It’s International Women’s Day again! Why, it seems like only last year that a couple of people in the media spent a few hours pretending that anyone gives a crap about women’s issues. Tomorrow, progressive dudepundits like Matthew Yglesias can go back to pointing out how the whole “war against women” anti-birth-control dealio (which for some reason everyone is treating like some kind of recent and bizarre ‘phenomenon’) is really not about women at all. No, the “real stakes in the contraceptives fight,” according to Yglesias, is about regular health care for regular people.
In the meantime, my inbox today will be full of girl-a-riffic stuff like this:
Freethought blogger Maryam Namazie has teamed up with sex-poz Slutwalkist Sonya JF Barnett to promote a calendar featuring photos of “nude revolutionaries.” The calendar is meant to express solidarity with “Secular Liberal Feminist Vegetarian Idealist Individualist Egyptian” Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. Why does Aliaa Magda Elmahdy require the solidarity of nude revolutionaries? Well, she went and posted nude photos of herself on her blog.
“Big whoop,” you say. “It’s 2012. Who doesn’t post nude photos of themselves on their blog? I’ve done it myself about 37 times.”
Well, Elmahdy abides in Egypt, which as you know is one of those countries where it sucks to be a girl. They’re running one of those popular wars-on-women there, too. The preeminent fundamentalist godbag movement, the Salafis, are big on keeping women wrapped up like porphyric nuns and isolated from public view. I don’t need to tell you what happens when women are isolated from public view. The word “abuse” springs to mind. Elmahdy intended the photos to be understood as “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
Well, you can imagine the uproar. The hate started pouring in. Facebook was all a-Twitter.
Eventually Elmahdy’s radical fuck-you to crapulent Islamist misogynist tradition got some feminist ladies on this side of the pond all lathered up on her behalf. Naturally they decided to respond by publishing a classic traditional centerfoldian pin-up girl style calendar, with a different nude revolutionary representing each month. The emailer hipping me to this thing, Saskia Vogel, referred to herself as “Miss March.”
This link directly downloads the calendar as a PDF, straight to naked young Elmadhy in her Bettie Page stockings and ruby slippers, so, you know, not work-safe or whatever. Or you can buy it for 20 bucks. The proceeds “will go towards supporting women’s rights and free expression.” No details are offered concerning the precise nature of the women’s rights and free expression what will be supported. Each to her own, of course, but gawd, I sort of get the feeling it will have something to do with burlesque.
But I digress.
There is cohort of blamers who believe that whenever it comes to feminists trying to foment revolution, if I can’t say anything nice I shouldn’t say it at all. If you are of this cohort, prepare to be annoyed, because I’m about to be all, like, “oh, mang, not again!” about these nude revolutionaries. For it is the duty of the spinster aunt to squint a critical eye at any public performance of femininity-as-act-of-subversion. In the ancient scrolls of Savage Death Island it is written that the tactic of using femininity against The Man, though it almost always proceeds from a decently feminist core agenda, is flippin’ difficult to pull off, and can enjoy but limited success on accounta patriarchy cannot allow femininity to be anything but itself, and will squash it like a bug every time.
Regarding Elmahdy, an aunt can but applaud the sense of outrage and activist response to oppression engendered by her blogular efforts. As I mentioned earlier, it’s no secret that women in Egypt are encouraged by stone-throwing godbags to wear head-to-toe Hefty bags or else, so you can appreciate that Elmahdy’s public self-nudification is quite the act of courage, transgressiveness, disobedience, and bird-flipping. In that culture, the sheer novelty of a publicly naked woman, and the subsequent attention it will draw to her cause, perhaps justifies the act. But. The context of Elmahdy’s revolutionary behavior does not align precisely with the context of Western feminism. Particularly with that of the Western Feminism of Empowerfulness.
By which I mean, the consequences for say, Canadian nude revolutionary Sonya JF Barnett, who claims that her nude calendar project “pushes the envelope,” cannot be construed as even remotely similar to those Elmahdy must currently be enduring. I should think that hardly anyone, as a result of viewing an arty black-and-white photo, will wish to imprison Barnett, or ostracize her, or abuse her, or kill her (not, at any rate, more strenuously than they do any other Canadian woman). In fact, Barnett will likely receive a shit-ton of praise and admiration, especially from those icky feminist-ally dudes who are always so gung-ho when hot women use their bodies to make political statements (nobody cheered louder for Slutwalk than liberal dudes). Unfortunately, it is unlikely to sock it to the Western male gaze when a striking woman appears in a nudie calendar, even if the calendar images are artsily gritted up, appended with feminist slogans, and picture only mildly enpornulated women whose compliance with Beauty2K is somewhat less than that which is normally associated with mainstream pornography.
“But Twisty,” you say. “Pornography? Seriously? You are mad; this thing isn’t pornography, it’s feminist activism. It says so right on the calendar.”
At a time when free expression and women’s rights and bodies are under attack by Islamism and the religious-right, nudity is an important form of resistance and defiance.
I agree that with this project they’re trying to call attention to the patriarchy-delimited scope of women’s existence, which makes it activism, but they’re doing it pornally, which makes it problematic. They’re not pornvertising on a PETA scale or anything, but the paradigm that generated the artistic vision displayed by this work is unmistakably dudelio- and pornliocentric. They’ve just swapped out the porn stars with what are known in today’s Hollywoodized parlance as “real” women. It’s all still looking, looking, looking at naked chicks.
I allege that, in a patriarchy, all images of women, particularly but not limited to those that involve nudity, and particularly but not limited to those that allude to a traditional cheesecake aesthetic, are inherently pornographic. I allege this not because I believe that women are themselves inherently degraded pornbot livestock, but because the imagery is always realized under the auspices of — and for an audience acclimated to — a culture of pornsick patriarchal oppression. Images of women can only be interpreted from within a framework of misogyny that universally defines women in terms of male desire, male fantasy, male incontinence, and male power. No framework for interpretation exists other than that which defines women as the sex class.
As always, I hope that these nude revolutionaries prove me wrong and somehow manage to strike the blow for women’s “free expression” that they intend. But I mostly hope that Aliaa Magda Elmahdy makes it through her protest in one piece.
If you’re casting about for an example of a really badly written Wikipedia article, check out “nude calendar.”