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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Karen Owen and the new feminism

I don't know how I completely  missed this story last fall, when apparently it suffused the airways (I guess at the time I was obsessed with the election).  I read an excellent piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan, and then a much shorter piece on HuffPost by Kate Fridkis before I read the actual PowerPoint slides.  Both authors comment on how self-hating and exploited KO really is - here is KP saying it much better than I could:

I didn't follow the immediate aftermath, the frantically jabbering media frenzy, because I didn't want to hear people call her empowered. I didn't want to read them praising her, or heaping insults on her, or describing her as something new and creative. I didn't want to read her described as anything except for ordinary and tragic. But somehow, the tragedy has been sucked out of stories like hers. She's telling it, after all, trumpeting it - yelling out her exploits as though they are actually her exploits, and not her being exploited and exploiting herself.  I'm exhausted by her story. A young woman who will do anything the boys want, while the boys don't even seem to want her very much. Everyone is incredibly drunk in it. They can't do anything before they are drunk. . . She is a cliché, and she is also a real, live person who is trying to make sense out of sex, power, and college.  I'm going to just say this: she isn't doing it right. In fact, she's doing it so wrong that it hurts to read it. And to celebrate her story is to celebrate her pain, the pain of a confused generation of girls who keep repeating to themselves, "It's better when it hurts. The bigger the better. I like to get pushed around during it. I like it when they don't care." It's to celebrate a version of college that should terrify parents and depress prospective students.

CF puts it even more bluntly:

The notion that Karen Owen is good at getting the guy, that she represents something awesome for the future of feminism, is an assertion that cannot withstand a careful reading of the actual PowerPoint, a package that—far more than Owen could ever have intended—constitutes a story, one with a beginning, middle, and very sad end, and reveals her to be one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while. . . Being rejected by Subject 1 was hurtful and embarrassing, but being treated like a whore by Subject 2 is what broke her heart and her spirit, and if you are the kind of person whose heart and spirit can be broken by a one-night stand, then you may not be the brave new face of anything at all.

My reaction to the actual slides was cringing less at the icky descriptions of her exploits and more at her casually revealing intimate details about her partners, like their post coital talk.  I had expected the men to come across as arrogant and cruel, but most seem genuine and ordinary, and a couple seem almost sweet.  She has since said she regrets it utterly, and didn't mean to hurt anyone.  Can it never have occurred to her how disrespectful she was being, whether she knew her "presentation" would go viral or not, whether some of them deserved it or not? Can you imagine the outcry if a guy had created a list like this, discussing in detail, among other things, the size of their partners' equipment, their talent in using it, and how overall entertaining they were. It's just so downright mean. 

The whole episode is so discouraging.  I fear for my daughter, if this is the pinnacle of "liberation" at this point.  KO apparently never had a boyfriend during her entire 4 years of college.  She never had any kind of real relationship with any of her "subjects" (deliberately so, according to her - she thought even giving them her number or being friends on FB was "stalkerish" and "clingy").  She gives extra points to hook-ups with the roommate, or in the same apt, of prior partners; once she even has sex with 2 men in the wee hours of the same morning (the day she is to graduate, so why not, she thinks, go out with a real bang).  Is it really empowering and admirable to so completely eshew connection or relationship?  It makes me ill to think this is what young women aspire to - how you can even call empty, almost anonymous sex like this "getting the guy" - it's completely beyond me; and "having sex like a guy" apparently means acting like a totally inconsiderate jerk.  I reject the obsession with partnering that is epitomized by, say, the 1950s, but this is no better.  Subjugating yourself to the pursuit of sexual conquest is not one iota more empowering than subjugating yourself to husband hunting.  Is there no middle ground?  Is real sexual equality impossible?

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After reading these stories, which are still reverberating around in my head, I heard Peggy Orenstein on NPR, discussing her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, about the pervasiveness and long-term implications of princess culture.  I fairly recently read her excellent 2006 NY Times Magazine piece on the subject, which I guess she recently turned into a book.  I'm deeply grateful that my daughter is obsessed with animals instead of this stuff, though she is hardly untouched by it.

What can you do with all this, besides attempt to instill some self respect into your children, and do your best to occupy them with alternative activities in alternative milieus.



Blogger Marie said...

exactly. i'm not a mother but i try as much as i can to point the little girls in my life away from the princess nonsense.

3:56 PM  

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