Tuesday 22 December 2015

Miss Universe and accusations of femmephobia

*sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, femmephobia was what happened when you went to a gay bar in a dress and the bouncers questioned you about whether you knew what kind of place this was”

Okay, not strictly true, the term ‘femmephobia’ wasn’t invented when that was happening to me, but when I first came across this new word I thought that’s what it meant. 

But no! Turns out that femmephobia is the dislike/hatred/fear of traditionally feminine pursuits, such as pink, glitter, high heels, lipstick and being an angry, axe-wielding paid-up member of SCUM (only kidding on that last one). It’s the devaluing of the traditionally feminine, or deciding that the things that are associated with traditional femininity are a bit shit. To wit:

Long nails. Lace. Pink. Make-up. Dresses. Long hair. High heels.
I’ve noticed a trend in feminism that seeks to place these things as ‘lower’. As ‘less than’

Quoted here

 *sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, that’s what we called sexism

Yes! Sexism – remember that? You know, the embodiment of a patriarchal society that positions gender as a hierarchy with men as a class on the top and women as a class on the bottom, all kept in place by violent misogyny? That’s the one! Sexism! 

It was sexism that decided the things associated with women and constructs of femininity were a bit shit – be it fashion and baking and crafts and care; and decided that careers associated with women should be paid less and valued less. Not femmephobia, but sexism. And sexism is the system that positions women as lesser than men, and violently keeps women there.

But apparently talking about sexism and patriarchy is so bo-ring and passé and just a bit *whispers* second wave and the real devaluing of women’s work and pursuits is not sexism, anymore. No, it’s femmephobia! 

And who are the main femmephobics? Feminists! 

Yes, that’s right. Feminists who fight against the ways in which women are forced to conform to restrictive gender roles that cost both time and money; and those same feminists who fight against the ways women are violently punished for not conforming to those roles, these feminists are not fighting sexism, they're femmephobic. According to the femmephobic rhetoric, feminists are attacking women’s right to choose to embrace and profit from those repressive gender roles, rather than tackling the ways in which violent patriarchy represses and devalues women. 

Oh what brave new world is this; that has such people in it. 

Anyway. The reason I’m banging on about femmephobia is because after the Miss Universe mis-crowning debacle this weekend, I witnessed various women trying to defend the beauty pageant while slamming any criticism of it as ‘femmephobic’. To criticise Miss Universe et al as a sexist parade where women are valued by their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT) was not seen as a criticism of our unequal society, but instead a femmephobic attack on women who want to take part in pageants. 

Well, I’m sorry, but that is just such bullshit

It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that our true value, that the true measure of female success, lies in our ability to match up to beauty norms designed by and policed by men. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that we are objects to be judged, and are too often found wanting. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that rewards women for being silent objects to be gawped at, rather than active agents valued for what we say and do. 

The problem with femmephobia is the problem of what happens when you ignore structural oppression and the feminist theory of patriarchy. It’s what happens when you drill everything down to individualism and choice, and blank out the fact we live in an unequal society where women are seen as lesser than men.

Let me elaborate. 

The accusations of femmephobia are based on the idea that any criticism of beauty pageants is a direct criticism of the women engaging in the competition. It’s the idea that if you criticise the industry, you’re saying that the women who take part in the industry are somehow wrong and should be judged. 

And yet, this is simply not true. There is a difference between critiquing an industry, a system of oppression, and mocking or deriding the women who are part of that industry or system of oppression. No one is saying that the women who perform in pageants are anything but lovely. No one is criticising individual women who, like all of us, are doing what they can to survive in an unequal and unfair society. 

We are criticising an industry – a structure – that teaches women that our worth is based on how we look, not how we do. 

Some of the defences of pageants I saw on Twitter yesterday just made me despair at how neo-liberal and blatantly capitalist these accusations of femmephobia can be. For example, one woman stated that we couldn’t critique pageants because they gave the winners money, career opportunities and a flat. 

Well yes, that’s great for the winner. And of course, in our unequal society, women are going to grab at whatever opportunities for survival we can. But how can it be right, how can it be feminist, to have a contest where women are judged to be worthy of these opportunities by a bunch of men who look like potatoes – men who have made a list of what they think a feminine woman should be? How can it be feminist to defend an industry where men get to decide who is and isn’t an acceptable female? 

It’s not femmephobic to say that an industry that treats women this way is simply not okay

It’s not an attack on the individual contestants to criticise an industry that values women as disposable objects with a sell-by date. 

Another argument I saw on Twitter was that to critique Miss Universe was to ignore the intersection of race and class with sexism. 

But again, this simply isn’t true. Miss Universe is pretty damn racist in its enforcement of western ideals of beauty. It’s not a coincidence that despite race and ethnicity most of the winners have more-Caucasian-than-not features. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump was in charge of the contest until recently. 

And in terms of class – well again, the problem lies in sexism and patriarchy. It’s patriarchy that means women are on a whole poorer than men. The solution then isn’t to tell women that they can achieve riches by entering a beauty competition. The solution isn’t deciding that women who meet the PFT are to be financially rewarded while their less attractive sisters can remain poor and denied opportunities. 

How is that fair? How is it feminist to say that in order for women to achieve success, they have to look and behave in a male-approved way? How is it okay to defend a structure that says it’s for powerful, fully-clothed men to decide a woman’s success based on how she looks in a bathing suit?

Again, where is the theory of structural oppression? What is this neo-liberalism, bootstrap-pulling nonsense? 

The issues around femmephobia are also echoed in the use of the term ‘whorephobia’ to silence criticism of the sex industry. Just as femmephobia positions feminists as criticising individual women within pageants etc. then whorephobia argues that feminists criticise the individual women engaged in the sex industry. 

But again, this is simply not true. Feminist arguments against the sex industry are not focused on hating the women within it, but are instead focused on damning the inequality that means the industry makes its money through the commercial sexual exploitation of women’s bodies. 

To argue that criticising the pageants industry is ‘femmephobic’ and criticising the sex industry is ‘whorephobic’ is basically the same as saying that anti-Tesco protesters who smashed up my old street are ‘checkout worker-phobic’. 

Of course they’re not. Whether their methods were questionable, they were criticising capitalism, not hating individual shop-workers.  

You have to ask who gains from this new language of femmephobia and whorephobia. Who gains from the replacement of an analysis of structural oppression with individualism? Who gains from ignoring the structures of patriarchy in favour of neo-liberalist choice rhetoric? 

It’s not women, that’s for damn sure. 

While feminists are silenced by accusations of femmephobia, patriarchy can get on with telling women that our value lies in how we look, not what we do. While feminists are silenced by accusations of whorephobia, patriarchy can continue sexually exploiting women’s bodies for profit. 

The issues women face today are not caused by femmephobia and whorephobia. The issues women face are not caused by feminists not liking pink, or apparently hating individual women within the sex industry (we don’t).

The issues all women face today are caused by a violently-enforced patriarchy where gender is a hierarchy that positions women as subordinate to men. 

And that patriarchy is not going to be defeated by a neo-liberalist approach that celebrates individual choice over everything else. It will only be defeated when we name the structures that oppress us, and take them on (preferably while wielding an axe in one hand, and a copy of SCUM Manifesto in the other).

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