Know your audience: Feminisms, Sandberg, and the average Jolene

As Mothers Day approaches, I’ve naturally been thinking about the choices different women make with regard to careers and families. I’ve also been thinking about the great freedoms we in the Western world have today that we didn’t have years ago.

And yet, despite the choices we have, the last few weeks found me gnashing my teeth in frustration. A few things happened that made me think we still have a long way to go.

Event 1: I’ve been reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and simultaneously a few reviews. I’m trying to decide what I think about the whole Surge of Leaning that seems to be happening. Critics seem to either love what Sandberg is saying and doing … or deride her for being too white, too rich, too privileged, too corporate. Is she saying anything new, or does she just have different tools, technologies and context with/in which to say it?

There’s one review of Lean In by Sarah Dowse, Australian writer (novelist, originally second-wave feminist and political commentator) that has me worried. Women leaders have performed well, she says, but are:

still constrained by uneven numbers and the lack of an overall strategy for withstanding the prevailing economic culture. [Dowse, in The Insider]

“Oh, doom!” I cry. “Oh, gloom! We need bigger strategies! More quotas! No! Wait! We need to subvert a whole captialist status quo, not just market to one corner of Corporate!”

Photo of pink makeup-focused books for 6-10 year olds in bookshop
Girly vomityness in the local toy store

Event 2: I see this display (to the right) of pink vomityness as I’m passing the primary-school aged section of books in a local toy store. In case you can’t see it clearly, it’s a huddle of pink books dealing with clothing selection and makeup tips (including actual chemical-filled makeup to experiment with on blank mannequin faces inside one of the books).

There’s no evidence of books like this for boys (okay, not such a big surprise), but why are we presenting little girls with these kinds of books?

What makes me doubly teeth-gnashy is the body language of the girl on the left of the photo: head tipped to the side coquettishly … it’s a pose I see all over Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. Young women and girls assume this pose. Boys (above about age four) and men rarely do. Boys look to the camera straight-on. I can only assume the feedback girls get when they adopt cutesy, infantilised poses sustains this woeful loop.

Event 3: Then, when I’m catching up on blog-reading, I see a post by Sarah O’Rourke [no longer blogging as of 2014]. She characteristically and enterainingly walks us through a situation that got under her skin – as a young woman and as a feminist. The piece of Rochester poetry she is studying at university, she tells us, displays misogynistic attitudes by demeaning prostitutes. Prostitutes are women too, Sarah says. So why, then, can’t feminism take care of this? Why are there always some groups of women who are not spoken for? As I read this post, I am nodding furiously. Sarah’s feelings are the same as mine were 20-odd years ago. Has nothing changed?

A comic about being in a tutorial
“I’m not so sure, Denise,” I squeaked. “I think my mum quite likes me.”

Rewind to 1992: I’m in class and I’m in a tutorial for the unit “Varieties of Feminism”. I rarely utter a word in these tutorials, and I make sure I wear my clogs and not my engagement ring. Not a scrap of ‘leaning in’ is happening on my part, because I’m afraid of being confronted and ridiculed.

Yet if I walk away with anything from these discussions, it is that feminism in the ’90s is about difference. It is about breaking down categories, language, definitions: Genders, we discover, are merely a performance of our choosing; The biology we’re born with is just one way of viewing ourselves; We investigate ‘Other’, only to find  it is not the neat category we once thought. “There can be no ‘one’ feminism,” we decry, “because all women are different!”

OK, cut back to 2013. Here we are in the age of the liquid modern. We have information coming out our ears, we have lightning-fast communications, content for all occasions. We are individuals with the tools to express ourselves in public 24/7. We are unique, and we tell everyone all about it on our walls, in our streams, in our circles.

And yet, amid the shifting landscape and the jostle for individual attention, there’s something about us that searches for our humanity. The things we share. We want to be different, but we want to be united. We don’t want war, we say. We don’t want famine or global warming, we say. We want our species to survive! Our species, we say. And so we hold charity fundraisers, we write environmental manifestos, we tweet and facebook our hearts out to the masses, we sign petitions for change. We create networks, online communities … We are separate, yet connected in ways Foucault or the average Jolene couldn’t have dreamed of back in 1992.

And we still don’t have the solutions. Little girls are still being fed pink tiaras and chemical-filled makeup, and the average Jolene still bites her tongue out of fear of losing her job.

Change for the masses?

The various Australian ‘Femocrats’ as they were known in the 1970s (Sarah Dowse is one of them) were working to change legislation, get equal pay for women workers and give women in Australia choices. Their successes were many. I myself have benefited from the changes that came about as a result. I didn’t have to leave my editing job when I got married. My pay level was the same as that of my male peers. Maternity leave from my job in TV news was an option when the time came.

Cartoon of Libby playing Jolene on the guitar
Occasionally, Libby liked to channel her energies and change the world with country music.

Yet, from my reading around that ‘second-wave feminism’ time in Australian history, I gather the challenges for feminist groups in Australia often arose when a group tried to focus on too many issues all at once. Groups splintered as members’ interests and alliances clashed, and energies were spread too thin.

Feminism, we hoped and expected back then, was a movement that would bring change for all women. (Well, I didn’t hope or expect. I would’ve, but I was playing in the sandpit at the time.)

I would never discourage anyone from trying to change the world and our species for the better. Heck, I’m trying to do it myself – with fiction of all things. But I guess my point is that I know one person can’t speak to – or for – everyone. I know my writing won’t appeal to everyone. I probably annoy the pants off some people. But that’s the way it is, and it’s no different for groups or movements that want to inspire change.

Hats off

Sheryl Sandberg knows which sector of women she’s targeting with her book. She declares it. And so I take my hat off to her for ‘leaning in’ in her particular context.

I also take my hat off to Margot Magowan, who daily (really, sometimes several times a day) sticks it to the media and the architects of choice for presenting – and representing – crappy, ‘gendered’ toy options for young girls. Without her blog, Reel Girl, in my inbox, I’d have gnashed my teeth to the gums, because her energy and influence is a unique and much-needed voice. It is reassuring to know that someone with a substantial online platform is speaking out against a pink vomityness in a way that I can’t.

And I take my hat off to Sarah O’Rourke, who speaks out with fire and nous that I only wish I’d had when I was at university, and who provokes discussion around so many feminist issues.

Knowing your audience

I don’t have the solutions or platform to have an impact on the problems facing women the world over. I wish I did. I wish it were as simple as drawing up a mind-map or an infographic to show us the way to give all humans equality. It would be neat, satisfying, easy to disseminate … and would probably look pretty cool too. But somehow life – and people, with all their individual loves and loathings and desires and foibles – is too messy, and simply makes this kind of solution impossible.

It’s reassuring to know there are people the world over who are working tirelessly to give women voices and rights and skills and, in some cases, life.

Me? I’ll stick to my ecosystem. I’ll keep targeting my audience – writing the Charlotte Aimes novel for my daughter – and hope that somehow the loves and frustrations and indignations I write will help, in some small way, to shape the next wave of Jolenes and Sandbergs, and the ecosystems they build.

Send Hope charity logo
Send Hope is a charity for maternal health, supporting mothers in developing countries.

If you feel like sharing the love on Mothers Day, you could donate to Send Hope, a charity for maternal health (currently saving lives of mothers in PNG, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia).


  1. Very interesting post. Sandberg poses an interesting dilemma: she is both a role model and a frustration to research/movements/thinking which suggest that trying harder is not enough. As for the girly toys, I try to explain, whenever I can, that you must be increasingly aware of the messages you are sending – and how they could be received – in this nutty day and age. Keep writing :)

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