Comfortably numb?

One of the first assignments in Lori Horvitz’s introductory Women’s Studies course at UNCA this semester was to select the films for the school’s annual feminist film festival. Horvitz’s students — many so new to the discipline they still twisted their tongues on favorite WoSt alliterations like “patriarchal paradigm” and “inherent ideology” — pored over the list of titles Horvitz had plucked from the Women Make Movies catalog.

Desire Girls still
Control issues: In the documentary Desire, a Women Make Movies release, New Orleans teens are given their own cameras to shoot with. Back at UNCA, the students who chose Desire and other female-centric works for the F-Word Festival express reluctance to own the loaded word “feminist,” choosing “humanist” instead. Stills provided courtesy of Women Make Movies.

They emerged with a program that, if not riveted with concepts of contemporary global feminism, does a fairly neat job of reflecting campus attitudes toward feminism and gender.

Feminism, of course, has by now had so many waves it’s a shame it can’t be surfed. But no matter how it’s numbered, today’s UNCA students seem to favor a definition that prioritizes comfort over challenge and promises the good life to everyone, regardless of race, class or creed. Its standard bearers aren’t apt to be sloganeers, but should the need for a motto arise, it might be something like: Women of the World, Relax!

“Feminism basically gives me the ability to do whatever I feel like, I guess,” ventures senior Stephanie Jones, who will sit on a post-screening discussion panel. Slipping into term-paper speak, she adds: “I feel it’s a self-efficacy thing on a personal level.”

Jones was one of the few students in Horvitz’s class to initially identify herself as a feminist, although she concedes she’s a recent convert, having been won over by readings in other Women’s Studies courses.

“I thought feminism was focused on women’s issues and just women’s issues, and bettering the world for women, but that didn’t fit into my frame of reference,” Jones says.

Her current, more expansive, understanding is not atypical of Horvitz’s students, many of whom insist on labeling themselves “humanists.”

It’s a way of saying “I believe in equal rights,” explains junior Katie Clayton. “I would definitely call myself a humanist.”

But “humanist” is also the h-e-double hockey sticks of the liberation lexicon, a verbal tic that skirts around the political movement that dare not speak its name. In fact, feminism’s reputation on campus is so sullied that the event is provocatively titled The F-Word Film Festival: A Celebration of Images By and About Women (But For All Audiences).

“A lot of people still see feminists as man-hating clubs of women who like women and are adamant against the world,” says Jones.

While Jones speaks of “people,” gender neutrality may not apply here: There seems to be a pronounced gender division when it comes to judging feminism and feminists.

“Men are more willing to call themselves ‘feminists,'” reveals Horvitz, who a few years back strolled across campus with a video camera to document student-on-the-street views of feminism. “For women, there’s a lot more baggage attached. They think, ‘What if I’m a man-hating lesbian?’ Women are scared of that word.

“Men,” she points out, “have nothing to lose.”

Horvitz prides herself on her ability to proselytize even the hardest cases. She predicts that by finals week, nearly all of her students — humanists included — will proudly call themselves feminists.

“By the end of the semester, everyone is a feminist.”

But Clayton, who will also participate in the post-screening panel, isn’t sure the two-day film festival will be quite as transformative. However, she still hopes “people come away realizing feminism isn’t just about women.”

Neither Horvitz nor her students have actually seen any of the films on the program — but Horvitz puts her trust in the long list of awards appended to each of the works’ catalog descriptions. The films are distributed by Women Make Movies (WMM), a non-profit media-arts organization that has been producing, promoting and exhibiting films by women since 1972. Of the 500 pictures offered by WMM, Horvitz chose about 40 from which her students selected the final lineup of six.

The films include Choice Thoughts, a 10-minute journey through the history of birth control; Desire, the culmination of a project that put video cameras in the hands of five New Orleans teens; Mirror, Mirror, a study of women’s ambivalence toward their bodies, and In My Father’s Church, a documentary chronicling filmmaker Charissa King-O’Brien’s wish to marry her female partner in the Methodist Church.

WMM classifies In My Father’s Church as lesbian subject matter — the company groups its offerings under dozens of helpful thematic subheadings from alcoholism to menopause to Vietnam.

But the urge to wed may resonate more deeply with the UNCA audience.

“I wish I were a housewife”

Media reports surfaced last year, most notably on the front page of the New York Times, trumpeting a new trend: college graduates — Ivy Leaguers, no less — more interested in collecting birth certificates than postgraduate degrees. Although these tales were mostly built on a foundation of anecdotes, electronic versions were relentlessly forwarded by pre-humanist feminists wondering what had happened to the revolution.

“Being a mother could be better for feminism than the high-powered career woman who embodies patriarchy.”

UNCA senior Stephanie Jones

While few of Jones’ friends have fixated on marrying and having children at the expense of a career, she says students aren’t shy about expressing interest in wife-and-motherhood.

“Being a mother could be better for feminism than the high-powered career woman who embodies patriarchy,” the senior posits.

That may not have been exactly the rationale junior Erin Donohue and her suitemates had in mind when they launched the “I Wish I Were a Housewife” group on a UNCA online network Donohue describes as “My Space on training wheels.” An exhausted Donohue, like many of the women depicted in the festival films, was merely looking for relief from stress.

“It was during finals and we’d all been cramming, and we were like, ‘Wow, it would be easier if we had husbands,'” says Donohue, who has appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues. “It was just something silly.”

An aspiring museum educator, Donohue never took the site seriously. Nor did the two dozen female students who joined the forum. And surely it says something about the political climate on campus that nobody else did, either. The site wasn’t met with public outcry, or even the hushed tsk-tsks that a joke wallowing in stereotype might be expected to provoke. Apparently, after years of struggle and hard work, nearly everyone agrees young women are entitled to a break.

That was the mindset that girded Horvitz’s students’ reaction to a recent gender-related tempest in the UNCA Athletics Department. According to senior Sarah Houdek, also enrolled in Horvitz’s class, both the men’s and women’s tennis teams were recently issued new uniforms. The men’s uniforms were fashionably baggy, while the women’s uniforms featured a tight fit.

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