Feminists, Physical Attractiveness, and the Success of Social Movements

I feel a need to add to my post from yesterday The Babe Theory of Political Movements given the comments and emails I’ve gotten from folks.

First, P.J. O’Rourke, who coined the term, is a humorist. If you take all of what he says seriously you would gladly murder his children, since he offends pretty much everyone.

Second, a confession: I am a feminist. I believe women have been oppressed for many years. I support women’s causes (with my time, National Center for Women and IT, and money, MS. Foundation). I’m not sure what the official definition of "feminist" is, but if taking a proactive interest in the issues qualifies, then I qualify. Here’s my post on Caitlin Flanagan on feminism. Here’s my book review of Female Chauvinist Pigs. Here’s my post on motherhood vs. womanhood. Here’s my post on progressive feminists and happiness.

Third, I did not mean to imply that all feminists are unattractive. I did not say this. I apologize for not being clear on this and for any offense.

Fourth, I received an email from a male that said, "Any objective, rational person knows that raging feminists are less attractive than their non-feminist counterparts, but I would never say this in public because most women consider themselves feminists and are bound to be offended." I don’t think this is a useful stereotype, but it does seem like this belief is out there.

Fifth, I do think there is an interesting angle to this: How do social movements spread? What are the components to effective activist causes? We cannot deny that physical beauty is a factor. Research has shown that, all else being equal, we’re more likely to hire the person we’d want to have sex with. We’re more likely to pay attention to attractive people. So it follows that we’re more likely to rally behind causes led by people we’d want to have sex with. Is this the only factor? No. The most important? No. But it is a factor.

6 Responses to Feminists, Physical Attractiveness, and the Success of Social Movements

  1. Dave Jilk says:

    It’s also important to realize that the definition of “feminist” changes in different subcultures and areas of the country. I’ve lived in both Massachusetts and Georgia, and I can tell you, the women (and men) who say they are feminists have very different attitudes.

    In Massachusetts, the idea that women should have equality of opportunity and be respected regardless of career or childrearing direction is pretty much a given. Feminists there are more focused on issues of sexual abuse within marriage, gay and lesbian rights, etc. There are of course stereotypes associated with this set of positions.

    In Georgia, they are still dealing with questions of whether it’s a good idea for women to work outside the home, whether they should be promoted and paid the same for the same job and performance, and the like. The religious influence there makes the causes emphasized in the Northeast either taboo or irrelevant, depending on your perspective. A “feminist” in Georgia would be called “career focused” in Massachusetts.

    These are of course generalizations also but the difference is quite stark when you spend time in both places.

    My point being, the term “feminist” does not refer to a consistent and well-defined concept.

  2. Bernadette B. says:

    I agree. It seems that a lot of people are not tolerant to opinions that contradicts their own. My theory is, as a woman, i believe every woman in one way or another is a feminist. But we see more unattractive women advocating for various policies because “unattractive” women are the subject of discrimination more so than women that are babes.Indeed “unattractive women” are much more indulge in feminism because they are also fighting for their “beauty” rights. I’m sorry, but this is true.

    Attractive babes can say “but who are these men to whistle at me when i wear a skirt pass the construction building” kind of feminism, while a less attractive women will say “but who are these men to tell me that i don’t deserve the same attention as a babe woman and to tell me that women can never be president, go to war, earn more money, etc” kind of feminism.

    Sad to say, there is a double standard going on between babe woman and non- babe woman.

  3. mle says:

    Bernadette’s observations agree with mine. Add to it, that good-looking people seem to get more positive feedback from others: their self-confidence is strengthened and their charisma surfaces and builds on itself, and their circle of attraction grows.

    Discrimination between babes and non-babes of both genders is worth attending to, because we are becoming a much more visual culture. Ability to attract, whether a political following, a publisher, a corporate mentor, a venture capital angel, is vital.

    And we’ve all noticed the increasing income gaps in our culture. Novelist Cathleeen Schine said it best: “Daddy is rich, Momma’s good looking, so you, of course, are both.” No longer does the lawyer marry the secretary, or the doctor marry the nurse. Since Mom and Dad probably met in professional school, and are probably about equal in social capital, it’s double the money, double the looks, double the influence… thus dynasties are born. And thus dies the dream that “anyone can grow up to be…”

  4. Annette says:

    I found your blog today, via The Happiness Project.

    Further to Dave Jilk’s post about the definition of “feminist”. I agree with his comments that the focus of feminists in different cultural or geographic areas does differ, but add that the definition of “feminism” remains the same – despite some misunderstanding as to what it does mean. Many people of your (our) generation would probably mis-define feminism. You don’t have to search very hard to find examples of young women saying things like (and I’m paraphrasing) “I’m not a feminist or anything [as if it’s a bad thing, something to deny or apologise for!] but I do think that men and women should have equal rights.”. These are a relatively new breed of feminist (the sort who don’t even know that they are feminists!), who now benefit from the activism of several generations of oppressed women, to the point where they almost wonder what the fuss is about; believing that feminism is something outdated, something that doesn’t translate into things we need to focus on today.

    So, in the belief that “feminism” gets a bad rap, I feel it necessary to point out how sweet and simple it’s meaning is. Here is the definition of feminism as stated in the Chambers Reference Online: “feminism, noun, a belief or movement advocating the cause of women’s rights and opportunities, particularly equal rights with men, by challenging inequalities between the sexes in society.” Bernadette B suggests that all women are feminists, I suggest that feminists can easily be a much larger portion of society, as anyone who thinks that men and women should have equal rights is a feminist (inclusive of those who say they aren’t feminists, per my previous example). John of the Last Plane to Jakarta music zine (link to lastplanetojakarta.com), mused on men’s place in feminism after the death of Betty Friedan: “if we tolerate a world in which our mothers — and our sisters; and our daughters, and our wives; our closest friends and dearest companions — are not free to follow their dreams and to chase down their passions, in short to seek out their true selves, then that world is a paltry thing, and our own lives within it are greatly diminished.” (the specific post is here: link to lastplanetojakarta.com)

    On the other side of the coin, I also feel a need to advocate men’s rights to enjoy equality with women. Often women’s medical issues are more highlighted than men’s (breast cancer for example, but I’ve heard that more men die of breast cancer than women! [hearsay only, I have no data]), and it’s a fact that in general men are worse at attending to medical issues. Men have less opportunities to be visible with their emotions.
    As another example, there has been some recent publicity here in New Zealand with regards to the very small number of men who work in Early Childhood Education (less than 1% of the industry), mainly as a result of a warped public belief that any man entering into this field must be a pedophile. As an interviewee on the subject said, (paraphrasing again) “do we really want to tell our children that the only relationship they can have with a man is one of abuse?”. These kinds of prejudices do worse than hurt the people who the prejudice is directed at; in the case of Early Childhood workers, children are denied positive male role-models at a crucial stage of their development.

    Thanks for the post. Interesting thinking.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If you do consider yourself a feminist, it might be worthwhile to rethink posting on issues regarding divisiveness within feminism. One of the cleverest methods by which feminism is undermined is to highlight the real and false divisions going on within feminism. So, the debate turns into who gets to be recognized in society: the pretty women or the ugly women? A more useful debate would be why and how does the patriarchal system define women (and, more importantly, forces women to define themselves) by their looks, and how does this demean the feminist cause?

    It might also be useful for you to separate your intellectual claims (that you’re a feminist) from sexual desires (that people are more likely to hire people with whom they’d prefer to have sex). Being a feminist isn’t just about giving time and money to organizations; it’s about more of an intellectual endeavor to really question the values and ingrained opinions you have about the roles than men and women hold in society; then, one may support feminist organizations with a better and more complete background. Feminism isn’t just about believing that women are oppressed, which is a fairly obvious yet passive statement; feminism is about recognizing and rejecting or reworking the ways in which women are oppressed – a much more active and useful approach. You have to think about why you associate intelligence with looks when it comes to women and not when it comes to when, and realize that you are not recognizing the highly sexist ideology (see Althusser) in which you are deeply entrenched.

    I’m also fairly disconcerted that a self-proclaimed feminist would justify a decidedly sexist statement (that feminists are more unattractive than non-feminists, and I know you rescinded that) with an even more sexist statement that “raging” feminists are less attractive than “non-raging” feminists. Also, one opinion does not a “belief” make, and stereotypes are never useful.

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