On Feminism and “I Blame The Patriarchy”

I really don’t want to fight a bunch of different battles when it comes to gender. I want to fight just one battle, for equality of the sexes. Which is why I’m sorry to report that I find I Blame The Patriarchy alienating, and have to respond to the latest post there (entitled “Feminism and the feed-bag“).

(By way of contrast: As we speak, petitpoussin and N. Pepperell over at Rough Theory are writing good stuff with a feminist bent. Petitpoussin is calling attention to the situation and recent assassination in Oaxaca (link is from her to a different blog), and N. Pepperell is thinking out loud about an Acephalous post on gender differences in the blogosphere.)

American society in general enforces a series of double standards that oppress women, and are well-known to any feminist. There are different standards for beauty, for professional success, for social behavior, for domestic chores and child-rearing, and so on. I hope to be able to write against these from time to time, as I did in an old anonymous post critical of hyper-sexual sleaze culture. However, within the comparatively miniature circles of well-educated, progressive people to which (as a graduate student) I belong, there are a few stances being labeled “feminist” that I find misguided.

My definition of feminism is as follows: Women and men are equal. They are physically different from each other, a fact that requires a whole host of practical considerations, from maternity leave to abortion rights to contraception. However, these physical differences are irrelevant to questions of intelligence, behavior, or essence. Such questions can only be answered on an individual (or philosophical) basis irrespective of gender.

That’s it for the theory; I think keeping my definition of feminism short is crucial to responding in a lucid and consistent manner to the variety of issues surrounding gender. Notice that my definition has nothing to do with whether or not people should try to please each other; this is where I part ways with I Blame The Patriarchy. Twisty’s blog asserts that women should not feel obliged to please men with their looks and their behavior. She takes aim specifically at this article from AlterNet, where Ariel Stallings writes about overcoming her political reservations about dieting, and losing a few pounds. My argument is that individuals decide who they want to please (and yes, there’s no reason it has to be men), and that that is a healthy part of social existence. In other words, the problem isn’t pleasing people. The problems are that heterosexuality is enforced, that women are expected to do more to please men than vice versa, and that we are raised to find qualities like intelligence unpleasing in women.

Stallings is asking for it; after all, the last sentence of her article is about how her restored vanity enabled her to “forget” about feminism. Who could possibly support that? It seems like she wanted to lose more than just pounds. But Twisty’s intensely annoying, arch reply makes it clear that the only justification for dieting is a threat to one’s health.

I’ve known of several men dieting in my own English department, as well as men who were dieting at my summer teaching job. One friend of mine regulates how many flavored beverages he drinks, in order to avoid gaining weight. Most educated, financially secure people, male or female, now feel an obligation to exercise regularly. There are plenty of benefits that have nothing to do with being desirable: you are healthier, and it does improve your mood. But being desirable matters to men; I’ve even had to have one of those ridiculous “How can you eat like that?” conversations with another guy.

I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica. It’s an awfully smart and engaging show. It’s also a show whose Commander Apollo represents a normally unattainable ideal of male beauty. Does this send me hurtling into depression? Of course not. Does it make me slightly more self-conscious about my own body? Yes, and within limits that’s actually a good thing. I support critiques of insane versions of beauty that hurt people: extreme obesity or extreme thinness are ideals that hurt both the icons and their followers. We know about the connection between mainstream representations of women, and eating disorders. There can and should be respect for all body types. But Stallings’s body type has nothing to do with the weight she was gaining; that has to do with American eating culture, which (even for people like Stallings, who don’t eat fast food) oscillates between tragic behavior (such as anorexia) and a series of normal habits that cause most people to gain weight.

Some of my friends know that I went through twelve years of orthodonture in order not to have missing teeth and a gappy smile. We’re talking painful, bloody surgery, plus unsightly braces, rubber bands, the works. Absolutely none of this was necessary for health reasons; it was undertaken solely so that other people could feel more comfortable with my smile. After going through all that, how could I possibly criticize a friend who wanted plastic surgery? To be honest, one of the most frustrating parts of the process was all the people who needed to reassure themselves that the social benefits I received from fake teeth were a result of my having more confidence.

In my post on fashion, I argued that we should maintain a certain irony in our response to beauty. I continue to believe that, just as I believe we should maintain a certain irony towards intelligence; no single quality defines a person, and we should never make absolute demands of other people. We are also free to critique representations of gender we find disturbing. I, for one, dislike the monotone confidence of Mr. BIG in Sex and the City, and Dr. McDreamy in Grey’s Anatomy. But Twisty’s thesis that Stallings’s story represents some kind of betrayal, an idea Stallings herself seems to believe, is a vision of society without solicitude, and that isn’t even possible in the blogosphere.

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Update: I just read the hilarious “About This Blog” section of “I Blame The Patriarchy.” First of all, Twisty’s very smart, so maybe I’ll browse a few of her other posts. Second, were she to read this entry, I think she would file it under “But men experience that, too!” So let me promise you that my point is not merely that men also experience social pressure; truly, under many circumstances, they experience a lot less pressure than women do. My point is that Twisty is presenting us with an ideal of absolute indifference to the desires of others, whereas I would say good relationships of all kinds are based partly on a measured concern for those desires.

If you, dear readers, have an idea of where else I might look for better feminism, let me know.