Something that today’s geek sexism thing has brought up: it’s kind of astonishing, if not surprising, how so many people who abuse their privileges think that being called out on that is a complaint about their privilege, rather than the abuse of it.
It seems like an easy concept to remember, but as people often seem to forget: the judgment of a person shouldn’t be about what they are, but what they do. We have little to no control over our lists of vital statistics. We do have control over how we behave. And when we behave badly, other people are well within their rights to call us out on it.
Let’s turn this around for a bit to illustrate: Discriminating against gay people because they’re gay is wrong because they don’t choose to be gay, and consensual sex and relationships between same-sex partners hurt no-one. But you can, of course, judge a gay person for something they do that DOES hurt someone. Gay people also don’t get to hide behind accusations of homophobia to avoid taking responsibility for bad acts. (There’s a meta issue in here about proportionate punishment, but that’s another post.)
As regards privilege, therefore, the complaint isn’t about someone being white, straight, male, Christian, rich, able-bodied, etc., but about whether they abuse those advantages in a way that furthers the oppression of people who weren’t born with a winning genetic lottery ticket.
This is why the right’s constant accusations of class warfare are so wrong. No-one wants to punish the rich just for being rich. We just want them to understand that with great power comes great responsibility. Powerful people who aren’t being proportionately responsible are fair game for criticism and even corrective action, when necessary. Rich enough to buy a diamond? Great for you, but please buy a conflict-free and sustainably mined one, k?
Where the sticking point often comes in is when people don’t recognize a privilege for what it is, and decide that, as they’re being oppressed in some other area, they’re somehow entitled to abuse any advantage they have to balance it out. That’s simply not the case. A kid who’s suffering from poverty but happens to be physically strong isn’t entitled to abuse that strength and beat up weaker kids just because he’s poor.
So, in the case in question, the complaint isn’t about women who had the luck to be born with physical characteristics their culture finds attractive. It’s about these women taking advantage of that luck in a way that furthers the oppression of other women. Not just unattractive women, who get judged as worthless because they’re not appealing to shallow het guys, but other attractive women as well, who have a hard time being taken seriously, no matter how they dress or act, because people expect attractive women to be sexually available. The more cute girls with perky boobs put themselves on display, the more people think that A) all women should be cute and have perky boobs and B) all cute girls with perky boobs should be on display. Just because she’s suffering from sexism of some sort or other–or even other disadvantages–doesn’t give a “pretty” girl carte blanche to dress and act in a way that furthers the idea that all women should be judged on their looks. It’s absolutely true that the main onus of responsibility for objectificaiton falls on the people doing so, but let’s not pretend that normalization, which is what happens when women blithely acquiesce to their culture’s standards for being decorative, isn’t a contributing factor.
I want to make it perfectly clear, since the point got missed elsewhere, that I’m not at all trying to shift blame away from the people at the top of the food chain who make this all happen in the first place. Men, for instance, are the ones who are primarily responsible for not objectifying women. But that doesn’t mean that women’s actions play no part whatsoever in perpetuating sexism, nor that all women are equally disempowered and thus equally lack any responsibility for doing something. On the contrary: we are the only ones who WILL do something, and therefore we are the ones who MUST.
It’s perhaps kind of funny that much of this ongoing argument has to do with exactly how much power women have, as if all women are the same. Some people are arguing that these poor, oppressed souls have no power at all, and therefore can’t be held responsible for their acts because they’re just doing what the patriarchy is forcing them to do. Others are arguing that women are all completely empowered, and therefore don’t need protection from anyone, and thus every woman is free to do whatever she wants.
The truth, of course, isn’t remotely so simple. The presumption that all women are the same is in itself an incredibly sexist concept. We are, for instance, far more than just women. What bathroom we use does not define us in toto. It also doesn’t define exactly how much economic, political and social power we have. Dozens of other factors–race, class, ability, orientation and many other things–can make a given individual woman incredibly powerful or incredibly weak.
In all cases, if everything else is equal, a given woman is going to be less powerful than a given man. But all things are NOT equal, and that means that many, many women do have considerable power over others, including other women.
The trick, of course, is getting these powerful women to recognize the power they have, and avoid abusing it.
For what it’s worth, I do understand how someone with a truckload of disadvantage might be tempted to misuse what advantages they do have. On a personal level, it can feel like evening things out somewhat, and in some cases, a person may feel they have no other choice, and feel they must use the one power they think they have. This is very common among working-class women, for instance. With few other opportunities for survival, a working-class woman who was lucky enough to be born pretty may feel compelled to use her looks to make a living. When the choice is between self-objectification or starvation, it’s pretty easy to make, even if that self-objectification is just furthering the larger problem.
And yet, it is for those women–the ones who feel they have no choice but to dress and act this way–that women who DO have a choice ought not to. And, even more importantly, it’s the women who don’t even have that luck–the ones who are poor, queer, uneducated, have disabilities and DON’T have the luck of a pretty face–we should be thinking of. A poor woman with a pretty face might be able to survive. A poor woman without one is in serious trouble.
Every time a pretty woman of privilege steps into a mold of dress and behavior that her culture says is how women should be, she’s contributing to the misery that those non-privileged women are experiencing. She’s contributing to a world in which it’s harder for unattractive women to get jobs, or for especially attractive women to get jobs in serious fields. She’s contributing to a world in which some women choose sex work not because they genuinely enjoy it but because they have no other way to pay the rent. She’s contributing to a world in which men feel entitled to the attention of women–and take it even when it’s refused.
Again: absolutely, the people at the top of this privilege chain bear the lion’s share of responsibility for dismantling it. But we need to be realistic: they’re not going to do so anytime soon, and they’re especially not going to do so if we just ask nicely. But they are few, and we are many. If we take advantage of what power we do have and aim up, instead of using it to keep others down, we can’t lose.
Too often, we expect political and social change to happen only from the efforts of others. I think about that dreadful John Mayer song, for instance, about waiting on the world to change. Well, nitwit, if you’d encourage people to vote and volunteer, maybe it WOULD change. Especially when we feel disempowered for some reason or other, it’s easy to assume we have no power at all, and thus miss opportunities to use it for good when we do have it.
Realistically speaking, being disempowered is exhausting, and recognizing privilege when we have it is a very tricky game. I don’t expect everyone to be psychic about this, or to make the right choices every time. Goodness knows I don’t. I’ve only recently become (upper) middle class, and still have no earthly clue how best to handle that in a way that helps other working-class folks get ahead. But I’m trying–which is all I ask anyone else to do. I make bad choices, I make lazy ones, I make ones out of fear or desperation or disbelief that I have any power whatsoever. I am so keenly aware of the disadvantages I have that I’ve often found myself playing poor me even in circumstances in which I’m not actually disadvantaged at all. In particular, I’ve learned how to shout so my voice will be heard, even when I’m in a situation where that’s unncessary.
But I am trying to do better. I think of all the people who could have helped me when I was suffering who didn’t, and I don’t want to be one of those people. Even if I’m not the direct cause of someone’s suffering, if it’s within my power to help mitigate it, then I want to do so.
And that’s what I ask of women who have privileges that other women do not. It may not seem like foregoing that barely there costume will make any big difference, but if enough of us do, then it will. Those seemingly insignificant acts can become tidal waves if they happen en masse. Whether that tidal wave falls on the people doing the oppression or the people being oppressed is up to you.