Miley and Sinead and Amanda and me: seventies feminism versus stiletto feminism

Miley-smallFor those who have been too busy thinking about, oh, world peace or the government shutdown, apparently Miley Cyrus upset some people by twerking on TV and appearing naked in a music video.

Sinnead-smallThen Sinead O’Connor published an open letter to Miley Cyrus, responding to Miley’s acts and the publicity that followed.

Then Amanda Palmer published an open letter to Sinead O’Connor about her open letter to Miley Cyrus.

Yamanda-smallou follow all that? I did, and it reminded me of a landmark moment in my life.

I’ma set the wayback machine to about 2006. It is Memorial Day weekend, and I am at Wiscon, the oldest-running feminist science fiction convention. It is Sunday. I am brunching with five other hairy-legged, bra-less seventies feminists and a younger lady whom I will call a stiletto feminist. I made up that term, but you may know what I mean. If not, read on.

The seventies feminists present are authors, editors, well-known trufen, matriarchs of Wiscon, maybe even one or two founders of the James Tiptree Award for Gender Bending SF. Solid credentials. The younger lady is also an author, and an editor and publisher of erotic SF and fantasy. We older feminists are all dressed like authors—i.e., basically, we take off our bedroom slippers and put on shoes so we can show up in public. The younger lady is wearing a corset, fishnets, thigh-high black boots, heavy drag makeup, and lots of cleavage.

Without trying to be in any way pejorative, several of the seventies feminists present are trying to tell the younger lady that her clothes are worrying them. They’re all for self-expression. They believe in the empowerment of women. Don’t get them wrong. But are those clothes really, well, consistent with feminism?  They want her to prove she’s a feminist, but they’re afraid she can’t. They don’t see how that’s possible.

She isn’t getting defensive, and that rattles them, too.

riding crop-smallI realize about halfway through lunch that in their day (okay, our day, I’ll cop to my age)…well, a woman dressed like that would be thought of as “asking for it.” They’re worried about her. Concerned for her safety.

The younger author explains that in her experience, when she dresses in an aggressively sexual way she gets less harassment than when she is more modestly dressed. Guys may look, but generally they look at her with alarm. (Maybe it’s the riding crop sticking out of her boot.) Your true predator, she says, backs away and goes looking instead for a nice girl who wears long skirts and clutches her books to her chest.

As I listen to this conversation, I remember an expression which Wikipedia tells me comes from the twelfth century: “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” Says here Bernard of Chartres came up with this, although he’s not the only one to speak of the idea.

dreadful floppy tieI begin to feel very humble and very proud. I am in the presence of a distinct new version of feminism, a generation who does what my generation could never do, and she couldn’t do it now if we hadn’t done what we did. She has actually surpassed our struggle; she has new barriers; ours no longer trouble her. She doesn’t worry about some guy whanging up a boner and blaming it and all his subsequent behavior on her. If he does so and behaves inappropriately because of it, by law it is his fault, not hers. She’s willing to use it, in fact, against him. Her sexual power has become her power, not his.

Back in our day, a man’s boner was always our fault. We wore boxy pantsuits and horrid plasticky fake-silk shirts with attached floppy ties that covered us right up to the chin. We tried to act like men in the workplace, so that we could not be accused of fishing for a husband or a bedmate. We got called names like ball-buster and dyke and bra-burner, and we were accused instead of being asexual because we were struggling to avoid provoking any man in our workplace into feeling sexual about us. We accepted the blame.

on the shoulders of giants-croppedThis new feminist doesn’t have to take the blame. Because we took the namecalling and fought the seemingly-hopeless court battles then, now she is no longer responsible for some guy’s failure to manage his erection. Because we concealed our sexuality in pursuit of equal work and equal pay then, now she doesn’t have to conceal hers in pursuit of the same things.

She can wear her stilettos to work. She still wants equal work and equal pay. She’s a feminist, too. Like us, she will use whatever weapons she has available to her to fight the same fight we fought. The rules have shifted. We did our work well, and she benefits.

I can’t imagine how she will change the rules for her daughter.

I admire her and envy her and I’m terribly proud of her.

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Miley and Sinead and Amanda and me: seventies feminism versus stiletto feminism — 11 Comments

  1. Yes! I really like the confidence I see in the young women of today. To me, that means progress. As for clothes, we’vre pretty much destroyed the fifties “Thou shalt all dress alike” rubric. One female can wear stilettos, armored uplift bras, heavy makeup, etc because she likes it, her sister can dress all in black, with black-dyed hair and tats, and her cousin can hunt up vintage hippie threads that hide her gender altogether. Huzzah!

    • And that doesn’t even count the young women (and men) whose gender is as fluid as their clothing. I talked to one recently who described choosing the gender of the day while looking through her closet; that day was dressed in a very Cabaret-style man’s outfit.

  2. I think this is a fine letter, and I’ll leave out how I feel about Cyrus, O’Connor, and Palmer.

    I just dropped in to say it’s “Sinead” not “Sinnead,” and I bet you care.

  3. Lightbulb moment, or synthesis moment, whatever.

    If you act like prey, you attract predators. Certain kinds of confidence will provoke them (sometimes into extreme violence), but generally they’ll go for the quarry that seems weaker and therefore easier to pull down.

    I still have concerns about the profound sexism and misogyny in our culture, the sexualization of little girls, and so on. But still. This post makes me think. In a good way.

  4. I, too, am a feminist and grew to adulthood in the “70s. I’ve marched and protested to make sure that younger women could have things better than me. One of the ways that women have it better is to be able to dress the way that they want. That means wearing pink workboots (yes, I’ve seen it) or wearing short shorts in public.

    I am still struggling with the whole concept of dress/feminism etc. Like Judith Tarr says, I have concerns about sexualization of children, the problems of women and the way they dress at cons, and so on.

    Thanks for the post. I am still thinking this whole thing through and probably will for quite a while.

  5. I’m thrilled that more women — of all ages — are taking charge of their sexuality and enjoying it. One of the core principles of feminism is that women have the right to enjoy sex. That’s why reproductive rights are such a cornerstone: they give women the right to act in the world and have sex, so people can have careers and motherhood, or just have a freewheeling sex life without fear of pregnancy. It’s a big damn deal.

    I’m also a big believer in people dressing any damn way they want to. One of the things I really like seeing when I’m in Oakland is the vast diversity in dress styles. We have some of that in Austin, too, but it seems to me that in Oakland there is no one way that everyone dresses, and I love it.

    The issue is complicated because a lot of what we all consider sexy is rooted in some outdated male ideas about sexiness. Take those stilettos for example. Everyone thinks high heels make women look sexy. What high heels actually do is thrust your pelvis forward and tighten your butt muscles. That process puts you slightly off balance (your center of gravity is about pelvis level and is shifted forward as well). The end result is that you look more vulnerable (and are, since you’re off balance). And that vulnerability is defined as “sexy.” It seems to me that being sexually powerful and being vulnerable are not the same thing.

    The flip side of this comes from all those religions that teach that women must be covered up. There’s a church up the street from me where all the women and girls wear not just dresses, but at least mid-calf-length dresses at all times. The girls even wear these on the playground! This is also dressing to deal with the male imagination, instead of to honor yourself. And those women who say they prefer to dress modestly are just as much in thrall to the male ideas of what women should be as the women who say they prefer spike heels.

    I think we’re still figuring all this stuff out and the younger generation is making strides in that direction. It’s going to continue to be messy for awhile. Meanwhile, I don’t plan to dress my age.

  6. The problem I have withs “stiletto feminism” is that it seems indistinguishable from the objectifying, exploitive male ideal. “Liberated” seems in some circles to mean simply “sexually available.” The woman wears a revealing outfit, shoes that will ensure repeated trips to the orthopedist (not that much) later in life, and an attitude of literally rubbing everyone’s face in “her” sexuality.

    I was never one of the pretty ones, so I gave up early on the idea of trying to shove my body or my face or my behavior into some male-friendly mold. In fact, the thought of anyone having to do that was infuriating. But 70’s feminism notwithstanding, women have lived so long with men’s projected ideals (that is to say, a man’s view of ideal female sexuality) that I wonder how many of us know where the male expectation ends and her real sexuality begins. Especially a woman like Miley Cyrus, who was raised in the music and acting industries, which are a edifice built on a foundation of male expectations for women (something I’ve experienced firsthand).

    When we were trying to make it in the music biz (outside of our current happy zone), I and the other woman in our band were constantly told we needed to dress and behave in certain ways to engage the audience (or at least the male members thereof). One producer decided that I had an “earthy” quality and a certain “wildness of spirit” that I exhibited when I played congas and sang that made him want to dress me in spandex and animal skins. What I see Miley Cyrus and Beyonce and other female artists doing is indistinguishable from the sort of male centric stuff a gauntlet of music producers wanted me and our other vocalist to do.

    Performing is a sensual experience and when I’m onstage, I’m “on.” It’s a natural state and a comfortable one that has nothing to do with engaging a male audience or even modeling for a female one. Anyone who believes Cyrus’s routine is natural and not commercial doesn’t understand the entertainment industry.

    I will believe that women have really owned our sexuality when I no longer see herds of young women limping through malls in shoes that are obviously hurting them because it makes their legs look hot (to man or men), or shivering through freezing nights at rock concerts and baseball games in skimpy tank tops because they feel compelled to show flesh for whoever is watching.

    If it’s OUR sexuality or sensuality then it should be comfortable, natural, not contrived. When we are all wearing what makes us FEEL sexy in our own skin and wearing it a setting where it might actually bear fruit (if you get my drift), instead a public display of what Playboy and Hustler tell us is sexy to someone else, then I’ll believe Miley Cyrus or Beyonce are feminists. Until then, count me as a skeptic.

  7. I’ve thought all the thoughts y’all have spoken, all of them.

    What I come away with, bottom line, is that the stiletto feminist is in a different *legal* position from the position I was in at her age.

    The law says she doesn’t have to take the blame for some guy’s, um, biological response to her wardrobe or for what he does about it.

    That’s huge.

    Whatever I think of what she’s doing with that freedom has to wait upon the results. Because more law will come out of her behavior, and out of men’s response, and the law’s response to all that. It’s a cycle that’s rolling toward more power for the woman.

    • Yes. And more women — including young women — are demanding that the law do something about rapists and harassers. What a woman wears or does is no excuse for rape.

      Limits on women’s clothing or behavior based on “the guys just can’t control themselves” should be a thing of the past.

      But I still want to consign stiletto shoes to the bin for Chinese foot-binding equipment, corsets, and the many other items that were designed to make women “beautiful” in male eyes while also physically limiting what a woman can do.