WILL THE REAL FEMINISTS PLEASE STAND UP?
Just a day or two before the firestorm surrounding Trump’s Helsinki fiasco, the Snarky Liberal posted on Facebook a Who Wore It Better picture that displayed a yellow silk curtain on one side and Melania in a flowing yellow gown on the other. Meant to be cheeky, and well snarky, the responses were not. Although a few lighthearted comments declared that the curtain rod wore it better, some nasty comments criticized Melania’s body, appearance and health. When it was clear that some posting body slams were older, well-educated, even scholarly women, the level of hypocrisy was mind-blowing as these pioneers, shoulders-on- which-we-stand feminists shamed the body and denigrated the appearance of a woman they simply disliked.
The politics of the body is a field of feminist/gender literature that examines a wide range of issues related to the body. From objectification to reproductive rights, the body as a site of contested ideas is a dynamic field of scholarship in feminist, gender and interdisciplinary research and a useful category of analysis. Yet in 2015, to the dismay of many of the pioneers in the field, body politics came front and center in the media in an ironic way. When the Alpha Phi sorority recruiting video at the University of Alabama came to the attention of a discerning student journalist (who was not in a sorority), the video splashed across the networks and for a few days, the nation watched pundits analyze the minds of white millennial women who redeployed sexist ideas about women BY CHOICE in a world where objectifying women was thought to be a no-no. But, in the age of the Kardashians and Instagram celebrities, the Alpha Phis were reduced to simple pawns in a cultural bastardization of choice that they did not even know they were a part of. They were simply girls modeling-with great aplomb- selfies, kissy faces and bikini pics to garner social media likes. But, to many feminists, they were agents in their own oppression.
There is an increased cultural awareness of body politics since the election of Trump. His use of the p-word and pre-presidential exploits made many women express fear and loathing and don pantsuits in support of Hilary. Post-election many of these same women fear Roe is on the chopping block as Trump elevates conservatives to the Supreme Court with Catholic leanings (Gorsuch was, Kavenaugh is). The Woman’s March and the MeToo and Time’s Up movements, despite their middle class, white privileged demographic, have forced a public discussion about sexual violence, sexuality, gender equity, reproductive rights and a host of related issues in the wake of the Trump election. Yet, despite the public discourse about body politics and female empowerment, the hypocrisy remains! When Betty Friedan said, “Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves,” she was on to something. Women disempower other women by body shaming — whether that woman be Hilary, Melania or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Women are agents in their own oppression and the worst offenders of disempowering other women.
One thing is clear. The redeployment of sexist ideas is generational and deeply embedded in the psyche of women in the West. Whether a woman clings to traditional ideas about women or abandons them, there is still a specter of expectation that dictates how women respond to prescriptions. It is often generational.
Case 1: Me
When I was 16, I went away to school and left home weighing 117 and came home right at 150. My mother was horrified when I rolled up at Christmas looking like Mrs. Santa Claus. She promptly put me on a medical diet managed by a doctor claiming I looked like an old lady. Weight mattered because it was an outward sign of a loss of control. My mother’s response was a product of her generation who drank TAB, slathered themselves in olive oil to tan, idealized Twiggy and played bridge. Weight was a class thing. You were skinny by choice not because you had no food like many less fortunate contemporary women. Although it was couched as an issue related to manners and control, it was really about the cultural response to fat girls. Did I really want to be one of those people?
Case 2: Me, again
As I was always on the wrong side of power, I chronically preached to my daughters that the greatest crime of women in power was when they disempowered women without power. In the process of projecting onto them my own fear and experience, I redeployed ideas about women that challenged my own positions on feminist empowerment.
For example, when one daughter was up for a scholarship, I told her to neutralize everything from her hair to her shoes as to avert any prejudice or assumption that the person in power might assign to her in a competitive environment where a wrong decision about outward appearance might translate into limited access.
The other daughter I told her to highlight her abilities and style as she was entering the military where her femininity created contrast and uniqueness in a male populated and controlled environment.
How wrong of me? Right?
Instead of telling them to own who they are and engage the world accordingly, I redeployed sexist constructs. Subliminally women are seasoned to know their limitations and learn ways to challenge them through cultural texts, family, observation and education. Will the real feminist-in-me please stand up?
Case 3: A Triad of Power
When a friend left a horribly abusive marriage in order to protect her children, the female judge over the case at every point in the proceedings ruled against her. The judge, aware of the level of drug use and threats in the home, prejudged my friend as affluent because of her appearance and work in the school where the judge’s child attended. Although the friend was abused, unemployed, penny less and in a horrific domestic violence situation, the judge did not see her as a real abused, exploited woman in need of protection. She ordered the friend to nest with her abuser and almost took her kids away. Until my friend found legal aide and a truly determined female attorney and social worker who advocated for her, she was powerless in the justice system.
But when will this stop?
Women who disempower other women through whatever means, whether implied or direct, redeploy the structural limitations that have limited western women for centuries and are guilty of consciously adopting the attitudes and actions of the historic oppressors. They simply replace the traditional oppressor as a new oppressor who, after all the achievements and advancements for women, creates a new cycle of deployment of sexist body politics. Friedan’s the real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves should be the tag line for every woman’s march, movement or manifesto.
The Who Wore It Best post reveals that mean girls (and snarky people in general) exist. But there is an expectation that modern feminists empower, and the guilty ones who disempower other women are uneducated, willingly ignorant or evil. When second wave feminists beg us to remember that it is their shoulders on which we stand, I want no part of group think, mean girl, redeployment of oppression by the very women I am supposed to reference for leadership, action and ideology.