I Never Called It Feminism

I often say everything I know, I’ve learned from movies and television. I’m only partly joking.

Growing up, I consumed a steady diet of entertainment. Movies, TV shows and live theater fueled me. I watched so much TV after school that once, when I was invited to a classmate’s house, I was genuinely startled to discover she wanted us to play outside with her neighbors rather than plop down in front of a “One Day at a Time” rerun.

I didn’t go to her house again.

When you’re part of any minority, you spend a lot of time, consciously or unconsciously, looking for “yourself” everywhere. Consequently, my eyes were always drawn to the women (and, secondarily, the Jews) who populated anything I watched.

Left to my own devices, I watched a lot of sitcoms in the 1970s. “Laverne & Shirley” and reruns of “I Love Lucy” were my favorites.

The ‘80s brought me “The Facts of Life,” “Kate & Allie,” “Murphy Brown,” “Designing Women” and endless stand-up comedy specials on cable. Sure, I watched a whole lot of Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Robin Williams, but when I recorded Whoopi Goldberg’s “Direct from Broadway” special on HBO in 1985, I promptly wore out the VHS tape watching it over and over again. I adored Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Janeane Garofalo, Paula Poundstone and Elayne Boosler.

In short, I saw women everywhere I looked. They were doing everything men were doing (at least, to my young mind they were). Even when plot lines dealt with gender inequality, it never occurred to me to use the word “feminism” in conjunction with any of what I saw.

The same went for sports. My dad, a former MSU basketball player, taught me how to perfect my layup. My mom, who’s 5’1”, taught me how to dribble. I played on girls’ basketball and softball teams and I had opportunities galore. I’d heard of Title IX, but I couldn’t conceive of a time when girls or women didn’t play sports. If you weren’t playing, it was because you didn’t want to, not because you didn’t have access to a team.

I never called it feminism.

When I graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in journalism and headed into the newsroom, men and women held positions of power equally. I never felt my voice was excluded or undervalued because of my gender. I was promoted often – one time most definitely before I was ready. The executive editor who did it, I’m told, even informed other editors that he knew I wasn’t ready that day, but I had the potential to grow into the job.

It wasn’t until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” last year that I ever heard any mention of the fact that promotions based on potential were typically bestowed upon male employees.

I saw examples of strong women all around me. From the TV characters to the real role models in my life, I saw women doing all kinds of jobs, having all kinds of opportunities and making a difference everywhere they went.

I never called it feminism.

It’s only been in the past five years or so that I’ve started to understand that’s what it was and is. And I haven’t come to that understanding for good reasons. It’s the backlash against feminism that’s helped me see I’m a feminist.

It’s learning, five years after I left the newsroom, where part of my job was to review movies, that there’s something in cinema called the Bechdel Test. It’s simple; it’s brilliant; it’s sad that it exists. A movie that passes the test has to meet three criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it, who …
  2. Talk to each other, about …
  3. Something besides a man

Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic “Dykes to Watch Out For,” dreamed up the test in 1985. And, much the way I look for women and Jews (and now lesbians) in everything, I now apply the Bechdel Test to everything I watch, consciously or unconsciously.

So, now I see it. I get it. It took more than 30 years for me to understand it, but I see how and why I’m a feminist. It’s why I watch the PBS “Makers” series, documenting the stories of women in comedy, in Hollywood, in space, in business, and cheer each episode. And I simultaneously resent that we need the episodes.

What does feminism mean to me? It means it’s my duty to continue to show everyone – other women, in particular – that it’s a fact of life that women are full, active participants in every corner of society. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Garrett made that clear to Blair, Jo, Tootie and Natalie.

Robin TEDx 2010 squareRobin Miner-Swartz is a bleeding-green Spartan and a #lovelansing cheerleader. She’s endlessly enthusiastic, and good news makes her cry.

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