Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Durham's Antagonistic Feminism

I feel a bit of a rant coming on. In an interview about her book, The Lolita Effect, Gigi Durham came out with the following:
Girls are always supposed to be changing their bodies and dressing up in order to attract male attention. There is not much emphasis on girls enjoying their own bodies, or even any reciprocity where boys might be thinking about what they could do to please girls. It's not very mutual.

But aren't boys also sold a very limited ideal of what it means to be sexual, too? Like all the pop culture references to pimps?

I think that male sexuality is defined in really narrow and limiting ways as well, but in the end, it ends up giving more power to boys. It actually hands it all off to them as being the arbiters of girls' sexuality, and the ones who can make the sexual decisions.
I have to confess that claims like this bother me to no end. I don't have a problem with feminism. But I do have a problem with this kind of feminism. Sure, I agree with Durham's major point: the sexualization of younger and younger girls by media and marketing is scary, and it's probably lousy for the girls' self-image. But surely we can grant that without adding to it the claim that boys get all the power as "arbiters of girls' sexuality", or that they get to "make the sexual decisions."

For one thing, taken at face value the claim is patently false, as most boys--and men--know perfectly well. Walk into any bar, and what you find is women sitting around and men approaching them, with the men having to accept the risk and the women holding the veto. This makes it look rather suspiciously as if women are the ones who "can make the sexual decisions." I can quite honestly say that I have very rarely been in a position to arbitrate anyone's sexuality, even had I wanted to (and though in some cases I have, the reverse has just as frequently been the case). But this isn't about me. My case just shows that "boys" is overly broad: what's meant, perhaps, isn't "all boys," or "boys as such" (because there is no such entity), but "some boys." Well, this may be true. But if so, then the response of girls to those particular boys is what puts them in a privileged position viz a viz other boys. The boys that get the best response from the girls, then, become the models for the other boys. And in this regard, the girls--by responding favorably to a specific group of boys rather than the others--are the arbiters of boys' sexuality, since their response dictates the norms for the majority of the boys to follow.

Perhaps (and I'm digging here) this is what Durham means: girls feel compelled to express their sexuality in particular ways that appeal to boys. Well, maybe, though this doesn't clearly make the boys arbiters of anything: as I understand it, girls arbitrate each other much more frequently, forcefully, and effectively than boys ever could. And in any case, it is rather silly to say that the boys are arbitrating anything, because that would assume--avoiding the overly literal reading, on which it would seem that boys control the media--that (1) boys naturally favor a certain kind of female sexuality and (2) girls' are trained to live up to that kind of sexuality. But that's just silly. What boys respond to sexually is not--except maybe at a very primitive level--something built into them. Rather, boys are exposed to the same media images of sexuality as girls are, and are just as stuck responding to those norms as the girls. If one wants to say, as Durham does, that images of girls' sexuality are media-originated, this may well be true; but one cannot then deny that those same images influence boys' sexuality.

At the most, what can make Durham's claim somewhat reasonable is something like this: boys are fed images of what girls should be like in order to be sexy. Girls are also fed images of what girls should be like in order to be sexy. Thus, the girls are influenced to express themselves in certain ways, while the boys are not. But that's not quite right: the boys are also influenced to express themselves in certain ways; perhaps not so much in the way they look, but to some extent in the way they act, and certainly in the way they respond to girls. Sure, there is a gender difference with regard to media effect here. My point is merely that this difference is not well, accurately, or intelligently expressed by the claim that boys are the arbiters of girls' sexuality.

What Durham seems to be pushing is a "war of the sexes" analysis of media effect on sexuality, a war in which men--or boys, at the case might be--are the enemy. And like any war, this one comes with distortion, deception, and propaganda designed to make the "other side" look like a bunch of evil, controlling trolls. That's a lousy model. First, it's very liable to turn intelligent men off from feminism. Second, it's liable to turn intelligent women off from feminism. Third, it's deceptive.

One of the spectacularly brilliant features of Simone de Beauvoir's approach in The Second Sex was the powerfully argued thesis that institutionalized gender inequality is bad for both women and men. There is no obviously good reason why Durham can't take the same approach: if the marketing of restrictive types of female sexuality is bad for girls, it isn't spectacularly great for boys, either. It may be a problem for girls if, say, they feel that they have to wear short skirts in order to get attention. But it's not unproblematic for boys if they are incapable of not paying attention to anyone who does wear a short skirt. Control works both ways, and feminist work that doesn't recognize this will always end up missing half the picture.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, and I like Beauvoir's approach better too. It's worth noting, however, that like Nietzsche she didn't like 'women' as such; both had an ideal of self-fashioning autonomy, and thought of femininity as inherently dependent, thus both precluding autonomy for 'women' and making them a drag on the autonomy of 'men'.

    So the question is, what is it about femininity that disables women while attracting the counterproductive interest of men. The answer does have to do with power, which is indeed offered to both sides in this arrangement but in different types and values. Men's power is direct and independently effective, a fact that they are able to 'enact' in a particularly vivid and satisfying way vis-a-vis women. Beauvoir remarks that no matter how downtrodden a particular man may be, he is still a man insofar as he lords over 'his' woman. So being able to control a woman/women is in this sense the primal content of masculinity.

    Inability to do so is uniquely anxietizing, as you point out in your post. So women, the 'second sex', have the threatening subaltern power of manipulation. They hold access to the status of masculine first sex for men, and can use this to get men to act for them. But they have no direct power, being entirely dependent on men's willingness to forego the direct power of violence in favor of a kind of co-dependent compromise. Sexuality and its various performances and non-performances are of course key instruments in this dynamic, right up through rape as the man's trump card.

    Short of that, but more structurally, because men as such control unequal access to direct power and thus essential resources, they are able as a gender class to unreflectively expect service from women. To use a crude market analogy, women who do not provide it are fired and women who do are taken on staff. Smart women learn the game of attracting the wallet and teach it to their daughters for their advantage, without men needing to do any direct oppressing in this respect. (E.g. it was Chinese women who invented and practiced footbinding as a competitive strategy. Short skirts work the same way.)

    This is of course a 'just-so story'; actual relationships tend to be quite a bit more complicated, and as soon as women have full access to equal employment the game will change significantly. (They will then stop being 'women' and we will stop being 'men'.) But the point is that although control does work both ways, it works quite differently and to women's (as such) detriment.