Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"None but ourselves can free our minds"

I got a chuckle from this witty photo of a woman's leg, with marks depicting how a skirt's length appears on a spectrum from "matronly" to "whorish". Unfortunately, the commentary that it inspired just provoked a groan.

Lisa Wade's brief (but popular) essay is just pathetic wallowing in victimhood and self pity. She sums up the situation like this:
Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.
Before I respond to the content of Wade's essay, I need to explain myself. It would be easy to dismiss my criticisms as being born of the arrogance of privilege. Yes, I am a straight, white male in the top quartile of SES. However, I am capable of empathizing with the challenges that women face in our society. For one, I have tried to bring attention to the injustice of laws that treat the exposure of men's and women's bodies differently and done what little I can to normalize the image of topless women. If Wade's essay were just a friend's rant on Facebook, I would let her vent and probably try to make some innocuous but witty comment indicating that I heard her. However, Wade is writing on high profile websites (including HuffPo), and presenting herself as an expert on this topic. Therefore, her expressed opinion is fair game for blunt, critical evaluation. She makes major errors of perception and interpretation, which I will discuss below. The errors of interpretation are more interesting, but the errors of perception provide the context for the errors in interpretation, so I'll address them in detail first.

Even after I noticed all the glaring omissions from her essay, I was still willing to entertain the idea that it was a conversation starter, and the supposedly intelligent and well-informed readers of the Society Pages would flesh out the issues in a respectful and well reasoned discussion. Boy was I wrong. The comments for this article just reiterate the basic victim mentality of Wade's essay (with some exceptions), with a little bit of man-bashing thrown in when anyone who disagrees with Wade is essentially accused of enabling rape.


The first thing to dispense with is the twisted perceptions of social norms that are presented by Wade and the commenters. I have no idea of what society they are talking about; it definitely isn't mine. Wade asserts that a woman risks social marginalization if she's not willing to show her legs, while commenters assert that pants are considered anti-feminine.

In my community, women commonly wear pants and jeans, particularly at work. As far as I can tell, this issue is completely absent for most women over 30 who basically show their legs to the same extent and under the same conditions that men do (e.g. by wearing shorts at casual gatherings).

Even for younger women who may be interested in developing a romance, showing leg is not necessary to be attractive. I personally have taken notice of many women who were wearing long skirts, jeans, and pants (even cargo pants and overalls). I kinda like long skirts. Finally, if this is the realm of activity that we are talking about, then it is absurd to say that failure to show legs results in social marginalization. Having fewer dates with boys is not marginalization. Furthermore, if girls (as a group) stopped showing their legs, would boys stop going on dates with them? Obviously not, which reveals the real dynamic here -- the pressure to show skin is not forced upon women by men (or "society"), it is the consequence of competition among women for men's attention. It may be frustrating that men's interest is driven by such superficial concerns, but the frivolity of our society is not a women's issue by any means; men too compete to catch the attention of women, often in frivolous manners.

Maybe for some people, the issue is broader than dating. If a group of your peers is ostracizing you because of your failure to show some leg, that is a problem, but it's primarily their problem. If you are in a big city, you should find some friends who won't demand such petty conformity; if you are in a small town, the problem is with that town, not general American society. I hope you can get out.

The final problem with Wade's depiction of clothing expectations is that many of these same restrictions apply to men; so they are broader issues of how our bodies are treated, not anything specifically about women. For instance, the length of men's shorts typically falls in the "flirty" to "proper" range of the image, which is likewise a pretty neutral length for women. Men's shorts that are shorter than "flirty" become "dorky", and when you get up to "asking for it", the same can be said for men. Any shorter and you're "clearly a fag", with all the risks that entails. The main difference is that women frequently do push the line with their skirt lengths, wearing skirts that reveal much more than is normal.


So this brings us to Wade's first problem with interpretation: the choice of skirt length can be a form of self expression (pointed out by a commenter). Since I reject Wade's assertion that there is no neutral skirt length, women do exercise the option of wearing super-short, sexy outfits if that's what they want to do, and they can reasonably expect to be treated differently than if they had worn longer, looser clothes. That's not saying that it is acceptable for someone to grope them, yell obscenities at them, propose sex acts, or badger them for a date, but they can expect to be looked at lustfully and perhaps even receive cat whistles or passing comments such as "nice legs" or "nice ass". Maybe unfamiliar men will be more likely to strike up a real conversation with them, though I expect the most likely (and desired) response will be posturing by male acquaintances. On a side note, Wade suggests that an "asking for it" skirt increases the chances of being attacked, but I've heard that claim disputed, and it may not be relevant anyway because it applies to men also (as gay-bashing) and represents the behavior of social deviants, not the enforcers of social norms that we are talking about.

As long as we're considering what is an acceptable response to short skirts, we might as well take it to an extreme and consider the acceptable response to someone in the same situation wearing a bikini-bottom or no pants at all. The issue is how we establish and encourage social norms for body covering (of both men and women) and exactly what those norms should be. I doubt that Wade is suggesting that we should do away with such norms altogether and accept nudity as appropriate for everyday activities.

Wade's second interpretive error is in her identification of the social source of the problem. By presenting this as unfairness to women, she implies that it originates from men. She  does seem to acknowledge (by blaming society as a whole) that women play a role in maintaining this situation, but she fails to specify how women participate while specifically pointing out a way that men participate: presumably the risk of being attacked refers to sexual assault by men.

She also makes a point of defending the "class-privileged" women who epitomize conformity to these social norms, whom I would consider the prime suspects behind this phenomenon. It seems that she is hoping to generate a sense of female solidarity (against patriarchy?), even at the expense of ignoring how fashion, even for men, is tied to the maintenance of class hierarchy.

Now, this is the meat of what I want to say. Let's leave aside issues of power structures for a moment, and just consider the behavior of equal individuals in society.  Social norms are a system of behavioral expectations and actual behaviors, where each reinforces the other. We behave a particular way because we are expected to (or we perceive that we are expected to), and we expect others to behave a certain way, in part because that is how people have behaved in our experience.

The above analysis suggests that a powerful strategy to change social norms is simply to violate the norm. Once people become used to violations of the norm, it is no longer a norm. This is why I think it is important to normalize images of topless women, and also why I have great respect for women who breast-feed in public. Violating norms brings the risk of repercussions, but the good thing about this strategy is that it is always available to the person who is being victimized by an unfair norm. By making excuses for the class-privileged women who conform to these fashion norm, Wade is dismissing this strategy and telling women that they are helpless victims.

Wade's excuses for these women are even more aggravating when we recognize that their class-privilege gives these women the freedom to violate norms with fewer repercussions. Yet these are the same women who conform to the norms most exactly. To make this clear, these women have the choice to either challenge an unfair norm or to reinforce it, and they chose to reinforce it. This clarifies the nature of these fashion rules as a tool of class dominance, not male oppression. The class-privileged women use their clothes to gain higher social status, at the expense of both their fashion-blind peers and the impoverished classes who cannot afford an amazing wardrobe. The words "self-indulgence" (or self-obsession), "shop-a-holicism" (or conspicuous consumption), and "narcissism" are not too far off.

Not only do these women reinforce a status structure by conforming to these norms that others cannot conform to, but they are often the prime propagandists for these norms. If they aren't directly telling others that they are dressed inappropriately, then they are at least funding the magazines and advertisements that saturate our public spaces with the message that women should look a particular way.

If that weren't enough, Ward also undermines our attempts to discourage these socially destructive and domineering behaviors by applying pejorative terms to those behaviors. This reinforces Ward's message that we have to conform. This message is topped off by Ward's exaggerated description of the consequences of non-conformity and the precision to which conformity is demanded, again suggesting that resistance is futile and hyper-conformity is the only way to survive.

Overall, the discussion around these issues suggests a certain dysfunctional obsessiveness on the part of the participants. They seem to fret that "someone might get the wrong message from what I wear". So what? That happens. They seem to demand that everything in their life proceed perfectly according to plan, that they always wear the perfect outfit and everyone responds to it appropriately. It seems that the absence of "neutral" dress arises from their own insistence on exploiting every opportunity that arises, and refusal to accept that some outcomes are "good enough". This abhorrence of risk makes them slaves to anyone who can threaten them in the slightest manner. I don't want to speculate too much on how these people developed their warped perspective, and I definitely don't mean to imply that they are privileged overachievers -- for all I know this is some form of PTSD -- but there is definitely something wrong in their thinking.

This attitude prevents any challenge to unfair social norms outside of professionally sanctioned channels (e.g. academic writing). Even if it could change the norms, it would still demand extreme conformity to the new norms.

The discussion around Wade's article doesn't even provide a meaningful suggestion about how social norms should change. Here's what I can make out:
  • Women should not be assaulted due to their clothing choice.
  • Men should not assume that women want to have sex with them.
  • Women should not be turned away from parties just because they are wearing long skirts or pants.
  • Women should not be considered under-dressed if they are showing as much skin as men typically do.
  • Women should not be expected to show off their bodies on the job or wear impractical "female" clothes.
On all these issues, mainstream society has already taken the side of feminists, so I'm not sure what there is to do. This whole discussion feeds a sense of helpless victimhood.

Rather than obsessing over the vagaries of skirt lengths (I believe that's called a "first-world problem"), it might be better to think about how we interact with social norms in general and our own rejection of conformism.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.


b-psycho said...

Even in the other direction the argument made there about the meaning of women's clothing hits a snag: there's women who have been sexually assaulted who were wearing long pants at the time.

The problem isn't how much or how little leg a woman shows. Rape isn't a matter of aesthetics.

Ricketson said...

I was racking my mind last night trying to think of situations in which wearing a short skirt could increase the chance of a woman being attacked.

I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with sexual attacks by strangers (though muggers might see opportunities in impractical and expensive clothes). Maybe a particular rapist targets women in short skirts, while another targets "prudes".

Likewise, it probably has nothing to do with sexual assault by intimates (though outside of mainstream American society a woman could probably be beaten by her father for wearing a skimpy outfit).

The final scenario that I considered was assault by acquaintances (e.g. date rape). Here I could imagine a scenario where a man interpreted an outfit as being sexually suggestive and was consequently more assertive than he would have been otherwise. Maybe he would feel offended if his advances were rebuffed, and become violent.

So here, a woman might be in a bit of a bind, especially if she wants to wear something "flirty" to express interest in the date, but doesn't want it to be interpreted as "provocative".

That situation sucks, but I still don't think that it supports the thesis of the essay. It just suggests that a woman might want to error on the side of caution when selecting clothes for a date, and only bring out the sexy clothes for a date with someone who is trusted. Being rejected by superficial guys is not the worst thing in the world.

Ricketson said...

p.s. There is also the issue of whether their attire will affect how the cops respond to a report of sexual assault. Despite the unfairness of such prejudice, such encounters are not common enough to dictate day-to-day clothing decisions, nor do they demand that women strike a perfect balance between showing too much and too little skin.