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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thanks for the confirmation

So you may remember a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about a particularly ridiculous blog post which claimed that the popularity of the GIF of Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke doing a little warm-up dance before competing was due to the fact that men-- in general, men-- do not love feminists. How did the author of this post, Matt Forney, know this? Well, because he could see that Jenneke is a) attractive, b) apparently happy, and c) has accomplished something, all of which together indicate that she is the very opposite of a feminist. Because feminists are ugly, miserable, and do nothing aside from bitch.

I was very careful in my reply to note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding Jenneke attractive, but that my suspicion is that men do not, in fact, "love" her-- that contrary to Forney's suggestion, men who drool over Jenneke do not do so to the exclusion of enjoying porn, and almost certainly have not given up even a moment of porn viewing fun in favor of watching Jenneke bounce around suggestively-yet-innocently. They simply added it to their stable of wank material, alongside that GIF from several years ago but still going strong, French singer Alizee frozen in a single arousing dance move. And she (Jenneke, but also Alizee actually) achieved such status not because an ideological objection to the Bechdel test or a refusal to support the establishment of sexual harassment policies at conferences came shining through to all viewers of a four second GIF, but because because that GIF gets them hot. It's as simple as that.

After noticing a number of hits here that came from Forney's blog, I returned to see that he had written a follow-up post which talked about my post. Want to guess what it said? I'll make it a multiple choice question:

A. You know what? I am actually reading too much into this, and should go with the simplest explanation rather than making other men's attraction all about my particular ideological agenda.

B. You know what? I don't think I was given a fair shake-- there are actually differences in the appearance of feminists vs. non or anti-feminists, and while I didn't go to much trouble to articulate these or why they should exist, that's a factor that should be taken into account here.

C. You know what? It's really weird that I didn't bother to make any distinction between "attractive" and "attractive to me," since I can only speak for myself, and since (as with everybody, whether they admit it or not) my own perception of what I consider attractive is shaped by my ideological convictions.

D. You know what? Gretchen's ugly. And probably autistic.

I'll give you a moment to think before answering.

Done? Yeah, I didn't think it would take long. The answer is....D!
The idea that feminists/MRAs might be socially retarded first came to me when I read this feminist response to my Michelle Jenneke post. In particular, it was this passage that lit me up:
The best thing about this long discussion of how feminine, how confident, how accomplished, and how generally wonderful Jenneke is, is that Forney has no idea whatsoever if anything he’s saying about her character is true. All he knows, based on this commentary, is that she’s an athlete who looks graceful and happy. That’s it. Oh, and that she’s hot. [...]
Now, in a strict sense, she is right: I’ll likely never meet Jenneke and thus I’ll never get to find out what she’s like. But she’s really pulling the tired “you can’t judge a book by its cover” line that fatties, uggos and other weirdos use to defend themselves. At our deepest levels, we all know it’s bullshit: a person’s outward appearance is a reflection of their soul in nine out of ten cases. A well-dressed businessman, a filthy bum, a scantily-clad woman; if you use your instincts to make snap judgments of people according to their appearance, you’ll be on the money most of the time. 
What got me thinking is that feminists may not simply be using that line as a defense mechanism: it might be that they legitimately can’t tell what people are like from looking at them. One of the defining characteristics—hell, the defining characteristic—of autism and Asperger’s is an inability to understand social cues. When Gretchen Koch watches that video of Michelle Jenneke’s “sexy” dancing, it may be that she honestly cannot read the social cues that Jenneke is inadvertently telegraphing through her behavior, cues that I and millions of socially adjusted men instinctively pick up on. 
To further drive the point home, Koch has a picture of herself on her blog’s sidebar. There are no good-looking feminists for a reason: when was the last time you met a good-looking person with autism?
Actually if you read through the literature, one of the oft-repeated descriptions of people on the autism spectrum is that they are unusually attractive. Something to keep in mind there is that autism is primarily a disorder of the male brain, and by that I mean both that it predominates in males and that it in females, it tends to make their brains more masculine, that is to say their minds are more focused on structures and organization and less on empathizing with other people (Simon Baron-Cohen writes about this extensively in his book The Essential Difference). Bear in mind that this attractiveness is a description of observers of people on the autism spectrum and seems to reflect a trait that people with autism have naturally, through no deliberate actions of their own. So if Forney doesn't find people with autism attractive (something I'll posit even though it's a stretch to assume that Forney has actually seen many people on the spectrum), it's quite possibly because a) most of them are male, and b) they are not as likely, male or female, to care about their appearance.

But they generally care somewhat. It's fair to say that most of us-- autistic or not, feminist or not-- care about our appearances. Asexuals, who have no interest in sex with either gender, and ascetics, who have given up sex in favor of celibacy, probably are the most likely to not give the slightest damn whether someone finds them attractive. But the rest of us do, to varying degrees. We all have our particular limits for what we're willing to do-- the energy we're prepared to exert, the money we're prepared to spend, the pain we're willing to endure-- in order to appear sexually attractive, and some people's limits are higher than others.

This may be because they want to be attractive more than others do, but it also may be because they just enjoy being sexy. Don't ask a man driving a Maserati to quantify how much he's doing it for it his own pleasure, and how much he's doing it to attract smokin' hot chicks. Don't ask a woman wearing five inch heels how much of it is because she just loves looking smokin' hot, and how much she's doing it to attract the guy who drives the Maserati. For both of them it will be a blend of the two, and neither one is doing anything wrong. Here's an important point, though-- the guy not driving the Maserati and the lady not wearing the five inch heels? Also not doing anything wrong. Maybe he's poor and she has ankle problems, maybe both of them just don't get enough pleasure out of doing those things to make it worth it to them. It's probably true that if you're a feminist, doing things that make you more conventionally attractive to men are not going to be as important to you, especially if they require exertion or expenditure. This is because feminists, as I will loosely define them for the purposes of this post, are people who believe that women don't exist for men. That their greatest ambition in life does not lie (ultimately) in their reproductive potential, or (proximately) their sexual appeal. Misogynists are people who do think in these terms, consciously or unconsciously-- men who think the most important thing about a woman is whether she is sexually appealing to him constitute the lion's share, but men and woman who see life as primarily about making babies, above and beyond what the woman involved wants for herself, also count.

I care about being perceived as attractive. Feminists generally care about being perceived as attractive. We just don't see it as the end-all and be-all of our existence, or in the case of male feminists they don't see it as the end-all and be-all of womens' existence.

Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls recently blogged in response to a journalist claiming that she's either a non-feminist or a bad feminist because she was observed "cooing and gazing adoringly" at her "bestselling fantasy author husband [Neil Gaiman] for two hours in public." As you might guess, Palmer was not pleased. She wrote
i’m not even sure what the journalist MEANT by this statement. did he mean “real feminists shouldn’t show open affection for their husbands?” or did he mean something else? the fact that i’m “internationally adored” and neil is “bestselling” seems to be part of the point he’s making, but….what’s the point? that if i were a real feminist i’d stand there screaming “I KNOW YOU THINK YOU’RE HOT SHIT, GAIMAN, WITH YOUR BEST-SELLING MAN-PENNED NOVELS AND ALL THAT CRAP, BUT I AM FAMOUS CABARET WOMAN! FUCK YOU MAN! I ALSO MAKE AN INCOME! I STAND HERE, EQUAL TO YOU, AND SHOWING YOU AFFECTION WOULD CLEARLY BE A SIGN THAT I KNOW I BELONG TO THE WEAKER SEX.” 
rawr. 
what? . . .
as far as i’m concerned, the most powerful feminist can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS.
THAT IS WHAT DEFINES A TRUE FEMINIST. 
this includes: wearing heels, wearing combat boots, wearing nothing, sporting lipstick, shaving, not shaving, waxing, not waxing, being political, being apolitical, having a job, being homeless, gazing at men, gazing at women, gazing at porn of all sorts, glamming up like a drag queen, going in man-drag, being in a five-way polyamorous relationship, being childless, being a stay-at-home parent, being single, having a wife, having a husband, and gazing/cooing adoringly at those wives or husbands anywhere they fucking choose, including elevators, restaurants, puppet shows (well, maybe keep it g-rated if there are small children present), ….or on theatrical stages at fringe festivals. are we getting the picture here?? the most powerful feminist can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS. the minute you believe you’re a “bad feminist” because you said the wrong thing/wore the wrong thing/got married/chose to have children…or otherwise broke some unspecified ”code of feminism”: DON’T BUY IT. THERE ISN’T ONE. you can do ANYTHING YOU WANT. ANYTHING. THAT’S THE POINT.
Indeed. If feminism is fundamentally about empowering women, then it's about empowering them to act, look, and think however they want. "Including anti-feminism?" my interlocutor would obviously ask here. Yes, although of course what that person is doing should be allowed by feminism, but not called feminism. As a free speech proponent I am occasionally accused of being (for example) racist because I advocate for the freedom of people to say racist things. I endorse the freedom, not what people might choose to do with the freedom. Likewise if feminism endorses freedom for women to make their own choices, it must do so in spite of not necessarily approving of those choices. The behavior of any individual within a group cannot be perceived as justifying stereotypes of that group-- not if you agree that individuals are free to behave as they choose, and stereotypes are an error, an instance of sloppy thinking imposed on those individuals by virtue of their membership in that group.

It's not clear whether Forney thinks I'm ugly because I fit his stereotype of a feminist, or whether because I'm a feminist he has decided that I'm ugly. But the good news is, it doesn't matter because it's irrelevant. As irrelevant as Forney's own appearance (albeit ironic, in the sense of Rush Limbaugh calling someone fat).

I don't have to agree that a person's appearance tells you everything about them in order for it to tell you some things about them, and being unwilling to declare that the "some things" includes her position on whether being sexually attractive to men is a foremost concern in her life does not make a person autistic. It make them honest. Of course we women know that it's hard to parse whether a particular guy is being a disrespectful asshole because he genuinely thinks that our sexual attractiveness and availability is the most important thing about us, or if he's just... you know, a disrespectful asshole. And there's no particular incentive to discern the ultimate truth-- we just want him to go away. And sometimes, on the basis of such behavior, women are known to make grossly prejudiced statements about all mankind, which is wrong. Equally as wrong as it is for men to do the same. But nowhere near as wrong, I think, as treating a woman as though she only matters insofar as her sexual attractiveness and availability to you, and then when she (quite naturally and rightly) reacts badly to this, expand that judgment to feminists in general.

Which is, I can't help but guess, precisely what happened here.

In her #mencallmethings posts in which she catalogs the various epithets and threats used against her, Greta Christina generally takes great care to suggest that her readers not bother reassuring her that she is actually a physically attractive person, because that amounts to buying into the myth that her appearance is more important than what she's actually saying. That's an admirable position to take, because it means voluntarily giving up the warm fuzzies she might get from people saying "You're actually beautiful!" in favor of pressing home the point that an ad hominem fallacy is always an ad hominem fallacy. Attacking the person rather than their position is always a non-argument, even if the person is female and even if the topic is feminism. Yes, really.

6 comments:

  1. "But she’s really pulling the tired “you can’t judge a book by its cover” line that fatties, uggos and other weirdos use to defend themselves. At our deepest levels, we all know it’s bullshit: a person’s outward appearance is a reflection of their soul in nine out of ten cases."

    Leaving aside the problem with the concept of a "soul," whether as something real or as some sort of essentialist metaphor, this statement suggests to me that this man has a woefully inadequate appreciation for the interior lives of others and not much going on in the way of self-awareness.

    But nowhere near as wrong, I think, as treating a woman as though she only matters insofar as her sexual attractiveness and availability to you, and then when she (quite naturally and rightly) reacts badly to this, expand that judgment to feminists in general. Which is, I can't help but guess, precisely what happened here."

    And as I read Mr. Forney's observations, it seemed readily apparent that he isn't a guy who has had much, if any, serious alone time with prom queens or adult versions of the women of his wanking imagination. If he did, he would know that he's talking nonsense. Sad that it needs saying, but from one person to the next, the real-life versions of the women who populate his fantasy world have interior lives that span the same range as anyone else. He's just never progressed from the stage of drooling to knowing. If he did, there'd be a a whole lot less drooling.

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    1. That reminds me of Shel Silverstein's Pedestals, which I finally scanned in from his book Different Dances after too many occasions when it was fitting.

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  2. Wooooow. Textbook mansplaining. That line that dr x quotes made my jaw drop, because I honestly wasn't expecting that argument. It's more usual by far to hear "I'm not judging her soul, just her looks, I'm not a bad person!" It went the opposite way and seemed to be proud of doing so, which is refreshing in a way, I guess. In a sad, dispiriting sort of way. I very much enjoyed your original post, and this one. I hadn't seen anything of this Jenneke thing but it really is quite nasty.

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    1. Life sure is a lot simpler when you can go around just assuming that everyone's personality matches their appearance. But it's so self-evidently false that you'd think the cognitive dissonance would make a person's head explode before they reach adulthood. Apparently it doesn't. It just dooms a person to thinking like a 13-year-old for the rest of his life.

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  3. So, I collect examples of people using "autism" as a metaphor for whatever they don't like in someone else's politics, philosophy, writing, etc., and am debating doing a post about this.

    Then I read the post you're responding to.

    It is literally so stupid I don't know what to do with it.

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  4. Also, I see that you have a background in cognitive psychology, and seem to have done a lot with the idea of Theory of Mind, but I do not know how much you know about the cognitive psychology of autism.

    I bring this up because the E-S theory is not embraced by many people outside of Simon Baron-Cohen's own pool of former students, frequent collaborators etc. It's not universally repudiated or anything, but there are a lot of other, competing Theories of the Autistic Mind and a lot of researchers just don't think Baron-Cohen's idea is all that helpful, or that his notion of "male" and "female" brains necessarily pertains to autism at all.

    Also, empirical investigations into things predicted by the E-S theory have had mixed results. Some findings support it, some findings conflict with it.

    I have a ton of posts on my own blog about this if you're interested; even if you don't care what I think, you can click through and read the studies I am writing about.

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