I had really hoped to close this issue the last time I discussed the male gaze and how it relates to feminism, but that post was too brief and simplistic to really close the case.
This discussion came up once again, not surprisingly, on the pseudo-feminist Women’s Rights News page on Facebook, in the form of this inane meme.
Also unsurprisingly, the meme was immediately rejected with hundreds of comments, as trivial, uninformed and out-dated in its dogmatic rhetoric. Of course the word “unfeminist” also does not exist, and for a good reason, as was pointed out in the comments. I was relieved to see that a good majority of feminists today do not espouse this limited view. And yet some – a very small minority, still do. It irked me to see these comments.
I’ve come across this view before – on threads, in private conversations and in articles. I’m going to attempt to summarize it: It is a given that feminism is about free choice and I support this choice. However, it behooves women to explore the reasons for their choices. The ones who do so will inevitably realize that their choice to wear [blank – insert heels, make-up, corsets, bras, dyed hair, lingerie – depends on how far you’re willing to take this] stems from the conditioning they have received in our male dominated society. Therefore the “feminist” thing to do is to reject this conditioning.
While it is obviously fair to say that none of the feminists supporting this view would ever subscribe to legally banning high heel shoes, etc, it is also fair to say that many of them vehemently reject women who wear these things as feminists. Remember the hateful comment tirade generated by the Facebook meme quoting Dita Von Teese saying, “You can’t dictate to a woman what should make her feel sexy”? They may pay lip service to choice, saying they support it, but in the same breath claim to be more informed in their personal choice to reject these things and even accuse others of perpetuating sexism/patriarchal norms.
So let’s get to the bottom of this. If we all truly believe in personal choice, where is this anger coming from? Why the need to judge another as “less informed” or not a “real feminist” or narcissist who just “does what she wants”? If feminism is really about choice, what is wrong with doing what one wants and in what way is it hurting feminism? The argument I have heard is that feminism is not just about individual choice but also about a collective equality. It is then assumed that individual choice is at odds with this idea of collective equality. This is in some ways a valid argument, in that the collective has always been at odds with the individual. When we join movements we do in fact compromise our individualism to a degree in order to achieve common goals. We could not have a successful strike or boycott if not enough people are on board. So let’s extend this paradigm to the above context. We have a norm that dictates that women must look a certain way in order to be considered sexy by mainstream society – otherwise known as the “male gaze.” It is also assumed that all women must strive to be “sexy.” This norm is oppressive and it really does behoove us to look into it and process our own personal relationship with it. At the end of this process we should be able to make personal and informed choices of how to present ourselves and our sexuality. But what if we do all this and still choose to wear those heinous “stripper shoes” (that Gail Dines so proudly put on the cover of her book Pornland,) are we undermining the solidarity with our sisters in our goal to collectively resist the oppression of the norm? The answer is yes. What we essentially have here is a boycott of the male gaze. The boycott doesn’t work so well with only a handful of people participating. One woman cannot dismantle social norms all on her own. Being that I answered yes to the above question, you might wonder where my disagreement lies. You see, my objection is to the question itself. It’s to the fact that collective rejection of social norms is seen as a goal of feminism. I see the goal of feminism as two-fold: 1. A collective struggle for equality 2. An individual struggle for personal empowerment. The two often get confused and intertwined in a way that is messy and counter-productive. When it comes to the first point – we’re talking about legal equity and social equality. This constitutes laws, political involvement, fixing the pay gap – things that are very tangible and not just a matter of mindset. The second point deals with cultural biases and social norms, body image issues brought on by advertising, the effects of slut shaming and other social pressures and judgments – pressures that influence our decisions but do not DICTATE them the way church and state do. In the model presented by radical feminists who seek a collective rejection of these forms of oppression, there is no room for an individual path leading to individual rejection or acceptance of each specific norm or manifestation of patriarchy. In order to have a successful boycott of the male defined beauty standard it is understood that we must all agree on what that standard is and what part of it we are willing to reject. This is simply not viable, being that there are as many opinions on this as there are women. But even if we could magically all agree on some sort of manifesto, rejecting the beauty norm – I reject such a manifesto as a goal of feminism, as it is contradictory to the primary goal of feminism, which is creating an environment that allows, encourages and respects free choice for women, regardless of what the choice is. It should be our goal to reject the rigidity of social norms, not create new ones to replace them! Feminism is supposed to liberate and empower women, not create lifestyle police in our heads, questioning “the fuck out of us” to quote Emily.
Granted, no modern feminist has expressly called for such a manifesto. The fallacies in it seem to be clear to everyone. As a result you have the in-betweeners – “intermediate” feminists, as Emily put it. These are folks who believe in free choice but claim that this choice can only be considered feminist if it is “informed” – i. e. conscious of patriarchal conditioning. While I agree that one cannot be considered a feminist without being informed about feminism, judging another’s level of information is problematic. This means that we can only judge our own level information. As a feminist, I can ask myself – what are the motivations behind my choices? But only I can answer that – no one can speak for me. The solipsism of this paradigm makes the question, “Is it anti-feminist to wear [blank]?” entirely meaningless. The real question is, “Is it anti-feminist for YOU?” and the answer depends entirely on YOUR motivations and level of self-awareness. And it is entirely anti-feminist for others to make this assessment for you. I’d like to point out that the [blank] above doesn’t have to be a glamour item. As much as it hurts me to say this (and that’s how you know I’m not letting my bias guide me here) – it can be a burqa! If a woman converts to Islam all on her own and chooses to wear a burqa while also claiming to be a feminist – who am I to dispute this! Of course I’m using a hypothetical case here. Most Muslim women were born into it, and there’s no telling how much of what they do is driven by familial pressure. I’m simply using this clear-cut example to show that there are possible situations under which the burqa is not forced. Hypothetical as it may be, it’s enough to make me withhold my judgement when seeing a woman in a burqa walking down the street in New York. So you might say that I am a moderate feminist, for lack of a better term, but a radical individualist, and therefore radical in my commitment to personal autonomy and individual agency. If we are really to claim bodily autonomy as a focus of feminism, it would be a shame to allow the feminist response to the “male gaze” be defined collectively or through academia. Empowerment does not come from following a manifesto written by someone else. It can only come from a very real sense of one’s own agency and self-worth. When you attain that sense, it is easy to see clearly what you want for yourself and what is just societal pressure. And when these things become clear – there is no longer a need for any kind of collective manifesto or boycott. Suddenly, there is nothing to boycott – you just make a choice for yourself and know it works for you. You see, when it comes to that first point of feminism – we do need collective efforts. We couldn’t resist anti-choice laws, for instance, without being organized. And so we organized – and it was awesome! But the second, the one dealing with social norms, works on the individual level. I think it is safe to say that women in the US have enough freedom/power to challenge social norms and not be heavily penalized for it. There is not one dress code that all women must adhere to. And speaking of heels – you really don’t HAVE to wear heels. Plenty of women don’t and don’t have a hard time getting dates, which means that men accept it. In this light it seems entirely inappropriate to call these choices into question. Women DO have agency and are using it to make choices – some choices not all will approve of. Calling those choices into question and denying agency even in oneself only perpetuates the state of ineffectiveness – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All this individualist talk is great, you might say, but how can you affect REAL change without an organized, collective ideology? My answer is: one individual at a time. It sounds slow, but it’s actually not – given our social media age. So instead of organizing around academic essays and manifestos, we organize around tweets and blogs. Anyone can have a blog and everyone has Twitter. This makes it really easy for grassroots efforts to go viral and develop organically and naturally and in a more egalitarian manner. So, Gail Dines, dear, this really isn’t about reading 30-year-old academic essays on feminism. This is about sharing ideas on current issues with our peers online.
But back to our subject – the female beauty norm. Suppose a woman were to go bald as a feminist statement. How much adversity would this cause her? Would some people stare? Probably. Depends on where you are. Would some people assume she is a lesbian? Possibly. But how difficult, if at all, would this adversity be for the woman? The answer to that depends entirely on her motivations. Did she do it solely as a statement of solidarity and defiance or does she genuinely believe she is beautiful that way? Of course only she can answer that. If the answer is the latter, she can resist all judgement and societal pressure. And that’s because you are not doing it as a sacrifice for the collective boycott. You’re doing it as a personal statement and self-expression! Of course it also helps to have a network of support – to connect with women who are also bald, but there is no need to make this a standard for all feminists because long hair capitulates to the male defined beauty standard. I happen to know an amazing inspiration of a woman who did just that. Her name is Sharon Blynn. Sharon had ovarian cancer in her late twenties and lost her long hair through chemo. She decided to never grow it back – not even a buzz cut. She now is a bald model and a cancer activist, and above all a living example of how Bald is Beautiful – encouraging women with cancer to embrace their baldness proudly. Never have I heard Sharon attempt to set in stone the bald look as a look for all feminists to adhere to or judge someone for wearing a wig through chemo. Now that, ladies and gentleman, is “what a feminist looks like” – a feminist who doesn’t preach feminism, but lives it, and inspires others to live it.