Angela King: The Prisoner of Gender
Read the article “The Prisoner of Gender”. It is a summary of a larger academic article by Angela King wrote in 2004.
Angela is critical of fashion and thinks “fashion” is not just about our own choice to look beautiful.
Wearing colourful clothes, cosmetics and jewellery is generally associated as something women do, although men are also known to enjoy it. But history shows that (European) men making themselves spectacularly beautiful has become less and less since the 18th century. Historians have linked this decline in beautification of men to the “invention” of “homosexuals” and labelling them as sinful, sick and criminal, which happened in the 17th ) century. Before that time, “sodomy” (sex that does not lead to reproduction) was sinful, but never talked about and people doing it were not identified. Heterosexual men did not want to be seen as sodomites or homosexuals, so new fashions started, to dress and behave as masculine as possible in order not to be seen as homosexual. This is the reason why it became extremely important to dress like a “proper” (not homosexual) man.
Sexual stereotyping became the fashion. Male and female body parts were exaggerated in clothing. According to Elizabeth Wilson fashion is obsessed with gender, and is meant to define and control the gender boundaries. Female fashion seems to have been particularly concerned with marking the difference of female bodies, by developing dresses that pull the attention to the otherness (other than men) of women, like breasts, buttocks and hips that were exaggerated by corsets, bustles and bras.
These 18th and 19th century fashions for women were very uncomfortable to wear. Corsets and girdles creates breathing difficulties and internal organs got displaced. It was a kind of torture to wear these clothes. Foucault says “torture” was meant to label the victim as somebody who deserves punishment. Angela King explains that men were supposed to be rational, with easier fitting clothes, while women were seen as instinctual and possibly dangerous creatures who had to be controlled both by dresses that felt like prisons and by strictly controlling their behavior.
Women were seen as being potential criminals: whores and seducers. They embodied all that man feared and despised, but also desired. For this “crime” they needed the “punishment” of wearing clothing that drew erotic attention to the body, but at the same time constraining and “correcting” it for male eyes. According to Susan Bordo, the corset “served as an emblem of the power of (male) culture to impose its designs on the female body.”
Simone de Beauvoir claims that female costumes and styles were designed to prevent activity of women: “Chinese women with bound feet could scarcely walk, the polished fingernails of the Hollywood star deprived her of her hands; high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended less to accentuate the curves of the feminine body than to augment its incapacity”. Paralysed by the tight and inconvenient clothes and by having to obey the “rules of what is considered proper”, the woman’s body was forced in a position were she could not be much more than a passive object. This way it was easier for a man to see her as something he owned, as his property.
The implicit suggestion of Simone de Beauvoir that there is some kind of male conspiracy to subdue women is not quite how Michel Foucault would see it. Foucault was talking about mechanisms where we all subtly control each other through the images we create and the stories we tell. But Angela King notes that – although corsets are mostly a thing of the past – there are still a lot of demands of women to look in a certain way, to dress in a certain way and to behave in a certain way in order to be proper women and to be accepted by men (and by other women).
For example, high heel shoes are still popular, despite them being completely incompatible with the natural form of the foot. Corsets and girdles have been replaced by modern fabrics that are more flexible, but although more flexible, the new fabrics are still often meant to shape the female body in such a way that they exaggerate female forms in a way that is supposedly more likable for men.
This type of controlling of women is not limited to fashion. In the modern world, cosmetic operations like breast enlargements and face-lifts have been added to this “modelling” of the female body. And Sandra Lee Bartky says a woman’s “skin must be soft, supple, hairless and smooth; ideally, it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age, or deep thought.” An entire skin cosmetics industry is based on women trying to emulate this ideal type of skin. Only youthful bodies or bodies with the appearance of youth are considered beautiful and valued in our society, but as Efrat Tseëlon points out: “While both sexes dread ageing, it is the woman who is expected to prevent it.”
Although cosmetics have been commonly associated with individual expression, fun and even emancipation, the idea remains that it is a woman’s “duty to be beautiful”. Sandra Lee Bartky even thinks make-up is not a form of self-expression at all. She says it is “a highly stylised activity that gives little control to express yourself” and “a properly made-up face can be a bonus, like a ticket to get into a party, but it is always a necessity to be acceptable in most social and professional contexts.”
Angela King closes her article by saying that turning a woman into an “ornamented surface” requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. It promotes a woman more as body than as a person. This confirms her role as mainly decorative. Of course fashion and beauty practices can be about play and indulgence, but pressure to conform to certain norms makes them hard work. King quotes Anne Balsamo who says “gender is one of the most important disciplining stories on what the human body should look like.” King says that conforming to strict gender expectations is “a powerful method of social control that both produces and restricts one’s way of being.”
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