Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Hath Feminism Wrought?

Feminism, as we know it, is both an ideology and a political movement. As ideology it wants women to identify themselves as feminists before all else. Read through the posts on the excellent DoubleX website and you will find frequent discussions about whether an action or an idea is consistent with feminist ideology.

This endless self-criticism leaves this blogger with the impression that the most important thing for women intellectuals is knowing that they are good feminists.

As I have mentioned before, being a good feminist is not the same thing as being a good woman or a good wife or a good mother or even a good girlfriend. Link here.

Some feminists refuse even to spell out the word-- woman-- because it implies, in their minds, subservience and oppression.

So, I have been intrigued by a series of recent articles questioning the fact that so many women today feel a need to undergo artificial and cosmetic procedures to enhance their beauty. You would almost think that modern women had not read Naomi Wolf! Links here and here and here.

After four decades of feminist ascent women are more obsessed than ever about their appearances. The only difference-- which the authors and I agree is disturbing-- is the increased usage of surgical enhancements.

It is one thing for a woman to feel that she needs to pad her bra; quite another for her to feel that she must have breast implants. It is one thing for a woman to wear cosmetics; quite another for her to believe that she has to have her faced altered, almost beyond recognition, in order to look younger.

For whatever the reason women's relationships with their own bodies have suffered markedly during this latest feminist epoch. Cosmetic surgery is only a part of it. Eating disorders are another form of self-sacrifice, even to point of being like self-punishment.

From Botox to Brazilian bikini waxes to bulimia... the modern feminist is almost pathologically insecure about her body. Not only is she not proud of her curves or her form, she is constantly finding fault with every aspect of her physical appearance.

Evidently, the world has known worse. Chinese footbinding was a horror that lasted for close to a thousand years. And female genital mutilation is still practiced today in many parts of the world.

But no one is forcing women to undergo extreme makeovers. They have earned their way, and they are exercising their freedom in buying these procedures.

When an independent, self-defining, autonomous woman spends all of her spare money on Botox, laser hair-removal and vaginal rejuvenation... you might imagine that something is wrong somewhere.

Naturally, feminism has an answer. It blames the patriarchy. Not so much because the patriarchy is forcing these women to mutilate themselves, but because feminism always blames the patriarchy. It is, after all, an ideology, and ideologies are never wrong. They never accept that any form of real evidence could ever throw doubt on their dogmatic beliefs.

None of these thinkers seem to imagine that feminism has contributed to women's loss of confidence in their bodies might. Is it possible that feminism has so thoroughly undermined women's pride in being women that it has caused them to feel badly about their bodies?

Feminists do not see things this way. They blame the culture, whatever that is, because the culture is the agent through which the patriarchy manipulates women.

To the authors of the articles I linked, it seems that after four decades of feminist thought, which, if it means anything, tells women to distrust any and every piece of advice coming from a man... women are systematically allowing themselves to become prey to male-dominant cultural forces that are punishing them for having careers.

Why is it that feminism failed women so completely on that score?

Is the patriarchal backlash really that powerful?

Feminists consider that women are suffering because the culture is looking askance at their bodies. The culture is forcing them to feel insecure and unattractive because it is criticizing their choices of plastic surgeon, hairdo, and pantyhose.

But whether it is through fashion magazines or gossip columnists or the woman at the next cubicle, do you really believe that these social instances are all controlled by men?

For all I know there might be a relationship between the relentless criticism and self-criticism that these women are subjected to and the fact that the theoretical soulmate of feminism is something called critical theory.

If you spend your college years learning how to criticize-- the better to firm up your ideological commitment-- why would you not turn this tool on yourself? It would almost be inevitable that you would.

Anyway, sophisticated theorists will tell you that what feminists call the culture is really just another term for the female gaze, for women looking at and criticizing other women.

Feminism held that the male gaze was tyrannically oppressing women by making them into sex objects. So feminism liberated women from the male gaze... only to see them get abused by the female gaze!

If, as often happens, women are competing against other women for male attention, I am not so sure that the female gaze is entirely objective in its appraisal.

Where past abuses of women might well be attributed to the male gaze-- footbinding comes to mind-- others-- like genital mutilation-- cover up a profound anxiety about paternity and a mistrust of women.

That is not what is happening today. Today's feminine aesthetic has little to do with male taste. Surely, men prefer women to be voluptuous more than stick-thin. They prefer women with facial expressions over women whose faces no longer move. And, precious few men are enamored of artificial bodies.

Of course, there is more to the problem than the difference between male and female gaze. There is a sociosexual component that needs mention.

Feminism likes to pride itself on facilitating the entry of women into the workforce. Clearly, this has been a good thing. Yet, feminism also exercised a considerable cultural influence; it told women how best to manage their lives, in order to have successful careers and to be good feminists.

Feminism told women to postpone marriage and family, the better to get a head start on career development. This is certainly a defensible idea.

Yet, it produced an unintended consequence. Women who started looking to settle down in their thirties found themselves competing against younger women. Some of these young women were not even feminists.

These thirtysomethings felt old and insecure about themselves. They worried about their fertility, thus, their biological clocks. To compete with the younger crowd, they believed that they needed to have surgically-enhanced, even exagerrated female features... the better to attract men.

In the past women who married could feel that they had overcome the woman vs. woman competition for male attention. Given the emancipation of women and the feminist attacks on marriage, this was no longer the case.

Recall that feminism believed that the institution of marriage was an oppressive institution invented by men to turn women into chattel slaves.

In the feminist mythos the miserable anorgasmic suburban housewife would free herself from the her oppressive husband and children and run off to go to graduate school. There she would meet the dreamiest lover and discover levels of satisfaction that had previously escaped her. See, for example, Marilyn French's "The Women's Room."

To facilitate the transformation of this scenario into reality, feminism had to destigmatize divorce.

Well and good. Except for the unintended consequences. Once divorce was destigmatized more men decided to liberate themselves from their marriages. They decided to trade in their aging wives for younger versions. No stigma; no problem.

This meant that married women could not stop competing for men. They were living under a more-or-less constant threat that their husbands would leave them for someone younger. Thus, they felt pushed to undergo surgical procedures that would at least keep them looking and feeling young.

But that is not all. In the new feminist world young women who had chosen to postpone marriage now entered the workforce in large numbers.

There have always been women in the workplace. For good or for ill they were often relegated to secretarial work, and were not considered to be of quite the same social class as their male bosses and managers.

Now, however, the young women who were beginning their careers were of exactly the same class as their male colleagues, bosses, and managers. They had gone to the same schools; they came from the same neighborhoods. Worse yet, they were both young and, in many cases, available.

A married mother living in the suburbs, even if she also pursued a career, felt that she was competing against the newest and youngest of female hires. These young women were in constant contact with their husbands.

At the very least, the wives and mothers would have felt somewhat insecure about seeing their husbands go off every day and spend the major part of their waking hours surrounded by nubile and available young females.

No one intended that this combustible situation come to pass. But, as they say, beware of unintended consequences.

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