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Is Women's Media Too Girly?

Nail art and the "woman-child": Postfeminism in action at SXSW 2013
Melanie Haupt, 6:33pm, Sun. Mar. 10, 2013

Sunday morning, Margaret Johnson, editor of HuffPost Women, moderated a panel that posed the question, “Is Women’s Media Too Girly?”

The panelists included Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel.com; Deborah Schoeneman, a screenwriter whose credits include the recent reboot of 90210 and Girls; and Rebecca Fernandez, Editor-at-Large for HelloGiggles.

While the panel description was enticing – does “girly” media help legitimize women’s experience? – the panel itself was at times infuriating and ultimately unsatisfactory.

To begin with, it would have been incredibly useful for the panelists to clearly define and problematize the terms flying around the room. For the purposes of the discussion, women’s media seemed to be limited to blogs, with the occasional foray into television and broader pop culture. But what do we mean when we say “girly”? The panelists seemed to center on a conception of “girlish” behaviors – an obsession with nail art, unicorns, Hello Kitty – that quite possibly serve to undermine women and feminism, but on the whole, the panel danced around the larger problem, which is that we should be deconstructing the problematic ways in which we as a culture talk about women.

In short: Shouldn’t we be more concerned with dismantling the structures that inform women’s sustained social and economic disenfranchisement rather than dithering about whether nail art serves to undermine women’s power?

Major missed opportunities include interrogating Schoeneman’s coining of the term “woman-child,” a figure who would apparently rather “rally girlfriends to see The Hunger Games than the more peer-group-appropriate What to Expect When You're Expecting,” and who also prefers the warrior-princess narrative of movies like Brave over the domestic foibles of I Don't Know How She Does It.

You know what? I went to see The Hunger Games with my girlfriends because it was a story about a young woman who kicked serious ass while pushing back against hegemony. I didn’t go see What to Expect When You’re Expecting because I don’t want to watch commercialized pandering via cheap stereotypes, “age appropriateness” be damned.

I took my kids – a boy and a girl – to see Brave because why the hell wouldn’t I? It depicts a princess who saves herself, rather than capitulating to the patriarchal demands that she marry, and that’s the kind of fairy tale I can get behind. What about that constitutes “consuming pop culture like a girl”?

What’s more, to call out women for liking unicorns or manicures or cupcakes or Ryan Gosling memes, and writing those interests off as “coping mechanisms” in the face of negotiating the stress of being a grown-ass woman, as Fernandez did, is sloppy and simply serves to perpetuate the idea of doing something “like a girl” as something undesirable, to be ashamed of, as something that diminishes the experience of womanhood.

Indeed, despite the promise, no one ventured to unpack the question of whether the “girliness” of “women’s media” serves to legitimize women’s experience. Holmes, who seemed skeptical of the entire enterprise, pointed out that this matter seems centered on the concerns of an extremely select, extremely white demographic. But Schoeneman countered with the fact that because Nikki Minaj is super into nail art, it’s not really a matter of race. So, never mind the concerns of women of color; if they’re not blogging about yoga and froyo, we’re not concerned about their life experience.

It seems to me that more a relevant question could have been: What does a woman attempt to express when she collects and wears nail stickers or gets elaborate manicures? Maybe she isn’t in a profession that allows her much of a creative outlet. Maybe she doesn’t have access to the kinds of artistic expression that is considered legitimate by society. So she finds it at the nail salon.

But the issue here isn’t really about nail polish. I’m a feminist working mother of two and damnit, I’m going to get a pedicure when I find the time to because I like it when my heels aren’t one big callus and I like to look down at my feet and see a flash of color. And the hour that I spend in the pedicure chair is an hour I have to myself, a precious commodity for someone who has chosen to “lean in” to her career. What we should really be talking about is that as a country, the United States still lags in paid maternity leave. That women still earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to equally qualified men. That women’s bodies are being legislated with an evangelical zeal that wasn’t imaginable when Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court in 1971 (and again in 1972).

But never mind all that, because, according to Rebecca Fernandez, we don’t have to be serious because people like Weddington, Hilary Clinton, and other accomplished, empowered, groundbreaking feminists cleared so much ground for today’s young women (and were serious in the process; I’m sure there wasn’t a manicured hand to be found among them).

You don’t have to wear a power suit to be empowered. You can also love (and tweet about) froyo and nail polish and still effect change for women. Empowerment and change don’t start with what you wear and whether you watch Girls. It starts with asking the right questions, an important step that was overlooked in this particular panel.


You can follow Melanie Haupt's live tweets from the panel here.

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