Saturday, October 24, 2009

No Longer A Man's World? Part 1: Thoughts as a Feminist on the Oct. 26th Issue of TIME Magazine

I was looking at the cover of this last Oct. 26th issue of Time Magazine sitting on the coffee table and couldn’t help but be struck by the title of the cover story: “Special Report: The State of the American Woman” or more particularly it’s description, “A new poll shows why they are more powerful—but less happy.” Looking at the black and white cover image, the woman's eye looking off into a starkly contrasting dark abyss, those words evoke anti-suffrage arguments from the likes of Helen Kendrick Johnson and Lyman Abbot among others who valued the privilege of staying at home and being supported by their husbands, free from "the double curse or work and pain" that their "frailer organization" would halve to bear, and able to still affect social and even governmental change through, as Abbot puts it "womanly influence" over her husband, for, “She is glad to counsel; she is loath to command." It can't possibly be the argument that the magazine is aiming to make: that woman are miserable because they finally got what they wanted and found out that they were better off being taken care of. Nonetheless, it's an effective attention grabber, and even if it does not aim to revitalize a truly anachronistic argument of the woman's place, the issue does pose some curiosities.

Richard Stengel in his To Our Readers section (page 6) is smart to emphasize from the get go that while the issue focuses on how women are “poised to dominate the workforce” the special report “examines their status—and what they still need.” However, what follows in the body of his introduction to the issue is a cautious but nonetheless evident pondering of the possible end of feminism.
In one very real sense, our TIME/Rockefeller Foundation poll shows that women have become dominant in our society. Women will soon constitute a majority of the workforce; they earn 57% of college degrees; they make 75% of buying decisions in the home. At the same time, the poll found that women are not terribly concerned with equality issues, nor are they patting themselves on the back for their pre-eminence—they are simply dealing with the often bewildering changes and uncertainty in our economy as breadwinners, spouses, mothers, and daughters. It’s not the anachronistic battle of the sexes anymore but how we all—women and men—grapple with a new economy and new era. I suppose you could say that’s true equality.
Even as a male feminist myself, I find something inescapably suspicious in a man saying that woman have found "true equality." Furthermore, the message is illustrated with photographs by a male artist, Ralph Gibson (though I concede to the fact that the cover was commissioned by the magazine's female director of photography, Kira Pollack and selected his other photos used throughout the magazine). The image used as the centerpiece to Stengel's introduction is credited as "A portrait titled Francesca, 1972" but has a slightly different name on Gibson's website. When it is called "Woman and Rolls Royce," the subversive pairing of woman and automobile as objects of male desire truly shine through, making Stengel's statement all the more unsettling.

The actual title of the cover article, "What Women Want Now", is also rather loaded with male oriented gender strife. While online, the article features a color photo of a woman, which beyond the plasticity caused by the lighting and her makeup seems relatively symbolically benign, the printed version (page 24) has a full-page filled with Gibson's "MJ in Little Mirror" which shows a woman's hand holding a mirror with the beach and ocean out of focus in the background. Not a terribly inappropriate image, the land and sea have both the potential significance of representing new frontiers and the blurring of gender boundaries while the mirror in relation to them shows the existential quandary both of woman within this distortion of dualities and individual beyond this distortion, the potential of the image's existential weight is diffused in two ways. First, by a closer inspection of the content of the image itself, and secondly how that content collides with the article's title. The mirror does not reflect the woman's eyes, but her nose and mouth, indicating that she is looking more at her superficial appearance then into the depths of her soul, asking herself not who she is, but how does she look. The mirror is small and round, and while not necessarily an actual make-up mirror, is inescapably evocative of such a mirror through its shape. Positioning such an image beside the title "What Women Want Now" drives the interpretation home, securing the 'material girl' evocation with all the self-parody of a trashy supermarket 'women's magazine'.

The actual article by Nancy Gibbs reiterates much of Stengel's points, naturally in further depth. Both confirm that the nightmare ideology of the anti-suffragist suggested by the cover is far from their point. The economic reality is that women make up more of the breadwinners in this country and as a result, more are dealing with the same kinds of burdens men have had to and are being affected directly by the recession in the sense that it is their job which the household depends upon. Also like Stengel, however, there is that sense that this inescapably radical shift in gender dynamics, means equality is something perhaps more fulfilled then it is. Great, more women are working than men, more women are supporting their families, as the primary supporters even, but isn't something missing? Little to nothing has been mentioned thus far about feminism, but if this really is no longer "a man's world" and we are seeing "true equality" then feminism isn't needed anymore, right?

At last there is Maria Shriver's piece, which has no inappropriate images from Gibson, but instead an image of Eunice Kennedy with her brother Jack. The focus on Eunice is strong in the image; she is not over shadowed by her iconic brother, but framed in the center while his face is partially cut off, as if he were an unimportant side furnishing before the true subject of the shot. Complimenting the image is the title "The Unfinished Revolution" and in the body of the page Shriver offers a viewpoint on the special report that dosen't overlook the reality of women today in their "true equality."
While there's much to cheer about these days on the equality front, we still have a long way to go. Women still don't make as much as men do for the same jobs. The U.S. still is the only industrialized nation without a child-care policy. Women are still being punished by a tax code designed when men were the sole breadwinners and women the sole caregivers. Sexual violence against women still is a huge issue. Women still are disproportionately affected by a lack of health-care services. And lesbian couples and older women are among the poorest segments of our society.
What is in essence missing from Stengel and Gibbs' Virginia Slim praise was the second and third waves of feminism. Woman are working! Hurray! But as truly remarkable as the changes that have occurred have been, there is indeed much more to be said and done. Indeed, Shriver dosen't get off the hook all that easily either. The quoted paragraph is her seventh, almost a side acknowledgment on her way to her conclusion, and while it is admirable that she acknowledged the plight of lesbians, feminism has much more on its mind that she covers.

If my analysis has seemed harsh and excessively extensive, it is only that I am interested in through it pointing out the most evident absence to me in these three articles. Take a look at the preoccupations of feminist blogs like our local FIFE (Feminism Is For Everyone), and some of those it links to. What you find are existential/linguistic concerns, sociological concerns, cultural commentary and media analysis. When you look around at how things are commercialized, on how men and women are depicted, is it really equal? How have we dealt with the idea of sexual objectification? As a feminist, I look at this shift in financial power and female elevation and ponder what the male cultural backlash might be, what things will go unsaid and or conveyed subversively. I wonder what things we will say are ok now, because we are truly equal.

Does the issue of Time magazine have any answers to these kinds of questions? Can we foresee in it any future solution to the problems of, to address simply one of the unmentionables, sexual objectification of women?


(Sorry, I'm tired.)


OpenID lifescansdarkly said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Cory Capron said...

Above comment removed at author's request. See part two where it was reposted as was originally intended.

8:55 PM  

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