What defines a woman? This is (sort of) the question that begins Lynn Crosbie's head-scratcher of a Globe and Mail column, "In pop culture, feminism is dead." Crosbie provides all sorts of answers -- from one reader's feel-good tautology (a woman is "whoever and whatever she says she is") to ad copy from a 1970s Enjoli perfume commercial to a few lines of Billy Joel's easy-listening classic "She's Always a Woman."
And then the argument takes a turn. Crosbie writes that "in the 1990s, at the height of the third-wave feminist movement, we did finally move on to self-definition without looking over at the boy's camp across the water." This, she tells us, led us to more fluidly define womanhood. After a while, we started writing fewer songs, books and screenplays about women's identities.
This conclusion seems a bit hasty, but it's what follows that really made me go, "Huh?" Apparently, now that we're not so quick to lump together women's diverse experiences into a monolithic Woman's Experience, feminism has died a pop-culture death. Crosbie cites a number of examples:
"Magazines for women? Largely about cooking, shopping and (oddly) knitting.
TV? Reality shows about hateful, rich and beautiful women, or dumpy, makeover-desperate ones.
Movies? Kate Winslet plays a haggard pedophile and a bored Hollywood throws statuettes.
Music? I kissed a girl and I liked it!"
While nothing on Crosbie's list can be held up as a paragon of feminist values (although I'm not sure what she's getting at in attacking Winslet), her examples seem to willfully ignore the parts of pop culture that don't fit her argument. For example, what about feminist comedians like Amy Poehler (whose new NBC sitcom, "Parks and Recreation," debuted a few weeks ago), Tina Fey and Amy Sedaris, who are bigger than ever on screens big and small? Both HBO and acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar have smart-sounding TV series about women in the works. Avowedly feminist musicians, from Lily Allen to Gossip's Beth Ditto, are releasing new albums to ever-growing audiences. As one publication after another goes under in the midst of the economic crisis, magazines such as Bust, Bitch and even good old Ms. are still up and running, while blogs like Jezebel are redefining the role of women's magazines for a new generation. And one of the most talked about books of 2009, so far, has been Charlotte Roche's international bestseller "Wetlands," a novel that explores in intimate detail one woman's relationship to her body.
What this means is that Crosbie is only half right: It's true we've stopped obsessing about what makes a woman a woman. But in moving beyond identity politics, feminism has subtly penetrated all corners of pop culture. I wouldn't call that "death"; I'd call it evolution.