Last week, I got into a fight on Twitter with New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, whose work I respect, and it wasn’t about anything that either of us had written; rather, we were tussling over the merits of a piece written by Tom Junod, for Esquire, about how today’s 42-year-old women are hotter than ever before.
There’s no need to linger over our differences: I thought the article was a piece of sexist tripe, celebrating a handful of Pilates-toned, famous, white-plus-Maya-Rudolph women as having improved on the apparently dismal aesthetics of previous generations; my primary objections to the piece have been ably laid out by other critics. Chait tweeted that he viewed the piece as a “mostly laudable” sign of progress: a critique not of earlier iterations of 42-year-old womanhood, but rather of the old sexist beauty standards that did not celebrate those women; he saw it as an acknowledgment of maturing male attitudes toward women’s value.
The truth is, had Chait been correct about it being a thoughtful piece laying into the entrenched short-sightedness and sexist cruelty of male-controlled media, I might have hated it more. Then I would have felt obligated to feel grateful for it, grateful in the same way I’m supposed to feel grateful toward, say, Marvel Comics for making Thor a woman, or toward Harry Reid for challenging Mitch McConnell on some typically boorish and inane statement how women have achieved workforce equality. In its actual form, I didn’t have to consider thinking Yay, thanks for some crumbs of enlightened thinking, for some slightly nuanced improvements in the daily, punishing business of publicly evaluating and then reevaluating women’s worth.
Instead, I’ve been thinking about an anecdote in Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” In Fey’s retelling, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,” forcefully informing him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Just this week, the journalist Megan Carpentier wrote a piece about the evolving public appraisals of Hillary Clinton’s facial expressions that concluded with her suggestion that we get over the idea of 2014 being “the year of the strong female politician” and aim instead for “the year of the strong female politician who doesn’t give a fuck if you think she’s pretty.”
Carpentier doesn’t care if you like it. Neither does Buzzfeed writer Arianna Rebolini, who wrote this week about the video for John Legend’s song “You and I,” about the diverse beauty of women. Rebolini dutifully yay-thanks-ed the fact that it’s “uplifting to see these women—of all ages, sizes, ethnicities—in the spotlight” before confessing her discomfort with how the song’s lyrics fall into the well-worn pop tradition of celebrating the beauty of women who don’t know they’re beautiful. “These songs, which presume to assure women that they are attractive (and, by extension, worthwhile),” Rebolini writes, “assume that the singer’s relationship to our bodies overrules our relationship with them.”
Arianna Rebolini doesn’t care if you like it. “Don’t tell us we don’t know we’re beautiful,” she concludes. “And certainly don’t tell us that our ignorance to this fact is our best quality. We’re good.”
I suspect that a lot of this irritation over the small stuff right now is directly related to the fact that we’re mired in a moment at which lots and lots of women are not good, for reasons far graver than anything having to do with Esquire, Jimmy Fallon, John Legend, or Hillary Clinton’s Bitchy Resting Face.
Stacia Brown recently wrote a lyrical, sad piece in Gawker that began with a description of some raucous young men outside her sleeping daughter’s window, speculating about whether a woman they knew had HIV. She described those boys as “negotiating [the woman’s] worth to them. … It isn’t clear to me if they even know that it is moot to denigrate a woman for contracting a disease that she has likely gotten for a man. … [But] in 2014, only women are called ‘loose’ in voices that carry.” These days, Brown went on, “casting lots about a young girl’s sexual history, while walking in the summer night under the neighbors’ open windows, is practically innocuous. … At least they are not bragging about having roofied her.”
But Brown doesn’t emphasize her gratitude that these men were not doing something worse, largely because her essay is actually about Jada, the 16-year-old Houston girl who last week told the story of how she was drugged and sexually assaulted at a party; images of her naked, limp body were shared—and mocked—on social media.
Jada’s story recalls too many other recent headlines, but happens to have come out at the same time as last weekend’s lengthy New York Times investigation of Hobart & William Smith’s handling of charges that football players sexually assaulted a freshman girl. The Times story was about a lot of things—differences between campus and police investigations, a heightened public awareness about the frequency of coerced or violent sexual encounters on college campuses. But at its heart, it was a story about how women are assessed: by disciplinary committees, police departments, their friends, the public, and by the people they identify as their assailants. It was about how female availability and consent and intoxication are appraised based on how women look, dance, dress, and act, even when those appraisals are at odds with medical evidence, eyewitness accounts, inconsistent stories from accused parties, and certainly with the woman’s own interpretation of her experience or intentions.
This comfort with group assessment of femininity in turn reminds me of the ease with which women’s choices regarding their bodies, futures, health, sex, and family life are up for public evaluation. Women are labeled as good or bad, as moral or immoral, by major religions and “closely held corporations,” whose rights to allow those estimations to dictate their corporate obligations are upheld over the rights of the women themselves by high courts.
It has lately been made perfectly clear, for example, that while in many places women should not be allowed—and increasingly are not allowed—to run their own independent calculations about whether or not to get abortions, other people, unspecified people standing outside clinics, should be allowed—are now allowed—to get in those women’s faces and publicly render their judgments and voice their opinions about those women and their circumstances.
These days, law enforcement can comfortably deem a Tennessee mother unfit and jail her for having taken methamphetamine while pregnant. Authorities can condemn—by arrest and the removal of her child to foster care—South Carolina mother Debra Harrell, who allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play at the park while she worked at McDonald’s. It’s such a comfortable pose, gathering around women and deciding what we think of them—hot or not, alluring or tragic, moral or immoral, responsible or irresponsible, capable of consent or incapable of consent, maternal or neglectful.
The problem isn’t so simple as a man-versus-woman frame. Examples of this evaluative pattern are rarely as easy to parse as when a men’s magazine writer treats some women as steaks who’ve gotten tastier with age, Pilates, and feminism. After all, women ran the disciplinary committee that was so quick to dismiss rape charges at Hobart & William Smith. On Tuesday, Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn and other female anti-choice activists testified against the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would ban onerous restrictions on abortion rights and that was sponsored by senators Tammy Baldwin and Richard Blumenthal, a man. Meanwhile, a bill to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision was co-sponsored by senators Patty Murray and Mark Udall, another man. Many of the sharpest take-downs of Junod’s piece came from men, and I want to note that my Twitter-sparrer Jonathan Chait yesterday wrote one of the finest and most astute pieces about the injustice of Harrell’s arrest.
Yay, thanks! No, really, I mean it.
But what all these issues, no matter how gigantically separated an Esquire puff piece and a Tennessee mother’s jailing for meth may seem, reflect back at us: How, in this country, every barometer by which female worth is measured—from the superficial to the life-altering, the appreciative to the punitive—has long been calibrated to “dude,” whether or not those measurements are actually being taken by dudes. Men still run, or at bare minimum have shaped and codified the attitudes of, the churches, the courts, the universities, the police departments, the corporations that so freely determine women’s worth. As Beyoncé observed last year, “Money gives men power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous, and I wish we could all tell them how little it matters what they think. Except that of course most women, those who bear the brunt of these assessments, aren’t Beyoncé or Amy Poehler—who, not coincidentally, was on Junod’s list of newly un-tragic 42-year-olds. Instead, they are women who may not be able to pay for Pilates, let alone for day care or contraceptives, who may need but not be able to afford drug treatment, who Esquire would likely still rate as not-hot or more likely not rate at all, but whose fates nonetheless rest in the hands of empowered committees on the general value and status of womanhood in America.
I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around—on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage—and go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”