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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An extra note on boobquake for people who don't "get" it

Expanded from my comment at Jerry Coyne's boobquake post.

We're talking about women voluntarily wearing clothes which seem to them to be fun and sexy. Note that it was a woman who had the idea and that many other women are getting into it enthusiastically. I think there's a reason for that.

We're not talking about pornographic images that are meant to do dirt on female beauty for the benefit of men who fear it. I'm not a fan of pornography because I think that this is what much (I'm not saying all) pornography is all about. In that sense it's deeply misogynist.

But we need to make the distinction between rational critique of this kind of pornography and getting upset at the sort of sexual display by women that the women themselves feel good about. Women are entitled to dress in ways that strike them as wild, and fun, and sexy, and we are all entitled to enjoy it if they do. Contrary to the rantings of an Iranian cleric, women get to be flirty or frivolous or to exult in their beauty. The difference between enjoying this and resorting to misogynist pornography is as radical as the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.

1980s pseudo-feminism was too unnuanced to make these sorts of distinctions. Sure, some of its targets - the kind of pornography I mentioned - were legitimate ones (I didn't need JJ Ramsey to tell me that, if that's what he was trying to convey on yesterday's thread). But much of the critique was so scattergun as to give the impression of rationalising anxieties about sex and the body. The people concerned would have been in good company with Saint Augustine or a brace of mullahs from Iran.

Come on folks, let's support genuine feminism, by all means. The realisation that women are as capable as men, and that society must change to reflect this, is important. It's a remarkable insight that we achieved in the West, after countless years of patriarchy that are still not entirely behind us. We're still working through the full implications.

But we don't have to be so unnuanced as to condemn something as fun and harmless and genially satirical as boobquake. Feminism is not about taking the fun and joy from life, though that was what 1980s pseudo-feminism often seemed to do. Two or three decades later, most of us can tell the difference. Get with the program!


Chris Lawson said...

Russell, I agree completely with your critique of the extremist versions of feminism going around in the 80s and early 90s. I could never get past Andrea Dworkin saying that all penetrative sex was degrading to women. It was nothing more than her projection of her own traumatised sexuality onto a moral code she wanted to impose on the rest of the world, which paradoxically made her a lot closer to the Catholic Church than Emily Pankhurst.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I never had to get with the program, as I was brought up with the whole idea of women and their total freedoms - Mum and Dad were clear on that.

Did you know the idea of sexual morality was never a concern of early religious establishment - all the crap came later to support the desire of Bishops and Kings - that's another story.

A woman needs to know if she wants to walk down the street naked then it is her right to do so, and to do so without drawing physical or mental harm from anyone. The same goes for men.

Socially we do have nudity laws so you do have to answer to those, but even so, you can do this.

This is a case of no means no and you don't have to be religious to understand and accept that. A woman can celebrate herself in anyway she chooses, the same way men celebrate their own bodies.

And Chris, you are quite right - the Catholic Church was and in many ways still is a barrier to female freedom


skepticlawyer said...

Thank you for your sanity on this, Russell.

Ophelia Benson said...

Well speaking of being unnuanced, what exactly is 1980s pseudo-feminism? All feminism of the 1980s? Or just a branch of it that was pseudo? I really have no idea what that is supposed to mean, apart from the fact that it includes Andrea Dworkin (and I can manage the wild surmise that it also includes Catharine MacKinnon). You may know what you mean, but I don't, and since it seems to be central to what you're fuming about, it would help to know.

"But much of the critique was so scattergun as to give the impression of rationalising anxieties about sex and the body. The people concerned would have been in good company with Saint Augustine or a brace of mullahs from Iran."

That's why it would really help to know what you're talking about. Much of what critique?

As for not "getting" it, I think there are things you don't "get." One of those is the obvious asymmetry that Jerry Coyne pointed out. It is at least possible that that asymmetry is worth paying attention to. You seem to be just ignoring it. If women are reduced to their tits and men are not reduced to any bit of their bodies, then maybe that really does matter. Maybe it at least shouldn't be brushed off as if it obviously didn't matter, much less called a religious relic.

Irene said...

"Well speaking of being unnuanced, what exactly is 1980s pseudo-feminism? All feminism of the 1980s? Or just a branch of it that was pseudo?"

Without presuming to answer for Russell, the internal logic of the phrase "1980s pseudo-feminism" points to it's meaning some subset of the 1980s feminism. Or there would be no need for the addition of the qualifier "pseudo".

As for the heart of his critique of the critics of Boobquake, I just want to put a big "+1", Internet-style, to his sentence:

"But much of the critique was so scattergun as to give the impression of rationalising anxieties about sex and the body."

Because this is exactly the impression I got from some (not all) of the criticism directed toward the whole idea of - gasp! - using one's own sexuality, in a quite mild way, to better expose the ludicrousness of some religious doctrines about women and sexuality.

Ophelia Benson said...

the internal logic of the phrase "1980s pseudo-feminism" points to it's meaning some subset of the 1980s feminism. Or there would be no need for the addition of the qualifier "pseudo".

No, because it's not clear if 'pseudo' is a qualifier or a descriptor. Suppose someone talks of the red roses of Tralee, or the delightful people of Sweden, or the delicious food at La Frontera. It isn't at all clear that any of those adjectives mean "as distinct from the others." It is the same with Russell's phrase. I really don't know which he means.

Russell Blackford said...

If I was saying it was a subset of feminism I would not call it "pseudo-feminism". A pseudo-snark is not a kind of snark. It is something that can be mistaken for a snark.

Of course, what I'm talking about was, in fact, part of the feminist movement of the time from a sociological point of view, though the content was very strongly contested by other feminists (and still is). So you can say I'm being cute when I call it "pseudo-feminism". You can say it was not really non-feminism, just as belief in God is not really a delusion.

But just as Dawkins makes the point that it's worth emphasising the similarities between belief in God and suffering a delusion, I make the point that it's worth emphasising how a book like Intercourse is outside the mainstream of modern feminism. In fact, it was a distraction. Most women (not to mention men) who believe strongly in the equal competence of men and women will not see it as remotely reflecting what they are on about.

Anyone who wants, try it out on a bunch of female Gen Y university students who consider themselves feminists ... and see how they react. Not many are going to recognise it as in any way a reflection of their experience or worldview.

Unknown said...

If I were to use the term 'pseudo-feminism', I think I'd reserve it for people who appropriate the garb and language of feminism while revealing an assortment of quasi-religious puritanical or sexist/misogynist attitudes.

I've just been perusing Jerry Coyne's blog. Some interesting perspectives from both sides, but one comment really struck me. Someone calling themself Jackal said this:

'a bunch of high school girls trying to get popular by dressing the sluttiest'

As long as the epithet 'slut' continues to be deemed acceptable, even in the context of a broadly atheist, feminist conversation - and as long is there is no male equivalent for that epithet - then we have a problem.

Russell Blackford said...

I agree, Colin. But part of that problem is people seeing this, i.e. boobquake, as acting "slutty", rather than acting exuberantly, with good-humour, wit, and so on. We really must get beyond a mentality where women who exult, however mildly, in the sexual beauty of their bodies are regarded as "sluts".

That's just the sort of thinking I'm arguing against, and I think it displays a fear of female beauty. It's thoroughly intertwined with the old Christian attitudes to sexuality that we need to overcome.

The thing is, I like women; I enjoy their company and they tend to enjoy mine (my female friends jokingly call me an "honorary girl"); I don't fear their beauty (though to be honest I once did ... but unlike many, or perhaps most, men, I grew out of it); I don't judge women who show their beauty, or enjoy sex, or even have multiple sexual partners as "slutty".

Frankly, and perhaps arrogantly, I want more men to be like me, and I think our society would be better if they were. I don't think the people who are criticising boobquake are helping with that. They mean well, but they're reinforcing undesirable ways of thinking.

Hey, I don't agree with the entirety of this book ...


... but its title essay offers food for thought about how men should respond to sexy dressing by women. I affected my own thinking, though Duncan Kennedy doesn't have to take any responsibility for how I think. As always, I've adapted what I've read into my own web of belief.

I should also say specifically that I don't think the sleazy men who are on about "Wow, bewbies!" in response to boobquake are being constructive. In a different way, they don't "get" it.

It hadn't escaped me that some men would react to that. What I say to them is that they're acting like losers and I wish they'd please stop it. They're showing behaviour that can only discourage women being comfortable with their own bodies. It's going to be difficult even for beautiful women to enjoy their own beauty relatively unselfconsciously in a world where men respond like that. Once again, they ought to get with the program instead of spoiling it.

Russell Blackford said...

Er, "It affected", not "I affected".

Ophelia Benson said...

But part of that problem is people seeing this, i.e. boobquake, as acting "slutty", rather than acting exuberantly, with good-humour, wit, and so on.

Sure, but I don't see it that way (and I don't think Miranda does either, ditto Jerry). I do think it's quite funny - and I think it's great that Jen drew so much attention to the issue. But I also flinched ever so slightly when I first saw the story, and decided against linking to it. I have reservations - but they're well short of thinking boobquake is acting "slutty." (Also I think it should be noted that the word used that way is partly ironic. That's tricky, because people say the same thing about "bitch," and I can't stand the way that word is freely thrown around. But still, I don't think "a bunch of high school girls trying to get popular by dressing the sluttiest" is using the word in a strictly literal way. It's a bit meta.)

I think we ought to be able to have reservations without being called prudes or religious.

Unknown said...

Ophelia, I didn't mean to include the reservations expressed by you (or Jerry Coyne) in the category to which I was objecting. I don't always share your views, but I've read enough of them to have no doubt of the sincerity of your feminist convictions!

I don't know how Jackal intended his/her use of that term - though I would normally expect ironic use to be indicated by something like inverted commas.

Personally, I think 'slut' and its assorted derivations is one of the ugliest, most sexist and misogynist terms in current use - worse even that the notorious C-word to which you object so vociferously.

Ophelia Benson said...

No, I didn't think you did, Colin - I was speaking generally.

Hmm. I take 'slutty' to be almost intrinsically part-jokey. Maybe that's a hangover from 'Friends' or something. Or maybe it's like 'twat' - I cringe every time I see it yet it's completely anodyne in the UK. In the US...slutty is definitely pejorative, but it's not always...sincere.

Russell Blackford said...

I think the words "slut" and "slutty" should be expunged from the language. Even supposedly ironic uses, or attempts at reclamation such as The Ethical Slut, are parasitic on an anti-sex ideology, and having the word around at all tends to give credit to and perpetuate that ideology. And while "slutty" may be used ironically a lot of the time, just plain "slut" is usually used in my hearing as a term of strong contempt for a woman whose sex life is judged as not meeting the speaker's standards of propriety or convention or morality. It makes my blood boil as much as "bitch" makes Ophelia's blood boil.

Ophelia has raised my consciousness about "bitch" and I now try to avoid it. In my social milieu it just means "ruthless or rude or inconsiderate female person". It doesn't imply that all women are like that or otheerwise contemptible. The word applied to a man would be "bastard" or "jerk" or "prick" or maybe "arsehole" (and there is no implication that all men are like that).

Unfortunately, it feels strange applying any of these words, even the gender-neutralish "bastard" or "arsehole", to a woman, but I really truly am attempting to avoid "bitch", thanks to OB.

It would be easier to do so if we had a good unisex word in Australian English with appropriately strong emotional force. I.e. a word that just means "ruthless or rude or inconsiderate person" and not "... male person" or "... female person". Suggestions gratefully received.

Unknown said...

'parasitic on an anti-sex ideology'

That's exactly how I see it, Russell. The problem with 'bitch' is only its gender-specific nature. The traits it encapsulates - a tendency to spiteful and perhaps supericial gossip - are legitimate candidates for vituperation. Of course, the epithet, in implicitly attributing these characteristics to women, is inherently sexist, but a non-genedered insult for someone who exhibits those traits would be a worthwhile addition to the vocabulary.

But, as you say, we simply don't need, and should long have outgrown, an insult predicated on someone's enjoyment of sex, regardless of ther gender. The fact that the word is reserved almost exclusively for females speaks volumes about our societies' attitudes, and is a huge problem in itself, but even a gender-neutral alternative would be offensive.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, but note that I would never use the word "bitch" to mean that. To me it's merely the female equivalent of "arsehole" or "bastard" or "prick" - I'd say "What a bitch!" if I see a woman do something unkind like slapping her child's face in the supermarket, or something rude like pushing in a line. I'd say, "What an arsehole!" if a man did it.

I'm not defending this usage - Ophelia take note - because I'm sure the word has all sorts of baggage. In some countries and milieux more than others, but still ...

I agree with OB that it's best to try to retire the word if we can.

But the above was the usage for which I wanted a unisex word.

And just to be super clear, I don't want a non-gender-specific word for "slut" because I don't want to be judgmental about people of either sex merely because they wear tight or revealing clothes, or have active sex lives, or are not into monogamous relationships, or whatever. I want to expunge the entire concept for which "slut" is the signifier.

Ophelia Benson said...

I've taken to using "shark" for ruthless mean rude person sometimes. It's far from an exact equivalent for "bitch" because it doesn't suggest the pettiness, the backstabbing, etc - the weapons of the underdog aspect, which make "bitch" so sexist to begin with. But it's not a bad all-purpose meanness signifier. And it's pretty dang gender-neutral!