There’s a bit of a controversy stirring at my undergrad alma mater (and my future law school) about a Miss NYU calendar that’s in the works. A friend of mine and former photo editor of the Washington Square News is the brains behind the calendar, which will feature a variety of NYU women representing different contingents of the NYU student body, including (I’m pretty sure) feminism, with someone wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt and surrounded by NOW signs. The proceeds of calendar sales are going to the American Cancer Society. As I understand it, the calendar isn’t full of half-naked bikini-shots. But nonetheless, it has still ruffled some feathers, particularly in the NYU feminist community. Which is understandable, and certainly a cause that I’m sympathetic to. As one of the leaders of this campaign writes in an email,
the main gimmick is to capitalizeon the popularity of the sexy college co-ed image, an image that hurts us all. The real Miss NYU? A young woman who works hard to get into a school like NYU because she’s here for an education, her career, her mind, not to be a sexpot…unfortunately the sexist image is prevailing, and being even a bolster by this calendar here at our own insitution of higher learning. Predictably, MISS NYU has come out with the idea of MR NYU-great! equal opportunity exploitation!
She’s right, of course. The “sexy co-ed” image is harmful to all women, and the real Miss NYU isn’t necessarily thin, light-skinned, and fitting most of the other beauty norms in our culture. But at the same time, I’m a big believer in trusting women to be thoughtful actors in their own lives. Of coures, it’s always more complicated than that, but I’m not sure I buy the idea that being photographed and having one’s image used to raise money is harmful in and of itself. At the same time, I don’t think that this Miss NYU calendar will be particularly representative of me, or of most NYU women, and I do think that, like beauty pageants, it is inherently demeaning. But should it be where we as feminists direct our efforts?
Obviously, I haven’t come to a conclusion on this one yet. But I do think it’s good to be having a conversation about it. Unfortunately, supporters of the calendar are coming out in full force, and seem to be choosing to counter feminist questions with personal attacks instead of having a reasoned discussion. The woman who is spearheading the anti-calendar effort sent me this link to a thread discussing the issue, primarily because my name came up in it (even though, interestingly, I have so far had nothing to do with the issue on either side, since I haven’t been anywhere near New York for three months). But the part about me is really weird, so skip it. What’s more interesting is how they choose to discount feminist arguments — calling us “hairy,” “overzealous,” “hippies,” “ungrateful bitches,” and “ugly.”
Now, anyone with half a brain could figure out that feminists aren’t opposed to things like this because we’re all ugly and are jealous that we weren’t attractive enough to be featured in this calendar. Our politics are a little more complicated than that. And as I’ve written about before, it can be a big conflict for feminists like me who believe in the ideals, but who still use make-up and wear high heels and go on stupid diets and otherwise conform to various facets of the beauty myth.
And not that it matters, but like I said before, I do know the woman who has started this campaign — and she’s actually quite beautiful. So I look forward to seeing some conservative heads explode when they realize that women — even pretty ones! — have ideals that are separate from their physical appearance.
Am I feeding right back into this myth when I mention that she’s pretty? I’m not sure. I hesitated to write it, because it obviously doesn’t change the validity of her argument. But I’m putting it out there because, sadly, it does point out that women who are deemed attractive are given more leeway in making feminist arguments, simply because the “you only think that because you’re ugly/because you can’t get a man” rebuff fails with them. Just look at the relative success of Gloria Steinem compared to, say, Andrea Dworkin. It’s bullshit. But it’s interesting to look at anyway. And I should add in here that the woman behind this campaign is really fuckin smart — I should have said that first.
So I’m conflicted about the whole calendar issue, and definitely open to thoughts/suggestions.