Monday, January 16, 2017

Cornelia’s Nook - Respectability Politics in Feminism: What Are You Wearing?

Hear Our Voice” poster by Liza Donovan

By: Cornelia L. Dolian

I had planned to do a write-up of Roxane Gay’s 2014 collection of essays Bad Feminist, but then I read Petula Dvorak’s problematic piece on the upcoming Women’s March on Washington and decided I would just tangle with an example of some flawed feminism instead. (Before I rant, let me just revel in and rave about Bad Feminist: It’s searing, earnest, poignant, smart, entertaining, wise, human, and endlessly thought-provoking in its tackling of topics from gender to racial injustice to pop culture to competitive Scrabble. I would recommend it widely, with enthusiasm.)

So, the full title of the aforementioned offending piece is “The Women’s March needs passion and purpose, not pink pussycat hats”. In it, Dvorak admonishes plans some marchers have to wear knit hats in the shape of cats and wave glittery signs. Of the march, she states that “This is serious stuff” (I totally agree) and “Protests are successful and effective when they have a clear message, a clear mission” (again, I agree). There’s no question in my mind that the primary focus should be the message(s) marchers want to send to lawmakers, and that other aspects should be secondary.  

What I don’t agree with is the insinuation that wearing pink or glitter or anything that is perceived as girly “undercuts the message the march is trying to send,” as she claims. What disappoints and angers me is Dvorak’s willing advancement of the notion that women need to look a certain way to be taken seriously.

Maybe Dvorak doesn’t believe that herself, maybe she is simply fearful that others' (male politicians? judgey, narrow-minded onlookers? anti-feminists?) will write off the Women’s March, and thereby the valid and vital concerns behind it (vanishing reproductive rights, lack of representation, rape culture, unequal pay, etc.).

Our Bodies, Our Minds” poster by Jennifer Maravillas

But guess what? Those who are primed to write off the Women’s March are going to do it anyway. Women will be damned, mocked, and dismissed by misogynists, sexists, anti-feminists, and people who just don’t care, whether they show up looking fierce as Beyonce in “Formation”, cuddly as Hello Kitty, or boardroom-ready as Hillary Clinton. In short: Haters gonna hate.

Women are constantly getting restrictive messages about what to wear/not wear in order to be deemed respectable or desirable or legitimate, in order to be taken seriously. Part of our empowerment should be the ability to shrug off or defy this status quo. To refuse to play by arbitrary rules set by media, advertising or “tradition”.

We shouldn’t have to capitulate to the faulty idea that “it doesn’t matter what she’s thinking/saying; look only at what she’s wearing” when it comes to protesting or anything else. And we shouldn’t be told to do so under the guise of advancing our cause(s). We should be able to feel comfortable expressing ourselves in what makes us feel most confident and powerful (a pink pussycat hat, a dress and stilettos, a t-shirt and jeans, or something else). We ought to have the support, not the judgment, of fellow feminists in that endeavor.

We should be allowed to knit our pink hats and wear them, too. With passion and purpose (and glittery signs, if that’s what some of us choose). Because our strength lies not in looking homogenous or nondescript, but in our ability to stand together and accept each other in varied expressions of our womanhood and ourselves.

Cornelia L. Dolian writes fiction and nonfiction. She’s between websites, but you can connect with her on Medium (@cornelialdolian), Twitter (@cornelialdolian) and Facebook.


  1. I enjoyed this read and agree with the views expressed. Although (without reading Dvorak's piece) I can imagine that she was looking at in from the perspective of whether others would take the march as seriously with such whimsical imagery? Idk there had to be some logic behind it, right?

  2. Thanks, Janora! Yeah, I think the idea that others might not take it seriously was her concern. And it's probably true. But, I also suspect that many of those people who don't want to take it seriously are going to find reasons not to take it seriously regardless. Maybe that's cynical of me. But it's hard not to be cynical when women's rights and issues are constantly under attack and so often being rolled back. Sigh.

  3. True...U can't try to liberate women and then try to control em, dictate what they wear or how they need to act. That's her own opinion on how a woman should be

  4. Quite the critique! I loved how you encompassed females from all backgrounds and highlighted how attire is irrelevant when it comes to utilizing your voice for change!- CgN