I am always perplexed by the fact that the question of what a woman should or should not wear remains a hotly contested battle ground, especially among women. I’ve been struggling to find a way to articulate this confusion and then the quick-witted Adorkeable Thespian tweeted me this very funny Sarah Haskins clip:
I enjoyed this clip a lot (in fact, all of her clips are awesome) and its summary punch line is insightful and provides me the lens through which I can expression my confusion.
At the last instance, Haskins notes: these commercial contain images of women driven to unbridled sexual availability by things that (nerdy) guys like. And this makes sense. These advertisers are marketing primarily to a specific demographic of men, so it is no surprise that female beauty would be characterized in a fashion that accords with the desires of these men.
Now this got me thinking.
The terminology employed by this video, and which accords with our day-to-day language use, implies that the expression “hot chicks” refers to women who look, dress, and act in a fashion which accords with the desires of some men.
Over against this category of women — and this is a point well-made by the PFP — there is an aesthetic of female beauty that is primarily for the benefit of some group of other women. Women often use the word “cute” to describe fashion which corresponds with this aesthetic, so I am going to identify these women as “cute girls” but I’m open to changing this term, if anyone has any ideas (Gossip girls?). I had considered, “fashionistas” but that seemed too narrow a sub-group.
At any rate, it occurred to me: both these aesthetics are created and perpetuated for the benefit of some specific group of people and are created by both men and women (e.g. male fashion designers have as a large role to play in the “cute girl” aesthetic as women do in the “hot chick” aesthetic — possibly more).
It also occurred to me: people buy into one aesthetic or the other for the very same reasons. Some people adopt one aesthetic because it is, for them, empowering and some people adopt the same aesthetic because they want or need the approval of the people who embrace it without necessarily wanting to exercise control over them. In either case, each aesthetic is driven and perpetuated by a desire for power and / or membership in a specific group.
So, from this perspective, the on-going debate over women’s fashion, manufactured beauty ideals, and what is or is not appropriate fashion choices, is a debate between different groups of people who advance totalizing claims about the way all men and women should be. You should look, dress, desire, and consume like us because it is more empowering and less harmful than that other group’s manner of looking, dressing, desiring and consuming, according to our assessment of what counts as empowering and harmful.
Now, this conclusion is useful for me because it makes sense of why some people argue the “hot chick” aesthetic can be a source of empowerment and why some people argue the “cute girl” aesthetic is also caught up in oppressive social practices. In either case, some women are empowered, some women are disempowered, and both men and women play a role in the construction of both (really, many) aesthetics. The net result: wearing a mini-skirt and high heels is a source of empowerment or oppression, depending on who you talk to and the group with which they identify.
So why do I find this perplexing?
Isn’t the goal of all emancipatory social movements — including feminism — to ensure persons can exercise their own judgment as they see fit (given the constraints necessary for well-ordered society) without fear of illegitimate reprisal from any other person or group? Isn’t the point of feminism to empower each woman to make her own judgements and lifestyles choices as she sees fit? If this is true, is it useful for women (and men) to criticize women publicly and privately about their clothing and lifestyle choices? Shouldn’t we all support women in their choices — whatever they may be — even if they are different than our own? Surely, there are more important things to discuss, from a social and political perspective, than the question of whether or not a woman is wearing too much or too little clothing or having too much or too little sex? Isn’t the battleground around women’s appearance, lifestyle, and consumption choices a distraction from the more pressing issues of social justice?