A return to the pre-feminist ideas of modesty and feminine charms.
According to writer Wendy Shalit in her new book Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good she argues that the sexual revolution might not have helped women and that baby-boomer parents have “encouraged” their children to dress and act provocatively.
Hang on, lets rewind that. Shalit’s argument is that feminist mothers have encouraged their children to be sexualised. The same feminist mothers who were deconstructing the way in which sexualisation occurs. But all the evidence, second hand from the article by Pauline Cooper, are for situations which are exceptional in the extreme and, one suspects, rather exaggerated. Cooper claims:
Twenty-nine-year-old Sarah starred on a television show where her relatives picked a suitable match to lose her virginity. Her father openly consented and publicly endorsed a candidate. While second and third wave feminists may have succeeded in liberating young women from the constructs of patriarchal society, perhaps it has been replaced by an incestuous alternative.
Surely if this were true it would be forced prostitution and illegal under the statutes of 99% of the world’s countries. So, assuming Cooper’s recounting of Shalit’s evidence is accurate, we have a book calling for an embracing and a returning to modesty based exceptions. But to claim this is a new form of “feminism” seems odd, why hang it’s theoretical hat there and claim it’s in opposition to what has gone before when obviously it’s historical precedents aren’t that way at all. Feminisms have claimed the need for the right to bodily and sexual determination for women (hence “yes means yes and no means no”) which has aimed to free women from the constraints of both patriarchal definitions of the asexual woman but also the patriarchal definitions of the hypersexual woman. To claim otherwise is to denigrate the analyses of so many feminists, many of them women of colour, who have pointed out how patriarchy perverts women’s sexuality and combines that with multiple sites of oppression – so the black woman becomes a “sexual sapphire” – always lustful, always on heat and lesbian women become eroticised only with the presence of a penis, if only as a distant watcher of the sexual acts. In short Shalit’s analysis seems based on a notion of feminism which is as far from the breadth of feminism as is possible.
No longer is it culturally rebellious to be sexually promiscuous; rather, modesty and sexual prudence has become the new weaponry of cultural dissent. Not only do the new feminists refuse to be subjected to sexual objectification, but also they are quickly becoming role models for young women who want to embrace a more wholesome choice regarding their sexuality.
If only life were as easy as Shalit says – if only we could just simply refuse to be subject to sexual objectification. But objectification isn’t a process over which we can exert control. Just as rape doesn’t just happen when women wear provocative clothing, objectification isn’t about women’s deportment or clothing – it’s about their radical notion that they should be able to exist in society and be free to take a full part in it. To claim as feminist an argument that women are responsible for their own objectification and oppression seems about as far from feminist as can be, for me. And Shalit goes on to criticism the proud ennuciation of non-heterosexual sexual identities as “crude” and “graphic” – essentially missing the point that the proclamation of denied sexual identities is a radical act.
The future of feminism, as a movement about enabling women’s choices, isn’t in Shalit’s work as far as I can tell. But the future of people blaming feminism for all the worlds’ ills may just be….