Separate intro problem for contrast: powerful women who think “feminist” is a dirty word.
On one hand, we have the Susan Sarandon / Madonna contingent who like Wendy Wasserstein’s preference for the term “humanist” instead of “feminist”. This term sounds more inclusive, is ungendered, and is congruent with my own feminism, which is against all oppression, not only the oppression of women. While I respect their choice, it has the flavor of white privilege and echoes the problem of being “color blind” to race. “I don’t see people as having color” = “I don’t have to acknowledge the problems faced by people of color”. “Rather than fighting against women’s problems, I fight against humanity’s problems” seems to equal, “Women and girls face no special problems in this world,” — a laughable fiction. The more empowering non-feminist feminist term might be Alice Walker’s identification as a womanist.
Weak tea, ladies.
On the other hand, we have conservatives such as Michele Bachmann and Michelle Gellar, who are happy to have privileges hard-won by self-identified feminists (college degrees, the right to vote, the right to equal opportunity employment, etc.,) but would never stand with the women who fought for their rights. “OOH ICKY, heck no, I would never call myself a feminist! It’s so pushy and aggressive and doesn’t acknowledge the importance of men”, usually in God’s Plan. (These women are my sisters but lordy, they are trapped in their thinking.) The “lite” version are people like Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, who don’t seem to know anything about feminism. Believing women can be strong and still wanting to play traditional gender roles in their personal relationships have zero-nil-nit-swabo-nada-nothing to do with feminism, but someone apparently told them they couldn’t be feminists and let their dates buy them dinner.
To quote Handy from “The Tick”: READ A BOOK!
(On that mythical third hand, the gripping hand, the stunted mental tentacle, we have people such as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative party monster who worked hard to kill the Equal Rights Amendment — how unAmerican to want civil equality! — and is kept hidden in the GOP attic because she is two things the party hates in women: smart and ugly. Fox Republic likes women who are pretty and stupid. While Mrs. Schlafly is a roaring hypocrite, being an educated divorcee who has had an abortion who fights to keep other women from having the opportunities she enjoyed, she is not stupid. Evil, yes; stupid, no.)
Look at all the people who are not feminists!
Who DOES identify as feminist? (And perhaps should not?)
Certain dudes. I live in the Pacific Northwest, which is home to a lot of passive aggression hiding behind non-confrontation and masquerading as good manners. There are a lot of guys here who seem sweet and friendly and positive and supportive and nurturing, but only because they have been socialized to appear that way. In relationships, they are sneering, demanding, angry, resentful babies when faced with the most minimal life demands, but in public, they are sleek and smooth and good little boys. Oh, these middle class folks and their love of appearances! Part of this is calling themselves feminists. They might be the dudes of random hygiene and baby dreds, or they might be the neckties at Tektronix who smoke dope on the weekends. Either way, when you scratch their feminism, you get “hey, I never said we were monogamous just because we’ve lived together for six years; you’re a feminist, you shouldn’t be trying to chain me down”, and a wife who also works full time but does almost all the chores, childcare, and shopping. Her last name is hyphenated; his is not.
Certain women. As tepid as the Katy Perrys and Kelly Clarksons, but just this side of the divide. “Well, sure, I’m a feminist. I mean, I guess. I wouldn’t NOT be a feminist. But I do shave my legs and wear makeup and stuff. And I’m straight (not that there is anything wrong with NOT being straight). And my husband, he’s a feminist too, at least he calls himself one. But, yeah, my husband always drives and stuff. He gets carsick if he’s not the driver, which I get, because that happens to me too.” She’s married to the guy at Tektronix. And she feels in control of her life because she chose to knuckle under. Real strength lies in flexibility, right? It’s the sort of flexibility that allows her to cleave unto her husband’s interests (the beer she does not like, the sports she never played, the hobby she tries hard to share) but not mind, not really, that he has never made an effort to see what she sees in the things that thrill her. Her early married life involves convincing herself she’s not a doormat and that her husband’s boots aren’t that muddy, anyway. Common life paths: being traded in for a younger model when the paterfamilias hits man-o-pause; slowly growing a spine and holding her own (so long as she doesn’t leave Nice Village, because that would mean giving up her Nice House and moving to Divorcetown); and/or eroding into a conservative out of isolation from youth and fear of change.
(Aside: aging so often leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with self, really a tunnel vision focusing on self, that people celebrate as “finally becoming independent” and “taking control of my life” and all kinds of other self-petting BS. A lifetime of social skills are slowly replaced by selfishness and a demanding nature and an I’m-too-old-to-give-a-shit-you-can’t-make-me attitude. It is possible to cultivate wisdom, patience, grace, and a generous heart; I’m not saying these folks aren’t out there. But the voice of the zeitgeist for the next generations is one of a petty egomaniac.)
Yeah, but what about the sluts? You promised us sluts!
And sluts you shall have, my pretties. But first, let me say that the word “slut” is used here as a social type and should not be construed as an insult. Mentally substitute “Bad Girl” or “Libertine” or whatever, so long as there is an implication of visibility, aggressive sexuality, and extroversion in non-mainstream ways. This is not a meaningful identifier. As a label, it’s about as value-descriptive as a sticker that says HI MY NAME IS:_____.
Since you don’t know me, let me add that I have nothing against wild styles, wild behavior, or any degree of promiscuity. I know you can sleep with a passel of folks and still be as sacred in your person as the Virgin Mary, still be as sweet and good-hearted as Snow White. Nor do I have anything against women who dress and comport themselves like two-peso whores, strictly because those whores can be wonderful people too, and clothes themselves do not possess, impart, or deny morality. You can have a dirty mind and work your body like a rubber ball and still have a solid-gold character (as explained in the Song of Saint Rizzo, the Book of Grease, Act IV).
What is in your underwear, and what you do with it, does not make you a person of moral refinement OR moral depravity. Period. This is part of my feminism: that virginity is a social construct, that most moral codes are keys to the commodification of women and girls, that the double standard for men works against both men and women, and that men are also deeply harmed by patriarcho-religious BS. We’re all victims here. That said: the problems of men and women are not equal. Men have more physical power and more socioeconomic power. While males are more prone to stunted emotional expression and a twisted sense of entitlement, females are more prone to being victims of violence, loss of franchise, physical disfigurement, and other, harsher penalties.
One of those penalties is for sexual freedom. The main argument for mutilating the genitals of girls at puberty, in the many countries where it occurs, is to deprive females of sexual pleasure. Whether that pleasure is undeserved, or makes them rival men, or whatever, the ultimate problem is that it is a threat to the social dominance of men. It keeps women “pure” (a purity that men don’t seem to need), whether that is to make them good mothers, to atone for the sin of Eve, or to keep them submissive to the proper authority of men and worthy of wifehood. Consider issues of clothing modesty, social judgment, the blaming of rape victims by other women, and other typical problems in Western culture. American government traditions were begun by Puritans in the northeast, and eventually our nation’s capitol was raised in this center. Those values were adopted wholesale and passed down through law and culture. And they stink.
Burlesque artists, dominatrices, sex workers, strippers, “artist’s models”, and feminism.
The goods at last! Recently an article by Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast presented Karley Sciortino as a case and asked if she was the new face of feminism. Karley Sciortino has a blog called “Slutever”, which involves sexually provocative activities and sly commentary; she is not my concern here. My concern is the question: is she the new face of feminism? The answer is an easy “no”, for me. My comment on the post:
“Being free to behave as you wish is the result of feminism, not an act in support of it, in my opinion. There are many types of feminism. Mine has very little in common with hers — so little that it’s impossible to compare them. But the word still has some meaning, and calling yourself a feminist when you encourage the worst problem women face doesn’t work. I fully support her right to express herself and present herself as she wishes. But is it a specifically feminist act to cater to the oppressor? Not so much, no.
“It’s true that my wave of feminists tends to see sexually aggressive / open females as heading back to the pedestal/gutter binary we fought to destroy. Her generation is free to behave in a hypersexual way, but honestly, women have always been free to do that because men were in power, and men enjoyed it. Men still are and men still do and still keep women in the binary cage because of it. It’s challenging to support behavior that feeds the beast, you know?”
I have had friends in all the categories of the section header, and most of them consider themselves feminists. Dressing provocatively, twerking and twirling, selling your services — all that and more — do not prevent you from wanting or deserving social equality. And I fully acknowledge that no feminist has to conform to my wave of feminism, which was (sometimes stupidly) preoccupied with gaining the respect of the oppressor. (It’s not stupid when you are convincing those in power to share it; that’s being smart for the cause.) Part of that respect involved continuing to conform to a the Modern Puritan Establishment standard, for some people; burning bras, but wearing turtlenecks, even if what we wanted was to go barechested in the summer heat, as men do. And for others, it meant taking advantage of new-won sexual freedom by engaging in more sex than we really wanted, or with people we didn’t really like, to exert our power to do so — it’s hard to say “no” when you’ve only just won the right to say “yes” — but we had yet to learn that we had the power to say “no”, too. It was a hard time if you were not a libertine, but a good time if you were ready to fight for your rights.
You can march to the White House in glitter paint and pasties, but if you are not marching, you are not the face of feminism. The new generation does not have a goddamned clue what it was like to have to wear skirts to work, get sent home for not wearing a slip or pantyhose, lose custody of children for dating after a divorce, be refused the right to divorce without proof of infidelity, or have no legal recourse after blatant sexual harassment on the job, and a thousand other atrocities. That’s part of what allows them to think feminism is a dirty word. But while feminism has earned women the freedom to dress as they will and not bow to the desire to earn the pseudo-respect of Decent People™, it’s not a feminist act to conform to the expectations mainstream society has for Sluts while asking for nothing better.
Most of the body workers I know either live solely in society’s gutter or they maintain rigorous separation of identities so that they don’t lose their day jobs. Living in the closet is not a feminist act. But feminism one day might get you out of the closet. Stripping, strutting, and selling it are fine. But they aren’t feminist acts. If you’d like to merge your worlds, work for social justice. Take a stand and come out of the slut closet. But do not assume that showing the world your cooch is a blow for justice. It might make you feel in control of your body, and that is a wonderful thing. But is it knocking down stereotypes, opening doors to insight, helping mainstream society learn (or demanding that they acknowledge) that women have value beyond what they keep in their panties? No. It is not.