Monday, January 23, 2012

Your pearls are showing

In recent days, weeks, I'd noticed references to "pearl-clutching," and hadn't thought much of it. Slate's Torie Bosch, however, is on the case - turns out these references are very much a thing in the feminist blogosphere. Bosch's reference to how "Feministe used the phrase in a blog post about privilege and oppression" got me thinking. What is "pearl-clutching" if not a gender-specific variant of "your privilege is showing"? The clutcher-of-pearls is white, WASPy, conservatively-inclined, stuffy of morals, of-another-time, and, of course, female. It harkens back to notions of women as protectors of home and hearth, pious in eras when the men have grown cynical, fearful of taverns and fermented beverages and the fun the menfolk might have when out on their own. To hurl a "pearl-clutching" accusation is thus both feminist (the pearl-clutcher is fainting at the thought of women having filthy encounters with men or, horrors, other women) and anti-feminist (what if not the sexist norms in whichever part of society has led our pearl-clutcher to be so repressed?)

As with YPIS accusations, the person doing the hurling is not typically lacking the form of privilege in question. To stay with the metaphor, if the (female) hurler doesn't wear pearls, it's not because she didn't inherit a string or two from Gran. It's that she also benefitted from the privilege of attending a liberal-arts college, where she learned that "ladylike" dress is for strivers (i.e. those who enter the professions to escape a lower-middle-class future) and Republicans.

The symbolically-clutched theoretical pearls bring to mind another, more literal jewelry-based topic that came up here a while back: the workplace stigmatization of the woman with the (large, presumed-real-diamond) engagement ring. See also the tsk-tsking of women who alter their appearances (through surgery, makeup, hair extensions and implements) to look more conventionally attractive. These are all essentially, in many respects, the same idea.

There are many layers to dig through here. On the one hand, do we really want to claim that any choice a woman (who may well identify as anti-feminist) makes is by definition feminist, and by definition to be supported by feminists? Is a woman who chooses to insist that women submit to men acting in a way that feminists should support, insofar as she's female and expressing an opinion? It's better, from a feminist perspective, than a situation in which all women submit to men and don't even get to express opinions. Meanwhile, is the pearl-clutcher (or the carat-sporter, or fake-tan-and-weave-preferrer) really the epitome of unchecked privilege? Or is even thinking in these terms the more relevant sign of privilege - that is, is the person who knows to "check" her privilege the person who's so chock-full of every kind of capital, who has the down-time necessary to participate for hours in these truly epic-length threads, actually in a position of greater power?

Unfortunately - or, more accurately, fortunately - dissertation lunch-break is over, and it's time to make more coffee and get back to it. If, by the end of this comment, you don't find that you've swung several notches to the right, or begun favoring some kind of mandatory, Internet-free national service for all young people aged 15-45, I'm impressed.


Amber said...

I am agog:

"I think the biggest thing white women can do to get off their pedestal is to start from the position that they deserve none of their accomplishments, that they are not intelligent and are where they are in life solely because of unearned racial and concomitant economic privilege. Now obviously for everyone it is going to be a mix of privilege and inherent ability, and a feedback loop because for instance privilege determines nutrition in childhood which determines ability, etc., but I think it is necessary to even begin overcome your privilege blindness to assume that everything you have in life was handed to you so that you can start interacting with others with the mindset that they are just as or more deserving of education and income than you; in other words, that they are equal. Then maybe you can really get angry about the injustice that is our white supremacist orthodoxy."

Flavia said...

Thanks for the link to the Bosch piece; I'd noticed the term in Jezebel's Flanagan piece, and it had set off some vague dissonance in my head--maybe because I'm a regular wearer of (fake, and usually obviously so) pearls myself.

I think you're right that this is a version of YPIS, because the pearls are crucial to the description's effect: it's not necklace-clutching or purse-clutching, though both could convey the same idea of pious feminine horror. "Pearls" seems intended to conjure up someone wealthy but laughably square, as retrograde in the way she dresses as in the way she thinks.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The entire thread is really something. I kind of feel for the commenters who sensibly point out that blatant misogyny is jarring on a feminist blog, only to be told that they're derailing/hijacking by discussing anything other than the 24/7 self-flagellation whiteness ought to entail. But the whole thing also supports my hypothesis about YPIS, which is that a certain kind of person gets a masochistic thrill out of the sting of being told that their privilege is showing.


Fake pearls! I know this phenomenon - an heirloom necklace I somehow ended up with stopped seeming so heirloomish when the opalescent paint began to peel from the balls of white plastic. I'm thinking the technology has improved since the 1960s or whenever that was made.

"Purse-clutching" seems as though it would have more racial/racist overtones, and thus might have been appropriate in that Feministe thread. As in, the kind of white woman who sees a black man three blocks away and clutches her purse.

But whatever it that's being clutched, it's sexist in the way that "catfight" is, that assumptions that an angry woman must have her period are. It - pardon the jargon - takes away agency from socially-conservative women. As if it's something more flighty and emotional when a woman is a reactionary/nostalgic sort than when a man is.

PG said...

I've been hearing "clutch her pearls" for a few years, and as Bosch implicitly notes in her "In Living Color" attribution, it apparently was used (at least in the black community) to reference or sort of parody the persona of a church lady who's been shocked and put her hand to her chest -- clutching her pearls. It seems to have a stronger connotation of class, particularly of the bourgeois or middle class (not really the wealthy), than of race. It seems to be used now to describe people who are enacting shock either insincerely or over something that the speaker doesn't believe merits shock. I don't think there's something intrinsically anti-feminist in the phrase. To the extent it connotes privilege, it's the privilege of respectability; particularly in the usage of the queer community, it comments on how they're constantly shocking the straights.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It connotes wealth more than middle-class respectability, I think, precisely because, for the YPIS set, these two are conflated. Such that a middle-class white person in the suburbs of Chicago can be held up the very epitome of privilege in discussions (online, esp.) between individuals with yet more privilege of whichever varieties that they happen not to be bringing up in conversation.

As for the racial aspects of it, however it was born (and some seem to think it predates that show) it doesn't seem to have a consistently racially neutral meaning. The Feministe guest-poster didn't appear to be using it with any reference to a black woman in church.

PG said...

There may be a particular meaning for the phrase among YPISers that doesn't extend to the use in more mainstream and less anonymous fora than feminist blogs. See, eg,
"The only problem is Gemini was scorched in the electric chair around -- clutch the pearls! -- FIFTEEN YEARS AGO." Newspaper review of "Exorcist III," Aug. 22, 1990;
"Clutch the pearls, Damon's back." USA Today on Damon Wayans's HBO Show, May 23, 1991;
"Clutch The Pearls! Beardstown Ladies A Fraud?" Newspaper article on questions regarding the actual investing success of a group of elderly women, Feb. 28, 1998.

Several uses in the early 2000s by WashTimes resident black female columnist, Adrienne T. Washington, all along similar lines.

If the YPISers on feminist blogs are referring to wealthy rather than simply respectable women, they have shifted the meaning from how it was used earlier, particularly by/about black people.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It doesn't seem like pearl-clutching as a motif began in the 1990s-African-American context, so it's tough to pin it down. If it's being used in a particular way in particular contexts, we can't point to unrelated contexts for the "true" meaning. Consider that the word "privilege" has plenty of uses outside a YPIS context - "It's a privilege to meet you."

The YPISers use of it... what I was getting at was that for a YPISer, there is no distinction between super-wealthy and respectable-bourgeois. It's all "privileged," and all to be denounced. Thus why Tavi, a white, slim, young fashion blogger with a schoolteacher father, from the Chicago suburbs, was branded a child of immense privilege. In that framework, it's all one and the same.