The above image is one that I have come to like very much. The woman pictured is dressed in a style called Sweet Lolita (nothing to do with the book – Lolita is a Japanese street fashion derived from Victorian style and encompassing styles from the hyper-pink Sweet to the darkly Gothic). She is about as far from the stereotype of A Feminist as you can get – and I think feminism in general is better off for having her as part of the movement.
You’d have to have been living under a rock today not to have guessed why I’m writing about this in particular. Everybody on the internet seems to have watched the EU’s Science: It’s A Girl Thing teaser video, and the overwhelming majority of watchers are seriously unimpressed. And yes, it’s with good cause – the video looks more like an ad for a cosmetics company or a Bratz doll than something meant to evoke a desire to enter a scientific career. Adult women find it patronising, and there’s research to suggest that younger girls find the pinkification of science more off a turn-off than a draw.
I agree with that much. The teaser video is seriously ridiculous – however, the other videos on the ScienceGirlThing Youtube channel seem to be a lot better (not particularly difficult, but I’m trying to find any bit of encouragement I can muster, here). It’s not that criticism I have a problem with: it’s the somewhat worrying train of thought which says that if you enjoy things that are stereotypically ‘feminine’ – makeup, clothes, flowers, cats, whatever – you are submitting to The Patriarchy and letting the side down.
I don’t like writing in academic vernacular here, as I tend to find that a lot of internet discussion adopts an overly academic tone that alienates the casual reader. Just bear with me for a few sentences, okay?
Most feminist thinkers agree that the gender roles assigned by a patriarchal society – one that privileges men and maleness ahead of women and femaleness – are oppressive and designed to keep the genders separate and bound within agreed-upon walls, thus making it easier to keep women ‘in our places’. Think the moronic ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’ jokes, or the assumption that in a heterosexual couple, the man will be the earner and the woman will raise the children. Makes sense, right?
However, many women enjoy ‘feminine’ things. Many of us pay attention to our appearance because we enjoy it; most mothers are mothers because they want to be, and many of them happily make the choice to be the main caregiver to their children in the home. This doesn’t make them any less feminists. What feminism has fought for, is still fighting for, is to give women the choice to act however they wish. If we discount the choices of some women just because they are more approved-of societally, we act contrary to that goal.
How women perform their gender – how they dress, how they act, how they speak and write and interact with the world – is the choice of every individual woman. Society still considers it okay for a girl to be a tomboy, but thinks it weird for a boy to want a dress. Society applauds women engaging in physical labour, but nudges its neighbour and mutters about the sexuality of a male beautician. Society tells people to ‘man up!’ but if they fail to do so, regards them as a big girl’s blouse. What does that tell us about society’s attitude to femaleness – and by extension, to women?
It says that it’s lesser, that’s what. That things designated ‘female’ are not as worthy as those considered ‘male’. That maleness is considered a status to be achieved, to receive congratulations on, while femaleness is weak and in need of correction. That misogyny is written into a lot of how we see ourselves and each other, and that if we really believe in women’s equality, we need to believe that equality is there for all women, not just those whose choices appeal to us.
So back to our rose-tinted lab goggles. I’ve spent a lot of this evening reading reactions to the campaign, and I find myself torn. On one hand, the teaser video is indeed patronising drivel. It says, in summary, that women won’t be interested in science unless it’s presented to us under a coat of pink shiny things – rubbish, of course: as Sean Carroll puts it, “If you want to make science seem exciting to girls, it helps to start from a perspective that science is interesting to all human beings, and that girls are human beings.” But the reaction which takes the form of ‘ugh, who cares about shoes and makeup?’ is also damaging, in a different way. If the object of the exercise is to make science a more welcoming field to women, it needs to be for ALL women. Laughing at women who practice traditional femininity just becomes one more barrier to cross, one more rejection to get through, in a field that we’re still being told is dominated by men.
If you want a good example of how to promote science to girls, you could do worse than showing them This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, a crowd-sourced collection of photos from scientists of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Realistic, welcoming, and comprehensive, it’s a far better way to show girls that science will welcome you no matter what you look like or how you present.
Oh, and that scientists are pretty goddamn awesome. Which they are. All of them.
(first image found via tumblr, no source given but happy to correct if it’s yours; second image via Who Needs Feminism?)