The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.A professor of mine used to say that if Marx had paid more attention to what he was writing in those two sentences, he would have seen why Marxism had to fail.
From The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
I think if we pay attention we might also grasp why feminism had to produce exactly the sort of slutty dress we see in young women today. In moments of revolution, people lose all grasp on who and what they are because they have swept away all the roles and expressions that used to serve to give them a sense of who and what they were. With all that gone, they have no choice but to fall back on what are little better than historical caricatures.
At the local La Senza they have a display out front under a sign that says, "What's hot now." And what is hot now? There is a merry widow, baby-doll inspired stuff, push up bras and low-cut panties, which is to say lingerie inspired by the 19th century, lingerie inspired by the 1950s, lingerie inspired by the1960s and lingerie inspired by the 1970s. Anxiously conjuring spirits from the past indeed.
But why dress like sluts? Why not tomboys or female jocks? Or like nerdy intellectuals? Or why not dress in men's clothes? Or why not be like classical goddesses? Well, the short answer is that all those things were tried and the options are all still available but girls prefer slutwear in a big way. After fighting this for a while, feminists have now caved and are also embracing slutwear in a desperate attemmpt to seem relevant.
Why? Why? Tell them that it's human nature
If it's any consolation, I'm just as appalled that I'm quoting a Michael Jackson song as you are. And just waving at human nature is a circular thing anyway. Why do people always behave this way? Because it's human nature. How do we know it's human nature? Because people always behave this way.
A better way of getting at it might be to quote the old saw, Human nature doesn't change." But that isn't quite right either. A more precise way of saying that is that even if human nature does change, it changes very, very slowly. Glaciers move at break-neck speed compared to evolution. If a time machine dumped you back two thousand years ago and the locals didn't kill you, you could figure out the language and the customs and become a citizen of wherever you were.
So, however we explain girl culture in 1951 and girl culture in 2011, we have to accept that girls themselves have not changed. The needs and drives are the same in both cases. If we think of it in terms of the cultural significance of "purity" we have to recognize that the girls of 1951 were no more or less pure than the girls of 2011. The cultural attitude has changed. Girls today don't seem interested in being thought pure but that is just the culture on the surface, today's girl is just as pure as her historical counterparts. And whatever the surface culture was telling us, the typical 17 year old girl of 1951 was just as impure as her counterpart today.
But I can't actually prove any of this for just the reasons I note above: it's circular. The only proof that the same things will keep happening again and again every time people attempt to make a revolutionary change is that the same things keep happening again and again every time people attempt to make a revolutionary change.
As Wittgenstein put it, the most you can do in situations like this is to keep assembling reminders. "See, this is what always happens and it's happening again." Or, "See, this thing that strikes you as odd or unprecedented, is actually pretty ordinary in human history."
And I think that is the thing about slutwear: it's an ordinary and common thing. It is not and should not be alarming because it is what girls will do if no one stops them and it is what they will always do given the chance. It is a positive sign more than anything else. If we needed confirmation that girls and women really are emancipated in our culture, we need look no further than at how girls dress.
We may not like it much (not surprisingly, the people who seem most upset about slutwear are men who are getting to be just a little too old to be pursuing such women and women who are getting to be just a little too old to compete with them). But even if we were right to criticize these girls who dress like sluts, freedom is freedom and that includes the freedom to fall on your face. Saying, "You're free but you have to use that freedom to do the sorts of things that I think are best for you", is fraudulent.
For what it's worth, young women are just rediscovering what it means to be a woman. The way girls and boys dress now is a function of all the old rules being thrown out and people having to rediscover how to do it. And, like it or not, to be a woman is to be a public sexual being in a way that is not true of men. That is the one constant of female dress in every era and culture. The bikini and the burka are two very different ways to deal with this fundamental fact but they are two different ways to deal with the same fundamental fact and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.