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.