Dispatches: Women in Whites

Do women deserve the same prize money at Wimbledon as men?  I’ll get back to that – first, a meandering introduction.  Feminism, since at least Mary Wollestonecraft, has always maintained a productive tension between agitating for gender equality and elaborating gender difference.  The very fact that equal rights for women as subjects and citizens is the legacy of feminist thought opens the ground for a philosophical argument about gender difference itself: what is its “nature,” what are its features, and how do these features affect a political program?  These issues, largely irresolvable products of the collision of activism and philosophy, play out as conflicts within feminist thinking between schools, generations, nations, etc.  In the academy, for instance, a theoretical split was seen to develop between French feminists such as Cixous and Irigaray, who argued for the intrinsic difference of women and their language, and those who argued, with Butler, that gender difference is always inessential and ideologically produced.

In more mainstream U.S. terms, in what I think of as “magazine feminism,” a similar argument has been understood as one between two generations, the “Second Wave” of the 1960’s and 70’s and the “Third Wave” of the 80’s and 90’s.  (Incidentally, the “First Wave” mostly concerns the suffrage movement: 1919, remember?)  Here’s the generational conflict in a nutshell: venerable figures such as Gloria Steinem were seen to derogate femininity in order to make the case for women’s equal abilities – their idea being that traditionally feminine traits were imposed upon women as a form of domination.  It’s all a bit unfair to the Second Wavers, since of course the Third Wave rehabilitation of femininity was made possible by the argument over capabilities having been won already.  All the same, by a dialectical movement, we find ourselves in a moment where femininity, having been cast aside in the fight for Title IX and other equal rights, and then diagnosed by high theory as nothing but a social construct anyway, is now being championed again.  (I know, I know, I’m oversimplifying and begging many questions in this little peanut of a summary.)

Let me try and illustrate these shifts using fashion.  Think about it: during the Eighties, while the Second Wave was still dominant in the mass, we had Amazons, tall, striking, intimidating women like Elle MacPherson or Grace Jones.  Just physically they were much larger than the models of other eras, and with the angular shoulder pads of their double-breasted jackets their sillouettes emphasized a masculine strength.  In the movies, overly jocky men were often rejected, while when little geeks like Corey Haim in Weird Science tried to invent the perfect woman, what happened?  Kelly LeBrock showed up and scared the crap out of him: this is the model system for a female identity concerned with appropriating equal power.

By the nineties, with Judith Butler on every sophomore’s dorm desktop, gender was fictive and boys and girls differed only in their ideological software.  What did fashion give us?  Androgyny, duh.  CK One was a unisex scent.  Read that again; is that even imaginable, let alone saleable, today?  Grunge-era Kate Moss and Jenny Shimizu dressed in white tees, combat boots and jeans, while guys dressed in…  the same.  Non-tomboy femininity, where it existed, had to do with ironic appropriations of extreme girlhood: Hello Kitty, little backpacks, Japanese animé.  The one place where extreme femininity was accepted was on men, in drag culture, which by its nature points up the mutability of gender.  The idea of young actresses glamming it up in makeup, heels and dresses every night, a la Jessica Simpson, would have seemed totally anachronistic, premodern. 

Except, of course, that’s exactly where mainstream taste did go, back towards female sexuality considered as power/agency rather than a concession to the male gaze.  First, fashion just dipped a toe in, with the mid-Nineties fetish for artisanal Italian shoes, pace Manolo Blahnik, and then gradually the entire female body was resexualized, through an alliance of endless red carpet shows, lad magazines, and “sex-positive” feminists.  Katha Pollit recently recalled Steinem comparing women who liked pornography to Jews who liked Mein Kampf; nowadays that view is less likely than a young feminist having made some of her own.  Being comfortable as the object of a sexual gaze, anathema to an earlier generation, have become the potential sign of an embrace of femininity, especially for younger women.

And here we stand.  It’s hard at the moment to tell feminism from its backlash, or maybe I should say that which is which depends on who you ask.  Anyway, recently the issue I started with came up in the popular press that brings a lot of this stuff into relief.  In case you forgot: do you think women deserve as much prize money as men at Wimbledon?  No, seriously, it’s a real question and I want your opinion on it.  Cause to be honest, it seemed like a no-brainer to me for a long time: of course they do!!!  But discussing it, several female tennis-fan friends made the case to me that they don’t, and the whole thing started to seem like an object lesson in the philosophical transformations of feminism.  But let me give you the facts first.

Wimbledon, conserver of tennis tradition and requirer of tennis whites, is the last of the four major tennis tournaments (the Grand Slams) to award different amounts to the male and female winners.  This year Roger Federer (whoops, I mean whoever the winner is) will get 655,000 pounds, while the female winner will get 625,000, for a paltry difference of 30,000 pounds, or less than five percent.  The U.S. Open has paid equally for decades (hey! something to be proud of this July 4th, damn it!), Roland Garros (the French Open) began just this year.  But the All-England Lawn Tennis Club hangs on to their petty disparity, infuriating lots of female players and much of British society, and contributing generally to worldwide distrust of old red-faced white men having clubs.  American Venus Williams is the leader of the player’s movement for equal pay, Tony Blair and John McEnroe have come out in support of it, and the Times of London (hardly a bastion of leftism) had this to say: “And by its mean-spirited defence of an anachronism well beyond its sell-by date, the All England Club has forfeited any vestige of quaintness.”  So what’s the problem?

Well, pointed out my interlocutors, for starters, women only play best of three set matches, not best of five as the men do: this means the men are already being paid less per game played (a set is up to six games) than the women.  Secondly, the women’s field is clearly less competitive than the men’s leading to a great number of easy matches in the early rounds.  (And, ugly irrelevant truth though it is, the respective levels of play are not close.)  Now, you might say (and I did say) that tennis is a sport, and sports are entertainment, and we don’t pay entertainers based on how long the album or movie or play is (if so, Andy Warhol might be the richest filmmaker of all time).  You might say that the competitiveness of the respective tours is irrelevant; they are evolving differently, and the principle of equality doesn’t change based on that evolution.  You might say, as Venus Williams did: “It has nothing to do with our campaign for equality. The time spent on court or the sets played is a moot topic. We are not arguing about that. It’s about being treated equal as human beings.”

You might also realize that this is a cosmetic issue that’s easy for politicians to look good decrying (new maxim: the cosmetic is the political?).  Women are underpaid relative to men in all the smaller tournaments, earning about 66% of their counterparts (even though both sexes play best-of-three sets in those), just as they earn less in every other industry (except modeling!).  They even get less as a per diem at many tournaments, which is despicable.  Yet the symbolism of Grand Slam prize money overrides all this: tennis is the most visible womens sport in the world.  And the U.S. Open’s equality on this has rightly and for a long while been a great source of pride: here in the nation of Billie Jean King, Second Waver extraordinaire, we do symbolic equal rights right. 

Yet here’s another difference between Billie Jean and her modern descendants: the sexual marketing of female tennis players (males too, for that matter) has accelerated considerably.  And just as in the world of fashion, modern women tennis players quite consciously trade on their appearance for major endorsements.  The tennis/fashion crossover means that Stella McCartney makes outfits for Maria Kirilenko, and Serena Williams designs clothes with Kimora Lee Simmons.  Of course, the queens of the scene still tend to be not so much beautiful as possessing all the signifiers of commercial beauty: blond hair and long limbs.  (Meanwhile, the truly gorgeous female tennis players, such as Ana Ivanovic, are ignored by the marketers in favor of the Sharapovas and Kournikovas.)  Does this sexualization constitute new-style feminism, or a backlash?  And how does this affect the drive for equality of paychecks?

The several people (all women) who argued with me that women don’t deserve equal money argued that to take the same pay for (shorter, easier) labor is unfair to men, and an unnecessary politics of gesture.  Perhaps this is the sign of truly consolidated strength, a confidence in one’s power and security that means one doesn’t have to accept merely symbolic gifts.  Okay, but the equal-pay movement going on right now is possible because the women’s game is nearly as popular (and occasionally more, in the ratings) as the men’s game now.  And in part, this is because of the women knowingly playing up to tennis’ image as an sanctioned arena in which to watch beautiful female athletes.  If sports are profit-seeking entertainment, and sex helps sell tickets and commercials (“Make every shot… a PowerShot”), then shouldn’t women demand an equal share of the pie, even if it’s for unequal on-court labor?  Or does that demean the principle of equality that women have fought for, as my opponents argued?  Which is capitulation, and which steadfast determination?  It’s a conundrum.  My gut is still heavily with equality, but what do you think?

Here’s the rest of dispatches.