Feminism: the pink elephant in America’s living room

In 12 step programs, people talk about the pink elephant in the living room.That phrase, you probably know, refers to the experience of seeing something totally fucking obvious, right there in front of you, in your living room, but no one else acknowledges it.


What you experience isn’t real. What you see isn’t happening. At best, later in life, those people who were in the living room might say: OK, maybe that happened, but really, it’s too trivial to make a fuss over, more like a pink mosquito.

Today, meaning right now– April 8 at 11:01AM– feminism is feeling like that to me: pointing out the billboards all over town, the motion picture sexism taking place on giant screens across America, and people telling me it’s not real, it’s not happening, it doesn’t matter.

If my now 45 year old self could say something, not even to my child self, but to the 30 year old me, it would be this: you’re not crazy. What you see is real. What you see is happening, and it matters.

In honor of that message, I’m re-posting something I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle  when I was 31, right after I saw my first “reality” (get it?) TV show. I was scared to write the op-ed, not only because I worked at a talk radio station where many people didn’t agree with me (or maybe just hadn’t thought deeply about the issue “too trivial”) but because, as I put down those words, I realized how I felt about marriage was changing radically. Marriage was never in my life plan. Fourteen years later, I have a husband and three kids. Of course, I can’t credit the gay marriage movement with all of that, but I can’t deny it planted a seed. I see the words right there. (Did you hear that, radical right, isn’t that what you want for the ladies? Maybe rethink your strategy?)

Recognizing the sanctity – and a travesty – of marriage

Published 4:00 am, Tuesday, February 22, 2000

I DIDN’T think TV could shock me anymore. But then, during sweeps week last week, I watched Fox’s new hit, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” and realized modern television had sunk to a new low.

The show began with the introduction of 50 women, all competing for the grand prize of marriage to a multimillionaire, their union to be sealed with a $34,000 engagement ring.

The women stepped into the klieg lights wearing everything from bathing suits to wedding gowns, exposing their bodies to be rated and judged. Meanwhile, Mr. Multimillionaire was safely shrouded in a darkened booth. The whole scene brought to mind the voyeuristic ambiance of a peep show.

During one of the show’s worst sequences, each finalist had 30 seconds to convince Mr. Multimillionaire that she was the one he should choose. While guitar porn rock played in the background, the women said things like, “I know just how to please a man.”

At the end of the show, Mr. Multimillionaire finally appeared in a tux and chose his bride, the blondest and thinnest of them all.

I was stunned by this degradation and mockery of the marriage ceremony. How can there be any presumption of honesty or integrity in marriage vows when the groom takes them – as Mr. Multimillionaire did – just moments after meeting his wife to be, promising to love her until death?

Are those elements that I thought were key to marriage – vows and love and commitment – without real meaning?

A wedding ceremony should be a sacred celebration, inspired by devotion so powerful that those in love want to make a lifelong commitment to each other publicly.

Yet on the Fox Network, marriage became a modern-day flesh auction with women transformed into a commodity to be purchased by a wealthy man.

I’m not completely naive. I know that marriage was initially created as a financial contract. I know that in Biblical times the purpose of marriage was to control the means of reproduction – that is, women.

I know that when women had no social, political or financial power, when they were not allowed to own property and were only valued for how many children they could bear, marriage existed just to ritualize the transfer of ownership of women from fathers to husbands.

I know that remnants of these ancient roles of womanhood are still prevalent in marriage ceremonies, but I had thought they no longer had significance.

Though brides still traditionally wear white, the color has lost its relevance as a symbol of virginal innocence, once so prized in a woman. Few recall now, when the priest asks if anyone has just cause why the marriage should not take place, that the question was originally meant to determine if anyone had evidence that the bride was, in fact, not a virgin.

Fast forward a few thousand years to the debut of Fox’s top-rated show. After watching these women on TV, whose worth was measured by how well they conformed to limited ideals of beauty, while male worth was measured by wallet size, I was feeling pretty cynical about gender roles and matrimony.

Then something happened to restore my faith. The debate on Proposition 22, the ballot initiative on gay marriage, caught my attention.

As supporters of the initiative condemned gay marriage for defiling a holy institution, I thought of the irony. An elegantly packaged prostitution ring on prime time television is perfectly legal, yet two people in love who want to make a public and legal, lifetime commitment to each other, with sincere vows, are forbidden legal recognition of their marriage because they are of the same sex.

While “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” illustrates the worst of marriage, defeating Prop. 22 would bring out the best of it. Allowing gay people to marry shatters all of the antiquated sex stereotypes that still threaten to be resurrected in popular culture.

If marriage is to survive and thrive in this millennium, it needs to evolve. The marriage contract is a living document. We need to keep the best of it – the love, the romance, the vows – and leave behind those elements that reduce human beings to property.

If Californians really are concerned with family values, they should be fighting for the right of people who truly love each other to legalize their commitment.

One month after I published this, in March of 2000, Proposition 22 passed in California. In May of 2008, it was struck down by the California Supreme Court as contrary to the state constitution. Today, 17 states have legalized same sex marriage.

Feminism, class, and the problem of privilege: Gloria Feldt responds to Reel Girl

In defense of Sheryl Sandberg’s much maligned Lean In, I compared the book to No Excuses by former President of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt. That book, which I read a couple years ago, has a similar thesis. It focuses on strategies that can help women succeed in the workplace, and it debuted with no feminist uproar.

Feldt responded to Reel Girl’s post:

Thanks for making the comparison between my book and Sheryl’s. You hit the nail on the head in many ways. I’d just like to say for the record that since my goal is to move women forward toward parity in top leadership positions, I’m thrilled that a woman like Sheryl in a powerful corporate position is so willing to say these things.

She and I have discussed that there is a need to be able to work in the system and to change it. I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.

And I’m doing it again with Take The Lead (www.taketheleadwomen.com) if anyone wants to check it out and possibly hop on board to help us reach leadership gender parity by 2025.


Here is my comment back to Gloria.

Dear Gloria,

Thank you for your comment to Reel Girl. I’m grateful for your long career in helping women and happy that you wrote No Excuses which I learned so much from. I appreciate your support of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, though in some ways, your email perpetuates a misconception about “sides” that I want to address. You write:

 I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.


There are no sides here. Women can’t change the sexist system if they the lack basic skills do so. This may not seem like a huge deal in your comment, but this schism is presented and replicated all over the media when discussing Sandberg’s book, just last Sunday again on “60 Minutes,” and it can be distorting.

In 1998, When I was 28, I cofounded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership to address this lack of skills and also, the class divide in feminism. So many young women, including me, had big dreams, but little idea as to the practical tools of how to achieve them. It was like we’d missed out on a basic training course that the men had taken.

Woodhull’s mission was to train women ages 22 – 35 in the skills they too often lacked. We saw this age period as crucial for women to lay the ground work for successful careers, a time where they needed support and training that they weren’t getting. There weren’t non-profits that focused on career development of this demographic, so we created Woodhull.

Modules at Woodhull included: media training, negotiation, advocacy, how to get published, financial literacy, how to write a business plan, and public speaking. Every Woodhull module included a component on ethics. There’s no point in becoming a leader if you can’t be an ethical one, give back, help people, and do your part to change the world for the better.

Woodhull also provided graduates with an on-going support network and mentorship. Woodhull graduates include Lateefah Simon, who went on to become a MacArthur Genius, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who went on to co-found Miss Representation, and Courtney Martin, who went on to publish  Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, among many other Woodhull success stories.

Woodhull ran into challenges raising money. Foundations wanted to give money to non-profits that served 100% inner city/ low income women. Even when 2/3 of Woodhull constituents came from inner city/ low income and were scholarshipped, foundations weren’t interested in that ratio. Woodhull didn’t want to adapt to funders, because part of the reason Woodhull was founded was to bridge the class divide. Women who came to Woodhull valued that diversity. Many said they had no other place to address class differences and similarities openly and to learn from each other. Again and again, we witnessed that young women, across the board, whether from the richest or poorest families, didn’t know basic financial literacy or had difficulty receiving applause without flinching.

Then and now, I’ve got to wonder: When women with access to money and power aren’t achieving, how does that affect all women? Where are women in power? Why are they so invisible? How can we change that? What happens when a rare woman gets to the top, writes a book about her view from up there, and gets attacked for it? As Gloria Steinem wrote, “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

You don’t get much more privileged by birth in America than me. My great-grandfather was Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He was an early investor in Safeway stores, and my grandfather became CEO of that company, building it into the world’s largest supermarket chain. My father was also a CEO of Safeway until he left the company to buy the San Francisco Giants. I think that part of the reason I became a feminist so early is because in the world that I grew up in, the gender disparity was huge. Sometimes it seemed like all of the men were running the world and all of the women were dieting.

Following my college graduation, many of the privileged men I had grown up with went on to start their own companies, open restaurants, publish novels, and produce films. Most of the women I knew, who were smart, creative, and had a sincere desire to have a positive impact on society, took low-paying, low status jobs for big corporations or non-profits.

What I also noticed in these women, and not the men, and an issue that you address in No Excuses, was a profound ambivalence towards success and power, basically what it means to be successful and powerful as a woman in America. For all of these reasons, I founded Woodhull.

The class divide among women, whether it manifests as the stay-at-home vs working mommy wars or feminists against Sheryl Sandberg, is the major challenge keeping women from achieving parity. Even the foundation and non-profit worlds systemically reinforce this fatal gap. If women can’t bridge the class divide, we’ll stay stuck, but if we can overcome it, nothing will stop us.

I can’t wait to check out www.taketheleadwomen.com


Margot Magowan

If your kid says she’s bored, quote Louis C.K.

I’ve blogged before about how I think comedian Louis C.K.’s show is one of the best depictions of fatherhood in the media EVER.


On Facebook, I saw a great quote that I recognized immediately from one of my favorite episodes. This morning, when my daughter complained that she was bored, I tried it on her.


She burst into a huge smile.

Thank you, Louis C. K., for getting insight to my daughter, making her happy, and rescuing our family from a cranky morning.



Feminism, King Arthur, and Disney come together in ‘Avalon High’

If you are a feminist and love the King Arthur legend, you will be a fan of “Avalon High.” I am so into this Disney made for TV movie. Yes, I just wrote that. I can’t believe it myself. Oh yeah, your kids will love the movie too.


This weekend, my nine year old daughter had a playdate, and it was her friend recommended the movie. This particular friend recommended “A Wrinkle in Time” during the last playdate, so I trusted her opinion. My daughter loved “Avalon High” so much, she begged me to watch it with her again the next day.

The protagonist is female. Allie Pennington is smart, brave, beautiful, kind, and athletic. She has just moved to a new area because her parents, scholars of Medieval literature and experts on King Arthur, got jobs at the local university. Allie is studying the King Arthur legend in her high school class as well, and it is there that she and her friend Miles first learn about a prophecy on the reincarnation of King Arthur: The Order of the Bear. Soon, they identify their friend and star quarterback, Will Wagner, as the new King Arthur. He is “perfect” so it seems obvious that her is the famous king. The danger in the story is that there is also an incarnation of the evil Mordred who Will must be protected from. After mysteries and adventures, it turns out that it is Allie, herself, who is the reincarnation of King Arthur. I knew that only because my daughter gleefully told me in order to convince me to watch. If I had not been warned, I never would have guessed. Your kids won’t. How many times in your life have you seen a Disney  movie and not figured out the fabulous end? That, alone, makes “Avalon High” worth showing your kids.

Here are some more aspects I admired about the show:

Allie Though from my description– smart, beautiful, athletic, kind– may seem too perfect, Allie is a hero. Heroes are idealized. Too often, we don’t get to see idealized females except when the perfection revolves around beauty. Allie is super fast. She is a track star, ambitious, dedicated, and she knows she is good. There are several scenes in the movie where you see her running. I like that she was not cast as “plain” or an outcast/ nerd or as someone that gets a makeover in the end. Allie’s character defies the “smart” “pretty” split seen so often with female protagonists and hardly ever with male ones.


No mean girls There are no mean girls in this movie! YAY. Mean girls can be well done when kids relate by sympathizing with the protag who is victorious in the end; the lesson learned is “be kind.” But we’ve seen that so many times. I’m sick of it. “Avalon High” is original. Allie is disappointed when she meets Will’s girlfriend just after meeting him, but Jen is nice to her and she is nice back, throughout the whole movie. I was so surprised seeing this kind female relationship depicted that after Allie and Jen met on screen, I turned to my daughter,  and said, “She’s nice?” My daughter said, “Yeah, she’s complicated.” She’s complicated, in a Disney movie. Hallelujah!

Action scenes We see Allie running, as I mentioned. We also see scenes of her galloping on a horse and battling in brutal sword fights. That said, I can’t find any pics on Google images of Allie fighting, running, or riding, while I can of Will. ARGH.

Cross-gender friendships Allie is good friends with Miles (who turns out to be the reincarnated Merlin.) Though she has a crush on Will, they are also shown as good friends.

Scenes of Allie admired by male characters for her skill There are several of these including when Allie beats Will in a race and when Will stops to watch her run, awed. Here, we see the equation we so often get with male protagonists but rarely with female ones: skill + talent = attractive

The only thing that slightly bugged me about this movie is that there are cheerleaders and Jen is one. But, then again, that casting clearly shows that Allie, our hero, is not one.

This movie made me long for an Middle Grade book that is a feminist version of King Arthur, sort of a Mists of Avalon, but for kids. Does this exist? I know its problematic because of the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere triangle (which is in Avalon High and well done.) This film is based on a book by Meg Cabot.

I have not liked a movie of this genre as much since “Escape to Witch Mountain.” Reel Girl rates Avalon High ***HHH***

The New Networked Feminism: Limbaugh’s Spectacular Social Media Defeat

Am I dreaming or is that an actual headline from a Tom Watson column on Forbes.com?

Here’s how it begins:

So much for post-feminism. The world of networked hurt that descended on the spiteful media enterprise that is Rush Limbaugh revealed a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy.

When I went to a Peggy Orenstein reading couple weeks ago, she said that never in her career has she seen an online community of feminist activists like there is now. She listed several victories: Komen backtracking on its policy to exclude Planned Parenthood from fundng, LEGO agreeing to meet with activist groups, and JC Penney taking its sexist T-shirts of the shelves.

I also think that the strong, negative internet/ media response also played a role in Penn State finally reacting to the sexual abuse that it had ignored for so long.

Feminist Kate Harding is quoted on Forbes:

When your brand’s Facebook wall is overtaken by feminist outrage, you can’t just write it off as a few man-hating cranks and continue on as usual.

This is just what happened when Reel Girl, Pigtail Pals, and others complained about a sexist ad from ChapStick. We complained on the company’s Facebook page and ChapStick deleted our comments when its own ad copy invited us to “be heard.” Several women took screen shots of their comments before their deletion, and I blogged about ChapStick’s removal of them on Reel Girl and SFGate. Jezebel picked up the story, then so did others including Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. When ChapStick’s unethical behavior became known to so many, ChapStick apologized and removed the ad.

“Post-feminism” has always been a bullshit term. One of the most effective ways to keep women in their place is to claim that sexism doesn’t exist. Social media is making it harder to pull off that lie.

Kim Kardashian, Real Life Trophy Wife?

Cheerladers are bad. There’s no other way to say it. I don’t care if they’re of color or fat or have athletic skill. Being a cheerleader means you’re the sideshow, your role is to make the main event look good; you are not and never will be the star.

Witnessing the archetype blonde haired, blue eyed, super skinny cheerleader transform to allow more diversty in movies like High School Musical only makes me sad; it’s like when Mo’ Nique hosted a reality show on a fat girl beauty contest, or when there was an African-American model on the cover of Vogue and Anna Wintour wrote a self-congratulatory Letter From the Editor about it. Is it progress that women of color get to be anorexic too? Or that fat women are allowed to compete against each other so that a panel of judges can decide who is the prettiest?

The big problem with the cheerleader role is that it serves as a teen training ground for the model of the perfect heterosexual relationship; it’s like wife school. The hot girl cheers on her talented guy, standing by her quarterback, loyally, faithfully, whether he wins or loses; her admiration is constant and her love is true.

Who doesn’t have fantasy about her partner being totally focused on her, sticking around no matter what, celebrating when she does well, cheering her up every time she’s down? We all want that. But men, the guys in power, got to actually create that reality for themselves and reproduce it everywhere.

If you watched any of the superbowl, you likely saw dueling couples: former Playboy bunny Kendra Baskett with her Indianoplois Colt husband, Hank Baskett, versus Playboy model Kim Kardashian, girlfriend of Saint, Reggie Bush. Kim proudly flashed her nails for the cameras, painted with Reggie’s name and his number, 25. Rumor has it that if  Bush won, he would propose, making Kardashian a real life trophy wife.

Maybe cheerleaders will be Ok with me when there are all male squads who rally on the pro-women teams at giant sporting events watched all over the world; when those guys are considered a catch, the hyper-sexual mates for the celebrated women athletes. I wonder if Kim can play soccer?