This is what a Feminist Looks Like

I am very lucky that I have made friends with some truly intresting, beautiful, crazy and informed people in my life. One of which is the lightly scented cloud of gorgeousness I know as Minna.

Minna is a good friend of my best friend Disa, Minna discovered the world of Lolita through me and the nuttiness of the lolita psyche through the lolita secrets community/egl community on LJ. Only recently has she started actively wearing Lolita after years of never seeing her out of pants (that’s not true, I’ve seen her outside of pants if ya know what I mean ;)), she wrote this AMAZING essay on Lolita and Feminism and the world NEEDS to see it so with her permission I’m going to post it here.

A Feminist and a Lolita

by minna

I consider myself extremely feminist. I use the term, I stand up, and by GOD I let people know on occasion. This isn’t a part time hobby. The personal is political, and I am very political.

So how do I reconcile dressing like a child with a strong feminist viewpoint?

Very easily.

1. The intention of lolita has always, always been to dress not like a child, but like a doll.
2. Lolita, the fashion, is strongly non-sexual. The absolute fastest way to offend lolitas is to tell them they’re wearing sex costumes.
3. Lolita, the book, isn’t about a sexually provocative, precocious young woman. It’s about a young girl who is taken advantage of.
4. CHILDISH IS NOT AUTOMATICALLY SEXUAL. I can’t stress this enough.

The first point is fairly explanatory, and not so much a valid, important point as a common misconception which is a pet peeve of mine, so I’ll skip it.

2. Lolita, the fashion, is strongly non-sexual. The absolute fastest way to offend lolitas is to tell them they’re wearing sex costumes.

The most hilarious experience I’ve had so far is with the father of two of my good friends. One of them wears lolita, the other don’t. They both, completely independently of each other, shut him the fuck down when he attempted to call lolita sexual. I was showing off ‘Sugary Carnival’, which is a print by Angelic Pretty with marshmallow-twist lines that end in carousel horses around the hem.

“So what,” he asked, “is the idea that men want to eat it off you?”
“Er, no,” I told him, “lolita isn’t intended as sexual. I guess people can find it that, but to be honest, finding it sexual I find more than a little creepy.”
“Well,” he told me, eyebrows raised, “what do you think men are thinking?”
“I think nobody cares what men are thinking,” scribewraith (another feminist friend and a cool person I know) told him, “because we don’t all agonize over whether or not men want to fuck us when we dress ourselves in the morning.”

There are several hard lines on appropriateness in lolita, which the community enforces with the typical force of a collection of fashion-focused women. For reference, the rules include:

A) the dress should not end any higher than at the top of the knees.
B) no shiny fabrics.
C) no cheap lace.
D) shoulders should ideally be covered.

One of the points of these rules is to keep a firm, distinct line between what is considered lolita and sex costumes. Nothing cheap, nothing shiny, nothing short, nothing provocative. I can’t speak to the existence of these rules in Japanese expression of their fashion, but in western communities? They’re pretty hardline enforced. Bodyline is a popular brand, but it’s not considered Brand, and never will be -why? Mostly because it started out as a sex costume store.

In the time I have been watching the lolita postsecret community, I have seen a not-insignificant number of secrets from women who were sexually abused. Probably 3 or 4 at this point? Which does not represent a wide swathe of the community by any means, but is still enough to be worth a mention, and the repeated refrain is that they use lolita to desexualise themselves.

All women, and feminists especially, are aware of their inability to desexualise their bodies in a culture where “sex” is “naked woman”. Lolita fashion is, by its very nature, a way of stepping back from the adult, sexual world.

For me, personally, it’s a “fuck you” to that constant, involuntary sexualisation, but I’ll get into that later.

3. Lolita, the book, isn’t about a sexually provocative, precocious young woman. It’s about a young girl who is taken advantage of.

There are those within the lolita community who believe that the name has nothing to do with the book. Personally, I think that’s a big pile of bullshit. BUT. The name was chosen in a culture that doesn’t necessarily carry the same baggage about that book as we do. It’s not as well-known over there as it is here. A high number of the women who wear it there have never even heard of Vladimir Nabokov, let alone his books, and as such I feel fairly safe making this assumption about said baggage when I’m not as familiar with Japanese culture.

So, here’s the thing about this book which has always gotten to me. We use ‘lolita’ as a term to describe precocious, sexually-awakened adolescents. But Lolita, as a character, was not particularly precocious, or particularly sexually awakened.

She was a girl just becoming aware of her sexuality. She was a girl who had a crush on an adult man in her life. Neither of these things are uncommon. The difference between Lolita and other girls her age is that Humbert Humbert was a child molester, and as such, did not shut her down gently and firmly, as is the responsibility of an adult in that situation, but instead used that slowly awakening sexuality as a weapon to trap her.

Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator trying desperately to excuse what he knows is wildly inappropriate behaviour. If you came out of that book thinking Lolita had the maturity and experience to fully, meaningfully consent to what went on, you missed the point.

4. CHILDISH IS NOT AUTOMATICALLY SEXUAL. I can’t stress this enough.

Here’s the big point.

We live in a culture which sexualises women largely by infantilising them. Where the ultimate, vaunted sexual interaction is with cheerleaders and college girls and where 75% of the spam messages screams “barely legal”. “EIGHTEEN YEARS AND FOUR SECONDS OLD,” the subject lines scream, “HOT TEEN SLUTS WAITING FOR YOU”.

But the way in which women are sexually infantalised involves taking childish clothing and making it sexual.

Lolita isn’t sexual. The skirts are modestly long, any hint of cleavage is covered by at least one layer of concealing cloth, bare shoulders are sometimes acceptable but usually not, socks are knee-high or you’re wearing tights. The rules for modesty in lolita are harsher than many conservative churches expect.

We’ve been socialised and culturally trained to believe that women doing anything childish is sexual.

The reason that lolita appeals to me is that I see it as a forcible desexualisation. It’s a “fuck you” to the idea that my having a vagina is a magic button making me sexually available at all times. If people are looking at me in lolita and thinking “damn, that’s hot, I want to put it in” they’re sexualising me at a time and in a way which is clearly inappropriate. It’s a fashion where viewing me as a permanently sexual being is creepy -and that’s the POINT.

To return to the first point, Japanese culture paints dolls as damn creepy. Dolls as soul-stealers are a recurring theme in their ghost stories. Most of the heterosexual men who I interact with regularly and who I respect find lolita, as a fashion, creepy, because it’s taking attractive, sexually appealing women and dressing them like dolls -hello uncanny valley -and like children. It’s hyper, super feminisation without the sexualisation.

Lolita was sexualised to early, against her will. The name is important for me, because I’m giving agency and power to a figure who is traditionally marginalised and deprived of real agency, or prescribed agency she never had.

When I put on that dress, I’m saying “you don’t get to sexualise me today”. I’m saying “I’ll be sexual only when and where *I* choose”.

That’s not the truth for everyone. But it’s the truth for me. And as a woman, and as a feminist, those bows and frills and yards of lace are the trappings of my empowerment. And nobody -not the patriarchy, and certainly not other feminists -can take that away from me.

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15 Responses to “This is what a Feminist Looks Like”

  1. I have never seen a problem reconciling lolita and fenminism, you have some very excellent points here!
    I’m definatly sharing this with others.

    Bonus for the “uncanny valley”. =3

  2. Gabrielle Says:

    -applauds-

  3. Very good essay, I not only liked it but it also made me think. Also I should really read Nabokov’s Lolita.

  4. I liked this a lot. I definitely consider myself a feminist and a lolita, for these reasons exactly!

  5. SnEptUne Says:

    Grammar asides, you did made many interesting points and I agreed with you for most part.

    Nevertheless, isn’t being a doll the opposite of empowerment? Women being portraited as a saint, loving mother had in history limited their roles and was taken advantaged of. In the past, it should to be such an insult to call someone a doll because it implied that someone is not independent, is submissive, is at the mercy of someone. However, as a human aren’t we all dependent on each other. In my opinion, the core of the problem is that people over emphasize and stereotyping people based on race, colour, gender, religion etc…

    • sockshotholly Says:

      I would agree that in the past the “doll” look has certainly been used to devalue women and hurt them. To a certain extent it still is (see all the girls starving themselves trying to look like “barbie”). However, now the thing used most to control women and devalue them is constant sexualisation, as the article mentioned, by covering up as much as possible and creating an impression other than “sexy” in men (hopefully) we are breaking free of that control. All fashions are trying to attain something that looks “doll-like”. At least with this one we won’t get wolf whistled at :)

  6. “The rules for modesty in lolita are harsher than many conservative churches expect.”

    So true.

  7. Beautiful article. As a feminist Lolita, I find your points valid and useful, particularly when explaining Lolita to people who don’t understand the fashion. As a fringe/alternative fashion, I think it fits nicely with the counter-culture revolution of the feminist movement.

    Thank you for the lovely articulation of what many of us have been thinking and believing all along.

  8. Ringo shared this on her LJ, and I wanted to stop to say Bravo and post a note I also posted in response to Ringo –

    Totally agreed with exploding candy (who mentioned creepy cultural fetishism of youth in her response) – and note all that x4 for Japanese society and youth worship. Innocence/virginity/etc are prized in part because they indicate the possibility of a degree of ownership over that person.

    Personally, I think the ultimate hope I have for feminism is the ability to choose whatever you want to be – if that’s a housewife in an apron, a-ok as long as you’re not doing it because you think you have to but because you enjoy it – and aren’t pushing it on someone else. If that’s a girl in frilly-frills and pink also a-ok if it’s because that’s what *you* love not because that’s what someone else fetishizes. If you pick lolita fashion in that mein, you are actually repudiating the creepy style interest by saying “look, whatever floats your boat is *your* problem, this is what makes *me* happy.” But it’s easy to confuse the object and projection of desire.

    Continuing thoughts from after that post – Returning to the youth/innocence=possible to control comment, one of the other responses here noted that projecting oneself as a doll again invokes the idea that it is possible to control this person – and that is an extremely valid concern. One of the subtle but critical differences in Lolita feminism from fetish invoking behavior is that we choose to dress as *our own* doll – not someone else’s. I like your argument about Lolita’s role in Nabokov’s book, and think it deserves expansion to a general feminist consciousness, to be aware that this is happening at a deeper level than our everyday “oh, yeah, that again” response. Feminism does not have to be strident – but does have to remember that sometimes it’s necessary to keep up defenses, because there are viewpoints all around us that would be happy to objectify and disempower us – words that are both losing meaning from repetition and starting to sound like cant, but words that are being repeated for good reason and we ought to keep finding new ways to say them and to claim our own identities. When we stop listening to older feminists who tell us there is a battle to be fought, we do ourselves a disservice by listening to the male voices who would happily call down any woman who claims an individual belief apart from the social norm. We don’t need to be man-bashers (my husband is a wonderful human being, vs. merely a man, and I hope to be a wonderful human being vs. merely a woman) and we don’t need to be on the attack all the time – but we should stay aware that there are forces happy to attack our individuality with a passive-aggressive, even lazy, egotism. “Oh, you don’t want to go along with whatever we say is normal for women? You’re actually willing to talk about it? You must be a real boring bitch.” Audience: “Ooh, she’s a bitch!”

    Right on to scribewraith’s response to the whole question!

  9. Excellent article. I’ve been wondering for a while now if anyone has written about lolita fashion being representative of feminism.

    I love this:

    ‘When I put on that dress, I’m saying “you don’t get to sexualise me today”. I’m saying “I’ll be sexual only when and where *I* choose”.’

  10. @SnEptUne: the women in history had their roles chosen for them. Lolitas choose to dress the way they do. We are not submissive, nor do we depend on others for everything. Yes, a level of dependence on other people is necessary, but girls/women, choosing the Lolita style and life, do not choose to be submissive or overly dependent.

    @Minna: thank you for this, I agree with it very much.

  11. Great artical! I’ve always felt that lolita was a type of rebellion and feel a similar empowerment from wearing it. I can’t wait to share this artical with a few of my friends.

  12. skylure Says:

    wow, this girl is awesome. This is definitely one of the best lolita/feminist articles ive read, it holds itself up and kicks the ass of rediculous counterpoints.

    “you don’t get to sexualise me today”
    there should be shirts or cutsews printed with that

  13. Thank you for this article! I love hearing other feminist viewpoints on Lolita.

    I think it’s a fascinating topic, because as has been said before, the image we portray would, to the uneducated eye, seem like a purposeful attempt to make ourselves submissive fantasies. The ‘doll’ complex for one; I think it’s deeper than presented. Like Bekka the Alice said, we are our own dolls; but also I’d like to reference to Victoria Suzanne of Lolita Charm, when she said that we are like ‘poisonous insects pretending to be harmless’.

    I strongly believe that if one needs to say that one is something, one is most likely not. We don’t need to broadcast that we take responsibility for ourselves. To me, it’s as though we do the opposite; almost like we masquerade in the way that men ‘would like to see us’, as perfect, youthful, submissive dolls – but there’s automatically a dangerous twist to that. The twist is that by doing exactly that, we also shout to the world that we are off-limits if we want to be, that we scorn society’s expectations. Call it, if you will, a sort of visual and aesthetic “Here, isn’t this what you supposedly wanted? See? You don’t want it after all, and that’s why I’ve done it.”

    I find there’s an intriguing juxtaposition between the Victorian women and their mannerisms that we often dote upon, and the idea of the modern woman. I think society has purposefully turned the picture of the pioneer of women’s rights into that of big, butch man-hater lesbians simply because it feels threatened by it, so by making it an object of ridicule nobody will take it seriously. (Though there’s nothing wrong with that stereotype to me, I love those women! So refreshing to hear a bit of good man-hating!)
    We have to speak up and take responsibility. Those who claim that feminism is a past topic with no relevance to modern society need to wake up and smell the lies. We’re not dinosaurs for supporting ourselves, because the battle is not won yet.

    The ’empowered girl’ of today who dresses in skimpy skirts and fetish heels, shows her cleavage, diets to fit the warped image of male desire – I don’t believe she’s ’empowered’, not even a little bit. She believes that she has control over men because of this? Isn’t it rather than men have given her this idea so that she can titillate them and feel in control even when she is not?

    I had this issue when I started, and it was something that conflicted in me for a long time. But finally, I decided that I was doing it for *me*, not because I feel ‘sexy’ in it. That’s my empowerment; a conundrum, to be utterly beautiful without being desirable. I consider myself to be a rebellion against mainstream rebellion.
    I love that the other girls around me think that they are rebelling when they skimp up and go out to get drunk ‘because they are supposed to’ (something I really have heard from them – that they go out because the others are doing it and they ‘need’ to fit in), and that little me, sitting over there with a book and a cup of tea and a frilly nightie on a nice comfy warm night in, not interested or concerned about my years’ worth of singleness, is supposed to be the conformist. I wonder who feels better for it in the morning? Haha. Forgive me. I begin to bitch, which was not my intention.

    You suggested that by calling ourselves Lolitas, in a way we are giving the girl of the namesake the power to choose at last: I love that idea. To me, my dressing in Victorianesque clothing and supporting Victorian morals and aesthetics is to me the same thing. I hurt when I think of the millenia of injustice to the women who never had my chances. So I create myself in their mould, and I give them the freedom to choose.

    Of course, these are only my own very personal opinions. I’m not speaking for others by any means.

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