It all started eighteen months ago when I saw a new ad from a national anti-abortion group being promoted on the subway. The ad featured a sad-looking woman hugging herself for comfort and a single sentence, “Abortion changes you forever.”
It was so simplistic a slogan, an affront to every woman who has ever agonized over her various choices. It meanly implied that women who unexpectedly find themselves pregnant blithely rush out to get an abortion without giving any thought to the consequences, which directly contradicts my own personal experience and that of the other women I know who faced such a decision. What made the ad particularly galling, however, was that it was sponsored by the same group that was egging on former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and others in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the few affordable places left for women to obtain reliable birth control that would help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place.
It was the hypocrisy, then, that led me to do it. I dug into my purse, pulled out a black pen and wrote over the sign in big thick lettering, “Not nearly as much as having a child—wanted or not—does.”
My heart raced as I publicly defaced private property in full view of one hundred and fifty or so other New Yorkers. I never before had knowingly committed a crime. As is usual among my fellow urbanites, the subway passengers pretended not to see what I was doing.
I wish I could say that when I had finished my rage subsided, that I took immense satisfaction in my defiant act. If anything, to my surprise and without a little shame, I felt only more infuriated. So I sat on the subway fuming, replaying in my head all the statistics I’ve read over the past few years. Statistics like:
- American girls now enter the first stages of puberty at an all-time low of 10.4 years (nine years for African-Americans and nine and a half-years for Hispanic Americans), likely as a result of over-processed food which speeds up the activation of the hormone lepin.
- Among the 18 million Americans who watch Internet porn, approximately two million are porn addicts, including 300,000 women, and therapists report a huge increase in the number of college-aged men who are opting for I-porn over developing in-person relationships with young women.
- One hundred thousand children, the majority of them girls between 12 and 17, are involved in sex trafficking in the US each year; 70 percent of them are runaways from foster care.
- One in five females will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, most of them between the ages of 14 and 25.
- Though more American women now receive bachelor and master degrees than men, the percentage of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is just 3.6 percent and women still only account for 17 percent of all members of Congress.
Recalling such statistics kept me enraged until I arrived at my office, where my anger quickly dissipated as my workday got underway, sidetracked by my day job as a Director of Public Relations at a multi-office, five-hundred-attorney law firm. Indeed, when I left my office at 8:30 pm and headed for home, I chastised myself for so foolishly tilting at windmills. As I exited from the Kings Highway subway station near where I lived in Brooklyn a huge delivery truck sat idling at a red traffic light. The truck was emblazoned on both sides with a billboard ad for a premium vodka featuring three naked women sipping liquor out of martini glasses.
The women had no stomachs, necks, wrists, ankles, or genitals other than a metallic shield-like loin cloth where their vaginas should be. They did of course have breasts: large outlined breasts, bald heads, pink-lipped mouths and two slits for eyes that were framed with oversized pink and black eyelashes. The slogan read, “Fembots have more fun.”
It hit me with full force, like a gale with 70 mile per hour winds, tossing me around emotionally that even now writing this several months later, I still feel cast adrift. Why did this disturb me so, even more than the anti-abortion ad? We see thousands, even hundreds of thousands of similarly silly, senseless ads each year. Before I moved in house to a law firm, I had worked at one of the largest advertising and PR agencies in the world, so in many ways I was more culpable than most when it came to the role media plays in helping to undermine feminism as a positive force for change.
In fifty years, we have gone from blondes having more fun to fembots do. Why bother hanging out with a flesh and blood woman anymore, who possesses hair that requires grooming, a stomach that craves filling, a mind that hungers for ideas? Just give us some breasts to stare at, put a glass of vodka in her hand and away we go. Once men lusted after the Hollywood pinup, then the airbrushed women of Playboy; when that grew tiresome, they switched to watching pornography on the web, jacking off to electronic images of women generated by lines of code made entirely out of Xs and 0s. Perhaps, however, even those images remind them too much of the smart-mouthed woman they share an office with or their ex-girlfriend who dared to fall in love with another guy, so let’s move on to fembots instead. Fembots who can’t talk, and don’t ask anything more of us than a martini glass from which to drink.
It would be easy, but inaccurate, to lay all the blame on men. But the sad thing about the ads, which are produced for Swedish vodka company Svedka by Constellation Brands here in New York, is that they are aimed at women.
“The Svedka image is playful, even naughty, featuring the sexy fembot symbolizing the brand’s fanciful futuristic achievement,” said Marina Hahn, senior vice president for marketing at Constellation Brands in a New York Times story by advertising columnist Stuart Elliott. “Our vision of the future is very different from others. It’s ‘a lot like today, but better, more fun’ and Svedka [is] the vodka that lets you ‘be your fun, flirtatious self…at a price point you can afford.’”
The Times went on to report that the new campaign featuring the Svedka fembot includes print and online ads, signs in stores, billboards, events in bars and nightclubs, even plans to be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“Maybe one day, ‘Svedka Girl, the Movie,’ ” Ms. Hahn said, laughing, at the close of the article.
I want to laugh too. Yet how can we ever make true strides as women, not just politically or in the board room, but even more importantly in reducing those all too real statistics about the trafficking of teenage girls, childhoods cut way too short by early puberty, and the millions of people, men and women alike, who prefer to masturbate to porn than take the risk of actually interacting with a no doubt flawed, but nonetheless potentially attractive, compelling member of the opposite sex, when women themselves still feel the need to starve themselves to fit into a size four dress, buy self-esteem through breast implants, or simply fail to reach their full potential for fear that boys at school won’t like them if they are “too” smart?
We all have grown so used to seeing fantastical images of women in advertising, film, television and on the web that even those of us with a profound awareness of the implausibility of such gorgeous, overly sexualized creatures existing in real life still regard such images as the standard far too many of us, myself included, aspire to.
Maybe that is the true source of my rage—I’m mad at myself for not being able to dismiss the ad or others like it. I’m mad at my fellow countrywomen for not only putting up with such messages that fundamentally tell us that, nearly 100 years after our great grandmothers chose to go on hunger strike rather than be denied the right to vote, and 40 years after Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan helped usher in the second wave of feminism, we still think of ourselves as sexualized beings rather than fully fledged, sensual individuals for whom our sex is just one defining factor of who we are.
I’m mad at Sarah Palin, who as former Governor of Alaska ordered that victims of sexual assault pay for their own rape kits to keep state costs down (though no victims of other crimes were required to pay for the costs of gathering police evidence to help find the perpetrators), for having the audacity to declare that she and Michele Bachmann represent the new face of feminism. She said that the week Bachmann rallied Congress to strip all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, calling the top provider of breast and cervical cancer screenings for American women a criminal organization.
That Palin and Bachmann are the ones now shaping the discussion of what it means to be a feminist today is clearly a failure of our own making. Too many of us have turned away from discourse, or perhaps have simply turned out, all too aware that we possess more choices than any other generation of American women.
American women under fifty mostly take it for granted now that women have walked on the moon, climbed Everest, travelled alone to exotic countries to negotiate peace treaties. We’re no longer wowed that women launch twice as many US businesses as men, or that women have invented everything from central heating to Kevlar, the material from which bullet proof vests are made. Indeed, we rarely think about the battles won before us, and most of us have never been schooled in the hard-fought efforts of generations of women to be taken seriously as citizens of the world. We accept without question that we can adopt children without a partner, purchase property, regularly are depicted in movies and books as action heroes or spies. Increasingly in many states, we can even marry each other if we want. The fact that we have made so much progress has also made too many of us complacent.
Or perhaps we are just too distracted. No one is more squeezed for time than those of us in the sandwich generation. Women in our thirties and forties perpetually torn by the demands of our careers and our personal lives, many of us are caring for a child and an aging parent at the same time. We squeeze our bellies and thighs into Spanx after squeezing out from the plastic bottle that last bit of ketchup for the French fries we ate at lunch. Our thoughts are squeezed into the 144 characters of a Tweet or compressed into a video download on YouTube. We squeeze into the crowded noisy subways of New York and Boston or into traffic on the Interstate in Los Angeles or Seattle on our way to work. We squeeze in yoga classes, painting courses and Thai-fusion cooking between the food shopping, picking up the kids from school, making that dental appointment for our husband, trying to stretch that salary for which we collectively still make eighty-five percent of what a man with comparable experience and education earns. Thus many of us have also been squeezed into compromises that we once thought we would never make.
That we all pay a price for such compromises goes without saying, but I’ve started to wonder if the cost is just too much to bear. Lately, I find myself in a state of near perpetual rage at what is happening in America. Perhaps it’s the angry rants of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of this world that has brought out this fury in me, a mad desire to answer fire, as it were, with fire. Or my sorrow and disappointment as I watch President Obama make concession after concession to the fringe right in the spirit of bipartisanship, wondering how he still cannot understand that the Tea Party-obsessed, Koch brothers-funded opposition not only has little interest in bipartisanship, it has no interest in governing at all. Or perhaps I’m just simply out of patience, no longer able to hide behind the cloak of deference and respectability.
When Michele Obama became First Lady, her popularity soared. Some admired her for trying to raise her girls as “normal” as possible despite the fact that they no longer lived a normal life. Others admired her stance towards community service. But mostly, we admired how chiseled her arms were, that her biceps were “cut,” that she looked so stunning in her white beaded Jason Wu inaugural ball gown.
Just as many of us women vilified Hilary Clinton as presidential candidate for her ugly haircut, love of pant suits, or simply staying married to a man who had convinced himself receiving a blow job by a young intern was not sex, and therefore not a betrayal of his wife.
We still worry far too much about being “playful,” “likable,” “fun,” about not turning men off with our talk of inequity at the workplace or unfair division of labor at home, or worse, driving them into the arms of another woman. And we care far too much about being perceived as chic, glamorous, or just plain sexy.
“How do I look?” we ask our husbands, our friends, our lovers. “Is my ass too big? My tits too small? Do I look fat?”
Perhaps that explains why, according to The Village Voice, the fourth most popular Halloween costume of 2011 for women was the Svedka Fembot.
So as autumn once again draws near, and in the hope of creating in the words of Marina Hahn, “a future a lot like today, but better,” here’s a list of 2012 Halloween costumes based on other female images that occasionally can be seen flickering across our digital screens:
- Gabby Douglas – At age fourteen, she had the courage and determination to leave her family and home in Virginia Beach to train with top coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa, a largely all white Mid-Western suburb. Less than two years later, Douglas became the first black American to win a gold medal in gymnastics and the only American to ever win gold in both the All-Around and the team competition during the same Olympics.
- Jessica Jackley – Stanford MBA graduate and co-founder of Kiva, which has facilitated hundreds of millions in loans among individuals across 209 countries by enabling internet users to lend as little as $25 to individual entrepreneurs. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2011 World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader, Jackley serves on several boards of organizations championing women, microfinance, technology and the arts, and has worked in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with Village Enterprise Fund and Project Baobab. Oh, yeah, she’s also a trained yoga instructor, avid surfer, wife and mother of twin boys.
- Sylvia A. Earle – Known as “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General,” Earle led the first team of women oceanographers in the Tektite Project in which they lived in an underwater chamber for fourteen days to study undersea habitats. Author of more than 125 books and articles related to oceanography and protecting ocean habitats, she served as Chief Scientist of NOAA and led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program to study the United States National Marine Sanctuary from 1998-2002. At 76, she currently is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence.
- Tawakel Karman – Called the “Iron Woman” and “Mother of the Revolution” by her fellow Yemenis, Karman is a journalist and politician known as one of the public faces of the Arab Spring. Co-founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, she is co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Arab woman and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize and the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date.
As for me, come October 31, I will pay homage to that great, forgotten star of the silver screen, Hedy Lamarr, once described as the most beautiful actress in Hollywood. During a Hollywood dinner party shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lamarr embarked on passionate conversation with an avant-garde composer named George Antheil about protecting US radio-guided torpedoes from enemy interference. She scrawled her phone number in lipstick on the windshield of his car so they could explore their ideas further. In 1942, the duo developed and secured a patent for a torpedo guidance system based on what Lamarr described as ‘frequency hopping,” which they then donated to the US government to assist in Hitler’s defeat. Though the US military didn’t take the invention seriously until more than a decade later, today frequency hopping is the basis for the technology we use in cell phones, pagers, wireless Internet, defense satellites, and a plethora of other spread-spectrum devices. Pretty darn good for a five-time divorced, foreign-born actress who never attended college.
But mostly, I’m picking Hedy Lamarr because she is the ultimate anti-fembot, who once told the press, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi Sonnenfeld holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award winner Charles Johnson. She is the author of the memoir This is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), for which she was named a Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sojourner, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, THIS, Raven Chronicles, Perigee, The Storyteller and Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood. For more, visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com.