A few months back, I got a text message from my 24-year-old sister: “Can I work at Hooters if I’m doing it ironically?” I acknowledge that: 1. We gotta do what we gotta do in this economy; and 2. She meant it (mostly) as a joke, and it’s pretty funny. That said, though, it also got me thinking about that very special brand of feminism that seems to come naturally to a lot of smart, budding daughters-of-Steinem in their teens and 20s: You know, the “Girls Gone Wild”-Is-Empowering, “Coyote Ugly”-4-eva phase. The time during which you can somehow twist your biggest source of true, instant, newly discovered power over men—your sexuality—into the place where you want the source of your power to be: your womanhood. Your feminism.
And you haven’t yet learned that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Feminism—like anything worth anything—is a confusing, messy journey of discovery. The immensity of the topic—this is hardly a yes/no question—allows for millions of shades of gray even among its most seasoned minds. But the sisterhood’s youngest inductees go through some particularly incendiary—if totally typical—growing pains. Many start out radical—getting pissed off is, after all, how one generally becomes a feminist. Whether it’s because she’s witnessed discrimination firsthand or she’s taken up reading Betty Friedan for the first time, a women’s-studies-phase feminist can quote long passages of Naomi Wolf and debate with up-to-the-minute Planned Parenthood statistics. Then, however, the groups start to splinter off, as real-life concerns like paying rent and charting a career path start to take up more time than Simone de Beauvoir and Ms. Magazine. Some may go into a no-cooking-or-cleaning-because-it-subjugates-me phase or a screw-marriage-and-kids phase.
But the phase that gets the most attention—and one that’s increasingly common (as documented by Ariel Levy’s great “Female Chauvinist Pigs”)—is the owning-my-sexuality phase. We here at Sirens have explored the question of why, during this time of life in particular, showing off what God gave you can be a little enticing. However, another reason this phase gets so much play is because it seems to always have a resident pop-culture spokeswoman. Pop culture loooves a young lady who’ll both vamp it up and say provocatively smart-sounding things—an intoxicating combination that allows the media to have cake as well as eat it. (What? She just said those things that get bloggers talking and magazines selling, and we just printed it in the name of good journalism? And she wanted to pose topless? Awesome!) So it has been that in the past decade we’ve drooled over Angelina Jolie, who, at 24, was telling British GQ, ”I need more sex, OK? Before I die I wanna taste everyone in the world.” That same year (2000) she also told Elle, ”I like everything. Boyish girls, girlish boys, the heavy and the skinny. Which is a problem when I’m walking down the street.” (Aww, remember when girl-on-girl was sooo transgressive?) Then we had Christina Aguilera-circa-“Dirrty”: “What is so wrong with a 22-year-old woman showing her sexuality? If people want to insult me, let them. Call me a slag. If being a slag means being a strong woman, I’ll gladly be that.”
And now, of course, we have Megan Fox running her mouth off, and, incidentally, inciting plenty of debate among Sirens staffers even though we should know better than to take the bait. In one Entertainment Weekly story alone, she called herself a feminist while also unleashing such bon mots as, “I think all women in Hollywood are known as sex symbols. That’s what our purpose is in this business. You’re merchandised, you’re a product. You’re sold and it’s based on sex. But that’s okay. I think women should be empowered by that, not degraded.”