Sunday, April 17, 2011

Feminism and ooh shinyism

Whenever there's another round of veil-law discussion re: France, what comes up is whether the Feminist Position is to support the right of women to wear the head-covering in question, or whether it's to ask the state to protect women from the men who'd force them to dress a certain way. I thought of this when I read this: a man "decided for philosophical reasons" against getting his fiancée an engagement ring.

All the heh-hehs from the not-so-progressives about how much money men could save if they claimed enlightened views in this area aside, this would, I think, be a reasonable position if the bride-to-be shared it. Instead (why oh why to people who are no doubt reasonable otherwise, who seem to be coming from a sensible place, opt to be profiled in the Style section?) she was kinda not thrilled. Not infinitely unconventional, although she was not pro-diamond, she wanted something. For a time, but then... "But when [the bride] realized he was coming from a 'sweet, feminist perspective,' she said she quickly came around to his view on what engagement rings, given only to women, represent."

Hmm. There would have been other ways around this. Both could have worn engagement rings. Or he could have gone this route. Or they could have accepted that symbolic is symbolic, tradition is tradition (and is still tradition even if it does not date back to the dawn of time) the white dress doesn't literally convey virginity, nor does a ring mean a man is buying a metaphorical cow. Is it still feminist if the choice is one the woman in question doesn't want? (Keep in mind the caveat that perhaps this woman really was OK with this all along, but the reporter prodded her into overemphasizing some microqualms, because without that there's no story.)

What this also reminded me of, actually, was the time Emily Bazelon wrote about how her sons have "book swap" birthday parties, when they'd rather receive gifts. Both of these seem to be about the idea that there's a slippery slope of materialism, that we're all one 'ooh, shiny!' away from unabated greed. (Tangentially related: every time I buy Passendale cheese at Bon Marché, I'm contributing to Louis Vuitton. Good to know.)

But this concern seems especially true with weddings, where (as I feel like I mentioned once on WWPD before), a woman who'd happily spend lots on a dress under normal circumstances will feel the need to get the absolute cheapest potato sack she can find for her wedding, because otherwise, you know, Princess Bridezilla. My sense of this all-or-nothing business is that, as with most all-or-nothing attempts, it can backfire, with fetishization of that which cannot be had because it would just be wrong. The $20,000 dress might be a lot more interesting to the woman who went with a $5 option than the one who opted for $200 and moved on with her life.

14 comments:

Flavia said...

I had the same feelings about that article.

I absolutely, positively did not want a diamond for an engagement ring. I wanted something cool and interesting and old, and under three hundred bucks. Then I got proposed to with a "place-holder" ring: something that had been in my partner's grandmother's family. It was much too big, and the band was worn thin, but it had a well-cut 0.5 carat diamond in a vintage-y setting. We spent a couple of days shopping for something else at flea markets and estate stores, and then I was like, "you know? this is actually really pretty, and it has a nice history, and it's just too much drama to try find the perfectest ring ever. And nothing's cheaper than free!"

So we had it resized and the band built up, and from a distance it looks like every other boring diamond ring you've ever seen (except smaller). For a couple of weeks I felt like I was wearing a frilly pink dress around: so girly! so heteronormatively predictable!

But fuck it. It's pretty and sparkly and I like it and there are more interesting things to spend my time thinking about.

Withywindle said...

HIM: I've decided for philosophical reasons not to give you an engagement ring.

WITHYWINDLE IN DRAG: I've decided not to marry you because you're a twit.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Precisely! re: "there are more interesting things to spend my time thinking about." This is what I always end up thinking in reference to the agonizing women are expected to go through when it comes to every symbolic aspect of the wedding, as though the entire world is watching each one, as though it's a political act of great significance, etc.

I mean, in my own case, I like that my engagement ring... looks like an engagement ring, because I'm not a ring-wearer or much of a jewelry-wearer otherwise, and the point is the symbolism. (For the record, I also expressed an interest in the MOMA plastic version, because, again, my interest was the symbolism of it, not ring-as-accessory, but a more traditional version prevailed, and I appreciate the shiny, and the fact that it's not about to crack or melt or something.)

I get feeling uncomfortable with the idea of a man going into debt to provide something he can't afford, or feeling at a moment like this especially that it's unfair that gay marriage is not yet legal everywhere. But the discomfort generally seems to come from the idea that it's somehow anti-feminist for a woman marrying a man to be excited about getting married. Which is, I think, ridiculous. Ideally both partners - man and woman, man and man, woman and woman - are excited about entering into a serious commitment. The ring - which, even if purchased by a man for a woman, has ideally had no major impact on the finances of either party - symbolizes that leap, ergo the ring-wearer is excited about the ring. It doesn't mean that the woman's main purpose in life was all along to get married, although it's a pretty big milestone for men and women alike. Basically, rather than asking women to be all 'no big deal,' we should accept that men are excited, too, rather than pretend that they all enter into this grudgingly.

Withywindle,

The twittishness here is that HIM is making WITHYWINDLE IN DRAG's decisions for him/her. Or, to return to the original characters, if a woman feels a ring would not mean a man buying the right to sleep with her or whatever, that a ring would not compromise her feminist beliefs, it's not the man's place to not buy a ring 'for feminist reasons.' How does that work? 'Yes, honey, I hear what it is you want, but I'm going to tell you that what you want is wrong, because women should want something else.' Thus the (limited, obviously) parallel with the veil debate. One can simultaneously think veils or engagement rings are not the most feminist things and that individual women who, coerced at most by 'society' in some amorphous sense, wish to wear them should be able to do so, and to do so without showing themselves to be anti-feminist.

Phoebe said...

Or another way to look at it - going crazy about the asymmetry of the thing is a bit like bemoaning the fact that in our society, men tend to wear their hair short, women longer. The ideal should be a society in which those who want to shun gender norms can do so without harassment, not one in which women who accept/enjoy whichever innocuous aspects of stereotypical femininity have to beat themselves up for this.

PG said...

But does feminist just have to imply "for women's benefit"? I would think it ideally ought to refer to that which contributes to the equality of the sexes. Surely you wouldn't think it strange if I told my husband that "for feminist reasons" I wouldn't conform to the cultural norm of changing my last name to be the same as his upon marriage (especially since he refused even to discuss his taking my name, hyphenation, etc.)

kei said...

I think the word "shiny" should officially replace the word "bling," with all due respect to Lil' Wayne before he became what he is now (when he was 12 or so, in lower budget videos, riding with Manny Fresh as opposed to Kanye West; sorry, I had to digress). I don't hear the latter too often anymore, but it pops up now and then and the word itself as well as the context (usually uttered by someone who shouldn't be uttering it, which is really no one) irritates me. In other words, thanks for not using the b-word!

Phoebe said...

PG,

I think I explained this to the best of my ability with the veiling analogy. It strikes me as anti-feminist for a man to come in and tell a woman how to behave properly according to the rules of feminism. When in doubt, what an actual, real-life woman actually thinks is the relevant issue, especially when Society is not exactly at stake. The question wasn't whether fiancé was going to go out and buy fiancée a rock, but whether she could wear some kind of finger-adornment with the symbolic sense she desired. Idea being, she doesn't need a man to save her from herself.

I'm not sure how the name-change scenario you mention relates, because this is a straightforward issue of a) a woman expressing a desire, and b) the desire in question being in keeping with feminism-as-we-understand-it. The relevant analogy would be if you had wanted to change your name, and your husband had said he refused to let you do so, for feminist reasons.

Kei,

But does "shiny"="bling"? I see these as two different concepts. "Bling" refers, I thought, to larger pieces of jewelry, to the kinds that, if you're wearing them, you'd feel a bit worried when taking the subway at night.

Phoebe said...

PG,

OK, I may have an even better way of getting to the point, unrelated to veil-issues. Feminism is in part about equality in society, but also largely about equality within the home. Power dynamics within the home are thus perhaps more relevant than what domestic decisions represent in society at large. So if we've got a woman without an engagement ring, who's kept her name, but both of these are despite her wishes, then the dynamic within the home is not at all feminist, even if the outward manifestations suggest feminism, and even if the husband is being domineering in the name of feminism.

PG said...

But if there's a woman who's enforcing unequal social norms against her husband's preference -- demanding he get her an engagement ring, insisting that she change her name to his -- is that feminist because she's not letting a man dominate?

Phoebe said...

PG,

It's not that it's more feminist than not, all things equal, for a woman to wear an engagement ring or change her name. It's that a man isn't being a straightforwardly good feminist for objecting to either. If a woman has thought either of these things through, and has decided either that she doesn't want to consider the personal political in these arenas, or that she doesn't see either as a political statement against feminism (for example, keeping one's name is having one's father's name most of the time), and then her husband/fiancé tells her the conclusions she's come to are silly, then even if he wins some kind of societally-agreed-upon-definitions feminist argument, he maintains a situation within his household of women's notions=silly. Feminism is in a large part about choice - if a woman feels she's freely chosen to wear lipstick/an engagement ring/her husband's name, then the patriarchy isn't such a concern. Overall, fine, maybe a man would be concerned that others would think he was against equality for having allowed his name to be shared, or for having bought his wife a ring (which would be assumed even if she went out and got herself one). But for this sort of thing, the internal family dynamics are more important, I think.

Basically, as I see it, the feminist approach is for the man to leave it up to the woman whether she wants either of these things. The real feminist revolution in this arena would be a rejection of the male-proposal rule, in favor of mutually-agreed-upon decisions instigated by whichever party thinks of it first.

kei said...

I think 'bling' can refer to anything that can be shown off, which isn't limited to big things in my mind, but you're probably right that it usually refers to flashier things. I'll still be saying 'the shiny' or 'shiny-shiny' in reference to anything jewel-related.

Phoebe said...

Kei,

I also like Flavia's "sparkly."

Flavia said...

P.S. I'm very fond of your opposition, or non-opposition, of "feminism" and "ooh shinyism."

I say frequently, "I'm like a bird: I'm attracted to shiny things."

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Thanks!

I have to say, it's odd that I'm not more of a jewelry person, because I'm a big fan of shiny when it comes to, for example, shoes, or space-age clothes. This is why Paris, home of the patent and metallic ballet flat in every single store window, is a dangerous place for me.