“Maidenform Women”

Here’s a hot tip for all you New York Times reviewers!  Why not avoid starting your review with an unecessary and not even funny joke about bras?  Especially when you’re a woman, purportedly sympathetic to feminism, reviewing a new feminist book?  Just a little thought.

There was a time when many women would sooner have an organ removed than declare themselves feminists, so tainted was its name. But today, by golly, these crazy, self-proclaimed liberated gals are everywhere, like an army of Maidenform Women — you never know where they’ll turn up — and there’s no rhyme or reason to their behaviors, either: They’re speaking at the United Nations; they’re running for president as Republicans; they’re roaring; they’re singing; they’re twerking.

Source: Jennifer Senior

This is a reference to an ancient ad (from the Eighties):


That is some outdated grossness right there.  When criticizing a book for focusing overmuch on peripheral pop culture and not enough (or at all) on systematic change (a valid critique!), why begin with a random Eighties material culture reference?  (I personally had no idea what that reference might be.)  And why ignore the obvious disjointedness of the purported female empowerment with the heteronormativity, classism, and capitalism at work in the ad?  It’s an obvious sexist double entendre about a bra that may enhance the appearance of your breasts.  Kind of surprising to see that invoked at the beginning of a review of a feminist book.  Belittling, degrading.  I’m especially surprised to see a woman thought that was acceptable to write.

It’s ironic because who would ever suggest that a woman had to wear a bra under any circumstance she didn’t want to?  Someone who didn’t support the human dignity of women.  The correlation of bras with professionalism — never let them see your nipple! — is ridiculous and degrading.  Just another way to say that women’s bodies must not enter the public sphere.

I personally don’t wear bras.  Underwire, begone.  It is not a feminist statement, except insofar as it is my choice and my preference.  Obviously I don’t police other women’s dress either.

Last fall at a conference for businesswomen, a prominent older woman made a joke about wishing she didn’t have to wear bras.  I was sitting in the audience, my upper half in my preferred state, under a dress and voluminous scarf, so that no one could have told if I were wearing a bra or a bookshelf or not, and I was left wondering how it could be that the Second Wave, the bra burners, hadn’t yet learned women could look perfectly disembodied (or whatever might be desired by themselves) sans underwire.  It made me also wonder how many women still wear girdles or, as I suppose they are now called, “waist trainers.”  We internalize our oppression and then replicate it against other women.

I was also surprised to see the author criticize sexual misconduct policies at universities as unrealistic and over-reaching:

When Ms. Zeisler starts to defend the good intentions of Antioch College’s code of sexual conduct from the early ’90s — which rather impractically required students to ask verbal permission for every intimate act (“May I unbutton your blouse?”) — she reveals how much of her thinking still remains informed by campus politics and policies. And those policies, as we know, generally do not withstand the test of vertical integration into the noncampus world.

I see.  Antioch College is a favorite strawman of those who don’t like protections against sexual assault.  Has this reviewer been paying attention to the onslaught of sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against universities and university professors in the news in the past four years or so?  Because I most certainly have!  One of the most recent was, sadly, at my own university.  For me, this is a very serious issue.

There is an absolute epidemic of misconduct of this type at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere.  I’m disgusted to see yet another attempt at casually downplaying systematic oppression.  College and university policies that put strictures on professor-student advances, for example, are necessary.  And it is very important in “the real world” to have protections against, for example, sexual harassment in the workplace.  Does this reviewer understand the necessity of EEO law?  Of Title IX?  Of the Clery Act?  University policies banning sexual harassment and assault stem from federal law.  They are not optional, or should not be.

The review also criticizes the author for not considering anti-abortion activists to fall within the feminist camp.  Here I also take issue.  Of course, we all may try to cooperate strategically when possible across partisan boundaries, but how can you defend opposition to women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy per se?

And yes, I’m well aware that sone Catholic women, otherwise progressive, have religious constraints regarding abortion, same-sex marriage rights, and birth control. That doesn’t mean it becomes a feminist position in itself.  Would this reviewer ever say it could be acceptably feminist to oppose same-sex marriage?  Laugh you out of town with that one.


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