The 50th anniversary of the publication Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” has inspired many to reconsider the book, warts and all. One of the abiding criticisms of Friedan’s book over the past few days is that it was limited to the worldview of an upper-middle class white woman.
Today, Lena Dunham, who very well might be the most high-profile feminist around, has received similar criticisms. On her HBO show “Girls,” she portrays the, eh, struggles, of four upper-middle class white women figuring out stuff (and by stuff, I mean mostly sex and sometimes work) in Brooklyn.
But critiquing Friedan, and now Dunham, for their specificity is a mostly a waste of our time.
In order for a story to have impact, emotionally and intellectually, it must be grounded in specifics. Writers know that it is hard to produce something powerful and compelling if it isn’t rooted in real, lived-in details. The twist is that often the more narrow the scope of a story, the more it can say about the human condition. (Yes, “The Feminine Mystique” wasn’t narrative-based as a TV comedy like “Girls,” but it still relied upon the nearly mythic character of the frustrated housewife.) If Friedan and Dunham had decided to be more inclusive from the get-go, their works would have likely lost some of their punch. I probably wouldn’t be writing about them here.
I think part of the reason both “The Feminine Mystique” and “Girls” became such criticism-magnets is because they basically flicked the light switch on in a big, messy room in our collective conscious that we had long been ignoring. The need for a book like Friedan’s and a show like Dunham’s far outweighed what they could express in the confines of their mediums. This is often the case for groups that lack representation in pop culture, so much rides on every move.
What everyone wants, Friedan, Dunham, white upper-middle class women, all women, all people, etc. is a sense of fulfillment. And this is what Friedan and Dunham write about — the quest for fulfillment. Personally, I think sometimes it is best to sit back and watch how one person, even if they only represent a small portion, goes about striving for and achieving fulfillment. Even if their path isn’t mine, I will no doubt learn something from their personal struggle. And don’t forget, as the second-wavers taught us, the personal is the political.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Leave Friedan and Dunham Alone