There has been headline after headline about how 2012 has been the “Year of Women.” Some of them mean it in a nice way, while others imply that the “rise of women” equates to a war on men. You know, because when people get what they have rightfully earned that means they are maliciously taking it away from everybody else - not. Sharing is caring, c’mon. Although I couldn’t be more ecstatic about the supposedly great championing achieved by my gender, I can’t help but be a tad annoyed by the sentiment or maybe just the articulation.
Women were always here. Women were always intelligent. Women were always capable. We didn’t just decide to “be smart” and “do stuff good” this year. So what’s with all the hubbub? It seems that women have been on a trajectory of gaining agency that has finally come to a critical mass where it is visibly evident in popular culture, identity politics, government and the workplace.
For starts, Hanna Rosin penned the “The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women.” The book posits that women are no longer gaining on the “once-dominant” male gender in terms of status, education and power dynamics. She suggests that we’re ahead of the game.
“For the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill. The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”
Though women have fought and continue to fight for more opportunities, it is the changes in the cultural and social infrastructure that have allowed women to thrive. Although Rosin argues that these changes are more conducive for women to be successful than men, I believe if men are coming up short it’s because they have less incentive to perform as well. Women have to be really good to be treated almost equally, male privilege allows for a bit more coasting and of course, those who are privileged are usually unaware of how much they get just by showing up. If the terms have changed, even just a bit, those with social privileges may be getting less of them and they may not be aware of those losses just yet. It is problematic for anyone to presume that any gender is better-suited for anything.
Just because the social climate is now one that allows women to openly participate in its economy and workforce doesn’t mean women haven’t been long unsung contributors to the way the world is shaped in all the hundreds of years before 2012. (See: inventions by women, for starters. Or Lucille Ball, even.) It’s only that now we’re more comfortable in acknowledging how women contribute. The term “glass ceiling” doesn’t come from nowhere. Men’s size and strength may have taken precedence when we were hunters and gathers or even when an industrial workforce involved intense physical labor, but social intelligence, communication, the ability to focus were never “predominantly male” and were always attributes that were highly valued and necessary for mid and high level jobs. The only difference is that a few decades ago it was OK to steal a gal’s idea without acknowledgement or promotion. Women were secretaries, men were bosses – that was the status quo no matter who had what qualities.
Today, the workforce is mostly mental not physical, with more and more people becoming educated, with more competition and during an economic downturn, there is more at stake. Perhaps, those who are being rewarded are the ones who can put their money where their mouth is. Nevertheless, women being acknowledged as capable probably has more to do with how we imagine women to be (it always has, in fact, had everything to do with that) than what they were ever actually competent enough to do. That can only mean one thing: popular culture has changed.
There has been an epic retaliation against conventional beauty and gender roles. There has been an active fight against body image, many of them successfully won by even teenage girls who petitioned to have non-Photoshopped images in magazines, who demanded a female moderator in the Presidential election, who have created their own publications and who have established online communities that give regular girls access to beauty and cosmetics in an empowering way and without the lens and devious marketing of advertisers.
Most of all, we have seen women with autonomy and agency on television which has statically shown to positively affect both men and women’s perception of women. (While all of these things are worthy of critique and not flawless, they still count.) Showrunners, writers, producers and leads all in the hands of women. Minday Kaling, Zooey Deschanel, the cast of Bridesmaids, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Whitney Cummings, Kat Dennings – and that’s just in comedy. The most important portrayals of women come from dramas or more specifically the increasing occurrence of women in politics on television. Politics = Power. Seeing women in such authority on Homeland, Veep, Political Animals, Boss, Damages, Scandal and The Good Wife show there is more to aspire to than pop-stardom, acting and careers in fashion (which aren’t terrible, but often reduce women to stereotypes either by the perception of those careers or the way they are executed).
It’s worth noting that in 2005 when Geena Davis portrayed the President in Commander-in-Chief not a single person cared. Moreover studies show that when girls (and people of color) watch TV it lowers their self-esteem, whereas when White males watch television it actually raises their self-esteem. Still, television isn’t enough. Feminism and female-empowerment has trickled into pop music, which has increasingly become a female dominated, special snowflake contest. While obnoxious at times, the glamorous, ostentatious and unconventional appearance of our wig-wearing, meat-slinging, pink-haired, bondage clad divas has made the female image, not only a source of expressing one’s autonomy, but a limitless palette in terms of what we consider beautiful and desirable as a culture.
America is far more comfortable straying from stereotypical images of slim, yet busty blond women who are mothers and trophy wives. We went from dismissing Hillary Clinton as cold to rooting for her to be our next President. It isn’t surprising that women politicians and queer ones were able to make waves this year. It also isn’t surprising that with the transitioning image and evident autonomy of women there was a conservative backlash against reproductive rights.
Has 2012 been the year of women or the year we culturally stopped dismissing them? With all the SlutWalks, Katnisses, Amy Poehlers, Sandra Flukes, Hilary Clintons, Tammy Baldwins and endless discussions we certainly deserved a change in reputation – but that’s all it was: a change in reputation. We were always here. We were always intelligent. We were always capable.