Tuesday, October 03, 2006

My Bust Never Got Me Power

Because I am too damn busy this semester (Calgon Take Me Away!), I missed this "intra-feminist debate" on BUST magazine. Happy Feminist has a good summary here. Twisty's original pieces are here and here.

I didn't think I would weigh in on this debate because (a) I don't read BUST magazine very often and (b) I am not sure I have anything like clarity on the subject. But that never stops me in any other situation, so I thought I would weigh in. First of all, Twisty's main contention is that BUST magazine is "fun-fake-feminism." Happy Feminist largely agrees with Twisty's assessment. Page Rockwell, from Salon's Broadsheet, argues that while many of Twisty's criticisms are on the mark, particularly the materialistic, femm-y aspects of BUST, there are still some merits to a magazine that is pro-woman and takes on serious political issues.

So, the last time I read BUST was when I was getting my haircut in D.C. I picked it up and never got past the first few pages that were discussing chicks getting into sewing and knitting. Well, I do both of those things and was grateful for information on books about these activities. I then put the magazine down and continued on with my haircut and a political conversation about France's relationship to the EU.

So, are magazines like BUST problematic, because they sell a sexy, hipster, girl-y feminism about vibrators, cool knitting, fashion trends and an occasional story on Plan B? Yes. The reason I agree with Twisty and Happy is because I see, everyday, how concretely this magazine affects the women I teach. They also read less pro-women magazines like Cosmo. But I am more dismayed by how BUST affects the cool, hip, alternative, pro-feminist women.

The recent trend on my campus has been for the hip feministas to host sex part-ays! They host them at the Women's Center and all sorts of folks show up to learn about sex toys. Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I have not been part of these parties. I don't know what company they went with. If I found out that the company the went with was Good Vibrations from SF, I would probably feel differently. But, my hunch is that they go with one of the companies that are becoming popular for sex toy parties (like Pampered Chef or Tupperwear parties). If you look at what these companies sell, it is basically Victoria Secret and all sorts of toys to make sex pleasurable for the submissive, heterosexual girl. I didn't see much of anything that was focused on helping young women feel more self-esteem, more empowered, or that gave them a sense that their sexuality was theirs.

What sparks these sex toy parties? Magazines like BUST. Now, before I get dumped on by sex positive feminists, I got no problem with a sex toy party in principle. I just get bummed out when I find out that they essentially play into the same old heteronormative stereotypes about sex. The goal is to make women more sexy for their men, and to make their men get their women to sex it up.

The other way in which I find myself frustrated with the affect BUST magazine has on my hip, cool, feminist students is its message that being sexy=being a feminist. While I don't see these things at odds, I don't think that making yourself available to men in a sort of soft porn kind of way is not empowerment. Let me clarify what I mean. A few years ago, I decided to deride the sorority women in my class for the content of their t-shirts. Everyone of their t-shirts talked about their sexuality in terms that I described above. One of them said: "How about this piece of Pi." Another said, "How far does your anchor go?" I could go on and on. Now, the only reason I gave these women a hard time is because they swore to me that sororities were about female empowerment. So, I asked them how making their pledges wear these t-shirts was about empowerment?

The answer I got was: because when you feel hot and embrace your hotness, you have power over men.

Of course, this is not true. Being hot and embracing your hotness never got women more political, economic or social power. It might have made their man pant after them. But, no one made a place for them in the halls of power because they embraced hotness. But, this message is what is sold in BUST magazine. While I appreciate that it has made my students more vocal and supportive about reproductive rights, I am not sure how much it has fired them up to take aim at Senators like Rick Santorum who chastise women for working but offers no plans for affordable day-care. It doesn't make my hip, cool, feminist women fight for fair wages for women.

The kind of power that being hot gives you is incredibly fleeting. When you start to droop and sag, it's gone. With your youth goes your power over a man. So, Twisty I'm with you. And, I do think that these sorts of magazines are, ultimately, insidious to women's issues.