A few weeks ago, when she was chatting with her teenage daughter, Olivia, Leanne Foster mentioned the word “feminist.” “She just wrinkled her nose,” Foster recalls. “It was ‘Eww, yuck.’ ” Olivia, an articulate 15-year-old who’s about to enter Grade 10 at a Toronto private girls’ school, thinks feminists are about as relevant to her life as a rotary-dial phone. “When I hear the word I think of the hippie-ish generation where they’re all ‘girl-power,’ ” she says. And not in a sexy Spice Girls “girl power” way, more in a humourless, style-less way: “They refuse to wear perfume because they don’t want to be seen as sex objects,” she says dismissively.
Like many other teenage girls, Olivia regards the fight for female equality as over. “In the Western world, we’re pretty equal,” she says.
She has every reason to think so. Going to university is a given. So is having a career—perhaps in business or maybe medicine. She’s surrounded by smart, independent women, including her mother, who holds a Ph.D. in education and is the director of LINCWell, a student enrichment support centre at St. Clement’s girls’ school in Toronto.
Yet Leanne Foster, whose position puts her in the daily orbit of the age-old divide between teenage girls and their mothers, is not as sanguine as her daughter about female equality. She sees a unique generation gap emerging: on one side, mothers who came of age during the women’s movement of the 1970s fighting for equal opportunities, “empowerment” through financial independence and rejecting female “objectification”; on the other, their daughters, raised in a hyper-sexualized culture replete with Bratz dolls, porn-inspired American Apparel ads, and the message telegraphed by Kim Kardashian and her tabloid-cover cohorts that a leaked sex tape is the quickest route to female success.
For these girls, Snoop Dogg’s misogynist Bitches Ain’t S–t is not an affront but a ring tone, and “slut” and “bitch” are not put-downs but affectionate greetings between female friends. Snooki, the 22-year-old star of the reality show Jersey Shore, whose ambitions consist of getting drunk, vomiting on camera, and spending days in a tanning salon, is the star of the hour. “I love Snooki,” says one 20-year-old. Olivia agrees. “It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny,” she says of the show. “I don’t relate that to my life at all. I wonder, ‘Why would you do that?’ But it’s enjoyable to watch.”
Meanwhile, their mothers, who walked in Take Back the Night marches to raise awareness of violence against women, are horrified, particularly by the sight of Snooki getting punched in the face by a man—footage used by MTV to promote the show.
Some of them see a clock ticking backward. “It’s worse than the 1950s,” says the mother of a 24-year-old, referring to the ubiquity of Photoshop and cosmetic surgery creating beauty standards more unattainable than ever.
Kimberly McLeod, a Toronto social worker who counsels mothers and daughters and has two girls, one 11, the other 14, is dismayed by the constant bombardment of sexualized media images directed at girls. “I don’t meet many girls who feel good about themselves, even though they’re totally gorgeous,” she says.
But the generation that grew up reading Our Bodies, Ourselves is most apoplectic over what they see as the unrelenting pressure on girls to be sexual, and not on their own terms. “I’m so deeply pained to see where women are today and how girls—and I mean girls—are being groomed to believe their purpose in life is to be sexual beings that please men,” says Nancy Vonk, the co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto and the mother of a 16-year-old daughter. Vonk recalls wearing satin hot pants when she was 15. “But it was a different time,” she says. “Back then there was at least equal premium put on intellect and what was in your head. It was the opposite of ‘Go out and please men.’ ”