Can Sparkle be Feminist?

There have been so many posts out there in the past few weeks about sparkle that I don’t know where to start. I’m using “sparkle” as a catch-all for burlesque, sex work, fashion, any kind of sexy display or fashion statement. Here are just a few of them.

As I said in my whack at the subject, the discussions have centered around whether it’s (a) an empowering and feminist choice, (b) harmless fun that’s not meant to be either feminist or antifeminist, or (c) patriarchy-compliant antifeminism.

I came out (b) there, for reasons you can check out if you like.

I don’t want to rehash that question, but to mention a question that doesn’t get asked nearly as often and try to figure out why, now that I have the benefit of all these great Feministe commenter minds to think on it.

Donna Darko said in the comments:

“I think if women en masse reinforce feminine gender stereotypes i.e. weakness, follower, physicality, irrationality it’s dangerous to women but empowered women [professionals] who dress the way they want is not a big deal.”

The question that rarely gets asked is: is it a feminist “choice,” neutral, or patriarchy-compliant, when OTHER traditionally female choices get made? Or, is “sparkle” in a category by itself? And if so, why?

By OTHER choices I mean:

 Being supported by a man –dad or boyfriend or husband (a bit heterocentric because it is harder to make the argument that a lesbian relationship is patriarchal. I’m sure that could be demonstrated in some cases, but I’m not going to try to do that here).

 Choosing a traditionally female career track where other options are available (I am not talking about a non-choice made necessary by economic or other dire straits).

There are probably others but then this would be way too long.

I mean, some of the folks who are urging other women to “examine” the sparkle may themselves have made choices, or not attempted to change existing patterns, in such a way that a patriarchal-appearing situation exists. Maybe just as patriarchal-appearing as sparkle.

And if we were going to argue which helps the patriarchy more –what would we say?

I don’t know, let’s ask the patriarchy.

Patriarchy? A question for you. What do you like better? What helps you stay the way you are? Door number one is sparkle. Door number two is that we are economically dependent on you and that we more often choose careers that perpetuate that. Tough call?

I don’t think so.

OK, and what about the other side of the coin? Lots of us women like our sparkle. But some think it’s kinda antifeminist to approach career with capitalism in mind. And are prone to toss out “Margaret Thatcher” at frequent intervals, or talk about “master’s tools” or even “sellout.”

What’s up with that?

After all, if women can enjoy sparkle, why can’t we enjoy worldly power or stature– which just like physical stuff is a combo of privilege and work?

Personally? I think it’s a balance, as Donna said. The patriarchy isn’t going to topple based on sparkle. It might be compromised, though, if women had equal economic power. And I don’t mean any one kind of women, but all women having equal economic power compared to men who are similarly situated (Of course, that wouldn’t solve many other problems, like world poverty, racism, ablism, etc., which are worthy of discussion as well but not my focus in this particular post).

So we can stress about leg shaving, but I have a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t matter. If “the patriarchy” were reading many of these posts, they’d be chortling right now. Fiddling while Rome burns! The real battles are too laden with guilt and with women second-guessing each other, they’re going unfought. All part of the plan.

I hope the plan fails.

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30 Responses

  1. Pop Feminist
    Pop Feminist August 3, 2008 at 5:45 pm |

    I love your term “sparkle”. I write a lot about this issue, and I always try to stress the difference between progressive and radical. Sparkle is a great tool for progressive feminism, and by that I mean micro victories, which are highly individual. Just as an example, if Paris Hilton struts around on stage in lingerie and claims this is a feminist act (um…suspend disbelief plz), she is doing nothing of the sort because her personae would make this specific act unintelligible as feminist. However, if Beth Ditto did the same thing, it would a progressive action, something that is understood on a micro level to be subversive given her legacy (for more on ditto).

    It’s not for us to say, across the board, that any act of Sparkle is or isn’t feminist, because it operates with extreme subjectivity.

    A radical action, with the potential to deal a crippling blow to patriarchy, tends to be either:
    1) the accumulative effect of progressive victories
    or
    2) an act of explicit political organization.

    The issue I have is that many radical feminists feel that Sparkle is at odds with their aims. Given #1 above, it would appear otherwise. Even if Sparkle applies symbolism and cultural currency already in circulation within patriarchy, doesn’t mean it necessarily is a stabilizing force. The staunch anti-sparklers are trying to monopolize feminism. This impulse to dominate is the only aspect of this conversation to which I take offense and will write(fight) against.

    I wrote about this issue by way of The Newlywed Game.

  2. KaeLyn
    KaeLyn August 3, 2008 at 7:48 pm |

    “Sparkle” is such a great term for it and exactly how I feel about my makeup and high-heeled shoes and my fun lingerie and dancing with my friends at a club on a special night. I do think that Donny Darko is on to something, though I wouldn’t characterize “empowered women” as synonymous with “professionals.” Maybe the comment is just out of context, though.

    I would choose A and C, but not B, if this was my multiple choice test. Leg-shaving, lipstick-smearing, push-up-bra-struggling can be “tools of the patriarchy” when they are blindly followed because they are the socially correct thing and because the “do-er” has no cultural context for other choices. However, performing gender for one’s joy or to make a political statement by doing these seemingly anti-feminist acts can be a feminist act, in the right context.

    For example, as a teen I refused to be seen (even on a 4-day hiking trip) without some form of makeup and was known to gush that if I was ever stuck on a deserted island, I would absolutely want my eyeliner there with me. I was also obsessed with shaving my legs and, later, at my then boyfriend’s request, my pubic hair, because I felt ugly if I didn’t do these things. That, in my opinion, is anti-feminist conformation to the patriarchal societal norm of beauty.

    These days, I choose not to shave my legs or pits, but I do shave my lady bits. I find it personally more comfortable and sexy. And I can leave the house without makeup and do so frequently. I enjoy dressing up and wearing makeup for fun and sometimes choose to, knowing that people will read me differently for seeing me performing a highly feminine gender. This is all compounded by the fact that I date a butch dyke/tranny boi and we are often recognized as a butch/femme couple. I wouldn’t classify myself as femme only because I hate the non-feminist patriarchal stereotypes that people impose on me if I admit to being femme. But I do clearly perform femininity at many times and do, personally, choose to identify as a “power femme.”

    Some of my reasoning about gender expression comes from dating and living with a partner that chooses a gender expression and gender identity that does not fit hier biological sex. And then having a variety of friends that identify as trans, andro, genderqueer, dyke, and more. To me, gender expression (male and femaleness) can be highly performative and, thus, both personally and politically radical. Whether it’s my partner living hier daily life, our gender dynamic as a couple, or the incredible work of Annie Sprinkle and Kate Bornstein.

  3. donna darko
    donna darko August 3, 2008 at 9:20 pm |

    Thanks for the link! With these sparkle — beauty, sex work, porn — discussions — great term! — I think hate the game not the player since women have so little power comparatively. Keep our eyes on the prize: equal pay and assets.

  4. Vanessa
    Vanessa August 4, 2008 at 12:58 am |

    Hey, that is a great term, Octo.

    I know I’ve often asked the question, which hurts more women, and worse, “sparkle” or, for example, shopping at Wal-Mart (for example)? Sparkle or welfare reform? Sparkle or the Iraq war? Sparkle or the persecution of migrant workers?

    I probably sound like a concern troll, but, you know, how much examining of our choices do we have to do before we can be okay with the fact that some women are sparkly and fine with it, and then move on?

  5. Lauren O
    Lauren O August 4, 2008 at 3:22 am |

    I’m beginning to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!

    Sorry. That seemed appropriate given the word “sparkle” and the name “Donna Darko.”

    Anyway, I think this quote by KaeLyn sums it up: Leg-shaving, lipstick-smearing, push-up-bra-struggling can be “tools of the patriarchy” when they are blindly followed because they are the socially correct thing and because the “do-er” has no cultural context for other choices. However, performing gender for one’s joy or to make a political statement by doing these seemingly anti-feminist acts can be a feminist act, in the right context. I have been trying and failing to articulate that for such a long time, and you’ve just put it perfectly.

  6. squirely
    squirely August 4, 2008 at 9:51 am |

    The problem I’ve found with Sparkle is that it is so soon appropriated, and I must fight a constant battle to keep it fresh. Take the burlesque movement. Here I was, happily enjoying Coney Island and the occasional Dirty Martini at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus show.

    Then what happens? Goddamn Pussycat Dolls hit it big and now I can’t enjoy burlesque anymore, because I know that they originated out of the burlesque scene in LA – and they are not alone. This kind of show is the LEAST feminist version of Sparkle that I’ve ever seen, having sold out any pretense of feminism to exchange their hawtness for cash. The slick, media-driven version of Sparkle is the worst kind of empowerfulness, inspiring countless 13 year old girls to dream of pole dancing and pink boas instead of jobs with real power.

    So I think that Sparkle is fun. But dammnit if you don’t have to keep finding new ways to shine, because the Patriarchy gets its mitts on anything the minute it starts to be fun.

  7. Q Grrl
    Q Grrl August 4, 2008 at 10:09 am |

    I don’t have much to add right now, but I wanted to say that your posts/comments have been rigtheously rocking lately Octo. Good to read you.

  8. SarahMC
    SarahMC August 4, 2008 at 10:28 am |

    My issue is this:

    Women who mindlessly do sparkly stuff and women who critically examine their sparkle are all lumped together in the mind of the patriarchy.
    When walking down the street, men can’t tell the difference between the heavily made-up feminist woman wearing stilettos and the heavily made-up anti-feminist woman wearing stilettos. (That’s just an easily accessible, generic example of sparke.)
    They’re not thinking, “Oh, THAT woman is dancing because she’s empowered; I will view her as my equal and not as a slut who exists to satisfy my dudely fantasies.”
    Sparkle is performed by different women with different intentions, for sure. But is intent what matters, in the scheme of things, if the effect is the same?

  9. other orange
    other orange August 4, 2008 at 10:35 am |

    I think it’s wrong to turn women into villains for choosing to participate in sparkle, especially when all of our culture is a laser targeted on women to perform in those ways.

    But I’m having difficulty dealing with the class implications of sparkle. What about women who must dress “up” and wear lipstick, have professionally done hair, etc. so as not to lose their jobs ? It affects women at higher levels of education and income, but it’s especially difficult for low-income women. I would rather we worked on finding solutions to the discrimination women experience when they don’t participate in beauty culture.

  10. Letter from the Editrix at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

    [...] of current beauty standards, or how the “Art of Femme” (Octogalore is calling it sparkle) can, in some ways, be liberating or freeing. Obviously, we balance this analysis against our often [...]

  11. octogalore
    octogalore August 4, 2008 at 12:23 pm |

    Squirely said:

    “The slick, media-driven version of Sparkle is the worst kind of empowerfulness, inspiring countless 13 year old girls to dream of pole dancing and pink boas instead of jobs with real power.”

    Cannot agree more. I don’t agree with marketing sex work to teens, and also feel strongly that it’s not the ideal way to build up equity that can translate to equal economic power for women.

    Q Grrl: thanks!!!

    SarahMC: re “But is intent what matters, in the scheme of things, if the effect is the same?” Yeah, the fact that it’s often hard to tell is what makes the assertion that Sparkle is actively feminist hard to buy. Something actively feminist should translate to helping other women, otherwise it’s self actualization instead – which is good too, of course. It doesn’t help other women if it’s not clear what’s being said.

    Other Orange said:

    “I’m having difficulty dealing with the class implications of sparkle. What about women who must dress “up” and wear lipstick, have professionally done hair, etc. so as not to lose their jobs ? … I would rather we worked on finding solutions to the discrimination women experience when they don’t participate in beauty culture.”

    I think we can work towards making sure Sparkle isn’t used as a carrot or a stick in a way that harms women who don’t want to or cannot afford to avail themselves of a certain variety of it. Asking women to cast it off is not going to be a successful way to make that happen, though. I think with an emphasis towards, as Squirely indicated, a focus on real power for women, Sparkle will grow to have less undesired impact.

  12. donna darko
    donna darko August 4, 2008 at 1:09 pm |

    Lauren O, I forgot about that! and wasn’t crazy about the movie because the ending confused me.

    Octo, Patricia Hill Collins came up with some stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics. They’re great for these sparkle (or any feminist) discussions!

    Masculine

    aggressive
    leader
    rational
    strong
    intellectual

    Feminine

    passive
    follower
    emotional
    weak
    physical

  13. Miriam Heddy
    Miriam Heddy August 4, 2008 at 1:37 pm |

    My gut reaction here as a rhet/comp person is to start with that word “sparkle” and its implications.

    Because right there, what’s the alternative? Dull? Is that what I am when I’m not participating in sparkle?

    And, as other orange notes, there are still fairly heavy penalties for women who fail to achieve the base-level gloss the patriarchy expects. Women who aren’t pleasing to the male gaze are still paid less than women who “sparkle.”

    So no, telling women they can’t wear makeup and heels and be a feminist isn’t going to solve the problem. But neither am I convinced that it makes sense for feminists to try to recategorize patriarchally sanctioned feminine behaviors as empowerment just so that we can feel better about our privilege in participating in them voluntarily while, for so many women, to *not* participate in them comes at a serious price.

  14. Sarah J
    Sarah J August 4, 2008 at 7:52 pm |

    I had a response all ready to go.

    Then I read Miriam’s above, and trying to respond to it when I’ve already responded so much on my own blog…(which Octo linked, and thank you!!!)

    “I think we can work towards making sure Sparkle isn’t used as a carrot or a stick in a way that harms women who don’t want to or cannot afford to avail themselves of a certain variety of it. Asking women to cast it off is not going to be a successful way to make that happen, though. I think with an emphasis towards, as Squirely indicated, a focus on real power for women, Sparkle will grow to have less undesired impact.”

    What she said. Also, about self-actualization….very good point. Which reminds me to go write that post about “liberation.”

  15. other orange
    other orange August 4, 2008 at 8:47 pm |

    For example, plenty of strippers come from impoverished backgrounds.

    That, to me, also suggests that there are still two levels of “sparkle” and we have never really figured out a way to talk about them both at the same time. (Not that they even fit into the same discussion, necessarily.) Because on one hand we have generally middle-class women choosing to participate in burlesque and femme behaviors as forms of self-expression; and on the other hand we have women trying to feed their families/get an education/stay afloat in a harsh system that values their bodies more than their minds.

    And I do appreciate the “neither a carrot nor a stick” thing. That’s an extremely apt way to put it. :) Because like it or not, women do get rewards for participating- that’s one of the hardest things to let go of.

    I would say that encouraging women who *can* cast off those behaviors with no fear of punishment, and who *want* to cast them off, isn’t the worst thing in the world, though. The more women/men/people we have saying “the patriarchal beauty regime doesn’t serve me, and I don’t serve it” the better, I’d think. I can’t imagine how else we’re going to get it thrown out.

  16. Latoya Peterson
    Latoya Peterson August 4, 2008 at 10:40 pm |

    Yo Octo!

    Nice to see you. Man, I’ve been turning this conversation over and over in my head and had just resolved to talk about it at my spot when you post this.

    To be honest, I always feel weird posting on these kinds of topics – the kind of conversations that tend to happen rarely discuss what “sparkle” (I call it the art of femme) means to those of us outside of societal beauty standards, and how to some extent, there is a reclaiming going on.

    For example, Mama Popcorn of Brown Girls Burlesque [1] is going to write something about how the face of burlesque is white and how, traditionally, many WoC have been excluded from this kind of sensual art.

    Check the mission statement:

    Brown Girls Burlesque (BGB) is a collective of women of color dedicated to creating our own reflection in an art form that we have supported and enjoyed but traditionally, has not well-represented people of color.
    Our mission is to take our rightful place on the stage to celebrate our cultures, sexuality and artistry with humor, fierceness and nudity.
    *In case you really need clarification, all self-identified women of African / Black/ Caribbean, Arab, Asian & Pacific Islander, Latina/o, and Native/Indigenous descent.

    Her narrative is especially important considering that the bodies of women of color are so often viewed as the property for others, something for the gratification of others – the art of the dance and props and all in burlesque all act as talismen of a sort to mark this transition – you may ask me to pop my ass in booty shorts and a tank, but I like heels and lingerie.

    However, all of these conversations take place against the backdrop of WoC’s images as sexually deviant, something that drives many of us to suppress our natural sexual desires for fear of playing into stereotypes. Andrea Plaid wrote a post about it [2] and we are going to expand upon that point – for many of us (and I am speaking from a black female standpoint, but my readers have also echoed this point) there is a lot of fear associated with sex and sexuality, particularly a woman’s right to pleasure. So, with that mindset, what is more important – avoiding reinforcing stereotypes or pursuing your own personal gratification?

    And while I agree with your main point, that these actions are not necessarily feminist on unfeminist, how does something become feminist? So, with some of the classes I take, one of them is called Strip-ology, which is a burlesque/strip hybrid. The class on its face is not revolutionary, but looking at the class base it could be interpreted that way. It is primarily a class for black women (with other minorities who come through) who face this strange dynamic of being hypersexualized or desexualized, but very little between ground. The studio stocks sizes in XS to 3X (regular stock – you can order other sizes) and caters to many women who are overweight and afraid of fitness. It forces us to challenge ourselves with a studio length mirror where you can spend your time obsessing about your flaws – or seeing what your body can do. And while the studio oozes sensuality, the topic of men doesn’t come up all that often. All the toys they sell are for self-pleasuring, the focus is on movement, not necessarily on sex, and even in stripology, the idea is to exude that “it-girl” swagger, not necessarily to please your man.

    And then, what about things like make up? Is it sparkle if paint my face with designs? Or is it only anti-feminist if I cover flaws? And what about those of us who find strength in these crazy ass rituals? There was a great essay in this book called Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and other Parts [3] about a woman who watched her mother go through an elaborate make up ritual each day. She called it her mother’s armor, the protection with which she faced the world.

    There are too many aspects to this to think about, so I am going to break here and think on this a bit more.

    Oh, and because I am to fucking lazy to add HTML to this post:

    [1] http://www.myspace.com/browngirlsburlesque
    [2] http://www.racialicious.com/2008/05/26/what-color-is-your-orgasm-sex-positive-advice-in-black-and-white/
    [3] http://www.amazon.com/Naked-Black-Women-About-Their/dp/0399531637

  17. Kristin
    Kristin August 4, 2008 at 11:11 pm |

    Latoya–Wow, yeah… You really just articulated one reason that I often have little to say in these conversations about “sparkle,” as a women who falls outside of societal beauty standards. I hadn’t actually been able to articulate it before. I can’t wait to read your post! Please link here.

  18. Neko Onna
    Neko Onna August 5, 2008 at 12:31 am |

    I see this as an issue of acceptance, because it seems to be about women loving themselves for who they are. The “anti sparkle” folks seem to think women who perform femininity are self-loathing becaues they pluck, powder, tease and paint away their true form. The “pro sparkle” folks seem to think the “anti sparlers” unfairly deride them for doing something they enjoy, and/or may find personally empowering.

    Isn’t the answer, then, just to love people for who and what they are? If a woman doesn’t want to sparkle- great. She should be supported and accepted by her feminist peers. If a woman wants to sparle- that’s great, too. She should be supported and accepted by her feminist peers. Where I think there is valid room for criticism is when either camp tries to say the other is not “real”- not a real feminist, not a real woman- if they don’t do what that particular group advocates.

    I wrote about this in the context of some specific posts at my place a while back.

  19. Dominique
    Dominique August 6, 2008 at 1:05 am |

    The problem isn’t sparkle. The problem is who controls its interpretation. And the answer to that question is that, in a patriarchal society, anything sexual by women that is thrown “out there” (i.e., in the mainstream world) will be reinterpreted within the conceptual framework of patriarchy: as in, oh, this is all for us! (read: men). The only way to *avoid* this is through very, very careful screening… which becomes impossible when, obviously, a$$hole guys will pose as feminists to subvert and coopt our sexuality. So unless we control the society in which our sexuality is expressed, it will forever be used against us.

  20. RenegadeEvolution
    RenegadeEvolution August 6, 2008 at 8:51 am |

    excellent post Octo, I love it. A lot of folk (female and male) have a love of art, drama, change, “flair” and sparkle often is and can be a part of that. Like anything, sparkle can be a huge part of self expression and a way to project ones moods or feelings, and I think that’s pretty cool.

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  22. Trin
    Trin August 6, 2008 at 10:34 am |

    Because it’s relevant:

    I think that “master’s tools” quote gets misused a lot. I’m not sure Lorde meant “sparkle” and such when she said it. I think it’s important to keep in mind what she was talking about — the exclusion of women of color from feminist fora — when we discuss that quote.

    Not meaning to put you on the spot there, Octo. Just — I think a lot of people neglect the context of that quote so they can say that women’s individual choices, like sparkle, involve collusion. When really, I can’t say I know if Lorde would have thought so (though she definitely had some negative things to say about pornography and pornographized sexuality, so maybe so)…

    …but it does seem to me that she’d be rolling over in her grave to see people using a quote about how women’s differing backgrounds have been ignored in white feminisms to make the point that some women make bad choices.

  23. octogalore
    octogalore August 6, 2008 at 12:49 pm |

    Trin, did you notice that I was stating that other people tend to use that expression? I was not using it, nor was I condoning their use of it. I was simply stating a fact. I’m pretty precise, and also aware (surprise) of the context of Lorde’s expression. I’d appreciate the same in return, many thanks.

  24. season of the bitch » That Video
    season of the bitch » That Video August 11, 2008 at 10:40 am |

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