Wednesday, June 06, 2007

It's Not About Looking Pretty, People!

Jessica, over at feministing, has post up about a writeup The Politico did about Althouse. In the feature, the guys at the Politico make the comment "Valenti isn't shy about her body" and bring up the whole "boobgate" uproar from the past.

For those out of the loop or not in the know, Jessica appears in a photograph with former president Clinton. When the photo came out, the discussion of said photograph was largely focused on whether or not Jessica's breasts were too obvious, and whether she could really be a feminist, since she dared to post for a photograph.

Jessica was, understandably, I think, annoyed by this. It can't be a good feeling to have worked your ass off, get an offer to meet the former president as a result of your hard work, only to have a bunch of knuckle dragging asshats take away from that by focusing all the conversation about how hot or not you are, and how nice or not your breasts are, and whether they would or would not fuck you. It's a rather perfect illustration of how much sexism is still strong and well. A woman is invited to meet the former president, and because she doesn't wear ill fitting, ugly clothing, she's targeted.

That's not my point, though. That topic has been done to death- she's commented on it at length, and so have many others.

What I'm more interested in, is the ways that people come to her defense. See, there's a large group of people who say "Hey, that's bullshit!" Which, it is. There are some people, though, who say things that make me cringe almost as much as the original comments did. They're the people who respond to the comments with things like "Jessica, you are a very beautiful woman and have nothing to be ashamed of. And you look amazing in that picture!"

I get what the writer is trying to say, but the problem I have with comments like that is that they reinforce the problem, they don't work to correct it. The problem isn't that Althouse or the myriad people commenting on her blog thought that Jessica was ugly. The problem isn't even that they think she was dressed inappropriately. The problem, as Peepers so nicely put it, is having "discussions like this focusing on [her] attractiveness, rather than [her] intellectual and social contributions."

See, it doesn't matter how hot or not Jessica is. She wasn't invited to the conference because of what she looks like. She was invited because of who she is. When people respond to these sorts of things with "but you look great, Jessica!" they miss the point, and, in fact, add to the problem, because what they say isn't "they're wrong, it's your achievements that count, and commenting on your body detracts from that" but rather "they're wrong, you're great looking."

In other words: the later ignores her contributions and her work just as much as any comment that focuses on how tight her shirt is, or how attractive/unattractive she might be. Just because you perceive yourself to be flattering doesn't mean that the comment isn't every bit as beside the point as the original comment was.

7 comments:

Jaclyn said...

Wait... it's not about looking pretty?!?

(Must go re-examine my life now.)

Cara said...

Agreed! It's about time that someone gets it.

Geo58 said...

HI:

it's comments like these that should be criticized as sexism not about Jessica's appearance.

>Jessica was, understandably, I think, annoyed by this. It can't be a good feeling to have worked your ass off, get an offer to meet the former president as a result of your hard work, only to have a bunch of knuckle dragging asshats take away from that by focusing all the conversation about how hot or not you are, and how nice or not your breasts are, and whether they would or would not f_ck you. It's a rather perfect illustration of how much sexism is still strong and well. A woman is invited to meet the former president, and because she doesn't wear ill fitting, ugly clothing, she's targeted.

>that's right, she is being criticized for dressing up and if she did the oppoiste, they would still criticize her appearance and maybe would not value her professionalism because of what she decides to wear.

That's not my point, though. That topic has been done to death- she's commented on it at length, and so have many others.

What I'm more interested in, is the ways that people come to her defense. See, there's a large group of people who say "Hey, that's bullshit!" Which, it is. There are some people, though, who say things that make me cringe almost as much as the original comments did. They're the people who respond to the comments with things like "Jessica, you are a very beautiful woman and have nothing to be ashamed of. And you look amazing in that picture!"

>Well, she does, and we do to support her on her appearance on TV, the media game. Why can't she do this? Be a smart intelligent young feminist woman author and still look like a million bucks? What is the harm in "looking good" for women today? THey spend billions of dollars a year on the cosmetic industry and billions more on the fashion industry. Do we just send the attractive women on staghe in cut off jeans and potato sack tops?

Do we have to go back in time when the "First Wave" was in effect and feminist women were afraid of wearing colorful clothing, bloomers which showed their knees, and have actual jobs and raise kids all together while spending endless hours making bread in their kitchens all day.

>No, she should not have to dress down her appearance for anyone, the problem with sexism is that uncaring men make the first judgment and sterotypical remarks about the women, either for news stories or more attention. Jessica can not help that she looks beautiful the same way Jackie Kennedy when she married JFK, or other beautiful women who were intelligent and chariming.

I get what the writer is trying to say, but the problem I have with comments like that is that they reinforce the problem, they don't work to correct it. The problem isn't that Althouse or the myriad people commenting on her blog thought that Jessica was ugly. The problem isn't even that they think she was dressed inappropriately. The problem, as Peepers so nicely put it, is having "discussions like this focusing on [her] attractiveness, rather than [her] intellectual and social contributions."

>Of course a talk show host is going to mention the women's appearance, he is not going to say your ugly is he? No, I think many people will see through her attractiveness and focus on her writings and her feminism, Clinton is a feminist!

See, it doesn't matter how hot or not Jessica is. She wasn't invited to the conference because of what she looks like. She was invited because of who she is. When people respond to these sorts of things with "but you look great, Jessica!" they miss the point, and, in fact, add to the problem, because what they say isn't "they're wrong, it's your achievements that count, and commenting on your body detracts from that" but rather "they're wrong, you're great looking."

In other words: the later ignores her contributions and her work just as much as any comment that focuses on how tight her shirt is, or how attractive/unattractive she might be. Just because you perceive yourself to be flattering doesn't mean that the comment isn't every bit as beside the point as the original comment was.

>Again, I disagree with that thinking, all women should be allowed to wear what they want, if she wants to go on TV and on a talk show, she should dress so she feels comfortable, powerful, intelligent and if she wants to attract a crowd of people, maybe even sexy. We are penalizing her appearance based on what others say about her, we should not be working on dressing Jessica down, but we should be focusing on correcting those uncaring people's comments from the show and in their web blogs. Why put the problem on the women who all she wants to do is be on TV and make a pitch for her web blog and her new book, :Full frontal Feminism." Peace.

Roy said...

Geo: It's not wrong to comment on what Jessica is wearing because they're being critical- it's wrong to comment on it because it has nothing to do with her accomplishments.

The question you need to ask yourself is: Why does it matter if she looks great or not? Women aren't props, they're people. Jessica was there because of who she is, not what she looks like, and it's wrong for people to make comments about her body or her attractiveness, because her looks don't matter. The correct response to the people who were making comments- comments that ranged from "she's ugly" to "she's hot" to "she's not dressed properly" to "she looks great"- is not "You're wrong, she's beautiful" it's "You're wrong- it doesn't matter what she looks like."

It's one thing to say that they shouldn't be condemning her for her what she's wearing. That part is fine. When you move from saying "You shouldn't be condemning that outfit, it was perfectly appropriate" to saying how beautiful she looked or how attractive she is, you've just done the same thing that the people you're criticizing did. That you came to a different conclusion doesn't change that you're doing the same thing.

Why can't she do this? Be a smart intelligent young feminist woman author and still look like a million bucks?

You're missing the point, though, geo. Women are constantly bombarded with critiques and comments about what they look like. In a situation where a woman is being recognized for her accomplishments, it's offputting to have the conversation brought back around to how she looks. It means that you're judging her on her appearance, and not her performance. Just because you intend it as a compliment doesn't mean that it's taken that way. In the case of Jessica, she clearly didn't take it that way, given a number of her comments.

Again: The problem isn't that Althouse and others like her were calling Jessica ugly- many of them, in fact, weren't calling her that at all. The problem is that they were focusing on her body instead of her body of work. That's not okay.

Again, I disagree with that thinking, all women should be allowed to wear what they want, if she wants to go on TV and on a talk show, she should dress so she feels comfortable, powerful, intelligent and if she wants to attract a crowd of people, maybe even sexy.

She absolutely should. But when people make comments about her body, or her clothes, or how sexy or beautiful she is, that makes it harder for women to do that. It sends the same message that the assholes are sending- whatever else your accomplishments are, I'm still going to judge your body.

What if Jessica weren't attractive? Would that change anything about her book or her accomplishments?

Of course not.

But when people comment on her body- for good or for bad- they suggest that it would change something. It sends the message that, on some level, her appearance matters. It says that you're judging her- the difference is that you think she passed.

We are penalizing her appearance based on what others say about her, we should not be working on dressing Jessica down, but we should be focusing on correcting those uncaring people's comments from the show and in their web blogs. Why put the problem on the women who all she wants to do is be on TV and make a pitch for her web blog and her new book, :Full frontal Feminism." Peace.

But you're not correcting them by saying "Jessica, you're hot." You correct them by saying "Hey, quit judging her by her looks- her accomplishments are what were being rewarded, not her shirt." You'll notice that I didn't criticize Jessica either way for her appearance- she's free to wear anything she wants. I don't think it's my place as a total stranger to make comments about her when it's her actions that ought to be being discussed. It doesn't matter if I think Jessica is the most beautiful or most ugly person on the planet- her work is what should be being discussed.

I'm not even sure why this is a conversation- How many women have to complain about being judged by their appearance before we start to listen? Over and over women are saying that it's not a compliment to have their looks judged instead of the work.

Geo58 said...

Roy said...
“Geo: It's not wrong to comment on what Jessica is wearing because they're being critical- it's wrong to comment on it because it has nothing to do with her accomplishments”.
Thank you for responding back to my comment. Jaclyn of CNW suggested I read your comments however, I just wanted to make a comment on your previous post. I am wrong I will admit it. Okay, your right, we should not be commenting on what she was wearing. We should be focused on her accomplishments as an author and founder of feministing.com Nevertheless, the entire reason why Jessica Valenti (or even Jennifer Pozner, of WIMN; who has appeared on Hannity & colmes) are on those shows is because of their accomplishments as feminist women authors or accomplished women on the Internet, not because of their fashionable attire.

“The question you need to ask yourself is: Why does it matter if she looks great or not? Women aren't props, they're people. Jessica was there because of who she is, not what she looks like, and it's wrong for people to make comments about her body or her attractiveness, because her looks don't matter. The correct response to the people who were making comments- comments that ranged from "she's ugly" to "she's hot" to "she's not dressed properly" to "she looks great"- is not "You're wrong, she's beautiful" it's "You're wrong- it doesn't matter what she looks like."
However, it does matter to them how they appear to the media, what kind of professionalism they showed being on the show. I am sorry, what women would not want to look good on a national syndicated TV show where millions of people watch her and listen to her message, both women are role models, and mentors and inspirational icons to millions of feminist women (and men) who read their work. They do not ask to be criticized by those who judge their appearance the same way uncaring men judge a women who wears a short skirt or a tight top, your right that’s a sexist remark.

“It's one thing to say that they shouldn't be condemning her for her what she's wearing. That part is fine. When you move from saying "You shouldn't be condemning that outfit, it was perfectly appropriate" to saying how beautiful she looked or how attractive she is, you've just done the same thing that the people you're criticizing did. That you came to a different conclusion doesn't change that you're doing the same thing.”
Okay, this part is still confusing to me. I never had any intention of criticizing her for her appearance in a sexist manner. If she can wear whatever she wants, why should this part of her wardrobe be a problem? I don’t think I am doing the same thing as other people, I am just making a statement that she was on the media and she made a good appearance with Steve Colbert, etc. Just because she is a very attractive young woman she still can be an intelligent feminist woman, that’s the entire reason Jessica was invited on the Colbert Show because of her book, not because of her fashionable attire.
You are making an assumption of all men stating that we should not be making comments on her appearance or what she is wearing on the show because that would imply that we are all sexists and not focusing on her accomplishments, this is not true..

Why can't she do this? Be a smart intelligent young feminist woman author and still look like a million bucks?

“You're missing the point, though, geo. Women are constantly bombarded with critiques and comments about what they look like. In a situation where a woman is being recognized for her accomplishments, it's off putting to have the conversation brought back around to how she looks. It means that you're judging her on her appearance, and not her performance.
No, I made a reference on her appearance on the show by how she stood her ground with Steven, and how she performed on the show, I never meant to imply that her outfit “stole the show.” That was implied by uncaring men who think of her in a unflattering way, not my words.
“Just because you intend it, as a compliment doesn't mean that it's taken that way. In the case of Jessica, she clearly didn't take it that way, given a number of her comments.”
Again, the rude comments that were made about her were not by me!

“Again: The problem isn't that Althouse and others like her were calling Jessica ugly- many of them, in fact, weren't calling her that at all. The problem is that they were focusing on her body instead of her body of work. That's not okay.”
I agree with you on that part. Alt house and the others only purpose was to create something out of nothing and twist Jessica’s appearance into something unwarranted. Nevertheless, you making an assumption that all people who make a comment on Jessica’s appearance or any women in the media’s appearance is wrong. I don’t buy that. That’s the wrong approach to this issue. Assuming that when we praise an attractive intelligent woman we only praise her for her “looks” when we are really not.

Again, I disagree with that thinking, all women should be allowed to wear what they want, if she wants to go on TV and on a talk show, she should dress so she feels comfortable, powerful, intelligent and if she wants to attract a crowd of people, maybe even sexy.

“She absolutely should. But when people make comments about her body, or her clothes, or how sexy or beautiful she is, that makes it harder for women to do that. It sends the same message that the assholes are sending- whatever else your accomplishments are, I'm still going to judge your body.”
To rephrase this, how is this going to make it harder for women to send the message, “I am on this TV show, not because of what I look like, it is because I am an author, I started feministing.com, I am Director of WIMN, or whatever?” I don not see how when we praise women for their stage presence on national TV makes it harder for them to make it in the media?” Tell me how does it?

“What if Jessica weren't attractive? Would that change anything about her book or her accomplishments? Of course not.“

“But when people comment on her body- for good or for bad- they suggest that it would change something. It sends the message that, on some level, her appearance matters. It says that you're judging her- the difference is that you think she passed. “
We are not “judging” her on her appearance, the main reason she is on the show is because of “her accomplishments” not only because she is a beautiful woman. That’s the entire reason she is there in the first place and the entire reason why people write about her and praise her work on the show. It’s the uncaring men who ogle and go ga ga and have some sick sexual fantasies about her appearance. Not all men, including myself, see her for that reason. I think all women are beautiful and I am not viewing her TV appearance just so I can make comments on what she is wearing; I viewed her appearance to see how she made an impact for all women authors, and her feminism message. I first met her at WAM 2007 along with another 100-200 women, and bought her new book (in fact I was the first one to have it signed by her) during a workshop there. I intended her first book signing at Tufts not because I wanted to see what incrediable fashion she was wearing but I wanted to hear her speak on her feminism theory. I didn’t go to that three day WAM conference to ogle women, I did it because I am a male feminist and wanted to learn more about the feminist movement, how to set-up my own web blog and converse with intelligent thinking women, period.

We are penalizing her appearance based on what others say about her, we should not be working on dressing Jessica down, but we should be focusing on correcting those uncaring people's comments from the show and in their web blogs. Why put the problem on the women who all she wants to do is be on TV and make a pitch for her web blog and her new book, “Full frontal Feminism." Peace.

“But you're not correcting them by saying "Jessica, you're hot." You correct them by saying "Hey, quit judging her by her looks- her accomplishments are what were being rewarded, not her shirt." You'll notice that I didn't criticize Jessica either way for her appearance- she's free to wear anything she wants. I don't think it's my place as a total stranger to make comments about her when it's her actions that ought to be being discussed. It doesn't matter if I think Jessica is the most beautiful or most ugly person on the planet- her work is what should be being discussed. “
I would have no problem commenting on what a women wants to wear, if she wears a beautiful outfit, or her hair looks nice, I would have no problem saying I like how that makes you look, or it looks nice on you.” But, that’s me. I say these things as a compliment, not for anything else. You making an assumption that all men are after only one thing, some of us feminist men, are not. Women do the same thing with other women, they make compliments on what they like.

“I'm not even sure why this is a conversation- How many women have to complain about being judged by their appearance before we start to listen? Over and over women are saying that it's not a compliment to have their looks judged instead of the work.”
This is true, I look at it this way, and the women are asked to be on TV shows because of their accomplishments. Jennifer Pozner, Director of WIMN is always asked to be on Henity & Colmes and Jennifer is also a very attractive women. On one of her shows, people criticized her appearance and her hair style; (they actually wrote in she needs a new haircut) not how well she did about the issues. I thought she looked great on that particular show and held her own against the debate about how Rosie acted against her stanch on Bush, I believe, and even sent her an email telling her so.
I think we can explain to all women who appear on TV shows and the media is the reason you are here is because of your work, being an author, web blogger, columnist, whatever your expertise. If they feel that the only reason they were asked to appear is because of their appearance it is up to us, feminist men and the public, to re-assure them of this fact. I still say that by not telling women they “don’t look nice” when in fact they obviously do, would we a shame. These remarkable women are our mentors, our feminist heroes, and ground breakers for all women to make a valuable impact in the lives of other feminist women who would like to achieve the same goals as they did. They need not to be frightened or scared off by some uncaring jerks in underground newspaper blogs; whose only purpose is to entice their readers with some crap and porn? We are doing the same thing, as women feel when they are in offices and work places were they have sexual harassment policies to back them up because some men will try to use their sexual power against them. Maybe Jessica and Jennifer need to file a sexual harassment statement against Alt House because of how they made them feel after being on TV. Then, this would all be a moot point. Thank you.

Roy said...

Geo: I'm glad you're here, and I'm flattered that Jaclyn suggested my blog to you.

I'm probably going to write a post about this, if you don't mind, but I want to address some of your comments here, too.

I think that one of the things that you're focusing on is the intent behind our words. That is: When you mention that you think X woman is beautiful, you're not trying to be sexist, because you're trying to give her a sincere compliment, and because you're trying to counteract the sexist remarks of other people who are being critical.

I applaud the motivation- it's great to want to strike a blow against the sorts of people who're being critical of the clothes a woman wears or how attractive or not she might be. I think that it's important to remember that what you intend isn't the end, though. Your words don't exist in a vacuum, and what you say is going to be received by women who can't always tell what your intentions are.

There are a couple of threads on feministing.com right now about catcalling and about men who approach women they don't know, and overwhelmingly the reaction of most of the women in those threads has been the same: it bothers them when men they don't know make comments about their appearance.

A lot of women are bothered by comments like "You're beautiful" or "You look great wearing that" coming from people they don't know. Even if your intent isn't to offend, it can still have that result, because you're also dealing with context.

You said: Okay, this part is still confusing to me. I never had any intention of criticizing her for her appearance in a sexist manner. If she can wear whatever she wants, why should this part of her wardrobe be a problem? I don’t think I am doing the same thing as other people, I am just making a statement that she was on the media and she made a good appearance with Steve Colbert, etc. Just because she is a very attractive young woman she still can be an intelligent feminist woman, that’s the entire reason Jessica was invited on the Colbert Show because of her book, not because of her fashionable attire.
You are making an assumption of all men stating that we should not be making comments on her appearance or what she is wearing on the show because that would imply that we are all sexists and not focusing on her accomplishments, this is not true..


I absolutely believe you when you say that it wasn't your intention. My point is that you have to try to remember to look at things from the woman's perspective. From her perspective, a man she doesn't know is still judging her body. It's not a matter of either/or- you can think she's intelligent and powerful, but you're still making a value judgement on her looks, too. For many women, this is problematic.

I absolutely think that, as men, we have a responsibility not to pass value-judgements on women's bodies. It's one thing to tell a woman you're involved with that she's beautiful, or to approach a woman in a club that way- in certain contexts it can be appropriate to mention that you find someone attractive- it's part of flirting, for example. But, in a case like the kerfluffle around Jessica- it's inappropriate precisely because it has absolutely nothing to do with what she was there for. Of course, I assume she spent some time picking out an outfit and wanted to look good- that doesn't mean that comments about her looks are welcome, though. Especially given that we don't know the context.

To a woman that doesn't know us, any comment about her body could be seen as rude, even if our intentions aren't. A woman we don't know can't tell what our intentions are, and given how often women receive unwelcome "compliments" in the form of catcalls, verbal harassment, unwanted physical touching, etc, I just don't think it's a good idea for feminist men to add to that by making comments about a woman's level of attractiveness when they don't know her, and when it's completely unimportant to the situation. I understand that you mean it as a compliment, but you have to understand that not every woman is going to take it that way. A lot of the women in the threads around feministing, for example, have made it very clear that they don't find it flattering or complimentary. If Jaclyn sent you here, I have to assume she doesn't find it flattering, either.

Nevertheless, you making an assumption that all people who make a comment on Jessica’s appearance or any women in the media’s appearance is wrong. I don’t buy that. That’s the wrong approach to this issue. Assuming that when we praise an attractive intelligent woman we only praise her for her “looks” when we are really not.

I do think it's wrong. I think it's wrong, because there are a lot of women who are made uncomfortable by comments like that, regardless of how well intentioned those comments might be. Even if you intend "you look beautiful" as a compliment, if the other person doesn't take it as such, it doesn't count as one. Given the society we live in, making comments about a stranger's beauty just isn't a good idea- it reinforces too many harmful attitudes- attitudes of entitlement and privilege that we, as men, should be working to break down.

You asked: To rephrase this, how is this going to make it harder for women to send the message, “I am on this TV show, not because of what I look like, it is because I am an author, I started feministing.com, I am Director of WIMN, or whatever?” I don not see how when we praise women for their stage presence on national TV makes it harder for them to make it in the media?” Tell me how does it?

When a woman is being honored for her accomplishments, and a total stranger takes that opportunity to mention her body or how attractive she is, that takes away from her accomplishments. It reinforces the idea that men feel that they have a right to judge women's attractiveness. I understand that you don't mean it like that- but that's the effect.

Consider what you put here, Geo:
We are not “judging” her on her appearance, the main reason she is on the show is because of “her accomplishments” not only because she is a beautiful woman.

The problem with a sentence like that is that it sends a message. You said "not only because she is a beautiful woman." The problem is that it shouldn't matter if she's beautiful or not. And when you make a comment about whether or not she's beautiful, you are judging her. It's fine if you think she's attractive- it's not fine to announce it, though. It has the effect of making some women really uncomfortable. As feminist men, one of our goals should be to work towards fighting the social forces that make women uncomfortable about being in the public sphere. Part of that is making sure that we, ourselves, are not doing things that objectify women. Announcing that a woman is beautiful, particularly when her beauty has nothing to do with the situation at hand, contributes to the objectifying of women.

It’s the uncaring men who ogle and go ga ga and have some sick sexual fantasies about her appearance. Not all men, including myself, see her for that reason.

How is a woman supposed to be able to tell the difference between an jerk saying "You're beautiful" and a caring guy saying "you're beautiful"?

I say these things as a compliment, not for anything else. You making an assumption that all men are after only one thing, some of us feminist men, are not. Women do the same thing with other women, they make compliments on what they like.

Geo- I'm not a woman. The reality is that there are things that women can say or do with each other that, as a man, I can't. A woman is less likely to feel threatened by another woman commenting on her skirt or her stockings than she is by me. It's not a matter of thinking that men are only after one thing- as a feminist man myself, I absolutely think that men can act like decent human beings. What I'm trying to get across here is that a woman's perception of your comments may not be the same as how you intended them. What seems like a compliment to you might make a woman uncomfortable, and might even make her really upset. Given the history of women's bodies being judged by men, I don't think it's a good idea to take a chance like that.

Geo58 said...

Hi Roy:

Thanks for your patience and for listening to my rants. I now see your point and from a stubborn headed Greek that takes some doing. I am also glad Jaclyn from CNW sugested I learn from the Master.

I can now see how when women who receives compliments about their looks, clothing, etc. from total strangers they may be concerned for their safety, because they feel degraded that their initial impact on the media circuit was all for their work, not their clothing styles. Good point, the light bulb finally went oin over my head.

Even though I recognize all these women in the media froM the past WAM 2007 conferences, still does noy give me the right to compliment them on their appearance, and they make take it the wrong way as it is intended. I understand that part.

But, what do I do when I see one fo my news media friends on TV and she looks stunning in her outfit, do I just tell her you did great, you really told Bill O'Reilly where to stick that fork. Do I not mention her clothing, her hair, it's really tough for me now because I always do that, I will need to work on that part but again thanks on clearing all of that up for me. Now, I will have to write Jaclyn a nice email and tell her she was right. Kudos,. Peace.

George :)