It's getting so a little girl puppet wearing pink can't flit around the set of Sesame Street without everyone plotzing. From a 3-year-old Muppet fairy named Abby Cadabby (the show's newest character) to the FDA's recent decision allowing over-the-counter access to Plan B, women can't escape the endless critiques and wrangling: How we should be represented. What choices we should be making. And how, in general, we should live our lives.
Lately it seems that every move women and girls make comes under a level of scrutiny once reserved for celebrities. And much like tabloids seeking unposed shots, the media and politicians delight in portraying females in a most unflattering light.
Thirty-five years ago, when "the personal is political" became a rallying cry of feminists, the sentiment was liberating. How we view our personal relationships --- to our mates, to our bodies --- does reflect and is influenced by the world around us. But today, in a pessimistic country divided by shrill rhetoric, women's personal choices are interpreted as political statements and ungenerously critiqued. A perfectly good phrase has been flipped on its head and is now used against us.
Take Plan B. (Well, don't take it right now, but keep some around just in case.) Finally, women 18 and over can obtain the morning-after pill without a prescription. As Anna Quindlen pointed out in Newsweek, this ought to be the solution both pro-lifers and pro-choicers can agree on: it promises to reduce both unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
But no. For opponents, there's a lot more going on here, and it's not pretty. Arguing that Plan B will encourage promiscuity and irresponsibility, they make women seem like sluts just waiting for an opportunity to let loose. One version of this argument portrays women not just as sluts but as naïve sluts. By simply waving the medication, they say, men will be able to convince women to sleep with them: C'mon, baby. You won't get pregnant.
Really? Is that all that was keeping us from sleeping with manipulative creeps before? This argument sounds like wishful thinking from the Viagra generation: Finally, magic pills that convince women to sleep with us!
Pity poor little Abby Cadabby, the fairy puppet who, in all her feminine glory, seems much like many 3-year-old girls I've known. She's too young to understand critics who say that the first new female character on the show in 13 years should be a stronger, less frilly role model. But Abby is not too young to pick up on all the bad vibes. Neither are the other, real-life toddlers who go through a typical developmental phase of wanting to wear Cinderella dresses and tutus every day, much to their mothers' horror: She's not getting this from me! I was a tomboy. No doubt some daughters sense their mothers' anxiety and feel bad about themselves. Relax, Mom. Relax, America. Muppet Abby won't outgrow this phase, but the vast majority of girls will.
As far as targets go, role models for tots and contraceptive options are just the beginning. Other intimate issues women face are fair game for "concerned" relatives and friends. Unmarried women are still asked when they'll marry. Married women still fend off questions about when they'll procreate. The not-so-hidden message: what's wrong with you?
And God help mothers who work. As if they don't have enough to do, now they have to fend off the specious stats cited in regressive articles like the one titled "Don't marry career women," by Michael Noer, which recently appeared on Forbes.com. (According to Salon.com, it was removed after 48 hours and later reposted beside a lame-o rebuttal from a married female Forbes staffer).
Citing numerous questionable right-wing and a few mainstream studies, Noer makes a case against marrying women who earn more than $30,000 or work more than 35 hours a week. Men who marry "career girls" --- his words, no shit --- will have dirtier homes, poorer health, and unhappier marriages than those who don't. Why? These women, he writes, are typically "educated, ambitious, informed, and engaged," and thus are less likely to enjoy childrearing and housecleaning and are more likely to be unfaithful.
Yikes! Out from under which prehistoric rock did Forbes.com just crawl? This kind of crap is bad enough for women with --- and girls who want --- careers. But what about women who, like me, have chosen to be underemployed while we raise our kids? Are we just dependant dullards? In the conservative universe, women just can't win. Either we're child-hating philanderers or vacuum-toting hausfrauen. I wouldn't fuck us.
You might think lesbians would be spared some of the vitriol in the battle of the (straight) sexes. But you'd be wrong. In some circles, the New York Times magazine reports, lesbians who undergo gender reassignment to become men are accused of "gender treason." It's a political move, some lesbians say, when sisters transition to brothers, because they're "going over to the other side." I think it's a mistake to cast this difficult personal decision in a political light. Transgender people I've spoken to describe transitioning as a way of getting their bodies in step with their minds.
My equipment stays, but oh, to be a man for one day. Just to see. Even when men do something "outrageous" --- say, dressing in pink with fairy wings --- everyone thinks it's fantastic. Well, not everyone, of course. That stuff lampoons women and distresses some gays. No wonder it's so socially acceptable. Aha! That's who Sesame Street should have hired to play Abby Cadabby. A drag queen. Someone we can all agree on. Or not.