Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Do Lipstick Feminists Actually Exist?




FEMINISM.



I’ve written five beginnings to what I intended to be a mini treatise on “lipstick feminism,” but I keep running into the same problem: It doesn't seem to actually exist. Sure, there’s a handful of Twitter accounts with “lipstick feminist” in the handle or description (some of which seem fab); there’s the odd blog with the same, or the stray essay about Why Lipstick Feminism Is Fine. But we’re talking about single-digit numbers in each medium here, folks. And as for offline lipstick feminists? I have yet to meet a single one. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve met plenty of feminists who wear lipstick. (It will probably not shock you to learn that this blogger indeed is one of them, both literally—lipstick corollary, yo!—and figuratively, as in, duh, look at this blog.) In fact, when I took a quick Twitter survey the other day, that was the number-one response I got: I’m a feminist, and I wear lipstick, but I’m not a lipstick feminist—followed by, I’m not exactly sure what that is.

Lipstick feminism, as I’ve seen it used (in accord with that highly reliable source of all wisdom, Wikipedia), is the idea that conventionally feminine hallmarks—lipstick and other cosmetics, heels, perhaps suggestive dress—can be a source of power for women, not simply a sign of one’s obedience to patriarchal requests. It’s somewhat related to the idea of “erotic capital” in that it seeks to render traditional signals of female sexuality as legitimate routes to authority—but feminism or some semblance of it, not money and other forms of capital, is the goal.

This is an intentionally friendly definition of lipstick feminism—in fact, if this description were what people were actually referring to when they use the term, I might on occasion identify myself by it (even as I’m skeptical of the idea that using one’s sexuality is a legitimate route to authority. It might be effective sometimes, sure, but it’s forever dependent on the mercy of people with actual power). But here’s the thing: Most times I’ve read or heard the words “lipstick feminist,” derision has been the intent. Sometimes it’s feminists explaining why the concept is bollocks; sometimes it’s from people using it to dismiss feminism wholesale. In other words, it’s a word we use to describe other people, not ourselves.

Not that this is restricted to lipstick feminism. Fact is, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a feminist qualify her feminism with any sort of label, even labels that were established by feminists themselves. Third-wave and second-wave are possible exceptions here, but not “official” schools of thought, even if any individual feminist generally adheres to one. And the reason we don’t tend to sort ourselves out by neat labels is that most of us believe a whole lotta things. I believe that legislative reform can be beneficial to women; I believe that men and women have some essential differences beyond mere biology; I believe gender oppression is linked to capitalism. So am I a liberal feminist, a cultural feminist, or a Marxist feminist—or am I just a feminist with a multifaceted approach to her politics, and indeed her life?

Yet you’ll notice that these various schools of feminist thought—which I’m guessing some women do stick to pretty strictly and would use to define themselves, though again, I can’t think of more than a couple of times that I’ve heard someone identify herself as an “[insert school of thought] feminist”—are named by their organizing approach and systems, not by their specific beliefs. That is, I can’t imagine anyone saying, “I’m a government-subsidized child care feminist” or “I’m a sexual violence feminist,” though both of these things fall under a feminist umbrella.

So enter “lipstick feminism”—hell, enter “pro-sex feminism,” which has always irked me because it implies that there are anti-sex feminists, and you’ve got to get pretty deep into an overly literal interpretation of certain strains of radical feminism before you’re going to find any of those. ("We so horny!") It reduces a concept that in some ways is simple (women = people!) and makes it simplistic, boiling down one of the most influential movements of the 20th century and putting a swivel cap on it. It trivializes feminism—hell, it even trivializes the questions implied by the term itself (can conscious exploitation of one’s own sexuality be a feminist act in some circumstances?). Like “pro-sex feminist,” it implies that there are feminists who are against lipstick, playing into that whole “feminists are ugly hairy-legged lesbians” stereotype that I thought we’d retired eons ago. And speaking of lesbians, isn’t the term “lipstick feminist” linguistically similar to the more established term “lipstick lesbian,” thus sapphically binding the two together in the listener’s mind?

And furthermore! Gah, I went and did what I said I wasn’t going to do: I’ve spent all this energy on what I’m pretty sure is a straw feminist.

But here’s the thing: Above all else, I’ve always believed that feminism—or any kind of social movement—takes all types. We need the Planned Parenthood canvassers I avoid on the street; we need the driven, unswayable voices you might describe as, yes, strident; we need nice-girl feminists who take pride in gently educating others about feminism; we need people whose response to teach me is don’t make me do your work for you. We need men; we need women-only spaces; we need people who reject a gender binary; we need people who use the gender binary to articulate the idea of a female essence and what that might mean. We need the marches and petitions; we need the quiet, life-changing transformations that take place in families over generations. We need the wearers of “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” and we need the “I’m not a feminist buts” too.

Which means we just might need lipstick feminists. So here’s what I’m wondering: Do you describe yourself as a lipstick feminist? If so, do you define it similarly to how I’ve defined it here, or do you have a different interpretation of the term? If you don’t call yourself a lipstick feminist: Do you think the term should be reclaimed? Is the label feminist-bait or is it a handy way of making the point that feminism needn’t be incompatible with beauty work?

(Thanks to Chelsea “Dipstick Feminist” Summers, Elisa “Pole Dancing Feminist” Gabbert, Rosalind Jana, Lacy “Eyeliner Feminist” of ModernSauce, Alyssa Harad, Rachel Hills, Nicole “Doc Martens Feminist” Kristal, Lily “Googling How to Get Red Wine Stain Off My Lips Feminist” Benson, Heli Lähteelä-Tabone, Cassandra Goodwin, and “Underwire Feminist” Bubbles for a set of thought-provoking and oft-hilarious answers to my Twitter inquiry on the matter.)

40 comments:

  1. I've actually never heard this term, to be honest. The more people attach beauty and what makeup we choose to feminist choices the more superficial it becomes. I wear makeup because I like makeup. Not because it has anything to do with my political and social beliefs.

    Interesting discussion!

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    1. Yep! Even though there's our whole cadre of bloggers that does examine makeup from a feminist perspective, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of people who are hostile to feminism making that link.

      I was hoping you'd respond, given your red lipstick experiment--which in my mind is definitely feminist, the idea of challenging yourself to be more highly visible in the world. It's the intent, not the stuff in the tube, though I know that opens up the whole "any choice a woman makes is feminist yay!" can o' worms.

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    2. I agree with you-- I wear makeup because I like it. I like to paint my face and look interesting. I don't actually carewhat men OR women think of it, but I am curious as to the feminist perspective on it all.

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  2. Interesting discussion. As the prior commenter noted, the term is a little outdated. I remember first hearing it 2-3 decades ago. Young women today may not be familiar with it and its history.

    Regardless of that, the question you raise is important. I look forward to reading future answers. Although I'm a feminist and wear lipstick, I wasn't raised female and don't presume to know what real female life is. Whether and the extent to which women can (or should) derive social or personal power from femininity is for them to say, not me.

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    1. Oh, and your reference to "anti-sex feminists": We (radical feminists) were called that in the 80's when we protested pornography. It wasn't true and was used as a smear by pro-pornography proponents (Ellen Willis, et al.).

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    2. I'd be curious to know how it was used 2-3 decades ago--was it used in the same way I'm defining it here? Or was it a smear much like what you point out about "anti-sex feminists"?

      Your perspective on this is particularly interesting--it seems you derive some form of power from engaging in conventional femininity, but that's also because there's a sort of liberation there since you weren't raised female. I suppose that begs the question of whether "choice" to engage in femininity makes it feminist--but I also know that plenty of transgendered people never felt like it was a choice per se, even if the choice to be "out" was. Hmmm, this is complex!

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    3. To be honest, all of this stuff is terribly complicated. As soon as you think you have a handle on it, you realize there's more complexity around the corner.

      The earliest use of the phrase "lipstick feminists" was by anti-feminists who thought they were undermining feminism by pointing out that some smart women still enjoyed being feminine. They weren't crediting those women with having power, only criticizing feminists who rejected femininity.

      The interplay between my feminism (which comes from careful study of social conditions) and my transgenderism (which is personal) is very, very difficult to explain or reconcile. In the former, I use mental tools to understand social dynamics; in the latter, I'm going purely on instinct. How my transgenderism "appears" may not be what it means to me and, in any event, I'm utterly unconcerned about its social reception. After a lifetime of conforming, I'm sick of that and am pursuing what feels right.

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  3. I had never heard the term before you asked about it on Twitter yesterday. I immediately saw it as a complement to "lipstick lesbian," so I interpreted it to mean something like "a feminist who embraces femininity/her femmey side," which sounded kind of cute (I do! you do!). But now I see how it's clearly intended to be derogatory, like "subpar feminism." I try to stay away from feminist infighting, but I (reluctantly?) admit to feeling judgmental towards the attitude that any choice a woman makes can be "feminist" and "empowering" as long as she's choosing to do it. I just don't know about that.

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    1. Yeah, it's funny that this is one of the few feminist things that makes me truly harrumphy--like you, feminist infighting holds nothing for me. And I really am hoping to hear from some self-identified lipstick feminists on this because I really am glad pretty much anytime I hear anyone using the f-word to describe themselves! Oi.

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    2. I struggle with the "choose my choice!" crowd too. On one hand, I think that this whole "I am empowered by everything I choose!" has rendered the word "empowered" all but meaningless. But then I also worry that we run the risk of replacing one orthodoxy with another, and that instead of opening up the variety of choices for women and girls (and ultimately men and boys) we end up locking ourselves down into a set of feminist-approved behaviors. I don't really have any easy answers, beyond that I think about this probably more than is healthy (especially as a proud feminist who has regularly made choices that are not exactly in line with the feminist orthodoxy).

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    3. I feel like the "anything women do is OK" rhetoric is often used toward un-feminist ends ... it reminds me of "reverse sexism" and "reverse racism," where you're trying to beat someone with their own argument even though you're on the other side. Clearly, some things are sexist, and just because a woman is engaging in them doesn't automatically make them NOT sexist. That's my thinking anyway.

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    4. >Clearly, some things are sexist, and just because a woman is engaging in them doesn't automatically make them NOT sexist.<

      Sing it, sister. I too don't want to be the arbiter of What Is Feminist, but I know this is one of the #1 things I hear from anti-feminists: "But it was a woman doing [insert sexist behavior]." Like women can't be sexist! Internalized oppression blah blah blah.

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  4. I completely agree that it takes all kinds of people to form a movement, because each kind of person will have their own tactics and their own strategies for dealing with things, and when you take it all together, you end up with a gradual sea change that affects all levels of society.

    About "lipstick feminist": honestly, I've only ever heard the term used derisively to describe feminists who are "patriarchy compliant" - you know, who use the privileges that come along with being stereotypically feminine and who don't disrupt the status quo too much. I don't really use the term because it always seemed kind of mean to me, but I can see how someone might want to take it and redefine it for their own uses.

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    1. After thinking about it more, I think the idea of reclamation is probably too insular here to do any good. I keep forgetting that the circles I run in online (and in person) are self-selected, and that in fact most people don't parse over this kind of stuff as intensely as I might. So while I might use "lipstick feminism" to describe one facet of my own politics to a feminist I thought might be friendly to the notion, I really can't imagine describing myself that way to someone who's coming from a more mainstream concept of what feminism is, i.e. humorless, angry, etc.

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    2. For sure. I mean, it's still enough of a shocking thing to openly identify as feminist in many places. Adding a qualifier to it - whether it's "lipstick" or "Marxist" - would probably just make people stare at us blankly. And now that I think of it, even a lot of the people I know who are either feminist or feminist sympathizers have no understanding about the finer ideological divisions.

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  5. I also don't hear this term much anymore but I agree that feminism is about everyone coming together in support of women. You don't have to be a certain type of women. You can be trans, you can be a man. In fact, I think acknowledging that women can be any kind of feminist they want to be is pretty important to feminism, as it is. I think it is damaging to think you need to behave in a certain way to be a valuable part of the movement.

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    1. >I think it is damaging to think you need to behave in a certain way to be a valuable part of the movement.<

      Perfectly put. I worry that putting forth the idea that there is some sort of feminist lifestyle idea just keeps more people away from it, you know?

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  6. Sure, I'm a lipstick feminist. It seems obvious to me that feminine presentation is a legitimate source of power. As a whore, I get a lot of power and money based largely on my ability to look like a female person. I don't see that "a sign of one's obedience to patriarchal requests" is at all what that's about.

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    1. The lipstick feminist lives! I'm glad to hear from you. It's interesting that you're a sex worker, since the beauty-as-capital equation there is explicit in ways that it isn't in other professions. I remember talking with a sex worker who said that there was both tension and relief in having her financial worth directly tied to her looks--tension in that if she fell astray of the "rules," she could be at financial risk, but relief in having that relationship spelled out instead of having it be ambiguous. I'd love to hear more on your identification as a lipstick feminist if you feel like expounding.

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    2. I'd say that definitely has a lot to do with it. I never thought of femininity as particularly a skill or source of power until I started getting paid to look nice. It seems like most of the world, especially feminist spheres, want people to believe that appearance/fashion/style is basically a personal choice and doesn't affect your value or power levels. But since taking on my jobs, it's been astounding realizing how much work is going into looking like a lady.

      Basically, I'm doing professionally what a lot of people do for free. It's made me realize it as legitimate labour, in much the same way that cooking is, and housework hopefully can be. All of these things have commonly been done by wives, for husbands, for free. But they can also be done professionally.

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    3. >Basically, I'm doing professionally what a lot of people do for free.<

      Exactly. That's part of why I've sought out voices of sex workers on this blog; I think there's something illuminating about having that relationship spelled out. I'm not sure how much you've read The Beheld, but you might find these two interviews interesting:

      Charlotte Shane (prostitute, also now an editor at Tits and Sass): http://www.the-beheld.com/2011/05/charlotte-shane-prostitute-east-coast.html

      Tizz Wall (pro-domme and activist): http://www.the-beheld.com/2013/01/tizz-wall-domme-oakland-california.html

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    4. I'd say I'm marginally a lipstick feminist. I don't particularly wear a lot of make-up or dress like Erin Brockovich, I just believe that make-up/ hair dye (preferably produced by responsible companies) can function as a visible declaration of war against the idea that biology equals destiny, which I view as the antithesis of feminism. Bonus points for adding confidence to the wearer or subverting the dominant idea of "sexy."

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    5. Auntie Lolo, that's a great point--the idea of declaring way on "biology equals destiny." And sure enough, that's one of the reasons makeup is often linked to morality--it was seen as women being "deceptive".

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  7. This idea of lipstick feminist..I am trying to wrap my head around it. I play in a rock band and wear wild lipstick colors, show cleavage and legs, and did some femme fatale/ pinup style press photos. I'm wondering if a lipstick feminist really exists (ha!) I don't know because on the one hand you have the men warming up to you and the women shying away (generally), so I would say no- this does not empower women and therefore is not anything feminist. On the other hand you do have "erotic capital." But the question is, like you say, is that legitimate power? That's what baffles me. One could argue yes and no, I think. (ideas?)

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    1. For entertainers I think the idea of "erotic capital" might be a somewhat more direct route to legitimate power than for non-entertainers, in the sense that part of the "product" you're selling is a sort of sense of full persona and you're engaging listeners/audience with your entire self, which includes sexuality (and which I'm not saying is a bad thing; plenty of performers of all sorts do this in ways that's organic and that makes sense for their work). But that said, if it causes an undesired reaction amongst a good portion of your audience, you could also argue that entertainers are trading in some forms of power for others? I'm not sure. Hmm.

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    2. I might have called myself a Lipstick Feminist when the term was big—late 90’s? And I only ever associated it with freedom of choice: pro women, pro feminine, pro lipstick, pro wearwhateverthefuckwewant. The original feminist movement had to be radical—no bras; no makeup; no obligatory blowjobs—because a movement has to be extreme to ever get off the ground. I think Lipstick Feminism was a natural pendulum swing back: we could be Feminists AND be feminine. But, you’re right, it has taken on a derogatory tone recently so personally I feel it’s lost its power. I like the idea of Free Feminists: the choice is all ours, the only rule is Go Girl.

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    3. Angela, that's a great point--that to be heard at all at the beginning, feminists had to be more extreme. It's funny, Gloria Steinem (who was rewritten as a "great beauty" by the press to contrast her against those "other" feminists) is often credited with bringing a sort of legitimacy to the movement because she showed that you don't "have" to be totally masculinized to be a feminist (!), but without the prominent feminists who weren't as glamorous-looking--Kate Millett, Betty Freidan--the movement wouldn't have needed a poster child in the first place.

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  8. For a version that isn't based on a personal relationship to lipstick or sex appeal, I recommend Linda Scott's "Fresh Lipstick": http://amzn.to/10SYYUl Also check out her current work at http://www.doublexeconomy.com//

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    1. The book is now on its way to me! Thanks for the recommendation(s).

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  9. I'm just now getting around to my reading so thanks for the shout out! The comments here were fascinating... Going to read the posts about the sex workers now!

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  10. i wonder why the name lipstick was used instead of other words to describe women.

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