Saturday, October 21, 2006

Feminist? Feminine?

Easily the best post I've read this month is Winter's How do I look? Thoughts on feminism and white middle-class femininity. I was really pleased to see that both Hugo and Rachel used the post as . They both focused on Winter's starting point:

My experience with feminine beauty practices has been oppressive. You can read about it here if you’re interested, but now I realise that when I wrote about my experiences, I should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that my own attitudes to feminine practices are deeply class-based. I have not been talking about “femininity,” I have been talking about the specifically white middle-class femininity that affects my life, and which often seems to be taken for granted as a universal experience for all women when white middle-class women speak on the subject. Hence the accusations of class privilege: white middle-class people are all too used to getting to speak for everyone.
I agree with this entirely. I'm not going to attempt to parse the discussion about the relationship between feminity and feminism, but there was an assumption that feminity had a set meaning, and covered a reasonably stable set of behaviours. As Winter points out this just isn't true. The gendered behaviour expected of a woman depends on the time and place, culture and class that that woman lives in. Her ability not to conform to those expectations often also depends on her culture and class.

That's not to say that middle-class white women shouldn't analyse the experiences they have of being middle-class white women. The problem is not that these discussions happen, but that they become a stand in for all women.

Winter went on to make an even more interesting point. Appearance and feminity is generally something that is left up to women to police (certainly among middle-class white women, my understanding is it true for a wider group of people, feel free to jump in if you have a different experience). In particular within white middle-class women part of conforming to standard ideas of feminity is not looking like you're trying.

Therefore, feminist discussions about appearance and supposedly feminine behaviours can fit right in a white-middle class discourse about women's bodies. Feminist critiques of shaving/waxing/make-up and so on, all fit into the idea that women shouldn't appear, and women critiqueing other women's appearance is how the whole system is maintained in the first place.

I think that analysis explains why it's very difficult to discuss these issues in a way that doesn't come across as policing policing. It also explains why discussion gets so fraught so quickly, as most women have good reason to get defensive when they feel other women are policing their appearance and behaviour. It's not just on-line either. I've been part of in person discussions that have gone badly wrong, and no-one really knew why.

But go and read Winter's whole post - I think her laying it out there like that was an awesome starting point.


  1. **Feel free to delete this post. I wanted to invite you to participate, but I did not know your email address.**

    Call for Articles for the 26th Feminist Carnival

    The 26th Feminist Carnival will be published on November 1st. I invite all bloggers to submit articles to this special issue on, Um, What is a Feminist Blog Anyway?.

    Articles on the following themes are encouraged:
    What is a feminist blog?

    What is a blog?

    How do you define feminism?

    How do you define cyberfeminism?

    How does feminist activism occur online?

    What do you think about feminist communities and networks on the web?

    Does gender equality exist in the blogosphere?

    How do blogs compare with other forms of feminist writing?

    What the hot topics currently being explored in the feminist blogosphere?

    What advice do you have for feminist bloggers (both those who are new to the blogosphere and those who are experienced bloggers)?

    Please email ablogwithoutabicycle(at)gmail(dot)com or use the online submission form to submit articles to the carnival. Be sure to include a one-sentence description (15-word maximum) of the blog on which the article appears and the blogger(s) who contribute to the blog and contact information for the blogger(s).

    You can visit the Feminist Carnival to read previous editions and to learn more about this great collection.

    I look forward to reading your submissions! T

  2. Glad you liked the post Maya and thanks for summing up what I was trying to say so nicely!