KAMPALA – Suppose we overcome the challenges of modern feminism, structurally address bigotry and sexism, and move towards a society that is (more) egalitarian. Gender would be a superfluous concept, and restrictive norms would be either loosened or replaced by others. Every individual would have access to a full range of human behaviours without being restricted in their choices based on gender. Polarised notions of masculinity versus femininity will be broken down and replaced by hybrid formations of all kinds.
Would this mean the end of inequalities between gender, or are we simply diversifying the hierarchy? Hierarchy, I think, is a naturally occuring phenomenon in social environments. There will always be the powerful and the powerless; the rich and the poor; the beautiful and the ugly; the fat and the skinny; the intelligent and the dumb.
This may sound harsh, but let us evaluate the one human endowment that is overall valued at least equal to beauty: intelligence. Our current economic systems rewards intelligence via its correlation with education. In a meritocracy, the intelligent are highly educated and therefore earn more. Of course, true meritocracies unfortunately do not exist (yet) and in practice this system is riddled with unequal opportunity. Nonetheless, the genetic endowment of intelligence is rewarded with money, status, and power. Besides genetics, work is required to realise potential, however, everyone seems to operate within particular parameters placed upon them at birth. We accept this inequality because it is not inherently linked to a particular group or unity. We assume that intelligence as a trait is normally distributed in society amongst all groups. Although intelligence as a trait is inheritable, socialisation plays an important role as well, drawing this line of inequality around socio-economic class.
Beauty operates similarly: being genetically endowed with a symmetric face, a slim body or bone structure, an efficient digestive system (you know those annoying people that can eat anything and not get fat?) set out the parameters of your beauty. You can work out, diet, use creams and powders and paint, but from the moment you are born, you’re pretty much set.
Both beauty and intelligence are heavenly rewarded in our modern societies, albeit in different ways. Intelligence is, rightfully so, considered more productive, so we are much more likely to accept the inequality it creates. Furthermore, and more importantly, right now, the rewards of beauty (and inversely, the punishment for not being beautiful) are disproportionally distributed between the genders. As I argued in part I, femininity finds its definition in appareance, and women are therefore constantly being evaluated and judged on their beauty.
The commercialisation of intelligence, and the marketing of education, books, apps, the industries of having toddlers do intelligence tests (as George Carlin described it in these immortal words: the poor fuck can barely locate his own dick and already he’s being tested and probed and trained), having fetuses listen to Mozart, etc. etc. etc. has attempted to convince us we can move outside of our genetic parameters, and has made us envious of those who operate differently (*better*) than we do.
This unequal distribution of reward has increased in consumerist (post)modernity. Cosmetics, bikini lines, waxes, diet pills, work-out schedules and the overall incessant focus on beauty and “health” (which is often code for being fit, thin, and attractive) has created many a subculture. These ideologies again promise you beauty with the added clause that everyone can do it. This merit-based achievement of beauty has as its downside that those who do not live up to its promise can only blame themselves for it.
So, the problem with the inequalities created by a normal distribution of genetic endowments, is that some people are judged more harshly for not having them than others. The actual beauty ideal is a mere conception of what it means to be beautiful, and we will always have beautiful people versus those who are not. However, the social value and the rewards attached to beauty seem disproportionate to its societal relevance. It is debatable what exact function beauty has (had) in society, though most civilisations in the past were quite concerned with beauty as well (the Egyptians used make-up, the Ancient Greek, well … talk about beauty ideals which are not realistic), but consumerism has brought us to a point where we are no longer concerned with beauty, but obsessed by it. And we use it to judge roughly 50% of humankind on a roll of constant evaluation. I am not saying that we do not judge men for their appearance, – we do, increasingly so, but women are more often reduced to it while men are not. Evaluating women’s beauty is a practice that has been institutionalised and for men it is not.
The agenda of feminism is to ensure that these inequalities of rewards (and punishments) are not drawn on the line of gender. Replacing gender with a superfluous alter will draw these lines someplace else. The value placed on beauty will become less important and our conceptualisation of femininity as being appearance-based will lose its institutionalised nature. Whether our general anxieties of inadequacy brought on by the virtue of advertisements and their promised perfection will disappear with oppressive gender norms is a question most certainly worth asking.
It is important to view gender and its challenges in the epitome of crises it finds itself in: a patriarchal system that permeates politics, and pretty much every societal, cultural, and economic sector; consumerist conceptions of gender designed to sell; a vast interest in conservatism by those who got rich as capitalists; religious, political, and cultural fervor by those preferring romantic notions of a (patriarchal) past rather than the chaotic and anxious realities of postmodernism.
In this larger context, feminism is (or should be) about much more than equality between the genders, as feminist causes move beyond mere equality. There are battles to be fought on so many fronts, we might as well declare total war.