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Between Mystique and Failure

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When Chelsea Clinton stood in for her mother at a recent gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, she addressed her mother's hopes that women could build a better world. She said, slyly, that if her mother had been speaking in her own voice, and not the voice of the secretary of state, she would have added, "and for the grandchildren she hopes to have."

A nice touch. When a secretary of state can become a grandmother, she's not limited to the language of the generic "we," but expresses instinctual hopes and dreams of every mother growing into her next stage in life. Hillary's deciding whether to run for president four years hence may depend less on the competition than on whether she has better things to do -- maybe with a grandchild.

A theme of the modern feminist movement has always been the notion that as women ascend in the public arena, they would create a more nurturing world. But power has a way of creating its own "gender neutral" world, defying the cliches of feminism. When you think Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher or even Hillary Clinton, "nurturing" is not the word that springs to mind.

For all that contemporary feminism has accomplished, it has failed most notably in making the peace it promised between men and women. Women in America have never been as "equal" to men in sexual relationships as now in the 21st century, but if the lady hipsters in the popular literature today tell us anything about how men and women relate to each other, it's that women act more like men rather than the other way around.

"Bachelorette," the hit play by Leslye Headland widely acclaimed by audiences in both New York and Washington, portrays the female equivalent of the bachelor party. Instead of men drinking, taking drugs, spinning dirty jokes and showing off with a nasty bravado of sex, the women drink, take drugs and talk dirty. Smut becomes their status quo, too. Feathers fly when the hens replace the crestfallen in a nasty cockfight.


If "Sex and the City" was about the warm bond possible between women, "Bachelorette" is about mean girls all grown up who make that earlier sitcom look like a fairy tale of innocence. The HBO hit "Girls," by Lena Dunham about the "hookup" culture, continues to get close to porn about bright young women coming of age and looking for work and love in all the wrong places. It's hailed as an authentic reflection of the experience of middle-class women who have just graduated from college and who seek careers in the Big Apple.

These women do not suffer from what Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name." Their problem actually has many names, and includes men who want to exploit their own liberation. They're all learning the bitter lesson that freer sex fails to make happiness easier to find in a world where "Fifty Shades of Grey," an S&M novel written by a woman, sells 15 million copies.

While much of the hookup culture is played for over-the-top titillation by these women writers, there's also a sense of overwhelming sadness, fatigue and failure. Certain consequences of the sexual revolution would be familiar to a poor maiden in Victorian England. One creepy guy in "Girls" gets so lost in his own lustful fantasies that he shows no recognition or interest in whether his "partner" enjoys the experience, gets pregnant or suffers bruises from his harsh behavior. Worse, she remains clueless to both his brutality and banality.

These are not the women Gloria Steinem sacrificed herself in a bunny tail to save. Instead, they make up a privileged generation consumed with pushing the envelope. One highbrow female defender of "Girls," writing in the New York Review of Books, even finds "a certain joy" in the guy's solipsistic sexual experience and calls it an antidote to "prudish Hollywood." Prudes in Hollywood? Who knew?


In another scene, the father of the main character is shown starkers, and the author insists she didn't write the scene merely for shock value.

"I seriously consider television to be the people's medium," Dunham tells The New York Times. "Like the idea of seeing your parents naked or ... worrying about whether you smell or worrying about whether your body is weird or what goes across the face of a person who's supposed to be experiencing pleasure but isn't -- those are things I'd love to normalize on TV."

This is not a nurturing world, not even for the grandchildren of a secretary of state.

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