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Feminist Life

The first movie I ever remember seeing was Star Wars. I was probably seven or eight years old, and the local theatre was having a Christmas special for all the kids in town, probably so that our parents could buy our gifts from Santa. You also got a small popcorn with the price of the ticket. I still can feel the chills going up my back when Luke was in the process of blowing up the Death Star. However, my favorite character was Princess Leia. She got to boss everyone around, wear cool clothes, and shoot a gun. I decided that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. After all, anyone who got to flirt with Harrison Ford must not have it too bad! Besides that obvious perk, men listened to her as an equal, and she wasn't accused of being a "feminazi." I didn't care that she wasn't a mother. Mothers were boring and didn't shoot guns that often. Children obviously got in the way of saving the universe. I decided that if I had to choose, saving the universe was better than producing a new generation of Jedi Knights.

By the sixth grade, I had decided that I wanted to be the first female president of the United States. Our speech class had become a war zone, with the competing armies of boys and girls fighting it out every day. (Everyone deals with puberty in their own way.) My new reforms as president would have included kicking men out of office and locking them all together in an underground cave of some sort. The other girls in my class were in complete agreement, and the boys never did forgive us for this rather right-wing handling of the gender conflict. There was no thought of having children, because sex education was another one of our classes, and none of us were going to go through that with a man, just to have kids. Besides, boys were gross. Again, I had subconsciously accepted that a choice would have to be made between career and family, and being a mother would get in the way of my running of the country. It had also started to become apparent that we didn't have many strong female role models/mothers in the media. The only mother I can think of in the media at that time was Barbara Bush, who is not an inspiration to a thirteen year old girl when she only appears in things like Good Housekeeping, next to a great recipe for tuna casserole. She was not even famous because she did anything, she was just the wife of the president to us. Mothers were not glamorous, and did not have a political voice in the running of the country. They were too busy with the carpool.

By high school, I had decided that I was going to be the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. This happened after I found out that in the entire history of Hollywood, only two women had ever been even nominated for the honor, one in the 1930s or 40s, and Jane Campion for The Piano in the early 90s. I had started reading trade magazines, like Premiere and Movieline, and the most powerful people were men: Murdoch, Eisner, Katzenstein, Spielberg, Sheinberg, and Ovitz just to name a few. Seldom did non-actresses grace the covers of these magazines, because women producers, directors, and heads of studios are a rare breed. Power does not make a woman sexy in the same way as a man. Because of my career choice, this gave me only male role models. Obviously, they are extremely talented men, but they did not face the kind of problems that women face in the career world. Their talents were creativity, organization, and they had the power to do anything they wanted in the industry. Nowhere did it mention whether they worried about whether they got home at night in time to tuck their children into bed.

I finally started thinking about the possibility of having a family when I got into high school. Boys weren't so gross anymore, and being a mother seemed socially responsible. However, it was just after the time of Dan Quayle's battle with Candace Bergen/Murphy Brown, single motherhood, and "family values." The message he sent out was that a single, working mother has no hope of raising a child by herself. A child without a constant male role model, preferably a father, would grow up with severe psychological repercussions. What was this saying to me, an impressionable teenage girl trying to figure out the world? I was told that if I wanted to be a "good" mother, I had to sacrifice my dreams and desires for decades as I raised the new generation of Americans. If I chose to work, I would be pitied, because I could never be fulfilled by "just a career."

The magazines I was reading at this time included Glamour and Cosmopolitan. These were contradictions within themselves, leading to still more confusion. They were not only telling me that I could have everything, kids and a career, and be sexy at the same time, but also they were telling me that I must follow all of their suggestions to achieve this end. Apparently, this was quite easy, and if you were really successful, you could have it all and never be tired or cranky. The myth of the superwoman was born, and in full swing. However, Hillary Clinton, the most prominent example of the supermom, was being criticized by these same magazines for not staying home with Chelsea, for being "too strong." Never mind that being a successful lawyer outside of the shadow of her famous husband might send out some gender-breaking stereotypes to her child. The important thing was that she wasn't at home baking cookies or vacuuming the rug of the Oval Office. I have to admit that I bought into these stereotypes, and joined in the Hillary-bashing, something of which I am now ashamed. In general, articles in magazines aimed towards a female audience criticized working mothers for "abandoning" their children, and for not working at their marriages or caring about their family.

Nothing was said about the role of the man in these relationships. He was still expected to bring home a paycheck, but nothing new was added to his role as a father. On television talk shows and variety shows, women congratulated each other if their husband put his socks in the hamper, and if he helped load the dishwasher, his wife was envied. He was never asked to give up his work for his children, nor was he ever blamed for abandoning his family.

By the time I started college three years ago, I had begun to believe that I would be forced to choose either a family or a career. There would be no way that I could combine the two and still be happy, nor would I easily find a man who would be willing to help out with anything outside his role as "breadwinner." I was resigned, as I had been convinced by television, magazines, and movies that I could not have everything. This put a lot of pressure on me, because I wanted to have a career, and would obviously have to succeed before I had children. However, I was also "trapped" by biology into having children within the next fifteen years. This did not give me a very positive outlook on my life, because I would have to give up one or the other in order to please society, while I remained unhappy.

Thanks to tireless work by women attempting to eradicate gender stereotypes, attention is still given to working mothers, but they are becoming a more respected group. Magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan are including columns for working mothers, and keep women informed of the new fights for their rights as mothers and workers. Also, more and more men are pitching in, having finally understood what their wives have been talking about for so many years. Television, magazines, and movies are portraying more "domesticated" men. Characters like Tim Taylor from the popular "Home Improvement" are sharing the household duties 50/50 with their partners. I am starting to feel that a career and a family is not too much to ask for, and that I will be able to be successful in both. Women in Congress are fighting for mothers' rights in the workplace, as well as fathers' rights, such as maternity and paternity leave and better pre- and post-natal medical insurance. Famous women with children are featured in magazines. Michelle Pfeiffer takes her children with her on shoots so that she can be with them while she works, if their schedules coincide. She does not turn down roles on the basis of her family, but she does not always put her children before her career either. The model Niki Taylor had twins, and is still a popular cover girl. U.S. sitcoms are starting to portray more families who compromise and learn to live without the traditional stay-at-home moms and working dads, with less shows like "The Brady Bunch" and more like "Home Improvement."

When the newer editions of the Star Wars trilogy came out, I naturally went to see all of them. I still love Princess Leia, but she is no longer my role model (although I am still jealous that she gets to flirt with Harrison Ford). Sure, she is a leader of the galactic rebellion, but she doesn't have any children to follow her around when she gets home, asking her when Uncle Luke is coming over for a light saber lesson. She is still an example of a strong woman, but no longer represents what I want out of life. Believe it or not, my new role model is Madonna. With her new baby, she is one of the most powerful moms of the twenty-first century. She has shown herself, on television and in the printed press, to be a modern woman, changed from her former rebellious and outrageous self. She is unwilling to give up her successful career in entertainment, but is also unwilling to give up her child. It is a decision that takes strength and courage, as well as hard work, but with the best of both worlds, it has a greater chance for a payoff than if she had been forced by society to choose.
17 February 1998

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