“As a form of withheld truth, propaganda can be 90 percent true. It’s the deceptive 10 percent that gets you” (14).
I picked up Sue Ellen Browder’s fascinating tell-all book, Subverted: How I helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, to keep me company on my plane ride last weekend and found myself enthralled with it in the hotel room as well. Books as a Glance will be posting my full review, but I had some further reflections to share as well.
A major theme in the book is the “menacing power” of propaganda. We are well aware of our exposure to propaganda, and yet it is still so darn effective. Browder shares the unapologetic fabrications of sources and fictitious experts that was pretty much mandated from the top down in her work as a writer for Cosmo Magazine, perpetuating the illusion of the “Cosmo Girl” lifestyle. And yet the Cosmo girl didn’t really exist. Browder deems her a marketing fairy tale, fueling the cause of the sexual revolution.
Maybe you think yourself above falling for propaganda. I think it affects even the most discerning people more than we know. And that’s because it’s often 90 percent true. Not only that, propaganda is attractive because it preys on our desires. It even creates desires and tells us we should have them. Browder pinpoints the manipulative power of propaganda is that it uses that 10 percent of falsehood to create an illusion to which we then become enslaved.
One way to identify propaganda is in its sloganeering. Browder highlights the rallying cry Larry Lader used to amp up the sexual revolution: “
“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body.” On its face, the slogan is true. Who could deny it? But what does it mean? “Owning and controlling one’s own body” is one of those empty phrases that could mean anything from dieting to lose weight to schussing gracefully down a mountain slope.
“That’s the whole point of good propaganda,” media critic Noam Chomsky points out. “You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.” (54)
This kind of manipulation isn’t only employed for liberal causes like the sexual revolution. I don’t know how many Christian titles, promotions, and articles I have read, asking myself, What does that even mean? All too often, the message underneath is pushing through that 10 percent of falsehood. For example, who can argue with a title like Love Wins? And yet in between the lines we take in universalist propaganda. Many in the Reformed church were wise to this manipulation. But even in more conservative circles I find myself having to take a step back from the headlining phrases that are appealing to my convictions to take a closer look at what is being pushed behind the curtain.
And yet there is another type of propaganda I see prevalent in women’s books that bothers me even more. When describing the types of articles she would write for Cosmo, Browder confesses that the ones she fabricated were most often those that pushed the Cosmo sex-revolution philosophy. She gives an example of a story she invented titled, “Ambition: Yours and His”:
Mia (an ambitious, twenty-five-year-old attorney) met Rob (a laid-back, thirty-eight-year-old documentary filmmaker) in Paris at a Jewish deli on the Champs-Élysées. He was struggling to order a pastrami sandwich. Mia came to his rescue with her flawless French. He asked her out for a cup of café au lait…and after that afternoon and a night of gentle lovemaking in a hotel on the Left Bank, Mia knew she was in love. (40)
Browder notes that this isn’t what we call spin, “This was hard-core sex-revolution propaganda masquerading as fluff” (40). While I’m not seeing sex-revolution propaganda in bestselling Christian books for women, I am seeing a lot of fluff. We must ask what is behind this fluff. Is it harmful?
Do you know what I fear? It is that while the church abhors the commodification of women in the sex-revolution, we have no problem perpetuating them as a target in the market of sentimentality. Sentimentality sells. I fear that women’s ministry is just another commodity. We are being targeted for our empathy. And this is all a distraction from the problem that there are still many questions about how the church can better invest in women and engage with their intellectual contributions to the covenant community. The Christian bookstore and parachurch ministries may reject the sexual revolution, but it seems evangelical women are still subverted to the “pink-collar ghetto” when it comes to what we are often invited to write and speak about (26). I fear that everyone is just fine drowning us in fluff.
Browder says, “Propaganda—withheld truth—cuts off democratic discourse, blocks genuine dialogue, and keeps the public from participating in reality” (14). One thing that I have found as a writer and a speaker is that it is much harder to join a conversation, to receive genuine dialogue and engagement, when I ask questions on some of these issues. The sound of crickets may reveal that while the language about women’s value sounds good, we still have some unanswered questions when it comes to our personhood.
*Originally published on March 16, 2016.