Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. Here, Harriet Hall says that the week's news events have served to highlight the limitations placed upon women by an insidious network of rules dictating what is – and isn't – "acceptable".
Feminist Harriet Hall says:
It’s been a brilliant week for women.
Beyoncé dropped her powerful album to critical acclaim; Hillary Clinton swept to four primary victories over her rival Bernie Sanders, taking her one step closer to becoming America’s first female president, and women made it onto banknotes in Scotland and the US.
But, alongside these triumphs, we’ve also seen misogyny rear its ugly head – several times over.
The most blatant example comes in the form of a flyer that the University of Washington cheerleading squad posted to their Facebook page (below) ahead of try-outs.
The poster sought to provide a little sage advice to any potential candidates. It featured a scantily-clad, tall, slim, white woman standing, arms akimbo, while arrows point to different parts of her body, reminding wannabe cheerleaders of the 'appropriate' way to appear for auditions.
Appropriateness, for cheerleaders, apparently includes being bronzed and glowing (but still white) with just enough make-up – including a ‘flattering eyeshadow’ and a ‘Girl About Town lipstick’ (whatever that means) – plus (flat) midriffs on display.
Following a social media backlash, the university pulled the poster, saying that the department had “determined that some of the details and descriptions provided were inconsistent with the values of the UW spirit program and department of athletics.”
The University of Washington is not even the first cheerleading squad to have adopted such tactics – telling women exactly how to look and present themselves when it comes to their own bodies in order to achieve success.
What’s most upsetting about the poster is the target audience: young women. Women who may already feel they must mould themselves into the patriarchal cookie cutter in order to make it.
How can anyone say feminism is redundant? Right here, now, in the 21st century, we're surrounded by everyday, casual endorsements of women as objects, reduced to the value of their appearance.
This week's headlines alone illustrated that we are privy to a set of very nuanced, insular terms of behaviour. An unsaid terminology that dictates ‘acceptable’ ways of being and doing.
And when we are perceived to have broken away from these rules of engagement, we provoke comment and criticism.
When Lemonade was released over the weekend, it only took three days for Piers Morgan to say that Beyoncé “wanted to be seen as a black woman” and was “playing the race card,” as a result of which she had lost his respect.
When Clinton continued, fighting fit, in the presidential race, Donald Trump said that the only reason for her success was her vagina (let’s call it what it is) because Clinton, he announced, was also playing a card – she was playing “the woman card.”
And, when the profile of a US civil rights activist and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, replaced that of a man on the new $20 note, people immediately complained that she wasn't smiling. It’s OK for Andrew Jackson, the president whom she replaced, to have pursed lips; for founding father, Benjamin Franklin to look stern on his $100 bill, and for Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to show no hint of a crow’s foot. But a woman?
Never mind that she endured and fought against the horror of slavery, if she thinks the can cut the mustard on the dollar, the very least she can do is give us a flash of her pearly whites.
That this dictation and dissection of women’s movements – of their lyrics, their words, their facial expressions and their bodies – has not come to an end in 2016 is tragic. And that the terms “woman card” or “playing the victim” even exist show they miss the point entirely.
Because, of course, there wouldn't even be a card to play if women hadn't had been subject to a history of repression, there wouldn't even be victimhood if women weren’t ever victims – of sexism, of workplace discrimination, of domestic violence and of victim-blaming.
When, I wonder, will society really start cheering for women?
Because we will keep slamming down the woman cards. We will make a full house of woman cards. We'll carry on until the day comes that acting in exactly the same manner as a man acts and being treated in exactly the way a man is treated becomes something that isn’t headline worthy – that nobody even bats an eyelid at.
Until then, move your glasses; I’m laying all my cards on the table.
Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor, firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.