“Take the men if you’re going in that dress and hat,” Rebecca Dew had advised. “I’ve had a good bit of experience in canvassing in my day and it all went to show that the better-dressed and better-looking you are the more money . . . or promise of it . . . you’ll get, if it’s the men you have to tackle. But if it’s the women, put on the oldest and ugliest things you have.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Willows
Ok, it’s another post involving gratuitous references to boobs. (Boobs and Anne Shirley in the same post?! Mind. Blown.) This one, though, is written by popular demand. I recently linked to an interesting article on my Facebook page, relating to the recent publication of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by LSE academic Catherine Hakim. Reduced to essentials, the book basically argues for the contentious idea that it’s acceptable – even desirable – for women to use their physical and sexual attractiveness to get ahead in life and in the workplace. This blog is prompted by the flurry* of comments posted on my page in response to the article, debating the failings and merits of the argument within a framework of feminist principle vs. ‘real-world’ pragmatism. It strongly resembled a Socratic dialogue, if Socrates and Plato had been able to ‘Like’ each other’s comments.
I’m not actually going to deconstruct Hakim’s book in detail here, mainly because I haven’t read it, but also because Zoe Williams in the Guardian has already published a pretty comprehensive take-down of her research. Being a grumpy young contrarian, I frequently find myself disagreeing with newspaper columnists of all political persuasions, but this piece really did hit the spot. Rather, I want to address the idea of ‘hauling yourself up by the bra-straps’ in a more general way, and investigate the ramifications of embracing, not fighting, the traditional gender paradigm that casts women as passive sex-objects to be judged upon their visible assets first, and intellectual competence second.
I realise that the idea of using your looks and sexuality to your advantage isn’t confined to women; and I also recognise that the question I’m addressing implies a rampantly heteronormative** worldview. Nonetheless, for argument’s sake, let’s consider the following scenario:
Plain Jane and Sexy Lexie (I know, I know) are lawyers. They both work for the same firm of Sue, Grabbit and Runn, and are both interviewing for a position as partner. In terms of experience, qualifications and competence, their CVs are essentially identical. Let’s also posit that they are of the same ethnic origin and roughly the same age. The only significant difference between Jane and Lexie, in terms of how they are perceived as applicants, is that the former is considered to be unattractive, frumpily dressed and, well, plain – while the latter is pretty, well-groomed, and dressed in a professional-but-attractive manner. After interviewing both women, Sexy Lexie gets the job.
Of course, this hypothetical scenario is unrealistic – we all know that the bosses of Sue, Grabbit and Runn would reject both women on the grounds that they ‘might’ have children at some stage in the next decade, and appoint some red-trousered bloke called Quentin to the job instead. But, seriously, considering the situation outlined above – is the outcome fair? Well, no, if the sole reason for appointing Lexie over Jane was the fact that she was considered better-looking. Is the outcome reasonable? That’s another matter altogether. Fair is not necessarily synonymous with reasonable (and if it was, I would have got that pony for Christmas in 1996). It might be argued perfectly reasonable for the successful candidate to be chosen at least partly on the basis of looks. Good grooming and dressing might imply a level of confidence and competence suggested by the care taken over self-presentation. It might prompt interviewers to believe that this person would give their clients a good first impression. Etc etc etc.
So far, explicable and apparently reasonable. But there are a number of issues with the scenario above that highlight the problematic nature of taking ‘self-presentation’ at face value as a harmless and indeed expected part of the professional persona. Firstly, when reading over the scenario, did you assume the imaginary interviewers to be men? I know I did, and I wrote the bloody thing. In a small way, this indicates how accepting we still are of the notion that, no matter how many women there are in the professional workplace, it’s virtually always a man who fulfills the role of Big Boss at the top. Accepting this notion reinforces the idea that women are encouraged to present themselves not for the approval of workplace superiors per se, but specifically for male superiors, who dole out promotions, raises and the like. How would the idea of a female boss/interviewer change our perceptions of the workplace presentation dynamic?
This in turn leads us back to the idea that it’s somehow natural and acceptable for men to objectify women, placing a premium on women’s pulchritude and encouraging (coercing?) women to buy into the game of self-presentation with the explicit desire of being visually acceptable to men. While I sincerely doubt that the hiring and performance-reviewing of professional women is directly and consciously linked to their cleavage index in 99% of cases, it can’t be denied that there is a frankly unfair focus on the appearance of women in comparison to their male counterparts. The endless newspaper profiles of male politicians, bankers and the like rarely make any reference to their subject’s appearance, despite the fact that a lot of them seem to have chosen their wardrobes while hurriedly robbing the Moss Bros sale rack. The MP Ken Clarke is a notable exception, but the fact that the media take notice of his penchant for suede loafers and crumpled suits is construed as a sign of authenticity and singularity amid a sea of homogenous grey gabardine. By contrast, it seem that no woman can rise to prominence in a position of authority without some hack waiting to deconstruct her wardrobe and grooming routine. Christine Lagarde, the recently appointed chief of the IMF, has headed up an international law firm and held senior posts in the French cabinet. The spate of interviews and profiles that accompanied her appointment, however, seemed more concerned with her hairstyle and ‘French chic’ than her intellectual credentials. Hillary Clinton – Hillary muthaflippin’ Clinton – was mocked in the press a couple of months ago because she had the temerity to tie back her hair with a scrunchie. A SCRUNCHIE, PEOPLE. ON THE US SECRETARY OF STATE. WHAT???
Actually, on consideration, I’m not convinced that this nasty little power game of my-dress-is-better-than-her-dress can be laid solely at the feet of mankind. (Womankind can be unkind too). For one thing, I think it’s frankly quite demeaning to men to accuse them (‘you’, if you’re reading this and you possess a penis***) of being sex-crazed loons, incapable of appraising competence fairly as a result of being hypnotised by a jiggling bosom. It may be a cliché that men ‘desire sex’ more strongly and frequently than women do, but (as Zoe Williams points out), how much is that desire facilitated not by biological or ‘instinctive’ imperatives but from an acquired sense of ‘normal’ male heterosexual behaviour? The very nature of a paradigm lies in the fact that it is constructed and so, rather than just adhering to it as a truth, the mode of construction needs to be investigated. For another thing, a lot of the scrutiny directed at professional women comes from other women. Trufax. Granted, the motivation behind this scrutiny differs from the male norm of sexual objectification – it’s more a maudlin curiosity, based upon the need I discussed in my previous post for women to seek comparative reinforcement in other images and presentations of femininity.
Whoever is doing the judging, it’s certain that women are the ones being judged. The politics of dressing and presentation are incredibly fraught to begin with, and throwing the concept of workplace appropriateness into the mix further complicates everything. I can’t necessarily speak from direct experience (I think you could turn up to work as an academic in pyjama bottoms and nobody would mind, so long as you defined them as a post-structural protest against modern capitalist notions of time-appropriate dressing). But I do know that Fashion Playtime is spoiled for me when I have to worry about the messages I’m sending out re: sexual availability and desire. This is the real injustice of the skewed gender dynamic when it comes to clothing – not that it exists, but that it’s so pervasive that women have no choice whether or not to operate within it. Doesn’t matter whether or not I’m dressing in order to be judged – chances are, I’ll be judged anyway. The question is, can I fight it? Do I blow up in anger? Or do I start blow-drying my hair? Answers on a postcard, or in the comments. Go!
*12 = a flurry. Stop arguing.
**I am determined to get this word into every blog post I write.
***The penis must be attached to you in order to count. Penises (penii?) kept in jars of formaldehyde do not qualify. I’m looking at you, crazy lady. Give it back to the lab.