Sorry I’ve dropped off the face of the blogoshpere… I blame college! Its coming down to crunch-time but I have some fantastic posts in the works, I promise, so keep checking back in the next few weeks for a return to regular posting.
“Ashley [my model] in the lingerie looked amazing, she’s got great legs, she’s got a great little body. To all the guys watching around the world – you’re welcome, to Ashley’s boyfriend – I’m sorry dude.”
– Top 4 Designer, Jason
It pains me to put Project Runway Canada, a show I admittedly love, into a Missed the Mark post but it has to be done. Recently, designers on Season 2 of Project Runway Canada were asked to design a business suit for a powerful woman executive since, “women have been breaking glass ceilings for years, yet the fashion for female executives often leave us wanting more.” (Spoken by the show’s host, Iman)
At first I was loving this challenge, as the designers all eschewed the idea of placing their models in frilly little skirt-suits and all designed powerful executive wear that was both fashionable and practical for a female in the business sphere… just as the challenge was ending, however, things got twisted.
Brian Bailey, the designer’s mentor through this experience, came in before their last day of designing to extend the designer’s deadline, and give them a new challenge – lingerie. The designers new task was to take these powerful women “from the boardroom, to the bedroom.” This is where my frustration begins. What began as an empowering and encouraging challenge that acknowledged the power that women can have in the business world, was quickly turned on its head – sexualizing women in business in a way that would make them much more palpable to a patriarchal power system.
This challenge keeps the sexuality of these women firmly in mind even as we talk about them as powerful business women. On the runway, confidently strutted for the judges in power suits, and then we watched as they stripped behind a fabric panel, before slinking back out in skimpy lingerie. The message that this sends? Women, regardless of how powerful they are, ultimately cannot escape the male gaze – at the end of the show, they were sexy and stripped down to their underwear (which speaks to a certain vulnerability for sure). In other words, they were presented in a role that women are more traditionally allowed to fulfill; sex object.
Think of it in these terms – could you imagine a challenge structured to take a man from “boardroom to bedroom?” How often have you seen males in the workplace told to look more sexy, or fetishized and fantasized over? Probably not so often. Yet it happens to women all the time. Why is there this double standard?
For instance, in Britain, “Female lawyers at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have been advised to team their stilettos with skirts rather than trousers to ’embrace their femininity’.” I’m not saying its wrong for women to enjoy wearing skirts… the problem here is that the focus is on their clothing, and this outdated notion of feminitnity, rather than their abilities. To tell a woman she can wear a skirt to work is fine; but at the same time to tell a woman that she has to wear a skirt and stilettos, rather than pants or something she may feel more comfortable in, is sexist in the sense that you are forcing that women to fit into this very narrow “feminine” pigeonhole in order to succeed, a hole she may not want to fit.
True, women can just go against this norm themselves… but when they do, it doesn’t typically end well. I use this example often, but the juxtaposition between Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama (or Sarah Palin) is a perfect example of how these antiquated sexist notions of femininity play out in the real world. Hilary, a woman who is not afraid to take charge or wear pants is often criticized for being domineering, or ‘emasculating’. The most ridiculous article I ever found on this topic comes from an online resource called In These Times, and criticizes Hillary because, “Hillary […] seems to want to be more like a man in her demeanor and politics, makes few concessions to the social demands of femininity, and yet seems to be only a partial feminist.”
The article then goes on to explain that, “one of progressive feminism’s biggest (and so far, failed) battles has been against the Genghis Khan principle of American politics: that our leaders must be ruthless, macho empire builders fully prepared to drop the big one if they have to and invade anytime, anywhere.” While I agree that this idea of the presidency is outdated and ridiculous, criticizing Hillary for being ‘too masculine’ is nothing but counterproductive. (The article even ends by saying,”If Hillary Clinton wants to be the first female president, then maybe, just maybe, she should actually run as a woman.”)
It is rhetoric like this that I find absolutley limiting and discraceful… even more harmful than the idea that the president must be powerful in a traditional ‘masculine’ sense. Hillary Clinton is a woman, being aggressive and not looking like a typical sexually appealing female does not take away her gender…. you would think women who call themselves feminists would be able to see this.
It is examples like this that show exactly why the concept of “boardroom to bedroom” is a harmful one for women, especially those women who don’t “make the transition well” in the male gaze.
We should be fighting for a world in which people can be powerful regardless of gender, so long as they possess the traits necessary to succeed… meaning we need leaders who can be both empathetic and calculated, regardless of gender and sex appeal.
While I am glad to see that Michelle Obama, another powerful and intelligent woman, has been received warmly in comparison to Hillary, I am also dismayed to see why Americans seem to love her so much. Americans idolize Michelle Obama for her fashion sense and her parenting skills… yet her law degree and her history within the field seem to be all but forgotten, even within her own alma mater! Yes, Michelle is fashionable and a wonderful mother, two traits that are highly revered within the cult of femininity… but why is it that these traits are so talked about, while her more “masculine” accomplishments and intelligence are so often left unremarked upon?
This isn’t just a problem for a few powerful women, however, it is a problem for many. This graphic, found via feministing, paints an excellent picture of the larger problem:
“[Women] may make up 46% of the workforce, but women held only 15.4% of Fortune 500 corporate officer positions in 2007, according to Catalyst, a non-profit that studies women’s advancement in business. That percentage is an increase from 1997, when women only had 10.6% of such positions, but clearly the boardrooms in the U.S. skew mostly male.”
Women are kept out of the workplace because typically feminine traits like passivity and sex appeal do not mix well with big business; yet when women try to break out of that feminine box, they are ridiculed and ostracized… no wonder there are so few female CEOs! The glass ceiling does not begin and end with simple hiring practices, it goes beyond to encompass a society that encourages strict adherence to gender roles; roles that keep intelligent and business savvy women from being able to freely embrace their full potential.
While this episode of Project Runway was, by no means, a major component of the problem it does represent a small drop into the bucket of cultural approval for these restrictive gender roles… a drop that reminds usthat something must be done to drain the bucket and leave everyone free to explore their full potential, regardless of what lies beneath their powerful pants-suit!