Surprisingly enough, I love doing makeup and hair. I’ve always loved colors, and a face and scalp is a canvas I understand and feel fairly confident to practice on. A few years ago, I would distract myself from my chronic anxiety by watching youtube makeup and hair tutorials. I would think to myself, “Once I get more involved in feminism, I will have to leave this behind,” but then indulge, guiltily, in my favorite pass time.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led me to believe that feminists can’t wear makeup, or at least can’t have an interest in it. Probably because its existence derives from a sexist beauty regimen created by patriarchy that normalizes the physical flaws of men and shames women into hiding the same characteristics. Whatever the cause of my reticence, I came to realize that I could love what I loved, as long as I admitted the problematic origins of these activities and didn’t participate in anything that directly harmed someone else.
But my interest in a decidedly feminine pass time has led me to contemplate the other ways that we, as feminists, abandon the traditionally feminine sphere.
I remember reading, in a collection of stories about womanhood, an author who talked about the differences in play time between boys and girls. She watched boys play with trucks, trains, and tools, and everyone seemed to believe that they were the important toys; the boys were learning important skills. Girls, on the other hand, mainly played with dolls and babies- something viewed with derision as a frivolous girly toy. Instead of arguing, as I had imagined she would, that girls be given the boy toys, she scoffed at the criticism of doll play. Girls, she argued, were doing the human work of nurturing, caring, and helping. My implicit agreement with the reasoning that disregarded anything coded as female, even if it was something valuable and good, forced me to re-evaluate what choices and perspectives I saw as valid.
Who advocacy leaves out
Since diving further into feminist activism, I’ve heard many well-intentioned media recommendations with the exclamation- “You’ll love this movie! It has strong female characters!” I am weary, however, of scantily-clad*, male-attached characters with no independent character arc who are lazily labeled strong because they display an aptitude for martial arts. Predictably,the recommended media probably fails the bechdel test and, once said female character has established a romantic entanglement with the inevitably male protagonist, she will forget her superior fighting ability in a fit of unexplained amnesia, and we’ll relax into the comfortable stereotype of damsel-in-distress without even realizing it. I would hope feminist film-goers are not so easy to please.
I am skeptical of the “strong female character” trope because I am not interested in protagonists that fit a predictable laundry list of acceptable attributes. I am not ignorant of the lack of independent, courageous women in media, especially considering the wealth of these characters have been flat, weak, and only existent in plots containing romance. But a ability to fight and make fierce faces at the camera cannot replace a multi-faceted, relatable character. In fact, I feel like they inhibit us as women. When our vision for female liberation involves women being able to participate in the same violent, power-obsessed activities that the patriarchy currently validates, all within the confines of the same beauty standards, mind you, that is not what my liberation looks like. I want to dismantle the hierarchy, not climb to the top.
It’s these expectations that draw surprise when I claim that characters like Amy Pond on “Dr Who” is overrated as a strong female character, but I think Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” is a great feminist icon. Pond is often used to refute criticisms of Stephen Moffat’s problematic representation of women, but I see her as a tired recycling of female characters of the past whose most notable attributes are the connections to the men in her life. Though I’ve never heard explicit criticisms of Woods, I am surprised why she doesn’t code as feminist for many viewers. Lazy feminist representations usually encode their female characters with male power symbols- a stoic attitude, penchant for violence, and a love of cigarettes, alcohol, or motorcycles. None of these are inherently problematic, mind you, but the abandonment of characters who proudly dress feminine, love fashion, or even have mannerisms that read ditzy, like Woods, is an implicit agreement with patriarchal value systems. We need the courage to stand outside of these traditional power systems, even if that position incurs scorn. We need a rejection of masculinity culture, and of the view that femininity poisons and detracts from your validity as a human being.
Insistence on a feminism in which everyone is groomed to meet certain criteria isn’t a movement that exalts our humanity. I am a feminist because I won’t accept anything less than room at the table for everyone. Social justice, I believe, is a meditation on and celebration of humanity. It’s why feminism rejects slut-shaming disguised as concern-trolling comments about how women who dress “provocatively” must lack self respect. Or why I refuse to indulge in further concern-trolling of women who get plastic surgery. The only one to blame for women feeling pressured to undergo dangerous, painful, and costly procedures is the patriarchal beauty standards that are unreachable, yet required for validation and self worth. I’m not interested in a homogenous feminism (a movement that already suffers from being too white, cissexist, too middle class, and generally impoverished of intersectionality) that seeks to mold women into “worthy” feminists. I get too many messages telling me what to do, how to measure up from the world at large. I want a feminism that gives women a voice and demands they be visible, appreciated, and respected exactly as they are.
*My criticism here is not of a choice of clothing but of ass-kicking heroines whose creators are more concerned with how sexy their outfits are instead of fitting them with something appropriate more activity appropriate.