Monday, January 05, 2009

Unrelated items

-What was the difference between German Jews' Bildung and French Jews' régénération? Nineteenth century. This was my concern prior to break, and will be once again tomorrow, now that the Russian novel and gratuitous trips to Century 21 and Uniqlo are out of my system.

-Jo told me to read this NYT article about absinthe in NYC because it's especially well-written. It is! Thank you, Eric Konigsberg, for the following intro:

There are a number of bars in New York City these days that make cocktails with absinthe, mixing it with rum or tequila or gin to, um, complement the taste. A significant portion of them are on the Lower East Side and are the kind of bars that don’t have a sign or a listed phone number — although, once inside, you may well find yourself in the exclusive company of a bunch of drunk account executives.

That about sums up NYC nightlife, absinthe'd or otherwise. The unmarked-bar gimmick has gotten out of control. For the last time, an establishment that serves food and alcohol, both of which are legal, is not a speakeasy.

-And finally, yes, feminism does mean demanding prettiness from men. I've been going on about this for ages. In some circles, that 'looks matter' means tanning, waxing, and trips to the gym; in others it means carefully disheveled hair and thrift-store blazers. Either way, if men are asking women to fuss with their looks, women should expect the same of men. Or rather, we do expect the same, but should not be afraid to voice it.


Anonymous said... the intro on the absinthe article.

Anonymous said...

I, obviously, disagree quite strongly with the last paragraph. Think of the idiocy women have had to go through: breast implants, facelifts, botox, anorexia, foot-binding, ridiculous expensive clothing, insecurities, shrink after shrink after shrink... these are just bad things. Just objectively. They are things that hold women back and make women's lives miserable.

Demanding that men be treated the same way is just ridiculous.

I don't think you're directly demanding that -- in one of your linked posts, you reject the idea of nose jobs for all, so I take it that you want some kind of happy medium where men primp more and women primp less. But that's impossible: in competitive markets, once qualities start to be over-valued, people start to do whatever it takes to achieve them. More emphasis on pretty men means that the arms race that women have suffered is going to have to go to men as well, and the nose jobs will happen.

It also has profoundly classist implications (those who can afford the best clothes have the happiest lives), adds even more genetic unfairness to the world (those who were born without the beauty genes suffer), etc. etc.

In your "primping for all" post, you suggest that it's impossible to get rid of beauty standards. Sure it is, but it is possible to make them less wildly unrealistic for both genders -- to stop the media saturation of people with unnatural physiques and thousand-dollar dresses and teams of makeup artists. The particular physical qualities people desire are strongly culturally contingent, and we have control, collectively, over our culture. We can make some of those desires a little less burdensome.

Which comes down, I think, to the following: Death to Brad Pitt and Jessica Alba.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Your description of "what women have to go through" does not sound at all like what I or hetero women I know deal with. And that's in NYC. I think for most women, caring about looks means feeling a bit guilty about the fourth brownie and spending a bit too much money or time at Sephora. (Middle-school-age girls are, however, another story.)

Again, my point is that 'caring about looks' need not and in fact *does not* mean that everyone agrees to one spectrum, with Pitt and Alba on one end and their opposites on the other. A man might like a short, overweight redhead 'for her looks' because that's what he likes; a woman might like a guy with greasy hair and unfashionable clothes 'for his looks'... you get the idea. Nothing, not one thing, would improve in my life if I went the tanned, fake-blonde, gym-crazed, designer-clothes route. It just depends which subculture you're in. Throwing heaps of money at one's physical appearance only makes one more appealing in celebrity or (for lack of a better word) trashy milieus. Thus there isn't really the classism you speak of, except insofar as those eating only organic vegetables and small portions of humanely-raised beef are probably also those who look the most upper-class.

As for the unfairness of genetics, do you object to our valuing intelligence, even in circumstances when high intellect is praised not for discoveries it produces but in and of itself?

Finally, it strikes me as just as (im)possible to make the amount we care about male and female appearance equal as to make us as a society care about looks less. But I'm not terribly worried about "the media saturation of people with unnatural physiques"--past generations' beauty standards, such as those based on race, i.e. on that which is 'natural', were arguably a lot more damaging.

Anonymous said...

Three thoughts:

1) Re: unfairness of genetics and intelligence -- neither of us want to go down the slope of saying that we have to treat all "lucky" qualities separately. For I presume that you wouldn't endorse people valuing wealth in others for itself, even though it has much the same features as intelligence and beauty (it's delivered in a random, morally arbitrary, and unequal fashion, it can produce good things). Nobody thinks golddigging or gigiloism is some kind of virtuous feminist act.

That being said, I wouldn't say people are *bad* for valuing intelligence in their partners -- but I also wouldn't say that people are *bad* for valuing beauty in their partners. (Wealth? Maybe.) I will say that society ought not to encourage either -- and that we ought not to endorse the preference for either as some kind of feminist act. That is, people prefer what they prefer. What we collectively can control is whether society praises it or not, and the sort of preference-inducing images that society offers.

2) I think you're a little optimistic about the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom school of beauty. There are several factors that have caused people a lot of suffering because they represent fairly universal preferences in this culture. For women: breast size. For men, height.* For both genders: weight. (And don't think weight isn't a class issue. If you want, I'll link you to paper after paper about how those in the inner cities have a much harder time getting healthier diets, etc.)

3) It's not like our current beauty preferences are untainted by things like race. Consider: black people often have large asses, relative to white people. Large asses are generally considered less attractive. Racism? I think so.

4) I think a lot of your perspective on this comes from what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, pretty privilege (with some class privilege thrown in). I'm presuming a little bit here, I know, but presume I will. You happen to be blessed with the genes for an attractive face. You were probably raised to eat healthily, with a family who modeled good eating and exercise habits and had the money and the local resources to exercise (pun unintended) them. You live in a subculture where gym-craziness and designer clothes are not demanded.** You are young. You were taught how to do things like choose flattering clothes, style hair, and apply makeup, and you know where to get relatively reliable information about such things. It is much harder for people who don't have those benefits to be attractive.

* Seen recently on a woman's online dating profile:

Intolerant, undereducated, dickweeds need not apply. Or short men.

I mean, really? Shortness is on a par with the combination of intolerance, ignorance, and dickweedery? Al Bundy at 6 feet = Barack Obama at 5'2? If this is feminism, I'll take the patriarchy behind door number four.

** Heard recently at a restaurant from a guy, though possibly (probably?) a gay one:

She wanted me to take her daughter out to dinner. I was like 'girl, please, I wear designer jeans, that's not going to go very far.

Anonymous said...

(uh, by treat lucky qualities separately, I meant treat them similarly. duh.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

So much to respond to...

-True, weight and class are not unrelated. I don't need statistics to have a sense of this. (What subway stop people of which weight get out tells a great deal.) But my point was that throwing money at appearance does not make a person look better by all standards. Also, I have no idea if rich women necessarily spend more than middle-class women on personal upkeep. Different looks within each class require different amounts of money to maintain.

-Does race still matter in terms of looks? Yes. But it used to be all that mattered. Black, Jewish, Asian, etc. women were sometimes considered attractive by white men, but only in an 'exotic' way. Beauty in general was blonde, and naturally so. Thus 'fair maidens' and all that. Now, at least, any maiden with access to peroxide can be 'fair' if she so chooses.

-Are big breasts really such a thing? I'd have said weight is to women what height is to men, if one must generalize.

-I'm confused about where my "class privilege" comes into it. "You live in a subculture where gym-craziness and designer clothes are not demanded." Yes. But I thought in your first comment you were implying that "class privilege" meant having the money to buy nice clothes? Also, there are people who are of neither a higher nor lower class than I am (i.e. same level of education, neighborhood as children) who are part of subcultures where tanning/blonding/nose jobbing etc. are important. There's a degree of personal choice/inclination in all this.

-Best not to make assumptions about people's families and their exercise and eating habits, though. I had classmates who grew up plenty wealthy and were fed Slim-Fast as children, so you really never know. (And I'm very curious about my childhood exercise routine!)

-At any rate, what I was fed or saw people eating has nothing to do with whether I think women should admit to caring how men look, or whether women should counter men's demands (which, again, vary by subculture and individual preference) with our own. Realistically, what you're asking is that women, who are judged by their appearance, accept men regardless of their looks, because to do otherwise would increase net objectification in society. I'm not crazy about that approach.

Anonymous said...

Some simple remarks and some difficult remarks. Sorry for the really outrageously excessive length. I thought of making this into a post on my own blog, but for reasons to become clear at the end (where things get personal), I don't want people to google me and read this.

The simple remarks first.

Re: subculture, I think that is itself a form of class privilege. That is, not everyone has access to what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, intellectual/literary society, the kind of society where things other than gym-craziness and designer clothes are socially important. There is another form of class privilege that comes with the money to buy nice clothes.

Apologies for the assumptions, though -- I did note that I was going to be a bit presumptuous. Impertinence isn't excused by giving fair warning, but hopefully a little of the obnoxious is diluted. :-)

Finally, I am certainly not asking that women who are judged by their appearance accept men regardless of their looks. I am arguing that women demand that men stop being so shallow, and that feminists don't actively advocate for women to instead respond to shallowness with more shallowness.

Now for the difficult remarks. I think what you saw people eating, etc., does have a lot to do with whether the better feminist strategy is for women to demand that men stop making (by-my-lights) unreasonable demands or for women to turn around and make (by-my-lights) unreasonable demands of their own. It matters in two ways, and this is what I mean when I talk about pretty privilege.

1) You don't have a sense of how difficult it is for many people -- people who did not learn how to eat as children, for example -- to meet those demands. There are a *lot* of people in this world for whom meeting the standards of attractiveness demanded by their preferred gender(s) in their social circle is a *lot* more difficult than "feeling a bit guilty about the fourth brownie and spending a bit too much money or time at Sephora." (Start with feeling crippling guilt and despair about the first brownie, and then go from there.) Because your experience is that you can meet the attractiveness demands of your preferred gender in your social circle with those things, it doesn't seem like too much of a burden to impose on men, or, for that matter, too much of a burden for men to impose on women. Others with different experiences feel differently. Hence, prettiness privilege.

2) Likewise, you don't have (as far as I know -- again, I'm making assumptions, but they're necessary assumptions to move the explanation forward, so I apologize in advance) the experience of the dark side of beauty-obsession. That is, you don't have the same kind of experiences of the incredible cruelty and pain that is inflicted on people who don't succeed in meeting the attractiveness demands of their preferred gender(s). (Here's a simulated version sometimes: just listen to the way people talk about unattractive people, especially the way that people talk about unattractive people who are their exes, or who hit on them. Listen to the tones of contempt in their voices and the words they use like "troll" or "fattie" or the like.) Nor do you regularly have the experience of contemplating people you really like and thinking "they could never be interested in me -- way out of my league" -- or being told as much -- either way being made to feel deeply inferior and unworthy as a person. This makes a difference -- you don't know the costs of your preferred feminist strategy. This, too, is a form of privilege.

Now for the really difficult remarks.

I don't think what I just said is going to be super-convincing. It's all very abstract. And while I believe prettiness privilege exists, one feature of privilege is that it's really hard to get people who have it to see it. The standard way involves something like a consciousness-raising session, filled with personal stories.

There are two ways to conduct a consciousness-raising session in this context. The first would be to say something like "go talk to a short man or a fat woman for a while, ask them about their experiences, then see if you feel the same about how great attractiveness demands are." That's a little (a lot) arrogant and demanding, and also imposes unfair burdens on whoever you talk to.

The second way is to go personal. I'm not short (quite the opposite), but...

I've struggled with weight since age 9.

I have stories. Stories of how the problem started (extreme childhood mistreatment is involved). Stories of how hard it is to address (quoth the man who has spent 2 hours at the gym today). Stories of its consequences. Stories of, to be blunt, incredible and unconscionable cruelty that I've personally suffered. About, that is, the human cost of objectification, even for males. Stories that will help you and others understand why I say that I utterly reject any feminism that leads there.

You could probably tell by the fervor that has been in my comments about this that there's a heavy (no pun intended) personal angle to this.

But I'm really bad at personal. I'm a private person, and it's an intensely personal and painful story. A story that I don't want to tell in public, and that I've only ever partially told in private, to only some of those who have been closest to me. And I'm not a personal storytelling type of dude. I'm the detached academic type of dude, better known for my poison pen and airy abstractions in 99-step chains of reasoning than for using myself as a guinea pig in public. Most of my public thoughts revolve around understanding politics with the aid of analytic philosophy and math, for goodness sakes. And my daring is with ideas, not with self-revelation.

Also, one feature of privilege is that in many case those who don't have it in a certain domain (and I still have lots of it -- I've still had good amounts of sexual success due to, e.g., wit, intelligence, height, etc.) is that the stories underlying that lack of privilege are socially coded as shameful.

So, I won't tell this story right now, in public. Perhaps I will later. But know that the stories exist.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

There's no possible way I can respond to all of this, so...

-There are many, many subcultures that do not demand the gym/tan/blond look, not just some "literary" one. These are represented at all class levels. And plenty of people in my subculture have working-class backgrounds, although perhaps that's a quirk of circumstance, and not true across the board.

-I won't respond to comments about what I look like, what I've apparently always looked like, what my family eats, etc. So stop making them. Find a way to make your argument that does not depend on me in particular being or having been one way or another.

-I've known men who are extremely conventionally-unattractive to regularly date conventionally good-looking women (and no, not by paying for stuff), but have not seen the reverse. A feminist response to this could be either to say a) looks shouldn't matter, or b) if women are dressing certain ways or fussing with their appearance or whatever (again, this could mean dieting, but it could also mean carefully-chosen goth or punk clothes, etc.) to please men, these same women should make the same demands of the men they date. Unless they truly don't care, which is unusual.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but one can't make an argument about privilege without getting personal. Analogy: there's no "you're speaking from white privilege" that doesn't contain an implied or explicit "you're white." So there's nothing really left to say.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, that's ridiculous. Someone either is or isn't white. The fact is you haven't a clue what I looked like as a kid or how I was raised, i.e. that I have the "privilege" you claim. I'm neither confirming nor disputing your assertions about my upbringing. You can make your point by speaking in general terms of those who've never had to worry about their looks, who've been raised this or that way, without speculating about one person's (i.e. my) life experiences. Relying so much on information you've guessed at only hurts your argument.

Anonymous said...

I'll try. I will also try to keep this comment short (first time for everything, huh?). I mean, take the numbered items from the really long comment:

1) There are a lot of people, both women and men, who have a very hard time meeting the attractiveness demands placed on them. Suggesting that it involves nothing more than "feeling a bit guilty about the fourth brownie and spending a bit too much money or time at Sephora" is on a par with suggesting that producing a dissertation is like writing a handful of term papers. Many people's lives are made worse off in significant ways by their quest to conform to these demands on them.

To be a little more concrete, dieting is a $35/billion dollar a year industry in the U.S. Americans spend $14 billion a year on cosmetic procedures from botox to plastic surgery. Various google results suggest that even the artificial tanning industry makes somewhere from 1-5 billion bucks a year. All that money ain't just turning down brownies.

2) There is an astonishing amount of regular cruelty directed at people who don't meet the demands for attractiveness placed on them. I could give you a few salient examples, but we'd be back into personals territory. But, seriously, listen to the way a lot of people drip with contempt when they talk about unattractive people with whom they've had interactions. Or listen to the way many men talk about (and to!) fat women. Or the way many women talk about short men.

It is unwise for feminists to endorse the infliction of 1) on both women and men, rather than demanding that it stop in both cases. And it's wicked but inevitable that people take the endorsement of 1) to also license 2). I'm not attributing the latter to you in any way, just saying that it's an unavoidable consequence of your position -- people are gonna take "it's ok to demand X" as "it's ok to feel superior to people who are not-X, and it's ok to treat people who are not-X badly."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks for leaving the realm of the personal.

As for spending on cosmetic surgery, there are clearly some people spending a ton, and others spending nothing. The women I know tend towards the 'nothing' end of the spectrum, as we've already established. I would say, however, that young girls are quite often distraught over appearance-related concerns, whether or not they're attractive. (And really, what 13-year-old of either sex is attractive? It's an awkward age.) But it tends to pass.

I guess I see it like this: Setting aside variation by subculture, there are a number of qualities commonly found attractive. If looks matter, that sucks for the bad-looking, but it also helps those who are good-looking but who don't have other appealing traits (brand-name education, high income, social ease, etc.) get dates. The more things there are that matter, the less likely attractiveness is to come down to just one thing.

There is, as always, a 'Seinfeld' reference that may help clear things up. George sees a personals ad in a communist newspaper from a woman who writes, 'Looks not important.' He's all excited, until Jerry asks, 'Yours or hers?' You may well be the enlightened exception to this rule, but typically men who do not want looks to matter do not want their *own* to matter (and want attention instead to go to their wit, intellect, bank account, guitar prowess, whatever), but do indeed notice women for their looks. Not necessarily exclusively for their looks, but rule out women they consider bad-looking.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying looks shouldn't matter at all, just that we ought not to celebrate people placing extra demands on one another, and we ought not, as a culture and an economy, encourage with either gender it to the incredible extent we already do with women.

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across these two posts, relatedly, re: the 4th brownie.