Accepting the evolution of feminism

856055e6-4499-4dd0-ad09-037649d0048dAs women living in the United States in the 21st century, we are privileged to be able to use many terms to define ourselves; sister, mother, daughter, teacher, doctor, politician, scientist, philanthropist, sex-positive feminist, sex-negative feminist, liberal feminist, even radical feminist, to name a few. Now more than ever, overlapping and multiple labels are so common, that it can be hard for us to see through the shades of grey to decide what is best for the blanket term “us.”

On March 3, 2014, the Corsair ran a story covering the "Pole Dancing Olympics"  held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Pole World News is attempting to legitimize what they now refer to as "aerial dancing," even having Olympic aspirations. Having heard coverage of the event on KCRW before ever reading it in the Corsair might have primed me for the piece to the point where I felt no qualms with the fact that we covered it, or how we did. The story was informative and intriguing for many, but also shocking and infuriating for others.

The article gave a good assessment of the event as is, though I feel the coverage failed to indicate a broader point. This was not just an amusing event for a niche market that happened to have accompanying dynamic photography. These women were presenting a historically objectifying act as an acceptable way to get fit, and attempting to legitimize it to the point of eventually making it an Olympic sport.

So what are the broader implications of this? Is this a symptom of privilege run rampant, or are these women rightly reclaiming a previous form of oppression? While I can’t speak for everyone, I would like to share opinions that I believe to be held by many of my young generation.

One thing is certain: Western women got to where we are now by way of struggle, and we are forever grateful for the hard battles fought by remarkable women before us. We acknowledge that there is still work to be done, and we would be foolish to declare, “mission accomplished” anytime soon.

But this turn of the century has also brought us into a new phase. The first wave of feminism gained us the right to vote in 1920. The second wave in the 60's and 70's gained more vital ground over a myriad of legal and reproductive rights. And now we are in a third wave of feminism. For us Western women, this new wave is so different from the previous two that we actually need a new term to better define our goals and ourselves.

The label “Feminist” is one that many in my generation have problems completely identifying with, and the way it has been growing sub-headers is indicative of just that. While I personally agree with all the intents attached to the word “Feminist,” I cannot help but feel that combative and reactionary behavior accompanies it, which seems restrictive.

The first and second waves battled because they legitimately had to, but now we are in a phase of building, calling for entirely different tactics that better fit our needs and modern world.

There will always be times when it is completely appropriate to say something is patriarchal and harmful to women, and there will be many more when we as women need to call men out on their privilege. It's not always unwarranted to behave in a combative or reactionary way. But the same behavior that broke down walls in the past can close many doors when used today.

What our generation is trying to do is use tactics that don’t lack in strength but call upon the kind of subtleties that acknowledge the increasing differences under the term “woman.” That's not to say we are waiting until men feel comfortable with the changes we need nor coddling them into acquiescence either. It just means that inclusion is our more dominant approach.

Zury Chavez, treasurer of the Feminist Club at Santa Monica College, mentioned the ways in which we use social media to affect change and that a different approach to feminism is not necessarily less than those that came before us.

Older feminists feel like our younger generation is not as involved as we actually are. And I don’t really agree with that," Chavez said. "We are doing things in different ways, so much so that it seems simple. It just allows people to become more involved.”

Redefining the term and our tactics is an important step that my generation needs to take. Over the past week, I’ve had conversations with Maryam Zar, a former Iranian correspondent, current blogger for the Huffington Post, and the founder of Womanfound, a non-profit building awareness of the struggles of women in undeveloped parts of the world. She has spoken to students at SMC before, and was a great sounding board for this piece.

On redefining the term feminism, Zar suggested, “Feminism in the modern day, in the West, is having the prerogative to demand equality in the eyes of the law and to work towards equal rights in every form of civic and public life. In order to be able to choose one's direction, appearance, and life choices, large and small, without inhibition of societal rules or expectations.”

That is something we can all relate to, right?

It’s difficult for women to do something sexually suggestive and ask others to look beyond that suggestiveness to see what other values it might hold for women. But it has been done before.  In the 1890s, women were fighting for the right to ride a bicycle.  Attempts are made now to legitimize the pole. Both are objects that go between our legs, but they do not make us sexual objects by using them.

We understand these are difficult lines to transcend for many women, especially for those who are ingrained in older ways of thinking. Every generation is going to have issues which push the envelope in ways that make the previous generation pause for thought. Especially in a country like the United States, where we have been taught that freedom is our birthright, it is only natural that we seek new arenas where we can express ourselves and explore our complexities.

But while we seek to carve out new spaces and definitions for ourselves, we owe it to previous generations, and women worldwide to do so in unselfish ways, while offering the commentary necessary for proper understanding. If we skip the explanation, we risk losing our audience, our support, and our ground.

Pole Dancing, with all its negativity, is being transformed into Aerial Dancing, a way for women to get fit and a new form of accepted dance in which men also participate.  That transformation has value to my generation. Showmanship for the sake of showmanship (i.e. Miley Cyrus’ infamously exploitative performance at the MTV Video Music Awards) has no value other than selfish gains for the individual and damages our cause.

Being lewd just to prove you can is childish and holds no value to building the rights of women. But these aerial dancers are doing something different. It's not yet perfect, but part of a larger process that requires analysis, steps, and coverage.

Believing that these women, by making the choice to pole dance, allows others the right to judge them as people who have made bad decisions, fallen from grace, or lived a “life littered with mistakes”, is exceptionally outdated. Thinking that they can’t possibly have a good reason to make the choice to pole dance, means you are still living decades past.

Those views are paternalistic, even if held by women, and it interferes with the free will of the very women we are trying to protect. Men have done that to us for centuries and it’s a destructive trap which we risk falling into. We acknowledge that a woman has the ability to make decisions and act in a way that is best for her. We fought long and hard for that right, and we cannot take it away from ourselves now. Just because a woman is on a pole doesn’t mean she is weak and catering to the wills of men.

Historically, women of color have not felt included in the feminist movement. They have had bigger battles to conquer first. Chavez, who identifies as Latin American and whose parents came from El Salvador, agrees with this. But she says that while an increasing number of women of color participate and hold leadership roles in the Feminist movement, it’s still not balanced.

“Even when us, as women of color separate ourselves, I see that as a negative thing,” Chavez said. “We are supposed to work together regardless of the color of our skin. At the root, we are all women.”

When race comes up, Chavez says it can get tricky but it’s something that these conversations need. In order for us to be a community, both sides need to accept their respective differences and realize that at the root we are the same, and want the same outcome. Our differences must be recognized, but we can’t let them hold us back as a group. There is power in our diversity when all focused towards the same goals. That embrace needs to include not only race, but femininity and sexuality as well.

Another aspect that is especially thorny is when we take into account that the United States is a leader in the feminist movement, when compared to most of the world. While we are busy arguing about poles, there is more focus about education and birth control in other parts of the world. Our pole-centered debate is one that has stemmed from our western world privilege. But that does not mean we should refrain from stretching our own boundaries.

But what we need to do is provide the accompanying commentary that we know is controversial, but this is feminism in its modern form. We have achieved a certain amount of freedom in this part of the world and this is how we will express and maintain it. It might seem over the top to some, but that in itself is a privilege we have attained and we aren’t going to give it up.

Our aspirations should only grow, but we have to consider whether our actions are properly inclusive, unselfish, and communicate successfully. We must not shy away from controversy but explain how and why these actions are important to us and promote our cause as women who only want the best for everyone.

This is how young women of my generation can further our cause. This is how we can continue to stress that there should be no limits to what a woman can do. That used to mean accepting a strong, independent woman in pants. But now, that means we need to accept a strong, independent woman whether she is in pants, a short skirt, or on a pole.