I’ve recently encountered two problematic instances of feminist writers policing the behaviour of other women. These examples, which I’m about to explore, baffle and annoy me in equal measure. Why are presumably well-intentioned women telling women how to behave? Do they think we don’t get enough of that?
Let’s start with my favourite of all the pagan holidays, Halloween. I love dressing up at Halloween, with its implicit freedom to wander the streets dressed as a banshee, a tiger, or Kermit the Frog, without folks passing judgement on my sartorial choices or sanity. That’s not to say I find Halloween costumes unproblematic – why does the Leather Face (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) butcher’s costume have a miniskirt apron? And why is there such a dearth of ‘non-sexy’ costumes for those of us who want to buy them? These thoughts have often gone through my head, and when I hear them articulated by other women, I sympathise.
Where I lose sympathy is the point where feminists tell their adult peers how to dress at Halloween – or equally as annoyingly, how not to. Which brings me to this recent article by Hadley Freeman, who tells us to “dress like a jelly bean, ladies! Yes, it does make your bum look big and, no, no one can see your breasts, and that’s just great”. This is cleverly couched in an article that at first glance is about the lost “innocent joy” (did it ever exist?) of Halloween, yet which goes on to say “I’m not here to slut-shame women who dress like sexy hamburgers for Halloween. But ….. Halloween should be an opportunity for people to show off their creativity, not their side boob”.
As a woman, I really do encounter other people’s expectations on how I should dress (short skirts = rape, remember?) often enough already. I do not need this writer, purportedly on the side of feminism, adding her demands to the mix. It represents yet another voice telling women that our behaviour isn’t good enough (“too much boob! Not enough creativity!”). I’m weary of it: one of the age-old problems women face is being held up to a higher standard of behaviour than men. If we fall short of this, we are punished. And dress is a common, spurious focus of blame: a recent, typical example being the #iammorethanadistraction hashtag, spawned after girls in various American schools were told to cover up or wear “shame suits” based on their clothing choices. People have far too much to say about what women should and should not wear: they need to pipe down. Coming from feminists, this hectoring is especially galling.
There is hope though! I just came across this tweet from left-wing feminist Laurie Penny. A right-on attitude.
Beng a wife and a complicit misogynist
I found out this weekend that most of my friends are complicit misogynists. By adopting their husbands’ name upon marriage, they have been apportioned some blame for the “centuries of misogyny” that have oppressed other women. Not by me, I hasten to add: this was a comment made by a friend on Facebook, under a BBC article discussing women changing their name upon marriage. Which brings me to my second wearying example of women judging and policing other women.
I find myself arguing from an odd viewpoint here: I find the idea of exchanging one name for another a pointless tradition, rooted in the times a daughter was literally ‘given away’ by her father; a flesh-and-blood chattel, if you like. I intend to keep my name when I get married next year because a) it’s my identity and b) it’s a link to my father and also my paternal grandmother, who I was very close to.
That said, I have no judgement to offer on the women who decide to change their name to their husband’s. It’s their name, after all. Judgement – what on earth gives me the right to judge other people? I can understand and respect women who say ”I wouldn’t change my name” (their name, their choice), but not those who censure and belabour other women who choose to do so. It’s an incredibly arrogant standpoint: to condemn every woman who changes her name, when there is no possibility of knowing their individual circumstances and motivations. A recent Vagenda piece where the writer expressed her “ dare I say it – disappointment” when women “shuffle off into marriage” and take their husbands’ name was met by some interesting responses, including:
I’m generally a big fan of the Vagenda, but its writers have been accused on various occasions of writing from a position of middle class, white woman privilege. This recent article, while containing a lot of fair points, includes a thread of the pitying condescension that attracts such criticism. I can imagine the self-congratulatory writer, pluming herself on her sagacity as she thinks “I’m so cerebral. If only other women would think about these issues as deeply as I do!” As these comments from various women demonstrate, it’s breathtakingly arrogant of her to assume they haven’t.
Censuring women who change their name is another example of the higher standards of behaviour forced on women, by women. Feminism, at its most simple level, is about the right to equality. Surely that includes an equal right to self-expression? To wear what you like, call yourself what you like – as a man would?
To me, those who seek to belabour women for their choices are simply derailing the journey to equality: women should be free to make decisions without fearfully looking over their shoulder and wondering who they’re letting down: their school, PTA, religion, or in this case, self-righteous feminists.
Some sisterly solidarity wouldn’t go amiss. And less judging.