A few years ago I somehow ended up watching a movie called ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. I’m not quite sure why because even back then I thought the title sounded stupid, and also it has Kirsten Dunst in it and she reminds of one of those wet-wipes that people keep in the glove boxes of their cars. Anyway! The basic plot of the movie is that this super-liberated feminist teacher goes to some school in the 1950s and teaches some young women about art and culture or whatever, and then she helps some of them get all liberated by teaching them about how they can go to college and don’t have to be housewives and all that. Not a totally awful concept, but I personally found the film to be almost completely unremarkable.
There is, however, one particular scene that sticks with me to this day. One of the young women (played by Julia Stiles) is super smart and the teacher constantly encourages her to go to med school or something equally competitive, and it looks like she’s going to do it. Then all of a sudden she comes back from a weekend away with her boyfriend, and it turns out they spontaneously got married and she’s decided she’s not going to college after all. Unsurprisingly the teacher gets all shitty and disappointed, but what was interesting to me was that Julia Stiles’ character gets shitty right back. She basically points out that her decision to marry and not go to college doesn’t actually diminish her abilities or her worth as a person – in fact she literally says “This doesn’t make me any less smart.” I’ve never forgotten that line, and it seems particularly relevant to what I want to discuss in this post.
Let’s start with a scenario you’re probably all familiar with; a female public figure who’s famous for something other than her appearance (sports, politics, academia, business, whatever) does something like an interview about how motherhood is the best thing that’s ever happened to her, or a sexy photo shoot, or decides to retire from public life to raise a family. A couple of recent examples would be Michelle Obama’s speech at the State of the Union address, and the female Russian Olympic athletes who posed for a series of lingerie photos as part of the promotion for the Sochi winter games. In both these cases, as in so many others, there has been a lot of controversy and backlash from the feminist sphere, particularly from pop feminist sources. They’ve railed against Michelle Obama’s statement that her role as a mother is the most important thing to her, in spite of her incredible education and career and the power she wields as First Lady. They’ve lamented that these Russian female athletes have been ‘reduced’ to mere sexual objects, rather than being honoured and respected for their abilities as sportswomen. Isn’t it terrible, they say, that a woman in the public eye still needs to squeeze herself into traditional feminine roles like wife, mother and sex symbol in order to be accepted and worthy of praise? Well, yes. That would be terrible. But it seems to me as though that’s not really what’s happening here.
See, there’s a difference between a woman being ‘reduced’ to a housewife or sex symbol, and a woman choosing to embrace those roles as part of her overall existence. If a woman is portrayed in such a way that all her other achievements and abilities are trumped by this one particular aspect of her existence then yes, she is ‘reduced’. But not all portrayals of women as sexy or domestic or maternal do this, and a crucial part of making the distinction is understanding the importance of choice. The crux of the matter is whether or not the woman in question is choosing to be portrayed in this way. If she’s being forced or pressured into embracing a traditional manifestation of femininity then yes, I would say that is reductive and oppressive. But if she’s choosing of her own free will to be shown in such a light, then personally I don’t see how that’s oppressive or even unfair.
Many feminist sources would and do argue that women cannot always be conscious about the decisions they’re making in these matters. The pressure our society puts on women to behave and appear in a certain way is so great, that a woman may believe that she’s choosing to be shown in a particular light but in fact she’s doing no such thing. In order to be successful, to gain popularity and sponsorship and general acceptance, a woman in the public eye must show a willingness to conform to traditional female gender roles. On some levels I agree with this; there’s certainly a lot of social stigma about ‘unfeminine’ women in positions of power (just look at the kind of gender-obsessed bullshit directed at Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton). But at the same time, I think there are also many instances where the women in question have genuinely made the choice to publicly embrace traditional female roles of their own free will. And all too often, pop feminism and mass media indulge in the knee-jerk reaction of assuming that any depiction of a high-profile woman in a traditionally feminine light is an example of patriarchal oppression.
Whilst there are unarguably examples of famous and successful women being pressured into ‘acting femme’, there are also plenty of instances where that is probably not the case. So how do we figure out whether we’re looking at oppression or an exercise in free will? Personally, I think the best indicator lies in whether or not the woman had anything to lose by not choosing to ‘act femme’. After all, if coming across as sexy or maternal is really so abhorrent to high-profile women, surely they would not agree to do so unless it was seriously to their detriment to refuse. Would they have lost votes, sponsorship, money, popularity, employment opportunities? If not – well then, I’d say its pretty unlikely they were coerced into speaking or acting as they did. Michelle Obama is a great example here, because although many people lament the pressures she must have felt to make a statement about how much she loves motherhood, she had absolutely nothing to lose by not doing so. She’s already First Lady, she can’t be un-First-Ladied if enough people don’t like her. And it’s not as though she had to shore up support for her husband’s political career, because Obama’s already served two terms and he can’t be re-elected anyway. And clearly Michelle Obama was not in a position of financial need – so what did she have to gain by announcing to the world that being a mother to her two daughters has been her proudest achievement? Nothing. She simply decided to publicly share that out of all her academic, political and personal achievements, raising her daughters was the thing that she most valued. And making that announcement in no way diminishes the importance or value of her other achievements, because funnily enough, it’s actually entirely possible for a woman to enjoy both traditionally feminine and non-traditional aspects of her own existence.
A similar argument could be made in the case of the female Russian olympic athletes who appeared in a recently released lingerie photo shoot. Now I recognise that Russia has some pretty dreadful shit going on in terms of the rights of women, LGBTQ people and in fact anyone who isn’t Vladimir Putin himself. However, the arguments made against this photo shoot by most pop feminist sources did not focus on Russia’s appalling human rights record or its strongly anti-feminist religious culture. No, the main problem seemed to be that these were elite athletes, talented and empowered women who deserved respect, and that showing them as scantily-clad pin-ups diminished their achievements and disrespected them as professionals. My question is – how? How does showing a woman in a conventional sexually attractive light make her less athletic, less intelligent, less deserving of respect? No, these photographs did not focus on the athletic abilities of the women they portrayed – but that was not their goal. It’s not like the photographers lied to the women and said that they really wanted to depict their athletic prowess, but then somehow tricked them into wearing suspenders and portrayed them as mindless sex-dolls. The photographs were specifically designed to be sexy and sexualised because hey, sex sells – and if the athletes who posed for these photos are happy to use their sexuality to increase publicity for the Sochi Olympics, why shouldn’t they? I’m not saying that these images don’t portray these women in a purely aesthetic and sexualised way, because they absolutely do. I’m saying that such a depiction is not necessarily reductive, because appearing in a sexualised light is only demeaning if you find it to be so. These women are still elite sportspeople, and they will still be recognised and respected for their athletic achievements. Why shouldn’t a woman be proud to be a world-class athlete, and also to be celebrated as a sex symbol? The two things are not mutually exclusive, and embracing the latter doesn’t erase the worth of the former.
And this is where the Julia Stiles thing comes in – the idea that embracing and enjoying traditional gender roles deprives a woman of her independence, her intelligence, her achievements and her credibility. That a capable female who chooses not to dedicate herself primarily to the ’empowering’ pursuit of externally recognised success, who instead or even also decides to follow more traditional female roles, is somehow wasting their potential and diminishing their worth. That in order to be a true feminist, everything you do in life must be geared towards improving the rights of women and breaking down traditional gender roles – and that anything less is a betrayal and a failure of the ideals you believe in.
Pardon my French, but fuck that noise.
I absolutely consider myself a feminist, as well as an MRA. One of the dearest goals of my life is to somehow contribute to dismantling traditional gender roles and increasing equality for people of all genders. If I leave a legacy to the world, I would like that to be it. But while I believe passionately in the ideology of gender equality, I don’t want it to be the defining factor in everything that I do. And it’s not because I’m a ‘fake’ feminist or I’m giving in to the pressures of the patriarchal apparatus. It’s because I’m a real fucking person, and my needs and wants cannot be encompassed by just one ideology. Right now, I’m basically a housewife; I very happily cook and clean while my fiance is the one who brings home the bacon. If all goes to plan, I’ll be married at the age of 22 and I’d like to have kids in my mid-20s. And you know what? None of that makes me any less smart. It doesn’t stop me from pursuing a double-major at university; it doesn’t prevent me from writing these appallingly long but hopefully intelligent blog posts; it doesn’t diminish my desire to have a career that somehow furthers the cause of gender equality amongst many other social justice issues. But I will not spend my one life becoming a standard-bearer for feminism or any other ideology. If other people want to follow that path then more power to them, but it doesn’t give them a blank cheque to write off the life choices of people who don’t share their goals.
So I utterly reject the idea that a woman, that anyone, has to choose between either totally embracing or utterly rejecting all traditional gender roles. Not only is it something I find personally insulting, but more importantly it’s one of the biggest ways that modern feminism shoots itself in the foot. I’ve heard it said more times than I can count that feminism is about choice – increasing freedom and choices for everyone, but especially for women. But how can that be reconciled with the knee-jerk and vitriolic way in which so many so-called feminists demean those women who decide to embrace rather than reject some aspects of traditional femininity? After all, is that not their choice to make? Many critics of feminism have pointed out – quite rightly – that the movement cannot truly support freedom of choice for women if it acts like some women are making the ‘wrong’ choices for themselves. It comes across as a case of “We want you to have freedom of choice – as long as you choose what we think is right.”
As I said, some feminist sources counter this argument by saying that women choosing traditional gender roles are being subtly forced into making that decision, caving into the innumerable pressures and discriminations that women face in our society. Call me crazy, but isn’t a little inconsistent to follow an ideology that believes in the equal intelligence and abilities of women, and then effectively imply that some women are too ignorant to make their own choices without being manipulated by external force? Because that’s basically what it means – women who don’t reject traditional gender roles are too stupid to know what’s good for them or to understand the reasons for their own choices. More than that; it says that only women who reject traditional femininity are capable of seeing the lies and manipulations to which other women are falling victim. They alone can see the truth, they alone have not been fooled. Because what woman in their right mind would voluntarily embrace traditional female gender roles? Honestly, it’s not remotely difficult to understand why anyone, male or female, would be reluctant to support feminism if this is the kind of message the movement is sending out.
Despite all my criticisms, I believe that feminism is a wonderful movement which has achieved much and can still offer a great deal to the world. But that’s why I get so pissed off with stuff like this – there’s so much potential, and I honestly think that breaking down traditional gender roles through feminism and other movements will improve the lives of the vast majority of people. Ideally it can increase equality and tolerance, and offer more freedom and more choices to everyone, not just women. But people who support feminism have to truly embrace these goals, and really understand what such an ideal means. It does not mean getting rid of all traditionally masculine or feminine roles. It does not mean shaming and discriminating against people who voluntarily adopt the traditional roles and behaviours associated with their gender. It does not mean replacing a patriarchal system which oppresses people by forcing them into traditional gender roles, with a feminist system that oppresses them by refusing to let them embrace those roles if they want to. It does not mean telling other people how to live and what their values should be. It simply means that whatever choices a person makes, in whatever aspect of their life, should not be restricted by societal expectations about gender. A woman can be respected whether she’s a housewife or a Senator; a man can be respected whether he’s a stockbroker or a stay-at-home dad; and LGBTQ people can be respected and treated with dignity whether they identify as male, female, both or nothing at all. If feminism is really about choice and gender equality, then its supporters must respect all decisions equally and not denigrate those that they don’t personally agree with. I, for one, want the freedom to make my own life choices irrespective of my gender – not a mantra that tells me what those choices should look like.