Saturday, May 01, 2010

is it the Christians or is it "The Man Show" to blame?

As a feminist who is raising two girls in a screwed-up culture (albeit one I'd pick quickly over any country which forbids women to drive, vote, or go about unveiled), I am a sucker for a good feminist screed. This week I read two attempts to pin down What Is Wrong With How The U.S. Treats Women to a single, predominant cause: "Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done" by Susan J. Douglas (Henry Holt 2010) and "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession With Virginity Is Harming Young Women" by Jessica Valenti (Seal Press 2009).

Ms. Douglas says what is wrong with our culture is a snarky, backlashy attitude that feminism is no longer needed. Pop culture tells us that women have already won the war and now it's time for them to relish their own special power, the power of their sexuality. A way for a powerful woman to assert herself is for her to wear skanky clothes and revel in how men are reduced to mush in her presence. "Lad mags" like Maxim and shows, like "The Man Show", all present beautiful young women in as little clothing as possible as holding the ultimate in power, and they do it all tongue-in-cheek. If a layer of irony, a little knowing nudge-to-the-ribs that we all know something is playing with sexual stereotypes, is pastiched over some ridiculously sexist looking display, then it's okay by modern standards and only a ridiculous, hairy-legged, humorless old feminist would object. A modern woman knows she should exploit her special powers and rejoice that she is sexy as well as smart.

As Douglas points out, one of the problems with this is that it only works for young, white women who are a size two or smaller. I would go even further and say that it doesn't even work as it is posited to work. I experimented in my early twenties (as a dear old friend reminisced once, "I remember when you were a sexbomb") with running around in rather extreme clothes, bustiers and miniskirts and latex, and it didn't, as Maxim claims, reduce everyone around me to my drooling slave. It didn't empower me at all. It empowered the louts around me to leer, make disgusting remarks, and try to reach up my skirt (although perhaps I should note that there was a fellow of my acquaintance who made the serious offer to be my house slave and to live as the unpaid servant of my first husband and me. I rejected this instantly without thought, although my ex would have relished the set-up). Similarly the drunken college girls who climb aboard the Bang Bus don't seem to be given any power in that situation by their youthful good looks or sexuality.

Meanwhile Ms. Valenti also whipped up a brew of pissed-off erudite feminism over the same state of affairs, but she's blaming it all on the charismatic Christian virginity movement. As someone who feels forever scarred by her extreme born-again Christian adolescence, I like to keep an eye on what the Pentecostals are up to, and I found it odd that Ms. Valenti missed a lot of it. Like her, I'm pretty disturbed by the purity balls, where born again Christian girls go to oddly sexualized formal dances with their fathers, where they pledge their virginity as their father's personal property. The girls are often given necklaces with little locks on them, and the father keeps the key, which is intended for him to give the girl's husband eventually. I think this bothers me even more than it does Ms. Valenti; by making a girl's purity a physical possession of her father, which gives him pride and esteem, I feel like this branch of Christianity is teetering dangerously towards the honor killings of Muslim societies. Also, Ms. Valenti somehow missed the whole "I gave up dating for Jesus" movement, where teens and singles are pressured into giving up dating entirely and a kiss, a simple kiss, mind you, is viewed as something which must be saved for marriage. I fear for the poor girls in a subculture where just a kiss is viewed as a permanent cause of impurity.

Ms. Valenti discusses the ugliest side of lad culture, "The Bang Bus", but somehow she doesn't see or ignores the message sent by lad culture which is the entire subject of Ms. Douglas's book: the pretense that glorifying women's sexuality and beauty gives them power and that if we are ironic in our use of sexist cliches, it's only the humorless who are upset at them. Instead Ms. Valenti thinks it's all down to the glorification of virgins and that once a woman is no longer a virginal child, all this sexual slamming comes out. If we didn't honor and obsess about virgins, perhaps we wouldn't obsess about women's sexuality.

Both Valenti and Douglas note that the idealized woman in our American pop culture is physically a child. Models are starved into a childish form (indeed they often lose their periods, making them seem literally like prepubescent children). Valenti thinks this is linked to our obsession with virginity, while Douglas seems to think it's the logical result of glorifying youthful good looks.

While I'm just as disturbed as Ms. Valenti by the purity balls and abstinence teaching, I think it's a reach on her part to try to make the religious right's obsession with girls' virginity the cause of so many woes, such as a pregnant woman attempting a vaginal birth at home being arrested and taken to the hospital in shackles for a c-section. Out of these two books, I'm more inclined to believe that "enlightened sexism", as Ms. Douglas dubs the ironic use of sexual stereotypes, is a bigger and more pervasive problem than an obsession with virginity.

I wish both writers were less narrow in their scope. Both books treat the U.S. as though it were in a vacuum. I also wish Ms. Douglas watched a little less television and looked at other areas of life for inspiration. Although these books made for depressing, albeit thought-provoking and edifying, reading, I did find some room for hope. Ms. Douglas longs for the nineties, when American women made huge gains. Fueled by our rage over the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, stoked up by reading Susan Faludi's "Backlash", and encouraged by the Riot Grrls, women went into politics and mass media in huge ways. What seemed so obvious to me, but unspoken by Ms. Douglas, was that perhaps it is a natural cycle: the 70s saw huge feminist progress, followed by the 80s backlash, which itself was followed by the radical 90s, to get slapped down by the enlightened sexism Ms. Douglas so pervasively documented in the 00s. Maybe the 2010s are going to bring us great things again.


Missy said...

One can but hope.

The thing that always hits hard with me, as a conservative feminist, (if that can be said to exist) is that there seems to be a constant double standard for women to this day. For example, Sarah Palin (and I'm not a big SP fan, but objectively speaking, this was a big deal for me) was criticized on so many accounts not for her political beliefs, but for how how she could have a pregnant daughter, go to work with an infant, etc, etc. Joe Biden never had the same level of scrutiny, nor did Al Gore, regarding their parenting abilities.

It seems to me that the feminist movement lost its momentum when it began disdaining women who chose to stay at home--in so doing, the movement lost the voice of those who would vehemently argue against the "We're powerful now and we can dress like hos." If we are to be women who endorse the freedom of choice and our own personal rights to achieve, we can do a damn sight better in accepting the choices of all women.

the Drunken Housewife said...

And that's where American feminism has veered from European feminism and where it has not served women like us so well, Missy. In Europe feminism was seen as being in large part about mothers' rights, and the feminists fought for long, paid maternity leaves and good, state-run childcare. Here the potent mix of capitalism with feminism has given us a kind of feminism which is all about women as workers, disregarding motherhood and its issues.

I often think how much happier i would be personally living in Europe.

Yvette said...

Of course then there is the appointment of Iran to the UN's woman commission on women's rights. Iran, who stones a woman if she does not dress modestly...

Missy said...

Also, the purity ball movement leaves me completely cold--because there are no corresponding movements/balls for young men. Maybe there are, and I'm just uninformed, but there seems to be a singular lack of making boys pledge as well. I also find the whole dad-daughter and virginity thing creepy.

the Drunken Housewife said...

The "I Gave Up Dating For Jesus" movement covers boys as well as girls, and there is this infamous, creepy video of a young man's wedding kiss. It's creepy because his father spread it all over the internet saying how it glorifies God so much that his son saved his first kiss for his wedding (but the bride didn't, so the son goes into the wedding with the moral upper hand). Again it's all about the fathers, though... mothers are just left out of this entirely. There are no purity balls where a pubescent boy dances with his mother and pledges his troth, err, virginity, to her.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read Douglas, but Ariel Levy makes a similar point (about feminism not being about the freedom to dress like a ho) and in "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women And the Rise of Raunch Culture."

Sara said...

As an intelligent Christian (oxymoron or not) with a young daughter, I am hoping that she chooses to remain a virgin until marriage; but as someone who walked down the aisle eight months pregnant, I understand it may not happen. What I am teaching my daughter is that how she treats other people, treats herself, and follows what she believes in is what matters. Those things give her value, worth, and "power". For her to place her worth on her looks, or some system of beliefs that has been forced on her would surely lead to disappointment and heartache later in life.
Yes, I said forced on her. While I take my children to church and teach them my values, I also am fully aware that they may choose another way to live, and if that happens, I can only hope they aren't harming themselves or anyone else in the process (which I see in both extremes you have mentioned).

the Drunken Housewife said...

Dear Sara,

of course "intelligent Christian" is not an oxymoron, not to any but the most bigoted. By many definitions of the word I am still a Christian myself: I believe in God & Jesus. Personally I have issues with (a) organized religion of all kindsand (b) certain aspects of the charismatic Christians.

I hope my children don't become sexually active until they are old enough and mature enough to handle relationships, and I plan to provide them with all the knowledge I can. My problems with the conservative positions on sexuality in our society are in large part because pushing abstinence and shame and not teaching about birth control leads to shame, self-hatred, and unwanted pregnancies. There's the phenomenon I know all too well of the Christian girl who won't use birth control because that would mean she was intending to have sex.

My husband has said that he wants our daughters to remain virgins until they marry, which I have scoffed at since abstinence is not a value he held himself. I hope to raise them with self-respect and street smarts, and I hope they get through with few traumas.