But is it feminist?

// 15 September 2008

I’m becoming little tired of the above question, this idea that being a feminist involves slapping pro- and anti- feminist labels on every little aspect of our lives. I can’t quite pin down exactly where this idea has come from, but my finger is waving in the general direction of middle class Guardian reading types such as myself who have the privilege of being able to worry about the politics of bra-wearing because we don’t have to work our arses off just to put food on the table or care for our (non-existent) kids.

Lipstick. Heels. Blow jobs. Sex and the bloody City. All have been subject at more than one point to endless hand wringing and, even worse, gleeful G&T fuelled proclamations of guilty pleasure. Let’s get some fucking perspective.

While these apparent hotbeds of controversy are of course worthy of critique, and indeed should be critiqued, the aim of feminism is not to proscribe a One True Feminist lifestyle and personality identikit to the myriad of different women in the world. The significance of any given thing is entirely subjective: lipstick means different things to different women, ranging from oppressive to entirely mundane to liberating, and it is ludicrous to try and categorise it as anything other than a stick of colour intended to be applied to the lips. We can talk about the ways in which the beauty industry affects women’s lives in these different ways, and then go about dealing with the problems this discussion brings up, but attempting to slap an “Anti-Feminist” label on a L’Oreal Colour Riche Deep Red achieves absolutely nothing. Every live long day, women are accused of asking for rape because of their appearance: this is what we need to address, not whether wearing lipstick is Feminist or not.

Feminism isn’t supposed to be an elite club of women who “get it”. Arguing about whether someone’s personal choice, and indeed your own personal choice, is “Feminist” or not – regardless of whether that choice was made in x y or z social context – is no better than a Heat writer poking fun at some random celebrity’s cellulite, and infinitely more alienating. What matters is a dedication to achieving women’s liberation and effecting social change, on whatever level that individual is able to do so and feels comfortable with, not whether or not they like waxing their pubes or watching Friends.

And banging on about how naughty you are because you like watching Friends or waxing your pubes doesn’t help either. It still buys into the idea that feminists should be categorising every little bit of their lives according to some media-warped feminist-lite understanding of the phrase “the personal is political” rather than working to effect women’s freedom. Not only that, but it belittles those who do make what may be for them important decisions to engage or not engage in a certain practice or cultural phenomenon.

I don’t give a shit if Sex and the City is “Feminist” or not. I like that it has four female leads, and that it helped some women be more open about their sexual desires, but I hate the consumerist and beauty ideals it subscribes to. These issues matter in the real world, and they are issues I want to address. Whether or not SATC is Feminist, whether or not my watching it makes me a “good” or “bad” feminist is completely irrelevant.

Women are suffering from poverty, violence, abuse and oppression the world over, and some of us feel we have to worry about being chucked out of the meeting for wearing a Wonderbra? Now that ain’t Feminist.

Comments From You

Shelly // Posted 15 September 2008 at 5:39 pm

I agree with the main sentiment of this blog, as with most things in life, people always get caught up in the details and the bigger picture often gets blurred…some good points well made!

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 15 September 2008 at 6:00 pm

Yes! To everything!

Alex T // Posted 15 September 2008 at 7:09 pm

Hear feckin hear!

Thank you Laura.

Hannah // Posted 15 September 2008 at 8:18 pm

This post sums up what i’ve been thinking about a lot recently, so thanks for blogging about it Laura!

Cath Elliott // Posted 15 September 2008 at 8:21 pm

Well said!

I’m probably as guilty as anyone for doing this, although I do try really hard not to. But you’re absolutely spot on; at the end of the day it’s our actions and what we’re doing to secure women’s rights and freedoms that matters, not what we’re wearing while we’re doing that, or whether or not we depilated before arriving at the demo.

Amity // Posted 15 September 2008 at 9:13 pm

That was brilliant. You rock, Laura!

Eleanor T // Posted 15 September 2008 at 9:23 pm

Well, quite! Excellent thoughts; well executed.

Zenobia // Posted 15 September 2008 at 10:34 pm

It’s like you lined up about twenty nails, and hit each on the head with frightening speed and violence.

Great post.

Cara // Posted 15 September 2008 at 10:41 pm

Another hear hear from me!

Dulcinea // Posted 16 September 2008 at 2:03 am

I totally agree with this but I’ve never been able to put it so well. Thanks Laura!

Adele // Posted 16 September 2008 at 5:24 am

I agree wholeheartedly.

I tend to think that this kind of humourless nit-picking is inherent in any kind of ‘us and them’ type movement (which is all ideologies, regardless of how justified). People are petty and judgemental, and will try to assert their dominance in the group by defining tribal markings.

Leigh // Posted 16 September 2008 at 10:12 am

While I agree that much of feminism is reduced to feminism-lite by not focusing on big issues, I feel compelled to point out this remark:

“on whatever level that individual is able to do so and feels comfortable with”

Maybe picking apart and redirecting their everyday choices IS the level that some people feel able and comfortable on?

And really, isn’t it better to be blogging about ways that we might actually DO something about human trafficking, rampant gender inequalities in the developing world or exclusion of women from positions of power than chastising people for focusing on the little issues?

Vincenzo // Posted 16 September 2008 at 10:32 am

Start your own blog Laura, I’ll sign up!

Sabre // Posted 16 September 2008 at 10:41 am

Really good post, this expresses the frustration I feel about minor issues that often take front page to the detriment of major feminist issues. It’s fine to discuss SATC or lipstick (esp as discussions tend to lead into the beauty industry or consumerism) but to me it can feel like the big evils such as trafficked women/children, rape statistics or widespread domestic violence are pushed to the back.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t bother to discuss these things, or restrict what feminists can talk about, but sometimes a sense of perspective is desperately needed.

Example: I was in a meeting yesterday where a campaign for diversity in our profession was discussed. The word ‘strawman’ was used (to describe a draft version of a document) and there was nervous discussion from the group of men with glances in my direction (I was the only non-white and female person there) about whether they should say strawperson. Fair point, they’re trying to be inclusive, but really, there are bigger fish to fry! The discussion took time away from talking about bigger diversity issues and I wish now I’d had the guts to say so!

Soirore // Posted 16 September 2008 at 10:44 am

I agree with what you’re saying to an extent. There are big issues that we should be dealing with rather than dwelling on personal choices.

But the thing is sometimes personal choices do have an effect on the big things. As you mentioned before, buying in to consumer femininity is contributing to the enslavement of the women making our clothes.

In my mind having the privilege of time to worry about small things is great as it benefits everyone to be mindful about how their actions impact on others. Arguing for personal choice over all else is saying that individual women’s desires matter more than women in general. You obviously don’t mean that but I’m tired of people saying to me that they are feminist because they believe they can do what they want and no man (or woman) can stop them. It is useful to point out to these individuals that their choices are having a detrimental effect on womankind.

Not spending time on the little things is only ok if it means that the big things are being dwelt on. Too often it is an excuse to avoid responsibility, perhaps you don’t see this because you are a mindful person but many people are not.

Juliet // Posted 16 September 2008 at 11:29 am

Maybe I’m moving in the wrong (or right!) circles, but…where ARE all the silly people who are supposed to be doing all this endless G & T-fuelled hand-wringing about what is or isn’t feminist?! I’ve never met any.

And as for the bra-burning, that was a stupid phrase coined by the tabloids in the seventies which, to our endless boredom and irritation, has very much stuck. No feminists ever said they were going to burn their bras, any more than Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’.

Maybe it’s Laura who needs to get some perspective. Or stop reading the Guardian.

Michelle // Posted 16 September 2008 at 12:57 pm

I agree. I think this discussion about what is and isn’t feminist is rooted in individualism, a concept we would do well to cast off if we want a women’s liberation. Getting caught up in whether one should shave their legs or not diverts from the bigger issues, and whether a woman does shave her legs or not has no bearing on her ability to deal with these bigger issues.

It is useful to examine cultural texts and practices from a feminist perspective, for everything is connected, these things do have an impact on our lives. However, these discussions should take place within a larger context. So, debates about SATC should be related to a wider discussion about women’s sexual freedom and what it does/does not say about that, rather than getting bogged down in whether it is feminist or not.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2008 at 1:13 pm

Thanks for the comments everyone :-)

Juliet, I wrote “bra-wearing”, not “bra-burning”.

Point very much taken, Leigh.

Lindsey // Posted 16 September 2008 at 1:20 pm

Really excellent commentary.

I can understand wanting to discuss things like this because they are things that we can control, in a similar vein to choosing not to buy nestle or tesco. Talking about the big issues is daunting because we either all agree that trafficking is terrible or keep silent because we don’t know what we can do about it. Any thoughts on this?

Laura // Posted 16 September 2008 at 1:41 pm

I definitely agree with that, Lindsey, and it’s easy to do with blogging as well – how many times can I write about how awful x is when we’re all very much aware of this fact? The difficult part is figuring out what to do about it, and this should be our focus, as Leigh said.

Jesswa // Posted 16 September 2008 at 2:10 pm

Excellent post. Agree with the sentiments – although I must admit, I do enjoy debating how “feminist” something is or isn’t and why this is or isn’t the case, because I think that everything should be feminist. Though in my defense, I do this with friends, and it doesn’t ever take over or hinder my activism or concentration on bigger issues. More a sort of leisurely hobby I enjoy :) All thanks, of course, to my privileges…

@ Michelle – “I think this discussion about what is and isn’t feminist is rooted in individualism, a concept we would do well to cast off if we want a women’s liberation.” I’m a bit confused by this, as for me, feminism and individualism are inherently linked – the freedom to be an individual without submitting to the limitations of gender, sexuality, race, etc. Though perhaps I just misunderstand what you mean…I’m not yet entirely familiar with my “isms”.

Or maybe it’s just a difference of opinion. Who knows. :)

Michelle // Posted 16 September 2008 at 2:28 pm

Jesswa: when I said individualism here I was equating it to how being a feminist can be seen as nothing more than a lifestyle choice and all that’s needed to ‘do’ or ‘be’ feminist is to make individual choices over what one should wear/watch/listen to, which distracts from the bigger issues.

I do agree with you that everyone should be able to be themselves free of gender/class/race etc stereotypes and constraints- I guess I’d call that individuality!

m Andrea // Posted 16 September 2008 at 4:31 pm

I don’t like hypocrisy. If someone is claiming that their opinion or their thoughts are worth listening to, then they better not be a hypocrite.

Wearing lipstick is a coping mechanism or bargaining with our sexist culture because women who display patriarchal condoned activites obtain a reward for doing so. But there is a punishment for not displaying these behaviors — and that is an important consideration.

I do not believe it is appropiate to attach an all-inclusive label on women for choosing to bargain with or cope with patraiarchal norms. After all, we can not see other instances in which she chooses to fight patriarchal norms so obtaining a clear and full accounting of her life is impossible and not for us to judge.

But yet a distinction can be made between coping mechanisms, and hypocrisy — which is what happens when a women who claims to be feminist supports the right for men to use protituted women. A woman who supports systematic misogynist ideology can never be mistaken for a feminist who copes or bargains with her own individual choices.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2008 at 6:48 pm

m ANdrea,

I don’t think wearing lipstick is necessarily a coping mechanism or bargaining with our sexist culture. It can be, yes, but it can also be a way of altering one’s appearance, of dressing up, even of asserting some kind of self determination, for example in countries where women are forced to cover up and viewed as whores worthy of punishment if they adorn themselves (there’s a good documentary on an underground women’s beauty salon in Afghanistan on this subject). Even in this country women can be negatively judged for wearing lipstick. Insisting that it can only be a coping strategy or a kind of false choice simply denies the different realities and experiences of different women, and I don’t see that as being particularly feminist.

Rhona // Posted 16 September 2008 at 7:26 pm

I agree with Laura – why is wearing lipstick a ‘coping mechanism’?

I had a similar discussion with somebody else on another thread who opined that childfree women are childfree in order to avoid the socio-political constructs that motherhood imposed upon them…er, no. Some people (male or female) (wear lipstick/don’t have kids/insert deviant behaviour here) because they (do/don’t like it) et al.

I feel that endless hand-wringing acts against feminism, for the simple reason that people are naturally averse to ‘talking shops’: therefore, they may see the well-intentioned Guardian reader – but to what end are those wrung hands being put into action if you are a single-parent family on benefits?

I initially composed a long (and potentially quite agressive) reply in my head, but I am Scottish and quite brusque and I don’t feel those comments would get past the moderators, so I will end by saying – are you thinking or doing? And if you are thinking, will your thoughts do anybody – anywhere – any good?

Annika // Posted 16 September 2008 at 10:14 pm

Thanks for writing this, Laura.

I completely get what you are trying to say. It confuses me how some people disagree with you, because that is almost suggesting there is a ‘criteria’ to being a feminist. Some people may think a feminist has to be a certain way, and feminism itself is set in stone and cannot be changed. It can sometimes be expected that as women, we must fit into feminism, and all that comes with it. Problem is, it doesn’t work. There are more than one type of woman today, different classes, races, cultures, etc etc. How will all these women fit into this ‘criteria’? Its almost as though there are some rules you need to follow in order to fit into peoples idea of what a feminist should look like, live like etc. What happened to reality?

jude // Posted 18 September 2008 at 6:02 pm

Sometimes feminism can appear facist and it then alienates people – if I felt I had to justify heels, clothes, lipstick, even cartoons! before I could be accepted as being a feminist, I wouldn’t. Women have and continue to be alienated in so many ways, we don’t need to do it to ourselves.

zohra // Posted 18 September 2008 at 8:40 pm

Hi Laura

Interesting post. I wanted to respond to this bit:

The significance of any given thing is entirely subjective: lipstick means different things to different women, ranging from oppressive to entirely mundane to liberating, and it is ludicrous to try and categorise it as anything other than a stick of colour intended to be applied to the lips.

The fact that ‘lipstick means different things to different women’ doesn’t mean that lipstick’s ‘significance is entirely subjective’. Sure, subjectivity, and more importantly context, as you’ve argued well in one of your replies above, should count for something. But denying that lipstick has broader iconic/cultural meaning in the UK or the US (i.e. SATC/Friends land) is ignoring reality. It simply isn’t true that lipstick is as neutral as ‘a stick of colour intended to be applied to the lips’.

I do agree that calling lipstick/lipstick-wearing feminist or unfeminist is problematic, and also agree that policing other women for their choices is a total non-starter. But I don’t agree that talking about the pitfalls and meanings of choices around lipsticking-wearing (or any other of the examples you’ve covered, from watching SATC/Friends to hair removal) is a waste of time. The fact that there are other issues, like violence and poverty, that are needful of our energies doesn’t mean that we should only talk about those things or that some feminist issues are worthier than others and we should feel guilty for talking about what you seem to be classifying as the ‘lite’ ones.

Otherwise, what ever do *you* mean by the ‘personal is political’?

Laura // Posted 18 September 2008 at 8:54 pm

Hi zohra,

“I don’t agree that talking about the pitfalls and meanings of choices around lipsticking-wearing (or any other of the examples you’ve covered, from watching SATC/Friends to hair removal) is a waste of time.”

I agree, I guess I didn’t make that clear enough. What I take issue with is when the discussion is focused solely on whether something is “feminist” or not, rather than the implications of the issue at hand on women’s lives, as I feel this can be alienating and kind of misses the point: We’re not trying to create a world that fits certain strict feminist (and what kind of feminist?) criteria, but one where women are free.

m Andrea // Posted 19 September 2008 at 8:02 pm

I’ll try to rephrase. Laura asks, “Must we label every action as either a feminist act or a non-feminist act, and must we denigrate those non-feminist acts when performed by a feminist?”

My hurried answer, was that it depends on the presence of hypocrisy. But not all behaviors and attitudes are automatically hypocritical. And of course we must define what we mean by a “feminist act”. I temporarily define it as anything which has the potential to destroy patriarchal norms.

And a distinction is made between personal choices, and support of systematic patriarchal ideology. This nuanced distinction recognizes that not all choices are the result of a desire to support patriarchal norms. Sometimes these choices are merely coping mechanism.

Here we interupt to discuss why these choices are nothing but coping mechanisms. Lipstick (or any other gender performative behavior) can not be a gender-free choice when men are not normally allowed to wear lipstick — it is an option which is only available to women.

While humans do tend to enjoy accessorizing the body, these accessories are frequently categorized according to gender and the prevailing cultural norms. A woman could choose to adorn her body with any other type of accessory.

But she chose the gender approved behavior commonly found in her culture. There is no blame attached to her action — yet. Her action is merely a unrefutable objective fact. But her choice for bodily adornment was the prevailing patriarchal norm within her own culture, and so therefore it is a coping mechanism or bargaining.

To attach blame, we must find hypocrisy. Hypocrisy involves inconsistencies in one’s principles — so let’s look for that.

What would qualify as hypocrisy is when a woman claims to support equality for females and also supports the right for men to use prostituted women, use objectifying and dehumanizing pornography, engage in unequal sexual play, and insists that a normal healthy girly character requres a girly body.

I have a feeling most here would prefer to ignore all of the last bit. One must examine principles to find hypocrisy, but once it is found then credibility is lost. And oh hell yes let’s blame.

m Andrea // Posted 20 September 2008 at 6:52 am

A woman cannot support equality for women while she also supports the right for men to use prostituted women.

Not without being a hypocrite.

VirginiaB // Posted 12 October 2008 at 6:42 pm

No offence, but I think Laura is missing the point of at least *some* feminist critiques of SATC, which are not about deeming women anti-feminist victims for sometimes donning a pair of high heels. At least *some* of these critiques are about the portrayal in SATC of the 4 main characters’ consumerist lifestyle (and the movie’s insistence on coupledom as a finale and desired outcome for everyone except Samantha) as personally empowering – and hey, the fact that this is Hollywood’s portrayal to us of female empowerment (what about joining a protest group, and thinking about say the mainly female cleaners of the world?) is worthy of commentary. Let’s face it, so much of third-wave feminism is about individualist and consumerist self-empowerment, and is not a vehicle (but an impediment to) liberating women everywhere.

Corporate culture loves to increase the bucks it makes by encouraging us all to buy that vision of empowerment, although it actually demobilises us (hey, demobilising us works out well for big capital, and the SATC was one heck of a money-spinner as well as selling us a ridiculous vision of female solidarity, one that doesn’t entail much broad feminist solidarity to speak of). Ain’t that the point?

Laura // Posted 12 October 2008 at 11:41 pm

Hi Virginia, I agree with your criticism of SATC, my issue is more with the tendency to label things “feminist” or “not/anti-feminist” in and of themselves rather than the practice of feminist cultural critique.

VirginiaB // Posted 13 October 2008 at 10:10 am

Hi Laura, sorry for misconstruing – I guess what you’re saying is that it’s the context and the social dynamics surrounding practices that tend to be the problem, rather than the problem in themselves (for instance wearing lipstick not being problematic in itself, but the beauty industry which pressures women to conform to unrealistic standards, and the sexism of corporate culture which powerfully shapes our expectations and impedes us from thinking about more important issues, that are the problems)? Too true.

BTW FWIW I wrote an article trying to bounce off the SATC movie to critique capitalist culture and the more individualist feminist approaches, “Sex and the City: a sign of women’s liberation?”: http://www.directaction.org.au/issue3/sex_and_the_city_a_sign_of_womens_liberation

(Although I agree with you that trying to liberate women by criticising them for wearing high heels etc is a dead end, just as much as legislating to stop them from wearing the veil in certain places is. Even where these practices *in their current context* do impede women’s lives in many situations, it’s more useful to campaign around the social dynamics causing them than to claim that an article of clothing, be it shoes or headgear, can be oppressive in and of itself.)

Cara // Posted 13 October 2008 at 12:18 pm

VirginiaB – exactly. Let’s not blame individual women for their choices and the extent to which those choices appease the patriarchy, or not. It’s the attitudes behind these things that matter – if, say, wearing lipstick was acceptable for men to do as well, then it would lose its significance as being “feminine” and “girlie”.

I do think a TV show can be feminist or not, insofar as it can be compatible or not with feminist values. The individual person’s decision to watch or not isn’t – the phrase “unfeminist guilty pleasures” springs to mind – but the show can certianly be a vehicle for feminist or antifeminist values.

And am I the only one that likes Friends, but can’t stand SATC?

It stikes me that Friends at least made some nods to equality. e.g. the guys were the ones made to look stupid when they tried to be macho/ didn’t want to do something “girlie”. In that sense it was a good commentary on masculinity.

Plus Phoebe didn’t have a serious relationship until her 30s, Rachel was a strong and successful single mum with a good career…it didn’t seem like getting a man and settling down was their goal in life, unlike (as someone said above) the women in SATC.

I’m not saying it was a perfect example of feminism, but credit where credit’s due.

Also I suspect it might pass the Bechdel test. The women discuss things other than men all the time.

Davina // Posted 29 October 2008 at 7:12 pm

Cara – at the end of Friends, Phoebe and Monica get married while Rachel does end up with Ross – it may not have been their ultimate goals but the show just couldn’t push it to having one of the female characters ending up happy and independent (I always thought Phoebe would never get married). At least at the end of SATC (the film), when she is almost 50, Samantha makes the decision to be single because she’s happier by herself (although ok yes she ‘replaces’ Smith with a handbag dog…).

Also there’s the episode of Friends, ‘The one with all the wedding dresses’, which ends up with the three women dressing up in wedding dresses to cheer themselves up… As in, marriage = happiness.

Your comment about the Bechdel test sticks in my mind because I watched an old episode of Friends recently where the women were discussing who the bad guys were in WWII, and none of them knew but decided that it was the Mexicans. I know it was played for laughs but I hate it when women, and especially college-educated women, are made to appear ignorant on TV. And I know that the men on Friends aren’t supposed to be intelligent either and I KNOW it’s a comedy…I guess I just don’t find ignorance that funny anymore.

Cara’s comment that TV shows can be a vehicle for feminist/antifeminist values is, for me, a non-sequiter – if Friends/SATC are espousing any feminist values, then I would say they are the ones where ‘feminist’='(white) feminist’. I think there was only one WOC guest star on Friends, and pretty sure none on SATC until the film, where Jennifer Hudson only played the classic Black Best Friend. God forbid that a main female character of a TV show set in NEW YORK not be white.

So I don’t have a problem in watching Friends or SATC – I’ll watch either – but they represent a total fantasy world for me. And this is the problem.

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