Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lipstick Feminism, or Why Dressing Like a Prostitute Still Promotes Sexism

I'm sure by now everyone and their mother has heard about the whole "Elevatorgate" thing, and the ensuing blogoshpere explosion over... well, everything involved (if you didn't – and I'll admit, I was in the dark for a while myself on this one – you can learn more about the whole controversy via Jen McCreight's blogpost on the matter or Greta Christina's great piece on why it's important, or really, just about any blog with any kind of opinions on atheism/feminism). Maybe you also saw Matt Dillahunty's awesome first (and probably only) go at drag this week on Atheist Experience.

With all that as a lead-in (and also because I feel like it), I figured now would be a great time to talk about how pissed it makes me when people either claim that feminists are manhating ugly women who need to get laid, or make the seemingly opposite claim that women embracing the culturally-prescribed social norm of looking hot will magically make misogyny a thing of the past.

Actually, now that I think about it, I really don't have to talk much about that first thing other than to say, "That's wrong, as well as stupid." Feminism opposes misogyny, but this is not the same as hating men; wanting to take privilege out of the equation doesn't mean feminists think males are inferior, but rather that we'd all like to be equal, thank you very much. Feminists aren't uglier than non-feminists any more than atheists are uglier than theists (though Conservapedia would have you think we're all fatties). Feminism is not restricted to females, just as advocating for gay rights isn't restricted to people who identify as LGBTetc. As regards to getting laid, well,  I doubt we need it any more desperately than anyone else, and certainly less than some!

On the other hand, I do think that there remains a lot to be said about whether Lipstick/Stiletto Feminism hurts or helps the cause of gender equality. To be clear, I'll outline the basic argument that I'm ranting against as something along the lines of:
Women and men are genetically different! It's not something society just made up, therefore there is a legitimate reason that men and women be treated differently. If women want to be equal, they can't just go around trying to steal men's territory; they have to be sexy and sleek and use the sexual lust they engender as power! (This isn't an actual quote from anyone; but it's the idea as I understand it.)
To put it quite frankly, I suspect the genetic differences between men and women have very little to do with how society has ended up differentiating male and female gender roles. In fact, if we examine other species with differentiated looks and behaviors, it seems that it isn't uncommon for females to be badass and hard-working, or for males to be pretty-looking or nearly useless. Examples in other species notwithstanding, there is absolutely no reason to insist upon separate gender roles just because "that's the way things are." I have yet to see any evidence that women are at any disadvantage to men when it comes to intelligence, working hard, or being one badass motherfucker. Saying that women are encroaching on men's territory, whether it's intellectual or social or academic, is offensive, no matter who's saying it.

Beyond that, saying that being sleek, sexy, and lustworthy (or raising children, or baking, or going for a mani/pedi and cocktails with girlfriends) is the exclusive domain of women is likewise offensive. And not even just to women. If a dude wants to get his nails done before going out for appletinis with his BFFs, that shouldn't be a problem. In fact, in an ideal world, no one should even question his sexuality. There is no reason whatsoever that a straight dude can't appreciate getting a little appearance maintenance done and having a tasty drink with good friends.

Similarly, there should be nothing wrong with a woman who doesn't wear uncomfortable heels (that can cause foot deformities or other injury), wears practical and inexpensive clothing rather than miniskirts or the other impractical or overpriced clothing marketed to women, and stays away from makeup, which is largely unregulated by any health organization and can cause health problems (one of my professors swore up and down that he could tell female corneas from male postmortem because female corneas would be scratched and cloudy from infections likely related to the use of mascara). A woman shouldn't even need to validate these choices, or even have definitive reasons for them. Because I wanted to is a perfectly acceptable answer when it comes to how someone wants to look.

I have no problem with women wearing whatever the hell they want. But unless you're saying that men should try to look as fetching and sexual as possible as well (at which point I'd argue for bringing back the codpiece and hose), I don't think there's any reason to argue for power through sexual appeal. Claiming that sexual power is the arena in which women are superior to men is just as sexist as saying that women are stupider than men.

To put it succinctly:

When you get right down to it, what the man in that picture has on is no more ridiculous that what the woman is wearing, yet the woman's outfit is "sexy," while the man's is "gross." I can think of no other reason for this than the woman being viewed in a sexual light while the man is not.

Now for the other question: Why is this important?

In the atheist movement in particular, there has been a rather large push for a feminist attitude recently. People have pointed out the disproportionately low number of visible female atheists, and there has been a lot of discussion on how to fix this imbalance, or even on how to just not be an offputting creeper. Personally, I think that while high-creeper levels isn't the main problem, dealing with it can help.

I think the real problem, the problem that leads to creeperly dudes, is the difference in perception of males and females. Males are seen as "the norm;" they're the standard, and women are compared to that standard. This makes for seeing women as a different category of person, rather than as just another human being. It leads to seeing women first as female, and second as people. Things like the first response a Free@VT officer made when a member said he might be able to get a female friend to attend – "Is she hot?" – need to be addressed.

Lipstick feminism, in endorsing the view that women should do more to differentiate themselves from men, does a lot to hurt the cause of actual equality. Gender equality will not be realized until women are seen as human first, rather than as female, because as with the Civil Rights Movement, separate is inherently unequal, no matter how it's dressed.

All that said, I still totally want Kate Beaton's latest poster, in all its faux-feminist excellence.


  1. When this post popped up on my Google+ feed, I was skeptical. However, after reading it, I think it's brilliant. I'm a fellow atheist and feminist blogger, and I could never quite put my finger on how to explain why women dressing in revealing clothing is so bad for women. Particularly in light of the Slutwalks, which I wrote a post in defense of. Women should be able to dress how they want without danger of rape and victim blaming, but it irritates me when women have cleavage spilling out and they say they're advancing the feminist cause.

    Granted, it's not the fault of women that some men leer and treat us as less than full people. But "using sexuality as power" only brings the very wrong kind of attention.

  2. Just wanted to say: I love Slutwalks, and I'd like to be very clear on the fact that even if some girl is drunkenly stumbling down city alleys completely naked, she does not "deserve" to be molested or raped any more than a good little girl sitting at home in the suburbs wearing a baggy turtleneck and slacks. Anyone who disagrees can, quite frankly, fuck off.

    People need to understand the difference between deserving something and unfortunately being at high risk of something. The latter does not imply the former.

  3. Yes because our sexuality is 'genetic'... *scoff* Sexuality is a product of how humans have evolved, how our reproductive systems function,and society. The true power is the control of the ovum.

  4. I don't know what all the fuss is about. Rebecca Watson just asked the guys to please stop doing that and she got the most amazing stick for it. A lot of it from women too. Did I miss something really bad that she said, or are a few people completely overreacting? And Dawkins!?? At least we can rely on Jen, Greta and PZ to get it right.

  5. From what I understand, there was some other stuff mixed up in the fallout from Elevatorgate beyond the Rebecca Watson's request that guys make an effort to not be creepers, but I don't know exactly what it is, so I really won't make any comments about anything beyond saying that she was well within her rights to point out that she was uncomfortable in that situation and that it was a poor decision on the part of the guy who approached her in the elevator.

  6. The basic ideas of stiletto feminism involve using vestiges of patriarchy (male-established beauty standards, objectifying clothing/labels, accepting the meaning of sex as is) and trying to find or make an equal system out of that. You cannot create an equal system from within an unequal one. You must create an alternate system by refuting and dismantling the foundations and practices of the old one. Especially if the goal is equality.

    The problem with lipstick feminism is that it's saying it is possible to play into the patriarchy while fighting it. I personally don't think this is possible. How can one create equality from flaunting appeal when that sex appeal and its elements were created by the dominant group and are part of the unequal system? I also think there is a disconnect between lipstick feminists and other more social change oriented feminists in that the argument always boils down to a woman's choice to do whatever she wants. Which is important, but ask yourself if gender equality exists in A) a society under patriarchal norms which allows women to have choice to do what they want within those norms or B) a society that is built on the premise of equality. So it is a choice issue, but it is moreover a social issue because our choice (and the likelihood that we'd make this vs that choice) are circumscribed by and guided by social norms. It is a systematic problem, and so it needs to be solved with a systematic perspective as well as an individual one.

    Just my opinion. Nice article, and I hope you write more.

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  8. The last picture actually discredits the conventional feminism and reinforces the essentialist view of the Lipstick's.
    It just shows that you can't apply the same standards to men and women and expect equality to pop up. It won't happen. Because men and women do have instinctive differences.

    Looks have been more of a power to women than they have to men. And this has been the case in all known cultures, throughout the ages.

    But it should be considered as an addition, nothing more. An additional to the rest of civil equal rights women should have with men. An addition to the equally successful career a woman can achieve than man's.
    Nothing more than an acknowledgement of a slightly different intrinsic nature of men and women. Because, in my opinion, embracing them will help us more than ignoring or resenting them.