Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Feminism, Clothing, and the Politics of Vintage

Blog Pictures 218
Does this dress make my feminism look too big?
I guess this last series of posts has started to look like me-made-March, but this post isn't exactly about this outfit.  This weekend was busy-busy-busy with hosting students admitted to the graduate program, and some comments made by the prospective student who stayed with J and I got me thinking about the politics of vintage and vintage-look.  Normally I wouldn't gender-identify someone, but I think it's important for the story to know that the guy who stayed with us was, in fact, a guy (although I've had the same reaction I got from him from women occasionally as well).

Our program doesn't have a lot of money, so to save prospective students from having to pay for their own hotel rooms, we arrange for them to stay with other graduate students, usually in their areas of study.  I didn't have anyone coming in this year in my area of study, but we do have a guest bedroom, so we got a prospective.  Our areas of study and methodological/theoretical approaches didn't overlap at all, but we had a lot of "you love that TV show?  I love that TV show!" type commonalities.

[Trigger warning]

What we did not have in common was our fondness for rape jokes: specifically, our guest's fondness for them, J and my lack thereof.  Who tells a rape joke to someone they've just met, especially someone whose house you're a guest in?

The first time it happened, it was just me and the guest, and I said, you know, that's not cool, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't make those kind of jokes in my house.  Guest didn't make an issue of it, and apologized without making a big deal.  We talked a little about feminism, and how the department here and many of the faculty are very feminist.  Later, at a party we had (at chez Construct) for the prospective students, Guest was talking with J and another woman in the department, made a rape joke, and got shot down.  He then asked J and another woman in the department about how politically correct the department was, and got the response that the department in general disallows nothing but finds racism, sexism, and ablism decidedly unfunny.  I suppose that makes us humorless feminists.

I was pretty pissed to find that not only had it been a problem after I explicitly said "no rape jokes in my house," but also that it apparently took hearing it from a dude to make it sound real to Guest.  I'm incredibly happy that J's a strongly feminist man (and in fact, I wouldn't have kept him around this long if he wasn't), and the world needs more feminist men, but it really sucks to realize you've found someone who puts less authority on what you say because you're a woman, even about things in your own house.

Guest and I later had another conversation about feminism (which runs through a lot of my academic work as well as my life), which went through all the usual stages of mocking and protestation (like the stages of grieving, although acceptance is pretty rare).  And then we got to this:  he said he didn't think when he met me that I was such a feminist, because of the dresses I wore, and didn't think that J was feminist, because I did the cooking and fussing over showing Guest around our house.

I've gotten this reaction before, from a woman student in the department, who, in her first week in the program, I took to task after she told me she thought feminism and feminist history lacked relevance.  She also said she didn't think I looked feminist, because I had worn dresses every time she saw me.

That's only two data points, but I found them both incredibly odd, both coming from other wise very educated and progressive people, both actively hostile to feminism, and both in a department with fairly prominent feminist faculty.

And the clothing thing.  I'm still pretty firmly on the side of wearing vintage doesn't mean you embrace the values of the time period it comes from (although I tend to favor vintage-look rather than true vintage or authentic reproduction because I find the restriction of movement impractical).  And I suppose one of the reasons I enjoy vintage look is that I enjoy both the performance of femininity and the shock value of contrasting it with the way I speak or its combination with "non-feminine" accessories or actions.  But that's the thing: I enjoy the performance of femininity as a performance, and because it is a constructed thing.  My favorite shoes are a couple of pairs of those 80s/90s dyed-to-match satin bridesmaid's heels because they're part of an extreme and artificial femininity.  (I also really like performing masculinity, but that's another post).

So I guess the point is this:  both of these examples came from people who I don't know very well, and who are at the beginning of their academic careers, but it makes me a. despair at the state of today's young people, and b. wonder how people who don't sew or think about the politics of vintage think about clothing.  And it boggles my mind that otherwise very progressive people can be actively anti-feminist, and make judgements about people's political positions based on their clothing.


  1. um, whoa. i don't actually know what to do with this because of how [insert inappropriate language] angry it makes me. both the specifics, but also the general response to feminism among [our? all?] students. your experiences here only add to my sense of what they think feminists look like, the pervasiveness of the idea that "feminist" is a dirty word, or somehow a substitute for a very narrow set of visual markers. feminism is a practice; not a costume.

  2. I've surprisingly never had the same reaction from undergraduate students--only these two graduate students (I guess one is still technically an undergrad). I go into my teaching expecting to have complaints about too many Indians or too many women (a comment which has shown up on my evals), but academia is supposedly more open and self-selecting. And like you said, to assume that feminism is a rejection of some set of visual markers shows how very little they know about feminism. I tend to expect hostility to feminism outside academia (I experienced a lot of that in working at museums in college), but I came into grad school in part because I found academia welcoming to feminism.

  3. I'm guessing this grad student is a fan of "The Family Guy"?

    I can't believe he told a rape joke, then tried it again later. Grad student? Really? Making fun of feminism? Really?

    And the whole wearing dresses not being feminist: that is some basic shit. Lipstick, heels, dresses are not banned. That's what's so awesome about feminism: none of these displays are banned for ANYONE. He could wear a vintage dress if he wanted to.

    Reading this post made me feel very prickly. Sorry you had to deal with that, but it sounds like you did it very gracefully.

  4. >I'm guessing this grad student is a fan of "The Family Guy"?

    Yep. Nail on the head.

    I think it has to do with what rooster said: a lot of people still have a very narrow, negative conception of what feminism is. Either that it's no longer relevant, or they have a picture of it that's been so twisted by pop culture/politics that it has very little to do with real feminism.

  5. Yeah, I was sitting at the pub amongst a group of drunk dudes once who began making rape jokes, and I said "you know, that's not so funny if you have actually been raped". I haven't been, but it made the point and they went dead silent.