Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hating what she's wearing

A while back there was a debate running feminist debate about the website Go Fug Yourself. I think part of the problem is that the debate was framed as a question of whether or not it was funny. Arguing about humour is a very difficult place to analyse media. I don't think there is any possibility of developing a feminist line on whether or not Go Fug Yourself is funny (for the record my position is 'maybe'). I would also never argue that feminists shouldn't read and enjoy Go Fug Yourself. As I've said I'm all for things that give us joy, and very few things produced under capitalism are going to be politically pure.

But we can't stop criticising things just because we enjoy them. Just because feminists find Go Fug Yourself funny, just because it's written by women who identify as feminists (and I'm pretty sure at least Jessica does) doesn't mean that the site is feminist - and I believe that it is the opposite.

There are some areas of the patriarchy (for want of a better word - I have to write a post about why I dislike that term) that women do the primary policing over. Making sure an oppressed group polices itself is a pretty central part to maintaining any power system. You grow up female in our society you know that women are supposed to police conformity when it comes to food, appearance and sex.

That's not to say that men don't have a role in policing all of these. Men can say "Should you be eating that?" to their girlfriends (if they want to risk the possibility that I will kill them when I develop the lazer powered eyes I've always wanted), but it's other women who will tell them how many calories, or how much carbohydrate, where to find the diet version, and to brush their teeth instead.

I think stopping policing other women's behaviour to suit our sexist and misogynist society is a vital precondition for feminists doing anything useful.

Go Fug Yourself polices other women's appearances - yes they're celebrities, but New Weekly concentrates on policing celebrities, doesn't mean it doesn't have a message for the rest of us. They did about Kelly Clarkson recently:

Now I'm not going to defend the outfit saratorially. But to say (as Go Fug Yourself did) that Kelly Clarkson should avoid wearing outfits that make her look like a pear, or that she's twenty pounds heavier, or that she should make sure that she wears clothes that are flattering. That says it's OK not to look like Keira Knightley (and don't even get me started on the way they write about women who may be suffering from eating disorders, because I'm too angry to be coherent on that), as long as you make sure you don't look any heavier. You have to make sure you 'flatter' yourself.**

The policing on Go Fug Yourself is funnier, more intelligent, and kinder than what you find in women's magazines. But that doesn't mean that the readers don't take messages from it about the way they should dress, it's still part of the work women need to stop doing about policing other women's appearance.

* I know they occasionally target men, but it's rare enough to be irrelevant. There's not a single man who gets a category for himself and they haven't fugged a man yet this month.

** I have this excellent top that looks fantastic on me - so excellent that I'm considering buying a couple more, because it comes from Pagani and it's not going to last. I never realised how loaded the term 'flattering' was until my feminist friends talked about it and refused to use that word.


  1. 1. The term "flattering" is a tool of the patriarchy and must be eliminated.

    2. I think Kelly Clarkson looks terrific, but then, I tend to think healthy people doing things they do well and are passionate about generally do look terrific. I can't believe a self-described feminist would criticize her appearance so cruelly.

    3. Pagani rocks. They make clothes that fit tall women. Woohoo!! Trousers that actually come down to your feet, rather than being 5cm too short!

    4. I thought I was the only person who pined for laser-powered eyes.

    Once again, a spot-on, bloody brilliant post. Thank you, Maia.

  2. I often feel uncomfortable about all the criticism of women's appearances, eg the Best Dressed pages in magazines like New Idea. Thank you for articulating my unease.

    I find it frustrating that adverts for cosmetics etc are air-brushed (isn't that false-advertising?), no mention is generally made of the punishing dietary and exercise regimes many stars have to follow to maintain their conformity, and yet the subtext is always, to women (and men) reading/watching: "You should look like this. Judge each other if you don't."

  3. My problem in this post is less about the term 'flattering', and more about insisting that flattering is always a good, and women must always wear flattering clothes.

    But I'm happy to articulate the problem with the term flattering. There's an important difference between a top (for example) looks good and saying it's flattering. Flattering is generally about emphasising some parts of your body and hiding others. It's about making your body look like bodies should. It implies that your clothes are making your body look a way it does't normally look - and making it look better.

    I'm not saying there's anything wrong with trying to wear clothes that you think of as flattering (lord knows I do). But I do think we should avoid using the word 'flattering' to talk about other women's appearance

  4. I read this excellent post yesterday and have had a look at Go Fug Yourself.

    If I had come across it without warning there is no way I would have assumed it was a feminist project. No. Some of it may be funny in a cruel way, but it's not feminist.

    I think the cessation of mutual female body policing should be a top priority within feminism. It perpetuates exactly what we're supposed to be fighting against. A huge amount of female body policing is carried out by women rather than men and I think feminists need to make a strong stand against it.

  5. I don't think it is supposed to be a feminist project, although I think the women behind it identify it as feminist.

    The debate has more been 'is it ok that feminists enjoy this'? Which I'm not that interested in - but I do think that a feminist analysis of this sort of project is important.

  6. I hadn't come across it until you linked to it. I had a pretty good look at it, and felt repulsion more than anything else. It's just not funny. Do people seriously find it funny?

  7. You can see the problem with "flattering" if you contrast it with "complimentary". Flattery is undeserved praise, so to say that a pair of trousers are flattering isn't exactly equivalent to simply saying they look good or suit you.
    It's more like "Wow, they make you look good despite your fat arse."

  8. You are spot-on, as usual.

    In the original dust-up, someone (I forget who) defended GFY by saying that GFY just wants celebrities to "do it right". My response: what exactly, from a feminist perspective, constitutes "doing it right"? You have articulated this much better than I did.

    One of the things that struck me about the whole debate was how much the defense of GFY consisted of "they're celebrities--it's their job to be attractive." Yet many of the women whose appearance they actively police are singers. A singer's job is not "being attractive": it's singing. Her clothing is irrelevant to the quality of her voice or the power of her song-writing. I wonder how many of the great singers of the past would have had a career today.