Monday, January 28, 2013

Feminisism subverted

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” 
The  quote is from Simone de Beauvoir. It appeared on Chantelle lingerie's Facebook page this morning with the following question appended: "Don't you agree?"

The irony, of course, is that de Beauvoir would not agree to her own words in this context. Her point was to destroy the claim that women were women because of biology, temperament or intellect. Chantelle's point is that being a woman is an achievement and that a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for being a woman is becoming a convincing sexual being in the eyes of others. In other words, that biology (in several senses of the word) matters a whole lot.

And it matters in the eyes of others!

What, did feminism not happen?

The two views are not directly opposed in content, as we shall see, they agree on the salient points, but they are very much opposed in intent.

Unlike her friend and companion Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir did not believe women were free or could be free in the radical stoic sense. You couldn't simply reject the culture you were born in and say, "I'm going to be a woman entirely on my own terms." What it is to be a woman, in her view, will always be determined by the male gaze; she will become what she is seen as. Feminism, as a consequence, was a project to change society right from the beginning.

That is far from crazy. Anyone who has watched high school kids in action will know that kids tend to become what their peers see them as. Three is no practical reason why the wimpy boy couldn't start working out and become athletic and strong but, generally speaking, he doesn't. And, in this, his situation is analogous to de Beauvoir's "woman". It is the gaze of other students, the cruelly contemptuous attitude other boys and girls  take towards him for not being masculine enough, that drives the identity he assumes. And, fascinatingly enough, he rarely changes; he tends to remain the effeminate type that others hate right through high school.

Of course, biology may have something to do with it. He may not be genetically inclined to exercise or muscle development. Except that I knew guys like him in high school who later turned around and became quite athletic and manly. Talking to them later, it was really obvious that they became athletic to compensate for how they were treated in high school.

But they couldn't do it while still in high school. The wimpy boy had to change his society before he could change himself. He did that by graduating and going elsewhere.

It's not hard to think of reasons why that might be. To work out, he'd have to go to the weight room and gym and those areas are dominated by just the people who'd mock him. He could, in theory, get weights to work out at home or join a private club but that is unlikely. So he remained, for the duration of high school anyway, exactly what they expected of him.

Human types are the result of moral syndromes. That is to say, there are sets of moral values that go together and when you adopt any one value, a whole boatload of others tend to go with it. We like to fantasize that this isn't the case. We want to believe that the cello-playing truck driver should be an option available to every kid but the plain fact is that the people you meet at cello school aren't going to admire truck drivers and the people you meet at truck-driving school aren't going to admire cellists. You may feel very strongly that it shouldn't be that way but it is. If you want to go to cello school or truck-driving school, you assume a whole lot of values that go with it.

Of course, one is a woman or a man; you don't choose these identities, and nothing transsexuals imagine to be the case changes this. A whole syndrome-load of values comes along with it. And the syndrome comes along no matter what you do. You can, as our culture sometimes likes to pretend, that it doesn't matter but it matters and it matters a whole lot.

And the odd thing about these roles is that in western culture to be a woman is far more of a sexual role than to be a man. No one necessarily expects a man to be a sexual being. Everyone, particularly other women, expects a woman to be a sexual being. If she isn't she is regarded as something of a failure.

That is why there is no multi-billion dollar industry selling male-sexuality to men the way there is such an industry, including Chantelle lingerie, for women.

Why this remains the case is an interesting thing. There are women, although not many, who buy out of the identity. They reject the notion that they have to present themselves as sexual beings. And there are far more women who, although they go along with the notion, do so with some feeling of doing so under duress. If large numbers of them decided they just weren't going to play the game anymore, we'd see massive social change.

But they don't.

And it is important not to say more than we know. We could speculate about the whys and wherefores, but the simple truth is that we don't know. This isn't a complete return to traditional sexual roles, although we don't know what the future might hold. All we know is that in this one area, it is very much like it used to be.

And I'll stop there and end with a reminiscence. I remember very clearly the moment when the women I knew started to shift back. And you could explain it with two words: Annie Lennox. For the women I knew, Lennox was the one who wrapped the notion that a woman had some sort of obligation be a sexual being in a feminist mantle. I remember seeing her perform live sometime in the middle 1980s and she came out on stage in a black dress with a red lace bra clearly visible underneath it. That seems tame by today's standards, but no one but strippers dressed like that in 1984, and only while working.

I was part of a group of about fourteen people and expected that the conversation afterwards would be dominated by the men but it was the women who were smitten. They couldn't stop talking about her.

Here is a little exercise in visual analysis for you. Watch the video below a few times. Notice the narrative line. It's ostensibly about a woman gaining freedom from a nasty, a possibly abusive boyfriend. But if you look at just the visuals—and do make sure to watch it at least once with the sound off—she achieves "freedom" by becoming more feminine, more sexually feminine. Watch especially for the moment when the earrings go on. That begins the transition. And of all places for this to begin, it happens, wait for it,  in front of a mirror! The visuals tell a different story of what it means to be yourself and that story is all about sexual self-presentation.

This wasn't the end of feminism, of course, although it was clearly in decline from that moment on.  If anything, we were headed back to a kind of femininity that hadn't been seen for a long, long time and Annie Lennox was the one who sent young women this message.

And  a whole lot of young women heaved a sigh of relief and went out and bought themselves a red lace bra just like the one they saw Annie Lennox wearing.

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