Thursday, January 06, 2005

Feminism means primping for all

Over at Slate, Laura Kipnis argues that women who care about their looks are fundamentally anti-feminist, because femininity and caring about one's appearance are part of a heterosexist system that keeps women down. Reihan Salam has a good critique of Kipnis's piece, pointing out that femininity mustn't always be defined in self-conscious-adolescent terms.

There's another problem with Kipnis's argument: Given that no society has ever been without beauty standards (though the standards themselves obviously vary), it's hard to picture any contemporary political movement being able to eradicate the deeply human urge to tweeze, diet, tattoo, bleach hair, implant silicone, or receive Japanese hair-straighening treatments. Since looks are always going to matter, why not make them matter to all? (Though she admits that men, too, have their "bodily anxieties," Kipnis sees looks-consciousness as inextricably linked to women trying to look good for men.)

It's a myth that women do not care about men's looks. Sure, male attractiveness is valued less by society than female ("arm candy" generally refers to women) but individual women, all things being equal, and often even with all things being unequal, will pick the better-looking man, for their own pleasure, not for any particular rise in status. So, rather than resolving to stop asking for coffee drinks with skim milk and putting on mascara, feminists who care about their own looks should demand equal primping and dieting on the part of men. Must men wear makeup? Only if it looks good on them, but that's not often the case. (Then again, too much makeup looks silly on women, too.) Must men get nose jobs and facelifts? No, and neither should women, those things are disgusting, dangerous, and tend to make people look worse. Must men stay slim and fit? It's only fair, if they expect women to do the same.

Also in Slate is a piece by Matt Feeney that poses the question, "Why are fat sitcom husbands paired with great-looking wives?" Feeney's answer? It's a male fantasy, but also has women nodding along and saying, "'Yes, I'm supercompetent and I even look great, despite all the crap I have to deal with, and, yes, that's my husband over there, the fat, useless one scratching his nuts.'" Feeney does not suggest that good-looking female characters are supposed to be finding these unattractive male characters sexy. On the contrary, the men on these shows are portrayed as "repellant sexual partners." So, to repeat, women care about male attractiveness, but feel that it would be too much to ask to demand attractive men. While it may be unrealistic to expect women to start demanding that men take better care of themselves, it's far more reasonable than Kipnis's suggestion that looks should cease to matter entirely. And, at the very least, a woman who demands equal attention to looks from a man is no less a feminist than is one who refuses to care about how she looks.


Maureen said...

Does this mean that Queer Eye is a feminist program?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Queer Eye is definitely feminist. Hey slob, females deserve respect and you should care about how you look and act.

Anonymous said...

I've always wondered if there weren't something else going on with the looks/gender debate that you mention. Women do value male attractiveness. Perhaps men don't appear to care about their appearance not because it's not important, but because it's *more* important.

Think of bringing up a man's baldness, for instance. It just isn't done normally. Outside of the sitcom environment, pointing out baldness is often a very sensitive topic and can be deeply hurtful. Perhaps because beauty is so urgent to males, it's important to refuse to even acknowledge deficiencies--maybe a type of conspicious consumption.

Perhaps too more interesting that why ugly men are paired with attractive women in sitcoms is why attractive men *aren't* paired with unattractive women. I can't think of any examples of this in la-la land or even in real life (although I'm sure there are plenty out there). If male appearances weren't so important, wouldn't we see this attractive man/unattractive women pairing more often? It just seems assumed that attractive men will be paired with beautiful women, irrespective of other characteristics (intelligence, humor, wealth) that are said to be "more important" to women.

The myth that women do not care about men's looks seems to me to devalue the importance of female choice in selecting partners. If we acknowledge the role of beauty in men, we're also acknowledge the importance that female selection plays and the ultimately passive role played by the male in being accepted as a mate.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. As a lesbian, I always supress a groan when I enter a gay bar and discover a number of women (a declining number, thank god) who have embraced the idea that being a lesbian means never having to pluck your eyebrows. And even though I don't date men, I certainly appreciate it when they take the care to get a pedicure before slipping on their summer sandals. This is definately a street which should run both ways.