Having spent my weekend at a feminist academic conference on the topic of “gender, bodies, and technology,” I am just now hearing word about project boobquake. For those that have also missed this story, here’s a recap: Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about an Iranian cleric who attributes the presence of earthquakes in the world to the fact that women dress immodestly. Sedighi was quoted as saying this:
Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes.
In response, blogger Jen McCreight calls for a boobquake, writing:
On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that’s your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I’m sure Sedighi can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn’t rumble. And if we really get through to him, maybe it’ll be one involving plate tectonics.
I don’t want to suggest that McCreight’s call is utterly worthless. On some level, it’s just a funny joke. But on other levels, this entire discussion (which has been covered heavily among the blogosphere) is a symptom of a much bigger problem involving American feminism.
Feminism is a social movement, an intellectual project, and a politics. There are many feminisms; many different ways of embodying the politics, the social project, the theoretical tradition. But in all of these capacities, feminism faces a real problem in the form of what some call ‘postfeminism.’ How do you make feminism meaningful for women who think they don’t need it without deluding the very project itself? All of this comes to a head in this idea of the boobquake, which, by the way, is not a feminist project. Here’s why.
In her call for a boobquake, McCreight oversimplifies a truly complex situation. As a white woman in middle America, it’s easy to misunderstand the situated nature of islamic fundamentalism in Iran. Modesty has a very particular meaning in an Islamic context. Surely, the original incendiary statement is indicative of a patriarchal culture, however, I think we can agree that the appropriate response should come from the particular women being referenced, those that live within this religious context. When McCreight and her followers on twitter and facebook wear their ‘immodest’ clothes tomorrow, they will be exercising their own “freedom” to dress immodestly, but they are not going to prove anything to a person who sincerely believes that female immodesty causes earthquakes. Moreover, they will just provide more fodder to an ideology that presumes Westerners are all immodest and responsible for (apparently) natural disasters. What would be more politically relevant would be a response to those American fanatics who consistently blame the victim in date-rape situations. This doesn’t just happen in the media, I’m sure we can all recall a moment where a scantily clad woman was deemed to be “asking for it.” “It” being anything from the male gaze to sexual assault. Or perhaps, more analogously, those commentators who presumed that the destruction of the city of New Orleans was an act of God. The scary part about the immodesty quote is that the attitude behind it persists all over the world, even [gasp] in America!
My other gripe with McCreight’s boobquake is that it equates bodily display with social change. This is just bad feminism. What we think of as ‘immodest’ clothing is structured by the very male gaze that claims to be so influenced by female sexuality. McCreight’s call for cleavage and short-shorts is a call for a male fantasy. Fashion is structured by a particular vision of the female body that is unrealistic and constructed by male desire. If a woman wants to live in the world, she usually has to conform to this type in some ways. Both women and men are affectively invested in the particular versions of femininity and masculinity that ideologically structure American culture. That is, in spite of the fact that I know that beauty is subjective, and standards of beauty are arbitrary, I am invested in the beauty standards that permeate my culture. I think beauty is equated with a certain size, a certain weight, a certain bone structure, etc. Certainly, one can be a feminist and dress ‘immodestly,’ but one’s feminism is not determined, reflected, or constituted by her/his clothes.
McCreight’s blog post is getting lots of attention not because it is interesting, but because it is easy to criticize, and, if this is what ‘feminism looks like,’ it’s easily dismissed. The answer to the problem of patriarchy is never as simple as donning a low cut T-shirt, and those that think it is are simply not thinking about it hard enough. While these may be the stories that circulate, they are not the only stories we can tell.