Friday, February 28, 2014

What feminism is up against

Right from its roots, feminism has sought to transform society in ways that go far beyond just relations between the sexes. Which is why Ann Althouse's question is such a challenge for feminism:
What if women became fully autonomous, empowered individuals and nothing changed? What would that mean?
Althouse was, in turn responding to something Kim Gordon, who sang with a band you've probably never heard of called Sonic Youth, had said about sexism in the music industry then,
"In rock music people have certain assumptions that it makes people more enlightened and it really doesn't. It was the same thing playing for Neil Young's audience [in 1991] and being reminded that hippies can be really narrow-minded. We were around people who felt like, 'We're groovy, we're cool,' but they were so sexist. It was just in your face all the time."
 and now,
"Are women using their sexuality to sell records because they're empowered? In which case yeah, great. But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest? Male executives don't have to say anything because women know. And it's all aesthetically pleasing but it gets a little boring after a while if that's the only side that gets promoted."

I want to slow the music down a bit here because there was an explicit detail about "sexism" then that has gotten lost. The way Althouse has clipped the first paragraph leaves out something that I think is rather important. Here is the head she clips off:
When Sonic Youth signed to Geffen Records after 1988's alt-rock landmark Daydream Nation, Gordon's lyrics became more explicitly feminist in songs such as "Kool Thing", "Tunic (Song for Karen)" and "Swimsuit Issue", which she wrote after discovering that one Geffen executive was being sued for sexual harassment. "I guess I had an authority problem," she says. "In rock music people have certain assumptions ... [here the quote carries on as above].
Back in 1988 an executive at Geffen was being sued for sexual harassment. Gordon wasn't thinking just of men thinking about women in certain ways but of something vile that an actual man had done to an actual woman. And her point wasn't that there was sexual harassment back then too but that men right at the heart of an industry that presented itself as "cool and progressive" did this.

Next, let's note that the song Gordon wrote about the incident was called "Swimsuit Issue". So how did Sports Illustrated get into this mix? It got into the mix because there was an unspoken premise at work that might be expressed like this, "When women's sexuality is used to sell magazines or pop songs it creates a social environment where men think of women themselves as products available for consumption."

You could argue for or against that proposition but even if, like me, you are skeptical, you have to take it seriously. It's a legitimate, coherent and plausible argument.

If we return now, to the second half of the Gordon quote, we can see that that hypothesis has somehow been undermined in Gordon's eyes in the ensuing years (and Althouse takes that as read).
Are women using their sexuality to sell records because they're empowered? In which case yeah, great. But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest?
Gordon is not just allowing that women might be willingly doing the dirty work for male executives.  She is allowing that these women might be doing something for themselves that is a positive good as in, "yeah, great" by "using their sexuality". That really muddies the water. It's almost as if she is arguing that the means can justify the end.

The earlier argument was that if you use women's sexuality to sell product, you commodify women along with the product. But now Gordon, and many others, want to allow that the intention and the person who does this intending can change the moral status of the act. This new premise might be stated as follows: "If a woman freely and willingly uses her sexuality to sell product because it makes her feel empowered that is not only acceptable but good."

We might wonder what exactly causes this empowerment. Suppose, for example, that a woman set out to use her sexuality to sell music and it didn't work. What would she feel if the product was ignored? That wouldn't be very empowering. The product is now her sexuality after all. Or, suppose no one bought her music but that the promotional material became very popular because people liked the way her sexuality was presented but didn't like her music. Would that be empowering? Or suppose she sells both her sexuality and her music and she feels empowered by this but a collateral result is that the millions of men who buy her music start treating the women in their lives as sexual commodities?

Gordon's challenge is that she fully understands all these issues but she can see, as anyone can see, that millions upon millions of women are actively seeking empowerment by presenting themselves as sexual beings and that they are even willingly competing with other women as sexual beings. And they are not doing this to get sex so much as sexual status. They seem to regard the recognition this status brings as important, if not essential, to their happiness.

It gets worse.
But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest? Male executives don't have to say anything because women know. 
First of all, notice that there is no necessary connection between the claim made in the first sentence and that made in the second sentence. The earlier argument makes a clear and arguable claim about a link between the cause (using sex to sell) and the effect (women being reduced to objects for consumption). Now it's women who are doing the thing that makes Gordon uncomfortable and men aren't actually doing anything to bring it about (but we know it's what they want). Blaming men is more of a reflex reaction than an argument. (And just try reversing that and claiming that you know women want some sort of sexual outcome even though they aren't overtly doing anything to bring it about.)

"With some women its almost inbred..." That "almost" is doing a lot of important fudging work. What Gordon means, but is having a hard time bringing herself to say, is that some women have a very strong desire to achieve sexual status in their own eyes and in the eyes of others that cannot easily be explained as the result of social conditioning; that's the point of saying "almost inbred". And that was part of the point of my earlier post, for while it is certainly true that you can sell beer, music and domain names to men by using women's sexuality, it is also true that you can get very rich using women's sexuality to sell, wine, beer, music, condos, chocolate, cigarettes, TV shows, panties and many other things to women. And you can so far more relentlessly. The Go Daddy ads stood out for two reasons: they stood out because they featured scantily clad women and they stood out because they used sex to sell corporate services. The vast majority of ads for corporate services don't use sex. Ads for products aimed at women are drenched in women's sexuality.

If you want to sell a product to anyone, you have to link the product to their aspirations. What Gordon and Althouse are implicitly acknowledging is that as they have gained more autonomy and sense of empowerment,  women have become more and more likely to seek out products that are associated with women they can see as sexually aspirational role models. This has become so obvious that it cannot be denied anymore.

Go to the New York Times bestsellers lists and visit the web pages of the authors. Look especially at male writers who appeal primarily to male readers and at female writers who appeal primarily to female readers. Ask yourself which group is most aggressively using their own sexuality to sell product? Don't worry, it won't be hard to tell; the difference is not subtle. Men are far more able and willing to separate their sexual status from other issues when determining their own worth and the worth of other men than women are able to do when determining their own worth and the worth of other women. Sheryl Sandberg has to be a sexually aspirational role model to attract large numbers of women to buy her book. Yes, some women would buy her book anyway but most would not. If Sandberg were the male equivalent of a man like Donald Trump (which is to say a man who is only attractive to women because he is rich and/or powerful and otherwise is a bit of a joke) women would not have been nearly as interested in her book.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1980s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer succeeded as a sex-advice columnist by being the very opposite of sexually aspirational. People who listened to her needed to be able to separate the woman giving the advice from what they thought of as sexual. If Dr. Ruth had been young, slim and sexually desirable, it would have detracted from her credibility. Today, the opposite is true and that is due in a large part to market choices made by autonomous, empowered women.
 What if women became fully autonomous, empowered individuals and nothing changed? What would that mean?

I don't the full answer but one thing it would mean is the end of feminism as we know it. That's why somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of women tell pollsters they don't identify as feminists. It's why so many female pop music stars tell journalists that they believe in equality of the sexes but not feminism.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with feminisim is how you end your post below, it never took human nature into account. This is also true of the gay rights movement. They both thought they could intellectually change human nature, and why wouldn't they think that, the intellectuals from the elite schools told them they could, simply by passing laws. Camille Paglia--a self-described lesbian--has long criticized feminists for minimizing or ignoring the biological differences between men and women, and completely rejects the notion that people are born gay, both groups in turn condemn her. Now Christina Hoff Summers (The War on Boys) is adding her voice. It is interesting that Hollywood's depiction of strong powerful women occurred long before feminism, in the 1930s and 1940s, today we have, well, what you describe. It will take at least a generation to undo the damage of "unintended consequences" these attempts at social engineering have created.