Via Caperton at Feministe comes this mind-boggling rant from Peg Aloi claiming that women today are eschewing the "tough gals" model to be weak, frivolous bubbleheads. Caperton takes this nonsense on, but I'd like to address it myself, because while I somewhat sympathize with a tiny fraction of what Aloi is saying, she's just so incredibly wrong in her assumptions, and it causes her rant to be vicious, depressing, and nonsensical. Aloi is working off three false assumptions:
1) That "feminism" is about creating "tough" women. While feminism certainly is about making social space for women Aloi would describe as "tough", in reality feminism is about making women and men equal, just as importantly—pay attention to this part—dismantling toxic gender roles that limit the lives of men, women, and anyone who has a gender identity that doesn't fit into neat little boxes. A feminism that is obsessed with "tough" women isn't a feminism that's prepared, for instance, to help women to get out of domestic violence situations, since women in those situations don't need a valiant rescue or to stand up to their attackers so much as to be sympathized with and given the tools to escape.
2) That traditionally coded masculine behaviors and values are automatically superior to traditionally coded feminine behaviors and values. The only argument Aloi has against things like gardening, baking and knitting are these are traditionally considered women's work, and should be shunned for it. This is actually not a feminist belief, but a sexist one, since it's about reinscribing the gendered nature of certain activities and valuing the masculine over the feminine.
3) That women having, enjoying, and discussing leisure time activities is un-feminist. A lot of what makes Aloi mad is her assumption that women are, heaven forbid, having fun. Some of the activities she denounces women for participating in aren't even coded as feminine, but she still hates them because they're leisurely—such as making vintage cocktails. The pop culture role models she trots out are role models because they seem to have no life of their own outside of duty to family and to work place. This isn't just not-feminist, but actually sexist. Already women have far fewer leisure hours in the week than men. Feminism is actually about demanding that women get to live full lives that include leisure activities. We're trying to break away from thousands of years of women being treated like workhorses who only get a carrot after everyone else gets everything they want—and really, does everyone else ever have everything they want?
I said I was somewhat sympathetic to Aloi's point, however, and I want to explain: I don't think she's wrong that there's an ongoing backlash against women's gains and that it's resulting in pressure for women to be as unthreatening and powerless as possible. Some of her examples even fit into this pattern: pole-dancing classes (for most women, though there are a few that are legitimate athletes at it at this point), the explosion in childish things. There is a disturbing trend of women playing at being overgrown children who are legal to stick penises into, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl taken to the next level, where she dances non-threateningly and without shoes in fields of cotton candy. But most of what Aloi is talking about isn't that. I'd even argue that the cupcake trend has more to do with portability than cuteness. Kristen Wiig's character in "Bridesmaids" was a cupcake expert, and there wasn't even a whiff of childishness about her, so I would argue the two really aren't that wed in the public imagination.*
And that's the problem here. There's nothing inherently childish about tradtionally feminine activities, and many traditionally feminine activities are a valuable use of your time. I realize the amount of sacchrine on Etsy can make anyone sick, but don't let the people with bad taste define the concept for you. Many—most?—of the work coded as feminine in our history was still vital, necessary work, and often it's empowering to learn how to do it. For instance, I really wish I knew how to sew, which means you could constantly alter the clothes you have or fix up thrift store ones for basically free. And why the hostility to knowing how to garden and cook? One of the benefits of feminism is that men feel free to pick up these valuable skills that improve your health and your diet, and I would argue improve creative thinking, while providing often-needed stress relief. ** Plus, baking is often a good, inexpensive way to make unique gifts for parties or friends. And a lot of women start off with small, safe crafts and end up moving into fixing up furniture or wood-working. I think it's true that some women retreat into crafts because it's cute and non-threatening, but just as many find that being able to make things with your own hands is empowering. It can help you get away from the helpless little girl act.
What's particularly telling is Aloi's hostility to vintage cocktails. That's not even gender-coded as feminine! Like working the grill, making cocktails has always been considered a masculine activity that women can do if necessary. It indicates a generally negative view Aloi takes towards women having leisure activities. Let's just put it this way: she disses heirloom tomatoes. Twice. At a certain point, you have to imagine that Aloi's problem is with pleasure itself, not with women being cute and non-threatening. A heirloom tomato hardly signals, "I'm a submissive little girl, don't fear me, easily startled man!" I'd actually imagine an easily threatened man would find a heirloom tomato threatening. Women who know their tomatoes are like women who order the wine without blinking. It signals an intelligence and willingness to pursue mature pleasures—the sort of thing that easily threatened guys are trying to avoid. It's not like having a Hello Kitty T-shirt and sticking to workout routines that don't do icky things like make you strong and powerful.
The more I think about it, the angrier I get. Already women feel a ton of pressure never to kick back and enjoy the finer things in life, but instead to believe there's always a brow or a floor that needs mopping. One of the toughest things a woman can do is say that she's taking some time for herself instead of just giving and working and giving and working.
*Maybe "Bridesmaids" is sounding the death knell for the trend of passing off childish MPDGs as something for real women to aspire to be. There was nary a woman wearing a romper while eating an ice cream cone with what "what, me?" expression on her face. And men didn't run screaming for the hills, too afraid of women acting like adults to tolerate two whole hours of it. Suck it, Zooey Deschanel. (Though you probably were sucking something already, chin pointed downwards, and eyes cast upwards as if you're ingratiating yourself with someone three feet taller.) Kristen Wiig is the new boss in town.
**That said, I retain the right to make fun of knitting. I realize it's fun to do it, but unlike with baking or sewing, the final products are something to be endured instead of enjoyed. Unless you get off on that sort of thing.