On Feminism: Brave New World?

caitlin moran

Amen Caitlin Moran, I’d like to know if they were drunk too. When did something that essentially stands for equality become a dirty word with women? And just as disturbing for me, when did we buy into the myth that feminism has been ‘surpassed’, when we need it more than ever? I’ve written an article on this subject, along with the modern ‘body image’ debates, for Settle Petal. But since this is an important topic for me, I’ve decided to also post it here in full:

When Germaine Greer recently attacked Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘big arse’, I was ironically reminded of her previous assertion that women are often perceived ‘as bodies rather than people’ (The Whole Woman, Anchor Books, 2000, p. 68). I was thoroughly bored by the debate surrounding Greer’s comment about our female Prime Minister’s dress sense and body. Yes, it was hypocritical and contradictory of her, but so what? Feminism doesn’t need a spokesperson or a leader to proclaim unitary and simplistic ideas. Rather, what it needs is constant relevant, and dare I say it, politicised, debate. And I fear that’s what we’re losing in the haze of contemporary ‘body image’ debates that do little to actually change gender inequalities.

I’m twenty eight years old, and for as long as I could remember, I smelt a rat whenever I was told what my behaviour, appearance and character should be as woman when compared to men. When I went to university, I was given the language to express this instinctive awareness of inequality. But when I was learning this language, feminism was already declared ‘dead’. Its death knell in the media and culture is something that I continue to observe, perplexed by the fact that we still live in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society with all the gender inequalities this entails, yet are also incessantly reminded that women have ‘arrived’ and have nothing left to fight for. The truth is, the language of feminism has been derailed, and nowhere is this more evident than in the current strand of ‘body image’ debates.

One of the most problematic aspects for me in the current media is the way the female body is used as a marker of feminism’s dubious ‘success’ within the limited frame of the commercial marketplace. Women are encouraged to buy, consume and view other women’s bodies as commodities and ‘things’ under the appropriated language of feminism. So buying this shade of lipstick is exercising your ‘power’ as a woman to be ‘independent’ (because ‘you’re worth it’, as L'Oréal reminds us). Or perhaps posing nude in a men’s magazine is asserting your ‘empowered’ sexuality, as if we suddenly live in a magical fairy-tale world where women’s bodies are not perceived as sexualised objects.

The fact is, women are not ‘free’ to objectify themselves without harmful consequences, because they are still considered to be objects; or, in Greer’s words, as ‘bodies rather than people’. Yet, when a feminist tries to critique the use of women’s bodies in commercial culture, she is often lampooned as a bitter old hag who doesn’t realise that it’s no longer the 1960s and that modern women are now ‘free’ from the shackles of the past. To me, this is laughable. If anything, objectifying women has increased, rather than decreased, and disturbingly, it’s becoming harder to critique this objectification because it speaks through the appropriated language of ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’.

That’s the bind many feminist critics are in at the moment, including myself. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting in a class full of young women fresh out of high school, trying to explain to them why the popular mode of ‘girl power’ and ‘you’re worth it’ spewed out by the media, advertising and magazines, is not a discourse that speaks in their interests as modern women. Often, these young women compare their own financial and physical freedoms to their mothers’ or grandmothers’ generations and rightly see positive changes in women’s lives. But what they do not see are the intangible ideological boundaries that affect their lives, and which were tackled by previous generations of feminists in a political and collective manner. The world in which young women grow up today may offer them vast financial freedoms and an ability to manipulate their bodies for their own gain, but such ‘freedoms’ come at a price.

I think what has occurred in our modern culture is a movement away from the political to the personal. Feminist issues such as equal pay, the running of the domestic household, raising children, women’s healthcare, abortion rights and the perception of the female body, have moved from collective action to individual ‘lifestyle’ concerns. For example, determining equality in the workplace is suddenly the domain of lifestyle quizzes and glib articles in magazines, rather than something which is seriously tackled in political debate or legal change. We may have countless discussions about ‘women’s issues’, but the underlying patriarchal structure of the home and workplace is left untouched and unthreatened. Because if you make a wide societal issue a personal and individual responsibility, you depoliticise it. Or, in Michèle Roberts’ words, you make feminism ‘unthreatening, nice. Less a politics than a behaviour’. The thing is, unless women are prepared to engage with feminism as a ‘politics’ rather than as a personal ‘behaviour’, any attempt at ‘empowerment’, ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ will be hampered by past ideals of gender that still determine our lives and our choices.

What does all this have to do with ‘body image’ debates? Well, the way that I see women around me engage with such debates highlights to me how far away we’ve moved from a political and collective interpretation of ‘women’s issues’ and feminism, to a more depoliticised and personal interpretation. A prime example is the ever-popular debate surrounding thin women’s bodies in fashion magazines and advertising. While our current fetish with skinniness and the idealisation of thinness in the beauty and fashion industries are certainly valid concerns, the way they are discussed is often indicative of the way we tackle many other concerns regarding gender and women. Often, such discussions about overly thin models degenerate into simplistic clichés about femininity where women are pitted against each other according to body types. Rather than actually addressing the way fashion and beauty industries function through the objectification of women, such debates just focus on who’s more ‘real’ and ‘womanly’: curvy women, or skinny women?

My reaction to such debates is always, who cares? I have zero interest in pointless arguments about ‘what men really like in a woman’, or who is more of a ‘real woman’ based on her bodily curves. Such arguments are debasing to both men and women. Rather, what interests me is deconstructing how the fashion and beauty industries create unrealistic images of women based on the idea of a ‘lack’ that can be fixed through consumption. Too skinny? How about plastic surgery to enhance your breasts? Too fat? Liposuction is the answer. Got a wrinkle and no longer look like a 15 year old girl? Here’s a face cream you can buy. And don’t you feel ‘empowered’ now? All these images of femininity are based on the basic ideology that women’s bodies are a ‘problem’ that can be ‘fixed’ by buying something. That’s ostensibly where our ‘power’ as modern women lies in commercial culture. It’s a dubious and insulting power, at best. And it’s also an unquestioned ‘power’. Too often, popular media discussions about this topic just focus on an individual model’s body, rather than politically addressing the ideologies of consumption and gender that underpin the industries within which such a model works. It’s not an individual model’s body that should concern us, but the collective system which she represents.

So is it a brave new world for women? Not just yet. Until it is though, I’ll be digging around for the politics, rather than the behaviour. Because whether a woman chooses to undergo plastic surgery or buy an anti-wrinkle face cream is her own personal choice. But the ideologies of beauty which may contribute to such decisions are not up to personal responsibility, they are a collective social responsibility. And that’s why feminism is still as relevant today as it ever was.