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Salt Lake City Weekly New Girl Order

Twisted Sisters put a funky new face on feminism.

By Ben Fulton

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Jen Richards, 20, and Jess Engar, also 20, aren't happy about the Salt Lake City Council's decision to rescind an ordinance that would have protected gay and lesbian city employees from discrimination on the job. So, here they are, standing out in front of City Hall on a frigid evening in early January.

Both of them are holding candles. Engar holds a sheet scrawled with angry words. A third friend — who, for personal reasons declines to be identified — hovers nearby, but clearly supports the cause. Brin Bon, a 17-year-old worker for Justice Economic Dignity and Independence for Women (JEDI), shows up, just as another person leaves.

In terms of demonstrations, it's a bit like musical chairs. But Richards and Engar, the most prominent members of a group of young feminists called Twisted Sisters, are not giving up.

Their numbers are small, but their anger is large. It's too late to stop now. Besides, they're quite adept at snaring the media.

A Fox 13 camera operator and television reporter have just showed up. A handful of young protesters is hardly enough to bring the City Council to its knees. Yet, the reporter commends them for being more organized than the handful of people who protested Mexico's treatment of the Chiapas Indians outside the downtown Federal Building — on New Year's Day, when no one watches the news.

Now, stepping toward the news camera, Engar claims the moment, speaking into the reporter's mic: "Well, they [City Council members] don't know how to separate church and state, and it's just pathetic."

A few more candles are lit. But even the politically aware have to go home sometime. "We try, we try, we try," says Richards, acknowledging the small turnout. "But still, it's not good enough."

Lesson number one when organizing a protest: Don't phone your troops a mere six hours before demonstration time.

QUICK LEARNERS

That aside, Richards, Engar and the other handful of Twisted Sisters in the ranks of Salt Lake City's small cell of New Feminism are learning fast.

photo: Fred Hayes

Formed after the galvanizing effect of a women's studies class at Salt Lake Community College, they took the name because it was "funny, but at the same time memorable." If nothing else, it was a firm kick in the pants to an old heavy-metal hair band by the same name. Membership has veered from more than 10 to a core group of five, but no one's keeping an official count.

They want equality for everyone, not just women. A little idealistic? Well, that's the stuff of youth. They believe stay-at-home mothers, professional women, lesbians, Latina wage-earners, and yes, even men, can all stand together for common feminist goals. Noble? Of course.

They publish their own self-titled "zine" using double-sided, black-and-white Xerox copies and staples. As anyone in publishing will tell you, this means they're a little crazy. Sometimes they get so angry at the political right that they have to take cold showers. They're crusaders, joke-crackers, smart-talkers, and they won't give you flack for writing about feminism from a man's point of view.

Most of all, they're redefining and reclaiming feminism in an era when the general public has declared the movement officially embalmed and ready for burial. With Twisted Sisters you can — as the corn flakes advertisement says — taste feminism again for the first time.

The very sight of the "F"-word, feminism, can draw deep groans from some people. Many women repeat the mantra, "I believe in equality, but I'm not a feminist." Some might even choose defrosting the refrigerator over a discussion about women's rights.

A group of young women hardly represent an exploding trend. But if the odds of probability mean anything, the mere existence of a handful of young feminists behind the Zion Curtain indicates there are far more like-minded sisters in other states. They're taking up the women's movement again. Some are marching toward the establishment's gates with louder steps.

Their ideas, feelings and off-beat humor can be found in a wealth of websites and successful magazines, such as the Ann Arbor, Mich., based Hues. All are a new species of content provider for young women, breaking the Seventeen and Cosmopolitan mold in compelling, searingly honest ways. Browsing these websites demonstrates that the women's movement is kept alive more through creative self-expression than politics.

Like Twisted Sisters' own publication, Hues started as a zine six years ago. Now, it's a national, glossy magazine with thousands of subscribers. "We encourage women to talk about who they are, rather than have them follow a prescription," says Ophira Edut, the magazine's 25-year-old editor-in-chief. "Most magazines geared toward women can be really bossy and annoying. We're more interested in exploring the choices women make in their lives, rather than dictating. When we say this is a women's magazine, we mean all women, not just Skipper and Barbie."

FEMINISM'S ROCKY ROAD

The last two decades haven't been easy on the women's movement. As Susan Faludi masterfully outlined in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, the fault lies not with feminism itself but with its tireless enemies who claim that feminism's successes — a place at the professional table, a political voice, the freedom to work and raise children — have somehow brought women down. The culprits are easy to spot. "Their origins [are] not in the actual conditions of women's lives," Faludi wrote, "but rather in a closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising — an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood."

The '80s saw media stories about how women failed to raise children and carry a job at the same time, even though corporate America refused them on-the-job daycare. Misogyny ruled in heavy metal music and slasher flicks. Advertising and young women's magazines stressed lithe bodies and beauty over achievement and character.

photo: Fred Hayes
Twisted Sisters' self-titled zine: a joyous tour through a newspaper, collective diary, plus a call to action all rolled into one.

Through jokes, media, and masculine resentment, the popular image of the feminist has been engraved in our collective consciousness: The stern, humorless woman who wears no make-up, detests sex, has no children nor husband, and who ruins every party with ceaseless, self-righteous talk laced with the sledgehammer-like grace of political correctness.

Sometimes that image rings true, especially when the media zooms in on the National Organization for Women's (NOW) endorsement for the suspension of a 7-year-old North Carolina boy who kissed his classmate on the cheek. Then there's radical feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin's famous broadside against heterosexual sex in the book Intercourse. If sex between men and women is inherently unhealthy for the female gender, then we can kiss humanity's future goodbye.

But if the media is guilty of focusing on freakish flashpoints sure to vex the public, they miss the current of feminism that still runs at full-voltage. Even the facts that make the women's movement relevant have become less frequently mentioned. How many people can cite the U.S. Census Bureau's own statistic that women still make 71 percent of what men earn in the workplace? How many of us know that one out of four or more women will be victims of sexual violence? Do abortion rights still matter? Are you outraged by domestic violence? And is it really so radical to see women as more than erotic ornaments?

As the Twisted Sisters will tell you, the Old Guard Feminist Orthodoxy must be altered even as it's honored. That much is clear meeting Richards for a round of coconut lattés. Dressed in a turquoise cardigan and sneakers, her voice is full of the kind of excitement and joy usually reserved for religious converts or talk-show hosts. Whenever Richards hits a vein of feminist passion in her dialogue, which happens almost every five minutes, her words run at sprinting speed, followed by a laugh when she comes up for air.

So, in with the big question: "What does feminism mean to you?"

"Ah-ha! The definition! I'd like to keep that rather open. Part of the definition is that it's not really definable. Basically, it's promoting equality for everyone." Then later, "Maybe it's a defense mechanism. By not having a real specific meaning, we're not discrediting anyone."

Perhaps that statement alone makes Twisted Sisters worth a story, if only because most of the public doesn't know, as many feminists do, that the feminist orthodoxy ceased to exist long ago. Rush Limbaugh still delights in his malicious "Femi-Nazi" tag, even as feminism continues to embrace an ever widening scope of ideas. It's basic premise — that women should be treated as equals — is simple, even as its expression and methods become diverse.

FEMINISM REFRAMED

"Many people think the [feminist] movement has disappeared. It hasn't, really," says Debra Burrington, visiting assistant professor of Women's Studies and academic coordinator for the program at the University of Utah.

"There's movement happening that we don't see because it's so broad and diffuse. Then people accuse us of having no focus. But what it has now is a multi-focus, and that's good because it allows us to discover that our caring, nurturing grandmother is a feminist just as much as the radical down the street. It's movement in the plural, recognition that people move in a variety of directions even though many come together over similar causes. There's not one way of doing feminism or being a feminist, and that's the women's movement of the '90s. All sorts of people are thinking as feminists in different ways, and I would place many men in that category as well."

For Richards, Engar and their friends, "doing" feminism does not mean sitting in an arm-chair. It includes a list of chores, eagerly performed. Both review brochures, films and teaching techniques used by Planned Parenthood to help insure that the language will be understood by slang-slinging youth. Richards volunteered for a Women's Film Festival. Then there was the NOW Young Feminists Conference in Washington, D.C., last year. It was the most fun Richards ever had as a feminist: marching in front of the Capitol, feeling that instant connection with hundreds of other young feminists.

photo: Fred Hayes
Debra Burrington, visiting assistant professor of Women's Studies at the University of Utah: "There's not one way of doing feminism or being a feminist," she says.

"The adrenalin! It was just the experience of being there with a thousand other kids, talking about the same things. You don't get that in Utah."

But for a rough translation of that feeling, you might be fortunate enough to find a copy of Twisted Sisters' self-titled, self-produced "zine." Thoroughly irreverent, politically aware, jarringly, humorously honest and stuffed with haphazard graphics and art, it's a joyous tour through a newspaper, collective diary, call to action, plus an anatomy lesson all rolled into one.

Over the course of three issues, the Sisters and their contributors share personal essays on virginity and feminine beauty, suggestions for activism, polls about masturbation, a write-up on Angela Davis' latest lecture in Seattle, instructions for a breast exam, a poem celebrating female genitalia, pointed jabs at the right wing, a tampon review, the requisite Ani DiFranco concert review, plus — gasp! — an old '50s-era advertisement for a vibrator. There is no better sampler for the young, emerging feminist.

Richards and Engar shrug off any puritanical guff over their inclusion of a dildo ad. "A lot of it is to entertain ourselves so that people don't think we're so serious all the time," Richards says. "I think that it says a lot about the new feminism. We're raunchier. We co-opt things. We're used to our punk rock bands saying, 'Fuck you if you think I'm a slut!' Stuff like that. It doesn't shock us like maybe it shocks some people. And we know the difference when someone's using it to promote women and when someone's using it to put them down."

The music Richards speaks of is the ballyhooed Riot Grrrl scene, mostly Northwest bands, such as Bikini Kill and Team Dresch that write no-holds-barred songs about the horrors of sexual abuse, the thrills and complexities of relationships, and the evils of sexism.

Gloria Steinem and other long-time feminists would approve of the message behind music, but the tone might jar them. State coordinator of Utah NOW Anne Marie-Straight respects the Riot Grrrl tone of young feminism even as she's amazed by it. "It's kind of an in-your-face feminism, whereas when I was in my late 20s we felt as strongly as Jen's group does, but we found quieter ways of expressing it.

"Now we've got this great group of women who say, 'Wait a minute, we don't feel quiet. We don't need to fit inside society's norms. They embrace what's going on inside of them even though it may not fit nicely into our social constructs. In how many magazines do you get to read a tampon review? How often are women completely honest about how they feel, and about what kind of obstacles they're coming into contact with? These young women don't try to couch their feelings in appropriateness."

NEW STRUGGLES

But what level of protest is appropriate in proportion to the rights women now enjoy? They have the vote, the right to own property, the freedom to divorce, access to abortion and birth control — options previous generations of women were denied.

Feminism's initial urgency seems to be gone, largely because the most important battles have been won. Richards, Engar and friends view future struggles as equally important, though. "I don't think we have as much to fight for this time around, but the things we're fighting for are still important," says 13-year-old Twisted Sister Ashley Despain.

No women's struggle may be more insidious and difficult to fight than the omnipresent media image that defines acceptable female beauty. For Richards, there is no greater irony than reading articles about anorexia and bulimia in women's magazines that preach only fashion, thinness, make-up and how to attract men. "It's not rocket science, it's those publications that are the problem," she says.

The change is slowly coming. Witness the new Special K cereal advertisement on television, which features weight-obsessed men discussing ways to change their diet. Surprise, audience research conducted by Kellogs found most women were offended by earlier ads that objectified the female body.

Then there's a little matter of the Promise Keepers, committed fathers and husbands who also want to put men back in place as head of the family. Equal-partner relationships between men and women are under attack, as Richards sees it. Feminism is still under constant attack. Twisted Sisters reason it will only be brought back to the forefront by convincing people that feminism has always been, and will continue to be, part and parcel of progressive politics, whether people use the label or not.

"I hear people say, 'Yeah, I'm pro-gay. I'm pro-choice. I want equal pay, but I would never use that word.' I want to say, 'What? Don't you know you are a feminist!?' I think so many people, especially in our age group, are feminists who just don't use the word," says Richards.

Back at the U.'s Department of Women's Studies, Burrington has a sense for why most young women avoid feminism. It's a word that brings certain connotations: "un-American," "lesbian," "outside of society." These words are red flags for girls coming into their own identity, especially during a time when friends and boyfriends are important for self-esteem and security.

"It's a reticence to take on a label based on what society thinks it means," Burrington says.

So what the hell is wrong with Twisted Sisters? Don't they want dates on a Saturday night? Wrong question. At this point in the game, principles are more important than popularity.

And if a renaissance in the women's movement is to gain more steam feminism must be raised as an issue again and again. "Feminism is about each of us as women being able to express ourselves," says Kathryn Brooks, director of the Women's Resource Center at the University of Utah. "I don't think it needs to be redefined, it just needs to be talked about."

There's some debate about whether the word should still be used at all. Hues editor-in-chief Ophira Edut proudly calls herself a feminist, but knows that it carries stereotypes. "I think less and less young women are using it," she says. "There's a lot of experimentation with terms like 'strong woman' or trying to reclaim the word 'girl.' Still, I think it's important to try to redefine what 'feminist' means rather than shy away from it."

Redefinition will only come through action — Twisted Sisters' strong point. Richards can't help getting caught in the rapture. "Once people get past their fears and just say, 'Fuck what the media says,' or 'Fuck what my parents or church might say.' I've seen them become so happy. They see that we should be fighting for these things, that we deserve these things. It can only ..." she pauses, smiles wide, and stammers for words "... damn ... make you feel good!"


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