Friday, March 27, 2009

A Few Observations About Feminism

There is another 'f-word' in contemporary political, cultural, and sociological discourse. That word, as you probably gathered from the title of this post, is "feminism".
Today the idea is shockingly prevelant that feminism is an outdated movement rendered obsolete by the fact that it succeeded in accomplishing its various goals, with feminists being thus viewed as bitter misandrists, political opportunists, narrow-minded radicals, sexual/societal deviants, or some combination of the four. What makes this so disturbing to me is the fact that, for those who believe that women should exist on a plane of complete societal, economic, and political equality with men (and those who dissent with this view are unworthy of any further consideration from me), feminism is as necessary now as it has been at any other point in our nation's history. The follow bullet points list, in no particular order, why this is the case:

1) The Equal Rights Amendment. Since the 1970s, progressives have been trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which goes as follows:
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
That seems pretty reasonable, right? Unfortunately, that stipulation would force businesses to pay female employees the same salaries that are given to males for the same work (granted, they are more likely motivated by avarice than misogyny), require sexual harassment and other gender-based crimes to be taken that much more seriously, further facilitate a woman's right to control her own body when it came to issues such as abortion, and in general obliterate any legal distinctions between the sexes. That is why, despite having been re-introduced in every successive Congress since 1982, the ERA has yet to be passed.

2) Female intelligence. My observations here are based not on evidentiary studies, but on anecdotal experience. I acknowledge that this renders the scholarly soundness of my conclusions questionable, and am adding this disclaimer as a means of accepting that before proceeding with an expression of my views. Intelligent women, in my personal experience, receive far more social rejection than do their male counterparts. Why is that? For one thing, intelligence has often been viewed as a "masculine" trait, and women who display "masculine" traits are often viewed as being "bitchy" as a result of it (just look at outspoken women, aggressive women, headstrong women). For another, we live in a society wherein there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic mobility and intellectual ability. Consequently, intelligence in women is viewed by many individuals (male and female alike) as somehow being rebellious, even radical, as it causes women who possess that asset to potentially not only equal but surpass men in status (this is not true of other "masculine" traits, such as physical strength, which though potentially emasculating to males who see them in women do not generally carry with them the connotation of social mobility). Finally, the social dynamic that is imposed upon women when it comes to their interactions in personal relationships is not conducive to the presence of those personality traits that often accompany intelligence. This is connected to the first reason I mentioned. Because intelligence is a "masculine" trait, thus causing women who possess that attribute to be perceived as "bitchy", women who are intelligent often have difficulty blending in to peer groups (both those solely comprised of members of their own gender and those that are intergender), and can even be viewed as anti-social as a result.
There are countless examples of the prevelance of this trend. Lawrence Summers, the man who now serves as one of President Obama's chief economic advisors, was forced to resign from his position as President of Harvard a few years ago for stating that women were less intellectually capable of excelling in mathematics and science then men. Countless acquaintances of mine expressed an unwillingness to support Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary (and, hypothetically, in the general election) either because they felt her femininity would make her too emotional for the job or because they interpreted her mental strengths as being synonymous with "bitchiness" (incidentally I was a zealous Obama supporter, having predicted his candidacy as early as 2005 and volunteering for him as early as 2007, so I do not point to this sexism as a way of retroactively supporting her campaign). Finally, there is the fact that cultural archetypes associated with cerebralism are almost always male in nature - how often do you see a female scientist, scholar, artist, or other intellectual figure appear in our culture, except as an excuse to provide a love interest or some other traditionally female role within a narrative?
In short, we live in a society that is not especially fond of intelligent women. Considering that these prejudices have existed in almost every civilization throughout the course of history, it causes me to stagger not merely at the moral injustice, but at the loss in potential progress. How much further advanced would we be in those areas that require the exercise of the human brain if half of our population had not been discouraged from contributing?

3) Female aesthetics. My observations here are based not on evidentiary studies, but on anecdotal experience. I acknowledge that this renders the scholarly soundness of my conclusions questionable, and am adding this disclaimer as a means of accepting that before proceeding with an expression of my views. One thing that many of my female friends don't recognize is the extent to which physical attractiveness defines how they are viewed by men. It is not merely that men possess greater sexual desire for women whom they find to be physically attractive (although they do). It is also that a man's masculinity, and thus social status, is in many ways determined by the physical attractiveness of the woman (or in the case of certain types, women) with whom he is romantically/sexually involved. In this last respect, the man's individual sexual preferences are often irrelevant.
Let me elaborate on this for a moment. When men rank women, they generally consider anything below a 5 to count as unattractive, a 5 to count as average, a 6 to count as slightly-above-average, a 7 to be pretty, an 8 to be beautiful, a 9 to be stunning, and a 10 to be absolutely perfect (10s are few and far between). The criteria by which these numerical designations are assigned are pretty well-known - large breasts, small waistlines, flat stomachs, long and slender legs, clear skin, limpid eyes, and well-defined facial features are preferred, with only ideal posterior size being in real dispute (men are genuinely split as to whether they prefer large or small). Men like women who are in shape but not muscular, with red and full lips that aren't grotesquely puffed out, with breasts that are real but aren't obviously made of something recently mined from a quarry, etc. These and other traits are thought to comprise the aesthetic ideal for women. Further explication is unnecessary, since few of us, male or female, are spared their constant reinforcement at any point in our lives.
Yet despite the fact that a woman's "hotness" is designated according to this criteria, that does not mean that all, or even most, men are primarily attracted to women who adhere to these models. When men are truly candid, it can be found that only a sizable minority feel genuine sexual preference for these women above all others. Beyond that, men wildly vary - some like women who are curvaceous or zaftig and others like women who are downright fat, while some prefer women who are even more slender than the accepted norm or even childlike in their physiques. Genuine preferences vary.
Nevertheless, given the option, most of the men I know - even the ones who are "chubby chasers" or "skinny chasers" or who are turned on by the women with big noses or square jaws or round faces - will romantically and sexually gravitate toward the women whom societal conventions deem to be more beautiful than they will those for whom they feel genuine sexual desire. The reason is simple: A man's masculinity, as it is perceived by others and thus himself, is enhanced when he is known to have won over a woman who adheres to societal norms of "hotness", and is likewise diminished when he is viewed as being unable or unwilling to do so. A man who can show off a sexual conquest or romantic partner who is a 7 or above is generally viewed as having elevated himself socially as a result of it, whereas those who are seen with 4s or below - even those toward whom they may feel a sincere sexual attraction - are implicitly told to be ashamed of it.
I must add that I am NOT condoning the trend described above. I am merely diagnosing it because I have not seen others do so, and I think it covers a significant area in which women are placed at a disadvantage in American society. While men are not entirely free from being judged by their appearances, it is ultimately not viewed to a woman's detriment if she dates a man who is deemed physically unattractive (provided that he compensate in other ways, such as professional success or desirable personal characteristics like charm, humor, compassion, and intelligence). There is an unspoken idea among men, however, that your sexual masculinity is based on the attractiveness of the woman/women with whom you are associated as that attractiveness is perceived by the societal whole. This is a phenomenon that needs to be remarked upon.

I have very little else to add on this topic, at least for now. Because half of the human population is female, and because women remain discriminated against, in ways subtle and overt, the world over, it is one that will doubtless come up on this blog in the future.

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