Have Feminist Views of Beauty Pageants Changed?

The BBC has an articlewritten by Mary Beard, who is a writer and Professor of Classics at Cambridge and has been a feminist since the 60’s.   She writes about the 2011 Miss World beauty pageant recently held in London and how her views about it have changed since she was a “radical feminist teenager” in 1970.

From the 1971 Miss World Pageant (BBC)

She says that, at the 2011 pageant, a hundred or so feminist demonstrators turned up to object to what they saw as a “degrading human cattle market.”  But that was far different from the protests at the 1970 Miss World pageant, “when a group of ‘women’s libbers’ (as people used to call them then), swapped their dungarees for little frocks, infiltrated the ceremony, and managed to land some bags of flour very close to the compere Bob Hope, some wilting lettuces on the assembled reporters, and squirts of blue ink on the bouncers’ shirts.”  Beard says that the protestors slogan in 1970 was “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry.”

Beard watched the 2011 pageant on a streaming feed because it is no longer popular enough to be carried on live television.  She says that the pageant has “cleaned up its act” and mentions some of the improvements that cut down on the objectification of the women.  What I found most interesting was her comparison of the current version of the pageant that no longer draws enough viewers to put it on live TV, with the wildly popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent, where the Miss World pageant “isn’t, in other words, the licensed child abuse (or that’s what it looks like to me, at any rate) that we watch on Britain’s Got Talent, where there is no age limit at all – you could enter your toddler if you wanted to – and where to see a prematurely-sexualised 11-year-old reduced to tears, or a vulnerable middle-aged lady driven to despair, seems to have become part of the pleasure of the show.”

Beard found that “try as I might, I couldn’t any longer summon up much fury about the whole [pageant].”  She thinks that the demonstrators would think that she had “sold out on feminism,” but she disagrees and thinks that she is “as strong a feminist [now] as I was at 26.”  She believes that the reason for her change is that, as she sees changes in her own body, “the less I see my own body as a positive asset, the less I have wanted to interfere with what other women choose to do with theirs. If they want to parade in bikinis or shroud themselves in burkas, then so be it. I can see the pleasure in both.”

Beard correctly acknowledges that “how we present ourselves to the world is never a free choice,” but that how you “make those constraints work for you” is what really matters”:

To accuse them – as I used to do – of being the victims of social or commercial or religious control now seems to me to be a fairly cheap hit. How we present ourselves to the world is never a free choice. For both women and men dress is always the subject of social constraints.

The question is how you make those constraints work for you. Take women’s make-up for example. It can be the ultimate symbol of an oppressive culture that refuses to accept women’s faces as they really are; it can also be celebratory, joyous and fun.

So I’m not really sure that the Miss World competition – for all its slightly old-fashioned tackiness – is where we should be protesting.

I’m still not sure what I think about beauty pageants, even with the modifications that some of them have made.  But I certainly agree with Beard that there are many far-worse and far-more-encompassing examples of objectification of women than you will find at beauty pageants.


The Top Protest Songs

The Nation is conducting a survey of the top protest songs of all time.  If you want to tell them your choice, go here.  And here are the choices of one of The Nation editors along with the choices of some people he surveyed.  Some of those mentioned are Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem,” Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue,” Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,” and Neil Young’s “Shock and Awe.”

For me, there are so many to choose from, but, just because it’s very recent and because I love the music, I’ll choose the Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello live version of Ghost of Tom Joad performed at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert.  It captures the essence of the hardships from “The Grapes of Wrath,” which obviously are still here today.  (I also like the fact that Morello has a hand-printed “Arm the Homeless” on his guitar.)

Another relatively recent protest song I really like is P!nk’s “Dear Mr. President” (Live at Wembley version) about George Bush.  While you think of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello for their protest songs, it’s great to see P!nk take a chance by doing something that could have harmed her career (but obviously didn’t) .  (And that always makes me think of Natalie Maines’ comments about Bush, which also did not (ultimately) hurt the Dixie Chicks’ popularity).

What Would Allison Pearson Think About This Kind of Writing?

Until I read a recent article by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post, I had never heard of Allison Pearson.   But I learned then that she is a British author who wrote the novel “I Don’t Know How She Does It” about ten years ago and that the book “became the millennium’s first mommy bible.”  And that her second novel “I Think I Love You” has just been released and it “is about love. First love. The first, all-consuming, soul-melting love experienced by 13-year-old girls toward the men who live in posters inside their lockers. Love in the time of tweenagers.”

Allison Pearson

Fine.  But what bothered me about the Monica Hesse article were these opening paragraphs:


Allison Pearson’s body sits on the floor of the upstairs office, called the Pink Room for its wallpaper. Her eyes are closed; she is moving her lips and gently swaying from side to side in time with the music, the fabric of her skirt periodically clinging to the carpet, revealing vulnerable swaths of leg. The whole thing is intensely personal; you would almost rather walk in on someone flossing as having this meditative flashback, which appears to border on the religious.

Allison Pearson’s mind has gone to a nice place. A feathered haircut place. A place of corduroy and soft, girlish man-voices, and Partridge families, and –

For all I know, those paragraphs mirror the writing of the two books.  But, is it really necessary to describe the author in those terms?  It seems too stereotypical to me.  I wonder what Pearson thinks about it?


Sexist Music Videos?: Silversun Pickups vs. Robert Palmer

I’m only about a year behind the times on this, but, when I was in my health club last week, some TVs were showing the video for the Silversun Pickups’ “Substitution” song.  It’s the video where the group is playing and, on the floor in front of them are eight short-skirted, low-cut, high-heel-wearing women playing a game of musical chairs.  Almost immediately, I wondered “Isn’t this offensive?”

But a google search didn’t seem to uncover much concern about the video.  I don’t really understand.  Obviously, there are tons of music videos that are sexist, but that doesn’t stop the occasional outrage about particular ones.  (Or is it only political videos like M.I.A.’s “Born Free” or Katy Perry wearing a “cleavage-baring” dress on Sesame Street that bring on the outrage?)

The Silversun Pickups’ video seems pretty similar to me to the old Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” video.  The attire is similar, they all have on their “game faces,” they have no relation to the lyrics.  But “Addicted to Love” was the object of much outrage about sexism — and “Substitution” apparently is not.

Can anyone tell me why there was criticism of Robert Palmer but not of the Silversun Pickups?  What’s the difference?

The Marriage Name Dilemma

Many months ago, I started to write a post about whether someone should change his or her last name when getting married.  I gave up when I finally realized that all I could write about were the different options.  In other words, the entire subject had so many different personal options that it seemed foolish to even voice an opinion.

But, now, with Chelsea Clinton’s recent marriage, the subject is being debated again around the internet.  So, I’m going to try again.

The basic options are these (wikipedia has a good article on the entire subject and see also this from the interestingly-named imamrs.com):

(1) the partners keep their names (i.e., nothing changes)

(2) one partner takes the name of the other

(3) one partner changes to a “hyphenated” name by adding the partner’s name (it can also be done without a hyphen)

(4) one partner takes the last name of the other and, in addition, adds the previous last name as a middle name

(5) both partners change their last names to a new blended name.

Of course, the overwhelming choice in the United States is for the wife to forsake her “maiden name” (a truly bad phrase) and take the last name of the husband.  (I’ll talk about lesbian and gay marriages below.)  A 2007 survey of brides in the United States by Conde Nast Bridal Media showed that 83 percent dropped their “maiden names” in exchange for their spouse’s last name, 11 percent of brides chose to hyphenate their last name, and 6 percent chose to keep their own last name.  (A variation on a wife taking the last name of the husband is to make the change formally but keep the “maiden name” informally on the job to preserve her identity.)

There are, of course, practical problems with each choice.  Any partner changing his or her last name has many, many hours of work to change identity and will likely lose (at least for a long while) the value of the many years of professional and educational identity built up for the former name.  A hyphenated name avoids some of the identity problem, but has the additional problems of being unwieldy. And think of the problems that a child with a hyphenated name would have if he or she decided to take the same approach when getting married.  Thus, according to one 2007 article, hyphenated names are becoming less common.

The usual reason given for why a woman should change her name to her husband’s is so that the “family name” can continue.  (A variation is to keep the name for “ethnic” reasons.)  Of course, this is bogus since there is no reason that the “family name” of the husband is any more important than the “family name” of the wife.  The practice keeps the name lineage of the husband’s father, the father’s father’s, etc, going all the way back through that side of the family.  But gone are the wife’s father’s name, the wife’s mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc, on both sides of the wife’s family.

Another bogus reason for a wife changing her name is this statement by a woman who is debating what to do: “”I think it’s important [that I change my name to my husband’s]. We’re married. He’s my husband, and I want to show that I’m committed to him.”  The problem with the statement, of course, is that the same reasoning should apply to the man.  If it’s important to show commitment, the man has an equal obligation and, therefore, there is no reason for the wife to change her name anymore than for the husband.

Moreover, while I have no evidence to point to, it seems reasonable to believe that having a wife change her name leads to long-lasting psychological effects about power in the relationship.  This is not helpful to an equal relationship.

I think what it all comes down to is this.  Remember that there are options.  There is no good reason for such an overwhelming number of women to change their name to their husband’s.  If an equal number of men changed their name to their wife’s, it could make sense.  After all, there is some practical benefit in having a child have the same last name as both the wife and husband.  But the current practice is simply the result of centuries of patriarchic control of men over women.  It is time for more women to keep their last name and more men to change their last name to their wife’s.  (According to one article, there are at least some men who are changing their names.  But it is a difficult process for men since, as of 2007, only seven states allowed men to easily change their name upon marriage in the same manner that women can do it.  The rest of the states require the far more difficult procedure required for other (non-marital) name changes.)

And, finally, as you probably noticed, I have been talking about heterosexual marriages.  But what about gay and lesbian marriages?  I haven’t seen any statistics, but my strong guess is that very few partners change their names.  There is no issue about keeping the “family name.”  No issue about changing a name to show commitment.  The only issue is not the name of the partners, but the name of their children.  That’s the way it should be for all couples, i.e., keep your own names but spend a lot of time figuring out what last names to give to your children.

(One more thing.  I have only been talking about the United States.  The practices are different in some other countries.  For instance, this 2007 USA Today article includes short summaries of the practices in Spain and some Central and South American countries, in some Middle Eastern countries, in Iceland, and in the United Kingdom.)

We’d like to hear what you think (and, if you have already had to face the issue, what you did).

Minnesota GOP: “Democrat Women Are Dogs”

Well, this is classy:

The Republican website for a Minnesota Senate race posted a video, highlighting the latest reason you should vote for a GOP candidate this election cycle: Republican women are hot; Democrats are dogs. The YouTube clip shows photos of Republican women in flattering glamorized poses (frequently in bikinis), juxtaposed with purposely unflattering– often photoshopped– photos of Democratic women. Tom Jones’ “She’s A Lady” plays in the background for the former; “Who Let The Dogs Out?” plays for the latter.

I’d expect an immature video such as this to circulate among newly politically-aware college frat boys on Facebook– not to be given legitimacy by a front page spot on a State Senate website. This is offensive to both sides, as once again a woman’s most significant characteristic is her physical appearance.

Republican House candidate Kathy Lohmer, as well as District 56 Senator Kathy Saltzman have spoken out against the video, pointing– rightfully so– to sexism. Lohmer called for the resignation of the website manager, who admitted to posting the video. Without apologizing, the webmaster explained he found the video funny, and asked why it even mattered.

Why does it matter? Because it’s a tiresome, sexist tactic that detracts from real issues and logic, and leaves women as the butt of the joke. Because women’s ability to participate fully in society and politics still hinges on being taken seriously for anything other than physical appearance. Because your own party’s candidates are offended, and it would behoove you to listen to them. But wait. You’re too busy staring at them.

Austrian Farmer Bans Skirt-Wearing Women from His Pick-Your-Own Strawberry Fields

This is such a ridiculous story that it must be true.  A strawberry farmer in Austria has banned women in skirts from picking strawberries at his pick-your-own fields.  (He first instituted the ban in 2008, but the ban recently became news again.)  This article from the Croatian Times gives the farmer’s reasons for the ban and is so ridiculous that I’m quoting it in its entirety:

Strawberry fields skirt ban

Women in skirts have been banned from pick-your-own strawberry fields in Austria by farmers after complaints that their nether regions were coming into contact with the fruit as they squatted down. Farmer Reinhard Pirbauer said: “When the women in skirts squat down they often hover over the plants which then touch them under the skirt. It is “unhygienic”, nobody wants their strawberries handled in this way. “We have had complaints that fruit was being contaminated. No-one wants to pick strawberries that a woman has been sitting on. Some female underwear is almost non existent – if they wear any at all. “People had stopped coming because of this, but our regular customers have returned since introducing the new rules.” Disgusted Piribauer – who introduced the skirt ban on his ten pick-your-own strawberry fields just south of the Austrian capital Vienna – added that even women with longer skirts were affected by the ban because they would often hike the skirts up in order to squat down and also ended up contaminating his fruit. One women’s rights group has branded the decision ridiculous but lawyers said he and other farmers who had copied the ban could not be prosecuted because they had not specifically banned women — only people wearing skirts and that women in trousers were welcome.