February 17, 2005

not everything I do is a feminist act

Yes, let's talk about false consciousness. I find myself getting really annoyed with a lot of what passes for empowering women1 these days. Echidne recently wrote a post over at Alas about Elle magazine. Now, I have never read Elle, but I read women's magazines occasionally, like when someone else buys them and leaves them around. Mostly Cosmo, which is a lot trashier than Elle, frankly, and therefore somewhat more fun.

They all have this particular attitude, which is something I see a lot in Third Wave feminism: anything a woman does and enjoys doing is a feminist act. Thus, it can be empowering and somehow feminist to buy fancy shoes, wear makeup, get cosmetic surgery, pose for Playboy, write for Cosmo, sleep around, not have sex until marriage, wear a corset, whatever.2 I think this is really silly, and I also think it lets a lot of people off the hook: instead of having to look at themselves and their lives and actually figure out what their actions mean in a political context, they get to write off their actions as feminist because they are women.

There's a certain truth to this, which is that feminism shouldn't require women to give up their self-presentation: women shouldn't have to dress like men to be taken seriously. That requirement in itself is anti-feminist, because it takes men as the norm. But when I look at appearance culture, for example, I see a lot of requirements that are reasonable for men and restrictive and time-consuming for women. I also see a lot of women enforcing those requirements, and that is also not a feminist act. It's possible that there are people who are writing for Cosmo or posing for Playboy who are feminists and can argue that they're working to change the system from within. I have nothing against people who work within the system, but I think they'd better have a really clear sense of exactly what their plan is, because it's really really easy to get sucked in to the value systems you're trying to fight. Plus you have to weigh whether the feminist subversion you're doing is stronger than the anti-feminist reinforcement you're lending your name too: I don't know, but I think it's a calculation people have to make.

You know, all these cultural standards are really powerful, and maybe the reason people enjoy meeting them is not that it's genuinely empowering and subversive to do so, but because you get a lot of praise for it. I get about a bazillion times more compliments on my appearance when I'm all femmed out than when I'm wearing my usual clothes, even when I think I look great. That's nice in its own way - I like the ego boost - but I wouldn't say it's feminist.

The other important thing is that not everything any given person does has to be empowering or feminist. Sometimes, I put on my girly clothes because I actually feel girly; other times, I just want a little praise, or I don't want to make a stir at whatever event I'm going to. Everyone has vices and weaknesses and things they just plain like, regardless of the sociopolitical context, and I think we'd all be better off if we agreed to look at our lives as a whole. Then we wouldn't have to say, 3-inch heels are feminist! Just like everything else women do! Because we'd actually be feminists, and empowered.

1. Not feminism. Oh no. That's too scary.
2. Not that any of those actions is necessarily bad, in and of itself. At all.

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