Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Feminism Doesn’t Mean Learning to Play The Game

This article has now been republished in the New Statesman – do feel free to comment there too!

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- Caroline Criado-Perez

Another day, another columnist demonstrating just how warped the public perception of ‘feminism’ is. 

Today in The Guardian, Hannah Betts revealed that ‘Feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows’. Thanks Hannah. I’d no idea.

Apparently, joint research from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics demonstrates that women who use ‘feminine wiles’ get ahead better in life – to be exact, used in negotiation, the use of these ‘wiles’ improves one’s ‘prospects of brokering success by up to a third’. So far, so depressingly uncontentious; Betts herself refers to Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital - a book which, like Betts’s article, does nothing to challenge gender norms, and everything to teach women how to play the game.

According to Betts, an ability to play the game and deploy ‘the theatricality of femininity’, could ‘prove one of feminism’s chief weapons’ – if only the dour, naysaying, “dungaree”-wearing crowd would just let us chicas get our flirt on.

So what’s the issue? Should the dungarees just slip into something more sexual?

Short answer, no.

Firstly, this type of reductive, lazy stereotyping is debate at its most disingenuous. Betts creates and dispenses with her mythical adversary by undermining her – and, by extension, anyone else who actually genuinely exists and genuinely disagrees with Betts’s argument. ‘Oh, you disagree with me?’ Betts snidely says, ‘Well, I’ve dealt with your sort – you’re that mythical ‘Seventies’ feminist, and I’ve already pointed out that you’re too vested in your dungarees to bother arguing with – you’ll ‘never be happy’.

Betts’s choice of words is telling here – she doesn’t say that this type of feminist will never agree, she says they’ll ‘never be happy’ with the type of ‘feminism’ she proposes. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. By presenting those who oppose her version of ‘feminism’ as unhappy rather than disagreeing, she undermines the position from which they disagree. It is presented as emotion, rather than logic – women are emotional and illogical – where have I heard that one before? Or maybe it was here? Even more insidiously, Betts’s image of the unhappy feminist in a shapeless onesie buys into the decades-old patriarchal dismissal of feminists as joyless, sexless crones, who exist only to ruin everyone else’s fun. So, who wants to align themselves with illogical killjoys? No, me neither. Betts / Patriarchy 1: Feminism: 0

Betts quotes research director Dr Laura Kray, who said that, “Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals.” Betts extrapolates from this: ‘According to Kray and her team, charm evolved to meet the vexed issue that, while being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. A little light flirtation allows women to emulate male behaviour, while creating an alluring diversion.’ So, Betts reasons, by being critical of this type of behaviour, feminists are preventing women from getting on in life – and who could argue with that?

Let me try.

The fundamental problem with Betts’ argument is that she has a woefully short-sighted vision of what feminism could achieve. Feminism isn’t against women using sex because feminists are sexless, feminism is against women using sex because it is indicative of the prevailing inequity which means that women have to use sexual attraction in order to ‘divert’ men, and enable them to ‘emulate male behaviour’. Betts points to the use of flirtation by Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher – two women who, against all sexist odds, came to power. Betts herself says of Thatcher, ‘If Alan Clark and his cronies were going to objectify her, then she was going to work it.’ And that ‘If’ is crucial: Thatcher flirted because they objectified her. It was a tactic, deployed in order to deal with sexism. So the use of ‘feminine wiles’ by these two women is not something to be celebrated; it is something to be deplored.

Betts attempts to illustrate the reasonableness of her point by presenting flirting as the female counterpart to ‘rhetoric’. She says that like this ‘”manly” art’, flirtation relies on sprezzatura. But Betts is being disingenuous here – and she must know it. Rhetoric was one of the key elements of Renaissance Humanism; it was, and remains, intensely cerebral, and the dichotomy between male rhetoric and female flirtation harks back to the ancient principle that aligned the man with the mind and the woman with the body. Using rhetoric displays your mental agility, your ability to dazzle your adversary with your words; flirting relies on your sex-appeal.  Therefore, Betts’s clumsy attempt to use Camus’s assertion that “Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question” is, like her throwing around of Butler and de Beauvoir, in itself a diversionary tactic – designed to distract us from the reality that her argument merely rehearses centuries-old gender disparities, rather than attempting to challenge their foundations. If she were dead. Butler would be turning in her grave to be thus co-opted.

Betts is not wrong to suggest that feminine ‘wiles’ help women get what they want. But she is wrong to suggest that this type of behaviour should be the natural ally of feminism. Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game: it’s a total game-changer.

24 comments on “Feminism Doesn’t Mean Learning to Play The Game

  1. Kat
    August 24, 2012

    Hi! I know this is late from when you posted it, but I’ve been lurking here for about a week, since I found you, so I’ve missed a lot. Loving your blog. So glad I found it, keep writing!

    I agree with your criticism of Betts’ article. I was rather appalled at her endorsement of ‘playing the game.’ All I could think about when reading her article were those stereotypical movies, where you have the big, powerful godfather-type man, and then his super-duper-sexy-seductive wife working behind the scenes like a devil to pull some scheme off, all the while using her ‘charm’ and sexual appeal to get what she wants, including tricking her husband. This comes off tasting of just plain wrong.

    Maybe it’s a result of my upbringing. There is one thing I’ve taken away from my Christian upbringing (godless now, thankyouverymuch). I almost don’t want to say it, because I hate absolutely everything that I was told as a woman as a Christian, about my sexuality, gender roles, being taught to be obedient, doormat, etc, BUT. I have to say this, and it triggered when I read Betts’ article. I was taught that a woman possesses power in her sexuality over a man (whether that is exaggerated too much or not, or should be), and that THAT power should not be abused.

    I think that is what makes me cringe at the idea of flirting to get things from men. Not only because of what i was taught, but that it seems debasing, and reminds me of highschool girl-tactics of fighting over a boy. And who would want to say they succeeded because they used their ‘charms’ to convince some ‘googly-eyed stunned and starry eyed man’ (seems to be conveying this way) that her way was best? Wouldn’t it be more impressive if it was because of her brains and power of words (mentioned above)?

    It almost seems like cheating to me.

    And wouldn’t this type of thinking also make us lose our credibility of seeking equality to the male sex, when we show them that we can be devious in using our sexual powers over them?

    And want to mention that I think it can go BOTH ways. Probably less often, but I’m sure it does, I’ve had a few male co-workers flirt with me, flattering me hopelessly until I was flustered and then asking me to do something they did’t want to do. Very annoying. And you just end up feeling betrayed.

    Maybe I haven’t thought every example through in which this would be good or bad in. Just putting some thoughts down.

  2. kylamckee
    August 3, 2012

    Reblogged this on A Day in the Life and commented:
    Should women play the game or change the game?

    • Week Woman
      August 3, 2012

      thanks for the reblog! :)

  3. glosswitch
    August 2, 2012

    This is great! I couldn’t believe the line Betts included in her piece regarding “seventies “dungaree” feminists” (btw yesterday Agnès Poirier [aka the Guardian's rent-a-French-stereotype] was making some fairly dodgy comments about sexual harrassment and seduction “à la française”, whatever that means. This obviously triggered comments along the lines of “do you want us men to harrass you or not?” Sigh.)

    • Week Woman
      August 2, 2012

      Thanks for the pointer – sounds infuriating. Will take a look. And glad you enjoyed the piece!

  4. pennycoho
    August 2, 2012

    Excellent piece, well written. Although my dad was clearly the “head of the family” my mom was the one that everyone paid close attention to. Including my dad. She just made her position known in a way that worked for her generation. I grew up and never once questioned that I was equal to (and in more than a few cases) better qualified to handle a specific situation than a man. I would have women ask me how I could hold my own in a room full of high profile business men. You know I couldn’t answer specifically. I just did! So that’s what I shared then, and then to my daughter and to every woman I meet. You just do. And when it comes to this whole flirting business, totally not gender specific here. I’ve seen both sides in action, frequently male! Thanks, a great read, good job.

    • Week Woman
      August 2, 2012

      Thanks for your lovely comment! Lovely to hear of women just getting out there and doing it, without feeling the need to trade in their sexuality

  5. sweetappletales
    August 1, 2012

    hmmm in betts’ article i think there was some confusion on whether the power these women used to gain more in their negotiations was truly a use of wiles or merely an exercise of confidence. also, her famous women examples oversimplify the issue by putting so much basis on what is potentially gained by flirtations vs the intelligence a lady (or person) must have in order to rule an empire for 50 years or be in other such high positions.

    feminism is about choice. it is about opportunity. for men and women. plucking out different types of feminist scholars and banging them up against others only derides the goal. i agree with you on that.

    some women don’t want to “work it” so they can get more money. some women (and other humans) are motivated by goals higher than the potentially superficial economic incentive. further, i think it would be interesting to get past the rut of work equality and into what purposes women and men use work for. i get that betts is trying to present an option that women could use but i find it appalling that this study is so microscopic and from such a perspective of entitlement. i think it would be far better to analyze what those women/girls who are in the bottom rungs economically need in via educational opportunity over wiles.

    and lastly, woe to the dungaree feminist as they are a dying philosophical breed! i don’t dig their fashion much but i am so thankful for the work they and other feminist pioneers did.

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      Thanks for this fantastic intellectual response! I completely agree that another problem with the Betts article is the idea that we all want the same thing (money) out of our careers. (missed a trick there!) The idea that work comes before life is something I feel very strongly (negatively!) about – if you’re interested, I wrote about it in response to Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic http://weekwoman.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/slaughtering-slaughter/

      Anyway, thanks v much for commenting and do visit again!

  6. sweetappletales
    August 1, 2012

    hells bells! a blog post that mentions de beauvoir and butler? i am in love. must go to my basement tonight and pull out all of my hidden books on gender studies and rhetoric. i spent my twenties lost in their delicious pages and theoretical arguments. someday i will be lucky to explain what my college degree based on analyzing gender roles means to my daughters but that is years away.

    okay. i am done rejoicing and will now go back and reread to prepare a more intellectual response. :) thank you for writing. thank you for pushing boundaries. j’adore!

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      Oh! Thank you so much! Looking forward to the intellectual response…!

  7. kiwian
    August 1, 2012

    Holy moley I love your post and your blog! I would love to be able to write as you do – stoked to have stumbled across Week Woman :D (Despite the late hour I feel a fist-pump coming on…)

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      ha! you feel free to do so! V glad you liked the blog :)

  8. Raniel
    August 1, 2012

    Last line is awesome. “Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game: it’s a total game-changer.”

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      Thanks v much – and for taking the time to say so :)

  9. Not only is flirtation a response to being objectified, it is the only culturally accepted way for a woman to get what she wants. And bybthat I mean, she will be criticised less. But critised all the same.
    Great post as always!

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      Yes – so sadly true. Glad you enjoyed and thanks for commenting – esp enjoyed the ‘as always’ – I blush!

  10. marymtf
    August 1, 2012

    When I was 18, decades ago, an elderly man expalined to me that men had to earn the higher wage because they were they ones supporting a family. And from his perspective he was right. Back then more men than women were in the workforce and they were supporting their families. What he hadn’t taken into account, nobody thought of it then, was that not all women were married or wanted to be married and even though it wasn’t talked about in polite society some women had a child to support and some were looking after elderly parents.

    Lot of changes since that day. More women in the workforce, more women in the professions and better pay and conditions. Thanks to feminism, probably the 70′s type that you deplore.

    Today it’s called neo-feminism and for a reason I don’t understand it, it has become a war of genders where only one gender is aware of it. Face it, we may have lived in a patriarchy but women wouldn’t have won the sorts of rights they deserved without the support of men in charge. They had to convince those in power of the injustice, and baby boomer mothers (me) trained up men to respect women. Neither feminists nor neo-feminists have done it alone.

    You know, I saw a photo somewhere, sometime, of three grinning women in boilersuits. Each had a cigarette hanging out of their mouth. I was young then, and it took me a while to get the point. But they were the piooneers.

    Still, I say, each to their own and you and Betts should sort it out. I think it’s wrong (and yes I realise that it’s only my opinion) to stereotype or attempt to pigeonhole women or feminism. (Wrong too to stereotype men.) Feminism is what it is. It consists of a bunch of women with a bunch of opinions and a bunch of ways to go about getting what it wants. Feminism is constantly growing and mutating. And now that I have sons and grandsons (granddaughters too) I take a lolt more notice of what’s happening and I’m not always impressed. Particulartly when a victory for one gender these days usually results in a loss of rights for the other gender. I doubt that the men who were sympathetic to the feminist cause ever anticipated that.

    I believe that neo-feminism is short sighted, particularly if it has male children. I certainly don’t appreciate your quote ‘A pox on the partriarchy.’ Given the way things are heading it’s only a matter of time before somebody says it about the matriarchy.

    PS, it might not be politically correct these days but women, some women can be illogical, irrational and emotional. Not all women and nor all men are the same but we don’t celebrate the difference any more, Too bad.

    • Week Woman
      August 1, 2012

      *sigh* I suppose the inevitable problem of writing online is that people feel they have the right to comment without reading properly. If you had, you would have realised that you are saying what I am – I was arguing against betts, not for her. Not sure how you missed that. Here is another post that may clarify my position: http://weekwoman.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/words-matter-feminism-and-patriarchy-who-gets-to-define-them/ (try to read it properly before commenting)

    • learningmypathtowardsgod
      August 2, 2012

      I couldn’t agree more and this has moved to a lack of respect for anyone who does not agree with their opinion.

      • Week Woman
        August 2, 2012

        Not totally sure who you’re agreeing with – the commenter who misread the article and thought it said the opposite of what it did say, or me?

      • learningmypathtowardsgod
        August 2, 2012

        Good question because of having time to think but I don’t disagree. What I like most is for people to be able to have an opinion of their own whether it lines up with me or not and it just seems when one chooses to say something that counters the popular idea, people can and do respond very cruelly and frankly disrespectfully. I like individual thinkers and that is what you are. However she had made some very good points that I do agree with because of trying to homogenize everything and everyone.

      • Week Woman
        August 2, 2012

        I see. I don’t dispute that she made some good points – it’s just intensely irritating when you are attacked for something you haven’t written. I think it shows such disrespect to the person’s space that after all, you are entering into, to comment without reading properly first, and making sure you have understood. She clearly hadn’t, hence my irritation. I absolutely welcome intelligent debate – it’s the only way we can get anywhere. But I stand my ground when dealing harshly with people who refuse to listen in the first place (or to read properly before commenting!) So I feel that actually she did exactly what you are saying you object to: she was disrespectful and rude by not reading, and she was disrespectful and rude in then going on to comment despite this, and then on top of this, she was disrespectful and rude in her manner of commenting. Hence, my short, sharp response.

      • learningmypathtowardsgod
        August 2, 2012

        Guess I need to reread her response, for some reason didn’t get that but then again it had nothing to do with me personally and that always brings new light into a situation. But I do recall that you did state this was an author and her findings and being new to your blog gathered you are indeed bringing more than your own works but other people’s articles on the woman and if this is true which if it were me would brings ones that are interesting and note worthy whether it’s my agreement or not.

        As frustrating as it is you have to say you got hers and others interest and opened up for discussions! That’s a good thing right?

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