Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Girls Town's Challenge to "Do It Yourself" Feminism

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Girls Town's Challenge to "Do It Yourself" Feminism

Article excerpt

The recognition that "the personal is political" was central to the second wave of the women's movement. Women were radicalized by the notion that what they had understood as their private experience was, in fact, "characterized by power and fraught with political meaning" (Mandle 2). Founders of consciousness-raising groups believed that once women realized that their problems "had political, social origins, they would move on to consider what kind of collective, political action to take" (Davis 89). Now, in the first years of the twenty-first century, while this slogan retains much of the rhetorical power with which it resonated in the late 1960s, it can also echo some of the most antifeminist, reactionary tendencies within American culture, in particular, the ideology of individualism. In contrast to feminism, which entails at least a partial critique of social hierarchy, this ideology asserts that society, as it currently exists, (almost invariably) offers personal and economic success to the talented, hardworking individual. Because this ideology ascribes failure to strictly personal shortcomings, it is extremely conservative on an explanatory level. It is conservative and apolitical in a more proactive sense as well, as it focuses on the isolated individual, rather than on the group; it is this latter focus that is necessary for any sort of political transformation.

Sociologist Ruth Sidel found that the ambivalence that vitiates the potential radicalism of the notion "the personal is political" also characterized the consciousness of the adolescent girls she interviewed in writing On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream. On the one hand, Sidel found that the girls' aspirations for the future had been profoundly shaped by feminism. Most influential was what she calls "career feminism," which seeks "equality in the workforce," and which led many girls to seek careers in law, journalism, and business and, significantly, to "focus on material success" (17-25). Thus, the new feminist message melded with the much older "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" vision that characterizes the American dream. This ideology, or unified set of beliefs about American society, results in the girls' notion that "they can and must make their own way in life, can and must provide for themselves materially, can and must take control of their own lives" (Sidel 9).

Sidel's description of the young women she interviewed would serve just as well for many of the young women who take women's studies and English courses with me. While they have internalized many of the demands of feminism, they are confident that they will be rewarded for individual fortitude and effort, rather than penalized for being female. They assure me that things have changed, so that further social and political transformation is not needed. To a great extent, their confidence is a result of the accomplishments of second wave feminists, who did, to a significant degree, achieve abstract equality for women by altering both legal and informal barriers to greater participation in economic, political, and educational institutions and by gaining access to abortion. However, such students fail to realize that in addition to the more obvious obstacles posed by sexist employers, co-workers, teachers, and partners, a variety of durable structures and institutional obstacles, such as the differential responsibility for child rearing and housework, confront them. Thus, it is clear that one of the fundamental challenges for the women's movement-and the women's studies classroom-remains critical: to enable women and girls to see that only by collectively resisting oppression can they be liberated. Girls Town, the 1996 film directed by Jim McKay, powerfully depicts this process.1

Girls Town confronts, both narratively and technically, the ideology of individualism that infects so many young women today. Narratively, the film focuses on the aftermath of a rape. …

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