This one's for the girls
Society must change the way it thinks about women in order to treat them as persons, not aesthetically pleasing objects
Barack Obama spoke of equality for all in his inaugural address last Monday. He acknowledged the United States’ shortcomings, saying that “while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” And he was right. Recent events may have garnered hope for many progressive thinkers, but I will again quote Mr. Obama in warning that we cannot “succumb to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”
I want to speak specifically about the sexism that still permeates our society and how we could move forward as a united nation to combat it. Although legislation such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act offers reassurance and at least symbolic support for women’s rights, we cannot expect the government to act unilaterally in changing attitudes. Nor can we become too self-congratulatory or pretend that an inordinate amount of progress has been made. Our perception of women is still skewed — as can be evidenced by merely using Google search — and we need to work on changing it.
Almost all women in modern society have felt the pressure and silent obligation to present themselves in a certain way. Traditionally, women have been expected to be accommodating, pleasing to the male gaze, well-dressed and made-up. For the most part, it would seem that we do not judge women using criteria equal to the criteria we use for men. Whereas men may be judged on their accomplishments or their assertions of power or strength, women are assessed largely on their appearances. Women are reduced to their haircuts, their choices of outfits or the skill with which their makeup has been applied. Women are often viewed merely as objects whose purpose is to visually satisfy their audience, and they will not be as well-respected or taken as seriously if they cannot present a beautiful exterior.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking: “Surely, she’s exaggerating. She’s nothing but an angry feminist who wants to feel persecuted and belittled! There are plenty of powerful women society respects!” I considered the same thing. Maybe I am being dramatic. Maybe my lack of faith in society is unfounded. And so, as I said earlier, I took to Google. First I looked up Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women. Undoubtedly, if there existed a woman in the world today who was viewed as more than the sum of her parts, I could find her on that list, which included politicians, performers, talk show hosts, and businesspeople.
I started searching, entering in the women’s names alone and allowing Google Autocomplete — which is responsive to the search activity of all users — to do the rest. To prove my point, I’ve decided to share with you all the most or second-most common words following the names.
Those who search for Nancy Pelosi are most often inquiring about her “facelift,” while fans of Angelina Jolie are curious about her “weight.” Greta Van Susteren has also been associated with “plastic surgery”, and people are very concerned about Lady Gaga’s “eating disorder.” Even Michelle Obama, who besides being the first lady of the United States is also highly educated, a wonderful mother and an active philanthropist and health advocate, gets little veneration. Most people only want to know about her “gown” or her “bangs.”
Why do we do this to women? Why do we treat them as lesser? Hillary Clinton was asked which designers she preferred in an interview in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, and she responded, “Would you ever ask a man that?” The plain truth is no, they would not. Men can be asked reductive questions as well, and we may stereotype them in different ways. But as far as institutional prejudice is concerned, I am inclined to think women have it worse. I am wary about how comfortable society feels sexualizing women, inquiring into their personal lives, asking brazenly about their eating habits and seeing their worth in terms of their attractiveness. We need to give women more credit. How can we ever expect to be a truly equal and fruitful society if we are so demeaning toward half of our population?
Legislation mandating the fair treatment of women is a good idea, but it will not solve the problem. We need to change the way we talk about women. Each of us needs to make a conscious effort to alter our conversations and our vocabulary. Femininity, or lack thereof, cannot be vilified. To be a “girl” is not unfortunate or unlucky, nor does it mean only one thing or come with predetermined specifications. We need to believe women are inherently bestowed with just as many strengths and abilities as their male counterparts, and if we are not going to act surprised when a man is filled with conviction, determination or even anger, then we should pay women the same courtesy. Let us embrace the radical notion that women are nothing more than people, and let us judge them comprehensively and objectively based on their talents and failures. For as former Jezebel columnist Erin Gloria Ryan correctly observed, “To criticize [a woman’s] appearance — as opposed to her ideas or actions — isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you.”
Ashley Spinks’ column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.