Last Saturday afternoon, two self- professed feminists turned the School of the Arts Drama Theatre into an arena for a jousting match.
In one corner: American author and political consultant Naomi Wolf, who wrote The Beauty Myth (1991), and one of the leaders of the third wave of feminism.
In the other: Singaporean author and artist Dana Lum, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
They were both on stage as part of the Singapore Writers Festival Lecture: The Beauty Myth, featuring Wolf and moderated by Lum.
The whistle was blown during the question-andanswer session when a man in the audience asked: Would Aware consider including men as full members?
Lum threw the first punch. "It's an organisation set up by women to correct an imbalance that exists in society," she argued. "And until that problem is resolved, it's too early to think of us involving men."
Wolf countered with a quick riposte. "I guess I respectfully very, very much disagree with what you just said," she said. "There isn't any room for an organisation which leaves people out on the basis of their gender, religion or culture. If we're so passive that letting men in means them taking over, then we need to work on ourselves."
Lum countered the blow with a quick dodge: "There might be a time for that, but that time, arguably, is not now."
With no knockout punch delivered, the audience was left to choose their victor.
"From that exchange, I think she (Lum) perpetuated the idea that feminism is men- hating, which is exactly what Naomi Wolf was arguing against," said student Thanusha Raj, 22.
The rest of Wolf's lecture was delivered in the same vein: Fiercely protective of her stance, keenly observant, but also quick to acknowledge the flaws and gaps in her own knowledge and Western feminism.
Wolf, 51, is the author of The Beauty Myth which argues that the "ideal beauty" of any day and age is socially constructed by patriarchy, with the goal of keeping women from coming to power and prominence.
The Yale-educated Wolf was a political consultant for presidential candidates Bill Clinton in 1996, and Al Gore in 2000.
In her hour-long talk, which was delivered to a house of mostly women, she spoke on two major topics: The myth of the ideal woman and the evolution of feminism in the West and the developing world.
She began by painting a picture of the "ideal woman": Tall, thin, young, perhaps Caucasian and blonde - the quintessential Barbie. She then deconstructed the ideal by exploring how it came about. She debunked the notion that Barbie is an evolutionary, Darwinian construct, citing culturally relative standards of beauty as well as the biological difficulties of reproduction if a woman is significantly underweight.
Instead, she posited that Barbie has evolved for the "need to hold women back politically". She said that in history, "when women take a giant leap forward, ideals arise in a backlash". This happens again and again, she said.
In the 19th century, when the suffrage movement began to take flight, "the ideal became tinier, more and more passive, more and more fragile, almost as a counterweight".
In the 1950s, after the war was over and women were kicked out of the workforce and back into homes, the ideal was a housewife who was "suddenly supposed to be obsessed with how shiny your floors were".
The obsession with this unattainable ideal is so that women "would not be causing the trouble that you would otherwise cause", she charged. "Barbie is just a symbol and in every culture, she's kind of a Rorschach for the ways women are oppressed."
In the second half of her talk, Wolf was fearless in pointing out the flaws in Western feminism and contrasting its iteration with the movement in the developing world. "Western feminism, which had a lot to say and was very, very valuable for 30, 40 years, has come to an intellectual standstill."
According to her, it has worked itself into intellectual cul de sacs, such as what happened with Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 book The Second Sex which "fetishises the individual at the expense of the community".
She took to task the North American estab- lishment for framing feminism as a gender war between men and women, which was a "terrible, catastrophic way of phrasing". "They begin to approach feminism not as a beautiful, enlightened ideal, but as a set of lifestyle choices."
Instead, she chose to focus on feminism in the developing world, which she said is more akin to the approach of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman in 1792.
"She articulated a feminism that was totally in line with enlightenment. What she said, that women need to evolve to be free exactly the way that everyone else needs to evolve to be free," said Wolf.
For teacher Baey Shi Chen, 34, the author's honesty and openness to other societies was refreshing. "It's interesting that she's so open to the fact that Western feminism has to listen to other developing cultures that are more aligned to the Age of Enlightenment," she said.
The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival.
This article was first published on Nov 3, 2014.
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