the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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Some women want to believe that their predilection for rompers and kittens and baby voices reflects their individual personalities and not some trend toward retro, non-threatening femaleness. But no one chooses their choices in a vacuum and certainly it means something that so many women seem to be finding this super-girlish, childish part of their personalities at the same time, while Katy Perry’s sex and candy persona is tearing up the charts and actual little girls are being bombarded with pink, purple, princesses, tulle and sparkles…

… the persona that Klausner writes about is bound by class and race. The cult of domesticity defined idealized womanhood centuries ago–and that definition included both perpetual childhood and whiteness. The wide-eyed, girlish, take-care-of-me characters that Deschanel inhabits on film are not open to many women of color, particularly black women. We can be strong women, aggressive women, promiscuous women…we can do Bonet bohemian and Earth Mother (as Andrea pointed out), but never carefree and childish. Even black girls are too often viewed as worldly women and not innocents. Also, the affectations of the manic pixie are read differently on black women. A streak of pink in the hair goes from quirky and youthful to “ghetto” on a black body. Thrift store clothing leads to a host of class assumptions.

Who Is the Black Zooey Deschanel? | Racialicious

I know I’m not the only one who read this piece by Tami Winfrey Harris yesterday and thought, “THANK YOU.” (Though I gotta admit, I own exactly one romper which I have worn outside my home exactly once, and I already feel enough residual shame over that incident to last any trend-chasing gal a lifetime.)

One of my friends noted a while back, “Sometimes, our culture makes you feel like you are not Performing Femininity unless you just looooove pink, Hello Kitty, cupcakes and macaroons and whatever else is the default Chick Petite Pretty Snack, and teetering high heels.” I consider myself rather feminine, but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that society tends to reward proper ladylike behavior, while devaluing those who don’t fit into that particular image of womanhood. Think about the type of cultural archetypes that are even available to most women who aren’t white and middle-class. Hand-knitting mittens is trendy when you’re young, upwardly mobile, and financially well-off enough to participate as a consumer in the increasingly lucrative crafting industry. But if you’re a single mother sewing clothes because her kids can’t afford department store wardrobes, that’s not celebrated; it’s looked down upon. Justine Sharrock writes in Bitch Magazine:

"The struggle against the obligatory housewife role has always been situated in a middle- and upper-class, mostly white world, so it’s meaningless to hordes of women around the world who never had the luxury of “choosing” to stay at home. As many of our mothers and grandmothers would be happy to tell us, being a housewife isn’t about the martini-drinking, clean-apron-wearing, high-heels-in-the-kitchen diva we’re being sold. Being a housewife is, in reality, all about working your ass off for no pay, no recognition, and usually no appreciation."

So how is it that domesticity has actually become something of a fad? I try to question where my habits and preferences originate from, because they certainly weren’t present in utero. In part, they have likely been influenced by those with a financial interest in my consumption of traditionally feminine goods. There’s a host of magazines and products and lifestyle brands devoted to transforming this trend into profit. As Sharrock notes, “By turning the accessories of the housewife into hip fashion items, these entrepreneurs are both idealizing and capitalizing on a role that once symbolized economic dependence.” That doesn’t mean my appreciation of Hello Kitty and cupcakes is entirely inauthentic nor am I dissing feminine behavior altogether. Rather, this is about analyzing the origin of these preferences (i.e. getting real with ourselves) and critiquing whether they’re really as harmless as they seem. I told a self-described feminist “hardcore DIY-er” back in October:

"Your decision to turn doilies into lampshades and mine to don sequin-covered skirts are not decisions that we’re making because we believe they’re integral to our value as people. We’re not doing it because it’s expected of us and we’re not doing it because we want to please our partners. You presumably find genuine enjoyment in DIY projects and retro fashion just as I view cooking and home entertaining to be fulfilling activities. But neither of us is suggesting that these are the only appropriate interests a woman should have and that we are somehow superior to others for doing these things well."

The problem is that the acts authentic to one woman’s preferences are not always what’s authentic to another, and not everyone embracing these activities does so with full political awareness of the history behind domestic labor. To be fair, many third-wave feminist crafters see their art as inherently anti-capitalist (because crafting allows one to obtain goods without resorting to mass production), but the political intent behind their hobby is only possible because of their economic privilege. So while choosing DIY and cooking isn’t always at the behest of the patriarchy, choice itself is also a luxury. I cook at home even though I could eat out, because I have the time to prepare a labor-intensive meal and the money to pay for organic produce and retro aprons. These endeavors would be far less glam if I were tossing together frozen veggies because I lived in a food desert and didn’t make a living wage. Those who engage in traditionally domestic activities as a matter of necessity (and in addition to working class day jobs) likely scoff at the concept of “choosing” femininity.

To take this all down to a more superficial level, I really doubt that every girl who emulates Katy Perry is doing so because that’s what she really, really wants. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Katy Perry didn’t spring from her mother’s womb thinking that a whipped-cream-spraying cupcake bra would make a great fashion statement. That said, banning all women from liking cupcakes would be as restrictive as telling them they must bake sugary balls of fluff. So, really, all we can do, given the limits of our economic and political system, is to encourage women to make informed choices while acknowledging the circumstances that grant them choice in the first place.

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