This post has started quite the discussion about feminism, class, and which issues and activities are feminist and which aren’t. I quoted Twisty approvingly, agreeing with her assertion that women embracing the trappings of femininity are doing so as a survival skill, not because those things are inherently “empowerful.”
But I have a confession. I’m one of those feminists who wraps herself up in the trappings of femininity. I have yet to give up on buying into all the stupid crap that separates the girls from the boys. Sometimes, I even convince myself that silly girly shit confers some power onto me within the context I live in.
Yes, I am a “fun feminist.” I wear the high heels and I spend too much money on lip gloss and I get Brazilian bikini waxes and I secretly liked Sex & the City,* even though I swore I would never, ever admit that on a feminist blog.
But I still think that Twisty is right.
I just started reading Laura Kipnis’s latest book, “The Female Thing,” and her thesis is similar: That feminism and traditional femininity are at odds with each other, and that compliance with the traditional trappings of femininity only serves to keep women down. I’m not too far into it yet, but in the intro she points out that traditional femininity wasn’t directly put upon women, but created by women themselves as a rational response to their own powerlessness. She argues that, now that women have the same legal rights as men, we’re still choosing to embrace these feminine things, and that feminism has been complicit or even supportive of that embrace. And, in embracing these things, women are complicit in their own oppression.**
Where Kipnis loses me is in her failure to recognize that women embrace the traditionally feminine because it still confers great benefits on us. It even confers benefits on us within the realm of feminist activism — just look at how Gloria Steinem was received as compared to, say, Kate Millett. Ridiculous and unfair? Yes. But no one has ever told me that I’m only a feminist because I can’t snag a man.
I think that Twisty gets it. I love that there’s someone out there willing to call people like me out on their shit. So I’m not trying to start another “blogular bloodbath” here, I promise. But as usual, I have thoughts.
First, I’m with Twisty et al on the idea that it’s silly to try and sell feminine trappings to women in the name of “empowerment.” Have I felt powerful while walking down the street in really great heels? Yes. But I also recognize that that isn’t exactly the pinnacle of feminist achievement; it’s no feminist achievement at all. I’m no fan of the marketing of feminism through “girl power” and related nonsense. I’m no fan of hair straightening and pubic hair waxing and high heel wearing being framed as empowerful.
And yet I’m still a fan of hair straightening and pubic hair waxing and high heel wearing.
I don’t kid myself into thinking that my affection for these things comes from anywhere but the patriarchy-approved stamp that they’re given, and the positive social reinforcement that comes from that. And while I’m a-ok with pointing out all the problems with the physically painful, expensive and time-consuming requirements of femininity, where I get uncomfortable — and to be fair, I don’t think Twisty was necessarily doing this — is when girly culture or traditionally “female” things get trashed simply because they’re girly or traditionally female, and therefore considered frivolous.
To be more clear: Men have a whole slew of frivolous, pointless behaviors that they engage in, but that are generally considered perfectly acceptable and not frivolous because they’re traditionally “male.” Golf. Monday Night Football. Ridiculous cars.
Traditionally “female” activities and behaviors, on the other hand, are degraded and downplayed because they’re female-associated. Celebrity culture. “Gossip.” Make-up. Skirts.
“Silly and frivolous” seems to be synonymous with “female.”
Now, it all gets more complicated when we recognize that there are ways to be male in our culture that do not require a good golf game, a souped-up car, or football knowledge. There’s the ubiquitous Father Figure, the Sensitive Guy, the Metrosexual, etc — all acceptable incarnations of Maleness. But while there are ways to be female which do not require make-up, skirts, gossip and high-heels, they’re decidedly counter-culture and/or negative: the Butch Lesbian, the Hairy Feminist, the Nerdy Girl (and even she always gets a make-over at the end of the show), the Old Lady. That is, the traditional male trappings are far more flexible than the female ones, and the female trappings are generally more mandatory than the male ones. The male ones are more highly valued to the point where, from my view, it’s considered far more egregious for a man to cross over into “girly culture” than it is for a woman to cross over into male culture. If I like to watch football (which I don’t at all, but let’s pretend), then I’m a “guy’s girl” and that’s, like, totally hot. But if my straight boyfriend really loves to watch figure skating, well… not so hot.
Which is why it’s still fair game for feminists to go after girly culture in general — because girly culture is so deeply entrenched into patriarchal norms. But damn if there isn’t a part of me that wishes lipstick could just be depoliticized — that is, wearing or not wearing make-up wouldn’t be seen as a trasngression worthy of firing a woman from her job, nor an “empowerful” act, nor an embrace of patriarchy, nor a rejection of it. Just, you know, lipstick. Or not.
So I’m not opposed, in theory, to feminists embracing “fun feminist” culture, and trying to dismantle some of the animus aimed at the traditionally feminine. Absent patriarchy, I don’t think make-up would be a “bad” thing — what’s bad about it is that it’s practically required of a particular class of people (and literally required for some within that class), sold to us as if it were our lifeblood, and barred from the other more privileged class. It’s not neutral. And so I can certainly understand the idea behind railing against what makes traditionally feminine things “feminine” and therefore inadequate, instead of railing against the things themselves.
Where it gets sticky, though, is when the people themselves start getting attacked. And it’s hard to avoid that. When I read a post or comment attacking “fun feminists,” or feminists who wear make-up, or feminists who get married, it’s hard not to feel personally attacked. It’s frustrating to feel like there’s a feminist gold standard that you can’t live up to if you partake in popular culture or if you follow those deeply-entrenched social norms. And it’s hard to siphon out which things are neutral, or could be neutral, and which just couldn’t be.
The key, I think, is to get rid of the feminist guilt, without losing the introspection and without arguing that just because something feels fun or powerful that it’s “feminist.” I like my mascara, and I’m not going to waste time feeling bad about it, but I’m also not going to convince myself that long eyelashes are totally empowering, and other women would be so much happier and more empowered if only they could have a make-over. I’m also not going to be spoken down to by women who should be my allies as they try and tell me that my behavior is unequivocally “wrong” and anti-feminist.
I don’t buy into the idea that make-up is just make-up, but I’m also not sure that it’s either totally feminist and empowerful or totally anti-feminist and sucking the cock of the Patriarchy.
Some of the trappings and rituals of femininity bring me pleasure. That pleasure comes with strings attached, and the social benefits that I receive from acting out femininity are largely where that pleasure springs from. But, like most other human beings, I’m a rational actor, and I’m doing what makes sense for me to get by, given my circumstances. I might even like some of the things that I do to get by. For me, that means make-up and fashion and hair removal. For other women it might be sex work or stripping or marriage or stay-at-home-mothering. It doesn’t make sense for us to sit around wringing our hands about what bad, bad feminists we are for slapping on some lipgloss or taking off our clothes for money or having a big white wedding — but it also doesn’t make sense for us to try and sell these things as feminism, or to pretend that they aren’t relevant to feminist discourse.
*I know, I know. I don’t like it because I think it’s a great feminist statement. I like it because it’s funny, entertaining and relatively non-judgmental.
**I’m not anywhere near done with the book, so this might not be what she’s saying at all. I’ve only read the intoduction and half of the first section. But I think this is her general idea.