I Hate Stereotypes
April 25, 2010 3 Comments
I really do. I hate that it’s a natural impulse–in fact, a necessity of communication–to lump people together and assign characteristics to those lumps. I hate that stereotypes are almost always based around some kernel of truth, so that a legitimately true statement can be dismissed as “propagating a negative sterotype” or “[insert group here]ism.” But what I hate the most, what really rankles my hackles up, is when people act in ways that reinforce those stereotypes. I hate seeing liberals who are indignant vegan newagers. I hate seeing racist homophobic Republican NRA members driving rusty pickup trucks with Confederate Flags on the back. I hate seeing disgustingly socially inept nerds like these assholes. I hate hearing Michael Steele talk about things.
Which is why I’m upset by the reaction to Jen McCreight’s Boobquake idea. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Boobquake, for the uninitiated: a Muslim cleric said that women dressing immodestly causes adultery, which in turn causes earthquakes. Jen reasoned that the proper response to this ridiculous (but empirically testable!) claim was to ridicule and empirically test it. So was born Boobquake: a suggestion for women to dress immodestly on a specific day (this coming Monday, April 26th), either causing worldwide earthquakes with their abundant cleavage, or falsifying the cleric’s inane hypothesis. It’s a cute idea, reminiscent of Rebecca Watson’s recent Great Apple Experiment–both taking a ridiculous claim and simultaneously giving it the (lack of) respect it deserves while also taking the opportunity to do some good science and promote skepticism.
The response has been enormous and unexpected. Most of it seems to be pretty positive. Some of it is from the “duhr hurr hurr boobies” wing of society, and some of it seems to miss the point entirely. But then there’s been a particular flavor of response from some self-described feminists talking about just how horrible this whole idea is, because it objectifies women and plays right into the patriarchy’s wishes to see see scantily-clad women. It’s “‘Girls Gone Wild’ with a cause slapped on it,” and “capitulating to Dude Nation’s fondest desire,” and “Since when did we ‘stick it to the man’ by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts?”
And this is where I have a problem, because I don’t like it when feminists–who I agree with and would generally count myself among–reinforce the Limbaughian stereotype that they’re sex-negative humorless man-hating bluenoses. And yet, here we are.
I see two big problems with the reasoning of this position. First, there seems to be an assumption that there’s one “the man” or one “patriarchy” to fight against. I can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance which must occur to be able to hold that assumption in light of this situation. Here we have an explicit rebellion against the misogynistic rules of patriarchal fundamentalist Islam, which force women to dress in a way that hides any hint of their sexuality. Of course, in order to defy those rules, one would have to dress in a way that doesn’t hide a woman’s sexuality, and coincidentally there’s a closer-to-home patriarchy that marginalizes women for not flaunting their bodies (also, for flaunting their bodies too much–we have a very picky patriarchy). I’d think that this is clear evidence of (at least) two distinct patriarchies with different ways of marginalizing women and different sexual values, but apparently we’re all one Clan of the Dangling Penis. Even when you fight against them, you’re working for them.
The second big problem is an apparent inability to understand the difference between choice and coercion. I won’t deny that our society rewards women who fall within a certain range of body types and who dress in such a way as to walk a fine line of sexual objectification, largely ignoring those who fail to fit or comply. It’d be silly to deny that. But there’s a missing step between “society objectifies women by forcing them to dress provocatively” and “women who dress provocatively are being forced to do so by society.” To make the claim–implicitly or explicitly–ignores the fact that women have agency. A woman can choose how she dresses, regardless of what society expects of her. Women are, in fact, capable of choosing to dress provocatively, and may even be capable of doing so for reasons other than gaining male attention. When one is forced to do something, regardless of what that thing is, it breeds resentment and foments a rebellious attitude. When one chooses to do something–even if it is the same thing–there’s no reason to resent or rebel. Who would you rebel against? Yourself?
When I was a child, I was often forced to take naps. I did not enjoy it, I didn’t want to do it, and I faked sleep or read surreptitiously or did other things besides napping. Now, I frequently take naps by choice–am I therefore playing into the hands of the parents and teachers who wished me to take naps in the past? I have had jobs in the recent past where I was required to wear a tie every day. While I liked my array of ties, it was time-consuming to put them on and restricting to have them on all day, every day. The dress code at my current job is more relaxed; I still wear ties, but only when I choose to do so–and I do it because I like my ties, and I like the way they complement my shirts. I’m not vindicating my old bosses every time I spend a minute or two on a Full Windsor knot, I’m exercising control of my wardrobe through personal choice.
I quoted a bit from a Salon article above, and I’d like to examine the full quote in more detail, because I think it’s emblematic of the whole problem:
Since when did we “stick it to the man” by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts? When women burned bras back in the day, there was a statement there, full of boldness and righteous anger. This type of happening feels like feminism lite, “cute” feminism or “male-friendly” feminism.
I like that she follows up her “we never protested by flaunting sexuality” clause with the example of burning bras (which, strangely enough, apparently never happened). Sure, bras represented the uncomfortable yoke of male expectations and enforced femininity, but is she really suggesting that there weren’t any men at the time who would have supported the idea of women without bras? I wasn’t around for those protests–but apparently, neither was Beth Mann–but I have a hard time imagining a world where no man enjoyed seeing nipples through shirts.
But again, we run into the problem of “the man.” I don’t know, if your point is to “stick it to the man,” doesn’t that depend on what “the man” wants you to do? Like, going braless was a response to “the man” enforcing certain standards of femininity (like wearing bras, and fake lashes, and makeup, and so forth). If “the man” wants you to hide your femininity under a veil and a burqa, are you still going to throw away your bra and makeup? Would that really make any sense?
The point of the protests in either case would be against the enforced standards of femininity. In one case, those standards included wearing bras and makeup, so women went braless and threw their makeup away. In the other case, the standard is extreme modesty, so wouldn’t the equivalent protest to be to throw away the burqa and veil and dress immodestly?
Finally, there’s the pejorative of “‘male-friendly’ feminism.” Yes, heaven forbid and saints preserve, the last thing any feminist should want is to be male-friendly! Why, that might make men think they could support women’s rights and feminist causes without being derided or denigrated, that they could participate in rallies and marches without others saying that they’re just there to gawk and pick up chicks, that they could call themselves feminists without worrying that they might be using the term presumptuously. Certainly, feminists would have no use for male allies–why, they’re the patriarchy, and clearly they’re all equally part of the problem, and it’s no sense being friendly to any of them so that you might actually get them to see how they might even unconsciously contribute to oppression. No, the feminists have gotten so far by being branded “man-haters,” and that term certainly isn’t ever used to dismiss what they have to say, so they should wear it with pride and continue to practice a staunch policy of borderline misandry.
I guess this is what it boils down to for me: On one hand, there’s Jen, a Ph.D. student who is responding to misogynistic religious mores by suggesting that women choose to dress immodestly for the sake of an actual scientific experiment. On the other hand, there are women who call Jen a bad feminist because her flippant academic suggestion means women will expose their femininity, which might cause men to think dirty thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d say the real feminist cause isn’t the one that encourages women to refrain from doing things because of what men think.
Then again, what do I know? I’m part of the problem.