Friday, 12 July 2013

Femininity and Artifice

Have you seen any of the coverage of the debacle surrounding comments by BBC's John Inverdale about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli's appearance? He basically said she was too ugly to be anything but a scrappy fighter, actually suggested that her father probably told her she was ugly. This was immediately following Bartoli's celebratory hug with her father and former coach, and was a shameful, demeaning way to approach both her victory and her relationship with her father. 

Sadly, Inverdale was not alone in thinking that Bartoli's physical appearance was somehow a relevant factor in her being an athletic champion. Public Shaming (warning: link contains plenty of strong language) condemned a whole string of tweeters who used a far more offensive tone than Inverdale to do the same thing he did: sexualise her. Remember the first condition of sexualisation from Wednesday's blog post? Sexualising is happening when "a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics."

I read a thought-provoking quote from Rebecca Hain's blog post called "When Women Look Strong: The Sexism At Wimbledon" (emphasis mine):

"The tamest of the twitter comments said that she “didn’t deserve to win because she is ugly,” that she is a “pig,” and that she “looks like she’s a cross between a man and an ape.” Why did so many comments fixate on suggesting Bartoli was an animal and/or a man? Well, as Judith Butler argues, femininity is not naturally occurring; it is a performance. It requires artifice and careful planning: pretty makeup, coiffed hair, stylish clothing, and a body that is controlled–slim and slight but curvy. In today’s world, people expect that any self-respecting woman will make being feminine a priority at all times. (Think about how many women won’t leave the house without makeup on, lest people judge them negatively.)
Bartoli, on the tennis court without makeup, was not performing femininity. She was being athletic: running, sweating, driving her body to function at its peak. She looked strong because she is strong–and because our culture associates strength with masculinity, it’s really hard to appear strong and feminine at the same time. Hence, the ape/pig/man comments."
The part I found particularly interesting to think about is why our culture's trappings of female attractiveness (stylish haircuts, hair dye, mascara, foundation, shapewear, plastic surgery, laser hair removal) are artificial when the cultural trappings of male attractiveness are fairly natural (a man with tousled hair and 5 o'clock shadow in jeans and a tee, for example, is perfectly acceptable and attractive). It harks back, for me, to one of my first blog posts, You Don't Have To Be Pretty. In it I quoted a man (a pastor, sadly), who said parents should tell their athletic daughters, "Sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.
So, just some food for thought here: does God intend that part of being womanly is being committed to covering up or changing our bodies and faces-- the natural beauty of a his good creation? If not, what can we in the church do to encourage women not to buy into a commercially and sexually driven stereotype of femininity? On the other hand, why do we associate a human being using their body-- their muscles, their endurance, their endless hours of training to get their body to respond intuitively-- to the fullest with maleness? Does God intend that part of being womanly is not pursuing physical excellence-- the enjoyment of the natural performance of his good creation? If not, what can we in the church do to encourage women to use and enjoy their God-given physical strength and abilities without worrying about whether it jives with society's ideas of walking and talking and smelling "like a girl"? 
(One final note-- it's interesting that "feminine beauty" as suggested above often involves putting weird chemicals onto or into your body, eating in an unsustainable way (i.e. not enough), or subjecting oneself to physical pain, whereas "masculine ability" as suggested above involves eating good fuel and exercising, things that contribute to long-term health. If that's our definition of feminine versus masculine, can I humbly suggest we're doing it wrong?)

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