By Anna Fields, Columnist
I sat with Sara Benincasa by an upstairs window at the Magnet, just above that penned-up wall of signatures. “I think the third wave of feminism was about speaking,” she said. “Speaking to our humanity. Speaking to the fact that we are creatures who matter. And that yes, not only can we vote, not only can we think, not only can we work but we also can speak and we are entitled to and invested with the authority to speak about whatever the hell we want to. And I see the fourth wave as being this generation of women who were raised with the assumption that ‘yes, I can do anything that I want to, and I’m going to. And in fact I’m going to do more than was possible for women in previous generations.’ And I feel that I stand on the shoulders of women who came before me. I feel very lifted up by the generations that came before me. I have a great deal of respect. And so saying that I feel like we’re on the verge of a fourth wave, or in the midst of it, is not meant as disrespectful.”
Is that where we are, I wondered? How can I be on the next step when I was never sure what step we were on?
It’s all part of these waves. In the first wave, there were very few possibilities at all. You were either a homemaker or nurse or teacher or a domestic worker, like a maid or a cook or a housekeeper. And then, in the second wave, you can go work in an office. You could be a career women or a homemaker, but never the twain shall meet. It was either/or. Now, in the third wave, you must be both. You must be successful in the home and also outside of the home, or else, the petri dish tells you: you are not fulfilled.
Whenever I think about this change – from not much to “either/or” to “and also” – I have really dark thoughts. The darkest one, that I only every say very quietly to myself with the covers pulled up tight, is a question: WHAT IF?
See, the great thing about being a woman in comedy is how often we sacrifice. How often we set aside any financial security or big monkey-making career. How we also sidestep having kids, getting married, or even having a stable relationship at all. And then, if it doesn’t work out, we have nothing. It’s the same for all women, really, who do anything even remotely uncharted or risky, or whose choices deviate even thismuch from what’s easy and simple and affordable and familiar. And the reason that it’s so easy to make these choices is because almost every woman who’s ever lived has already made them before. And sometimes we don’t realize how some choices are incentivized and others are discouraged until we try something none of the other women we grew up with ever did or could.
On the other hand, some women have always had to do and be everything. Poor and lower-middle-class women of all races have almost universally been both homemaker and provider in order to survive. And thus, the myopic idea that a woman gets married and that her husband’s income is large enough to insure that she’ll never have to work outside the home again is a privilege reserved to the upper and upper-middle classes. It’s also part of the princess fantasy. In the palace, you’re a princess – that is your only job. You’re not doing housework, and you’re not bored, and there’s this idea that life is glamorous and exciting. But this princess fantasy is something that only works for maybe four women in the whole world. The fact is that princesses have very little control over their own destinies. And yet almost every little girl in the world has learned that she should want to become one. The same thing happened to little girls like Gilda who wanted to become ballerinas. They see this as a way to achieve the ideal of passive, feminine perfection. Because that’s the message they’ve absorbed: That passive, unoccupied women are perfect. And that getting married and never having to work again at anything other than remaining passive is the way to achieve that goal of perfection.
Sometimes, however, some of us poke holes in that. Ever since women got the vote in 1920, comedians who also happened to be women have made poking holes a priority.
“It was new to me, I’d never see anything like that,” Brandie Posey told me about the first time she saw I Love Lucy at the age of 6 or 7. “I remember being, like, ‘Woah! What is that? What is that about?’ I loved how she and the writers of the show clearly played on the idea of women not being perfect. That was the first time that I learned about heightening the comedy of a situation. And it was also the first time I’d seen a woman do it. I’d already seen The Three Stooges all get crammed into a closet or underneath a bed and then one pops out the other way and then, you know… hilarity ensues as they continue to mess up. But I’d never see that happen with women before. There’s this sense of camaraderie, too, between Lucy and Ethel. They both seem to silently agree that, now we’re both going to be responsible for making sure all of these things that are supposed to happen actually do. It’s up to us now. It’s our job, as women…”
“To manage everything?” I asked Brandie. “And then the comedy comes when they fail?”
Watching this scene, it’s easy to get super Meta with the idea of women seeking liberation through being active, rather than passive princesses, while also simultaneously seeking the goal of feminine perfection. It’s almost like the comedy comes from one of those cancelling the other out. The idea of seeking happiness through domesticity, of seeking to find their own individuality while simultaneously absorbing all the messages they’ve been raised to passively accept – many of which are specifically denying them agency and therefore keeping happiness out of their grasp. Is this the same as trying to ‘have it all’ today? Do we simultaneously want to keep both our feet firmly planted in both worlds, and yet promulgate the message that women realistically can’t? By telling ourselves not to expect any help in achieving this balance, do we thereby cancel out the possibility of making ‘it all’ our reality?
The alternative – investing in solely one option (stay-at-home motherhood) or the other (childless, hyper-focused career woman) is so risky that many women avoid making any choices altogether. And who can blame them? WHAT IF you choose one or the other and wind up with neither? Then you’re back to the First Wave. You will have accomplished nothing at all! Oh, well. Better go get everything, all at once! Better find a way to manage that. Good luck, Lucy! Hope the bombs don’t blow up that candy factory!
All of these messages are obviously communicated through Lucy’s attempts to have a job outside the home. I asked Brandie, how did those attempts tend to end up?
“Not well. And then she always ended up apologizing for even trying! Oh, God bless! It’s like, ‘Sorry Ricky, I had this hair-brain scheme that I could do this or that I could get a job. How crazy of me to even think I could have more than one option for the rest of my life.”
And so, again, I ask: What’s changed and what’s stayed the same, from Lucy’s Candy Factory to today? Is it easier to be a feminist now or harder than ever before?
Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.