Bridging Generational Divides in Modern Feminism

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LAST WEEK saw the return of Nashville, the so-called “most feminist” TV show around. There’s a lot to be learned from the way the show tackles the dynamics between the stars, Rayna James (played by Connie Britten) and Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere), two successful country singer-songwriters, separated by a generation, who spend much of Season One and Two sparring over their differing takes on what it means to be a celebrity.

As others have noted, Rayna and Juliette may not always like each other, but they do respect each other. By the end of Season Two, Rayna manages to sign Juliette to her new record label, since the controversy plaguing the younger star as a result of her growing desire for independence from music moguls has left her isolated. Juliette is resentful of Rayna’s established legacy and the power this affords her. She wants to be doing something new and different, but she will always be treading a path beaten and cleared by Rayna.

Despite some frustration, Rayna is able to empathize with Juliette’s position, one in which she has to deal with the volatile personal life she once had, as well as a level of scrutiny from the media that she didn’t have to experience to such an extent when she was finding her way in the music business before TMZ and Twitter. Juliette says she wants out of the sequined mini-skirts and respect for her talent more than her looks. When Juliette takes a stand against those trying to manipulate her, Rayna responds, “Well that wasn’t very smart, but it sure was brave. Good for you.” In a sense, we see that Rayna learns from Juliette as much as Juliette learns from Rayna.

Which brings me to my Nashville-as-allegory segue — the relationship between the two stars reminds me of that time Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, encouraging her to see that the men making money off her music did not have her best interests at heart. And that reminds me of Meghan Murphy’s analysis of the reaction to this open letter and how it brought up one of the lesser-discussed ‘isms’ of the feminist movement — ageism. O’Connor’s perspective on Cyrus’ sometimes-unwieldy wielding of her sexuality highlighted a generational divide that some categorize as the difference between “second wave” and “third wave” feminism.

Murphy points out that older women are assumed to be “sex negative” and “prudish” by younger feminists who feel their empowerment is to be found in overt sexiness — and sometimes only that. It’s a perspective echoed in her recent article on Laurie Penny’s new book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, in which she lays out the difference between opposing sexism (something feminists actually do) and opposing sex (something feminists don’t actually do).

For the last year I have met with veteran feminist Carol Downer on a regular basis. Downer’s perspective, founded in her active experience of the feminist movement since the late ‘60s, is invaluable to me. The first-hand historical context she can lend to current battles is both fascinating and very useful as a means for untangling my own thoughts on what is happening and what might be done. When discussing the present pro-pornography/pole-dancing/sex work stance of “third wave” feminists (to over-simplify some), Downer asked if I thought these young women would be comfortable doing some of the things she and her cohorts were up to back in the ‘70s. She meant “things” like the group vaginal self-exam that led to the influential illustrated book A New View Of A Woman’s Body that mapped the clitoris and outlined the physiology of the orgasm. The younger feminist generation, naturally, thinks it invented sex, when actually it is benefiting much from older generations’ explorations.

Downer blogs frequently and her insights into the new restrictions on abortion rights, campus anti-rape policy, and domestic violence in sports are essential reading, and yet the reaction from that popular platform for younger feminists, Twitter, is too often “no one cares what you have to say, lady” (per @meadowgirl).

But they should. In many cases, what the older generation of feminists did and continues to do is much more radical than what this new wave purports to be doing. Writer Jenny Block recently described her first experience of group masturbation with Betty Dodson, a feminist of Downer’s generation, for the Huffington Post – “I was in awe. Eighty-five years old and she walked in as naked as the rest of us and settled into her back jack as if this scenario were the most common thing in the world, which, to her, it was.” She’s talking about Bodysex, a workshop held out of Dodson’s apartment that allows women to build sisterhood and self-esteem and heal body shame through nude exploration of their bodies, according to the workshop’s website. And it seems that this idea of sisterhood is attractive and catching on, since more and more younger women have been flocking of late to these classes.

The Guardian reported that, fifty years on from their initiation, “young, fashionable types who seem to have it all but… have never had an orgasm” are signing up for the New York workshops and turning to the teachings of the ‘70s feminist movement to find freedom. In the interview, Dodson remarks that most young women are not as sexually liberated as they might like to think they are — “Most of them haven’t even seen their genitals in a mirror. You show ’em and they go ‘eek!’ Or ‘ugh!'” A viral YouTube video titled ‘Women See Their Vaginas for the First Time!’ shows exactly that experience.

The older generation wasn’t exploring their sexuality for men, but for themselves and for the betterment of future generations of women. There’s a difference between pole dancing on stage in your underwear and what Downer was doing — sitting in a room, naked, with a group of women, learning about our female bodies. That the younger generation of feminists sees the older as “prudish” and “sex negative” suggests a lack of awareness of the history of the movement, a narrow perception of what it means to be sexy that is too male-gaze orientated, and a profound ageism. It’s ageism that prevents women from exploring the past and listening to those who beat and cleared the path before us. Forward may not always be the best direction.

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