gall and gumption

Monday, March 03, 2008

No Singing the Body Electric For You, Missy!

Via the harumphingly contrarian AL Daily, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut (edgy! Says Leslie) opens her Smart Set review of several books on women’s fashion with some rather dazzling footwork.

Quick: How do you tell if a woman in a movie is supposed to be intelligent? First off, she’d probably be brunette, but past that. Glasses, yes. Little to no makeup. Her hair is probably in a ponytail. Clothes she probably bought at the Gap in a size too big. You know she’s the smart one because she thinks about more important things than her appearance.

It’s a stereotype, yes, but it’s constantly reinforced by intelligent women who should know better. Germaine Greer rallied women to taste their own menstrual blood in The Female Eunuch and then attacked fellow feminist writer Suzanne Moore by stating that “so much lipstick must rot the brain.” Feminists must reject the male gaze and use those ten seconds it takes to apply lip gloss to bring down the patriarchy. (Why sensible feminists have not figured out how to band together and write press releases to disassociate ourselves from the crazy women who pretend to speak for us, I’ll never understand.) [emphasis and bewilderment mine –kp]

Hah! You thought it was the movie studios and writers that perpetuated the stereotypes, didn’t you? You’ll have to get up much earlier than that, girls. It’s intelligent women who reinforce the stereotype of the frumpy ill-dressed brainy woman by dressing like frumpy ill-dressed women who think about more important things than their appearances. How intelligent is that, Ms. Smarty Baggy Pants? Snap!

Meanwhile the sensible feminists (among whom the writer places herself, natch) haven’t banded together to write press releases to disassociate themselves from the freaky fringe. They haven’t “figured it out.” In nearly 40 years. Doesn’t seem very sensible to me, I mean, if they really feel they should do it. Well, as my mother says, people do what they want to do in life. Possibly some of them think that there are more important things to think about. They may not know better. I’m sure I don’t.

She doesn’t like Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine’s book What Not to Wear, for its concentration on what the fashion mags used to call “figure flaws.” Says Crispin, “If I tried to dress to hide all the parts of my body I have ever been self-conscious about, the only thing left to wear would be a hazmat suit.” Being unself-conscious about one’s body is not an option, then?

The piece, unfortunately, tends to support the stereotype of the feminist as humor-impaired, savagely cranky, and judgmental on all sorts of picayune points of personal style. Or, possibly, Crispin is 15. The world is full of people who don’t get it, and she listens to the scandalous things they say to her, takes mortal offense in the quiet of her own mind, and doesn’t say a word, just adding to her vast inner reserves of vinegary contempt. (Look, I don't know this person personally, but I do know something about tone. The weird thing about writing is thaht people often don't know what they are doing, what they sound like.)

Though once upon a time, she confesses gamely, she had a bout of annoyingness: “I used to be a humorless feminist, too, complete with shaved head and my father’s combat boots. Then I discovered Charles David heels and got over it.” This piece suggests that high heels can do a lot of things for a girl, but clearly they can’t give you a sense of humor. (By the way, I like high heels too and own a couple pairs. But I’m not sure I know how to walk in them. Is there some way to walk in them that you don’t feel with every step that you are pounding on the ball of your foot with a hammer?)

High heels notwithstanding, the edgy fashion-conscious feminist must draw the line somewhere.

The line is three inches of cleavage: Crispin quotes approvingly Guardian writer Hadley Freeman’s declaration “Show me a woman with a good three inches of cleavage on display, and I’ll show you a woman who, rightly or wrongly, has little faith in her powers of conversation.”

How do they know, these two? Did they ask any of the cleavage-sporting women? Is it just assumed that such a woman lacks the discretion to have her own competent judgment about what she wears? Has someone taken a survey? Is it not possible to have faith in your powers of conversation and faith in the beauty of your body? Or in your clothes, even if they are baggy and you wear glasses? This question is much better left in the hands of the author of The Meaning of Sunglasses. Perhaps that is how one arrives at these subtle, mysterious, Gnostic judgments of other people’s inner lives; by studying handbags and sunglasses and lipstick.

I don’t think I’m very sensible and I have never called myself a feminist. I could call myself a feminist—some people feel it’s important to do so, but I’ve never been able to call myself anything and make it stick. There are always these awkward bits that don’t fit. Existential anxiety is a vocation, people!

But I did read The Female Eunuch, when I was about 13 or 14. I came across it on one of my afternoon prowls through my mother's bookshelves. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I came across it on several prowls. I did not read it cover to cover. I read it, of course, for the naughty bits. But that was a lot of the book. I did not take the infamous menstrual blood taste test, but I was already resigned to failing all sorts of social tests. The spirit of the lesson was that women didn’t have to regard their own bodies, or their sexuality, as dirty and shameful. And in that spirit I easily convinced myself that if my body was mine to enjoy I didn’t need to prove this to anybody other than me. I could step right over the test and go to the important part which was liking my physical being. Heavy stuff for a middle-class Jamaican teenage girl of those days, but it seemed perfectly reasonable. So I filed it away mentally. In Jamaica there were many experiences from books that you just had to file away; they belonged to the class of experiences you could only have if you moved abroad, like daffodils and snow.

I believe I am indebted to Germaine Greer (and possibly Bertrand Russell—who I read avidly at about the same time for his ideas and his language) for one addition to the sum of my enduring pleasures in life. Had I not read either of them, I might not ever have discovered, alone in a little cove on Buck Island, the difference between swimming and swimming nekkid.

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At 12:41 PM, Blogger L7 said...

Thank you, I love this. So funny.

Let me get this straight: Smart ladies need to represent with the pretty and the sexy, but not TOO sexy. I have to go put on lipstick and cover up my boobies now.

P.S. Franco Sarto makes a very comfortable high heel. And I love these Minnie Mouse shoes from Clarks.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Don't spend more than 10 seconds on that lipstick, or the patriarchy wins.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger L7 said...

I would have a witty comeback, but the depth of my cleavage inhibits me.

At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a ferociously fine writer. Half way through I wondered if you could retain the arc of energy to the end, but you certainly did. What a wonderful piece. Thank you.

Phil at Gifthub.


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