Marlo Thomas's "Free to Be... You and Me." Back then I read Ms. magazine every month. And I wasn't many years removed from living with my mother, a strong, independent divorced woman who worked outside the home at a time when not many women her age did.
Neuroscience knows that the human brain is made up of some very old parts, and some much newer parts. Our cerebral cortex, where we do our thinking, is a fairly recent evolutionary development. Emotional parts, instinctive parts -- they're much older.
So when it comes to how women are seen by men, and also how they see themselves, it seems like we need to take into account these differences between what we could call our "higher" and "lower" selves (I'm not speaking moralistically, but evolutionarily).
Can't it be argued that the objectifying of women shown in the film, and the emphasis on sexy youthfulness, is a holdover from our cave man heritage which still is reflected in those more primitive parts of the human brain?
I chickened out, though.
As Women Studies instructors, Rietveld and Littke were appealingly passionate about their commitment to rooting out sexist, male-centric cultural attitudes. Not having been in a college classroom for a long time, I was thrilled to hear one of them use the term "deconstruct," a post-modern feminist tool that wasn't around when I was in school.
I was worried that my question would be fodder for one of their classroom lectures.
"You wouldn't believe what this gray-haired guy asked us after a showing of Killing Us Softly 4 in Salem. This is a great example of deeply embedded attitudes toward women that are preserving the misogynist status quo."
So I didn't ask it.
However, the question I did ask was founded on the same sort of neuroscientific premise. Namely, that how we think and how we feel (or act) often are quite different. After I raised my hand and got a microphone handed to me, I said:
Perusing the offerings at the grocery store checkout lane, my male eyes are pleased to notice that women's magazines feature photos of beautiful half-naked women, and that men's magazines also feature photos of beautiful half-naked women.
Thus the ideal female image promoted by advertisers, and decried in the movie we just saw, is embraced by those who buy women's magazines -- who are almost all women.
Doesn't this imply that women are the ones who are perpetuating a supposedly overly idealized and sexist view of femininity? Or at least that women are as much to blame as advertisers for keeping that ideal alive?
Well, that's close to how I asked my question. I was sort of nervous about asking even this toned-down question, so rambled on even more than I usually do.
The answers I got from Rietveld and Littke were disappointing. I can't recall much of what they said because their responses didn't seem to address what I was getting at. Or maybe I expected them to understand the subtext of my question, that our primordial human instincts often outweigh our more modern reason and logic.
(I've read that in most cultures across the world, men tend to marry women younger than themselves; a certain curvaceous female form is valued; and beauty is more important to men than it is to women. Thus advertisers seem to be tuning in to how people actually feel, whereas feminists tend to emphasize how people should feel.)
A better answer came from an audience member later on in the Q and A session. She referred to my question, saying that women's magazines are part of a cultural mileiu that females grow up in and end up internalizing.
But I still wonder to what degree feminists are swimming against a powerful evolutionary current, and whether it is even desirable to eliminate all of the supposedly sexist aspects of modern culture.
(Third wave feminists apparently don't think so.)