Mar 1 1994

Campus Feminists: The Media’s New Bogeywomen

In her new book Where the Girls Are, Hampshire College media studies professor Susan J. Douglas argues that to grow up female with the mass media in the United States is to grow up confused, or, as she puts it, “with the bends.”

When it comes to the women’s movement, or the dreaded F-word, “No wonder young women, who were infants and toddlers at the height of the women’s movement, say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but…'” says Douglas.

Time magazine’s Dec. 4, 1989 cover asked the question, “Is there a future for feminism?” Inside, the story revived old ghosts: “Hairy legs haunt the feminist movement, as do images of being strident and a lesbian.” “Hmm, wonder where those specters came from?” Susan Douglas asks.

Almost five years after Time‘s cover, media myths about feminism are in season once again–with some revisions. For the last two decades, body hair and loving women were the most horrifying things about the women’s rights movement. Today, feminist opponents of violence are the ones spoiling life for females–especially young female students on campuses nationwide. In1993, New York magazine chose March 8, International Women’s Day, to run their special report, “Crying Rape: The Politics of Date Rape on Campus.” Author Peter Hellman wandered uptown to Columbia University to interview women he depicted as engaged in internecine squabbling over campus sexual assault.

“There are growing questions about how real the campus rape threat is and how much of the controversy is fueled not so much by psychosexual concerns as by political ones,” wrote Hellman. He brought on literary critic, not rape expert, Camille Paglia to discuss the options. Having defined rape as at most a “psychosexual concern,” Hellman tracked down a campus psycho: an activist at Princeton’s 1991 Take Back the Night rally who declared in public that she had been “date raped” and then recanted, admitting that her story had been a hoax.

Conveniently, Katie Roiphe studies at Princeton. The same story of the hateful hoax turns up in her book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus. Her thesis on “rape-crisis feminists” draws a tight link between anti-violence workers on campus and anti-porn theorists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Feminism, according to Roiphe,isn’t about changing power relations for the future, it’s about “nostalgia for the days of greater social control.”

The “hoax” theme also haunted Sarah Crichton’s “Sexual Correctness” Newsweek cover (10/25/93). “In the rape-crisis mentality,” she wrote, “the numbers keep being bloated.” Crichton, too, sees anti-violence activism as anti-sex. It’s a revealing connection for the mainstream press. Try to think of one major feminist theme that has received mass coverage that couldn’t in some way be turned into a debate about sex.

Mother Jones, whose namesake knew that violence against women was political, not psychosexual, weighed in with its own assault on campus feminism in 1993. Mother Jones‘ article “Off Course” (9-10/93) looked at women’s studies as part of an issue devoted to problems in U.S. education.

Having surveyed four college programs, writer Karen Lehrman condemned feminist academics for having “infected” women’s studies with ideology. To back up her claim that “over the past 25 years, feminists have been among those who have devalued women’s traditional roles most vigorously,” Lehrman provides no statistics, no cites, no explanation.

“I never took a porn class when I went to college 10 years ago,” writer Karen Lehrman told her readers. “In fact, I never took a women’s studies class.” Being feminist, for Lehrman, “didn’t depend on external affirmation.”

Campus feminists better not count on external affirmation in 1994. In fact, with media models like these, it’s a wonder that there are feminists on campus at all. Perhaps they survive because they’ve never held their breath to be the cover story. The women’s movement that’s got the headlines has usually been one that had little or nothing to do with what was going on on the ground.

Where once there were hairy lesbians, a sort of stand-in for Communists in the anti-feminist war, now there are “New Victorians,” “politicized” women’s studies professors, and “rape hype” in an era when young women are encouraged to be sexually hot, politically cool and into conspicuous consumption. (How else to sell those magazines?) A few foul-ups in the feminist ranks get top-billing; the mass movement that spans the globe gets zip. Shocking-sounding talk about sex gets soundbites; reasoned debate about wages and childcare is dead air.

If after all of this, you still somehow hanker after justice for women, mainstream media even have an acceptable brand of feminism ready, the “Do Me” feminists who have it all: good looks, good connections, no hang ups about sex (or capitalism) — and the cover of Esquire (2/94).

The future for feminism? It’s as bright as the perfume ad is pungent. A perennial target, as long as there is advertising space to sell.