Tag Archives: Feminism

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Going Natural When the Relaxer is Enuf

23 Jun

flickr photo used under a Creative Commons License by malik ml williams

First, if you’re currently considering doing the big chop and you’re not sure–I say, go ahead and do it. As I always tell myself while I’m sitting in the barber’s chair: it’s just hair,  it’ll grow back soon enough, and by that time you’ll be used to whatever state it’s in anyway. So do it, cut it all off.

Of course, I’m sure you remain unconvinced by my goading, since you live in the real world where it’s not “just hair,” but something you’ll be judged on by every one who encounters you. Folks will pull out their best Def Comedy Jam material on you, (you look like Celie from The Color Purple)  and ask you annoying questions about your hair.  Even the ones who think you look great may assume that you are some sort of India Arie cultist. And you rightly want to avoid all that grief, because with relaxed hair you can look presentable, “appropriate” and attractive. In short, you can be normal, without anybody making assumptions about you, for example, that you are weird and Afrocentric.

So why do it? I can’t answer for every woman, but I’ll tell you why I initially did it: because of somewhat immature political convictions. I thought that relaxing my hair was “trying to be white,” and that wearing my hair natural was the only true way of owning and loving my blackness.

Collective internet eyeroll.

I sincerely believed it then, but this mentality is so obnoxiously  “more conscious than thou,”  it unnecessarily divides black women into natural hair Erykah Badus and Yaki Pony/Lace front Beyonces. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be said about the value of critically examining where our preference of super straight hair comes from. To be sure, there are a lot of ugly racial politics which influence what is beautiful and normal in this society. But I feel like as symbolically powerful as it may be , a hairstyle alone can’t singlehandedly rectify historical injustices.  Especially if like me, you wield it as a weapon.

For a while after I shaved all my hair off,  I was buoyed by the feeling of superiority I felt as I walked past other girls and their unbeweavable hair. I’d think that I alone was doing the tough work of uplifting the race, (it’s just me and Malcolm baby, me and Malcolm) and that everyone else had sold out. Consequently, I was very defensive about my hair, and assumed that anybody who asked me about it did so because they had a problem with me and my unmitigated blackness. So I proselytized, and condemned those who didn’t get with my gospel to the same purgatory for non-practicing blacks that Clarence Thomas was sent to. And I judged. And judged. And judged.

But during this whole time, I never actually felt  good about myself. I was still defining myself in opposition to women with relaxed/straight hair, and was frankly envious of the acceptance that those women got. I felt like while women with long, straight hair were presumed to be attractive, I had to consciously work to prove that I was feminine, confident and frankly, not a weirdo. And it’s hard work trying to prove you don’t care what people think, while also yearning for their acceptance. As a result, while I was lauding the virtues of my nappy, oh-so-African hair to anyone who would listen, I was simultaneously becoming more inward and less confident.

And so, six months later, I fell off the wagon, and got my hair straightened again. While I was immediately disappointed with myself for conceding, I’m now glad I did it, because it allowed me to slowly let go off the whole “conscious thing.” It was a relief to not feel like my little inch of hair was single-handedly waging a racial jihad. And it allowed me to ease back into natural hair when I felt ready, not because I felt I had to make a statement.

Two years later, after meandering in an unruly ‘fro, I finally chopped it all off again. It probably didn’t hurt that because of all the “natural” shampoos I’d been concocting on the advice of anonymous people on the internet, my hair had started to take on the look and feel of steel wool.  So, on a punishingly hot summer day, I sat in a barber’s chair while two cute boys my own age waited to get their hair cut just like mine. I felt horribly unfeminine as these boys watched me lose my hair, a stark contrast to the two younger girls with bouncy, shiny curls who sat in the adjacent salon. They would get the boys, I thought, while I had become one of the boys.

But as my hair fell on my neck, I shook all the self-doubt away, and marveled at myself in the mirror after the barber was finished.  That’s really the best part of a bald head, seeing your face anew and learning to be comfortable with whatever character reveals itself. I love touching my hair as it is growing out, and feeling the grooves and bumps of my naps. And I love getting up in the morning and realizing that what I look like when I first wake up is basically how I’ll look when I’m “ready.” There isn’t much one can do to improve a head with no hair.

Of course, this self-esteem boost is partly a result of the fact that short, natural hair is definitely having “a moment.” Everybody and they mama (literally) is rocking it right now, from Solange Knowles to Chrisette Michelle. And of course, (as the two previous singers learned) you can’t go short without inviting comparisons to the definitive bald-headed girl, Amber Rose. Just call me when BeyBey, the Lace front Queen herself, finally decides to go natural.

Even now, when people are suddenly so effusive with compliments about what was formerly derided as “slave hair,”  I’m trying not to base my own self-perception in a fad.  Because we haven’t heard the last from the Yaki Pony lobby, (ha!)  and Amber Rose may decide that the look is played out, and move on to a weave just like any other starlet. Which is fine, because I’m at the point where my feelings about my hair are mostly dictated by me, and the two of us have a pretty uncomplicated relationship.

So I say to you sister-friend, with all the sincerity that the internet will allow me to convey: do it. Not to sink this post with any more platitudes, but cutting it all off will teach you so much about yourself. Not having any hair (and having your own real hair for a change) destabilizes everything you think you know about what makes you beautiful. It will expose your vanity, bring out your worst anxieties, and force you to reconsider your own femininity (if that’s something you’re even invested in to begin with). You will learn to be more confident, and of course not to put so much stock in how you look, which is always a good thing. It won’t all be Chicken Soup for the Black Woman’s Soul, of course. It takes time to adjust to a new length and new texture of hair, and it’s frustrating to have to (re)learn how to style your hair. And yes, all the horrors about the awkward growing out phases are true.  But then, you’ll have really satisfying moments that will really carry you through the day, like when a man on a crowded street yelled “You wearing that cut, sister!” at me, the day after I got my haircut. Or when you meet other women with natural hair, and you give each other a knowing nod or smile of appreciation.

If I may, I’d like to leave you with a little advice based on my own experiences: Don’t let people fetishize you, and force you to enact their most primitive fantasies of a “natural, Nubian princess” (unless of course, that is your thing). I have been there, and the amount of effort I spent trying to prove I was an Earth Mother type was simply exhausting. Your hair should not box you into one persona, that of the hyper militant conscious girl.  Moreover, don’t let them goad you into declaring yourself an enemy of women with relaxed hair. It only entangles you further in the complicated racial politics of hair, the navigation of which will distract you from more important things. Like living your life, getting your swerve on, and most important, being an ally to women, regardless of the texture or the “realness” of their hair.

Because despite  the miserable racial history and the obnoxious standard of beauty, you hair is just hair.  You should feel free to decide what to do with it, and how to feel about it.


I Really Need to Stop Watching Real Housewives…

30 Apr

Image used under a creative commons license from flickr user kilgub

…because it is a horrible series, and I always feel bad after I watch it.

At this point, I’m not so sure that whatever schadenfreudelicious pleasure I get from watching these shows is worth it.  Reality t.v. is mainly enjoyable because it’s fun to watch people who are so out of touch with basic social mores, people who are unaware of what it means to really be human, get their comeuppance on t.v. It’s bizarre yet thrilling to discover that there are people in this world who honestly believe that competing with 20 other women to hook up with an aging rocker will bring them some measure of success or fulfillment, a reminder that no matter how questionable our own life choices are, we are still a few steps above a lot of people.  I think all reality shows have this awesome balance of tragedy and comedy, and they work because the producers do a great job of disguising the fact that in reality (pun intended) these are people whose erratic behavior signals their serious need of psychological help.

Which brings me to “The Real Housewives” series, which I started watching on the weekends after stress-filled weeks in college. Although there are four spin-offs in the series, (and a coming D.C. one)  I am partial to New York, New Jersey and Atlanta (I’ll talk about Orange County in a bit). When I started watching it, I used to claim that I was doing it for high-brow feminist reasons, which my friends quickly and brutally called me on. And they were right.  For all its entertaining qualities, “Real Housewives” also communicates some soul-crushingly awful things about money, class, gender, and race in this culture.  So because I respect you more than that, I’m not gonna try and sell it as “ground-breakingly feminist.”

But I will say that part of the reason I do like watching all the shows in the series is that for better or worse, they thrust us into the world of American women. Now, I’m not saying this is a world that is representative of a lot of women’s lives, but it is life as these women know it.  And perhaps I am completely deprived of depictions of women that I’ll take anything, but I get a huge kick out of watching these women’s friendships every week. Interestingly, while the series was named  “Real Housewives” to capitalize on the fame of “Desperate Housewives,” most of the shows feature women who are often fairly independent from their partners.  In fact, on most of the shows, the husbands take a back-seat to their wives,  as the central story is ultimately about the women’s relationships with each other. They laugh, drink, gossip, shop, cry and get Botox  with each other. Even when they fight (and boy do they), it’s almost never about a guy, but is instead about betrayed allegiances within the group itself. So there’s some stuff in there which makes it relatable and slightly redeemable.

That is of course, if you don’t watch Orange County, which at this point, has abandoned all the comedic elements of reality t.v., and is instead hurtling toward a full-on tragedy. I didn’t watch any of this season’s episodes except the last, but it seems clear to me that a lot of the people on that show are facing some very grave problems (controlling/abusive husbands, alcoholic children, disturbingly low self-esteem, bankruptcy) which makes the whole idea of Bravo filming it for our amusement  feel too exploitative (I know, I know, it already was). Unlike the other housewives–who are a little kooky at best– the women of Orange County, with their deeply dysfunctional family lives and severely overdone faces, have devolved into figures in a cautionary tale about the requirements of fame and femininity.

Increasingly though, I find that the other shows in the series, New York, Atlanta, and New Jersey; are no longer fun to watch as well. I have a basic rule about reality t.v. shows, which is that how good they are is inversely proportional to how famous the people on them get. Naturally, this means that the first season is the always best, because that is when people are least self-aware and the drama a little less scripted. By season two, everyone’s read the blogs and knows who the fan favorites are, and they’ve wised up and realized that they have to make a career out of it by selling something (like hilariously auto-tuned club tracks). So it just becomes about branding.  And I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in giving up an hour of my life plus the additional dignity every Thursday to watch the Countess “casually” mention her book, or Ramona claim that she hasn’t had surgery, but looks so young because she uses her own moisturizer.

And the drama’s not even that good anymore! I’m not saying that any of the shows were ever actually real, but they feel so obviously scripted now.  Every time I watch New York or Atlanta, (and I’m guessing I’ll have the same feeling  if I watch NJ this summer)  I always think: this doesn’t make any sense! Why would Kim go and meet NeNe and Sheree when they clearly don’t like her (and then get jumped)? Why are any of these people always going to cocktail parties at each others’ houses when they have had  so many serious disagreements in the past?  It’s so obvious that the producers are directing them to initiate arguments. Which makes the fights they have so pathetic, because you realize that these are grown women (and sometimes mothers) arguing about whether or not someone gets to sing on the other person’s terrible new disco song, called “Tardy for the Party.” Even worse, you also realize that at this point, even they probably realize how played out it is, and are just doing it because this show is the primary source of income that many of these women have.

That’s depressing, because in the end, they’re making fools out of themselves for a society that’s all too willing to hate on middle-aged women.  And we don’t need one more reason to believe that women of that age are desperate and pathetic. Which is why I don’t think I can watch Housewives anymore, because the reality is getting a little too real for me. So I’m going to stop.

But only after Atlanta comes on this summer.

The Best Part of Waking Up…Is Your Complete Lack of Agency in Your Cup

26 Apr

Image of a 1963 Folgers coffee tote from flickr user Roadsidepictures

I watch a ridiculous amount of television, and I think it’s fun to make connections between all of stuff I consume and theory I’ve read (I sometimes do it out loud while I’m watching, which everyone else in the room loves). Sometimes, the connections make sense and other times, they’re tenuous at best. This post may be one of those “other times,” so I’m going to ask you to  be generous with me.

There is this Folgers coffee commercial which drives me absolutely crazy (WordPress wouldn’t let me embed it, but here’s the link). The first time I watched it, I was stunned by the old-school sexism of the ad, given that these days, companies at least try to dress up their patriarchy in girl power or ironic dude-broism.

But not Folgers coffee! They’re keeping it real old school, taking it back to those days when women had no agency whatsoever and were totally psyched about it!

The spot opens with a mid to late-twenties looking woman walking into the kitchen in the morning. Her dad is already in there making coffee and he greets her with, “got in pretty late last night, huh?” The woman retorts, “Dad, I’m not sixteen anymore,” but he’s not budging, and says “still, it was late.” Your basic  father-daughter banter, although it’s a little strange that a woman who is that old still has her evenings policed like that. But hey, you wanna live in Jesse Helms’ house rent-free because you lost your job during the recession, you will live by Jesse Helms’ rules!

The next part is so creepily  Helmsian (if that’s not already a thing, I just made it one) when it comes to women’s agency it’s not even funny.  The woman says, “well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” (“that” being her staying out late) and then flashes her brand new engagement ring. She almost seems to say, “See, my husband will be the one monitoring my behavior from now on!”

Naturally, the dad is sweet and happy, and says “Todd is a lucky man,” before adding, “that’s what I told him last week.” Oh, so he knew about it well in advance, and gave his permission! Tricky dad!

Which brings me to my strained connection of this nonsense to actual theory. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman’s amazing book on personhood, patriarchy, and the social contract, she writes about the invisible sexual contract which serves as the foundation for the social contract on which Western societies are built. To simplify it (a lot), the sexual contract predates the social contract, and sets up the ownership of women by men. Pateman’s book was largely a critique of how this other contract has been left out of narratives of the social contract, which is particularly egregious since the ownership of women is what makes the social contract possible. She argues that once women were subjugated under the sexual contract, the ideas of equally free men which are present in the social contract became possible, since all men were indeed equal in their right to access to women’s bodies and labor.

To me, the Folger’s ad perfectly captures women’s lack of personhood and agency under the  social contract  (that was a fun line to type).  According to this ad, it is only right that male authority dominate every aspect of a woman’s life. Want to spend an evening away from home? Well okay, but just know that Daddy is going to be on your case about coming back at an unreasonable time, even if you are above 25 like the woman in the ad appears to be. And apparently, the only time it’s acceptable to stay out late is when you’re with your future husband/owner, who will soon be policing your every move with equal intensity (one wonders what the dad’s  reaction would have been if he hadn’t actually known in advance what his daughter spent the night doing).

Pateman wrote that, “individually, each man receives a major part of his patriarchal inheritance through the marriage contract.” The ad does a great job of illustrating how fraternal patriarchy and inheritance work. Recognizing that as men, only they hold true personhood, the dad and Todd the fiance essentially create a marriage contract in which the ownership of the daughter is transferred from the dad to Todd (via the practice of asking for the hand in marriage). The fact that this all happens without the  daughter’s knowledge is essential, as only actual people can enter into contracts.  As a woman, she lacks personhood, and can thus only be the object of the contract. So there was no need for her to be present when they discussed her impending marriage.

Thus, as Folgers demonstrates, under the marriage contract any sense of actual agency a woman may have will largely be fictional. When you make the one decision (i.e. deciding to marry someone) that in your mind, clearly makes you an adult–guess what– it was already decided for you!  Your dad and your fiance hammered out the details to this new acquisition ahead of time, so you needn’t worry about the complicated details like what you want out of life and who you want to spend it with.

In all, this  ad is simply icky in its resounding endorsement of rituals which effectively dehumanize women. But I suppose what makes this especially disconcerting is that even though they are rooted in the perception that women are essentially possessions, the rituals  represented in this ad are an integral part of our culture.   I felt a bit churlish at the end of writing this, because I realized that it might sound really judgmental given that most people do these things, and they don’t perceive themselves as participating in the enslavement of women. And reading this blog post by this woman definitely heightened the feelings of douchiness. But at the same time, it’s difficult (for me anyway) to deny that elements of ownership are, if not the defining characteristics of heterosexual marriage, at least a big part of it.  That makes me very uncomfortable. And if marriage is something that I want in some distant future,  I’ll be forced to grapple with all these issues at that time.  So I’m getting a head start.

I’m just sayin’…

19 Apr

While  perusing this month’s issue of Bust, which is their Men We Love edition, I read a profile of the electro-dance group Chromeo, made up of David Macklovitch (l) and Patrick Gemayel (r).  There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, including the sort of hilarious fact that  the two consider themselves “the only successful Arab/Jew partnership since the dawn of human nature.”

But of course, because I am me, I have to fixate on the fact that not only is Dave a PhD candidate in French literature at Columbia, he’s also an instructor at Barnard. Also, he claims to have read Our Bodies, Ourselves when he was 11, which is just too cute and precocious. So not only is he in a cool band–he’s cute, smart, and a feminist. Perhaps the women at Barnard are more mature than I remember my classmates and I being, but I’m pretty sure I would not have been a productive student in one of his classes.

Feminism for thee but not for me

10 Mar

Image used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user angela7dreams

This article by Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times is what is keeping me up tonight. Titled, “Where feminists get it right,” it is the definition of condescending man explaining.  It is condescending on two counts: First, Mr. Goldberg writes as if he just stumbled upon this previously unknown gem called  feminism, and as arbiter of all things relevant and important, is here to give it his seal of approval. Worse still, he engages in the “feminism for thee but not for me” hypocrisy, which belittles members of the developing world by claiming that their cultures are sooooo horrible that they desperately need (Western) feminism.

The article is about how feminists are right to object to a number of oppressive things which happen to women in developing countries, like the practice of ironing young women’s breasts in Cameroon, for example. The beginning  is harmless enough: he discusses a number of troubling cases which highlight the myriad ways in which women are generally seen as subhuman across the world. There’s even a really nice line in the piece, when he writes, “I don’t know a social conservative — and I know many — who doesn’t agree with radical feminists when it comes to recognizing the barbarity of female circumcision, wife-burning, breast-ironing, etc. ” Thanks for giving us your approval Mr. Goldberg, it’s good to know that we’re on the same team.

But this being an article also written by the dude who wrote a book connecting contemporary liberalism to fascism, we can’t just end there. So he writes:

“Feminism” is a loaded word in the United States because it carries so many controversial connotations. Professional feminists often insist that they have a monopoly on the word and its meaning, which forces lots of people to reject the label. Conservatives are the most obvious example of that, but many young people, including very “liberated” young women, avoid the term because they think it means rejecting any traditional understanding of motherhood, courtship, etc.

But if you can lay aside all of those worthwhile arguments about Western society for a minute, the simple fact is that “the feminists” are absolutely right when it comes to the treatment of women in much of the developing world.”

Uh oh, it just got real Oriental up in here.  Let’s take a look at what he just did there, shall we? In the first paragraph, he basically says that while feminism is desperately needed in the developing world, where all these atrocious things are happening to women, it’s pretty much irrelevant in the Western world. Why, because “professional feminists” keep insisting that feminism have some meaning, and you know, actually be a coherent movement that can’t just be co-opted by whatever group that wants to sell a product, political candidate, etc. And I find it incredible that Goldberg talks about why otherwise “liberated” young women hesitate to call themselves feminists without acknowledging that social conservatives have been going around for years equating feminists to Nazis, babykillers, shrews and every reprehensible thing you can think of in the world. (Sidenote, who or what liberated these young women? Oh wait, we can’t acknowledge that feminism was successful). Nevermind that he completely misses the point of feminism, which is not to proscribe traditional courtship, motherhood, or any of that stuff, but to give women an existence and identity that isn’t solely defined by it. Dude, haven’t we been through this before, like thirty years ago?

But the second paragraph is what really drives me crazy. Goldberg decides that while conservative arguments against feminism are completely “worthwhile” in Western society, objections to feminism in the developing world are not.  Ah yes, the  “feminism for thee but not for me” attitude that is totally pervasive in the Western world.  It’s strange how people who don’t support economic and political equality for women in the US are all about “liberating” women in other countries, and were the first to talk about how oppressive the Taliban was to Afghan women.   Yet, in a culture in which 1 in 6 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, Americans can hardly pretend that they are light-years away from those “other” countries in terms of their treatment of women.  This is not to equate the issues that women in the West face in comparison to women in the Global South, because that would be misleading. However, it’s equally misleading to pretend that all the myriad indignities that women face in this culture aren’t connected to the same system of female oppression that finds expression in honor killings, femicide, and all those things we now (erroneously) associate with the developing world. Patriarchy is patriarchy, the only thing that changes is how it manifests itself.

The last issue I have with this article is that even in its faint praise of the benefits of Western feminism, it still misses the point, that it’s not about Western feminism! In each of the countries he mentions, like Afghanistan, there are vibrant feminist movements that are challenging the subjugation of women and are claiming their right to be treated as fully human on their own terms. Goldberg seems to be really proud of the fact that he has recognized that feminism can be useful when used to tell those other people how to treat their women, all the while being completely ignorant of the fact that the women in those countries can do it for themselves, thank you very much. Moreover, there are many instances in which Third World feminists don’t agree with Western feminists about fundamental things like what is and isn’t oppressive, and how to go about empowering women.

And that’s okay! Because feminists don’t just care about exporting American values, but actually care about women’s empowerment, which starts with respecting their right to claim their own autonomy. But that isn’t what Goldberg is interested in. What’s clear is that he and other conservatives are only okay with feminism in its most limited form, when it serves the “higher” purpose of advancing American imperialism and more broadly, advancing the myth of American exceptionalism. The gist of his article is: America is so great that we don’t even need feminism, but boy do those other countries! And that’s feminism for thee but not for me, which is a type of feminism that we could all do without.