Saturday, September 12, 2015

It all began with bloomers...

It all began with bloomers. And by 'all' I mean changes in women's fashion from more to less and less is more, and the resulting never-ending furore, at least in the west, over what women wear - or don't wear - as the case may be, and how that affects the bigger battle for gender equality of which women's fashion 'freedom' and self expression is but a part...(Prepare for an essay).

The bigger battle, surely, is for women to be fully respected and valued as equal human beings alongside men and not seen as the second sex, creatures of lower intelligence, morality and strength, who are born - second - to serve as men's titillating and obedient assistants, as almost all men of power with the self-proclaimed capacity to write and rewrite gender norms throughout history and across all cultures, have defined us - until now. Maybe. Some things never change.

Believe it or not these dashing 1850's "bloomers" that were named after American Amelia Bloomer who introduced the fashion, were radical and daring in their day, being a substantial modification on the full length, many layered starched skirts they replaced, giving women not only more freedom of movement but more choice - as opposed to no choice - about what they wore. The bloomers also did away with the mandatory long-waisted corsets worn so tight they rearranged women's internal organs such that medical professionals lamented what useless cadavers (corpses) women made for study. Hmm...

However, although the suffragettes of the day were some of the first women to wear these liberating bloomers, corset free, they eventually gave them up and went back to the the dresses and corsets when they saw how the bloomers had become more of a talking point at their rallies than their campaign for the vote. And so the bloomers went out of fashion for another forty years in order that those women campaigning for the vote could be taken more seriously. Was it worth it? Yes and no.

Eventually bloomers came back in vogue and with the help of two world wars and a second, and perhaps a third wave of feminism, campaigning for much broader freedoms for women, women's fashion went through a series of increasingly radical changes, largely from more to less, and from skirts to pants and, eventually, underpants, such that women in the west today are now more or less free to wear what they want in public. And what they want to wear, at least some of them, is very little indeed. Exhibit A: Miley Cyrus.

The question is: Is this apparent fashion freedom real and empowering for women? Well, yes and no, in my opinion. Miley looks happy enough in this picture and seems to be saying 'I like my body and I'm free to show it in all its feminine - if super-skinny-feminine - glory if I want,' which is her right to do. She seems free, even empowered.

On the other hand, some women, most recently, singer Chrissie Hynde, feel, and I agree to a point, that this near-naked exhibitionism that is increasingly favoured by female pop singers distracts from the music they produce and perform, such that women singers are not taken seriously as artists and even perpetuate a 'pornographic culture' beyond the world of music, if not 'asking to be raped', just as the first suffragettes worried that wearing daring bloomers distracted from their political campaigns.

For these reasons, Hynde also objects to these singers calling themselves feminists, which most of them do, though that is very much a recent development, with Taylor Swift doing a late U-turn on her previous denouncing of feminism, partly in response to our own Kiwi singer, Lorde, who hit the charts as an unashamed, and not so scantily clad, young feminist singer as recently as 2013.

Personally I think it's a good thing that young women are embracing the term 'feminist' more than they have done for many years, perhaps more than ever. But I do think Cyrus and others go too far to look sexy by drawing explicit attention to their genitals, bum and bust, which probably contributes to a dumbing down of their image and art, which in turn feeds the age old sexual objectification of womanhood such that women are seen as sex objects and nothing more. For this reason I, and I think a lot of young women too, prefer Lorde's version of free expression and feminism than the slightly knee-jerk, convenient and lightweight version of other young self-proclaimed, scantily clad, singing feminists.

At the same time, the 'asking to be raped' assertion of Hynde's is deeply problematic, not least because accused rapists are routinely let off if their victim was wearing anything less than a burka. The responsibility and blame for rape should be entirely on the rapist and this responsibility is something that feminists have been fighting hard to establish for SO many years, and are still a long way from winning. It's the ultimate uphill battle that women, much less young women, should not have to fight alone by deciding what to wear when they go out. Rape is not about what women wear or don't wear. Men must know this. Women should not have to cover up in public to stay safe from men; men should have to learn to respect women's right to look sexual - most young women don't need to do much to look sexual, after all - without this being seen as in any way inviting men's hands on their bodies, let alone an invitation to rape.

Meanwhile, in the music industry, there is a lot of pressure on young women artists to 'sex up' their image, and this industry is largely run by men. Some women artists have resented this pressure, not many have successfully resisted it, however. Lorde, so far, is a notable exception. So there is the possibility, even the likelihood, that Cyrus and her ilk are not really dressing, and undressing, for themselves so much, as a matter of choice and an expression of their freedom, but rather to please the male music execs who know that the less their young women artists wear the more records they sell. As Hynde says, they have become 'sex workers' of sorts. This is exploitation, pure and simple, and I think there is definitely reason for feminists - those who care about women's lasting freedom - including Hynde, to worry that this apparent freedom will come at the cost of the more lasting sort of freedom on which substantive gender equality is built.

Add to this the concern many feminists have about the prevalence of eating disorders in young women and its genesis in the increasing cultural pressure to be thin, a pressure that seems to have increased the less women in public have worn - and weighed - from models to actors to singers, and you have even more reason to worry, as a feminist, about the influence of the semi-naked, over-sexualised female pop singers of the day distracting a generation of girls from finding and fighting for their substantive freedom while they focus instead on what they look like and weigh.

In short, it's damn complicated for women, as it has ever been and possibly always will be. Certainly a totally happy marriage between female fashion and women's substantive freedom seems beyond our grasp still. But that doesn't mean we can't keep fighting for ways forward, especially those that don't divide women quite as much as Chrissie Hynde's recent outburst has done.

Personally, being slightly biased as a New Zealander perhaps, I think Lorde's example has the potential to lead feminism in a promising direction by suggesting to young women that they can be substantial and successful and sexy (and feminist) without having to be skimpily clad or, indeed, super skinny. And as she recently fired her management team, I am inclined to think - and hope - that she did this at least in part in resistance to their efforts to get her to conform her music and image to that narrower, skinny-sexy-girl-singer stereotype. She is a genius and a major musical talent, so fingers crossed this will be enough to secure her artistic freedom and success. I am holding my breath.      

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