I recently watched the 1962 French New Wave film Jules et Jim. The movie follows the friendship between two men, Jules and Jim, and the woman who enters their lives, Catherine. Immediately, Catherine’s commanding presence, free-will, and bravado captured me. But even more so, I was drawn to her overt disregard of gender norms and her challenge to traditional femininity.
In particular, one line from the film stood out to me: “The most important factor in any relationship is the woman’s fidelity. The husband’s is secondary.” This statement struck me for its relevance in the present day. How could a statement about women feel just as real in 1962 as it does nearly sixty years later? In the time since this movie’s release, more women have joined the workforce, reproductive rights have generally improved worldwide, and women have better representation in politics. Even so, all of that progress doesn’t negate the statement above that is still shockingly true today.
Gender stereotypes and roles perpetuate because mainstream feminism today does not target the root of gender inequality. Mainstream feminism, otherwise known as liberal feminism, seeks to attain gender equality through political and legal change. But such reform does not address the stereotypes that prevail in society nor does it eliminate male supremacy.
The misconception within liberal feminism is that political and legal equality alone leads to complete gender equality; however, I believe an overlooked aspect of such feminism is social equality -- the notion that equality comes before the law, and that even in the absence of a law that protects women’s rights, equality will be maintained. This form of equality has failed to develop for women in the US.
An example of social inequity is in gender roles, stereotypes, and biases. Evidence shows that the gender roles that were present fifty years ago are still largely present today; in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 77% of women felt pressure to be an involved parent. Though access to higher education has increased and more women hold full-time jobs, the pressure of resembling a “traditional” woman persists. Legal and cultural change does not always translate to societal change.
On top of this, women face continuous struggles in the workforce. On average, women are paid 82% of what a white man is paid for the same job. For Black women, this number is even lower: they earn 65% of what a white man is paid. Representation of women in political office is also far below what it should be. Women make up only 27% of the US Congress though they represent 51% of the entire population. Giving women the legal possibility of equal pay or political office does not necessarily mean equality is achieved; sexism lingers socially, hindering women’s progress.
Attempts to mitigate these gender disparities have flaws as well. Oftentimes, women seek to attain the traits and skills typically associated with masculinity, though studies show that men don’t reciprocate this action as frequently. According to a survey conducted by the New York Times, three-quarters of respondents believed it was important for parents of girls to encourage them to acquire attributes seen as masculine, such as an interest in sports or a facility for STEM subjects. A smaller portion of respondents, under two-thirds, thought parents of boys should encourage them to acquire attributes considered feminine, such as a liking for the arts or increased caregiving. Leaving it up to the individual, rather than making societal changes, often means masculinity is valued over femininity. This, once again, reinforces the belief that femininity is secondary to masculinity.
To me, this represents the failure of mainstream feminism to acknowledge the societal effects of sexism. Concrete change such as suffrage, equal pay, and anti-discrimination laws are important, but they are not enough to fully emancipate women from a patriarchal society that values men over women.
Feminism is not as clear cut as a list of legislative actions. Surface level changes will only propagate the gender differences that already exist. For equality to truly be achieved, patriarchal structures in our society must be dismantled.
I found myself drawn to Jules et Jim partly because I realized that the part women play in society has not greatly changed since 1962. The statements on women and gender norms expressed in the film still largely rang true today. To me, this represents the failure of modern feminism and the urgency to change the way we approach equality for all.