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Gloria Steinem Won't Take The Youth-Bashing Bait

Last night, Gloria Steinem was on Colbert to promote the new HBO documentary about her life. As Stephen Colbert put it cheerfully, it's "only seventy five percent as long as documentaries about men."


He added, "It is a window into a time when sexism existed. But now everything's equal. There's Spanx for men." In the interview, Steinem also talked about the double-edged sword of being the "pretty feminist" and its converse. On that topic, Amanda Marcotte wrote at Slate,

A lot of us grew up with stereotypes about how second wave feminists were poorly groomed harridans, and many of us younger feminists have naively assumed that we could shrug that off by highlighting that we too can be funny, sexy, fashionable, and fun-loving. But actually, you look at the pictures and realize that feminist groups always had a lot of smart-looking women in them, and that the stereotype that feminists are ugly is used by the opposition because it suits their ends, not because it has any relationship to reality.


Those stereotypes don't just serve to distance younger women from older feminists — they're used as a cudgel to do the converse, as was clear in a Q&A at Comic-Con a couple of days ago. But Steinem isn't taking the bait. A journalist asked if she had worked so hard "so young women today can dress like hookers and be OK with being treated like a piece of meat, whether it's in a music video or in social situations?"

'No," she said simply. "This generation of young women is actually much more feminist than we ever were. If you look at the public opinion polls, they're actually much more supportive of all the issues of equality. And my question to the young woman who is dressing as you describe is: Is she doing it because she wants to? Is she body-proud? Is she sexuality-proud? Because then, I say, great. Is she doing it because she feels she has to? That she won't be popular otherwise? Then, that's wrong.

"Reese Witherspoon, whom I don't know very well, told me she did Legally Blonde because of me. I said, 'No kidding. How come?' And she said, 'Because I heard you say you should be able to dress any way you f-ing well please and be safe.'"

All true. And she and her peers didn't just fight for the right to look a certain way (or not) — it was also about changing the legal structure that preventing women from accessing full reproductive, marital, workplace, and property laws. But that stuff doesn't sound as sexy.

Gloria: In Her Own Words [HBO]
Gloria Steinem Gets An Hour On HBO [Slate]

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It amazes me that the "feminists are ugly" idea is still around and still effective at manipulating women into not identifying with feminism. It was never based on anything except an attempt to shame women into silence, really, because women who look like Steinem were there from the very beginning. For me the moment where it crystallised in my mind was when The Beauty Myth had just come out and some right-wing talking head was joking about ugly feminists writing books. Remember what Naomi Woolf looked like when that book came out? Yeah.

"Feminists are ugly" has a second, related meaning, which is "I would like you better and thus be more likely to date you if you stopped insisting on being treated fairly". And really, that one is much easier to combat than the first one, because who the hell wants to date a guy like that?