It’s a trap! Feminism, romance, and sociological patriarchy

I started writing this, then saw that a few of the big feminist bloggers have touched on it already. But the stuff I was writing has a somewhat different slant, so I plunged on regardless. This paper was published in the journal “Sex Roles” this month:

“The interpersonal power of feminism: is feminism good for romantic relationships”. Laurie A. Rudman and Julie E. Phelan, Department of Psychology Rutgers University, NJ.

Unfortunately, I can’t get to the full paper, but here’s the abstract:


Past research suggests that women and men alike perceive feminism and romance to be in conflict (Rudman and Fairchild, Psychol Women Q, 31:125″“136, 2007). A survey of US undergraduates (N”‰=”‰242) and an online survey of older US adults (N”‰=”‰289) examined the accuracy of this perception. Using self-reported feminism and perceived partners’ feminism as predictors of relationship health, results revealed that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier relationships for women. Additionally, men with feminist partners reported greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction in the online survey. Finally, there was no support for negative feminist stereotypes (i.e., that feminists are single, lesbians, or unattractive). In concert, the findings reveal that beliefs regarding the incompatibility of feminism and romance are inaccurate.

Edit: I now have the full paper: my further reactions are here.

Media versions of the report were generally received on Pandagon, Feministing, Shakesville with an enthusiastic, heteronormative, largely uncritical “Duh!”

But both my junksciencedar and my patriarchyframingdar are pinging, I’m afraid, in tune. If I can get a full copy of the paper, I’ll addend and amend accordingly, but right now my thoughts centre around two main issues:

1. How valid is this research?
2. Why is it important? What’s the frame? Why is the evaluation of feminists and feminism in a hetsex frame such a big deal in both the old and the new media?

I talked a little bit about assessing research the other day, in “Anti-choice propaganda: Following the source and the money”. (This isn’t quite like the fake abortion research, of course, in that it’s published in a real journal, and the results of this study are purportedly “on our side”.) My take is bound to be sketchy and incomplete in the absence of the full paper and methods section, but I’ll fling my questions out there nevertheless.

So – firstly, follow the source. Journal and authors? The journal is gender-psych journal “Sex Roles”. I won’t make any bones about my bias here. Even though I lean very much toward social anthropology (with a conflict theory/feminist bent), and I think conservative-driven uninformed sociology-critique is rubbish, a lot of so-called “gender psych” shits me. It tends far too often toward agenda-driven pop-psych self-help-book-pandering crap. “But all science has an agenda!”, my internal voice is screaming; and it’s quite right. Why does gender psych bother me more than some other sciences? Probably because it seems to so often skate around on the edges of evolutionary psychology. Assumptions go unexamined, rigorous statistical analyses are few and far between, and just-so stories abound. I dunno. Maybe Sex Roles is better than most; it does declare an openly feminist motive.

A little info on the authors: First-author is Rutgers psych prof Laurie Rudman. Her webpage reads: “I am interested in exploring implicit (or indirect) ways of assessing attitudes, stereotypes, self-concept, and identity. This work has employed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), as well as semantic and evaluative priming techniques.” So she’s into social cognition, implicit associations, and prejudice. The second author is doctoral student Julie Phelan: “I have several current research interests, most of which involve the study of impression formation, stereotyping, and prejudice. For example, my masters thesis explored how negative reactions for counterstereotypical behavior contributes to cultural stereotype maintenance.”

Things I know nothing about, but would like to know:

– Where did the funding come from?
– What did the stats say? The abstract gives no indication that there was any analysis of statistical significance. A previous Rudman study reported a near-opposite result; are we just seeing over-interpreted statistical noise?
– How were the subjects selected? Was the possibility of selection bias considered? If they ran an ad in the university newspaper asking for participants in a “study of feminists and romantic success”, do you think they would have obtained a random, representative sample? What if they pulled the subjects in from gender-psych or women’s studies classes?
– How was “feminist” status assigned? Self report?
– What factors were controlled for? Privilege is the obvious one: are women more likely to self-identify as feminist if they are wealthy, attractive, “sexually successful”? Were data collected on class, sexuality, race/ethnicity, nationality, disability, and other factors, and were these data used to examine and control for possible confounders in the results?

So, on to my second and key point: * Why is it important? What’s the frame? Why is the evaluation of feminists and feminism in a hetsex frame such a big deal in both the old and the new media?

There are more layers here. Think below the next layer. It takes an effort to unfocus from the details and look at the frame. The reporting of this paper is all working within antifeminist framing of “You feminist types are ugly and single and gay and have bad sex”, even in rebuttal.

If you’re replying with “No we’re not! Ner!” instead of “What’s it to you? Why are those things of prime importance?”, you’re still in the patriarchy’s frame. Some people say “But we need to do that, that’s PR, that’s how we have to market feminism (to young white privileged het women, anyhow). It’s all about “advertising” to a “market” – again, capitalist patriarchal framing.

What would the paper have said if the results were the opposite? What’s the problem with being lesbian, single, or having a non-patriarchally-approved appearance? Would this make feminism’s tenets any less valid? Do women who aren’t XXX2K-compliant deserve a voice? Do they deserve freedom from violence, equal pay, political representation, reproductive justice?

All this research does is keep the focus on a male-centric view of feminism. Women are allocated their worth based on their relationships with men and on their attractiveness to men. We whoop and holler and cheer because someone proved that feminists aren’t ugly lonely lezzos after all. Why is singleness a “negative stereotype”? Why is lesbianism a “negative stereotype”? Why is unattractiveness (whatever that means) a “negative stereotype”? There is no doubt that there is an labelling based on perceived value here. Where is that metric coming from?

Eyes on the ball, I say. Debunk stereotypes if you feel like it, but debunk them with care. Because once you start judging the OK-ness of a feminist based on her patriarchy conformance status, the opposite, non-OK-ness, rears its head. There’s a risk of… “well, it’s ok to be feminist, so long as you’re in a healthy sexy het relationship”. Or the more collective “Feminists as a group are ok, because most of them are heterosexually happy and attractive.” Or “Feminism is OK, because pretty sexy women are feminists”.

Good feminists and bad feminists, good feminists and bad feminists. I’m not buying in. It’s a trap.



Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism, Politics, Science, Sociology

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. So much here I hardly know where to start.

    If you’re replying with “No we’re not! Ner!” instead of “What’s it to you? Why are those things of prime importance?”, you’re still in the patriarchy’s frame. Some people say “But we need to do that, that’s PR, that’s how we have to market feminism (to young white privileged het women, anyhow).

    Applauds! And not just as a queer feminist concerned with progressive media conflating ‘populist’ feminism with the use of dumbing down and marginalising language.
    Do the speakers of “ner, not fugly lesbos” rebuttals realise that it’s potentially insulting to ALL man-desiring feminists, as well as to lesbians?

  2. Thank you! Thank you for at least attempting to debunk this survey! I’ve been waiting for someone to objectively criticize it, but all I heard so far was either “GREAT” or “duh, I always knew it”.
    I am most interested in how they defined “feminism”. My guess is that to get those results it was the kind that goes “I’m all up for equality and stuff, as long as women still look attractive for me, I get a supply of lap dancers, strippers and prostitutes, I don’t have to controbute in the housework or suffer the consequences of NOT watching objectified women all around”.
    Most certainly, they are NOT talking about RADICAL FEMINISM here. I doubt that radical feminists would be so willing to embrace the “patriarchally-aproved” attractiveness, and I doubt that those who DON’T will be considered attractive by any research.

  3. Absolutely, keep us thinking critically.

  4. Very perceptive, Lauredhel. Interestingly I have never heard the word ‘masculinism’ used. Is that because there is no such thing or because it is so ubiquitous it’s virtually synonymous with civilisation and therefore does not require a label? Simone de Beauvoir had a lot to say on this subject, postulating that the very ‘otherness’ of being female is so endemic as to go unnoticed by most people. Masculinism thus becomes, a priori, the framework in which critical thought is evaluated. Given that starting point, it is very difficult to advance thought into areas which do not arise naturally from that set of assumptions. The article you quote is a classic example of how this warps perceptions. Ostensibly portraying a positive view of feminism, it’s findings are evaluated from a masculine perspective and just reinforce the status quo.
    Perhaps what we need to do is envision what true equality would look like. If such a vision was widely accepted then it might be easier to move towards it.

  5. Thank you! Thank you! I couldn’t work out why all the joyous responses on feminist blogs were irritating me so much.

  6. I’ve just realized that I’m a dickhead. I sent the full article to Tiggers, not Lor. Um, no doubt you can work it out between you :)

  7. This is my favorite blog post in recent memory. I was sort of bugged by the study as well, and could not figure out why, and you’ve pretty much laid out the reasons *why* the study is so…uncomfortable-making.
    As a “hetero” feminist who is not completely XXX2K-Compliant (as in: I am not conventionally attractive, do not shave my legs, do not wear high heels or many other traditionally feminine things, and only wear makeup sporadically) but is in a “successful” relationship, I have to wonder: Why should my status as a somewhat-“approved” feminist even matter? Why should there be a hierarchy? No “version” of feminism should have precedence over another–whether it’s queer feminism, liberal feminism, or whatever, and no feminist should have to feel like they must measure up to the heterosexual standard.

  8. No worries, BK. We were mildly confused for a short while until I checked my email and found your missive.

  9. tigtog: “We were mildly confused for a short while until I checked my email and found your missive.”
    Yes, cheers Black Knight. I’ve skimmed it and put it aside as I’ve been busy getting older. I’ll put up some notes soon.

  10. Mr Tog:

    Interestingly I have never heard the word ‘masculinism’ used. Is that because there is no such thing or because it is so ubiquitous it’s virtually synonymous with civilisation and therefore does not require a label?

    I suspect that’s a part of it. There are, of course, the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists), who are primarily focused on weaselling out of paying child support and whining about grabby gold-digging welfare mums. Yawn.

Trackbacks

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