Beautiful feminists? Or plain hypocrites?

BTG issue no. 17

Recently, a reader of philosopher and ethicist Eleanor Gordon Smith’s advice column on The Guardian, lamented: There are two wolves inside me. One is a feminist. The other wants to be thin and beautiful. I am so tired of being caught between them.

Bam. Those are four sentences I resonate with. No question, I continue to derive deep satisfaction in keeping up with appearances that are pleasing to others (my curated profile pictures say it all). But I feel silly for falling for these social standards of beauty and attractiveness. Worse, I feel ashamed for perpetuating them. And most distressingly of all, I feel confused. Why do I put myself on display like a mannequin, when the point of feminism is to smash the manicured store front? Why do I decorate myself and lap up all the likes my photo gets, when I should instead be helping undermine the patriarchal industry that treats women like objects? Put differently, why do I submit, and why do I like it?

Reading Manon Garcia’s We Are Not Born Submissive (2021) has been helpful for philosophical and personal reflection. Recently translated from French, Garcia’s book – a tribute and a strong reminder to re-read the great Simone de Beauvoir – engages the topic of women’s submission. Heeding Beauvoir’s observations about women’s seeming complicity to their own oppression, Garcia explains that submission to the patriarchy can be framed as rational and pleasurable to women. To submit here means to acquiesce, to neither resist nor fight the patriarchal norms, standards, and interests that are antagonistic or detrimental to one’s own interests in virtue of one’s subordinated position.

But this submission is not passive or disengaged; when women consent to the insidious demands and designs of the modern patriarchy—say, when they find themselves desiring and adopting socially endorsed standards of beauty and body size, even at the expense of their physical health or the risk of being objectified by men—they exhibit agency and engage in a way of life that promotes their oppression. But painting women as morally blameworthy for their submission and framing their compliance as a free and active choice fail to capture the character of the oppressive gender dynamics at work. Garcia maintains that women’s habits of submission exhibit the dearth of good choices and opportunities for the self-flourishing of women in contemporary patriarchal societies. As Clare Chambers rightly points out:

We can only act within the options that are available to, and cast as appropriate for, us. And we want to act in ways that situate us happily within a social context, as deserving of social approval. Moreover, it is rational for us to make choices that are compatible with the options open to us and the expectations placed on us, for such choices enable us to succeed within our context. So highlighting the constraints in which we all choose does not entail that we are poor choosers.

When mothers tell their daughters to tolerate their husband’s infidelity or to give up their ambitions for their children, they endorse views that are detrimental to their daughters’ personal interests. But they may also sincerely believe that these are the best choices their daughters have, since they deter other harms and cruelties tendered by a sexist society that pities the fate of single or childless women. From this perspective, the social existence of women in modern patriarchal societies is conditioned by limited and substandard options for pursuing happiness or self-fulfillment. Their choices today remain determined by the superiority of men’s interests and constrained by their subordinated position. As Garcia puts it in her essay on submission: “women do not actively choose submission, but they consent to the submission that is prescribed to them by social norms, even though this submission can seriously harm them.”

Interestingly, Garcia also points out that submission to the patriarchy isn’t just reasonable; it can also be a source of pleasure and power. As Beauvoir puts it in The Second Sex, a woman can derive “satisfaction from her role as the Other” and women can act as “willing accomplices to their masters because they stand to profit from the benefits” (2010, 10). But where might this pleasure from submission come from? Not from women’s essential nature, of course. Garcia interprets Beauvoir as arguing that the patriarchy is responsible for imposing a social meaning on women’s bodies, one fundamentally based on (sexual) objectification. Defined in various ways as an object of male desire, love, use, and ownership, the social body of a woman exists prior to her actual existence, representing and inscribing the norms and practices that define what a woman is in the world. Simply put, the journey from girlhood to womanhood is a narrative of women relating to their bodies as objects, a process that represents “the transformation of the oppressed into an other that is irreducibly different from the self” (Garcia 2021, 85).

Women are thus alienated from themselves because they are socially conditioned to view themselves as sexual objects, a mere reflection of what Laura Mulvey calls the male gaze, instead of knowing and understanding themselves fundamentally as free and equal subjects (as men do). Women thus come to desire to be desired and adopt patriarchal norms and practices before they even get the chance to experience their own bodies as fully their own; as Beauvoir famously puts it, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes [a] woman” (2010, 293). Worse, living and moving in a patriarchal society constantly reinforces this alienated existence for women, rewarding them when they keep relating to their bodies as objects and punishing them when they refuse. The inescapability and power of the patriarchal gaze explain how submission can remain a source of pleasure for women.

Garcia’s Beauvoirian analysis helps make sense of the guilt that feminists and socially progressive women feel for enjoying the pleasure they derive from submitting, e.g., trying, enjoying, and vying for male attention. It certainly explains why, even if you know you are healthy, and that you should love your own body whatever shape or size it is, still buckle when you can’t zip up that skirt or fit into your dress from five years ago. This analysis of submission also rationalizes how submission to the patriarchy could serve as a source of power over men and others. For example, the more beautiful a woman is, the more valuable a sexual object she is, and thus the more social advantages she has in patriarchal societies. But pandering to the male gaze, as many feminists have argued at length, comes at a big cost.

It is the awareness of this big cost, I think, that should accompany reflections about the ambivalence and friction in our lived experiences of submission as women. It is a conversation we have to have with ourselves and our students who, without a doubt, will go on to live under conditions of alienation. The work isn’t over.

Tracy Llanera

University of Connecticut

University of Notre Dame Australia