Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sex and Feminism - False Consciousness

Probably a mistake to try and write about this given my current brain-mire, but I was thinking about what Sage has been writing about recently. Often arguments come up about why, given that the objectives of feminism would be to benefit all women (men too, but women more so), many women continue to behave in ways which perpetuate inequalities. Much of the difficulty is that feminists are a diverse bunch and passionately disagree with one another about which behaviours actually do perpetuate inequality.

These arguments tend to center around expressions of sexuality, in the widest possible sense. Perhaps it could even be opened up to our bodies and what we do with them. Very much of the way that society values or devalues women is to do with our bodies, therefore it makes sense that they are a priniciple battleground. I'm afraid I think the easiest way of doing this is offering a rather silly and entirely superficial example.

Today I want to wear high-heel shoes (I don't, but let's pretend).

Another feminist (a made-up one, sorry) says, "But high-heel shoes serve one purpose. Standing on tip-toes makes your arse stick out in such a way which advertises your sexual availability to other primates. High-heel shoes are entirely for the benefit of men who live under the illusion that all women are available to them for sex. And by wearing high-heel shoes you perpetuate this myth, as well encouraging other women to do the same."

"But that's not it at all," I say, "I like high-heel shoes. I chose to wear them for me."

"Yes," says the made-up feminist, "you might imagine that to be the case. You have been programmed to think that. But you get nothing out of wearing high-heels except physical problems with your feet and legs. You have been programmed to like high-heels because you have been programmed to enjoy dressing for the benefit of men."

This is a superficial example, I'm not sure anyone would present such an argument, but we could have a similar conversation about all number of choices I might make about grooming and my appearance, through things I do or tolerate in the relationships I have with men, right through to whether I become a prostitute or participate in pornographic movies. Many feminists do argue that the latter two are options that no woman who has a genuine choice could possibly choose, even if she thinks she is exercising free will.

Which takes us on to the real mucky yucky mess in the middle of feminist discourse on sexuality which is false consciousness.

False consciousness was originally Friedrich Engels’ idea, although similar, if fuzzier versions had been used in religion before then. He reckoned that whatever you think you believe, it has come from somewhere; nobody, he argued, can have ideas and beliefs independent of their social and political experience. I’m afraid I struggle with Engels, it is almost as if he is arguing that two plus two equals four only in a society which supports the concept of fourness. Sound familiar?

A more compelling idea was Malcolm X’s description of the difference between what he referred the House Negro and the Field Negro. Black slaves who existed in the master’s house as unpaid servants might form attachment to their abusers, but those who existed outside the house and were treated as working animals were far more likely to rebel. Similarly, he felt that some black folks in his society behaved like House Negroes; they had it just comfortable enough to become compliant – and complicit - in their own oppression

This is an important point for many egalitarians. A recurring theme in some of the BADD posts under “Personal Journeys” was the realisation by disabled people that the way they felt about themselves was not okay, that they were judging themselves by societal values based on prejudice. And the same applies to women. Many women now feel that feminism’s job is done. Many women felt the same in the seventies, when our rights remained disparate in law. And many women felt that the whole suffrage malarkey was a tremendous waste of time and effort.

However, I think we need to be very careful before we describe this as false consciousness, or else put it into language which suggests that a person doesn’t know what is good for them. In the Malcolm X letter linked to above, he goes on to strongly imply that Martin Luther King is a House Negro, a victim of false consciousness, even though the two men were fighting (and were soon to give their lives) for the same cause.

Which is the problem; if I can’t be bothered to argue with you on almost any matter, I can just say, “Well of course, you think that; you have been duped by the dominant ideology. Whereas I, by some miracle, remain immune to it.”

Which is nonsense. As I said earlier, there were always fuzzier versions of this in theological discourse; the idea that deep down we must all know there is a one true God and know who He is since He created us and exists in all our hearts, only we deceive ourselves (with the assistance of Mr B. L. Zeebub). If only we could be forced to undeceive ourselves, we would be saved. Fetch... the cushions!

And similarly, in fairness, I have heard the occassional atheist say similar things about the theists; they must know there’s no God, it’s all made up, people use religion to justify themselves and to maintain control over others. The whole thing should be abolished and people forced to think for themselves - a process which would undoubtedly lead them to the exact same conclusions as we did.

So back to my high-heels. Fact is, that I know that the reason men and women like high-heel shoes is sexual in origin, but thanks to the way we have learnt to think about clothes over a long time, women often opt for a higher-heel because it might look smarter, it works better with given outfit or even because adding height to a person enables someone to better command authority (in line with the sexist and disablist association between physical height and social authority, perhaps). I don't imagine most women are thinking about getting laid, or pleasing men, when they put on their shoes. Many shoes are very beautiful objects of design in any case, so many women like them for that reason.

However, personally, I also fail to see the relationship between high-heel shoes and sex to be necessarily problematic. Perhaps I might wear high-heels on an occasion wear I wish to advertise my sexual availability to someone, perhaps I wish to be sexy. Wishing to be sexually attractive to those people I am myself sexually attracted to is an intrinsic part of my sexuality, as I imagine it is to the sexuality of most people. Also, being an equal-opportunities lech, I like high-heeled shoes on women myself.

What you have here is a point of view. It could be wrong. However, if I am wrong, it is not because I have been passively absorbed the programming that a pair of shoes are just a pair of shoes. If I am wrong, it is because I have made a mistake in my reasoning.

I do have a point here, I imagine the next post will make far more sense.


Mary said...

I reserve the right to wear high heels and a dress and makeup every bit as much as I reserve the right to put on baggy combat trousers and a sweatshirt and some big heavy boots. I defend my ability to know when each of these is styles is appropriate and also to recognise those occasions when it doesn't matter one teeny bit.

However, I reckon that without the more extreme (and dare I say it, noisy) radical feminists, who probably hate my heels, dress and makeup, I probably wouldn't have the option of wearing the combats/boots outfit. Not without a certain amount of aggro, anyway.

I've forgotten where I was going with this comment. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Where do transvestites come in all this, men like Eddie Izzard who reserve the right to wear female dress and makeup if they feel like it?

The vast majority of them, as I understand it, are happily heterosexual. So to whom are they signalling their sexual availablilty by wearing high heels?

camille said...

I agree. I choose to dress how I do because I enjoy the choice. And like you said, sometimes I do dress to make myself more sexually attractive to someone, but this again is because I enjoy feeling like that.

To me the whole point of feminisim is about having choice. And how and why I dress my body is exercising this choice, a choice that is not programmed by societal values (well not in its entirety).

The Goldfish said...

Anonymous - transvestism is almost certainly wonderful example of the desire to be desirable. Men in our culture don't have very much in the way of socially sanctioned opportunities to adorn and beautify themselves.

So part of transvestism is probably that; our only understanding of beauty is feminine beauty and thus one who wants to be beautiful must make oneself beautiful in a feminine way. At other stages in history men have had the opportunity to wear elaborate clothes, wigs and make-up and that's just been fine and dandy - this is something we've lost.

And part of it heterosexual transvestism is probably the thrill in imitating the thing that one desires.

I don't know for sure, of course, because I'm not a man. And I am only one woman.

I hope that makes sense - somewhat of an oversimplification but my brain isn't at its best today. It's an important point though, thank you.

Anonymous said...

The association of sex and shoes occurs at a very early age in both sexes. The pheromone release in proximity to a small child at the time of early arousal assists in the imprinting of the foot or shoe as a sexual object, and explains why feet and shoes are the most common fetish objects across all races and cultures.
As the web master (horrible title again with a masculine overtone synonymous with the male domination of the Internet) of a shoe fetish community, I can say that the members are of all sexual persuasions: it is the role of the wearer at the time of imprinting that influences the association of shoes with submissive or dominant behaviour.
Some women are aware of an increased sense of power that stems from the wearing of a particular type of shoe (especially boots), whilst others crave the feeling of surrender.
Males also split along the same lines: some feel dominant towards women in particular types of shoe, whilst others feel submissive.
The choice of shoe type by an individual is an external expression of their sexuality, much in the same way as choice of hairstyle or clothing, but with a heightened awareness that shoes speak volumes about sexuality.
The confusion that appears to be expressed stems from a struggle with conformity and expected behaviour within one's societal group.

A most interesting blog.
Many thanks

Anonymous said...

To anyone interested...

I have just read this blog along with this report
And have came to the conclusion that the historical 'masculine' attitude towards women ie : "childish, frivolous, and shortsighted" Seems to stem from male social ineptness. Where historically women would look after the children and spend their time forming relationships and socialising, men had the role of fixing things and were kept really rather socially restricted. I think that these role may be results of other character traits like introversion and extroversion, which I think are clearly results of nurture. Just a thought, enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Aren't heels childish (expensive and strongly influenced by social pressures), frivolous (the average woman owns 24 pairs of shoes), and shortsighted (better hope you don't need to go for a walk)? Here's to breaking down stereotypes.