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2006-07-19

We're doing it all ourselves, y'know

I got a bit ranty in a comments thread over at LP today, but managed to epitomise some arguments much better than I often manage to do, so I thought I'd excerpt them over here as well. The blockquotes are from the commentor to whom I'm responding:

"And to the extent that women are victims of "fashion", there is a huge difference between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. In the non-Muslim world the sisters are pretty much doing it to themselves. Most men frankly couldn't give a damn about underweight, stretched-skin dolly birds - so don't blame men for the self inflicted injuries that women inflict on themselves. In the west men have largely relinquished reproductive and economic control over women - all that remains is for the women to take responsibility for their situation."

This was my response:

If most men don't care about underweight dolly-birds, why do so many men continue to buy the porn and raunchmags and movies that star such women? Why aren't men writing to the publishers and saying "give us real curvy women with real tits not plastic ones"? The market seems to be failing rather spectacularly to reflect your assertion that most men don't actually like skinny sexbots with boob jobs.

Of course, what the skinny sexbots do represent that comes with a lot of societal approval is women engaged in unhealthy disciplines involving a great deal of effort, self-control and self-stifling in order to be "fashionable". And the male purchaser approval of all that effort put into self-mutilation, starvation and self-negation appears to outweigh their, according to you, actual physical preferences, doesn't it?

There must be a word to describe an attitude whereby large numbers of men encourage large numbers of women to engage in peculiar practises that men don't actually care about except for the fact that they keep those women more worried about those peculiar practises than they are about other matters. Even though the men aren't thinking too much about the process whereby their approval perpetuates and facilitates the peculiar practises, they notice that the women engaged in the peculiar practises are more malleable, and they definitely like that.

What might that word be?

He came back with:

Interesting use of the word "encourage" Tigtog. Not "require, "mandate" or "force"? Why would that be? Because as I said above, the sisters are doing it to themselves - and the few men that are encouraging them are probably clothes designers.

I would submit that even "encourage" is too strong a word, and stand by my view that men prefer a well built 12-14 to an anorexic 8-10. Last time I looked at a porn magazine, the women were generally well-built young things - certainly not the victims of starvation diets etc.

There must be a word for an attitude where women self abuse and mutilate, and blame men for the behaviour. What would that word be I wonder?

After a bit of snark about how I just bet he's one of those lantern-jawed chaps who are too strongwilled to be influenced by enormous advertising expenditure, here I go again:

Is not society's traditional view of gender roles one of forceful men and malleable women? Haven't men who married non-malleable women faced the opprobrium of their own gender as being hen-pecked, be-shrewed, proven less than real men? Aren't openly non-malleable women less likely to find a male partner?

Hasn't one of the ways women packaged themselves for the traditional marriage market, in nearly every culture in the world, been a fetishised display of discomfort for the purpose of proving general malleability? Even in "advanced" countries the vestiges of this traditional gender divide are obvious simply by contrasting male and female clothing conventions.

I'll believe misogyny has disappeared when fetishised female discomfort is not bestselling high and street fashion. I'll believe it's disappeared when corporate male bosses don't insist that their female employees wear makeup, hosiery and high heels in their workplace dress standards: when being just clean/neat/tidy (like the male employees) is not considered "unfeminine".

I'll believe misogyny is all women's fault when I no longer hear the same men who make the most merciless mock of women as slaves to fashion also make the most spiteful remarks about women who gain weight, all the while homosocially boasting to each other over the fellatio skills of their trophy girlfriends.

In a society where most people in both genders are gatekeeping the forceful:malleable gender divide as the pair-bonding norm, and discomfort fetishing is the major marker of malleability, it's not fair to say that women are only doing it to themselves. Male expectations are at fault, and in a society where men still earn/own more, that tips the balance further. It should be noted that lots of men suffer needlessly from the forceful:malleable role demands as well.

(Usual caveats about generalisations of gender roles/expectations not applying to all individuals of the most closely associated sex apply)

I brought it over here because I hope to get some more thoughtful responses than I'm likely to get from the commentor in question. Fire away.

14 comments:

Vicki said...

These comments are just first thoughts; I'm afraid that if I don't reply now, I won't get a chance to later on, so I'll just shoot from the hip now. Please keep in mind that I haven't refined any of these ideas.

My very first thought was that we do do it to ourselves. The men I know well enough to judge in this regard may enjoy looking at the fantasy babes with boy's hips and fake boobs, but they don't regard them as real women, they're fantasy objects. And when it comes to the real women in their lives, they like what they've got, love handles and tummies and all. I'm sure that men such as you describe exist, but my guess is that they're young, ego-centric and not representative of the gender. It's been my own experience that women are much much harder on themselves and other women than men in general are.

As for business wear, I don't know the norms in Oz, but here in western New York (unless one is in the fashion industry) women are not forced into high heels, and in fact that kind of sexualized fashion is quietly frowned upon. Real business women don't dress the way they do on television, with the cleavage and split skirts and high heels. Real business women wear suits, either skirted or with pants, with low-heeled pumps. Business men are not required to simply be "clean, neat and tidy." They also wear suits with neckties. If the men in an organization can get away with polo shirts and khakis, so can the women. One can make the case that women in skirts must wear hose, and I have no real defense to that except to say that I've never found hose to be particularly oppressive, once we got away from the garter belts of my yout'. (Garters and Carnaby Street minis. There was a challenge, why, the young girls today don't know what fashion oppression is!)

I think that a lot of what you assert is true for young women, teens and in their twenties. But I also know that young women dress at least as much for each other as they do for the young men in their lives. And they will run into the occasional yahoo who insists on fetishized clothing for his "girl," but as you said in your "Roota" essay, there are more of the good guys than the Rootas. If young women as a group refused to wear this bare fashion, it would stop. But they won't, and the pressure isn't coming from the boys. It's from their best friends.

kate said...

Women are more articulate when they gate keep these things - they know what all the gear is called and they feel free to mention it if you're not doing what they think you should.

Men and boys still do it though. They do it by questioning a woman or girl's sexuality, by commenting on the day when she does feel like dressing up girly, by not designing clothes in her size, with pockets (yes! I want to carry my car keys!), and by ignoring them in favour of the girly girls in bars.

That's not to say that it's all men (hell my bloke refuses to go anywhere with me or his female friends when I'm/they're wearing heels - he doesn't like hearing the whining when they get uncomfortable) or even any of the blokes I choose to hang out with. But it is blokes on the street, at work, and at school. It is also the partners of some women (why they put up with someone who datters their self-confidence I'll never know). It is blokes in the pub like the one who called my friends sluts when they beat him in a skulling competition (to win trivia, it's one of the less intellectual bits).

Don Quixote said...

I'll start out by saying that I love women in all shapes and sizes - it's variety that makes the world spin.

I'd say that it's a 50/50 split in the responsibility stakes for this issue: that there's a market interested in viewing a largely unobtainable body shape can't be denied, and this must to a large degree encourage the industry pressure on normal women to conform to bizarre expectations. That's men's culpability right there.

But there seems to be an ample amount of women willing to fill that demand, and not just that, there seems to be many women willing to actively make their fellow women feel pretty shit about their failure to meet the bar being set. I have women like Paris Hilton in mind here. That's women's culpability right there.

I remember a terrible magazine cover featuring a sprawled, semi-naked Scarlett Johansen, another semi-naked model, and a fully clothed, seated man, upon which both ladies were pawing. Obviously the context of the picture was blatantly sexist, and many of my female friends commented to that effect. I’m not a prude – I’d have had no problem with the shot if the guy in the picture was equally disrobed and sexualized, however I was surprised that none of my female friends criticized Johansen – not exactly a lady short of a buck or creative work - for being in such a picture; surely she takes some responsibility in that instance?

And so it's doubtless that both genders need to do more to ensure a society in which women feel comfortable in their own skin; what perplexes me at times is the high focus on the 'destructive power of the male gaze' and the lack of commentary on the destructive power of those that would pander to the male gaze. It's kind of like blaming the drug abuser and absolving the supplier (a rather disproportionate simile, I admit).

tigtog said...

Now, there's some thoughtful comments!

I ended up deciding that the underlying phenomenon is a culture of hierarchical display (I read about this once, it's far from original to me), where male magnates have trophy femmes who are part of their conspicuous consumption scorecards, and which must be visually distinguishable from the consorts of lesser men.

Thus, high-status women have always had to look different from whatever most other women look like. Fashions in clothes and body types manage this function nicely. As the Western masses are currently calorie rich and acitivity-poor, we have underweight gym junkies as the token trophy femme de jour.

Being a hierarchical species, the underlings aspire to emulate the magnates, et voila! Everyone aspires to be/besquire the emblems of femininity that the magnate class display, and both sexes gatekeep those emblems.

The fundamental misogyny driving the societal sexism is the gatekeeping by magnate men of the doors to the boardrooms against women, who exist at that level almost exclusively as trophies (the more intelligent, educated and nonetheless non-productive the better a trophy she is, as long as she is still decorative). If there were more women magnates, we would have fewer trophy women and more trophy men, which would be progress of a sort.

My interlocutor even thought this was a reasonable thesis. There's more to it all, of course, but I think the hierarchy aspect cannot be ignored.

tigtog said...

Vicki - as to expectations regarding high heels etc as mandatory female business wear, it's rife in the Sydney CBD and major corporate BD hubs such as Chatswood (home of many insurance/telecom/electronics company HQs), but in less corporate municipal BDs it's more as you describe western NY state. Secretaries all over seem to have to wear heels, though.

Mr Tog said...

My perspective on a slightly different tack:
As a teenage boy I was obsessed with gender-specific physical features (breasts, hips, legs etc.) If I found a woman attractive in a Chanel suit, I guarantee I would find the same woman just as (more?) attractive in T-shirt and jeans, or a bikini. Such is immaturity.
Many years on I am more interested in what a woman says or does than her physical appearance. Still, if I find a woman attractive (I'm not yet that old!) I still wouldn't care (or even notice) whether she wore a Chanel suit or jeans.
I daresay there are men who feel differently on this subject (fashion designers, for a start) but I think the majority of men find women's fashions a bit of a yawn.
I appreciate the argument that businesswomen's prospects are constrained by appearance expectations, but businessmen are subject to similar constraints so this argument doesn't belong in a discussion of gender-specific influences.
So why do women follow fashion? I can only conclude it's to impress each other.

tigtog said...

Yes darling, we've had this conversation before and neither of us convinced the other.

I'll agree that most men have little to no interest in clothing fashion minutiae or whether one is wearing this or last season's Chanel suit.

I think most men are however hugely aware of whether women look "high-maintenance", "middle-class" "counterculture", "bohemian", "outdoorsy" or "trashy" etc etc, and their preferences for which style of woman depend largely on hierarchical expectations.

Gotta go pick the kids up from school.

elsewhere said...

I love this term: 'openly non-malleable women'.

I think there is a 'girls just wanna have fun' (yes, but which kind of fun!) aspect to fashion sometimes, tho it's interlaced with all sorts of things to do with sexuality, impressing other women, etc. I also think it's spilled over to middle-class male culture -- metrosexuals, along with a lot of the body-angst stuff (tho I wouldn't say it affects them equally). I wonder if in this more visual age there is more pressure for us to see ourselves as objects to be viewed than in past eras.

tigtog said...

There definitely is a fun aspect to costume (even mr tog confesses to severe dandification during the 70s).

That doesn't apply to the body angst - back when poor people were skinny, girls pushed their bosoms up what must have been extraordinarily uncomfortable heights to emulate the cleavage of the rich. Now time-poor workers pound the pavements and the treadmills to look like gym-junkies instead of reading books, cooking a really tasty meal for themselves, and getting a nice walk in three times a week with a friend.
* * *
DQ, sorry to have ignored your earlier point about female culpability. Let's just say there's a lot (a realreal lot)of feminist disagreement about where that line lies, with sex work and sex positivity as the most effective lightning rods, and if you really want to get a feel for the vitriol women can chuck at each other over this, google "Twisty" and "blowjob".

tigtog said...

DQ, I also did a post concerning that Scarlett Johanson cover to which you refer, in response to another post on Lance Mannion's blog. Lance Mannion discussed the Hollywood nudity purely from the actor's terms on whether they choose to go naked as a strategic movie in their career, and I took him to task over the double standard. (The crosspost at Pandagon, where unfortunately my re-edit didn't get put up, has a better comments thread)

In Scarlett's case, as a professional beauty whose career depends on marketing her sexiness, she is generally given somewhat of a pass in terms of culpability (particularly being so young) - everybody understands that female actors are subject to intense pressure re nudity.

What most people outside the industry might not understand is Just how intesne that pressure is. The skewed M-F ratio in actors (all acting schools everywhere generally have 4 or 5 women for every man, and it gets worse in the industry itself) works for men in therms of showing "character" here.

For every major film, there is one (just maybe two) good female role(s) and always a handful of decent male roles, and for every male role there are only a handful of top-shelf candidates, while for every female role there are dozens if not hundreds of actresses banging on the door. Women actors simply do not have the bargaining power over nudity that male actors have.

It's the same for the trophy femmes, of course. Look at Donald Trump - the trophy gets a bit faded or a bit too uppity - time for the next one (and there's always plenty of young women available to be dazzled by wealth).

The radfems are pretty down on all women who let themselves get sucked into hetsex domination games at all, but although their arguments are useful eye-openers, most women don't want to live without men, so what do we do?

tigtog said...

Arrgh - the link to the better rewrite of that post on this blog got screwed up.

Modesty? That's what body doubles are for? is the post in question.

Matilda said...

Ultimately anecdotal data points, but my experience runs strongly counter to Vicki's. My male colleagues wear jeans, shorts, birkenstocks---whatever---when teaching and I have never known any of them to receive any comments (negative or positive) on their appearance in their student evaluations. I CERTAINLY have never known any of them to be taken to task by superiors regarding their appearance when teaching. In contrast, every single semester, someone comments on the fact that I am not very "feminine," criticizes my clothing (they are obsessed with my footwear---I once had a lengthy diatribe on my doc martens and my "agenda" as revealed by them), the fact that I do not wear makeup, etc. I have never even worn jeans for teaching---I don't wear business suits, but I am careful to wear clothing that communicates the fact that when I am in the classroom, I am a professional person. In response to student evaluations, I have been told on more than one occasion that my appearance is important so that I can communicate "more effectively" with students.

A friend of mine who works in the hospitality business recently had a serious infection in her toe and her doctor insisted that she could not wear closed-toed shoes until it cleared up. This turned into a real dilemma---should she be able to wear open-toed shoes, or should she be forced to take vacation time until, once again, she was able to dress professionally? Yes, her male cow-orkers wear suits and neckties, but I don't know of any equivalent situation in which their inability to, say, wear a tie would disqualify them for work.

tigtog said...

I hope she didn't miss an opportunity for dedication points - a walking stick and an orthopaedic shoe combined with a neat leather moccasin-style shoe on the other foot might have been quite an impressive display of employee fortitude.

Otherwise, yes. Your anecdotes totally support my own experience of the double standard.

Kate said...

My experience -- in every office I've ever worked in (Australia, Sydney, the north shore), the female uniform was high heels, tight and somewhat revealing clothing, and lots of make-up. I don't mind dressing up a bit, but I refuse to wear silly pointy high heels every day and I have dermatological issues with most cosmetics. And I've certainly faced issues because of it, from comments from supervisors about needing to 'present' better to the assumption that I was gay (Short hair! No makeup! Flat shoes! Dyke!).

I now tend to regard feminine clothes and makeup as 'drag' or a performance, and one I'll do occasionally and enjoy it, but I try not to let it be 'about' me. That said, I do love jewellery and interesting hair colours and painted nails and perfume and shoes -- only I like 'em flat. So the thing is, how to enjoy doing this stuff without buying too much into the economy of 'sexy' which is what we're really talking about.

I also find an interesting side discussion being about the 'power' of beauty (how a woman's only currency is her ability to be sexually attractive). I was discussing with a friend how a man she'd met recently insisted that beautiful women were really powerful and used that power against men -- my friend tried to explain that the power of 'beauty' is the power of an object, not a subject, but it didn't sink in.

But I really do become very frustrated when men make this assumption that women can just 'walk away' from this sexy/beauty economy -- walk to where? We all want other people to find us valuable and interesting, and in our society, in general, women are considered most valuable and interesting when they are physically attractive.

(Anyway, I hope some of that was coherent...)