grrl talk

After I blogged about two women I admire, a discussion developed about women posing for magazines, beauty pageants (and why I hate them), and so on.

My thinking along these lines has changed a lot over the years. In my 20s, I stashed it all under the category of "objectifying", and disdained it. I read a lot of classic second-stage feminist work, and was friends with many women much older than me, and was influenced by the anti-porn, anti-display mentality. This is not a bad thing, even if I don't agree with all of it anymore.

In more recent years, through activism, I've found myself working with women 15, 20 years younger than me. They are feminists through and through, but to many of them, those attitudes seem prudish and narrow-minded - where feminism meets Victorianism, you could say.

Several have done some kind of sex work or stripping/dancing. Others have helped put themselves through college doing ovum extraction (that is, donating their eggs for other women to use for in vitro fertilization - another huge can of feminist worms). They are people who make choices consciously, thinking about the social implications, and they see no disconnect between their feminist ideals and, say, working in a strip club.

Part of the change in my thinking comes from knowing more lesbian and bisexual women. In a queer community, you get stuck with this basic question: why is it wrong for men to look at pictures of naked women, but ok if women do it? Hmmm... In my younger days, I (naively) thought porn was just for men. Look, I said I was naive. I've learned.

I can't possibly go into all the many threads these issues touch on; it's really complicated stuff. But I'm curious about what wmtc readers think. Several of us identify as feminists, and many who might not are feminists in reality anyway. (That is, you believe in the essential equality of all people.)

I'll trust everyone to refrain from stupid frat-boy comments. I'll also offer this potential bit of devil's advocacy, brought to us by the great Katha Pollitt:
Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.
Something is not necessarily right, just because it's a choice. People internalize oppression and make choices that are against their best interests. I'm just saying.

I don't usually do the "what I'm thinking about" posts, and I see wmtc is sliding down the slippery slope of blogdom. Soon I'll be telling you what I had for breakfast. (Kidding.)

So... discuss!


Anonymous said...

Wow. There's a lot in there.

I think as far as any kind of posing/modelling/pageantry etc (this extends to an earlier post of yours) goes, the difficulty is whether or not a choice was made. And how can the viewer know?

If a woman chooses to, say, strip or pose nude/semi-nude, knowing full well that men and women all over the place will be looking at it, then more power to her. That's a brave choice, really. But there are people who will make that choice, and there are people who enjoy doing that as a profession. There is nothing wrong with a woman who is proud of the way she looks and wants to share that - wants people to look at that. Is that self-objectification? I don't know - someone has to choose to buy the magazine, pay to get into the show, etc. It's tricky.

Compound that with the fact that not all of those women choose to pose. There are strip clubs on record as having brought girls in from overseas and forcing them to work. Some people wind up in pornography because they feel they have nowhere else to go. And so on. Again, makes it a tricky issue.

All this is good food for thought. Where do I stand on it? Currently I'm still of the mind that we've each got to make the choices we feel necessary for ourselves, regardless of whether or not anyone understands those choices.

So in that sense, if Danica Patrick chooses to pose half naked in a magazine, I may not buy it (not really into her, personally), but I won't argue against it either. If she feels it's the right thing for her to do, great. She made the choice to pose, knowing some guy is going to go into jackhammer mode over it, and if she's cool with that, then that's all that matters.

Final thought: I just don't think a simple magazine shoot generally objectifies women - I think it's the attitude around it. For instance, Danica (since we're on that example) is not some wafer-thin fashion model telling women they must be skeletons who are also silicon grown (to steal a Faces phrase) to be worthy in society or anything. She's been successful, and has a healthy body. And remember, photo shoots in magazines send out the implicit message that This Person Is Considered Sexy, hence they are in our magazine. If anything, that shoot is a positive for women - publicity and exposure (yes I get it there is a pun there) for a woman who has proven that women can succeed in male-dominated occupations/industries/events, as well as a promotion of the notion that women can be sexy without having to rely on eating disorders and surgery.

So I say to her: good choice. You can't always say that to everyone, but trying to find black and white answers on this one is impossible. Objectification is a case-by-case basis, with no sweeping concrete answer available. Nor should there ever be, in times when it is merely a case of personal choice.

laura k said...

Great stuff, G!

"There are strip clubs on record as having brought girls in from overseas and forcing them to work. Some people wind up in pornography because they feel they have nowhere else to go."

This is a really important point when talking about personal choices. Do low-income women "choose" to work at Wal-Mart or go on public assistance? Some women freely choose sex work, but most do it because there is no other way for them to survive.

This comes up a lot in discussions about egg donation or surrogate births - the class difference between birth mother and recipient.

Many feminists will not condone it under any circumstances, fear of creating the Handmaid's Tale's breeder class. Yet many donors and surrogates feel, this is what I have to give, why shouldn't I give it freely and be well compensated for it?

Anonymous said...

Taking control of your own body, basically. Nothing wrong with that - Christ, who else should control it, right?

You know, it's funny. That same egg argument can be made for men and sperm banks. Identical, really.

Yet no one ever does.

I dunno ... if it's your body, do as you please with it. The problem becomes when people get on TV and urge/guilt others into following suit. Present it as an option, so someone can think about it and decide on their own, cool. Force it at them like fundamentalist religion (how'd I get on that again?) and we've got a problem.

The problem a lot of men have with feminism isn't that they don't see women as equals. It's the way feminism is presented by much of the media that is the problem. You get a family, where the man works and the woman stays at home to raise the kids, and the man gets attacked for being submissive to his wife's rights. Wait a sec. What if she made that choice, to raise the kids because she didn't want a daycare doing it? I know part of the argument is the glass ceiling (man's job more stable, higher paying) but even that is changing these days. Very few men (at least here, anyway) have any problem whatsoever with their significant other working. But the attacks against us negate that fact. She doesn't work? You're a pig. As if she had any say in the matter. And that very argument is submissive in that her choice not to work isn't taken into account. And they wonder why most men just tune feminism out now.

At the end of the day, many of the (what I call) rightwing feminism extremists (the ones who ruin it for men who believe in equality) make the mistake of forgetting one of life's great truths. Men love money. Two incomes? Rock on! Can buy more toys now!!!

laura k said...

That's all true as far as it goes, but feminism isn't just about women working and having two incomes.

Does the working women do "double duty" - work full-time plus full-time home/child care, because her husband thinks its her job? Is there affordable childcare available, and if there isn't, whose job is it to find what child care there is? Does the working woman earn as much as the working man for the same job? (And though there has been progress made for professionals, this is still an issue for many working women.) Is her work valued as highly as his, in their own home?

Choice is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't explain everything. (See above quote.)

Also, a lot of men don't believe women are equals - not really. Just like a lot of white people, deep inside, feel superior to people of color.

Feminism has its issue problems, no doubt about that, but there is still a genuine lack of equality.

laura k said...

The reason egg donation and surrogate motherhood are not the same as sperm donation is that men in our society are not identified by their reproductive abilities, and women are.

Men's reproductive abilities are not (generally speaking) limited by age, and are not regulated by law. Women's reproductive cycles are open-season, politically and legally.

There's no comparing the two.

Mel said...

I'm a feminist from the younger generation. While I think that prostituion should be legal and regulated to protect women, and that women should have a choice, I tend to also think that most women choose to be sex workers for financial reasons.
I think that women ought to have other financial options, but when the minimum wage is so low you can't barely get buy, I see why many women opt to make more money.
I'm not saying women could never do it, but it takes incredible power and shielding to turn the strip club situation to your empowerment rather than slipping into the role of "meat" that is the default position.
I'm definitely pro-sex, but I was intrigued by Catherine MacKinnon's logical arguments about pornography- basically if the majority of women do it because they have no other choices then porn is a kind of wage-slavery. I can't look at porn anymore (as a bisexual) because I think it's quite possible that many of the models have suffered.
It's complicated, but I tend to be feminist that sees that way too many women in our society have been forced to be "sexy" in order to have value, to be sex objects. And until someone has sorted out the issues and motivations it's hard to know if acting in certain ways is really oneself or is the self acting on society's rules and pressures.
I refuse to be sexualized because my body and my sexuality are private and precious. It takes a strong women to put up boundaries and not let the vampiric attitudes of customers get to them, I'm not sure it's possible.

laura k said...

Thanks, Mel! (And welcome.)

"It's complicated, but I tend to be feminist that sees that way too many women in our society have been forced to be "sexy" in order to have value, to be sex objects. And until someone has sorted out the issues and motivations it's hard to know if acting in certain ways is really oneself or is the self acting on society's rules and pressures."

That's an excellent point, and well said - women's value going up the greater their sex appeal. Choice is a slippery concept there.

"I can't look at porn anymore (as a bisexual) because I think it's quite possible that many of the models have suffered."

I understand that. I went in the opposite direction. I used to think very much along the MacKinnon/Dworkin lines, until I discovered the porn that I like. (I'm bi too.) Then it became more complicated.

I decided I had to stop attaching political meaning to sexuality altogether - that there was just no correlation, people can't control what turns them on, and it was wrong to judge one thing as ok and another as not, on that personal / not-hurting-anyone level.

But I totally respect your POV. I used to have the same one.

Stephen said...

You know… I wouldn't be so quick to ridicule the "what I had for breakfast" type of blogging. It IS important for the folks who do it--many regard it as therapeutic to write about their personal lives and make online friends who do the same.

Less isolation, more kinship makes for a better world!

laura k said...

You're so right, Freewriter. If I seemed to be ridiculing that kind of blogging, I do apologize.

I promised myself when I started this blog I wouldn't go in that direction, and I'm determined not to. But that's just me.

I am totally into writing as a therapeutic act. I encourage everyone to write, just for self-expression. Blogs are amazing that way - the feedback and community they can offer.

Blog on.

laura k said...

And p.s. what did you have for breakfast? :-)

Stephen said...

Vive la difference! Perhaps my road is somewhere between the "breakfast blogging" and your style.

laura k said...

Mine has changed a lot, too.

I started this blog for two purposes - to process my own feelings about the move, and to keep in touch with friends and family. But it took on a life of its own.

I finally realized I could stop calling things "off topic", since the topic is whatever I choose!

David Cho said...

Let me see if I can articulate myself right. Many women "choose" sex work over say teaching (please, no jokes about Mary letourneau:)) even though most people would agree including sex workers that teaching is a more honorable profession. Let's face it. Many "choose" sex work over others because there is a lot more money there.

Now why is there more money in sex work? If you believe in the economics of supply and demand, it is because of high demand created by men, not by women who provide sex related entertainment. So the demand is dictated by men many of whom can be said to be "objectifying" women, not just appreciating and adoring faminine beauty, so my point is that they are simply responding to demand which is their perogative, but the use of the word "choice" does not bode well with me.

I am a software engineer, even though many people have told me that my talent could have been better used in Christian ministry and I may live to regret my decision later in life. Working in ministry might have turned out to be more fulfilling even though that would have meant living in a slum barely making ends meet. I "chose" software engineering to cash in on high demand primarily. Perhaps the use of the word "succumb" may be more appropriate in my case and sex workers' as well.

laura k said...

David, I agree with you up to a point. Middle class, educated women who go into sex work are making a choice based on economics.

However, most sex workers are poor, uneducated and exploited by men who keep most of their money. Many are supporting drug habits. Boys who do sex work are usually runaways, addicts, etc. There's not a whole lot of choice involved - more like desperation.

I think sex work should be legal, and sex workers protected from exploitation. But in the proverbial perfect world, I don't know how many women or men would choose to sell their bodies for money.

laura k said...

Are you sure you'd make so little money in the ministry? If it's really your calling...

David Cho said...

I am not disputing what you say about poor, and uneducated women in the sex industry, but from the first three paragraphs of your post, I assumed at issue were educated women who call themselves feminists, but choose to do sex work.

"Are you sure you'd make so little money in the ministry?"

Right after I submitted the post, I had the feeling that you'd have that comeback :). The ones that you've seen don't really represent the whole picture. You were probably thinking of millionaire TV evangelists who urge their followers to send them money for blessings in return. They are false prophets (or should I say false profits) as far as I'm concerned. Most people in ministry that I know personally make very little.

laura k said...

"I assumed at issue were educated women who call themselves feminists, but choose to do sex work."

I was, definitely. I was clarifying, b/c I do think those women are the minority of sex workers.

"Are you sure you'd make so little money in the ministry?"

David, you misinterpreted my question. I wasn't referring to the televangelists or anything like that. I wouldn't pretend to know anything about the ministry as a profession.

Here's what I meant. I was "supposed to" go to law school or get an MBA because that would lead to money and status. My father was disgusted that I would "waste" my top-shelf education by getting supposedly low-level jobs to support myself while trying to write, and he thought nothing good would ever come out of my being a writer.

I followed my heart, and I was poor for a while, but I figured it out, and I was never sorry for the choices I made. I've been much happier for it.

(Of course, had I gone to law school, I'd have ended up working for the ACLU or in reproductive rights, earning less than I do now...)

So what I meant by my question was, are you sure if you follow your heart and your talents, that you couldn't end up being at least comfortable?

David Cho said...

That is an excellent point, and I don't know the answer to that (Even if you had taken shots at those in ministry, I wouldn't have mind. There are so many bad apples who need to be called out).

Seems like you did follow your heart and you are so much better off for it.

laura k said...

I couldn't live any other way. Material wealth isn't that important to me. I do like my comfort, but I've got that. As long as I'm not struggling financially and can lead a comfortable life (for which I am very grateful), I'm fine.

To me, loving what I do is worth more than the ability to buy more things.

I hope you enjoy your work, though. Is there any way to do both, or is ministry a full-time-or-nothing calling?