Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Throwing Bricks and feminist hotties

I actually feel guilty writing about this. Like I’m playing into the hype that’s distracting us from the cuts to domestic violence support services and the continued marginalisation of women in public life as a result of the impact of the cuts. But there were a couple of important feminist points about the Samantha Brick article, and the subsequent, entirely predictable, backlash that followed, that I want to investigate further. 

I’m not going to link. If you haven’t seen it yet, then Google is your friend. And where have you been?

So, on Tuesday 3rd April, Samantha Brick wrote a rather dull article about how women didn’t like her because she was so pretty. Never a bridesmaid. Disliked by women bosses. Hated by jealous wives. She explained how she was never smug or used her looks to get her own way (despite having written an article about how women should use their attractiveness and sexuality to get ahead – kind of a Honey Money for people that don’t like books) but that women just don’t like her because of her blonde locks and slim figure. That she works hard to maintain (after all, as another article said, her hubby will divorce her if she gets fat). It was basically a Daily Mail women-hating article by numbers. Find woman who writes in that special Mail way. Have her write about how women are jealous bitches. Bring in a healthy subtext about how great it is when men act in an old-fashioned, chivalrous manner. Remind us again that women are jealous bitches. 

So far, so boring Mail troll article. Then the backlash started. 

Now, because I follow amusing, articulate and intelligent people on Twitter (ha!) there weren’t that many tweets commenting on her personal appearance. But unfortunately, outside my own feed, these tweets abounded. Women and men talking about how even if Samantha Brick thought she was attractive, they certainly didn’t think she was fit, they didn’t fancy her etc. 

It’s kind of understandable that this would be the reaction. Her article was nasty about women in general, perpetuating negative ‘catty women’ stereotypes that are harmful. And sometimes it’s hard to respond in a measured and politic way. However, that doesn’t make it right. 

As soon as we criticise a woman by bringing it back to whether she is attractive or not, then we are buying into the lie that the most important thing about a woman is whether she fits the beauty ideal. And this simply isn’t good enough. It’s still the easiest way to put down a woman, to silence a woman – tell her she isn’t hot, that you wouldn’t fuck her. 

Because we, as a society, still place a woman’s value on her ability to fit into a false and narrow beauty ideal; we still think it’s acceptable to make any woman’s worth all about whether or not she ‘measures up’. It’s why, when Claire Short protested against Page 3, the Sun stuck her head on a topless model. Or why, when I speak out as a feminist, I have legions of people speculating on what I look like. Or why, when there’s an article about eating disorders, you get men commenting that they ‘don’t fancy skinny women anyway’ (cue: it’s not all about whether you fancy us or not!). The same thing happened with Catherine Hakim. Deal with the argument. It doesn’t matter if you think she’s attractive. 

This morning (4th April) I took part in a phone in on BBC Radio Bristol about Brick-gate (sorry!). I made my points above, about the beauty ideal and the pressure on women (and increasingly men) to conform to it. The presenter then turned to the negative stereotypes about how feminists look. He asked me ‘is it possible to be a beautiful woman, and a feminist’. 

I was shocked. I knew what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to talk about what I look like, what my feminist friends look like. But as soon as you do that, as soon as you play that game, then you are perpetuating the idea that what we look like is what matters. Not what we do, not what we say. We’re agreeing that our worth is predicated on our ability to fit the beauty ideal. 

And, like I say, this simply is not good enough! I explained to the presenter that what we need is for this to no longer matter. That the point is that we no longer judge and value women on their ability to match an ever-shifting idea of what is sexually attractive. 

It also raises interesting points about beauty and powerlessness. That being attractive negates your voice or your action. That you wouldn’t be a feminist if you’re beautiful, because men already have given you the power that they think women should have – the power of being considered fuckable.

Which brings me on to my second feminist issue with Brick’s article. And that’s about power. 

Brick writes about how men buy her bottle of bubbly, pay for her cabs and generally ‘treat her nice’ because she’s beautiful. But the reason they actually do this is because she currently conforms to the current beauty ideal – she’s slim, white, blonde and looks young. What happens then, if the beauty ideal changes? Or when you no longer match it? This was also my argument with Honey Money by Catherine Hakim. It’s all very well (actually it isn’t, it’s crap) using your ‘erotic capital’ to get what you want, but what happens when that erotic capital runs out? Where’s your power then? How do you get what you want then? In another article, Brick explains how her husband will divorce her if she gets fat. It’s very scary when our worth as women is predicated on how men respond to what we look like. It leaves us very vulnerable. Because all the not smoking, not drinking and exercising in the world isn’t going to help you if the beauty ideal changes, or if you change away from it (which, considering the ideal is ‘young’, we all do eventually). 

By valuing women on their ability to conform to the beauty ideal, and by giving a male-approved form of power to those who do, we aren’t valuing women very highly. Beauty ideals are transient, changing, and it isn’t hard to no longer fit. Just think of all the articles that go into dissecting celeb women’s weight losses and gains. You might be ‘hot’ one week, and ‘not ‘the next. 

The reasons articles like Brick’s make me angry as a feminist is because they are so disempowering. They perpetuate the idea that women are worth so little, that our success and power is based on our looks, and they remind us that if we fail to conform to that ideal, then we have failed. 

If we had equality, true equality, then women would be valued for who we are, what we do, what we say. Not because men want to fuck us. If we had equality, we wouldn’t be ignored, undermined or silenced by being told men don’t want to fuck us. 

Power doesn’t lie in men buying you champagne because they think you’re pretty. It lies in being valued as a full human being, with a voice. 


amanda_erica said...

Great post! Exactly my thoughts on the whole "Brick-gate" (eurgh) situation.

I had a look at her back-catalogue of articles on the Daily Mail site and the most upsetting thing is that she often writes under a pro-feminist guise but her comments are completely un-feminist and ridiculous. She has written another article today about how the backlash from jealous women just proves her point - sadly the people who decided to call her names or dispute her attractiveness have played right into the hands of the feminist-hating public and Samantha Brick herself.

rhiannon _lockley said...

You've articulated a lot of what I was thinking about yesterday. The backlash relating to her looks was perpetuating her view of empowerment through physical attractiveness, just making the judgment that she wasn't actually attractive rather than challenging her views specifically. I think reading her other articles that her entire self worth rests in her body, something which she has learnt to allow society and her partner police for her, and really that made me sorry for her more than anything. said...

Brilliant post, couldn't have said it better myself :) xx

FoodPhilosophy said...

Excellent blog post - I've added it to the comments section on the Huffington Post article about "Brick-gate" (ha!). In January I gave edivdence at the UK Government inquiry into body image anxiety and was helping find witnesses. We couldn't find anyone with an opposing view to mine. I invited Samantha Brick to give evidence. She turned the invitation down. Funilly enough we couldn't find anyone to support the media exploitation of women. said...

I think it is obvious that members of both sexes judge many woman by their looks and that is affects their interactions with them. It's a pretty sad state of affairs, but is this a natural human trait that as intelligent beings we should all strive to rise above? I'd guess it is, but we shouldn't be surprised by it.

You could argue that some women themselves behave differently because of their own looks, although there's a nature v nurture type debate to be had here.

I'd imagine some men get this treatment as well, though to a far lesser extent.

The answer is to value intelligence and personality above all other things and to stop rewarding beauty. However our civilisation isn't set up like that, and nor are human mating practices...

Jen said...

Well said!

Claire said...

Well said. Perhaps Ms Brick can't help that some men find her attractive and express this through the gifts and favours she describes, but by accepting them she shows that she finds it acceptable to be treated differently because of her looks. If she happily accepts the good then she'll just have to deal with the bad. You can't have one without the other. Perhaps her female colleagues would have treated her better if it wasn't clear that she was willing to take advantage of men being attracted to her.

yes,no,maybe said...

I really enjoyed this post.I want to say that her comments are interesting. I have made similar comments in conversation. I have much more to offer than looks.. as am a scientist but I still have people say 'dont lie, your not a scientist'. I then ask why that is hard to believe and its always the same answer, that Im too hot to be a scientist! Now that always gets a reaction! Unfortunately I think her comments point out what a sad state our society is in, that looks are still something that impacts majorly on life. I have found that even with education etc people still exclude people they view as threats to the status quo.

suvi said...

Great post! I was blissfully unaware of this whole Brick thing until about an hour ago - apparently I've been living in a black hole the past few days.

All I can say is 'oh my'...

Also, I canNOT believe the radio presenter asked you that question about feminists and being beautiful!! Wow. Just, wow..

Expat mum said...

Although I"m posting about this myself (in a slightly different vein) I'm still not sure what to make of it. By anyone's standards, she's OK, (and yes, I'm falling into the trap). When I first read it however, I assumed she had that certain "something" that is attractive to men and women don't see. I am always quick to see beauty in other women, whether it's conventional or not. I didn't see it in her but perhaps she had something else?

And then I decided that what I didn't like was her arrogance in telling the world about her "quality" and then daring anyone to argue. (That was the gist of my blog post.) I have some very beautiful friends who aren't unaware of it, but for some reason, aren't hated by other women. It's all in the attitude, and it's her attitude that's pissing everyone off!
In short, I think it's a gigantic April Fool's.

Jennifer Murray said...

re: the radio chappy asking about looks and feminism. It is a bit rude, but if you think about looks from an evolutionary point of view then, yes, aren't they a little bit important? or perhaps not important, but we are wired to look at people's attractiveness, certainly. Maybe it's not the PC thing to do, but it is to some degree the natural thing and it is echoed across other species. I know I'll get flamed for that, but it just makes a little sense to me. I think the issue isn't looks per se, but judging worth based on looks; and that's where it becomes tricky. But it's not always a one-sided 'those ugly women are so awful' sterotype as so many people seem to think. I was reading a story in a magazine (sorry, I can't remember which, but it was a glossy...) by a feminist who was comparing vajazzling to female genital mutilation (how utterly ridiculous!!!), and saying that women who wear make-up and 'glam-up' are ruining the cause. But if they want to do that for themselves or someone else, then why should they not? It is a shame that people can't just be judged based on who they are both outside and inside, rather than there being some odd split between feminists and non-feminists. There's enough male/female divide; let's stop with the pretty/ugly and feminist/non-feminist ones too, eh?

JimmyCarterUSM said...

My crude interpretation of Brick-gate:

Rather than perpetuating the ideas of 'erotic capital', commenting on Brick's looks somewhat undermine her argument because, however successful she may have been, she looks completely average - thus making it unlikely that said success is a result of how attractive she is.

In fact, comments about how she looks were (well in my case) merely mocking the rise of 'Grazia feminists' whose sole objective is to get ahead - leading to the subjugation of other women and their eventual success is often a result of consensus with the patriarchy.

sian and crooked rib said...

Jennifer - i don't really hold with the whole 'evolution and attractiveness' thing. It doesn't ever seem to make any sense. We find people attractive for all sorts of reasons and if it's all to do with fertility and evolution then that would rule out a lot of people and relationships. It seems to me like an argument that gets wheeled out but isn't often interrogated. And often used against women, when surely if we go purely on evolution, some men wouldn't get a look in!

My issue with the radio presenter was that it was such a stupid question. why would being pretty mean you couldn't be a feminist? i really struggle to understand what he means. When you're pretty you don't get a voice? you don't get to have opinions? your opinions aren't valid? or because you've succeeded according to capitalist patriarchal values of how a woman can be successful, then you should just be happy and keep quiet? My mind literally boggles!

I agree that we shouldn't attack women who vajazzle or wear make-up (i do the latter) because i never believe in attacking women. but i do think we need to question why we do these things, and what our choices mean in patriarchy, and how much our choices are free in an unequal society.

I totally agree we need to stop this divide and listen to each other!

accordionclub said...

The Daily Mail once again gave its readership what it wants: a chance to hate and ridicule a woman, and to feel entirely justified in doing so.
The woman in question was complicit in the arrangements and no doubt got well paid for the piece; more than half of the readership who enjoyed despising her are women too. I suppose you can choose your own interpretation for that.
There is a peculiarly British character to the whole thing, which is that the underlying basis for hating and ridiculing Brick is that, to quote at least one below-the-line comment, 'she thinks she's all that, but she's not all that.' Self-celebration is suspect in our culture. It makes people uncomfortable - we're attuned to self-deprecation. So we feel a great relief when we are able to conclude that the self-celebration is not justified, and we are able to happily laugh at or insult the person concerned.

Joe E said...

The Daily Mail once again gave its readership what it really likes - a chance to hate and ridicule a woman, and to feel entirely justified in so doing.
The woman was of course thoroughly complicit in the set-up, and over half the readership are themselves women. I suppose there are a number of interpretations available for those aspects.
To me, there's a peculiarly British flavour to it all, in that (to quote at least one comment elsewhere) 'She thinks she's all that, but she's not all that'. We tend to like self-deprecation. When someone talks so unashamedly about her own beauty, we feel a strong sense of relief that her self-celebration is not justified, and that our mockery of her is well-deserved.


Exactly Sian - the easiest way to silence women is by claiming 'men wouldn't fuck her!' Note no man is subjected to the notion 'you aren't fuckable because you are too ugly!' No instead men are viewed and treated by other men and many women too, as an autonomous human being who has a rational brain, ambition etc. etc. He is not reduced to a disposable sexualised commodity.

I wonder if the male presenter has ever asked a male interviewee 'can you be both an attractive male and an intelligent male?' Of course not because men are never seen as just 'sex' but male supremacy continues to promote misogynistic lie that all women are just 'sex' and when women reach a certain age we become invisible because we are longer 'sexually useful to men.'