Stop telling women what to wear
In the red corner representing how young women might like to dress dress: Blake Lively.
All around the nation, Ordinary Australians are banding together to ponder one of the most pressing issues of 2012. We’re asking questions about it, discussing it on television, writing letters in to the newspaper. It’s very concerning, and as a concerned nation, we are concerned.
Our collective angst is thus: Does Prime Minister Gillard have an enormous bottom, and is she dressing appropriately enough to hide it?
While no doubt a searing journey towards the heart of our cultural identity, the issue of Gillard’s bottom does not quite top the list of things that keep me up at night. It is less vital to me than, say, the issue of why Steve Price thinks it’s acceptable to call a woman a ‘slut’ on radio because he thinks she has too much sex with too many people.
More to the point, the apparently mountainous range of Gillard’s derriere pales in comparison to the fact Germaine Greer felt it necessary to discuss on national television at all; as if it were funny, as if it were relevant and more importantly, as if the Australian public had exhausted all the ways in which to undermine and humiliate the Prime Minister of their country, and we needed some new suggestions.
Women – particularly those brave enough to venture into the cesspool of politics – are no strangers to being told what to wear. Nary a week goes by without some hand wringing citizen expressing concern over women and the casual disregard they demonstrate for total strangers when it comes to dressing themselves in the morning.
At best, women are often seen as failing in their duty to be visually pleasing (while walking the fine line between ‘ladylike’ and titillating) to an audience used to viewing them as public property. From a young age, we all of us – men and women – internalize the idea that women have an obligation to be attractive, particularly if they plan on making a habit of speaking in public, or venturing into places where people can see them.
But if it weren’t bad enough that we only allow women to speak based on the degree to which we can tolerate looking at them, we (still) circulate the idea that women’s clothing is powerful enough to either invite danger, or shield them from it. Despite sexual assault and rape being perpetrated by thinking human beings with the ability to rationalize and control their actions (and mostly, by people known to the victim), we encourage the convenient excuse that shifting hemlines are a siren call no man can ignore.
Last week, Paula Joye wrote a column about a collection of girls she’d encountered while out one night. She explained, “There was no nuance, mystery or prettiness. From a distance they looked like a low-budget video shoot and up close it looked like they were open for business - business of the wrong kind.”
She bemoaned the ‘contrived’ sexiness she sees on display. “When did it stop being a pair of high heels and red lipstick and become Soft Porn Barbie? It's not just boring - it's dangerous.”
There’s a paternalism to these comments. We deny women any agency when it comes to their clothing. We assume that if they dress in particular ways they either secretly desire unwanted attention, or that they’re too stupid to realize that they’re dressed like walking billboards for sex and therefore need other people to carefully guide them through the rocky shores of life. At the same time, we never acknowledge a) men’s role in not assaulting women (something that the vast majority of them seem capable of doing) and b) that men dress just as much to attract attention, but are given the unique advantage of being allowed to choose whose attention they want to reciprocate.
And we train girls to participate in this culture. As a Disney girl, Vanessa Hudgens was no stranger to provocative clothing. The look-but-don’t-touch-because-part-of-the-thrill-is-I-don’t-really-understand-my-power-yet ouvre is part and parcel of the Disney girl squad. As girls on the cusp of womanhood, they’re expected to channel a certain kind of sexuality while maintaining complete ignorance of it. Who manufacturers and controls it? Disney does. And everyone seems okay with this – because adolescent sexuality is so dangerous that it’s better off in the hands of a strong, multinational corporation than the girls to whom it belongs.
So when private photographs of a topless Hudgens were leaked to the public, Disney went into overdrive protecting their brand. Hudgens showed contrition, and Disney released a statement saying, “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she's learned a valuable lesson.”
The ‘lesson’ Hudgens is supposed to learn here is that her sexuality is a performance for everybody else, and she is never allowed to wield it for her own personal benefit or exploration. Her clothes (or lack thereof) are not a decision she’s allowed to make.
It’s a lesson that girls continue to learn everyday. When entire column inches can be devoted to the ‘worrying’ trends of young girls tottering around in high heels and mini skirts with little thought to the ‘consequences’, we know that we have a problem – and it’s not that women have aren’t fulfilling the delicate balance of titillating just enough while remaining the sexual gatekeepers for lustful men.
These are not issues separate from the ‘jocular’ observations of whether or not the Prime Minister’s jackets are awkwardly tailored. They all belong to the school of thought that suggests women are there for the amusement and benefit of other people, and that they should follow the rules accordingly. When Amanda Vanstone was Immigration Minister, an altogether despicable level of criticism leveled at her was in relation to her fashion choices and supposedly unattractive features. Currently, Julia Gillard occupies the highest office in Australia, and she’s still reminded on an almost daily basis that her ‘right’ to be respected as Prime Minister is contingent upon her looking attractive.
The only thing ‘dangerous’ about women’s clothes are the ways they’re used to belittle an entire gender. On a micro level, it perpetuates the idea that there are caveats for certain kinds of abuses; that it’s women’s, not men’s, responsibility to avoid sexual assault and rape. It reduces women to little more than how their bodies can be used to please others – preferably without straying too near ‘slut’ territory and becoming some kind of trashy whore who should expect what’s coming to her. It pits women against each other, as they compete not to be the subject of social approbation and ridicule. It is divisive, patronising and exploitative.
But on a macro level, it also discourages the involvement of women in public life. Why would anyone want to put themselves into the public sphere when they know it means having their appearance routinely ripped apart by strangers – some of whom are so vile that they suggest rape and assault as punishment for the singular offence of being ugly? We cannot liberate society if we consistently remind one sex that they are there to decorate it.
The only consequences we should be worried about in regards to women’s clothing are the ones that see us becoming a society that shackles an individual’s freedom to express themselves as they see fit.
Or do we want to just admit what we really think, and take a leaf out of Indonesia’s book? After all, Marzuki Alie’s justification for recent announcements that the country would draft rules banning miniskirts don’t seem too out of step with views we see in Australian newspapers every day.
“There have been a lot of rape cases and other immoral acts recently and this is because women aren't wearing appropriate clothes.
“You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things."