A Subtle and Dangerous Misogyny

Laurie and Debbie say:

We both recently read James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, a biography of the complex and often secret life of Tiptree, a major feminist science fiction writer. It’s a superlative book and highly recommended by both of us.

Tiptree (born in 1910) was, among many other things, a woman who made many of her choices and a lot of her self-definition out of her relationship with men for much of her life. A very traditionally beautiful women, she describes herself at one point as a vine twining around her husband’s sturdy tree. (She was also a debutante, a painter, a writer, a serious student of psychology, a minor employee of the CIA, and a housewife, to name a few things.)

When she started seriously writing fiction in her 50s, under a male pseudonym, her work shows a good deal of anger and sometimes hatred of men. Her flagship story, “The Women Men Don’t See,” is about two women who choose to go live in a completely unexplored alien culture, basically because it is likely to be more interesting, and highly unlikely to be worse, than living in a man’s world. Sheldon’s attitudes toward relationships between men and women were highly colored by the cruel knowledge about men that such male-focused women frequently have. The male side of that relationship is generally not a role that shows men at their best.

This got us thinking about many women’s anger toward contemporary “male-focused women,” especially the ones who make the mythical role seem effortless, rather than revealing the complex performance that it really is. Since most women are, at various times in our lives, somewhere along a long continuum with anxiety about perfecting the male-focused role at one end and a passionate battle against that role at the other end, there are lots of ways to be angry. No one on this continuum is going to feel good about someone who makes the role look both effortless and rewarding.

And that led us to thinking about how much acceptable dress for women is in some way or another “femme” dress, whether it’s corporate suits or porn star spangles … and how easy it is to read any woman dressed in any variety of that costume as male-focused. This stereotyping reaction has two huge pitfalls: first, it is often a way to completely misread the woman you’re looking at; and second, as Badgerbag wrote after BlogHer, it opens the door to a subtle and dangerous misogyny.

If you are a woman hating on another woman for big hair, makeup, pointy toed high heels, and chirpiness, and being thin, you are hating her for what you perceive as her buying into the system of patriarchal aesthetics. It signifies that she is willing to give a significant amount of her time and energy to men. We think that fembot, consciously or unconsciously is sucking up to The Man, and getting privilege for it. That perception of privilege (which I’d argue is largely wrong) creates a lot of divisive resentment. … Isn’t [making that choice] presented to us women as a survival skill? Isn’t it the way to be loved? To be non threatening? Then why is it also a ticket to hate? Because – coding yourself with feminine qualities is a way to signify inferiority. So we bitterly hate the ones who can and do code themselves extremely well according to patriarchal standards.

We could get into a whole conversation with Badgerbag, especially about the “perception of privilege,” which neither of us believes is “largely wrong,” but we also know is complicated. However, in this post, we’re focused on the first pitfall: thinking you know about this woman from how she dresses can lead to real and serious confusions where you’re misreading “acceptable dress” as “the collaborator”; this gives women yet another way to be alienated from each other. If you met Alice Sheldon at a garden party, or even in the local supermarket, it would take a great deal of awareness to be able to embrace the possibilities of her blazing mind, broken heart, lifetime drug addiction, and extraordinary writing talent.

Our subculture tends to think that stereotypical misreading of people is about being on the margins, but this is one that’s right in the middle of the mainstream.

Tiptree, women, feminism, misogyny, femme, patriarchy, gender, stereotyping, body image, BlogHer, Body Impolitic

2 thoughts on “A Subtle and Dangerous Misogyny

  1. This is a subject that probably merits a book of its own (written in a room of one’s own of course…never mind). But what it evokes most powerfully for me is a discussion with a feminist friend about why she feels safer in all or almost all female groups and I feel safe with an all male or mostly male group and emotionally unsafe in an all female group. Aside from physical factors like violence which she has experienced from men and I have not–I expect 3 things from a male group, well 2 things since I reached the age of 40 and have not been seen as a sex object by groups of men. A group of men will either accept me as part of a team, “one of the guys” or ignore me as a wierd old fat lady with no status. It’s ugly, but very clear.

    Now a group of women, any women (I’ve seen it with schoolgirls, religious fanatics, Southern Belles, feminists, you name it) will use peer pressure to enforce conformity of behavior if there is a group view. This is very similar to the conversion experience I used to see so much of in my religious fanatic days.

    If there is no generally held view, it’s likely that someone will take it upon herself to confide what the “rules” and factions are and suggest ways to avoid screwing up. The latter is kind of comforting and one of things I like about women in general when it happens. Kind of like the little old lady who comes up to you and says, essentially, “You’re new, and you may not know this, but here in Oz, we don’t drop houses on witches unless we want to get chased by their sisters.” You know, that kind of thing.

    The thing about forcing conformity can be amusing because we are so much like little girls with it, and sometimes it’s like the big bad rebels checking out what the other rebels are wearing so as to be perceived as the correct sort of rebel. But it also gets under my skin because most of the time, it doesn’t seem to be about being what you are, it’s about imitating what’s accepted and having the correct surface.

    Maybe I’m seeing something different from what others see here. That happens a lot.

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