Wednesday, 3 February 2010
On 28th September 2009 an article was published in The Times about casual misogyny and the continued need for feminism. A smaller version of this advert for ING Direct was published in the same paper. (It is showing up quite small on the screen: the smaller text reads, 'Your daughter's wedding. The day you give your little girl and huge amounts of money away. It might be a way off, but the sooner you start saving, the less painful it will be. Well, the money side of things anyway.')
Now, ING's other adverts, including a man 'cushioning himself' for the cost of an engagement ring, and another when his wife/girlfriend tells him she's pregnant with twins, aren't notable for their recognition that women might have financial responsibilities in relationships. But the above really takes the biscuit in its statement that women are 'little girls' to be transferred on marriage to a new master, after which their families can wash their hands of them. I realise that perhaps the ad is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but firstly I don't think this comes across clearly enough, and secondly it portrays such patriarchal attitudes as somehow cosy and endearing. Weddings may be a time for tradition, but if I ever have one, its implications about my authority and maturity will not be one of the things I take lightly!
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Most of my recent reading has been on the subject of beauty standards and their growing importance in our culture, and some writers have gone so far as to suggest that challenging these will be the core of Third Wave feminism. Notable is Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (1990), which demonstrates the way in which 'beauty' has become a modern 'religion', encompassing the pursuit of unattainable perfection, and portraying the female body as something corrupt, decaying and polluted by 'impurities'. Germaine Greer (The Whole Woman, 1999) also refers to this association of impurity with the normal female body, and describes 'women who become obsessed by their alimentary canals, following in imagination every morsel that is introduced and waiting anxiously for it to reappear as excrement' (p.74). Of course, alongside the 'beauty myth' runs a resurrected 'cult of virginity', as described in Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth (2009). The links between modern ideas about 'beauty' and 'virginity' and that of 'purity' are fascinating, and, I believe, can tell us a great deal about the threads running through the history of women's oppression. One work which has highlighted this for me is Sarah Dunant's brilliant historical novel Sacred Hearts (2009), where the concepts of spiritual purity, control of the body, and women's lack of freedom are drawn together in ways which are still visible today.
Dunant imagines the entry into an early modern Ferrarese convent of an unwilling sixteen-year-old girl, Serafina, and the nuns' attempts to settle and 'purify' her. This culminates in a period of near-starvation (or 'Holy Anorexia' (Rudolph Bell, 1987)) as the convent's hardliner, Umiliana, tries to purge Serafina of lust and rebellion in order that visions and religious ecstasy may enter. Meanwhile the down-to-earth dispenser, Zuana, aims to heal Serafina's body and end her drugged, starved hallucinations. On a small scale, this reflects the divisions rending Christendom at that time and the looming threat of the complete enclosure of the nunneries. Dunant illustrates beautifully the conflict between a strict dualism (in which the body must be suppressed for the mind and spirit to flourish) and a holistic view, with the reader's sympathy being drawn towards the latter. She draws out the way in which 'negation' of the body might actually cause it to dominate the mind.
Interestingly, Dunant draws out in particular the suppression of the needs of the female body, with descriptions of the impact of the monthly cycles and childlessness of the nuns on the convent's moods. Of course, changing views about the connection of souls with particularly female bodies have informed different forms of oppression - from the medieval view of women as base and animal (and therefore needing repression), to the modern American virginity cult's insistence that it is men who are driven by lust (and therefore women who need to guard their chastity). Maggie Millar, in Sizeable Reflections (ed. Bovey, 2000, p.158), links society's fear of fat to a fear of the feminine in general. Thus the idea of dualism and purification of the soul through negation of the body may have affected women particularly.
There are other elements of the concept of purity which might explain its particularly strong connection with the female through the centuries. In Sacred Hearts, Serafina becomes absorbed in her fasting and her desperate pursuit of purity because discipline over her hunger is the only form of control she has. Purity becomes tied up with her one hope of happiness in the convent - the entry of Christ in the place of her lost lover. Wolf believes the 'beauty myth' is powerful because it can be used by patriarchy, as was the 'Feminine Mystique' (Friedan, 1963), to distract women who are getting too big for their boots. However, despite Wolf's assertion that there is no need to set up a 'conspiracy theory' because the conspiracy is so obvious, I suspect the reality is a little more complex. Perhaps Dunant's work helps explain women's own take-up of these obsessions in a world where we very often still lack the control and fulfillment we want.
Perhaps such obsessions with purification and control will, with the increased desperation of advertisers and changing modern roles, affect men in new ways too.
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
The most inspiring and encouraging element of both these sessions was the clear indication they gave that when I object to pornography or to prostitution, I am not being a prude or a killjoy, and I am far from alone among feminists. The anti-porn slideshow included an examination of the type of advice teenage girls are given when they write, confused and upset, to agony aunts about their boyfriends' use of porn. They are almost invariably told that watching porn is a harmless, natural, normal pastime for males, and that if they want to keep their man, or any man, they had better shut up, stop nagging and get used to it. To me it has seemed for a while that those who object to porn are characterised as dysfunctional, and it can therefore be very difficult even to begin a debate. Furthermore, where both porn and prostitution are concerned, I've sometimes found that my distaste is so deep and emotional that it can be hard to put forward my position without resorting to angry, frustrated spluttering that gets me nowhere. Just as I did when recently I read Clare Short's (1991) book Dear Clare...this is what women feel about Page 3, I felt a huge sense of relief to find that others are passionate about this issue too, and at having the space to begin thinking about it more clearly. To say it was empowering almost sounds like a cliché these days, but there's no other word for it.
The porn slideshow focused on trends in porn (especially online) towards fantasies which give added pleasure for no other reason but that they humiliate women and portray them as passive, ridiculous, even unwilling sex objects. Secondly, there is a trend towards using younger and younger girls, and towards 'teen', 'barely legal', and 'schoolgirl' porn. Thirdly, the 'hypersexualisation' of the media now goes well beyond what is classed as hardcore porn. A comparison of record labels and Disney characters from fifteen years ago with those around today made this frighteningly clear and left me wondering how I will deal with the changing society in which I will be bringing up my own children. Thus the focus of the slideshow was not on 'pornography' as a whole, (though if we use Clare Short's definition of pornography, as opposed to nakedness and eroticism, as saying 'take me, use me, dispose of me' it was (Short, 1991, p.19)). It therefore maybe didn't address all my personal feelings about porn, but it gave me some starting points for thinking about my own reactions and will help me formulate them in ways that others might be able to understand.
The panel discussion on prostitution was hard-hitting and deeply moving. The two testimonies given by formerly prostituted women, Anna Travers and Rebecca Mott, were the first I have ever heard, spoke volumes, and thoroughly deserved the passionate standing ovation they received for their courage. The panel spoke from the position that there is no debate over whether prostitution is wrong, focusing on discussing why and on putting forward their view that the practice should by no means be legalised as a legitimate industry like any other (as such, the discussion was more holistic than that on porn). Having always had a vague feeling that prostituted women should not be criminalised and 'punters' should, I came away convinced (at least for the time being - I realise I don't know a lot about this topic). The descriptions of the experiences of two real women, and the statistics given about the number of women who are prostituted after childhoods of abuse, neglect or poverty and about the proportion of prostituted women who would rather not be, counter for me the vague anecdotal evidence I have heard from some (men) who state that the prostitutes they've 'encountered' were perfectly happy with their 'careers' and 'choices'. The 'happy hooker' is a privileged minority, and, as Rebecca Mott put it, to know whether a woman has really 'chosen' prostitution we must look at her entire life story and circumstances.
The topics of pornography and prostitution are related to the topic of 'sexualisation', the second major area I'm currently considering in my own first steps into feminism (the first being the role of 'nature' in our status as women), and I found these talks enormously valuable in giving me an entry point. It was also interesting to hear for the first time discussions about 'privilege' and how it determines the extent to which people can make genuine choices and the extent to which they can have their voices heard. Bodily integrity, one of the human rights I studied during my dissertation work on female genital mutilation, can seem an abstract concept at first but it lies at the heart of much of what modern feminism needs to address. I'll finish with Rebecca Mott's words on the issue:
"As an exited prostituted woman, I have often felt incredibly let down by feminists choosing to ignore the mental, the sexual and the physical torturing that is prostitution. Instead, too many feminists will believe the illusion spoken by sex workers of making the work environment safer. There no speech of having basic human rights. All talk of abolition as a long-term plan is blocked out.
This is an abandonment of prostituted women and girls.
If feminism is serious about tackling male violence, it must listen and hear the voices of exited prostituted women. Do not speak over their voices. Do not say that they are misguided about their own realities. No, learn to listen with a open mind.
After all, these are women who have been raped on an industrial scale. They have known of sexual torture, they know the lies that men tell to make their violence invisible. They know what it is to live with violence so long that they had to lose all feelings.
Prostituted women and girls are on the coal-face of male violence.
That is what is wrong with prostitution."
Sunday, 5 July 2009
Monday, 18 May 2009
I’ve been conducting a personal experiment lately and have stopped shaving my legs, because I realised I was doing something without ever having thought about why. My mother visited, and in the same tone she’d use to describe an unwise clothing purchase, declared them 'horrible'. I’ve seen other people call female leg hair ‘disgusting’ and shudder. Given that I'm even embarrassed to show off my hair in the gym changing rooms, I think I have a while to go until I'm happily wearing skirts and letting it flutter in the breeze. Plenty of self-declared feminists have told me that this is not a 'feminist issue', but I am still uneasy about the social pressure involved, especially as for the majority of people gender expectations are clearly involved somewhere.
I fully accept that for many women, hair removal is primarily a matter of personal preference, not of pleasing a partner or being socially acceptable. Insofar as it is a matter of social pride, for them not going swimming when unwaxed is the same as wearing matching underwear in case one is hit by a bus. For some people this is to do with aesthetics and feeling ‘tidy’; some see it a hygiene issue. I don't feel strongly either way.
I do not think there is convincing evidence that a dislike of female body hair is due to primordial concerns with determining health and fertility. It can arguably even indicate health and fertility, and promote hygiene. There are people who like it, and they can’t all be relegated to the ‘fetish’ category. Female hairlessness is not inherently or naturally more ‘beautiful’.
I wonder whether hair removal is due to a desire for symmetry or ‘neatness’. I saw a cartoon recently of a monkey who had shaved her armpits and legs, and left the rest furry – the result was ridiculous – but it is fair to say that in human women when the darkest hair is removed the result is a more ‘uniform’ appearance. However, perhaps because I also have dark arm hair (which I have no intention of removing) I do feel a little like that monkey when I shave my legs, perhaps partly because I am developing notions about simplicity and about not having six different products/machines in my bathroom with which to deal with hair on six different parts of my body.
Finally, I’ve heard of a theory that our wearing of clothes and lack of hair is due to our desire to distinguish ourselves from animals. Given what I know about the rise of ‘civility’ and etiquette, it seems likely that hair removal, for men too but to a lesser extent, has become seen as a sign of civilization, of being removed from baser nature. However, this too is not attractive to all – ask the nearest hippy.
My view is therefore that while there is no strong logical reason to prefer either, it is possible for both hairiness and hairlessness in women to be ‘personal’ preferences, as well as driven by prevalent imagery and social pressure. Nevertheless, we are all creatures of culture, and it is important to examine the basis for that culture.
Part of body adornment and modification is the act of emphasising parts of ourselves which we feel to be beautiful, be it curves, a flat chest, bright eyes, or smooth skin. Emphasis on particular elements varies between places and eras. At some points in time, asserting the differences between the sexes has been seen as desirable, at other times not - ideas about men wearing lace or eyeliner, flat-chested women, and the ‘gender’ of skirts have varied dramatically. I am still open to the idea that there are some biological differences between genders, but they are probably not binary, qualitative or polarised. Choices over which physical elements to emphasise as 'gender-defining' are cultural. When these ideals are in place, people may well choose a particular appearance because it displays their distinct sexual and gender ‘identity’. Sexual and gender identity may well be important, and, unless we all start wearing burqas, they are often going to be expressed (as are other aspects of identity) through semiotics of appearance.
If we assert a particular gender identity by reinforcing and accentuating the differences between the sexes, I think we need to be alert to the risk of essentialism. If we accept norms which state that wearing flowers, lace and long skirts are part of a feminine identity, what stops us from accepting other norms that say pacifism, care for the environment or domestic work are more feminine? Perhaps there is some distinction to be made between humans as physical, sexual beings, and as intellectual, moral and social beings, and as long as we remain aware of this, we can avoid essentialism in our behaviour. To impose gendered beauty standards on others does, however, imply essentialism.
I think it's a problem that anyone should do something which they dislike, but which has no basis in health or hygiene, purely because of social fear. I think it's a problem that anyone should do something they feel neutral about doing when it's not an entirely free choice. Thus I do think it is courageous for women who genuinely wish to stay hairy to do so (or for men who wish to remove their body hair to do so, though I think the social pressure there is less). However, I don’t think it is necessary in order for them to be considered true advocates of gender equality.
Nor is it necessary for women to stop removing their hair if for personal or cultural reasons they do want to, just to remove a ‘binary’ which is not a factor in the rest of their lives. They may be influenced by cultural norms of beauty, but we are all creatures of culture. Perhaps what we do need to do is be aware of the influence of culture. When it becomes extended to norms of beauty that are much more difficult and even damaging to follow, we will then be more cautious.
I do feel strongly that for anyone to call a woman ‘manly’ or unfeminine because she chooses to stay hairy, or to call the practice of not shaving ‘unfeminine’, is to tread on very dangerous ground, whether because it reinforces an often-polarised norm as being essential to a gender identity, or because it implies that gender and sexual identity is and should be key to all of us as people. In more general terms, to describe body hair, which grows naturally, as repulsive is just as bad as telling someone that not using makeup, or wearing trousers to a ball, is revolting. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing the latter, so why allow the former?