Cattiness and choice feminism

Thus, the problem with criticizing a woman for being appealing to a patriarchal beauty standard, you are, whether you like it or not, feeding the belief that women are catty. Moreover, it feeds the notion that conventionally attractive women cannot be taken seriously as intelligent adults, which is exactly the sort of thing sexists want to believe. (Which is why Ann Althouse attacked Jessica.) To confuse the whole thing even more, and to get back to what Lauren was saying, there’s dual motivations for femme-ing it up, one of which is to get patriarchal approval and the other of which is the perfectly innocent desire to be attractive to people you’re attracted to. I’ve dealt with that at length before, but it bears repeating””it’s not that being cute or pretty is wrong, or that wanting these things is wrong, it’s that these desires are exploited to oppress people.

Amanda Marcotte and The Cattiness Trap.

I know I’ve been guilty of feeling that it’s OK to mock women who adhere to high maintenance, uncomfortable fashion, especially fetishistically high heels that literally cripple feet over time. This article has brought me up short.

I’ll be making a point in future of mocking the demeaning triviality of certain femme-fetish fashions and not mocking the women who choose for their own reasons to wear them – a fine distinction, but a crucial one.

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism

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22 replies

  1. You might also be interested in this post by Winter over at Mind the Gap –
    She explores this issue really well.

  2. I’m sick of discussing how women look and whether or not it’s feminist to wear f***ing pink stilettos or bright red lipstick or a tiny bikini or whatever. It’s the same old same old bs under a new name: women under scrutiny, constantly, always putting ourselves down or letting someone else do it.
    I can barely read certain feminist blogs anymore because I end up coming away feeling like a huge failure as a feminist. It never seems to be about the pressure women are under and how the system is set up against us: it’s about how we (the not-feminist-enough ones) are so weak and stupid and patriarchy-ass-kissing for doing certain things that the True Feminists don’t approve of.

  3. That’s the point that Amanda,Ilyka, Winter and Lauren are all making, Kate.
    This “True Feminist” thing seems to be big between feminist blogs lately, but it’s really not representative of feminists in real life, it seems to be magnified by the way interblog interactions play out, and it’s time to take a big breath and get over it.

  4. Yeah I know, and I find it refreshing that Australian feminist blogs don’t get caught up in it.

  5. But I still have a problem with women spending hours and hours and hours on dressing up in very conventionally ‘feminine’ ways – it just seems a waste of time. And once you’re all dolled up like that you can’t do things that’ll trash your look – no riding bikes, no furious exercise, no rubbing your eyes…
    I’m all for the idea of performing femininity for all sorts of reasons (rather than just reading it as ‘selling out’), and for doing this sort of dressing up every now and then… but when it’s women who’re doing all the dressing up every single time they leave the house, spending hours worrying about their weight or what they should wear, and men throwing on a pair of shorts and shoes and off they go…

  6. Why is every piece of disagreement between women dubbed a “catfight” between “bitches”, not a disagreement between humans?
    Language is powerful, mote-beam, etc.

  7. Clarifying because I can’t edit (I think?) – the mote-beam wasn’t referring to you, tigtog.

  8. Huh, all that debating about womens’ appearances just recycles feminist history.

  9. …I do think that issues of body image and appearance and so on are still very important feminist issues. To not address them, to not comment or consider why and how people make choices about what clothes to wear and how to wear your body is to overlook the way our bodies are social texts.
    … I have issues with the use of the term ‘catfight’ as well: surely we can discuss these things (whether calmly and sanely or loudly and angrily) without the entire discussion/debate being dismissed with dismissive terms like ‘catty’?

  10. No worries, Lara (you’re right, only I can edit). I believe Amanda’s point is that the accusation of cattiness as a way of diminishing the significance of women’s conflicts is part of the maintenance of the status quo, not that she personally felt that such disagreements are merely catty. Somehow calling men’s more trivial sniping at each other pissing contests doesn’t have quite the same dismissing tone that catfight does.
    outfox, setting standards for women’s appearance and ostracising those who fall outside them seems to have been a strong form of social control for most of human history (men’s appearance too is controlled to perpetuate the hierarchy). It’s not surprising that feminism should spend some emphasis on that area, nor that women fall into judging each other by another set of standards.
    As dogpossum says, ‘performing’ femininity for special occasions can be fun, playing with it to be attractive to others also. It’s the distortion of femininity standards so that women routinely spend twice as much time as men to look “presentable” that’s divisive.

  11. the problem with criticizing a woman for being appealing to a patriarchal beauty standard, you are, whether you like it or not, feeding the belief that women are catty(emphasis mine)
    dogpossum, I agree that we should be able to discuss “the way our bodies are social texts” (beautiful phrase) as passionately as we like without being dismissed as catty, but that’s not how the world at large is likely to play it. The legend of women’s social competition as being somehow both more trivial and more vicious than the competition between men comes into play. Also it’s yet another space in which women have to justify themselves, this time to other women who they thought were cofighters against oppression. Should it be better than that? Sure. Is it? Not so much.
    Perhaps taking the issue back to the onlookers ”why do you find a woman wearing no makeup unappealing?” “why do you find shoes that cripple feet appealing?” is a way to discuss the issues without demanding that women yet again justify themselves for making their way the best they can through the maze of accommodations each of us must make to earn a space in our oppressive industrial society.

  12. Yes to Lara, and yes to dogpossum — but a thoughtful analysis of the body as social text isn’t exactly the order of the day. It’s more things like “I can’t believe you identify as a feminist and you bikini wax!”
    Yes, bikini waxing is one of those really bizarre activities foisted upon us by unrealisticn patriarchal beauty standards, but if a woman does it, should she have her feminist membership revoked?
    Attacking other women for the way they dress, be it in a burqa or high heels, is different from recognising and discussing the ‘why’ behind the burqa or the high heels, and pointing out the patriarchal elements inherent in both.
    And I think it’s entirely possible to recognise that clothing/make-up is extraordinarily important in the way we construct genders, and that gender construction is one of the bedrocks of patriarchal power… but I can’t see the point of condemning other women for choosing to reinforce gendered behaviours, given how limited and proscribed that choice can really be.
    Best way I can think to put it is to play the ball and not the woman. Why is it that women feel the need to do the huge make-up thing? And if a woman does feel that need, does it make her less feminist?
    I’m not a make-up wearer, but I have a good friend who is, and she’s a feminist, and she told me that she can’t leave the house without her makeup on because she feels vulnerable without it. I think that’s sad, but I’m not going to tell her she’s a lousy feminist because she’s a 35 year old woman who doesn’t like to be seen without makeup. What about all the other aspects of her feminist identity? Her activism, her work in helping sexual abuse survivors etc etc? Are these negated by what I see as her following a ridiculous beauty standard? No, I don’t think so, and I guess it’s the ‘this is the one true feminism and that’s it’ tone of many of these discussions I find intensely irritating.
    (Apologies if I’m not making sense.)

  13. tigtog, I’m not meaning to deny the patriarchal (and other) implications of dress as feminist topics.
    My “huh” is for the way the topic’s addressed so superficially in public debate, for example as duelling trite stereotypes (waxing is oppression! waxing is empowering!). I feel that framing debates to narrowly focus on individual womens’ dress choices, rather than the social structures shaping dress trends, keeps feminist debate locked into recycling the basic’s.
    Focus needs to be more on structures to progress. To minimise the divide and conquer of framing women as “catty” about clothes, and because it’s an individuals location within structures that gives context to their “choice”.

  14. Sorry, outfox, that I misread you. Your sentence seemed rather cryptic at the time (I condemn my late arvo hypoglycaemic episode).
    You’re right that there appears to be a wide variety of influences pushing the debate into a narrow frame that focusses on false dichotomies. I like the idea of structures to progress.

  15. The current post at I Blame the Patriarchy, while specifically about feminism and dieting, is pertinent here. While I don’t always agree with her conclusions, I’m always gobsmacked with admiration at Twisty’s acerbic, astringent takes on things. I’ve never seen anyone use logic like a filleting knife before.

  16. I agree about Twisty. She’s an incredibly good writer.
    I wear makeup every day and sometimes heels. I hardly ever wear pants. I would be a bit disappointed if anybody here regarded any of these habits as the occasion for pity or for suspicion, or for explicitly not judging, or some other assessment of the level of my feminist consciousness.

  17. Me too, Laura. Examining ways in which an oppressive hierarchy constrains women’s clothing choices should be able to be done without descending into a purity war.
    It’s not just clothing choices, either. I’m a stay-at-home-mum for more than a decade now, who never intended to be one for more than a few years, and I’m defensive about that. I wouldn’t want my feminist consciousness to be judged on that basis either.

  18. “I would be a bit disappointed if anybody here regarded any of these habits as the occasion for pity…”
    My point about being sad for my friend was more that she finds not wearing makeup a really fearful and challenging thing, and I find that response saddening because it’s obviously something she struggles with. She told me she has tried to leave the house without it on and she feels sick to her stomach.
    But I don’t pity her at all, and I especially don’t pity her for wearing make-up, any more than I expect anyone to pity me because I like wearing jewellery and having my hair coloured and shaving my legs.
    If that’s what you were referring to. If not, don’t worry!
    Apologies for banging on her Tigtog. I’m still trying to work most of this stuff out in my own head.

  19. Apologies for banging on her Tigtog. I’m still trying to work most of this stuff out in my own head.
    No apologies needed, Kate. I’m still trying to work it all out too, which is why I posted on it. It’s been interesting.

  20. tigtog, no worries about misreading..i guess i was a bit more cryptic than I intended there. oops.

  21. Very interesting discussion, tigtog. I’ve always felt grateful that I live in a society that I can be taken seriously and never wear makeup (I don’t believe that the US, for example, works that way). But I agree that the way to think about this issue is to play the ball, not the woman.
    Although I do get frustrated on the odd occasions that I’m walking around town with a colleague who can only walk at half my walking speed because she’s wearing tottery high heels. I try not to blame (hypothetical) her for it, though, just leave enough time to get to the meeting.

  22. Ah, Jennifer – then you’re getting into the origins of high heels as a class statement: if one doesn’t have to walk any distance then one can wear high heels as a status statement.
    The oppressiveness comes when women who do actually have to walk distances in their daily life ape the status-fashion of impractial high heels, and it’s complicated by the fact that as a species we respond with hierarchical respect to height, therefore high heels for women can be a strategic move.
    My physio training turned me against high heels utterly because of what they do to feet and backs, but I’d always been an only-for-parties heels girl anyway, and if I had to walk home I just took them off.
    And then there’s the aesthetic aspect. A certain amount of make-up is sometimes a good idea if one is under harsh artificial light on certain occasions, or one’s complexion isn’t what one might wish. Some makers of high heeled shoes are gifted artists, even if their shoes are torture to walk any distance in. I still wear high heels every now and then at home because my husband likes them (and I don’t have to walk in them), just like I wear certain lingerie sometimes to play up to erotic fantasies, and I don’t think that’s un-feminist either.

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