In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet

Thanks, y’all.

Today marks my first anniversary as a Feministe blogger. I like it a lot. It’s cool.

Note-leaving TSA agent suspended

The TSA agent who left a very special note in my suitcase last weekend has been suspended. I am still fairly shell-shocked (and not in a good way) by the amount of attention this has gotten, especially since it’s turned from what I thought was “funny anecdote with bigger political point” into a very different animal. I realize when you put things on Twitter they are certainly public and out of your control, and I’m not going to act brand-new here, but I had no idea this would hit such a nerve. It’s very overwhelming, and I want it to go away. I am still in Ireland and would like to get back to focusing on my actual life, instead of worrying about being known as the GET YOUR FREAK ON GIRL for the foreseeable future (I know, wah wah, tiny violin, etc). But to that end, here’s what I have to say about the suspension, and what is basically getting copied and pasted to anyone who asks:

It’s easy to scape-goat one individual here, but the problem with the note is that it’s representative of the bigger privacy intrusions that the U.S. government, through the TSA and other sources, levels every day. The invasion is inherent to the TSA’s mission, regardless of whether a funny note is left behind — the note only serves to highlight the absurdity of all this security theater. As much as this is a funny and titillating story, when I put the note on Twitter for what I thought was a relatively limited audience I was hoping it would open up a bigger conversation about privacy rights (or lack thereof) in post-9/11 America. It unfortunately hasn’t done that, and instead has turned into a media circus. I would imagine that the TSA agent in question feels the same way I do at this point: I just want this story to go away. The note was inappropriate, the agent in question acted unprofessionally when s/he put in in my bag, there should be consequences and I’m glad the TSA takes these things seriously. But I get no satisfaction in hearing that someone may be in danger of losing their job over this. I would much prefer a look at why ‘security’ has been used to justify so many intrusions on our civil liberties, rather than fire a person who made a mistake.

On loving, and losing, little creatures

This weekend, I put my cat to sleep. It was not expected, and I’m pretty heartbroken. I also feel silly. There are larger and more important tragedies every day. We had three great years together, and for that I should be grateful. I know I gave him a really good life. He was just a cat. I don’t even like cats.

But oh man do I miss my little cat.

Percival was the first adult decision I ever made — my first real, long-term commitment. I got him a few weeks into my first real grown-up job as a lawyer, working at a law firm in Manhattan — a job I never thought I would be doing, and that still makes me feel far more serious and responsible than I actually am. I’m not sure why I decided to adopt a kitten; I wanted a dog but didn’t have the time, I guess, and a cat-creature seemed better than no creature at all. So I went on PetFinder and found the most perfect black-and-white tuxedo kitten named Che. He was super handsome, so my room mate and I went to the shelter to get him; she decided she also wanted a kitten, so she was going to get his brother. When we got there, there were four kittens in the litter — three healthy, shiny, gorgeous tuxedo kitties, and one teeny-tiny filthy grey kitty who didn’t match at all. The shelter lady swore up and down that the little grey was part of the same litter, but I suspect she was lying; I think he was probably from a later litter, but either all of his siblings had been adopted or for whatever reason didn’t make it, and she didn’t want prospective cat-adopters to think he was a lemon and look past him. Either way, my room mate and I each picked up the tuxedo kitties, cooed over them, and played with them, trying to select which ones to take home. The little grey one kept scooting towards our hands every time we reached into the cage. Unlike the other kittens, he was legitimately dirty, and his eyes were full of gunk, and his nose was runny, and he was slightly cross-eyed. The shelter lady told us he had ringworm, so we should be sure to wash our hands after touching any of the cats. I took pity on him, because it was clear that the pretty kitties got all of the attention and no one ever bothered to hold the messed up little grey one.

I picked him up and scratched him. He stretched his little face up toward mine, flipped his whole body into a reclining-on-his back position, nuzzled his face into the side of my boob and fell asleep purring.

He was mine.
Percival sleeping

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On CNN International at 4:30 EST today

Miss USA in a ridiculous American Flag costume

I’ll be debating the Miss Universe pageant, my thoughts on which were outlined here a few years ago. But if you have CNN International, tune in! And if you have thoughts pre-debate, leave them in the comments — would love to hear any information or arguments I may not have thought through. Here, basically, is my position:

The feminist arguments against beauty pageants are obvious, and have been around even before the famous 1968 demonstrations at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, which spawned that impossible-to-kill myth of feminist bra-burning. But in 2007, when women are attending college and grad school in record numbers, when the first female Speaker of the House is in power, and when women have unprecedented access to almost all professional fields, why are we still playing dress-up for money?

Despite achieving simple legal equality, women still lag behind when it comes to the higher-up positions in business, law, academia and politics. Our basic right to bodily autonomy is on the chopping block, as more anti-choice legislation and jurisprudence is introduced every year, sending the very strong message that our bodies are not just ours. Beauty is still one of the most valued characteristics a woman can have, and images of beautiful women bombard us every day. Is it any surprise that, in a culture which views women as objects to look at and vessels for reproduction, women will try to use the emphasis on their bodies to their own benefit?

Women are not stupid. We are rational actors who respond accordingly to our environments. From the time we’re little girls, we’re bombarded with images that reflect a very narrow standard of female beauty, and emphasize the idea that beauty (or at least the attempt to be beautiful) is a basic requirement of successful womanhood. If you happen to be blessed with the features that are culturally idealized (whiteness and thinness, among others), why not use it and make some money off of what so many other women do for free, and to feel good about yourself to boot?

Certainly plenty of women like dressing up, and like the ritual of putting on make-up and doing their hair and feeling pretty. Wanting to be perceived as attractive is no great sin, and isn’t strictly a woman’s concern. The difference, though, is that being attractive is considered much more important for women than it is for men, and women are required to spend much more time, effort and money on their physical appearance. While marketers are no doubt trying to breed male insecurity in order to push more product, women still dominate when it comes to the purchase of beauty-related goods. Women still spend millions on make-up, hair care, and lotions and potions claiming to do everything from eliminate wrinkles to get rid of cellulite to plump up breasts and lips. Women still make up most of the plastic surgeries performed each year. Women still account for the vast majority of people with eating disorders. Women are still the primary funders of the diet industry.

There is no shame in being one of the millions of American women who live in this culture and who structure their lives accordingly. I’m one of them. So are the women in the Miss USA pageant. Feminists have been leveling thorough and valid criticisms at beauty contests and consumer beauty culture for more than 40 years, and yet the contests persist. Women continue to participate in them, and we continue to watch them on TV. It’s no big mystery as to why: Beauty contest participants reap great financial benefits when they win, and American viewers are fully accustomed to evaluating and watching women for pleasure.

Ideally, beauty contests will eventually go the way of the dodo. The Miss USA pageant is not, by any stretch, good for feminism or good for women as a class. But it’s not happening in a vacuum. For 40 years, feminists have been arguing that pageants are a small part of a larger-scale system of oppression which positions women’s bodies as objects to serve others — to give them pleasure, to make them money, to sell their product, to birth their baby. While many Americans have duly noted beauty pageants to be silly and outdated, we often fail to recognize how they operate within a greater context of generalized and widely accepted misogyny.

Living With Contradiction: Beauty Work and Feminism

When I read Emily Hauser’s critical, searching post last week about beauty work she does that she feels is antifeminist, I got all jazz-hands—even more so after reading everyone’s comments and seeing the complexity therein. Since my focus at The Beheld (the blog that brought me to Feministe’s attention) is examining beauty work from a feminist perspective, I couldn’t resist a comment here of my own. Pit-shaving and the patriarchy? Bring it!

I’m a feminist, and I wear makeup and dress in a distinctly feminine manner (which sometimes means a distinctly uncomfortable manner, as with high heels), and try as I might I cannot fully reconcile the two.
The feminist arguments I hear in favor of makeup—that it can create a place of play and fantasy, or that it’s okay “as long as you do it for you,” or “as long as it makes you feel good,” or, of course, the infamous “it’s my choice”—don’t cut it for me. Now, I don’t think engaging with traditional femininity can make anyone a “bad feminist.” But I feel a chronic internal conflict about the time, money, and energy I put into my appearance, and while I don’t think that the answer is necessarily to entirely opt out of beauty work, the justifications I come up with to soothe that conflict feel like just that—justifications.

There are some aspects of beauty that I appreciate as a feminist: for one, the bonding opportunities it can create with other women; for another, the human desire to beautify ourselves has, historically speaking, only recently been laser-targeted at women and our bank accounts. (Egyptians didn’t wear kohl eyeliner to appease The Man, after all.) Enhancing ourselves needn’t be inherently anti-feminist or fill us with shame. And even some of the more clichéd pro-makeup feminist responses beg examination, especially “it’s fine if it makes me feel good”: Fact is, beauty work has the power to make me feel absolutely stellar. Walking into a room and hearing the click of my heels, experiencing the sensual pleasure of a well-cut fabric that encases my frame, and knowing that my makeup is done in such a way that I feel brighter and shinier than I do when I’m au naturel—it’s not my only portal to personal pride, but it’s one of them, and I’m in no rush to cut off any port of entry.

But to be a feminist in 21st-century America means that to end the beauty conversation at “it makes me feel good” is disingenuous. If you’re reading this website, you’re probably pretty schooled in the links between beauty norms and the patriarchy, so let me just say: It doesn’t always make us feel good, and it’s not necessarily our choice. As commenter Ruth pointed out in Ms. Hauser’s post last week, “Can we really freely choose to shave our underarms when we know we will be rewarded for it?”

It’s those rewards that are of concern to me here. (Yes, of course I’m concerned about the self-esteem toll that painting over our real faces might have, but others have written about this more extensively and far better than I’m able to do. Indeed, it’s been the locus of much feminist discourse about beauty, but surely we can all agree that Nobody Should Feel Bad About Themselves, right?) Beauty privilege is extraordinarily difficult to willingly forsake, precisely because even as we’re encouraged to exercise it, we never know exactly how much of it we have. It’s a privilege we may long to possess even as we question our right to it, leaving us in flux, never able to fully develop our sea legs and figure out exactly why and how we can reject whatever beauty privilege we might have cultivated. (Women who came to feminism because of a resistance to beauty programming may experience this twofold: Many tales of resistance begin with a tale of strict adherence to the beauty standard, and growth in this area isn’t usually a straightforward progression. So now you’ve got women who actively wish to challenge the beauty standard but who continue to feel both its rewards and its mean pinch—it’s not a comfortable place to be.)

To be clear, I’m not talking about the privilege that comes with being born conventionally beautiful, in part because I’m not particularly qualified to do so (I’m perfectly fine-looking, but wrestling with the burdens of exquisite beauty is a challenge I’ve been spared), and in part because the beauty myth has done a terrific job of ensuring that conventionally beautiful and conventionally homely women alike fall prey to its trappings. I’m talking about the kind of privilege that we opt into because it greases the wheels a little bit, and the kind of signals we send when we play the game of conventional beauty. For when we don a feminized version of ourselves by swiping on face paint, we are playing into ideas of what femininity—and, by extension, womanhood—should be about, as much as we may resist many of those ideas internally. I may think I’m putting on lipstick because I like the thought of it serving as a sort of real-time punctuation to whatever I might be saying—but to anyone watching, I’m wearing lipstick because that’s what ladies do. (Plus, as a recent study indicates, the reasons we wear makeup are more in line with relief from self-dissatisfaction than any actual utilitarian benefit it gives us.)

Add to this the way the beauty industry has capitalized upon the idea of makeup as being “our bodies, our choice”—see also L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” tagline and MAC’s Wonder Woman collection—and it’s clear that even if in some magic fairyland we’re aware of why we make the choices we make, those choices are easily exploitable and not entirely separate from upholding the beauty standard as-is.

So here it is, my miniature thesis on women, cosmetics, and cultivated femininity, in terms as definitive as I can comfortably state:

I do not think using makeup means you are a pawn of the patriarchy. I do not believe that using makeup means you are a bad feminist, or that you can judge a feminist by her level of active complicity to or disregard of conventional beauty standards. I do not think that feminists must have an armor about them that allows them to either disregard the immense societal pressure to look pretty, or to somehow magically be able to determine why we’re wearing makeup—that, say, we use it because it’s our choice, but those poor other nonfeminist women are just bullied into it by the patriarchy. I do not think shaming women for whatever beauty work they do is going to help any of us; I don’t think internalizing guilt is helpful either. And in general, I do not think feminist dogma helps most feminists, and probably prevents more people from joining the club.

But neither do I believe that neglecting to seriously, critically examine our engagement with the beauty privilege certain acts give us is the mark of a responsible feminist. If you’re a 21st-century feminist in western society, your beauty labor means something.
We can’t blithely claim that cosmetics use is merely our choice, or that if it makes us feel good then it’s just fine. Feeling good in general is one of the aims of feminism, sure, but getting there through questionable means without, well, asking questions—and aggrandizing our own beauty privilege without closely examining what that means for us and other women—falls short of feminist goals. If we’re going to inhabit the contradictory space of having our feminist critique of the beauty standard while engaging with and benefiting from that standard, we must scrutinize that space with an honest, level eye that gives us grace for our contradictions while not letting us lapse into convenient answers.

Rude Awakenings: Stories of Political Origins tonight at Housing Works

Feministe pal The Rude Pundit has a new book out, and we’re celebrating him/it with a reading at Housing Works in New York City tonight. I’ll be reading a story about promise rings and Christian Horse Camp — you don’t want to miss it. The details:

What: Rude Awakenings: Political Origin Stories at Housing Works, featuring Lee Pappa, Rachel Sklar, David Rees, Sady Doyle, Jeff Kreisler and Jill Filipovic with a night of political origin stories.
When: Tuesday, May 31 · 7:00pm – 10:00pm
Where: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012

Hope to see some of you there!