Sunday, October 24, 2010

Female privilege, beauty privilege, and intersectionality

Last week, 2elle made a fascinating and thought-provoking post on female privilege, beauty privilege, and how they intersect. Various commenters left equally fascinating and thought-provoking comments. My comment got a little out of hand, so I’m making it a separate post, but I strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to read 2elle’s post and the comments to it first, since I’ll be referring and linking to them throughout this post.

I agree with other commenters that I have a hard time getting outraged by seemingly preferential treatment of women and that it is important to consider the context. For me the context for female privilege and female beauty privilege is the discrimination women face, both as women and as members of other minority groups.

Women did and do experience various financial perks. Prior to litigation by feminists such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women were given formal advantages over men in obtaining alimony, survivor’s benefits, and benefits as dependents. Women still receive a variety of informal financial perks such as lady’s nights and men buying women drinks and paying for dates.

Unfortunately, however, these occasional financial perks don’t even come close to making up for the pervasive financial discrimination that structures women’s (and men’s) lives.

Joan Williams argues that our society operates on a heavily gendered split between idealized workers and marginalized caregiver. The idealized worker (almost always a man) works long, hard hours outside the home to earn money. However, the idealized worker is able to function in this way only because the marginalized caregiver (almost always a woman) puts in equally long, hard work cooking, cleaning, and caretaking, reducing or erasing her own income in the process. This pattern continues even after divorce, with the woman typically continuing to provide most childcare. (Joan Williams, Unbending Gender (2000))

In other words, women put in long hours of housework and child care that enable men to reap high salaries. In return, they get a few meals paid for and highly limited, poorly enforced child support and alimony. (Williams 121-123) Put in this context, female privilege starts to look less like real privilege and more like a half-hearted sop.

Female privilege is not just inadequate compensation for discrimination but, also, more insidiously, an opportunity for sexual exploitation and assault. As other commenters noted, most men buy women drinks not simply to be nice but because they are hoping to start up a relationship or a one-night stand. Most men understand that this is not a guarantee, but unfortunately some men think a woman owes them sex or a relationship in exchange for this and other female “perks.” And, unfortunately, a small minority of men use drinks as an aid to sexual assault. (Koren Zailckas, Smashed 202-204 (2005))

Even worse, this type of entitlement and manipulation isn’t exclusive to the social realm. As gtg263r points out, some employers carry it over into the work realm, offering women “perks” (that they may well have deserved anyway) in exchange for sexual favors. And while some cops will let a women off just because she's cute, some cops expect more.

Female privilege takes place not just in the context of discrimination against women, but also discrimination against racial minorities, LGBTI people, the working class, and the disabled. UCLA Law Professor KimberlĂ© Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to refer to the ways different forms of oppression and privilege intersect with one another. However, the basic concept has been around since at least 1851, when Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, saying:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

Essentially, Truth pointed out that female privilege was often if not always denied to black women. I think this is still the case, although hopefully to a lesser extent. Women of color are less likely to experience favoritism from police and more likely to experience abuse. Less dramatically but still significantly, men (and, to a lesser extent, women) appear to be less likely to ask out black women (and therefore presumably to buy them drinks and dinner and so on) and I would bet the same is true for women who are visibly disabled, queer, or trans or just not conventionally beautiful.

I think there is also an intersectionality issue regarding women and beauty privilege. (Or rather, many issues.) Men also receive advantages for being attractive, without having to face the same risk of being sexually exploited or perceived as bimbos. I agree with 2elle and FeministGal that it’s important to understand that beautiful women receive beauty privilege, but I also think it’s important to understand that female disprivilege makes beauty privilege less valuable to women than it is to men.

No form of discrimination takes place in a vacuum. Sexism takes place in the context of beauty privilege, which takes place in the context of sexism, which takes place in the context of racism, which takes place in the context of classism, ad infinitum. To quote bell hooks:

One system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact.


Rebecca said...

As a single woman of a certain age, it drives me over the brink when I hear men my age talk about only dating young, attractive women under 35. I remember watching the movie Something’s Gotta Give where the opening showed a bevy of beautiful young women walking into clubs. The script is as follows:

The sweet, uncomplicated
satisfaction of the younger woman.

That fleeting age when everything
just falls right into place.

It's magic time, and it can
render any man...

...anywhere, absolutely helpless.

Movies are great for capturing things in brief visuals. Media equates the youth and beauty of women as “powerful” and “privileged”. These young, hot women can cut to the front of the line, never buy a drink or dinner, but is this really power? Absolutely. The real question is not do they have “power,” but is this power the sort that has real value that lasts and at a price we are willing to bear?
When I was in my 20s, and even 30’s occasionally got stopped by police on a Friday or Saturday evening and never got ticketed. Most of my male friends assumed that it was because I was attractive. Funny thing is, most of the time I was not speeding, but my male friends never assumed I could get pulled over for any other reason. I called this my DWB experience. (Driving While Blonde.)
Once, I was pulled over and asked to get out of the car, walk the line and bend over to pick up the officer’s pen (field sobriety). I was on my way to dinner and had not consumed a drop of alcohol, but I was in high heels and a short skirt. I was stopped for being an attractive blonde according to the officer. It was humiliating. While none of us ever wants to get a speeding ticket, I can assure you I would have rather gotten one that evening rather than experiencing the real power exerted in that DVB situation. The power is not in the hands of the woman at all but in the male cops who decide whether they deemed me attractive enough to exercise their power and discretion to let me off the hook for what ever they wanted to accuse me of.
In evaluating any privileges I gained during the years when I was at my most “attractive”, I would have to say that I got treated better by retail sales people and wait staff than less attractive folks. I certainly got more attention from guys that wanted to date me. Most of the time it was nice to have those pleasant advantages, but there was also a big price tag. I was not treated as intelligent or serious. In some form or fashion, I have been rebelling against the “pretty blonde” image all my adult life, and it can be exhausting to go all the extra steps to prove that you are more than just an empty pretty face.
The reality is that beauty fades. What ever fleeting advantages I may have enjoyed in my 20’s and 30’s that were dependent upon the subjective views of men who found me attractive or may have wanted to treat me “better” than someone not so attractive have long since evaporated.
As for me, I would just like to find one or two intelligent, nice men my age who would like to take me (not some twenty-something babe) out to dinner. Is that too much for a 56-year-old former beauty queen to ask?

Yazzyjazzy said...

I think another issue with female privilege is that once people recognize that it exists, they will start to assume women are where they are because they have taken advantage of this privilege.

For example, a few weeks ago I was speaking with Judge Boulware Eurie and I asked her about the issue of female privilege and whether people ever think she was appointed to the bench because she was a woman. She replied that people often do assume that in the interest of diversity, because "we need one of those," she was appointed.

I asked her how she responds to this, and she said that she works twice as hard as everyone else to prove that there was no female privilege.

Betty said...

Great great follow-up to 2elle's entry!

My personal experiences with "beauty privilege," I feel have been limited. But that may have to do with the fact that I never really did think I was personally objectively attractive, being a kid with self-esteem issues and the like. While I'm fairly confident today, I still am uncomfortable with admitting that that any of that confidence is attributed to my physicality, but more my personality/social skills/non physical attributes.

With that said, it's always taken me by surprise when I get hit on by someone attractive or am treated nicer than the next person in general to hear my friends, or whoever remark, "it's because you're hot," or "it's because you're pretty." Beauty is entirely subjective, and completely and totally modifiable, unlike one's gender or race. Many work hard on their so-called beauty - harder than they do in school, at work, or in anything else. The only real end goal should be to up one's self-worth and self-perception and not to unworthily gain anything else, come to think of it. Intersectionality comes into play when I think about it further because physical beauty is so subjective, it's not fair to throw it in the mix with feminist and racist practices. Where do we draw the line if we don't at a factor that isn't attributed to one's inherent quality? But I suppose the whole point of feminism and racism has always been that: an injustice, and incredibly unfair.

Dusty said...

Body size politics are super important in this discussion too. I think body fat and control of body fat is a key way the patriarchy seeks to control women's bodyies in an everyday way. Men are taught to be big, women to be small. If a women is fat, she is seen to be inherently unattractive and loses social power. But if a man is big, he is stronger and gains power. Just another example of the the irrational manifestations of the binary.

2elle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
2elle said...

2elle said...
Thank you for a great post!

I think that it is definitely true that any female privilege a woman has for being conventionally attractive (or simply being a woman) doesn't "make up for" or compare to the priviledges males have on a regular basis, ingrained in our societal structure. What I've noticed and think is interesting/scary, though, is that female privilege in certain situations fuels misogyny. Some (usually very insecure) guys get very angry about preferential treatment of women and use that as an excuse to cover up their own insecurities by hating women in general. I've seen minor examples of this in my own life when guys complain about women getting free drinks or preferential treatment in some way and then following up that statement with hateful comments about how women are all as a group "shallow bitches" that "take advantage" of men.

I came across one of the scariest, most extreme reactions of this type in reading this blog:

Be warned. This guy is a combination of the ultimate misogynist/sociopath/bitter single guy/attention seeker so the post is VERY offensive.

He basically says that because of affirmative action/preferential treatment, women have the upper hand over guys now especially since women can get sex whenever they want and men can't... the conclusion being that rape should be allowed and that would be true equality.

There are no words to describe the sheer stupidity/evil of such a statement, but it's just one (very) extreme example of how ironic it is that petty little advantages women sometimes have in certain situations can be used as a justification for furthering violence against women.