Women Who Make Us Cringe

In honor of Women’s History Month. Thanks, MSN.

The list does indeed include some women who make me cringe — Ann Coulter, Caitlin Flanagan, etc. It also includes Bratz dolls, which, though they make me cringe as well, are toys, not women.

But excuse me if I don’t really see the point in going after women whose major crime is caving into patriarchal demands. The women were chosen because:

You know the type: The women who either perpetuate the stereotypes so many have fought against or who forget that women have won the right to chart their own course, even if it’s as a homemaker. There’s the spoiled young woman who seems to prize a good party over all else; the woman who harangues other women to get back to the home, even though the haranguer isn’t living by her own rules; and the woman who pressures her kind to forget about the pleasures of raising children to climb the corporate ladder.

Now, women who make a career of going after other women and attacking women’s rights — like Caitlin Flanagan, Phyllis Schlafley and Ann Coulter — are assailable for doing exactly that. But I’m not sure that women like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are fair game (I never thought I’d see the day where I’m even sort of defending Paris Hilton, but here we are).

Is Paris Hilton a thoroughly horrible human being? Yes. She’s the ultimate post-post-modern celebrity, famous for nothing other than being famous; she’s spoiled and entitled (anyone see her and Nikki on Oprah, when they couldn’t remember the word “dishwasher” and argued that if people just worked harder, they could be rich too?); she’s racist; she’s classist; her entire existence is bad for the human race. Yes, she is bad for women. Yes, there are infinite feminist critiques to be made about her persona. Ditto for Lindsay Lohan.

But these two women are not living in a vacuum. Both have made a ton of money on their party-girl personas. Is there really any incentive for women like Hilton and Spears and Lohan to be better role models? Until we make it worth women’s while to be publicly perceived as smart, interesting, opinionated and feminist, a whole lot of women and girls are going to choose the path that brings the most immediate benefits — being sexy, beautiful, sexually controversial, girlish.

There are obviously feminist arguments to be made against the kind of behavior that Lohan et al exhibit. But if we’re going to be blaming anything, it should start with a P and end with an “atriarchy.” Or at least we should be targeting people like Joe Francis and the advertising execs who are the ones making millions off of the mainstreaming of pornography. Or the scores of male politicians and religious leaders who have significant influence over law and policy, and who make careers out of attacking women and limiting our basic human rights.

There’s a conversation to be had here. There are very legitimate criticisms to be made about the Paris-ization of American culture; there are even greater criticisms to be leveled at the likes of Schlafly and Flanagan and other right-wing women. But let’s not lose sight of the actual problem. And let’s hot honor women by attacking them.


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23 comments for “Women Who Make Us Cringe

  1. March 1, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Just to play devil’s advocate, and to procrastinate further (it’s gotten so bad that I’m procrastinating procrastination), couldn’t you rewrite your post for blacks? Just to make up an example–isn’t a black guy working in an office in Harrisburg, PA or hundreds of thousands of other places much more likely to succeed by getting along with everyone, talkign sports and music, playing basketball after work, etc., rather than trying to spearhead some kind of reorganization, or whatever the hell it is that people who have real jobs do? Didn’t blacks have much more to gain by conforming to stereotypes and expectations of servility forty or fifty years ago?

    Don’t men have a lot to gain by conforming to patriarchy? Once it’s clear that the culture at your office, law firm, etc., encourages telling misogynist and racist jokes, fraternizing at strip clubs, making comments about female employees behind their backs, etc., why shouldn’t little Johnny play along? Why shouldn’t those of us who don’t want to play along resort to wanton vandalism instead, saying, with Jimbo Jones, “It makes me feel like a big man”?

    My point isn’t what about teh mennz, it’s What about personal responsibility? I realize I’m being a dour, tight-lipped and tight-assed drag here, but such is my want. I agree that criticizing individuals for this or that infraction, especially when it comes to trivial matters of personal grooming and such, is pointless, counter-productive, tiresome and drives people away from whatever ideals are being used to police the movement (although this kind of policing is also probably inevitable in any movement). And I’m certainly not suggesting that I even know how people should act, much less that I act as one should. The world would be a better place if I donated the money I, vain and cretinous bastard that I am, spend on silk ties and such to charity, etc.

    So I’m not saying, look at me, I’m great, because I only wore high heels once, very briefly, and found it rather boring. I’m just not sure that I agree with or am comfortable with the idea that all criticism should be directed at a large and abstract social system (though I agree with you that there is such a system, and that it generates many of these attitudes and much of the pressure to conform to them). I’m especially uncomfortable agreeing that various attitudes and behaviors, which are often neatly embodied or personified by various vacuous b-list celebrities, shouldn’t be criticized because there’s pressure on people to adopt them. Otherwise, what can be criticized?

    Final caveat–having just scanned the final few paragraphs of your post, I realize I may have misread you, or at least leaned much too hard on one point or theme in your post, and really misrepresented what you were saying. If so, my bad, but I see this unwillingness to criticize anything a lot on feminist websites, and although I agree with a lot of the reasons behind it, I, personally, some lame-o who lied about having briefly worn women’s heels to make his comment seem more humorous and his sex life sound more adventurous, tend to think it’s overstated.

  2. Shankar Gupta
    March 1, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    I’m trying to imagine what would happen if, for Black History Month, MSN ran a feature titled “10 Blacks Who Make Us Cringe.”

    Heads would roll, I think.

  3. March 1, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Good job, Jill. I’ve been saying similar things for years.

  4. sophonisba
    March 1, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    There’s the spoiled young woman who seems to prize a good party over all else; the woman who harangues other women to get back to the home, even though the haranguer isn’t living by her own rules; and the woman who pressures her kind to forget about the pleasures of raising children to climb the corporate ladder.

    (One of these things is not like the other two. At all.)

    Comment #2: exactly. Women who make us mad? Women we disagree with? Women we don’t much respect? Sure!

    But women who make us cringe? What the fuck? Why would I cringe at the thought of Caitlin Flanagan, a woman who’s wrong about pretty much everything and has nothing to do with me?…oh. Oh.

    Oh. Right. It’s because we’re both chicks. So when one of the Sisterhood is humiliated, we all feel the shame. When one of us does something naughty, it brings down the Sex as a Whole. It’s the old hive vagina theory. Personal responsibility is for persons, not women — we all share in each others’ reflected glory and guilt.

  5. March 1, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    Okay, I acknowledge that Linsday Lohan’s current fame centers largely around her partygoing antics, but she did get famous for doing something, i.e. acting (I personally think she is quite talented; both Freaky Friday and Mean Girls are really fun teen movies made memorable in large part by her smart, likeable screen presence). She didn’t ask people to speculate about her boob size, and while maybe she didn’t try especially hard to avoid the spotlight, I don’t think she’s been actively courting paparazzi attention. Ditto, to a certain extent, Britney Spears (full disclosure: I love Britney Spears, completely and irrationally and forever. “Lucky” is a classic. Bite me).

    I get what you’re saying about their personas in terms of being role models for girls, and again I fully acknowledge some of this might be due to my irrational affection for them, but I don’t think either of them is NEARLY as bad as Paris Hilton, who seems to take pride in being stupid and uneducated (Lohan has never seemed stupid to me, and Britney strikes me as genuinely kind of clueless), who literally did become famous for nothing except being rich and skinny, and who also seems to enjoy being kind of a horrble person (see racist sayings, supposedly telling a boyfriend to offer a homeless guy money to pour a martini on his head).

    Anyway. While I don’t think the personas (not the actual people, please) of Lohan and Spears are immune from feminist criticism, I do see Paris Hilton as quite above and beyond. (Also, I harbor a special place on my people-I-don’t-like list for Jessica Simpson, because she also does the whole “look, I’m awesome becaue I’m a moron!” shtick, and her songs suck. Seriously why would anyone listen to Jessica Simpson? I love shitty pop music but hers is too bad even for me. And I own both her sister’s CDs. …Bite me).

  6. March 1, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    I have no time for Paris, but Britney makes me very sad.

    My real issue is not just with the lamentable Joe Francis, but also with the CNNs and the Foxs and the rest whose obsession with Britney’s hair and Anna Nicole’s body is breathtakingly awful. The fascination with the fragile, the beautiful, and the sefl-destructive bothers me more than Paris does. Hilton at least doesn’t seem miserable.

    It reminds me that when I used to assign my students to do biographies on famous American women, they all wanted to do Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Finally, I came up with the “no-tragic-blonde-or-brunette-who-died-young-and-was-self-destructive” rule. They were stuck; so many associated famous women with self-destructive beauty that they didn’t know what else to do.

    Now I get papers about the feminist contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt over and over again. But it beats the fascination with those who were exploited, addicted, and destroyed.

  7. Karen
    March 1, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    I think Lindsay Lohan demonstrates your point in more ways that one. She is actually a talented actress. Her Disney movies were all quite good. (My sons adore “The Parent Trap,” “Freaky Friday,” and “Herbie Fully Loaded.” They named our van Herbie.) Her current troubles make me sad, because she is a talented actress, but also the product of a family that is the type model for dysfunctional. If there were more room in the world for women to appear intelligent and thoughtful, and if she had some help from a real person, I think she would be a real asset to films. (The world always needs a good comedienne.)

  8. March 2, 2007 at 9:38 am

    ***I am typing this in heels and a pink thong***

    Paris Hilton is certainly a new kind of female celebrity. On one hand, I enjoy the sexual, er, frankness, on the other hand, she’s seems to be a privileged mess (and a boring mess at that). Whatever. She strikes me as devilishly clever sometimes – and the fact that I’m even typing this shows that she has certainly gained my attention. I am living in this age with her as well, whether I like it or not.

    Britney Spears was pushed into stardom. I remember when people were making a big deal out of her virginity. Craig Ferguson is right – we should not be making fun of her current state. And she’s sort of irresistible to watch, at least for me, but not because she’s fragile – but because I feel as though I grew up with her, in some ways. She’s a mother of two now – holy crap, time flies.

    Lindsay Lohan – very talented. If she wants to party and get wasted, whatever, I used to do the same. But going overboard with this stuff can damage you – and the drastic weight loss was also pretty frightening. She’s not a role model though – did she ever aspire to be one? Once again, she came to this acting business pretty young.

    I think all of these women have one thing in common: weird families. No? I can certainly relate to that.

    So I’m with Jill – I’m not cringing.

    Then again – maybe I’m not doing this for all the wrong reasons. I mean damn, I can be as girlish as pink bow, and I like it.

  9. jxthree
    March 2, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I mean damn, I can be as girlish as pink bow, and I like it.

    Of course you like it and so do so many women like Britney, Lohan and Paris, but why? And this where I think it is futile to blame women for something they have been conditioned to like since infancy. The attention and approval that is garned on women who perform such ritual acts of girlishness would cause anyone to associate positive feelings of worth with them. It leads many women to think that they like these rituals and it is their own taste and choice, forgetting the large part society (patriarchy) plays in all of our choices, even those we think we came to all on our own.
    In the end though, patriarchy wins again, ‘girlishness’ is a double-edged sword, we are told to behave in a way that men have no respect for.
    So to some extent you have to admire Paris, she is playing the game, but so far hasn’t been burnt by it, unfortunately Britney and Lohan have.

  10. jxthree
    March 2, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    I’d also like to add that I do feel very sorry for Britney and Lindsey Lohan, I don’t think women their age realise how their ‘sexy’ image isn’t their own choice, it’s foistered on them, because sexxxy teens sells.

    On some level all women are playing the perverse patriarchal game of femininity, we are given a bunch of rules, ordained by men, which we are meant to abide by, if we don’t we are quickly chastised. There is no opt out, as soon as the baby scan shows you are XX, you automatically are a contestant in the game. We are constantly reminded what the rules are on billboards, magazines, tv, film…etc. So to some extent we are forced to comply with the rules, yet it is these very same rules that make men think they are superior to us. That we are so vacuous, because all we can think about is shopping and make-up (nothing to do with the ceaseless onslaught of images of what we should look like), we’re naturally docile and caring because all we can think about (because we have it rammed down our throats) is child-rearing, we not as aggressive (even though we all know an aggressive woman is a ball-buster), not as adventurous…etc.
    You really can’t win, so I say it’s useless to put the blame on women who are forced into the patriarchal game of femininity, and confuse the attention they get from playing the game as some sort of victory.

  11. Morgan
    March 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    I’d also like to add that I do feel very sorry for Britney and Lindsey Lohan, I don’t think women their age realise how their ’sexy’ image isn’t their own choice, it’s foistered on them, because sexxxy teens sells.

    i feel for all the 15-24 year-olds out in god’s country who emulate them and wind up, well, where they wind up, without the McMansions to show for it .

  12. March 2, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Harrumph. I don’t think it’s as simple as being Pavlov’s dog. Though I can’t speak for people like Paris Hilton.

    Also – I think the “rituals” of femininity can be very powerful in and of themselves – and historically they combine both grit and softness.

    I’m originally from Ukraine – and our pagan traditions ascribed a variety of roles to women: the healers who could slit a wild animal’s throat, the women who could jump over a fire to win a particular man, and the mothers with babies at their breasts, the dangerous crones in the woods. Even later traditions have these notions of duality: the women who are feminine and maternal and who, at the same time, could grab onto a horse and stop it in mid-gallop if need be.

    There’s a fascinating Soviet film concerning women soldiers in WWII – they enjoy the sauna and make-up and braid each other’s hair, then they go into the woods and shoot Nazis from close range. One gets naked and draws the Nazis off the scent of her comrades with a complicated bathing ritual. She knows they have their guns trained on her, but she’s brave as hell. She uses their base desires to her advantage, and to save her friends’ lives.

    She later attempts to save the life of a wounded soldier by running through the woods, and singing, drawing the Nazis after her. When she runs out of bullets, she throws rocks. They finally shoot her and she dies laughing at them. She is also the most feminine soldier in her battalion – she has long red hair and is referred to as “the mermaid.”

    That’s the sort of woman I aspired to be when I was little. Do I get rewarded for such aspirations? Sure. I also get smacked in the face from time to time.

    My main problem lies with the notion that people have very little choice when it comes to these matters. It’s very hard to just “be yourself.” It’s especially hard for women, because, in many instances, we are not the ones writing the rules. And when we do write the rules – we are often pitted against each other. I’ve had women (and men) who called me a “bubblehead” and made my life hell – when they saw that in addition to my serious writing aspirations I had a taste for perfume and the colour pink.

    Then I’d see a friend of mine, someone who never wore make-up and perfume, get shafted for precisely the opposite reason.

    Different people will treat you differently. The best you can do is make sure that you have the last laugh, no matter what you’re like.

  13. blair
    March 2, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Until we make it worth women’s while to be publicly perceived as smart, interesting, opinionated and feminist, a whole lot of women and girls are going to choose the path that brings the most immediate benefits — being sexy, beautiful, sexually controversial, girlish.

    Couldn’t something similar be said of Coulter, Flanagan, et al? They’ve certainly chosen the path that offers the most benefits. Women have a harder time than men breaking into and being taken seriously as writers and political commentators. You up your chances when you volunteer to be the anti-feminist yes-woman, spouting exactly what a lot of men in power want to hear. I’m certainly not defending it, I’m just saying that if that is your reasoning behind not criticizing the pop starlets, I’m not sure why it doesn’t apply equally to other women who benefit by towing the patriarchal line.

  14. blair
    March 2, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    oh yeah, and ditto on this being a really crappy thing to do for women’s history month….although that picture of Caitlin Flanagan did make me cringe.

  15. Anne Onne
    March 2, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Jxthree, it’s still their choice. We have to be very careful that as feminists, we don’t fall into the trap of automatically assigning negative values to anythign considered female, and just looking donw on wome for taking it on by saying that they’ve been so conditioned that they think it’s their choice, but we know it’s not.

    It will enver be entirely our choice until boundaries are completely broken down and equality achieved. But in the mean time, we women have to keep on living, eking out lives in spite of the patriarchy.

    Granted, there are parts of it that are directly and very obviously meant to lower status or reduce a woman to an object, and these should rightly be pointed out. Many things that are ‘girlish’, however are neither misogynist nor feminist. They are seen as derogatory by society (e.g. wearing pink dresses or even blow jobs). Should anybody deserve less respect for these choices? absolutely not. Do they have to be synonymous with the Patriarchy? No. It is important that women who like something, even if it is considered typically feminine, reclaim it.

  16. jxthree
    March 2, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Natalia, could you tell me the name of the Soviet film? It’s sounds interesting, but I wonder how much is based on actual fact and how much is based on wanting to show women as the stunning vixen that is also the downfall of man?
    I also think it’s easy to mistake this sort of mixture of femininity and power as a form of empowering femininity, in fact it’s the same patriarchy remodelled, e.g. she’s attractive AND she’s good at tennis. A woman can be good at a certain skill that usually belongs to the male realm, but the most important thing is that she also be attractive, hence the need for tiny shorts on female volley ball players, athletes…etc. This is of course to neutralise any threat to the patriarchal model she would otherwise be, it’s a reminder that that she is in fact a woman, Femininity as it stands is defined by the patriarchy, in order to truly be able to decipher what it is to be ‘feminine’ we would need to live in a patriarchy free culture which of course isn’t gonna happen anytime soon, so I think your advise for going about our patriarchally defined lives is excellent:

    The best you can do is make sure that you have the last laugh, no matter what you’re like.

  17. CptNotsoobvious
    March 2, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Paris will end up like the millionairess turned hermit that lived next to me in West Palm Beach if she continues on her way,…. it wasn’t a pretty picture. Lindsay is not far behind, and may become more tragic. Britney needs help, now, right now, or she’ll be a lost cause. As for the women who make us cringe…they do it for fame among the conservatives. Not surprisingly, the conservative males talk more behind these ladies backs, not in apositive manner at all, more than the liberals they make cringe. Perhaps it may be that liberals have seen females that are attracted to abusive relationships and know that some people cannot be saved from their ownselves.

  18. jxthree
    March 2, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Whoa, Anne Onne, please don’t missread what I am trying to say.

    I in no way look down on any woman for practising femininity, heck I do too, we do it to survive in the world we live in. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise why I do live by these practises and question their true relationship to my genuine womanliness.

    I don’t want to start one of these lipstick wars that seem to occur frecuently, so again I must insist that I am not trying to tell women they are wrong for embracing ‘femininity’, but we as feminists must look at the reasons why we do or don’t embrace it.

    Again, I want to reiterate that I do not look down on any woman for any practices of femininity she engages in. I respect my sisters and what we have to deal with so I would NEVER judge a woman on the choices she makes in a society where we have our backs against the wall.

  19. Lara
    March 4, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    jxthree, don’t apologize to Anne Onne. I am sick and tired of hearing some people whine about how feminism is all about “choices.” The problem is that these arguments miss out on something crucial to consider: sexism is INGRAINED in our very institutions, our beauty standards, our sexualities and definitions of sex, EVERYTHING. It’s not like we women are little islands unaffected by the messages of the media, schools, and other institutions’ messages around us. I am taking a Critical Race Theory course right now and I am seeing so many parallels and interconnections between racism and sexism, and how these are SYSTEMS of oppression, not a series of isolated incidents committed by several bigots.

    Anne One said:
    “Many things that are ‘girlish’, however are neither misogynist nor feminist. They are seen as derogatory by society (e.g. wearing pink dresses or even blow jobs). Should anybody deserve less respect for these choices? absolutely not. Do they have to be synonymous with the Patriarchy? No. It is important that women who like something, even if it is considered typically feminine, reclaim it.”
    I agree with you Anne, and I do not think that everything that is “feminine” is negative. For example, I love how women are taught to be sensitive, nurturing, and hospitable. I think these are characteristics that men should be taught more because they are very positive for everyone. But unfortunately the “reclaiming femininity” argument is abused and used to support things that are just inherently sexist: such as wearing higheels, or giving in to acting giggly and seductive in front of guys (so that they don’t find you threatening). jxthree was right in pointing out how the Ukranian ideals of women combatants in war are just abstract representations of women who can defend men in their “typical pastimes” of war and such WITHOUT having the power and identity of a male, they are dressed up and made attractive so that they are not threatening. Frankly, when women make conscious decisions to participate in traditional reinforcements of inherently sexist forms of femininity (such as being in heterosexual/sexist porn or stripping, just as one example) instead of out of economic decisions (having to pay bills or feed yourself and your family) they are certainly liable for getting criticized because they are contributing to and perpetuating sexist culture that objectifies women. Just because something is a “Choice” does not mean it is instantly feminist or empowering. Women often make the “choice” to get boob jobs, but how much of her decision is caused by PRESSURES in our society to hate our bodies and spend money to “fix” them? Okay this is longer than I expected. My point is that, while it is important to recognize the positive aspects of femininity, one must deconstruct our choices as women (and the choices of men) since we are immersed in and affected by our culture which does create or manipulate our choices and options, whether we like it or not.

  20. March 5, 2007 at 1:10 am

    I’m trying to imagine what would happen if, for Black History Month, MSN ran a feature titled “10 Blacks Who Make Us Cringe.”

    Heads would roll, I think.

    I think the nail’s gonna need some Tylenol.

  21. March 5, 2007 at 1:34 am

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise why I do live by these practises and question their true relationship to my genuine womanliness.

    Sorry, for the double post, but this reminds me of a really deep thing this genius gender studies professor at my school once said. A person asked a question to the effect of “How can we make it so there’s no more race or gender, and ‘people are just people’?” (I’m not knocking this question, it’s a question I think most people have asked at one point or another.”)

    And the response was to the effect of, “You really are those things, so there’s no way to exist independent of those categories.” And I was like, “Whoa…” So this is to say that I cannot escape my current constitution as a black, middle class male within this society, given all that implies in terms of my socialization (i.e. hyper-awareness of racism). By extension, the separation between the concepts of “woman” and femininity” may be not a total separation. The task then, I suppose, is to un-devalue femininity.

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