“Maybe if I act like that, that guy will call me back… flippin’ my blond hair back, pushin’ up my bra like that… The disease is growing; it’s epidemic. I’m scared that there ain’t a cure. The world believes it, and I’m going crazy. I cannot take any more…outcasts and girls with ambition, that’s what I wanna see.”
—from the 2006 song “Stupid Girls” by PINK
Throughout history and across the world, women are valued for their vaginas. Whether one’s vagina is a “pearl” (pure and protected) or more like a “sports shoe” (used and worn), a woman’s primary value in a patriarchal society is her body’s ability to provide sexual pleasure to men.
Regardless of the progress we’ve made via the sexual revolution, feminism, and progressive values, women are still seen, whether consciously or subconsciously, as walking vaginas. We are prizes to be won by the up-and-coming and receptacles to be used by the established men in power. Even as we’re writing this, Charlie Rose and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) have joined the growing ranks of the sexual predators, led by our very own president, who govern our country and shape our media. Progressive men argue that they value women for their intellect, their ambition, and any number of other positive, asexual attributes. And, surely many do value those qualities in women, but they also still see women (even if they wish they didn’t) as sexual objects. Vaginas. However, what we find more distressing is how many women equate their own value and that of other women with their sexual appeal.
Recently, we overheard a woman in a coffee shop giving a teenage girl dating advice. In a Southern accent, the beautiful woman told the teenage girl never to make initial contact with a boy, as “he will never respect you, even if he ends up marrying you, if you speak to him first.” The more we listened, the more apparent her opinions correlated to The Rules self-help book. None of her dating advice concerned a woman being sexually independent or independently attracted to another person. She equated dating to the chase and the capture, winning the man-prize, but only by not appearing to chase and capture. Instead, she advised, a woman must act in a demure semblance of naiveté and withhold affection to test a man’s innate value. Her approach to romantic relationships was all game play and manipulation, cultivating another archaic generation of women who see their ever-valuable vagina as a golden ticket.
How many women still embrace this perspective on feminine value? Even our president openly measures his personal power by his ability to “grab ’em by the pussy” anytime he wants, and he is applauded (read: elected) despite this. Why wouldn’t an impressionable young woman believe that her future is inextricably tied to her body?
This overheard conversation evoked how much more often we talk about the ways men think of women and how men approach women, and how much less we discuss how women see each other and themselves within the framework of rape culture.
Culture plays a large role in gendered behavior. How men and women participate in the workforce, for example, or whether men or women are seen as more competitive — that comes down to what we’re taught and socialized to think. In pop artist Pink’s song, “Stupid Girl,” she sings about her desire to see “outcasts and girls with ambition.” This sentiment intersects with Beyoncé’s empowered “Run the World,” in which she asks, “Who runs the world? Girls!” Here Beyoncé oscillates between speaking to her fellow women and to the many men in the world who view women’s bodies as natural components of their own personal property: “Disrespect us, no they won’t / Boy, don’t even try to touch this.”
But in the space between these two lines exists the very impasse faced by women who are “girls with ambition” seeking to “run the world.” Men do “touch this.” Men do disrespect women in the workplace, as our news cycles verify daily. And the women who do run the world are the ones signified by Pink’s disgust: push-up bras, blond hair, make-up and high heels, dressing to suit the patriarchy. Some women do this consciously, knowing that in a male-dominated and privileged society, a sexy and attractive appearance is as important as individual talent and potential. Other women, like the one we overheard in the coffee shop, are unaware that they are a cultural construct woven together by patriarchy’s Dr. Frankenstein. For women, perpetuating the male ideal of beauty seems to be the real workplace halo effect.
The division of labor also supports and structures psychological sex differences. Children observe the activities of women and men in their society and form gender role beliefs or sex-typed expectations based on those observations. For example, given that women perform more childcare than men in most industrialized societies, women are believed to be especially nurturing. Given that men are more likely than women to hold higher status jobs in industrialized societies, men are believed to be especially dominant and assertive. And we believe these gendered norms about ourselves and each other as innate or natural.
Even when progressive ideas are promoted by family members or teachers, the standard gender roles within a society influence our understanding (and acceptance) of gender norms and our social and biological behaviors. In our social lives and workplace interactions, most of us respond more favorably to those who conform to gender role expectations. So we, women, incorporate the expected gender roles into our own personal identities.
All of us are cultural constructs in a Frankenstein-like sense, and some of us are at war with our creator, pushing against those defining heteronormative gender roles that we are still always responding to— even when we rebel.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels claimed that the bourgeoisie created within the proletariat the means of its own demise. Have we? Can women take down this pussy-grabbing culture from within? Can we resemble Pink’s stupid girl from the outside and simultaneously dismantle the patriarchal culture that created her? If we say no, then are we falling into the same gendered binaries we’re trying to undo, dictating that true feminists can only look and behave a certain way and that being sexy by society’s standards automatically disqualifies you? If we do participate in the patriarchal beauty ideal, are we perpetuating it and rendering ourselves one more pussy to grab?
The way forward is blurry, and the lines between rebellion and participation/perpetuation are not clearly demarcated. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley notes in Frankenstein: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” For women raised in a patriarchal society, not only is our confidence affected by, say, powerful men masturbating in front of us at work, but our self-worth also falls subject to public opinion and acceptance. Being pretty has been ingrained into our collective mind for centuries. So too, however, has the equivalence of women and their bodies in the male collective. And so we find ourselves echoing Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, as he tries to understand his own existence: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
What’s important is that we all, men and women, continue to ask these questions and consciously deconstruct the culture that created us.