I worked four years as an Undergrad, two as a Master’s student, five as a PhD. After those eleven years of hard work, this is exactly what I wanted to look like when I graduated. Sexy.
Loyal readers might think this post will attend to the sexism and racism imbedded in costumes that allow privileged bodies to put on the mask of minority (or other marginalized) people for the night, have a good laugh, and then reinscribe their privileged status by taking it all off the next day.
Nope. If you want that lecture, come to the class I teach every October about how cross-gender and cross-race costumes play on and perpetuate the ways our society ranks women and people of color. Or watch this hilarious Daily Show about “sexy” Halloween costumes.
Today, the Saucy Scholar is talking about the relationship between women and postfeminist models of success. Or, to put it plainly, why the fuck a PhD isn’t sexy on its own.
Lets review postfeminism, shall we? Postfeminism is the idea that we are beyond the need for feminists/feminist actions because we’ve already reached gender equality. Hooray! Rosalind Gill (2007) and Amy Adele Hasinoff (2008) describe how postfeminism perpetuates the belief that every woman has the same opportunity to “make it” and also that every woman defines “making it” the same way. Lets look at an example of making it, shall we?
Why are these ladies postfeminist icons? Because they have equal opportunities in education and jobs, because they have money from their education and jobs, and because they use their education, jobs, and money to develop an awesome lifestyle. But most importantly, they do all this shit while still being sexy. Damn Sexy. And please note, Carrie and Co. are not sexy because they feel good about themselves or their accomplishments per se, but because they have attained/maintained the socially ideal female body—thin, white, groomed, toned, made up. Sexy.
And here’s the postfeminist catch. Women are not successful just because they’re in the boardroom, but because they’re in there while maintaining their sex appeal, youthful appearance, and hard body. This is whole package of postfeminist success.
If ladies want this package, ok cool. Its certainly a lot of effort and labor, and some women can’t achieve this because of their class, race, ability, etc. It also perpetuates the idea that women’s bodies are sexy when they replicate what Gill calls “the heterosexual male fantasy found in pornography” (152).* But that’s not really my point. My point is that women necessarily have to engage in sexy to be fully successful. For women, success is not just defined by power (like for Donald Trump) or intelligence (like for Stephen Hawking), or position (like for Barack Obama). For the postfeminist woman, full and total success is defined by her power, intelligence, position AND her sexy. The gold high heels type.
So lets unpack this costume. Its not just “sexy co-ed” or even “sexy BA” (which would have sufficiently replicated the “sexy schoolgirl/college girl gone wild” trope I think it was aiming for). This costume takes what should be—and is—a really major accomplishment for any person, the conferral of a Doctorate, and layers over it the other essential markers of female success: legs, boobs, high heels. The sexy.
But Saucy, you say, its just a fucking Halloween costume! True, no one is saying I gotta’ get in this costume. Yet this costume nonetheless represents a pervasive idea and, as I tell my students, Halloween might appear to be but is not a space or time apart from real life. Halloween costumes play on and perpetuate many ideologies we hold as fundamental truths about bodies, behavior, and value. And the sexy PhD costume represents this truth: yes, I’m successful because I’ve got a PhD and a university teaching position. And yes, how I present myself—whether or not that is sexy—shouldn’t factor into if/how I’ve “made it.” But it does. It does. A woman with a PhDs is successful, but a woman with a PhD who is also sexy is the ultimate success story. This is how I know:
*Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007). 147-166.