Same Boat; Grab a Paddle

Wendy Kaminer has a short piece in The Atlantic on "Kagan, Palin, and Lipstick Feminism," in which she examines what she imagines are the double-standards to which Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin are held, because the former isn't a renowned fashion plate and the later is considered both fashionable and beautiful—and asserts that the disparity offers "complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, 'Sex in the City' feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold."

As evidence of how women and their "ersatz lipstick feminism" are to blame for their own oppression, Kaminer describes the following scene:
Years ago, I watched an array of law students lingering in a hotel lobby, waiting to be interviewed by visiting firms. The men were completely, conventionally covered by their suits; the women seemed half naked by comparison, in fitted jackets, often showing a little cleavage, and above the knee, or shorter, skirts. Maybe they hoped to benefit from these reveals, but I suspect they were subtly disadvantaged by them. The men were free to focus on their interviews; at least some women were likely to be distracted (however, unconsciously) by concern about their looks and the need to sit and display themselves appropriately. How much skin is just enough? Stilettos, kitten heels, or flats? Hollywood or D.C? These are questions men never have to ask. Will they ever cease to matter to women?
That last question is a doozy, no? Implicitly holding women responsible for caring about a Beauty Standard by which they are judged even if they don't want to be is spectacularly unfair in any context, but in the milieu of a professional cattle call for an industry with a lingering, persistent gender disparity at its top levels, the apportioning of blame in one direction rises to the level of the absurd. Is it really women to whom prospective female employees showing cleavage and calf matters?

Certainly Kaminer is right that the conservative men who facilitated Palin's rise to the veep slot on the last GOP presidential ticket would not "have responded to her quite so enthusiastically had she been homely and 30 pounds heavier." And she is also right that the disgorged proclamations of noted dipshits like Bill Bennett about feminists hating Palin 'cause she's pretty are as laughable as they are patently irrelevant. But here she is wrong:
Kagan's appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script. Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings. Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.
She did indeed. (That is the most recent entry in the Sarah Palin Sexism Watch, with older entries linked at its end.) And while one could argue that mocking a woman because she wears pantsuits and mocking a woman because she was a Beauty Queen are different flavors of ridicule, I daresay the distinction matters very little to the women who are marginalized in either case on the basis of their appearance.

Nor should it matter to us.

All the pedantic distinctions in the world about how Palin "brings it on herself," or arguments that the savaging is somehow justified because she trades on her appearance, or the denial that she is demeaned on the basis of her looks at all, or whatever other rationalizing contortions are made in order to extricate one flavor of belittlement from another, are just damnable subterfuge to avoid addressing the rage-making reality that there is, seemingly, no way for a women to publicly present herself that is just…acceptable.

And the discovery of that grim reality is what has turned many ersatz feminists into the genuine article.

There have long been, and long will be, sparkly fauxminist substitutes for the Real Thing which are little more than "Patriarchy for Privileged Girls—now in pink!" Going after women who subscribe to such alluring prescriptions for self-hatred with our blame and ire isn't especially productive; going after them with a meaningful alternative, on the other hand, is.

Women sometimes do convey the bars of our own cages, hoping by some sort of magical alchemy that the self-defeating service of transmitting the marginalizing narratives upon which the Patriarchy depends will someday be rewarded. But one can never be an unconstrained beneficiary of one's own oppression, no matter how devotedly complicit, no matter how tantalizing the promises of a system that sustains itself with the energy of desperate captives eternally chasing the dangled carrot of exceptionalism.

When the veneer on the alleged bargain wears thin enough through which to see, feminists/womanists must be waiting on the other side with compassion, not judgment. It's no fun realizing you've been a sucker.

[H/T to Shaker MJ.]

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