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JUNE 10, 2005
Wake-up Calls: Reclaiming the F Word
It took a couple bad breakups and a documentary film class for Therese Shechter to rediscover her values.
By Cara Jepsen
Filmmaker Therese Shechter usually waits a few dates before she tells men about her new autobiographical documentary, I Was a Teenage Feminist, which will be screened this weekend at Chicago Filmmakers.
"I sort of have to pick the right time to tell them I’ve made this film," says Shechter. "I told one man about the film and he said, ‘Oh, are you a feminist?’ I said, ‘Yeah, aren’t you?’ He didn’t call again, so I e-mailed him. He said, ‘I really dig you, but I don’t think I could date a feminist.’" Shechter, who’s 43, wasn’t always so quick to call herself one. Her documentary, a 67-minute video that examines how the term’s connotations have changed since the 1970s, is a result of the process that got her comfortable with the word again.
"What happened to this movement that changed people’s lives, and now it’s a bad word?" she says. In 1974, when Shechter was growing up in suburban Toronto, Marlo Thomas’s popular TV special Free to Be . . . You and Me had a big influence on her. "That was a time that made me feel really empowered," she says. "Nothing around me made me feel that way when I started to make the film."
The video starts with a voice-over of Shechter saying she hadn’t thought about feminism in years. "What happened to my feminism and the power it gave me?" she asks. "Did I lose it, or did it lose me?" That’s followed by an interview with Shechter’s mother, then one with Ms. magazine cofounder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who helped Thomas make Free to Be . . . You and Me . Shechter tells her that she listened to the show’s sound track a few years ago and cried because she felt she’d been lied to. "Feminism . . . had said everything would be OK," Shechter complains. Pogrebin doesn’t let her get very far. "All we said was, Let’s get rid of the barriers," she tells Shechter. "We never promised you a rose garden. . . . The rest was going to be up to you." Shechter responds in voiceover, "That was the kindest kick in the ass I’ve ever gotten."
After interviewing such subjects as the Brooklyn man who makes Vinnie’s Tampon Cases, the editors of Bust magazine, the Radical Cheerleaders, and Jennifer Baumgardner, coauthor of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future , Shechter concludes that feminism hadn’t abandoned her—rather the opposite. She was living in Chicago in the 90s, working as an art director for the Tribune, when the breakup of a long-term relationship made her reconsider the direction of her life. "For a long time I’d been seeing my future in a certain way," she says, "and then that went away, and I remember thinking to myself, You can do anything you want to do.What do you want to do? And I realized I wanted to go to film school."
She took a few film classes at Columbia College, and then in 1999 she got an internship at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Productions in New York. She promptly took a fourmonth leave of absence from work; halfway into it she called the Tribune and quit. "I knew that I couldn’t keep going with my old life," she says. "I was too comfortable and they were paying me too well. I thought, I’m feeling kind of brave right now, so I took advantage of that." She came up with the idea for the documentary after yet another breakup sent her into a tailspin.
"This person I was dating just kind of broke up with me out of the blue, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened," she says. "And I really couldn’t. I had no idea." Reading Natalie Angier’s 1999 book Woman: An Intimate Geography, which puts a feminist spin on traditional theories of gender differences, made her feel better. "It changed the way I looked at the world, which was exactly what Free to Be did when I was 13," says Shechter, who thinks she lost sight of her feminism sometime during college. "I never took women’s studies, I never marched," she says. "If there were things that were problems I didn’t quite notice. I just thought, Of course I can do anything I want to do.
"But when you read something that’s real," she says, "something that reflects how you feel about life, that’s an incredibly eye-opening experience. And you just want more and more of it. That’s what happened to me. I just kept looking for more of that stuff." She started doing freelance design work to make ends meet and signed up for a documentary filmmaking class at Union Theological Seminary that involved writing a movie treatment. "I never planned to actually make the film," says Shechter. "I was just doing the exercise, making stuff up. But halfway through class the instructor said, ‘I think you need to make this film,’ and gave me his video camera to use.’"
She learned how to use it while interviewing her mother, who grew up in Romania. "She had her own awakening as she talked to me," says Shechter. "She said, ‘I never needed feminism. We were always equal . . . well, I wanted to be an astronomer, but my mother told me I couldn’t because I was a girl.’ Her worldview shifted a little bit, which is an incredible thing to see."
Shechter finished the project in November with financial help from the Canadian government and the W Network, a women-focused Canadian cable station, which aired the video in March. Chicago author Paula Kamen was one of Shechter’s primary advisers, and her interviewees include Oak Park activist and stay-at-home mom Carollina Song, who along with Shechter will attend Saturday’s screenings; they’ll both be available to discuss the movie during a break between them, from 8 to 9 PM.
"For a long time she was the only person I knew who was politically active," says Shechter. "You couldn’t say the word abortion around her without her going into this long diatribe, so we wouldn’t mention it around her. "But what I had once found occasionally annoying, I now found to be a lot more inspiring. I’m sure I’m annoying now. People say now, ‘Why are you so angry?’ My response is, Why aren’t you angry?"
[Reprinted with the permission of Cara Jepsen]