Monday, February 16, 2009

Jessie Spano was "not a feminist, but..."

by Chloe Angyal

Yesterday, Jezebel contemplated the "Jessie Spano effect." For those of you who didn't grow up watching Saved by the Bell, this will not mean a whole lot (also, if you didn't grow up watching Saved by the Bell, I am so sorry. This developmental flaw can be easily fixed).

Jessie Spano, Jezebel concludes, was a role model for all those "I'm not a feminist but..." types, women who want equality and who agree with everything that feminism stands for, but who have internalized the idea that feminists are shrill, shrewish and unattractive, so aren't willing to describe themselves as feminists. (Note: if you're someone who thinks that women deserve equality, the people who perpetuate the idea those kinds of negative stereotypes about feminism are not the kind of people you want to be taking advice from. Stop listening to them.)

Jessie Spano is the girl that everyone should be, but nobody wants to be. In her quest to be someone great, she of course sabotages herself: a legendary caffeine addiction derails her from taking on both a singing career and an academic career (can't have both, ladies!) and she deals with her rejection from top schools by bingeing on junk food.
Jessie Spano is never happy. She's tired, competitive, judgmental, angry, and painfully self-aware. Where her peers drift in and out of difficult situations (Kelly's poor, Lisa's intelligence is questioned), Jessie seems to carry this ridiculous burden of being trapped between speaking her mind and making her pink tank top wearing macho boyfriend happy.

Did Jessie Spano hurt feminism? (Apparently I'm not the only one who is wondering.) It's hard to say, really. Though her impact on the young girls who grew up watching her, myself included, may account for the "oh, I wouldn't call myself a feminist" bullshit that seems to be running rampant amongst women in their 20's.

It's easy to understand why those women, women our age, wouldn't want to self-identify as feminists, if they learned from watching Jessie that being a feminist meant being eternally unhappy, tired, competitive, angry, and all those other very unfeminine things. But then again, while Saved by the Bell was an authority on many things (perms, getting out of detention), it shouldn't have been taken as the gospel on feminism. But it is an interesting snapshot, a cultural artefact that demonstates what writers and producers thought of feminism at a particular moment in time. And it should encourage us to take a good, hard look at current pop culture, at what the next generation of women is growing up watching, so that "I'm not a feminist but" is a phrase we'll never have to hear come out of the mouths of our daughters.


For more on "I'm not a feminist but"-ism in young Americans, check out this recent series by the Tufts Daily.

Thanks to Lizzie for the tip!

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