Gender Discrimination (30): The Politics of the Female Body

Exploitation can be beneficial to the exploited, human rights violations can be self-inflicted, and people can internalize stereotypes about them and behave accordingly.

Some examples. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B doesn’t have the means or the strength to find another seller. The sale of bread makes B better off, because without bread he would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s condition. A exploits B, yet B is better off and can decide to accept his exploitation.

Examples of self-inflicted human rights violations are school drop-outs, the undeserving poor, contestants in privacy invading reality shows etc. – to the extent that these people’s actions are really voluntary and based on informed consent, they impose rights violations on themselves.

Stereotype threat means that the threat of stereotypes about your capacity to succeed at something negatively affects your capacity: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task.

These three phenomena converge in the lives of many women in present-day western societies. Few of them are ruthlessly oppressed, few of their rights are grossly violated, and sexist stereotyping has become unfashionable. And yet, it’s arguably the case that many western women show signs of having internalized patriarchal power relations. It wouldn’t be correct to depict these women as unconscious victims who can’t choose for themselves – that would be just as bad as the sexist stereotypes of the past – but there are signs that some of them have been taught to participate in their own oppression and subordination.

How else could we explain the beauty ideal, women modifying their bodies, starving themselves, re-sculpturing their silhouettes and conforming in all possible ways to male expectations and prejudices? It’s like they have internalized the male gaze (in the sense given to that word by Jacques Lacan) and look at themselves the way many men do.

I don’t claim that this internalization of stereotypes is beneficial to women in the sense that some forms of exploitation are beneficial to the exploited, although in some cases that may be true – some women may reap some advantages from conforming to stereotypes. Neither do I claim that the internalization of stereotypes is self-inflicted in the sense of a voluntary act. In most cases we’re probably dealing with some form of indoctrination, and it’s fair to say that women and their bodies are still highly regulated, in a way that’s different from but not unlike the way it is in more traditional societies (for example in some Muslim societies). However, we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that some women do in fact voluntarily accept stereotypes. Again, the view that women are passive victims of indoctrination isn’t much better than or different from the view that women conform to more traditional stereotypes.

More on body politics is here. More on gender discrimination is here. And more on the Muslim headscarf is here.


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