In the clip for her song Stupid Girls, 26-year-old spiky-haired American singer Pink (real name Alecia Moore) mocks her celebrity contemporaries: pop singer Jessica Simpson, actor Lindsay Lohan and heiress Paris Hilton. In the video clip, Pink - who calls herself a feminist - sends up Simpson's bikini car-wash video clip, Lohan's bad driving and Hilton's vacant smile.
"In the 1950s, women were supposed to just smile and stay in the kitchen. Now we're supposed to just smile and run around and look sexy. The big difference is, instead of men telling us to do this, we're doing it to ourselves," a frustrated Pink told the New York Daily News last year.
She's not the only one who feels that the present generation of young women have taken the status of women backwards. Australian feminist Anne Summers will tell anyone who'll listen that we have reached "the end of equality". Body Shop founder Anita Roddick has criticised pop stars such as Beyonce and Kylie Minogue for portraying sex work, lap dancing and what Roddick calls a "pimp or whore" culture as cool and sexy. And in March Germaine Greer gave Australian women a serve for not protesting against a television ad for Holden four-wheel-drives that poked fun at men for lusting after cars and women.
"How much humiliation are you women up for?" Greer asked at an International Women's Day function on the Gold Coast.
The message from feminist activists from the '60s, '70s and '80s is that young women today are letting the team down. Just as Summers famously accused my age group of about 30 to 45-year-old generation X-ers of dropping the feminist baton, now the female members of generation Y (aged about 15 to 30) are copping it for using and abusing the freedoms won by the warriors of the first and second waves of feminism.
As a lecturer in journalism at two Queensland universities during the past five years, I've spent a lot of time with gen-Y women. My impression is that the reality of being a young woman in the new millennium is more about complex value shifts than turning back the equality clock, as some of the older feminists simplistically imply.
Although most of these women don't call themselves feminists and don't wish to ally themselves with feminism, there are many indicators that young women have absorbed feminist messages and are living feminist lives.
The successes of feminism sowed the seeds of its failure, argues generation X-er Rebecca Huntley, author of The World According to Y (Allen & Unwin, 2006). Huntley believes Y women take the equality of the sexes for granted: "Young men and women have internalised feminism to such an extent that many of them question its relevance as a social movement."
It's a relevance thing. Gen-Y women did not live through the second wave of feminism; for many of them, it has passed into history.
Very few young Australian women today realise that 30 or 40 years ago a woman could not get served in a public bar in Queensland or that women could not get a bank loan without their husband's signature and had to resign from the public service if they married.
The history of feminism as a social movement is heavily embedded in the social studies and civics sections of school curricula, but it's an optional study stream along with the history of race relations, the environment movement and unions. A friend who teaches at a prominent Brisbane high school tells me most teachers choose not to teach feminism and most students choose not to do their assignments on it. Does that lack of knowledge mean feminism has failed?
As someone who was a feminist activist throughout the '90s, campaigning for improved portrayal of women in the media, I reckon we should not get too hung up on the labelling or image of feminism. The truth is: feminism worked. It took. And the way young women live today is the evidence. There is still a long way to go, but we should recognise and celebrate the effects of feminism on the present generation of young women.
A longer version of this article, "They're not stupid girls", appears in the August 2006 edition of the Griffith REVIEW 13: The Next Big Thing (ABC Books). This version was first published in The Australian on August 9, 2006.
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