Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Power Wears High Heels

It doesn't, of course, but that is as good a headline for this post as any I can think of. I've been spending time at Twisty's blog, and she has a long post on the phenomenon of Girl Power:

Irreparable damage, argues Carol Sarler in this article on the hollow promise of Girl Power, was wrought upon womandom by the Spice Girls. She connects various dots from vapid girl group worship to teen drunkenness to impoverished single motherhood:

It would be absurd, of course, to lay every teenage pregnancy, every inebriated ladette or every cheap tart sleeping with her sixth holiday 'romance' in a week at the feet of five barely competent girl singers. It would be fair, however, to recognise that [The Spice Girls] presided over a period that saw young womanhood spiral into a previously unimaginable decline; that they wrote its soundtrack, they sang its theme, they invited a generation to play along — and that altogether too many women sadly did.

Asserts Sarler, according to Girl Power you need only be hot and dumb to succeed as a woman.

It will come as no great shock that I concur with Sarler; women's liberation from the Sexy'n'Stupid Mandate appears to have taken enormous, mind-blowing strides backwards. These days young women wish to emulate America's spokes-ho Paris Hilton, whose glittering, anorexic, trust-funded blonde emptiness demonstrates the ample rewards awaiting those who agree to wear the nation's jizz on their faces. The fellatiolution will be televised.

But uh-oh, guess what. It's not your right to 'choose' to be a sexay layday. Making traditional, patriarchy-approved, feminine submissive 'choices' is like spitting in the eye of every woman who has ever been raped, humiliated, harassed, denied birth control, abandoned, passed over, or beaten. While you were poledancing for your patriarch in a maid's uniform, this tragic woman was so deranged by the blunt force trauma of patriarchy she thought ditching her 6-year-old kid at a Chicago food fair was a 'choice'.

An interesting take on Sarler's article which at times veers uncomfortably close to blaming feminism for the type of power that poledancing might bring a woman. We will soon get to hear lots more about the idea that feminism is somehow equal to the choice to become a delicious morsel available for general groping. I know this because Caitlin Flanagan is already furiously scribbling away on a book about the ruined teenage girls who find salvation in their facility at blowjobs. Hmm, perhaps I should state here that feminists will not take responsibility for such "power", never advocated it, though naturally will be blamed for it. Because power makes girls and women go bad. That's the central message in most anti-feminist writings. They never ask what power does to boys and men, though.

It's a great temptation at this point to go on to a deep pontification about the meaning of power, about the indoctrinated female fear of wielding it and similar fascinating issues. But I will not go there, except to point out that the lobster on your dinner plate may appear to wield a lot of power when you are really hungry, but its actual power to act is zero. Some, though not all, of the sex-positive power is of that type. Not all, though it can be tough to distinguish between the lobster example and real sexual freedoms for women.

Sigh. That would have been a fun post to write but not today, because today's urgent topic has to do with Twisty's questions about the nature of choice within a patriarchal system and about the responses to her post, which largely address the question whether the fishes swimming in the ocean can understand the essential nature of water. We are all little fishes swimming in systems which at best are post-patriarchal, and we are all affected by the water we cannot really analyze. Hence the need to analyze whether wearing high heels or make-up or engaging in poledancing is something women do voluntarily and autonomously, and hence also the impossibility of truly finding a solution to these questions.

On one level the questions look trivial from a feminist angle. Who cares if the suffragettes wore those long cumbersome dresses? They got us the votes. From that angle I don't care if a feminist decides to walk around on stilts while wearing multiple neckrings. But that we seldom see feminists so attired suggests that there is a deeper significance in many of our seemingly-trivial (and not-so trivial) choices, and it's the deeper significance that's interesting: The messages we send about ourselves by these choices and the messages others receive and interpret; two processes which don't necessarily match. For example, a woman gyrating around the pole might feel sexually powerful, but a man watching her might see a lobster with parsley behind its ear.

So on another level all such choices, even personal grooming choices and clothing choices, are political statements. Even choosing not to make a political statement this way amounts to one. It's inescapable. But not all possible choices should be seen as feminist ones. The feminism-lite commercial versions sometimes seem to argue exactly that: that just making a choice in itself is a feminist act for women, that all choices should be celebrated, because they demonstrate that women now can choose, that somehow the act of apparently choosing means that the person has totally independently come to some conclusion.

My favorite counterexample to that is the one about a person being convicted to die and being offered the choice to die either by hanging or the guillotine. It's my favorite, because it's silly and because it's crystal-clear on the wider societal constraints.

This post isn't really going anywhere. I'm still swimming in the ocean.