Archived Story

On feminism and the logic of dress codes

Published 5:27am Sunday, February 3, 2013

Column: Paths to Peace, by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

During the spring of my senior year in college, my girlfriend and I were enrolled in the same philosophy class with perhaps the best professor I had in my four years at St. John’s. Offered every other year, the course was considered one of the department’s best. The material was really difficult, and our professor’s engaging lectures and frequent questions kept us on our toes and inspired us to arrive well prepared. It was great.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

The class comprised serious students — most of us philosophy majors or minors — so there was a little pressure to not only impress our professor but our peers as well, a little good-natured competition to say something smart when called upon.

I thought I’d been doing pretty well until I started questioning myself after a conversation with a few friends from class. One of them, Jason, asked me, “So what’s it like dating your intellectual superior?”

His question was met with immediate laughter by all present, including my girlfriend.

Jason was pulling my chain, but there was certainly some truth to his question. My girlfriend was really sharp, one of the many reasons I was so attracted to her.

I shared this memory at school the other day while introducing feminism and feminist critical theory to my Humanities 11 students. One of the concepts we were exploring was “the male gaze,” a theory in film and television suggesting the camera often shows a male point-of-view, zooming in on things (sometimes body parts) that males tend to focus on, presenting the world on screen in ways that males would idealize.

We can all think about scenes from movies — even movie trailers — where the male gaze is rather heavy-handed. Check out the YouTube trailer for Adam Sandler’s movie “Just Go With It” sometime, and you’ll know what I mean, but it’s often more subtle than that.

One of the outgrowths of the male gaze theory is that it can extend beyond movies and television too, that girls and women in the real world may try to become the idealized versions of themselves they believe boys and men want them to be, influencing how they dress, how they act, how they speak, as if performing for a male viewer even when one isn’t physically there.

So I ask my students, “What do you think of this male gaze stuff? Is there some truth to this theory? Is this how things work, consciously or even subconsciously for girls?”

The young men in class tend to be less vocal during this discussion, but the young women jump right in.

“I can’t stand it when girls act dumb around guys to get attention” one girl always says.

“Why would they do that?” I ask. “Isn’t being smart or at least appearing smart something we all want?”

The response: “Guys don’t want to be with a girl who’s smarter than they are. Guys don’t want to be intimidated.”

Interesting.

So I then ask, “Guys, what do you think? Any truth to this?” Aside from occasional smart aleck comments suggesting there simply aren’t many girls out there who could measure up to their cerebral prowess, most of the young men agree that they do want to date girls who are at least as bright as they are.

This year the discussion included our school’s revised and stricter student dress code. We’ve always had a dress code at the high school, but this year we’ve tightened it up. We have been steadfast in sending kids violating the code to the office. Violations include dresses and shorts that are too short, necklines too low, inappropriate signs and slogans on shirts, holes and tears in clothing revealing inappropriate areas — you get the idea.

As you might imagine, the stricter dress code was a bit harder for girls to adjust to than boys, in part because of the male gaze and how girls are rewarded in our society for showing more skin.

In class I asked,“How would you respond if I told you that I think our dress code is rooted in feminism, that it may have some feminist goals?”

A pause. Then a few answers that weren’t exactly what I was hoping for but eventually led to comments like this: “The policy asks girls to dress in ways that are respectful to them and that allow them to be valued for things other than their bodies.”

That’s more like it. We discuss on.

Does showing cleavage mean you’re a “slut”? No. (Aside: Is there a male equivalent to the world “slut”? Not really.) Does dressing suggestively indicate you have self-esteem problems or don’t respect yourself? No. But it is a distraction in an academic or professional setting, and shouldn’t young women aspire to be recognized and respected for things other than the amount of cleavage they can display?

These are complicated issues, and I love that my students are so open to talking about them because how they view and treat others is as important as how they view and treat themselves. As the father of two young daughters, I know these adolescent discussions will one day extend into my own home, and I’m glad that I’ll bring with me years of experience talking with thoughtful young people about this sort of thing. I’ll also have the assistance of my wife, who remains my intellectual superior after all these years.

 

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is a high school teacher in Albert Lea where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at jcorey2@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jemcorey.