The new feminists: lipstick and pageants

December 21, 2008

Although it seems to be addressing cis women, not trans women, there’s a nevertheless interesting piece in the Life & Style/Women section of the Sunday Times today, The new feminists: lipstick and pageants. The journalist, Gemma Soames, seems to be arguing that the recent Miss University London beauty pageant is a microcosmic example of a change in the focus of feminist activism by cis women away from a ‘retro’ (and, by implication, outmoded and irrelevant) feminism:

Take heart, sisters, for there is a new breed of feminist out there that is reinventing the ideology. Subscribing to the original feminist theories of equality (equal pay, equal rights and the importance of a right to choose), they pick the fights that mean something to them, ignoring the elements of feminist politics they find irrelevant.

My reading of the piece is that the “elements of feminist politics they find irrelevant” derive generally from the more problematic areas of second wave feminism and particularly, in this context, the protest against the 1968 Miss America Pageant. Instead, Ms Soames seems to be describing a sort of post-feminism.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with feminism and I make no secret that I’m still very much a n00b to gender theory and politics so, dipping into Wikipedia while writing this, it’s been interesting to learn a little more about the concepts of gender feminism and equity feminism within post-feminism. I’m by no means convinced that post-feminism offers the ideal home for my still-developing ‘politics of being trans’, but superficially at least, it seems a little more open-minded than certain other feminisms it’s been my misfortune to have been slapped about the face with.

At first glance, equity feminism – “an ideology that aims for full civil and legal equality” – certainly seems to offer a solid foundation from which I might be able to start a reconciliation with feminism; although I’d need to know more about the ‘target equality’ – as I said in my earlier post, “I’m really not comfortable with an equality which takes cis men’s point of view as its benchmark“. It occurs to me, and I don’t suppose this is a new or original thought, that the pursuit of equality for all must surely also imply an end to oppression – especially in the context of living openly as a trans woman – but I see no mention of anti-oppression work in the Wikipedia piece. And that subject – ending oppression as a means to achieving equality for all – may well, I think, open up an avenue of exploration all of its own. (Note to self: See also Michelle O’Brien’s essays Whose ally?, Gender Skirmishes on the Edges and Trans Liberation and Feminism)

Gender feminism, on the other hand, is immediately problematic for me. Apparently, the term was first coined by Christina Hoff Sommers in her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? to describe a feminism which criticizes contemporary gender roles and aims to eliminate them altogether. And it is that aim of eliminating gender roles that I don’t understand. Why would you want to eliminate them? Could you eliminate them? What would you replace them with – a form of androgynous gender neutrality for all? How would you enforce that? And why is it more preferable to abolish gender roles rather than allowing people to find the gender roles that are right for them, that chime harmoniously with their own sense of gender identity?

…le sigh…

I begin to wonder if I’ll ever find a solution that works for me; a solution that the world and her sister don’t feel threatened by (and hostile towards).

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13 Responses to “The new feminists: lipstick and pageants”

  1. frances Says:

    i guess the fundamental problem is trying to find a panacea in feminism, and also trying to frame any issue, social, political and so on, or critical theory within it.

    at the equality side, feminism naturally finds itself recognised within the universal declaration of human rights, explicitly so in article 2. contra this, at the more theoretical side, it finds itself recognised within gender theory and other fields of identities.

    both of these are also legitimate fields for any trans theory, so of course there is a commonality, and not one necessarily primarily focussed on oppression.

    personally, feminism fails catastrophically – as does any political movement – when it calls for revolution, smashing patriarchy, eliminating gender roles. i wonder first what they intend to replace these things with, and who will get hurt in the process.

    more saliently, until the issues of inequality, in a very pragmatic sense for feminism, are afforded their due attention, the on-going policing of identity, which seems to have largely become what certain aspects of feminism is concerned with, will continue to alienate the large body of people who will go elsewhere for their concerns.

    and i’d really recommend judith butler’s undoing gender over pretty much any book of trans/feminism/philosophy, certainly christina hoff sommers who sounds like a right tool.

  2. Helen G Says:

    Frances: i guess the fundamental problem is trying to find a panacea in feminism

    ^ This…

    more saliently, until the issues of inequality, in a very pragmatic sense for feminism, are afforded their due attention, the on-going policing of identity, which seems to have largely become what certain aspects of feminism is concerned with, will continue to alienate the large body of people who will go elsewhere for their concerns.

    ^ …And this.

    Thanks also for the Judith Butler recommendation; I keep picking it up in bookshops and putting it down again, but her writing style is just too opaque for me to follow, I’m afraid :(

  3. Jenn Says:

    Frances – yes!

    Although, I think feminism fails catastrophically when its main point is no longer equality, all that ‘declaration of human rights’ stuff, but sustaining feminism, keeping careers alive, and reassuring people that feminism still exists. I mean, it’s almost like a bunch of people will be hugely disappointed if there’s no need for it or if there’s nothing left to fight for. “There are no great causes these days!” – I always think that (a) that’s patently bollocks, and (b) fuck it, do you want people to be oppressed in a more picturesque way that’s actually interesting to you before you give a shit, or what?

    Although, to be honest, Helen, I think this Times article has no grounding in reality. I mean, you saw what they did with Jess’s quote, and there’s no reason to believe they didn’t obtain all the other quotes in the same way. So, there’s no reason to believe they mean anything as technical as ‘the more problematic aspects of second-wave feminism’, unless by that they mean bad clothes and whiskers. I mean, it does seem – going by the Times’ general line on feminism also – that they believe the whole ‘women’s oppression’ thing was only ever in women’s heads anyway, and feminism was all about getting silly women to understand that instead of going off into psychological tangents involving dressing unstylishly instead of wearing dresses. I mean, they border on the lesbophobic sometimes with this stuff – if you’re butch you’re clearly repressing your feminine desire for negligees and lace panties – , though not in this particular article.

    Admittedly, we’ve all encountered this within feminism as well. To be honest, I’m getting kind of weary of the whole deal. Though I think the most interesting part of it isn’t so much finding your own feminist niche, which I’m sure you realise is never going to happen, but the searching, which is far more interesting.

    I’d second the Judith Butler recommendation too, although bearing in mind that she is a very smart, shrewd woman who knows her audience, and it is in the interests of her career in academia to write as opaquely as possible. I’d say get a grounding in Lacan first – although he will probably piss you off – and the best thing for that is to read Zizek’s Reading Lacan. I’m told Foucault is really good for gender theory as well, I intend to find out for myself as soon as possible! And, with Butler and deconstructionism, trust me, beyond the convoluted writing style there’s not much to get your head around, it’s pretty straightforward.

  4. frances Says:

    ‘undoing gender’ is the least opaque of her works, and quite recent, very poetic, calm, considered and such a joy to read someone who considers issues with such dexterity. i often find with her i think of some objection, which she then replies to in the next paragraph.

    not to make her out to be perfect though, i have an eternal problem with anyone who thinks psychoanalysis in any of its forms is a valid model of theory.

    actually it distresses me the common remark of butler is she’s too difficult. yes, ‘bodies that matter’ is always a struggle and i’m never sure i understand, and some of it i don’t have any interest in, but when faludi, greer, bindel and all the others are the common level of debate, i think it’s necessary to be uncomfortable to get beyond their vacuity which they largely can get away with by ignoring the writings of butler and others of similar acuity.

  5. queenemily Says:

    I disagree, I think that Judith Butler is pants when she writes about trans stuff (and I really like reading her, especially Precarious Life and Psychic Life of Power). In Bodies That Matter where she says that a Latina trans woman’s murder by a john was a result of the failure to integrate her desires for a normative, white heterosexual middle class life into the Symbolic, because of the remainder that her penis symbolised. Which to decode the theoryese = offensive bullshit. Undoing Gender is much, much better, though there’s some still some serious wtf moments when she talks about trans people.

    I recommend Viviane Namaste’s Invisible Lives instead – she’s trans, and she breaks apart the important stuff like documents and sex work for trans women in a compelling way. Less High Theory than La Butler but uses Foucault and Derrida well and intelligibly.

  6. queenemily Says:

    And re: the OP, it’s a tough thing. I find myself wrestling with it as a feminine trans woman. There is a surprising amount of femmephobia in feminism, and especially radical feminism. The “wrong” kind of woman figures very heavily, and this becomes as much about gender presentation as political solidarity…

    In fact, I think that feminism in a lot of ways can be really unhealthy for trans women, because it begins to put us in these impossible double binds.

    Like, the rest of the world ungenders us for not being feminine enough, right. Indeed being feminine can be a survival strategy in a world that enforces cis-normativity with violence. So what’s a common feminist response? To slag us off for being too feminine, for being caricatures of “real” women. To call *us* essentialists, stupid boys who mistake the trappings of femininity for being female. And then to ungender us when we don’t pass as cis or out ourselves, anyway.

    Which is so bloody unsympathetic to real-life violence it’s not funny, and places us in a position where it’s literally impossible to be a feminist on our own terms.

  7. queenemily Says:

    >>>So, there’s no reason to believe they mean anything as technical as ‘the more problematic aspects of second-wave feminism’, unless by that they mean bad clothes and whiskers.

    Yes, agreed. “Hairy man-hating feminists” has long been a staple caricature of tabloids (and not-so-tabloids, really), which doesn’t tend to bode well for trans women..

  8. Elly Says:

    queenemily: concerning feminism and trans women, I think that while what you say is true, it can also be the opposite depending on groups/people.

    Maybe I am lucky enough to have met quite trans-friendly feminist people/groups (which doesn’t mean there is no problem at all, of course) but as a trans I found feminism at the contrary very healthy because it provided me ones of the very few places where I could wear combat boots, battle pants, no make up (with visible facial hair) and still be considered as a “she” (at least, I was accepted in women’s space :o ). And, obviously, talk about the patriarchal shit I get when I do wear skirt and lipsick.

    I think the problem is that trans women actually need feminism, which makes it all the more worse when it turns out to reject us and explain that we actually are not suffering from any opression because we are menz. But (and I am conscious this comes from my naive/optimistic side) I don’t think it is a fatality.

    I’m not saying that there is no problems, and I have also had some bad experiences (and the more unacceptable, I think, is the negation of trans women oppression as women) but I think what is really unhealthy for trans women is transphobia (and femmephobia)


  9. [...] I could also build on what Helen said here about gender feminism, where I’m inclined to agree with her. What’s the point [...]

  10. Helen G Says:

    frances, Jenn, queenemily, Elly: Thank you all for taking the time and trouble to comment; there’s much here for me to think about, to learn… Just back from fighting the madding crowds in Charing Cross Road – am now armed with a copy of ‘Undoing Gender’, so that’s my Christmas reading taken care of!

    Will aim to tackle Invisible Lives and Zizek on Lacan next…

    Jenn: I found Riki Wilchin’s overviews of Foucault and Derrida (Queer Theory, Gender Theory) to be really useful, but the book as a whole – like so many on gender/feminist theory, it seems – has some bits that I’m really not sure I agree with. Much the same as feminism, I guess.

    And I think this: “Though I think the most interesting part of it isn’t so much finding your own feminist niche, which I’m sure you realise is never going to happen, but the searching, which is far more interesting” is today’s joint winner of the interwebs, along with the word ‘femmephobia’. ^_^

    queenemily:Indeed being feminine can be a survival strategy in a world that enforces cis-normativity with violence” – absolutely! It took me quite a while to come to terms with the contradiction: yes, it’d be great if I did ‘pass’ (in the trans sense), but otoh it brings me full circle to the point I was clumsily trying to make earlier, that it would be, in effect, conforming to a standard set by cis women, the process of which requires that I deny, or hide, my transness.

    Elly:And, obviously, talk about the patriarchal shit I get when I do wear skirt and lipsick” – This is interesting, because my experience is the direct opposite: I get way more street harassment if I wear jeans, but if I’m presenting ‘en femme’ (to steal a phrase from my gender shrink) then life is a lot less hassly. By which I mean I get much less verbal harassment (“I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman” is a phrase guaranteed to ruin my day) – although people still stare. Although, as my electrologist said, “People will stare at you if you just have a spot on your face”.

    As queenemily said, it’s about finding survival tactics in the face of the violence of being ungendered by random passers-by (and I get the scary stary looks from women as much as men, although the verbals are predominantly from men). Heh – ‘scary stary looks’ – can we call that the ‘cis gaze’? That would certainly be one small step towards developing a (dare I use the phrase) trans feminism that works for me. Also, am I right in thinking that one of the basic principles of feminism that women are oppressed by mens’ sexism, and that this is a one way process? In which case, my experience of dirty looks from cis women would maybe seem to run counter to that – iow that (cis) women can exhibit oppressive behaviour to (trans) women?

    Elly:I think the problem is that trans women actually need feminism [...]” This is the crux of the matter for me; I’m becoming less and less convinced that we do. At least, none of the options currently on offer really seem to work for me. I realise that there’s never going to be a feminism that is a perfect fit – I’d guess that that applies to most, if not all of us – but I begin to doubt that I could take one variety ‘off-the-shelf’ and tailor it. Because it seems to me that many feminisms simply have too many issues about trans women, despite the assertions to the contrary. You cannot just treat ‘transinism’ (?) as a retro-fit add-on to feminism. My £0.02…

    Which I suppose is where my thinking is taking me; to build an ideology, meaningful and useful to me, that is truly grounded in, and centred on, my lived experience as a trans woman and yet still takes account of, and draws on, the intersectionalities with feminism (and class and race and everything else).

  11. Elly Says:

    HelenG:
    “This is interesting, because my experience is the direct opposite: I get way more street harassment if I wear jeans”

    Well, it’s hard to categorize but I think that if I am “en femme” I get a bit different stuff than if I am “ambiguous”: in the second case it’s mostly transphobia, whereas in the first case there is less transphobia but more sexism.

    But I also think it depends on the state of transition and the appearance: some times ago I got more transphobic stuff when I was “en femme” than now because I was seen as a “tranny”, whereas now I am a bit more often seen as a “woman”.

    “Also, am I right in thinking that one of the basic principles of feminism that women are oppressed by mens’ sexism, and that this is a one way process?”

    I don’t know. I think most feminists I know, even the not-quite-trans-friendly kind, agree that women can vehiculate sexism, particulary concerning women who don’t conform to gender norms (whether it is because they are trans, lesbian, masculine, …)

    “I think the problem is that trans women actually need feminism [...]” This is the crux of the matter for me; I’m becoming less and less convinced that we do.

    Well, how I see it is : the goal of feminism is (basically) to fight sexism. Trans women suffer from sexism. So trans women need feminism, because they are women. But obviously it means that trans women need a feminism that include trans women (which at the minimum level means that it doesn’t consider that trans women don’t suffer from sexism because they are men, and ideally would actually consider the specific ways in which trans women suffer sexism)

    “I realise that there’s never going to be a feminism that is a perfect fit – I’d guess that that applies to most, if not all of us – but I begin to doubt that I could take one variety ‘off-the-shelf’ and tailor it.”

    I understand that it is hard to define as feminist when the feminists you meet are transphobic, but I don’t think there is a necessity to should be a requirement to more or less “fit” into one of the “variants” of feminism.

    Personally I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell which “brand” of feminism I am and I must confess I can count the number of academic books I read on the fingers of one mutilated hand. Now I define as feminist because, well, I try to act a bit against women’s oppression and I go to feminist groups and demonstrations when there are ones.

    (Actually, I define as radical feminist because I think it is important to fight against the root of sexism, which is, for me, the assignation to a strict gender category (and hierarchy) according to some anatomical detail, which also seems to me as an important thing concerning trans people. Now I understood the term “radical feminism” doesn’t have exactly the same connotations in english, particularly concerning transgender, so I am more reluctant to use it in english :) )

  12. frances Says:

    @ Helen G, mmm happy winter reading. I’ve got Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Life of the Mind’ for company.

    On Zizek. I find him increasingly contentious in a bad way. I never particularly liked him for his fascination with psychoanalysis, though he does a good job of making all these Lacanian concepts comprehensible, through for example the films of Hitchcock. He is also increasingly enamored with a decidedly euro-fascist mentality, and he has this to say about gays and trans*…

    “In Violence, he suggests that homosexuality is a step on the road to onanism: “first, in homosexuality, the other sex is excluded (one does it with another person of the same sex). Then, in a kind of mockingly Hegelian negation of negation, the very dimension of otherness is cancelled: one does it with oneself.” Transsexuals are even more threatening: “The ultimate difference, the ‘transcendental’ difference that grounds human identity itself, thus turns into something open to manipulation: the ultimate plasticity of being human is asserted instead.””

    (from TNR via Philosophers Other http://philosophysother.blogspot.com/2008/12/kirsch-adam-deadly-jester-new-republic.html )

    Oh and with the UN General Assembly five days ago affirming the rights for all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity (with the exception of USA, aber sicher!), I would say any feminism, identity, queer, or gender theory that is still having issues with trans* people is entirely redundant.

  13. Helen G Says:

    frances: Oh and with the UN General Assembly five days ago affirming the rights for all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity (with the exception of USA, aber sicher!), I would say any feminism, identity, queer, or gender theory that is still having issues with trans* people is entirely redundant.

    Hmmm… Not according to this piece in the Jamaica Gleaner:

    “What is less known is that a counter-declaration sponsored by Egypt and Uganda and supported by approximately 60 countries was presented to the United Nations at the same time.”


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