Not so long ago, Miley Cyrus was a bouncy 'tweener pop star with an appealing layer of baby fat. Now she strikes sultry poses in bad music videos. When I was a kid, thongs were another name for flip-flops; now they peek out over the low waistbands of sixth-graders. Once, the Burger King was employed to sell Burger King; now (online, at least) it's the Shower Babe. For years, Christians have allied with classical feminists regarding the use of women as sex objects-without much progress, it seems. Now a new generation of feminists, who like to call themselves Girl Activists, is giving it a try.
Girl Activism has two meanings: first, that it reaches out to girls under 22, and second, that it's composed of young women near the same age. Shelby Knox, sometimes billed as "the new Gloria Steinem," is a leader in the movement. Now 24, Shelby vaulted to unexpected fame at the age of 15, when she organized a protest against abstinence-only education in Lubbock, Texas. A self-described "good Baptist girl" at the time, she became the subject of a documentary called The Education of Shelby Knox, featured at the Sundance Film Festival and shown on PBS.
Now a New Yorker, Shelby's latest project is SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge), taking aim at media exploitation of women and girls.
Everybody knows that sex sells, but where do we draw the line, and how do we police that line? Shelby Knox and friends focus their efforts on two fronts. First, female self-image and how girls need better role models: "smart, funny, and strong" is the ideal formula. Actually though, novelists for the young-adult market have been serving up smart, funny, and strong heroines for some time, culminating in Katniss Everdeen of the popular Hunger Games trilogy (movie forthcoming). The other remedy is better networking among women, using social media as well as old-fashioned girl time to encourage and affirm each other.
Sounds good. Except for the intrusion of reality.
Role models only work if the role can be modeled. Fictional girl-superheroes are just that: fictional. When feminists speak of female strength, they often (subconsciously) pattern it on male strength, which is aggressive, bold, and risk-taking. Female strength is not inferior, but it is different: persevering, relational, risk-managing. Feminists like to argue that these standards are cultural, but they are more likely inborn. A kick-butt role model like Katniss Everdeen is as unrealistic as Barbie, and may frustrate more than it inspires. When left alone, young ladies gravitate more naturally to romantic Bella Swan in the wildly popular Twilight series.
As for bonding, haven't women always bonded? We come together easily over family, food, and friendship; but the Girl Activists are more interested in coming together to fight exploitation. The problem is, if we focus too much on the battle outside, it may keep us from addressing the conflict within.
At its most basic level, sex is the source of women's power. Even little girls instinctively know this. The sin nature that perverts all good things has twisted our natural desire for intimacy and made it a tool for getting what we want. No matter that we are victims as well as manipulators; the root of the problem is not low self-esteem so much as that power-grabbing original sin.
Finally, by focusing almost entirely on women, SPARK doesn't have much to say about men.
Early this month I attended a college production of Pride and Prejudice, taking me back to a social milieu far removed from the Burger King Shower Babe (or the Old Spice Guy, for that matter). The conventions of that era set standards for courtship that most of us would find suffocating-and yet Jane Austen-style romance has never been so popular. Might it be that applying rules to sex, and channeling it into marriage, is actually the best (though not perfect) way to healthy male-female relationships? And that SPARK is trying to remedy a serious problem without really understanding it?
Email Janie B. Cheaney