I guess that technically I’ve been working on this post for a while, partially as an addendum to that post I wrote nine months ago and partially in response to a seriously overwhelming number of emails, comments, Formspring questions, and Facebook messages on the topic, ranging from polite or genuinely curious to snarky or straight-up enraged. And all of them boil down to one main question — “But wait, how are you a smart educated woman, a feminist, queer, and interested in fashion? How the hell is this possible? Is something wrong with you?” I was flattered to recently be included in Threadbared’s list of links addressing some of these topics, and that’s a great place to start for some of the other great writing (academic and bloggerly and in-between) on the topic, but there’s probably a bit more for me to say on my personal experience at the least.
It is an unfortunate and oft-discussed fact that feminism is often seen on a root level as being in conflict with queer issues — we’ll take this opportunity to dig out one very old and at this point excruciatingly tiresome (though still frustratingly relevant) question. Simone de Beauvoir admitted that she found it hackneyed and boring when she first posed it in the opening paragraphs of The Second Sex; Judith Butler admitted that it was worn out and problematic in Gender Trouble; every college sophomore at a liberal arts institution in this country has cranked out a caffeine-fueled mediocre eight-to-ten page paper on it. And yet everyone has still struggled to answer, precisely,that extremely puzzling and, at the core, very queer question: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a woman? What does that even mean?
Feminist and queer discourses have traditionally always overlapped, but also mutually excluded and abused each other to no end — Being Queer and Being Feminist are, in a very obvious way, inherently at odds with each other because of this whole “What is a woman anyway?” question. (For the time being, let’s keep the sticks away from the dead horses of the “What is feminism?” and “What is queer?” questions too.) The fact remains that it is commonly understood that the identity politics necessary to understand a universal group as “women” (and to thereby assert the rights of that group) caters to and reinforces the very binary system which it in theory opposes. On the basic academic level, Kristeva’s feminism is often read as a dismissal or even a condemnation of homosexuality while meanwhile Wittig decides that lesbians are, in fact, not actually women. Irigaray kinda thinks that all penetrative sex is rape while our favourite activists these days are positive about ALL kinds of sex. On the mainstream everyday level, pop culture feminism from the Spice Girls variety to the Sarah Palin variety pays no heed whatever to the lesbos; pop culture depictions of queerness often contain antifeminist or misogynistic undertones or, more commonly, fail to address feminine nonheterosexuality (in the absence of a male gaze) at all. We basically can’t win here. We Know These Things By Now. We Have Had This Conversation.
Fashion’s a little easier for most of us to deal with and requires, for most folks, less of a basic theory rehashing, since we all have pretty clear opinions on it. We can answer what that’s about in a much more concise fashion. It’s an epic shitshow of misogyny, female oppression, consumerism, body image distortion, racism, exclusionary and corrupt politics, and, oh, I don’t know, maybe even the root of all evil. It’s the base of any number of humorous epithets and one-liners about the rich and shallow; it’s a central plot focus of Cathy, probably the worst comic in the history of the universe. We get it. Fa$hun is really messed up, you guys.
And yet I still identify vehemently as both feminist and queer. And I love fashion. How is this possible?
Dear and darling readers, nothing makes me happier (no, seriously) than when you all email me offensively asinine things you find on the internet with a plethora of question marks and explanation points and WTFs and ask for my so obviously extremely qualified opinions! For the most part I do my best to carry on snark-filled emailconversations with each one of you special snowflakes and then occasionally write about it, but some things are just too painfully stupid/offensive for me to even acknowledge (for example, I am refusing to even have any more conversations about the Acne “transvestite/transgender/transexual/insert other incorrect term they used in their press release” shirts or about “ethnic beauty is the new black OH WAIT" or anything involving feathers or Lara Stone’s tits ever again basically.) Other things are so epicly stupid and offensive that after an entire year of eyerolling I am sort of required to address it lest my eyes roll permanently back into my head. HENCE THE ISSUE OF SHILOH JOLIE-PITT AND SURI CRUISE FINALLY SURFACES.
At first read a bit cutesy and a few things I’d contest (like that simplification of female fashion which though I appreciate the sentiment is surely more complex, and the sort of dismissal of exterior thought as somehow lesser, and of course I’d want more on the semiotics of it all and the parallels between clothing and language, and also more about the clothing as armor/protection, which is something I’ve discussed before a bit.) But come on, Umberto Eco wrote this in 1976 about how his tight jeans squashing his junk made him think about the relations between clothes and thought and women/constructed sartorial femininity and language. How could I NOT waste a quarter of an hour typing most of the two pages out for y’all? And besides, it gave me a reason to google funny things like “pants” and “trousers” for the sake of providing you all with the highly relevant Wallace and Gromit image above.
The jeans didn’t pinch, but they made their presence felt…. As a result, I lived in the knowledge that I had jeans on, whereas normally we live forgetting that we’re wearing undershorts or trousers. I lived for my jeans, and as a result I assumed the exterior behavior of one who wears jeans. In any case, I assumed a demeanor… I discussed it at length, especially with consultants of the opposite sex, from whom I learned what, for that matter, I had already suspected: that for women experiences of this kind are familiar because all their garments are conceived to impose a demeanor—high heels, girdles, brassieres, pantyhose, tight sweaters.
I thought then about how much, in the history of civilization, dress as armor has influenced behavior and, in consequence, exterior morality. The Victorian bourgeois was stiff and formal because of stiff collars; the nineteenth-century gentleman was constrained by his tight redingotes, boots, and top hats that didn’t allow brusque movements of the head. If Vienna had been on the equator and its bourgeoisie had gone around in Bermuda shorts, would Freud have described the same neurotic symptoms, the same Oedipal triangles? And would he have described them in the same way if he, the doctor, had been a Scot, in a kilt (under which, as everyone knows, the rule is to wear nothing)?
But the problem of my jeans led me to other observations. Not only did the garment impose a demeanor on me; by focusing my attention on demeanor, it obliged me to live towards the exterior world…I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and me and the society we lived in. I had achieved heteroconsciousness, that is to say, an epidermic self-awareness.
I realized then that thinkers, over the centuries, have fought to free themselves of armor. Warriors lived an exterior life, all enclosed in cuirasses and tunics; but monks had invented a habit that, while fulfilling, on its own, the requirements of demeanor (majestic, flowing, all of a piece, so that it fell in statuesque folds), it left the body (inside, underneath) completely free and unaware of itself. Monks were rich in interior life and very dirty, because the body, protected by a habit that, ennobling it, released it, was free to think, and to forget about itself… And when even the intellectual must dress in lay armor (wigs, waistcoats, knee breeches) we see that when he retires to think, he swaggers in rich dressing-gowns, or in Balzac’s loose, drolatique blouses. Thought abhors tights.
But if armor obliges its wearer to live the exterior life, then the age-old female spell is due also to the fact that society has imposed armors on women, forcing them to neglect the exercise of thought. Woman has been enslaved by fashion not only because, in obliging her to be attractive, to maintain an ethereal demeanor, to be pretty and stimulating, it made her a sex object; she has been enslaved chiefly because the clothing counseled for her forced her psychologically to live for the exterior. And this makes us realize how intellectually gifted and heroic a girl had to be before she could become, in those clothes, Madame de Sevigne, Victoria Colonna, Madame Curie, or Rosa Luxemburg.
….A final reflection—in imposing an exterior demeanor, clothes are semiotic devices, machines for communicating. This was known, but there had been no attempt to illustrate the parallel with the syntactic structures of language, which, in the opinion of many people, influence our view of the world. The syntactic structures of fashions also influence our view of the world, and in a far more physical way than the consecutio tempomm or the existence of the subjunctive.
— Umberto Eco, Lumbar Thought, 1976
OK guys, so yesterday I was talking with my friend Milo about how he’s writing a thesis on Lady Gaga and Hegel and like the accents his cat has when it’s stoned or something, and then this morning my NYT iphone app delivers this little gem linked above to me before I’d even finished my coffee, and I mean, for fuck’s sake. I thought we were over those half-assed shallow criticism of ‘hookup culture’ and how slutty/antifeminist/depressed/helpless/misguisded todays’ younguns are (the first generation, obviously, to ever have engaged in casual, ill-advised, and desperate sex, since all humanity beforehand was wise, chaste, and prudent.) But no! We hadn’t brought Lady Gaga into it yet! We hadn’t yet used her along with Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, and Hegel to prove that today’s teenage girls are misguided sluts! GODDAMNIT.
My first and most reasonable reaction to this is that it comes off that this probably nice lady who studies and writes about stuff like porn and my girl Simone is overly concerned about what her 19 year old is doing in college, which she directly says a few times, and worries that Lady Gaga is somehow representative of and/or encouraging her daughter’s potentially bad freshman year decisions. Which is kind of endearing and totally understandable, and I just sort of wish she’d dealt with it differently than publishing it in the New York Times and dismissing it as mass generational/vaginal decline relating to Lady Gaga. Bauer basically discusses the ways in which modern pressures, double standards, and mixed messages in today’s society lead to girls who are both studying for their AP exams and determined to succeed in a career man-free while doling out unreciprocated mindless blowjobs left and right, and how this related to things like Lady Gaga and pop feminism and bad faith. Long story short the point here is a somewhat worthy one that we’ve all talked about before — is that kind of thing feminist or is it just self-objectification and are we only making things worse? Is meaningless sex empowering or problematic? Are today’s 19 year old girls trying to be bros or harlots? Is hugging dangerous?
We’re just going to start this out with blatantly saying that I loathe anything Sex and the City related with the passion of a thousand burning suns, and the defense that’s been making the blog rounds lately — Jackie Ashley’s review at the Guardian — still falls short for me. But while it does little to control my irrepressible sneer at any mention of the franchise, it brings up indirectly a lot of issues I’ve been wrestling with lately. Ashley, a fan of the series and films, argues that a closet of Manolos, credit cards that pay themselves, an endless string of sexy men and best friends to always fall back on when they turn out to be jerks, are a female fantasy life, whereas the male fantasy life involves big cars and iPads and guns and porn, so back off and stop criticizing us for liking SATC ‘cause a girl can dream, ok?