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March 8, 2005

Whatever happened to the ideals of feminism?
By John Doyle, Television Critic

Here we are on International Women's Day and, by heavens, we are awash in documentaries about political and social issues facing women.

Even the channel once called Women's Television Network, now called "W" - pronounced "double-you," apparently, as opposed to "dubya" - has several offerings. That makes a pleasant change from Divine Design, Arresting Design, This House, Me, My House and I, and, of course, the show that W airs constantly in its mission to reach women today, the indefatigable The Shopping Bags.

I Was a Teenage Feminist (W, 8 p.m.) is the most cheerful and straightforward of the programs tonight. Filmmaker Therese Shechter starts from the memory of her teenage years in the 1970s. As she remembers it, first she was a typical teenage girl thinking about boys, clothes, makeup and marriage. Her discovery of feminism meant that she felt liberated from the paths that had been presented to her.

Today, Shecter feels lost. She says, at the start: "I'm not a wife. I'm not a mother. I'm not a supermodel. Is it possible to be who I want to be, without apology or compromises? What happened to my feminism? Did I lose it, or did it lose me?"

To find the answer she talks to a lot of women. Her own sister seems merely amused by the idea of feminism. She feels she's got all the options she needs and that defining herself as a feminist is ridiculous. Then Shecter attends a conference on the next wave of feminism, in Washington, and later says: "It seemed to me that if I wasn't a queer woman of colour, on assistance, I didn't rate."

Gloria Steinem tells Shecter to quit worrying. In fact, the documentary amounts to a series of sensible suggestions from other women on the subject of feminism today. From the 62-year-old Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who made the Emmy-winning TV special Free to Be - a program that had a profound effect on the teenage Shecter - to the young journalist Jennifer Baumgardner, author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000), co-authored with colleague Amy Richards, the message is clear - don't get snarled up in politics, just recognize that feminism evolves.

What's being brooded upon here is cogent: Today, most young women think about personal empowerment, not the politics of battles about abortion rights, equal pay and access to information about their own bodies. While I Was A Teenage Feminist is a kind of balm for women who wonder where feminism has gone, tonight's second major documentary for International Women's Day is more of a cautionary tale.

Her Brilliant Career (Newsworld, 10 p.m. on Roughcuts) is Montreal lawyer Patricia Gabel's investigation of what happens to women business executives. The starting point is the assumption that while women can rise through the ranks of male-dominated fields, at some point they are held back by their lack of maleness. She asks the question: "Why is it that merely being female makes one an outsider in corporate leadership culture?"

Many of the stories in Her Brilliant Career are sobering. It is repeatedly suggested that in the standard corporate culture, the male-dominated leadership subtly pushes out women who cannot adopt the attitudes associated with male behaviour. This varies from women being excluded from corporate bonding events, such as golf and hunting expeditions, to a simple assumption that women just aren't capable of being ruthless.

The documentary also features a visit to a workshop in California, called The Bully Broads Program, which aims to assist female executives in learning how to get ahead in corporations dominated by men. The existence of the program, which is bluntly dubbed "asshole school" by some women, draws a mixed response from people interviewed in the documentary. Some women are appalled by the idea that women need to become bullies. Others applaud the fact that help is available for women who want to get ahead.

A lot of it comes down to the issue of leadership. In politics and in the corporate culture, we are told, the accepted definitions of leadership qualities have something to do with masculinity. One of the more thoughtful commentators in Her Brilliant Career is former prime minister Kim Campbell, who has a rueful take on the perceptions of both voters and the media on leadership skills. She points out that even though she had been justice minister for several years before she became the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, she was treated as if she had come out of nowhere.

Her Brilliant Career is the more substantial and relevant of tonight's two programs. Some viewers will find it disheartening, but it is directly connected to the reality of women's experience in the workplace. While the documentary is serious, it's enlivened by the use of smart, cheeky cartoons drawn by my Globe and Mail colleague Cinders McLeod.

Also airing tonight: Blind Justice (ABC, CH, 10 p.m.) is a new American cop show replacing NYPD Blue in the Tuesday timeslot. It's neither brilliant nor awful. Essentially, it's a drama built on a gimmick - the main character, Detective Jim Dunbar (Ron Eldard), was blinded in the line of duty and is now returning to work. Of course, everybody is skeptical about his ability to be a good cop, and he has to prove everybody wrong. The first episode handles these issues with aplomb, but it is difficult to imagine the series progressing in a compelling manner beyond the setup.

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