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June 10, 2005

Filmmaker looks for meaning of the other F-word
BY Debra Pickett

Therese Shechter turned 13 in 1974, the year "Free To Be You and Me" hit the airwaves.

And, like a lot of
wayward and impressionable youths who've let television shape their lives, Shechter took the message of Marlo Thomas' irresistibly sing-along-able musical very much to heart.

She decided she was a feminist.

As far as life decisions made by 13-year-old girls go, it was probably a pretty good one. But it wasn't exactly one that she held on to.

And, by the time she turned 40, Shechter realized, she hadn't even thought about feminism in years. Though she'd lived a cool, independent life, the word feminist -- everyone's second-favorite F-word -- just didn't seem to apply.

This is the sort of revelation a lot of us have from time to time, when it hits you that if your younger, smarter self could see you right now, that younger self would be ticked off and disappointed by what you've become. Personally, I try to ignore those moments or quiet my younger self by insulting her unfortunate hair color choice.

Shechter made a movie.

'What happened to my feminism?'

"I Was a Teenage Feminist" makes its Chicago debut Saturday night at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark.

The hourlong film feels a little bit like a chick version of Michael Moore's "Roger and Me," but, luckily, there's no real villain. It's just the story of Shechter's quest to figure out, as she puts it, "What happened to my feminism? Did I lose it, or did it lose me?" There's a moment, early in the film, when Shechter, who gave up a full-time gig as a graphic designer to work on this project, sits down with uber-feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who helped produce "Free To Be You and Me," and tells Pogrebin that the idealistic musical feels, in retrospect, like a lie. Shechter believed that whole line about being anything you wanted to be.

So did I.

Somehow, for those of us raised on the 1970s version of girl power, life feels surprisingly complicated. Because no one told us about all the trade-offs and compromises and no-U-turn detours that are part of life as a modern woman.

No one explained that being an astronaut might be sort of hard to combine with being a mother. No one mentioned that climbing mountains could get lonely or that, almost no matter what you do, the most intense, demanding years of your professional life will probably exactly overlap your childbearing years. This, Shechter points out, would have been very useful information to have at some point. Some point before you stepped onto the launch pad or scrambled for the peak.

Pogrebin doesn't really have much of an answer for that, other than to say that, you know, she'd been really hoping that, by now, there would be decent, affordable child care available to every family so that people's choices about their lives and careers wouldn't be constrained by the lack of a baby-sitter.

Retail therapy

Shechter, who narrates and makes frequent appearances in her film, spends most of the documentary trying to figure out how the F-word got such a bad rap. Somewhere along the line, she says, she realized that it wasn't a word you could mention, say, on a first date. And why is that, she wonders, when the dictionary defines feminism simply as "belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes." "Who could be against that?" she asks. But, of course, Shechter realizes, the dictionary definition isn't what counts. There are some great scenes of her asking people -- or being too scared to ask people and making a colleague do it -- what they think of when they hear the word "feminism." You can sort of guess what comes up. Unlike the usual politically correct thinkers who ask this question, though, Shechter is actually interested in the answer, and where it comes from. After meeting some serious "third-wave" feminists, who devote their lives to activism, vegetarianism and a few other -isms, Shechter declares in frustration, "If I'm not a queer woman of color on public assistance, I don't rate."

About to give up on the whole quest -- and this was the moment when I decided I'd really like to hang out with Shechter -- she decides to stop asking questions about the socio-historic meaning of the women's movement and head to Pottery Barn.

Free to be . . .

I won't give away the ending -- check out a screening at 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. Saturday -- but Shechter's documentary does turn out happily for all concerned, except, possibly, for the third-wavers, who really can't be happy about anything until the indigenous people of the world get an ownership stake in Starbucks.

For the rest of us, still figuring out what, exactly, we are free to be, there isn't anything so easy as a happy ending. Just some fun movies to watch along the way.

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