Thursday, February 08, 2007

We don't like to make our passions other people's concern

Audra Williams has a really great question":

I said at a Mediawatch board meeting this weekend that I feel like it's impossible to get upset with young girls dressing in revealing clothing without also signing onto the notion that it's possible to dress as if you are sexually available. I would like to talk about this, because I feel like most people disagree with me but I can't find a way to separate those two streams of thought.

What I mean is, I feel like people around the table believed that girls were dressing as if they are sexually available, and I don't think it's POSSIBLE to dress as if you are sexually available.

I don't understand how the same feminist women who fought for the idea that the way someone dresses is NEVER a green light for sex can now say that teenage girls are "dressing like skanks" or use terms like "prosti-tots"?

I think the point she's making is a really good one. It's one thing to talk about the range of clothing available to girls, it is quite another to make any sort of comment about the girls that wear them.

But I actually want to take this off in a slightly different direction. One of the comments on my recent post about the Buffy comic books talked about the artist 'sexualising' Willow. I really object to that language. The character of Willow was sexual - she once spent an entire episode in bed (and not in a bad way like Buffy and Riley). Giving someone larger breasts and an impractical garment doesn't sexualise them - it objectifies them, and being sexual and being an object of desire are not the same thing.

Of course this conflation is hardly rare. There are many, many different ways women are taught that for us being sexual is being desired, rather than desiring. It is very hard to shake this idea off entirely. Women who do not fit the conventional idea of what is desirable have no way to be sexual.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be wanted, and I imagine most people find being found sexually attractive a turn on. The problem is that women's sexuality is reduced to our desirability, and the extent to which we conform to a code of desireability, defines whether or not we're seuxal.

Women can't fight this by changing what we look like and particularly not by criticising what other women look like. Instead we need to reject any analysis which buys into the idea that women's sexuality and appearance are one and the same and to talk about women's desires and sexual agency, so that the next generation of girls knows that what they want matters.


  1. Anonymous9:34 am

    i agree with u on this, Maia, how a woman (young or old or in-btw) dresses doesn't relate to whether she is available or not. One thing that I think that u didn't mention and just to add to what you are saying is that sometimes dressing in a 'revealing' way can actually increase your/ a womans power in a patriarchal/masochistic society. This is often used by younger women (to gain attention) who haven't fully developed a sense of themselves. Perhaps they have exhausted other methods of being noticed (seen) as a person. Or when their self-esteem is based more on what others think of them rather than from how they feel about themselves.
    And we can't blame them for this, they are merely playing what some radical feminists call the 'painted bird'. They have been conditioned to play this role by an oppressive society. And it brings them some external rewards, though long term to continue to play this isn't healthy because it eventually chomps away at womens creative energy when so much time is given to appearance etc it means little is left for other more positive and esteem building pursuits. Leaving women with 'glamorous shells' but nothing worthwhile on the inside.
    what to you think of these ideas?

  2. i linked to this, hope that's cool?

  3. Of course it's Ok supergirlest.

    Jo - I feel you are blaming women and judging women for this much more than I'd be comfortable with.

  4. Anonymous12:50 pm

    If women don't liberate themselves from patriarchy who the f**ck will? We can expect support from our brothers but the task is our own.
    It's not about BLAME, its about understanding our own INNER power.
    I've been one of those young women, and I KNOW that the power of physical appearance and the energy it takes to maintain this comes at a huge price to your inner growth and development as a person.
    As for younger and younger girls dressing this way, I think it's a real shame, they should be out climbing trees and riding around on their bikes, mini skirts hardly make for the most practical of clothing.

  5. Arguing that this shouldn't happen is IMO missing the point - many, many women spend a great deal of time, effort and money on dressing to signal exactly this. It's Canute-like to stand up ask that women stop doing it.

    I'm not thrilled that children are being encouraged to dress (and more generally, act) as though they're more sexual than they are. Please don't get me wrong on that.

    I'm also not sure which bit you object to, I'm assuming it's that pop cult encourages all women to dress "sexually available" and there's no clear line between "normal fashion" and "manhunting clothes". And a lot of people have an interest in keeping it that way - it leaves room for behavioural cues as well. (it's one thing to want sex, quite another to want sex with any old shaved monkey that feels like it).

    Part of culture is an agreed set of symbols (dress, manners etc) that convey meaning. From the weho and hongi through to standing behind a lectern, we have acceptable signals for a huge range of things. You don't have to like the social signals that women use to say they want sex, but they do exist.

    Part of the reason for this I suspect is that flirting is an essential part of normal social interaction. for instance, I keep reading studies that say that people who do well at work behave quite flirticiously but are very careful not to step over the line and offend people (there's a selection pressure in that direction :)