"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beautiful, Strong Essentialism

Recently I ran across a new promotion from the Women's Tennis Association with a goal of increasing the fan base for women's professional tennis: Strong Is Beautiful. The media campaign combines some amazing photography with video spots about overcoming adversity to become world-class athletes. I have no doubt this is a good marketing campaign--the photos are slick and the video spots are interesting and personal, which is something that fans probably enjoy. And yet, the central message seems pretty clear: Yes, these are world-class athletes, but aren't they freakin' hot?. Sure, the pictures are amazing (I'm no art critic, of course), and most of them show the tennis stars playing tennis--but, sadly, they're not pictures of them actually playing tennis in, y'know, a world-class tennis match. Instead, they're pictures of them playing with their hair down (and in their faces), makeup in full force. And the folks in these pictures are all beautiful, no doubt at all--but because these are pictures of them posing as playing tennis, in a way, instead of actually playing tennis, or at least dressed/made up as if they were, they send a different message than Strong Is Beautiful. Instead, they say, "Strong, But Still Beautiful!"

All of that could be a small step in the right direction. There is a stereotyped idea of what a beautiful woman should be, and "strong" isn't the first thing that comes to mind--wouldn't it be cool if we lived in a world where "strong woman" and "beautiful woman" were more intertwined conceptually? And yet: Why the emphasis on beauty at all?

One answer is that change takes time, and we all have to live in this world the way it is, now--and this is the line of reasoning that Hugo Schwyzer and the folks over at Healthy Is the New Skinny take. They are attempting to change attitudes about what a beautiful body is from within a system that is arguably one of the best at telling us lies about what a beautiful body is: The fashion modeling industry. There are lots of people who think this is one way to make some positive change. They may be right. And yet, I can't get rid of the nagging feeling that this sort of stuff reinforces gendered stereotypes even as it is trying to make some change.

Similarly, the anti-rape campaign My Strength is Not for Hurting encourages men to take a closer look at what it means to "be a man" by emphasizing the traditionally masculine facet of strength. And while I applaud any campaign to bring men's responsibility more into the center of any discussions of rape culture, the emphasis on strength is eventually counterproductive: We need to more often acknowledge that strength isn't an essentially masculine attribute, any more than beauty is an essentially feminine one.
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