OTI Online
Summer 1995

Power Babes & Victim Feminists
by Elaine Rapping

Victims and victors, winners and losers, crybabies and powerhouses. Who are these media-constructed cartoon characters we're supposed to be these days? When the media hubbub began about the so-called feminist debate between "victim feminism" and "power feminism" - about whether we should view ourselves as "victims" of sexist oppression or as strivers and achievers of "power" - I thought I knew what it all meant and where I stood. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I became. Of course, I don't agree with the many recent pronouncements by women who should know better, telling us how much power females have in these post-feminist days, how sexual violence is no longer a problem, how women today can just buy or shout their way into high places, how those beaten down by gender oppression can simply pick themselves up by their Bruno Magli bootstraps - easily charged on their Gold Cards - and get a hot new "power" life, as advertised in Elk.

So I guess I belong on the other team, with all the victims and losers and terminally good girls who are stuck behind the economic and emotional eight ball, suffering helplessly the slings and arrows of male aggression and injustice, and responding either with self-destructive addictions or - in moments of sheer desperation and "temporary insanity" - with hysteria and violence.

Neither of these team uniforms - the Dolce and Gabbana or the sack cloth and ashes - suits me. Neither description has much to do with the world I actually live in and the women I actually know. So what gives? Ain't I a feminist? Brain amuddle, desk piled high with either/or books and articles, I turned in desperation to a videotape of a TV movie I hadn't yet had the courage to 'watch - Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story. I hoped that the media, which, after all, has been fueling the whole debate, would know what it all meant. But like me (though with far less taste and intelligence), NBC was confused. The writers, producers, and actors were clueless about who was supposed to be the victim and who the powerbabe. Of course, they understood that Nancy - well-groomed and polite, from a loving All-American family - was the victim. She was, after all, the one who was kneecapped. That made her - according to the guidelines set down by Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf, and the rest - the "good girl" to Tonya's "bad girl," the smoking, cussing, truck-driving sexpot from the wrong side of the tracks.

Except that by the movie's end, Nancy was clearly the "powerhouse," "Go for it!," endorsement-rich multimillionaire winner. And Tonya, the darling of many feminists who want to see women represented as powerful and aggressive, had somehow devolved into a textbook version of the female "victim": Physically, sexually, emotionally abused and dominated by her mother, her stepbrother, and her bullying, manipulating thug of a husband.

As dumb and tacky as this movie was, I had to admit that its confusion about victim/power gender issues was not all that different from my own. And the reason, I finally realized, was that the terms of the debate had very little to do with feminist goals or values as I understand them. My own feelings about Tonya and Nancy were confused because I both liked and disliked, rooted for and abhorred, both of them. Both were strong, accomplished fighters for "power" and status. And both were exploited "victims" of the crass, money-and-power-driven male world which pitted them against each other in a public battle for a fantasy "victory." Was this - either version - the Cinderella story I would wish young girls to be guided by in their quest for success and happiness in these post-feminist times? Would I want my daughter, or my students, to be obsessively dreaming and elbowing their way toward such out-of-reach, politically suspect goals? No way.

Both options - if we can call them that - make assumptions that we Second Wave feminists never made in the early days when we began our struggle to free ourselves from and then transform sexist culture. First, that the system itself, in which power is defined in terms of mercenary, individualistic values, can be taken as a given. And second, that those who still, for whatever reasons, have not overcome the emotional and political barriers keeping them down can now be considered losers, victims, hopeless zeroes. These assumptions implicitly fuel the current destructive debate.

The problem, it seems to me, is in the overly simplistic, a historical context in which the debate is posed. We are - according to media labels - either winners or losers, terminally imprisoned or miraculously "free at last!" But this short-term, individualistic version of things hides an important truth which we who are in it for the long haul and the real battle cannot afford to forget - that political struggle is long, contradictory, and uneven. We win some battles and lose others. Some of us do better in some spheres than others. But the struggle is hardly over. It's just beginning, really, though it's hard to see that through the distorting prism of media mystification, in which all struggles are individual, and every battle is seen as a zero/sum game in which the woman is crowned "Winner" and handed the prize, or sent back to Square One with the word "Loser" embroidered on her breast.

As a media critic, someone who regularly comments publicly on the state of gender representation in popular culture, I am aware of the ease with which one can fall into this either/or mindset. On the one hand, it is possible, the easiest thing in the world actually, to view the media's portrayal of women as wholly reactionary, a monolith of misogyny. Even the best of mainstream Hollywood movies - Thelma and Louise or The Accused - has its masculinist flaws and insults. And most - have you seen Disclosure? - are far worse. But it is also possible to read the media - if one tries - as a reflection of what's changed and improved for women. From Donna Reed to Mary Richards to Murphy Brown is, after all, more than a few steps in a feminist direction. So is the road from Patsy Cline to Janis Joplin to k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge.

But neither of these ploys - while they make for neat little Sunday Arts and Leisure columns - is an accurate assessment of how we are doing, over all, in the struggle to change gender representation and discourse. The truth is muddier. Our progress, our small grabs at power and authority, are always in the context of the original victimization we are trying to overcome. And the victimization - now that feminism has so politicized and called attention to it - is always in the context of a now-taken-for-granted struggle to empower women, a struggle whose existence itself is a triumph, given where we started from.

Lorena Bobbitt, to take a dramatically telling example, was most certainly a victim. But because of feminism's success in politicizing that victimization, her act of desperation was made part of the struggle for women's liberation. In this case, as in many others, victimization and empowerment are symbiotically intertwined because feminism as a historic force exists and thrives.

Roseanne Barr, Arnold, Connor - whatever - a woman whose relationship to the media is nothing if not complex, provides an even more interesting example of how impossible it is to separate victimization from empowerment today. On the one hand, she is undoubtedly one of the ones who've "made it," a "powerbabe" if ever there was one. She's one of the most powerful women in the media, the creator and controller of a show that has gone farther toward overturning the sexist conventions of pop culture than any other I can think of. But she is also a victim of many things, not only in the past, but now, at the height of her success, as she herself is only too willing to tell the world. Her success hasn't kept her from being endlessly exploited and humiliated by the very media through which she has gained so much "power."

And so it goes as we feminists argue among ourselves, and with the powers that be, over how we are doing and what labels we can safely wear in public. "What about Madonna?" we continue to wonder, in academic journals, conferences, and Op-Ed pages, "Is she a feminist heroine or a throwback to the worst, most dangerous female images?" She certainly places herself in the "power"' camp. But though I am a fan (I have a soft spot for bad girls simply because they transgress), I can understand why many are troubled by her glib self-presentation, her sexualized appearance and behavior. As her critics point out, the many young girls who imitate her dress and style are likely to be met, in the real world, with a male public very much in the dark about the liberatory intent of Madonna's work. Many men still think she - and her wannabes - look and act a lot like the pornographic images of women in Playboy and Hustler who seem to be "asking for it."

In fact, the flip side of Madonna's radical twisting of the terms and conventions of sexist culture is probably Amy Fisher, a young girl whose own life may well have been modeled on her impression of what female celebrities like Madonna seem to get away with, even prosper and thrive upon. And yet Fisher herself, in acting the powerful, sexy, Madonnaesque bad girl, became one of the most pathetic victims of male misogyny in recent history. While her grotesque seducer basked in the lucrative limelight of celebrity, she herself, a mere child after all, was chewed up and spit out by the sexist media and criminal justice system.

This kind of thing does not happen to Madonna, at least not in public. Nor does it happen - we hear - to Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, or Naomi Wolf. They're too "powerful," they'd have us believe. But it happens to others without their resources and safeguards. It happened to Fisher, onscreen, in print, and in life. Just as it happens every day to many other nameless, faceless, book-contract less other women.

In the big picture of gender battles in public life, there aren't clear winners and losers. Not yet, and not - as the recent "Newtonian" revolution makes painfully clear - in the foreseeable future. Madonna and Amy Fisher, Anita Hill and Lani Guinier - they're all in the same game. So, too, are Tonya and Nancy. And Lorena Bobbitt and Thelma and Louise. And even Zoe Baird and her au pair girl. And none of them, from Zoe to Anita, has totally escaped the bonds of sexism. The truth is that there are no individual winners. If we've come to think otherwise, to forget the political truth that we're all in this together, it's because we've allowed our dreams and our debates to be fashioned by packagers, handlers, and image-makers who don't share our agenda, "feel our pain,'' or walk in our shoes - which, with few exceptions, are from Payless, not Bruno Magli.

Elayne Rapping is professor of communications at Adelphi University and author, most recently, Mediations: Forays Into the Culture and Gender Wars.

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