On Feminism: Brave New World?

Friday, 25 May 2012

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.


jessica sandoval said...

I am so interested in knowing how to properly make an argument for why being a "feminist" shouldn't intimidate or annoy girls, but I don't even know enough. Have you ever read any good woman-empowerment~-esque books?

Hila said...

Hi Jessica, Caitlin Moran's 'How to be a Woman' is a pretty good start, and it's really funny too: http://www.amazon.com/How-To-Be-Woman-ebook/dp/B0052CK5PQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337914326&sr=8-1

I've heard the 'intimidating' thing before, and my answer to that is always to ask them why, not to give them a speech - if you probe the reasons why they find it intimidating, and then allow them to talk about it, you'll find that they'll start to debunk some of the myths surrounding feminism on their own. We've just been bombarded with silly stereotypes about feminism, and often it's a matter of talking through them and realising they don't really live up to reality.

layla guest said...

thank you for this! i am a new reader to your blog and am thrilled to be reading such clear and thoughtful writing on the matter.


suzie said...

Intimidating *sigh* because people are always intimidated by what they don't understand, be it feminism, veganism, certain faiths or beliefs…
The only hope is to educate, and that's a long, long road. Your response to Jessica's commment; to ask them why instead of giving a speech is spot on!

Mariella said...

Hila, what a wonderful post! I couldn't agree more. Just look at women participation in politics in most of the western countries and we'll clearly see why issues related to women don't even make it to the discussion table. I am ashamed of the objectifying culture of the women body that has been perpetrated in my own country, promoted and supported by a ill class of politicians. And they make you believe that is all about "girl power"...

Petra said...

great post, as always when you write about this topic. thank you!

Niina said...

Hi again!
Wonderful post, I hear you.
About declaring oneself feminist, we had this art project in Finland a while ago called Feminist wallpaper (http://www.megahem.info/Projects/feministtapet/feministwallpaper.html) it tackled with those percentages you mentioned and worked pretty well I think.
And it´s the same here too, I am still waiting to be perceived firstly as a person, even human being rather than sex. But something can beachieved if one understands the difference (her)self.

Rambling Tart said...

Thank you so much for this, Hila. I am teary and choked up after reading this. I grew up in a world where women had no voice, where we were told constantly that we were "easily deceived" and therefore needed a man (father/husband/brother/boss) to tell us what to wear, how to behave, how to speak, what to look like. Being raised in that world I didn't get the strength or courage to leave until I was in my mid-30's. I had no one to fight for me, stand up for me, or even tell me YOU MATTER. Reading your words makes me so grateful and so proud that I am no longer alone. There are amazing women like you who DO speak up for me, for all women. You are so right. The need for feminism is DESPERATE, especially in the religious realm. Keep writing. Please. You've strengthened so many today. :-)

Danielle P. said...

I wonder what the percentage would be for Quebec, where I live, which is considered a very "evolved" society (or at least it was before the current social and political upheavals)... I'm afraid it would be very high on the side of those who think that the feminist fight was the business of their grandmothers — as I once so naively believed.

My feminist education is ongoing, so thank you for introducing me to the excellent resource that is Settle Petal (what a brilliant slogan: Don't make me use my feminist voice). I thoroughly enjoyed your article.

Did you know that Caitlin Moran is on Twitter? She's brash and hilarious and well worth a follow, as is Louise Brealey.

keeksfitz said...

Was very excited to see you on settle petal!

X said...

This is a fantastic post. I do wonder if the future of feminism can or should be as political and collective as in the past, though. Once you have the right to vote, not to be owned, etc, what else are you looking to the government to do? Shut up the media? Make your boyfriend do dishes? There may be a natural shift to the behavioral, which is in many ways harder than the collective because there is less support. At some point, individuals will have to not buy into the images (literally!), to change their relationships, to value their work. The political cannot reach all aspects of gender equality. You're right that the word "feminist" is trapped in a historical, political sense, and that anyone who is not looking for further active government involvement in equality would hesitate to use it.

alis said...

Thank you for another great post Hila, I enjoy reading your well articulated thoughts about this subject. I should memorize Caitlin Moran's words to recite when I come across yet another woman who frowns upon feminism.

Hila said...

X: Thank you, I’m glad you liked it and read it. I personally think feminism has no choice but to become more political and collective again. Right now, there are political debates in America to determine women’s basic rights about their own bodies when it comes to how (and if) they are given access to abortion, family planning and contraception. Many of these decisions are made primarily by male politicians. Think about it: if the roles were reversed, don’t you think these same male politicians would be outraged at the presumption of someone else telling them what they can or cannot do with their own bodies? There is still this underlying ideology that women’s bodies are public property, or something that is allowed to be critiqued and policed by both societal beliefs and yes, governmental laws. If that’s not political, I don’t know what is. And this is only one issue out of many – what about the fight for equal pay, for example? I don’t think we need to disparage the debates about these kinds of issues by suggesting that feminism’s involvement in political issues is about things like ‘making guys do the dishes’ – that’s a bit of a silly caricature of feminism.

It seems very naive to me to suggest that we live in a world where the kinds of gender inequalities we face are purely the domain of individual choice. Also, I didn’t mean to imply such a narrow definition of what ‘political’ constitutes, as this doesn’t just refer to the government, but also, to ideologies – to ideas and beliefs about gender, which I do think need to be tackled collectively (as well as personally) within society. I guess what I was trying to say in this article is that we’ve moved so many important issues into individual ‘lifestyle’ categories, when they are wider and more far-reaching concerns. You can’t ask an individual woman to make constructive choices when the basic underlying structure of the society she lives in is still unequal. This doesn’t cancel out individual responsibility of course, but it does suggest we have more work to do collectively. I hope I’ve explained what I wanted to say on some level though, and sorry for the long reply!

Hila said...

I just wanted to say guys, I have tears in my eyes reading some of your comments and emails on this post - thank you! I shall reply to them all individually tomorrow, it's bed-time on my side of the world now :)

hayden said...

I got about halfway through this writing, and that midpoint was what resonated the most with me, because in my own feminism, I've been dealing with the language of "choice", where individual woman believe they can be empowered by the mere presence of the ability to choose.
I also completely believe that there must be a return to a more collective stance, rather than "I feel empowered to..." There's a very well-publicized event that makes clear that I, as a white middle-class woman cannot simply "reclaim" words or actions that are still inherently risky to other women, and then ignore their protests because it's "feminist".
This is not as coherent a comment as I want it to be because my thoughts are tumbling over each other: WONDERFUL post, and thank you!

Hila said...

layla: thank you! And thanks also for your kind email, it made my day.

Suzie: I don't like being put in an authoritative position with people when it comes to these issues, I prefer people to think for themselves, because they can.

Mariella: 'girl power' is such a myth, and that's why the media loves it - simplified clichés tend to win out, sadly. Also, I truly believe that if we want to see substantial changes in women lives - not just in Western countries, but more importantly, in developing countries - than we need female political representation.

Petra: and thank you as well for your own great post on the subject!

Niina: I think so many young girls and women have been scared off feminism by stupid stereotypes - they've been encouraged to believe that feminism doesn't represent anything to do with their lives, which is so ridiculous.

Rambling Tart: Gosh, I love your passion. And given your own personal history, I know why you're so passionate about this subject. Sometimes I feel so inadequate and alone when I voice my opinions about these things, not to mention the abusive comments these posts tend to elicit. But when I read your comment, it makes it all worthwhile - truly.

Danielle: that is the best slogan ever, huh? Yep, I've seen Caitlin Moran's twitter feed - she's so witty and intelligent.

Keeksfitz: Thanks! I was honoured to be included.

alis: haha, yes, I think 'are you drunk?' seems like a pretty good response ;)

Hayden: oh I hear you! This whole idea of 'choice' seems ludicrous when you consider that choices are determined by wider context and circumstances. I understand completely what you're saying here, your thoughts are not 'tumbled' at all!

Hila said...

Suzie: whoops, I forgot to explain my response to you - because I don't like to be put in the position of being an 'authority', that's why I tend to ask questions :) As in, 'you don't like feminism? Tell me why ...' and that's when the conversations get really interesting! And you're right, things seem less intimidating when people learn more about them.

tara-lynn (good night, day) said...

just waned to say thank you for always sharing such profound posts, i adore your blog. tara-lynn

Hila said...

Tara-lynn: It's my pleasure!

vegetablej said...

Hila: I actually discussed this issue with my daughter many years ago now, when she was about 19. Her argument was that she wanted to be seen as a person first and that everyone should be considered on their own merits. I know that since that time life has educated her that it's not so easy.

That women have fallen into complacency because of the publicity of a few famous successes is not a little discouraging, because there's still plenty of sexism in the workplace, especially in jobs that are not professions. And there's plenty in society, the media, reality shows, and standards for women's looks -- including the fact that modern women seem to be literally shrinking themselves to fit down the rabbit hole, the richer and more famous they get. What message does that send to the youngsters, I wonder?

Until we are willing to work together and support each other in healthy, positive ways rather than buy into the snow job that modern women "have it all" , I don't think things will improve. I do agree we need more women in politics, but it's very difficult to get them there when women won't elect them, and then if they get there, there's a media crucifixion based on their looks.

Anyway, glad to read good words from you and Caitlan Moran.

Hila said...

vegetablej: It would be nice if we could all be judged on our own merits as individual people, rather than via our gender first. Unfortunately, as you said, that's not often the case.

And yes, I'm currently witnessing this public crucifixion you speak of with our female Prime Minister in Australia - it's like the media enjoys belittling every move she makes, and her appearance, in a way they don't do with male politicians. It's quite sickening to watch.

As for women crucifying other women: I view that as the product of historical perceptions about gender. There are some people who will argue that women are naturally 'bitchy', but I think that's crap. Some people are bitchy, yes, but that's a personality trait, not a general gender trait. I think women have historically been put in the position of having to compete with other women for basic survival and economic security, historically tied to finding a husband. But these historical conditions have changed for many Western women who are no longer tied to men for basic economic survival. Sadly, it takes longer for those ideologies of competitiveness to change. One of the most basic ways that the status quo of traditional gender ideologies prevails is by convincing women that they are naturally each other's competition and 'enemies'. I think women are wary of other women, especially powerful ones, because we're still stuck in old mentalities. I wish this would start changing, because it's tiresome.

Marie-Claire Hudson said...

Just wanted to say that this was a brilliant piece and was very well written, really enjoyed reading it and agree with all the points you made :)