Wednesday's headline: UW shuts down student car team over racy photograph
Thursday's headline: Car sponsors decry UW decision on bikini photo
My reaction to these stories is complicated. Issues of money (corporate sponsors, the charity), power (the university, the engineering faculty), academic culture (grades and teamwork and academic integrity involved in facility use), sex (she's not wearing coveralls in the photo), gender (the discussion of expressing femininity in a male-dominated faculty), and even feminism (the university's efforts at equity and at female recruitment and retention, successful or not) intermingle in ways that are hard to disentangle, let alone understand.
I've tagged this post "righteous feminist anger," but I'm not altogether sure who I'm angry with. I've tagged it "sexist fail," too, without being able to say quite who has failed.
Overwhelmingly, though, this makes me sad. Here's why:
- I am sad that this student needs explicitly to look for an outlet to express her femininity--engineering is still a gendered course of study, I guess, and that gender seems to be male. Having part of yourself necessarily suppressed every day to fit in can make you wiggy.
- I am even more sad that this expression--this self-expression!--of femininity takes as its form the the most clichéd of sexualized postures/costumes for the pleasure of the male gaze.
- I am sad that the shoot was for a charity: how awful that the best thing a female engineer can contribute to charity is an image of her own hypersexualized body?
- I am sad that if we're going to celebrate our beautiful bodies, we twist and contort them (hip jutted out, back arched, breasts out) instead of showing their strength and power. By way of contrast, this is beautiful and strong together, I think.
- I am sad that I don't know her name: out of delicacy, her name is deliberately never mentioned in the reporting. Her body we see, but her name is veiled. Is this to save her some anticipated shame at being exposed, while we are nevertheless entitled to enjoy our collective titillation, on the front page of the paper, over our morning coffee?
I don't know what to think.
I do know what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominate field. I started my academic life in a male-dominated field--computer science--and I hated it. I felt alienated, and unheard, unimportant, and disregarded. Sometimes, the teachers made fun of me. I quit and moved to English, where I felt freer to be myself. How brave, how strong, do you have to be to stay in one of those fields? What kind of daily strength and perserverence might that take?
I also know what it's like to be a young adult--a young woman--testing out the boundaries and contours of what it means to be a woman in a world where that ... is second best. I think I was 25 before I felt comfortable being called a 'woman'--it seemed to me I was more a 'girl.' It's hard, growing into this role, this identity, this putatively second-best self.
I know what it's like, too, to test out the limits of self-presentation in this overdetermined body: in my early 20s, I went goth, and the bikinis I wore in public were made of PVC, paired with combat boots and blue lipstick. There were photo shoots. Did people stare, look at my boobs, make rude or lewd comments? Sure. And I tried to feel like I was in control of that. At 38, though, I tend to side more with Stacey and Clinton: people read you according to the scripts we share as a culture.
Don't get me wrong: I like bikinis. I like high heels! I don't, however, see much empowerment in wearing them together, for a camera, while someone aims a gas-powered leaf-blower at you for that wind-blown effect. The clothing, composition, genre says object of the gaze, rather than subject of action. And aren't we, girls reluctantly become women, finally ready to be the subjects of our own narratives, rather than the (leggy, nameless) objects of someone else's?