A Good Dressing Down

Over the past few years there have been a multitude of successful, independent women who have preferred to distance themselves from feminism; among them, the monolith of the music industry, Lady Gaga and the revered actress, Judi Dench. Gaga has said of the topic ‘I’m not a feminist – I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars…there’s a stigma around feminism that’s a little bit man-hating. ‘The pop singer Gabriella Cilmi’s woeful appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks a few years ago voiced her apathy somewhat less eloquently. When presenter Simon Amstell asked Cilmi in front of fellow panellist Germaine Greer, what she thought about feminism, Cilmi collapsed into a fit of embarrassed giggles, saying ‘Er I don’t think people should say bad things against women? I don’t know.’

The above examples hardly form a compelling case that all modern women have turned their backs on feminism. Yet it increasingly seems that feminism no longer strikes a chord; it has become an archaic, and slightly embarrassing term associated with burning bras and hating men. Some may look to the ‘slut walk’ movement this year as evidence that feminism still has a heartbeat. But whilst these protests rightly condemned the widely supported male, and sometimes female view that women should avoid dressing provocatively if they want to avoid unwanted male attention or even rape, the protests also showed the troubling turn feminism has taken. The founders of the London slut walks claimed the movement was about fighting for the right for women to wear whatever they please, regardless of how provocative, without it making her the subject of harassment or vilification. The protests should rightly be applauded for exposing the abhorrent treatment female rape victims endure; the idea that she deserved it by the way she dressed or acted. But at the same time, how much should we really celebrate women parading themselves as ‘sluts’? Is this actually a worthy feminist aim, and why do women want to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘slut’? Similarly, is someone like Rihanna, parading herself on our screens in hot pants and a bra, really a symbol of sexual liberation, a true role model for young women?

The rift between celebrating provocative women and condemning them was perfectly encapsulated by the furore created over the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen’s latest adverts for the lingerie company ‘Hope’. In the series of adverts, Gisele approaches the camera fully clothed and apologises to her husband for several marital blunders; for example crashing the car, and maxing out the credit card. The advert advises her that this is the incorrect way to appease him, and she is then seen apologising again, but this time wearing just lingerie. The advert voiceover, ‘you’re a Brazilian woman, use your charm’ suggests that women can only get their way, or make a point, by being semi-naked. The advert has now been banned by Brazilian authorities, claiming it to be ‘offensive and sexist’, and this seems entirely justifiable considering Brazil’s appalling record of domestic abuse against women.

Yet in a wider context, there are just as many arguments for why the adverts support female liberation and independence as detract from it. Hope swiftly positioned a spokeswoman between itself and the growing furore, who cleverly stated; ‘it would be absurd for us, who make a living off the preferences of women, to do anything to devalue our main consumer’ suggesting that the bright sparks of the advertising and consumer world believe that this spokeswoman in particular, and most women in general, would actually react positively to the adverts, choosing to see a semi-naked woman using her inherent femininity and sexuality to manipulate a man into getting her own way.

Considering how long it has taken women to be in a position where they can make their own choices about how they choose to look and what they want to wear, celebrating models such as Giselle in this way may seem as something of a goal for women belonging to western democracies, particularly when put in a wider global context where many women are still under enormous male pressure to conform to more modest standards of dress, appearance and behaviour. Yet ultimately, women who choose to pander to celebrities’ obsessions with their perfect looks and perfect, surgically-enhanced bodies, and women who choose to defend their right to wear as little as they like, cannot really pretend to be part of a positive step forward for women. In a world where sexism still pervades our society, it seems sad that only on matters of appearance and sexual autonomy will women find a zealous passion to defend themselves. What about other issues that need passionate defence; for example, the fact that no women were deemed worthy enough of being awarded Sports Personality of the Year last year, David Cameron’s sexist remarks to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons and the fact that only four women are included in his male-dominated cabinet, or that last year it was reported that half of all FTSE 250 companies did not have a woman in the boardroom? In a wider global context, more basic female rights are consistently violated, for example the persistent and horrific honour killings that go on in Turkey, and the lack of reproductive rights still denied to women in much of Africa.

The problem is a culture based on the sexualisation of girls and women highlighted by the 2011 Bailey report. From adverts, television programmes, music videos and even clothing (in particular, the padded bras being sold by certain retail chains to young children, and the Topman t-shirts, indirectly comparing women to dogs, and lazily condoning domestic abuse) women and young girls are surrounded by a suffocating society urging them to be obsessed with their looks and their sex appeal and nothing else. Because beauty and glamour fuels so many consumer industries, some women seem to become consumed by it too, and so only engage in feminist activity when it specifically touches on their right to dress as skimpily as possible. The real question that has to be asked is why women choose to wear less, and whether this is in fact a exercise in sexual liberation and self-autonomy, or merely a pandering to a culture and industry based on sexist female stereotypes that so many of these ‘sluts’ claim to reject.