Something that continually bugs me about a certain subset of feminism (essentialists, primarily, but I’ve also seen this from the libertarian side of the movement): the insistence that questioning a woman’s choices, or suggesting that her behavior is influenced by peer or media messages is somehow sexist in itself. The argument is that such questioning implies women aren’t smart enough to make their own informed decisions, and is therefore paternalistic, at best.
I get why they’re upset: when you’re struggling to be taken seriously and to be allowed to be autonomous, any suggestion that you might not be fully capable of making sensible choices feels like yet another limitation. Yet that’s not at all what’s going on. On the contrary, the effort toward getting women to stop participating in their own oppression is all about increasing the choices all women–not just those who have class, race or other privileges that expand their range of choices–have available to them. When we question a woman’s decision to have cosmetic surgery, for instance, we’re not telling her she’s too stupid to be allowed such choices. We’re pointing out that the choice she thinks she’s making isn’t actually a choice at all; that she’s been sold the idea that her “choice” is empowering, when it’s anything but.
When the existing power structure of a culture relies upon maintaining an underclass, it’s in the best interests of the ruling class to convince that underclass that their subjugated state is natural, desirable and something that they have themselves chosen as the best option for their lives. The ruling class does this not because they believe the underclass to be less intelligent and therefore more easily swindled. Rather, they push this idea because they know the underclass to be smart–smart enough to figure out that they’re being oppressed unless that oppression is sold to them as freedom. In terms of maintaining sexist power structures, that means convincing girls and women (in part) that they’re far better served wasting colossal amounts of time and energy making themselves into decorative objects or mobile household appliances than spending time getting education and job skills. Any hour a woman spends on getting her hair and makeup just right is an hour she’s not dedicating to developing the skills that matter for something other than attracting a shallow mate. Keep ’em busy on a never-ending treadmill, and they’ll never go looking to roam somewhere else.
And it’s not just women. The power structure depends on underclass men doing what they’re told as well, so they’re distracted by ideals of combat prowess, the supposed nobility of back-breaking work for little pay and reward, and the subjugation of women. A man who’s working 12-hour days so he can buy that shiny car to attract a hot wife is a man who’s too busy to look more closely at why he never seems to get any closer to financial stability. These men aren’t stupid. They are, like everyone else, merely pawns in the game.
Is that a cynical view of human behavior? Yes, it is. But it’s also an accurate one, and denying its existence empowers no-one.
This came up today thanks to a post elsewhere debunking a junk-science statistic about young women’s role models with regard to media images. The implication by the poster was that somehow, the fact that this one statistic was bunk was evidence that the entire crusade against sexist media images is flawed.
Ack. Leaving aside the logical error in this (the plural of anecdote is not data!) the far greater problem I have is with any attempt to downplay exactly how influential media images are on human behavior. And that includes the behavior of all humans.
The simple point is this: if media images–particularly commercial ones–weren’t influential, they wouldn’t exist. Marketing and advertising as we know them would cease if they ever stopped being effective means of influencing consumer behavior. Some folks are more savvy about this than others, but that’s not dependent on gender or race, or any other accident of birth (though in terms of class, a good education does help a great deal in terms of navigating that minefield.) Even those like myself who have had dozens of years of education and experience on the behind-the-curtain side of media can be subject to that influence. None of us are truly immune, no matter how smart we are or how indpendent we believe ourselves to be.
The reason for this is because the people running the show do so from a basic set of human psycholological facts. The exact manifestation of our drives to learn and to socialize with each other is unique for each person, but generally speaking, we’re pretty similar. We all model our behavior on that of the people in our environment who seem to have what we want. When we’re very small, we watch how adults and older children communicate, move, and find food and comfort. We learn language, culture and the very basic building blocks of how we understand the world by watching the people around us. When we’re older, we look to the behavior of people whose lives resemble our ideals, and do what they do in the hopes of reaching those ideals.
While most of our modeling influence comes from people in our immediate environment, yes, we do model on people we know indirectly, through media images. This is especially true if our immediate environment is something we dislike. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, or live in a dangerous community, you’re going to be considerably more influenced by people outside of that than people who have what you already have–and don’t want. We’re all generally aspirational, but people in the trenches are more so than most, and thus more likely to idolize the lifestyles of the rich and famous, so to speak.
People who have something to sell know this. They know how humans operate, and they use that modeling instinct against us in order to get us to buy their products. They take our basic drives and goals and carefully craft a message telling us that in order to get our needs met, we have to use what they’re selling. If what they’re selling is a direct means to a clear end, that bit’s simple: you tell people your product is available, does what it says on the tin, and can be obtained easily and for a reasonble price. If your product is more or less the same as the competition, you advertise it on price or value. If it’s better than the competition, you point up its highlights.
But what if your product is something unnecessary or of dubious value? That’s when you, in the language of marketing, create a need. You tie your product to the satisfaction of some other drive, and then convince people that only your product will get the job done. Jewelry, for instance, is hardly a necessity. One might see it as an investment, but most of it isn’t high enough quality for that, and there are far better ways to make your money earn more of itself. So how do you sell those pretty baubles? By convincing women that wearing them makes them more attractive to men, and by convincing men that buying jewelry for their female mates is how you demonstrate love. Voila, a bazillion-dollar industry in shiny rocks. The same is true for literally millions of other products, from fashion to toothpaste (yes, toothpaste!)
It’s all quite cynical and mercenary, as one might imagine. You have to have at least some amount of hatred or contempt for your fellow humans to get into an industry that’s bent on making them feel crappy enough about themselves that they have to buy your product. But it does work, and in a capitalist world, that’s what we’re used to.
Unfortunately, because the vast majority of this kind of marketing is dependent on existing cultural structures with regard to gender, class, etc., any shift in those structures is going to make the marketing vermin panic. So, not only is it in their best interests for people to feel crappy about themselves, but it’s in their best interests for people to want desperately to maintain those cultural structures in order to make themselves feel better. Setting up cultural ideals for femininity and masculinity that can never be truly reached is an easy way to get people to continually line up to buy your stuff. And if a few of them suffer and die while trying to reach those goals? Oh, well. Collateral damage.
The most insidious part of this is how self-perpetuating it really is, and this is where the struggle for feminists gets hardest. We’re intent on consciousness raising, which is an essential part of getting the ball rolling, but once you’ve had that aha! moment, and see the world for the sexist morass it really is, you also see exactly how hard it is to pull oneself out of that muck. It’s not enough to know that the cosmetic and fashion industries are run by morally bankrupt cretins who don’t care if women die trying to be perfectly pretty. You’re not fighting against just them. You can’t just boycott their products and hope to have a normal life. Their messages have been so pervasive for so long that they’ve become cultural standards well outside of their marketing efforts, which means one not only has to defy those industries–seemingly easy enough–but defy everyone else in your culture who has bought what they’re selling.
It’s not enough, for instance, to stop wearing makeup if everyone around you still expects you to do so. If you’re going to have a hard time getting a job or a mate if you’re not toeing the eyeshadow line, you don’t really have much choice after all. Only women who live in very progressive places or whose social circle is primarily progressive people can get away with avoiding that particular edict.
And that’s where the choice lie comes in.
Women who have had that moment of consciousness raising followed by the moment of panic about exactly how huge it all is often feel an intense urge to retreat–to forget the reality they’ve seen and go back to living inside the Matrix. They’ve seen exactly how dire the consequences are for living outside those boxes, and aren’t yet ready to take those risks. Yet, they also can’t really unsee it. So what do they do? They convince themselves that they have a choice. They convince themselves that their “choice” to continue to follow the cultural influences pressed upon them is something they made entirely on their own. They know the truth, they insist, and thus the fact that they’re choosing to do what their culture wants of them is a matter of free will. They’re not stupid. They get feminism. They understand that the world is a sexist place. They choose to ape those sexist structures with full knowledge and autonomy.
And hey, maybe those feminists are wrong anyway. It feels natural to shave and to wear makeup and heels. It feels natural to put oneself on display all the time. It couldn’t possibly be that it feels that way because we’ve been trained from birth to acclimate to those behaviors. Surely, it must be biological, yeah? Surely, the fact that girls choose dolls and boys choose trucks must be because they’re hard-wired to do so, and not because we’ve been gendering them since before they were even born …
And thus do we perpetuate the oppression that’s killing us, and millions of other women.
None of this–none of it–means we are weak or stupid. At least no more so than any other higher primate who just wants to fit in with the tribe so we can get our needs met. Wanting to break down the structures that get us to harm ourselves and others isn’t wanting to limit the choices of others under the idea that they’re too stupid to direct their own lives. It’s wanting to ensure that all of us have a full range of choices that are truly available, and not just the limited binary we’re given to make us think we have some control.
It IS scary to buck these systems. I certainly don’t all the time. Just to get by in daily life, there are some concessions everyone has to make to the great grist mill. But I don’t kid myself that those choices empower me. My true power comes in knowing that I choose what I do every day in a way that will ultimately make me strong enough that I won’t feel forced to make those choices. And it would be really, really nice if the rest of us who exist in this power-imbalanced world approached things the same way. If you feel you need to shave or wear makeup or whatever in order to get through life, then do so. Just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing those things because you really want to, and that any pressure to get you to rethink those choices is merely an edict from the humorless feminist old guard designed to limit your autonomy.