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Dr. Laura Schlessinger is on a How To Please Your Man kick this week. Yesterday, Schlessinger admonished wives who aren’t interested in sex and deny their husbands “the normal, expected ‘reward’ of love and passion:
Most of the time, too many wives just get lazy and self-centered about taking care of their romantic and sexual lives . . . Women’s sexuality requires “priming,” while guys are just about always “ready to roll.” A lot of that priming has to happen in her head: thinking affectionately about sensual things, bathing, primping and flirting—-the kinds of things wives tend to leave at the altar or in the birthing room.
To Dr. Laura, a woman’s work includes bathing, primping, flirting, buying pretty outfits, doing her hair, and painting her nails. But it also requires a woman to devote some of her brain space to “thinking affectionately about sensual things,” just in case her husband is horny when he gets home from work. Interestingly, Dr. Laura doesn’t admonish women as “lazy and self-centered” for literally refusing sex to their husbands—-she calls them selfish for failing to perform the inner work of actually feeling sexy when they do have sex.
Laura’s sex advice reminded me of Amanda Marcotte‘s observations on the conflicting theories of traditional gender roles in the conservative movement. Social conservatives, Marcotte notes, alternately argue that gender roles are innate, and that they are learned. To these folks, acting “like a man” or “like a woman” is the “natural” thing to do, but it also takes a whole lot of work to achieve proper masculine or feminine performance. As more social spaces open up for people to be freely gay, bisexual, butch, unmarried, gender non-conforming, or anything else that defies the idea that traditional gender roles are in fact “natural,” I’d argue that the performance model becomes more crucial to maintaining the conservative social order. So instead of working to dismiss gender non-conformists as “unnatural” freaks of nature, conservatives have just decided to paint them as lazy, bad people who aren’t working hard enough to fulfill their constructed roles.
Now that conservatives have openly acknowledged that masculinity, femininity, and heterosexuality actually take a lot of work to maintain, they have to work doubly hard to attempt to normalize this performance. So, good people work hard to fulfill their gender roles, but better people don’t whine about having to perform that work. And the best people really, truly, actually love to perform their roles—-or at least appear to love it. Hence Dr. Laura’s insistence that women not only perform sex for their husbands, but also internalize that performance in their own minds—-a feat that is so unnatural that women may even need to buy Dr. Laura’s book, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands,” in order to do it right.
Under this model, it doesn’t really matter if gender performance is “natural,” as long as it’s sufficiently difficult. Take the openly gay social conservative who argues that sex between two men can still satisfy the requirement of fulfilling proper gender roles as long as one of the men agrees to wear a dress and properly submit. Or the ex-gay activists who argue that same-sex sexual attraction is naturally occurring, but that the Christian thing to do is to resist it through intensive (and sometimes expensive) “therapy”. Or the deeply religious woman who received breast augmentation surgery before her fiancee (or any man, for that matter) had ever seen her naked, because unnaturally augmenting the body that God gave you is actually a sign of ultimate love and devotion, as long as you hand that body directly over to your husband.
The “unnatural” aspect of Breast Implants for Jesus doesn’t concern me—-it’s the completely bizarre attempt to justify plastic surgery through scripture that sets my bullshit meter off. Not because I’m interested in upholding the sanctity of the Christian church, but because Breast Implants for Jesus reminds me a whole lot of a bullshit justification closer to my heart—-Breast Implants for Feminism. While social conservatives are latching onto the performance model of gender, post-feminists (some of whom just call themselves “feminists”) are taking the opposite tactic—-arguing that our performances of masculinity and femininity are a matter of individual choices and preferences. So whenever a woman “chooses her choice” that happens to fulfill these gender roles—-even if it involves painful and invasive surgery of the boob—-her choice is necessarily an empowering move that can’t possibly inspire a larger feminist critique of the culture that informs that choice. I Blame the Patriarchy calls this justification-happy post-feminist the “empowerful woman“:
Today’s woman isn’t a feminist. She doesn’t need to be, because she’s empowered. She may only earn 3/4 of what a man earns, but she damn well has the empower to look sexy doing it in her cheapcrap push-up bra from Victoria’s Secret. She has the empower to demand pink products from manufacturers. She has the empower to cry out ‘I did it for me!’ when she gets her boob job; maybe she even has the empower to believe it. The empowerful woman is saucy, yet feminine. Clever, yet feminine. In her early thirties, yet feminine. Heterosexual, yet feminine. Stays in shape eating Lean Cuisine and sweating blue Gatorade while kickboxing in slow motion, yet feminine. Yes, the empowerful woman is many things. Too bad powerful isn’t one of them. That’s because feminine is all of them.
The way I see it, the difference between Dr. Laura’s traditional wife and post-feminism’s “empowerful woman” is that the empowerful woman doesn’t admit that her performance of femininity is in the service of pleasing a specific man. The empowerful woman doesn’t perform femininity to please her man—-she performs femininity “for herself.” And so while Dr. Laura openly admonishes women for not feeling feminine for themselves for their husbands, the empowerful woman conveniently fends off any arguments that feeling feminine “for herself” actually has a lot to do with how our larger social structure feels about women. I’m afraid that the real difference emerging between Breast Implants for Jesus and Breast Implants for Feminism is that the latter is just less honest than the former. The cult of Dr. Laura at least recognizes that a woman’s work often really sucks.
That’s not to say that feminism should shame the woman who is traditionally feminine, or who gets breast implants, or who spends her days thinking sexual thoughts in order to steel herself for her husband’s penis. Feminism should, though, work to encourage that woman to:
(a) stop feeling that her gender and sexuality requires a lot of unnecessary work in order to please people like Dr. Laura;
(b) realize that gender performance is highly valued in our culture, and to stop feeling like she has to justify her gender performance as a completely independent choice;
(c) understand that living in the patriarchy while refusing to justify it is going to require a whole lot of cognitive dissonance, but hey, it’s better than lying to yourself;
and (d) just consider the possibility that you’re really getting Breast Implants for the Patriarchy.