Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Corsets and Cleavage Vs Shoulderpads and Power-suits

While in South Africa I bought a couple of women’s magazines; something I haven’t even done in Britain for about two years, and I was kind of impressed with what I found.

Firstly, both the South African Elle and Marie Claire included fashion photo shots using black models – nowhere near enough to be representative of the black and coloured demographics of South Africa (although maybe representative of who is the target consumer… which tells another story of culture and class…) and the models were still way too skinny, but nevertheless, an improvement on the last British versions of the same magazines I looked through.

And secondly, the articles were much more socially analytical – engaging with theory and psychology – than I remember their British counterparts being: they did not skirt around issues concerned with what may or may not be ‘women’s culture’ in the way that most, in my experience, hypocritically do. (Hypocritical in that the magazines themselves are frequently posited as the voices of this ‘culture’; maybe even the epitome of it – its foundation and base of replenishment).

The South African Marie Claire and Elle showed themselves, in their March issues alone, not to be afraid to use the ‘f-word’, or to analyses and criticise it. But still, it never fails to amaze me how many, often completely contradictory, forms of so-called feminisms there are. It’s hard to keep up:

One article in March’s South African Elle, and one article in March’s South African Marie Claire, engage with the term, but it’s difficult to see if there would be any place in each article where the two women featured would recognise each other as feminists. On a personal level, I had a hard time finding any place in which my own feminisms might complement either of theirs. Neither of their versions bears any resemblance to mine.

Marie Claire’s is an interview with world famous stripper, Dita Von Teese. When asked if she’d call herself a feminist, Von Teese replies: “…Being a feminist is just embracing your femininity and not trying to get rid of it”. Even though she doesn’t extrapolate, her profession and attitude suggest that she’s coming from the more liberal and/or ‘post-feminist’ end of the feminist spectrum, that tout female sexual assertion and promotion as a way towards empowerment and greater self-confidence.

This deliberate thrust of visibility, of shows of sexual assertiveness, is all-too-regularly conflated with “embracing femininity”. By this, its apparently most popular equation, femininity = (female) sexuality.

Linda Hirshman of the Elle article, on how women must get a share in men's success, on the other hand, explains how her method depends entirely upon “getting rid of” ‘femininity’. As the article’s author, Sheelagh Kolhathar recognises, Hirshman’s brand of feminism, which positively demands that women relinquish - indeed actively reject - child-care and false and contrived domestic-callings in order to belligerently and blinkardly pursue power and money by being driven and deliberately deaf to sexual temptations and (as this leads to…) lures of motherhood, basically requires that we “become men”.

Hirshman might possibly commend the drive and ambition of Von Teese, who is top of a very lucrative field with a lot of the stuff (money, power, success) that Hirshman values above anything else. But Von Teese’s product – her business – is the commodification of (and perpetuation of) much of the aspects of ‘womanhood’ that have kept women in the secondary and objectified positions that Hirshman wants to see obliterated; in order that ‘feminine’ clutter is cleared to reveal the path that will enable them to take their place alongside men in boardrooms and executives' offices. Men are not fluttering their feathers and heels upon bird-swings and parrot perches! So the pursuit of the kind of feminist power Von Teese parades can make no impact upon the world Hirshman wants to see ‘penetrated’ by women.

I definitely don’t support a feminism so dependent upon conventional notions of female sexuality: the suggestion that our physical ‘assets’, our size or our shape (and colour) – what makes our bodies different from men’s bodies – is the most we have to offer (that without them we would have nothing to offer) is abhorrent, especially when the prescriptions for these ‘assets’ – their size and their shape – have been largely defined by and through male objectification of the female body; for the purposes of visual consumption.

The woman may have freely chosen to strip, and for her own economic gain, but she still dances to a male tune, strips to his terms, and despite Pussycat-Doll-style claims to the contrary, is ultimately still giving him everything he wants. How has anything changed? How is this feminism?

On the other side of the spectrum; not only accepting but embracing, and training and conditioning ourselves to attain, the public world as shaped and organised by men for men – a world which never had women in mind – since it didn’t need to – is now desirable all of a sudden! Suddenly it’s fine for women to consider what other women have been doing since we dropped down from the trees as valueless, undesirable, dull, and unprogressive (in other words, everything that many men have deemed ‘women’s work’ since they dropped down beside us!).

And now that a number of radical feminists have decided that, yes, actually men have been right about us all along, and right about the shape of the world all this time, we have to just step down and take the ‘L’ – snap out of our denial – drop everything (including… especially… the babies!) – and run as fast as we can to catch up with the men who are steaming ahead!:- The ones who got it right, the ones who’ve got everything sussed, the ones who apparently deserve a pat on the back for manipulating us into staying at home and keeping a cosy house so that they might further themselves on their self-designed pathways to success… I don’t think so! How is this feminism? How are either of these career paths and ideologies feminist?

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