How do I look? Thoughts on feminism and white middle-class femininity October 15, 2006Posted by Winter in class matters, feminist theory, race matters.
The discussion, if it can rightly be called a ‘discussion,’ about feminism and feminine beauty practices which has taken place on feminist blogs recently seems to have become particularly vindictive and counter-productive. I am not going to get into the “can you be a feminist if you engage in feminine beauty practices?” argument here, but just to clarify my position from the beginning, I generally try and stick to Carol Hanisch’s argument in her essay the Personal is Political. The early radical women’s movement took the ‘pro woman’ line that personal problems are political problems: ‘There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for collective solution.’ This means that I do not want to argue about whether individual woman should not wax their legs because I don’t see how that argument makes any difference to present conditions, and I think it serves to divide women into the good sister/bad sister roles we’re all manipulated into occupying. If we sat around at Mind the Gap meetings arguing about who’s the better feminist because she doesn’t shave her legs, we’d never get much done; hell, we probably wouldn’t even have a group, and we probably wouldn’t deserve one.
I do want to say more about this argument, but right now I want to talk about femininity, feminism and class. Recently, the Happy Feminist and Hugo Schwyzer wrote long posts in response to the femininity debates (both contain links to earlier posts on the subject). Hugo’s, in particular, drew heat from feminists who grew up working-class, angry at the white middle-class privilege underscoring the entire discussion.
Bitch Lab said,
you can see how it’s damn disappointing to hit BlogLandia to find this overweening obsessiveness on issues that matter primarily to white and middle/upper-middle class people — because they don’t have to think about making a living on the edge of poverty. they never had to think about how some women might like to “dress up” becasue for 8 hrs of their lives, they’re wearing a freakin’ uniform. …Hence, it all has to be about gender gender gender gender gender gender gender gender because and centered on that issue because lawd knows we couldn’t possibly, you know, hold more than one concern in our heads at the same time. The luxury of white and class privilege is that you can imagine that you can decide when race and class matter. A lot of other feminists can’t. And worrying about high heels and pink tool belts is so much horse hockey.
I said it at Happy’s and at Feministe too: to me, the femmy issue is DEEPLY rooted in class, and what may be dis-empowering on gender (heels, for example), may in fact be portraying *economic* power, (not having to work for 10 hours doing assembly line work on one’s feet.) No one really expects their hispanic maid to show up in heels, and if she did, she’d be construed to be trying to use sexuality to advance herself through her employer. Whereas a female lawyer can show up to court in heels, and very few believe she’s trying to sleep with the judge.
My experience with feminine beauty practices has been oppressive. You can read about it here if you’re interested, but now I realise that when I wrote about my experiences, I should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that my own attitudes to feminine practices are deeply class-based. I have not been talking about “femininity,” I have been talking about the specifically white middle-class femininity that affects my life, and which often seems to be taken for granted as a universal experience for all women when white middle-class women speak on the subject. Hence the accusations of class privilege: white middle-class people are all too used to getting to speak for everyone.
When we have fights about waxing for example, are we assuming that all women can afford waxing, that waxing is expected of all women in the same way, and that waxing has the same significance for all women? The way in which women experience, or take part in feminine beauty practices, is enormously tied up with class, race, and also sexuality.
The construction of white middle-class femininity and its practices define my experience of oppression, not least because my own family has, over the last two generations, been in the process of achieving middle-class status. My father comes from a working-class family. His mother was a milliner and later a caterer, his father was a merchant seaman, and he was the first in the family to go to university. My mother’s parents were also both from working-class backgrounds and were obsessed with becoming middle-class. My maternal great grandmother drove herself crazy trying to convince everyone that she was white and middle-class (she was neither, but that’s a story for another day), and so the feminine beauty practices encouraged in my maternal grandmother and mother had a lot to do with the pursuit of a middle-class white identity and with erasing marks of race and working-classness.
Over at the Happy Feminist’s I made a guilty admission to sometimes feeling superior to women who take part in the practices of femininity and Happy noted that she too has had that feeling at times. I know this feeling is wrong headed (see the Personal is Political) but it’s almost a reflex. I’ll be striding along in my boots, see a woman in high heels and think, ‘How can she walk in those things? Doesn’t she know they might damage her legs?’ Then I’ll see a woman in heavy makeup on a bus and think, ‘Why does she waste her time and money!’ Then I mentally slap myself on the wrist for presuming myself to be in a position to judge the actions of other women. As I said above, we try and avoid such arguments at MTG meetings, but occasionally when the wearing of makeup has been mentioned, a number of women (including me) immediately pipe up: “I don’t wear makeup.” Anyone looking at the speakers could not be under any illusion that they are wearing makeup, so why make the statement at all? What effect does the statement have on women in the room who are wearing makeup? I’d hazard a guess that they feel pissed off if they interpret the claim as being about claiming feminist status thanks to their freedom from all that ‘nonsense.’ I will write more on the illusion of freedom from gender norms at some point.
What I didn’t say over at HF’s place is that I worry that my sense of superiority has been enabled by my interpretation of feminist thinking on the subject. No matter how much we claim not to be criticising what other women do when we critique feminine practices, if we’re telling them that they should analyse their behaviour, are we not putting ourselves in the position of authority, taking on the role of she who gets to tell other women what they should do/think? Where does the authority to make this demand on other women come from? Feminism? I was disturbed by HF’s post because I wondered why she felt impelled to explain herself. The comments over there are full of more women justifying their actions and talking about whether femininity can be feminist. Why, I asked myself, are they allowing themselves to be put in the position of she who must explain herself? The aim of HF’s post (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be to discuss whether taking part in middle-class feminine practices can be compatible with feminist values. I think danger lies down this road too, the danger of setting up yet more standards of good and bad femininity, this time along middle-class feminist lines. Here are the bad practices. Don’t do these or you shouldn’t really call yourself a feminist; if you do them, you will at least have to beat youself up about it reguarly and ‘we’ think you should stop, even though we tolerate you. Here are the practices which are not too oppressive, but remember you’re still not as good a feminist as a woman who rejects feminine practices altogether. Wouldn’t “feminist femininity” just become yet another means to police the behaviour of women? Isn’t the policing of female behaviour what we really should be resisting?
I do feel that some feminist thinking enables my superiority complex (intentionally or not), but I also think that it comes from the very white middle-class femininity I like to think I’m resisting. Looking down on other women is absolutely fundamental to white middle-class femininity because it is all about feeling superior to other women. It’s about class, about exerting and expressing one’s economic power through the feminine practices in which you engage and, as such, it is very much about distinguishing oneself from feminine practices associated with women of color, working-class women and poor women.
White middle-class femininity polices the behaviour of all women, but it’s also very much about self-regulation. It presumes there are good and bad, right and wrong, ways of doing feminine. In the UK, middle-class women have words for the ‘wrong’ kind of femininity, words such as ‘common,’ ‘vulgar’ and ‘cheap,’ words which convey the economic nature of the issue. No middle-class woman wants to be accused of looking ‘cheap.’ ‘Trailer park trash’ seems to work in a similar way for people in the US. Middle-class feminine practices are all about appearing a certain way, about cultivating a good (modest, but expensive) look. Yes, you should look feminine, but you should never be ‘obvious’ about it. You are brought up to a horror of wearing ‘too much’ makeup, appearing with obviously dyed hair, in cheap clothing, or having too much of a tan and looking ‘orange.’ The items which signify middle-class femininity are extremely expensive because they are supposed to signify the economic power to buy them in the first place.
I remember being told as a teenager to apply just enough makeup to ‘enhance’ my ‘natural’ looks and no more. It is a discourse tied up with the discourse of female modesty. In the UK, the media regularly presents images of ‘bad’ women who go out and get drunk; they are called ‘ladettes’ and are filmed roaring and screaming, rolling around in the road, flashing their knickers at the camera. They are the women middle-class women are not supposed to identify with because they are doing femininity all wrong.
The argument about whether women should engage in feminine beauty practices, and the insistense that they must analyse their behaviour if they do, makes working class-women and women of color angry because it stinks of privilege, of the power and leisure time to sit at a PC (as I am doing right now) for hours on end and argue about wearing lipstick because you don’t have to throw on a uniform and rush out to a 10 hour shift at the minimum wage job you have to do to feed your kids.
I had a chat with a working-class friend the other day about these issues. I’m not saying my friend speaks for working-class women, but she did have something interesting to say to me about my attitudes. In the community where she grew up, women would save up a little money to treat themselves to the occasional trip to a beauty parlour where they could take a day off relax, spend time with female friends and relatives, and enjoy being taken care of because life involved an awful lot of taking care of other people, including wealthy women and their children. Feminine practices do not mean the same thing to her as they do to me. For the women in her community trips to the beauty parlor represent a treat, time off to socialise, take a break and spend just a bit of the money they earn on themselves for a change.
It strikes me that that the insistence upon self-analysis and self-justification evident on feminist blogs such as the Happy Feminist’s might itself be an inheritance from the white-middle class femininity which demands that women constantly police their gender performance. So, I wonder if the insistence upon analysis of feminine practices is actually informed by the very femininity we claim to be resisting, the femininity that tells us we should analyse and police ourselves and other women for signs of doing it ‘wrong.’
To what extent, then, does the sense of authority, sometimes assumed, and the insistence upon regular self-flagellation for engaging in feminine practices, come from the discourse of white middle-class femininity which makes a virtue both of feeling superior to other women and self-policing? How have the concerns of white middle-class feminism, including the prioritising of gender performance as an issue, been influenced by the white middle-class femininity which makes gender performance and the analysis of gender performance into such a crucial issue for women? To what extent has white-middle class femininity influenced the white middle-class feminism which tends to dominate the field? Some of us may have given up the feminine practices, but this doesn’t mean we’ve given up all the attitudes, assumptions, norms and ideals we were brought up with. So, we really need to think about where we are coming from and how class and race inform the feminist issues we tend to prioritise.
* I suppose I’m assuming some sort of distinction between feminine practices and feminine identity in this post because feeling that you are a feminine person at the level of your identity does not necessarily mean you engage in any particular feminine practices. For instance, I know women who are not in any way feminine in terms of their identity but shave their legs for various reasons, and also women who say they are feminine but don’t shave. But that’s really a subject for another post.
* For the sake of convenience, I’ve made ‘white middle-class femininity’ sound like something monolithic in this post, when really I see it as a set of norms and ideals which of course are not taken up or experienced in the same way by all middle-class women!