Passive Voice Feminism

I know that everybody must be sick and tired of my rantings about the excessive use of the passive voice in feminist writing. This is an important topic, though. Just like #OWS protesters, many feminist writers suffer from addressing vague complaints to unidentified sources of aggravation and this undermines any hope for productive activism. Take the following excerpt, for example:

I wear makeup. Not much — unobservant people would call me a non-makeup wearer — but enough to cover the “imperfections” and make my lips and cheeks a bit more rosier than they were when I woke up? Why do I do this? Generally I’m treated better when I look “prettier” in society’s eyes. Conversely, I have the choice of going barefaced, which I have on occasion. But that choice comes with the baggage of being labeled “unfeminine,” “unkempt” or “unprofessional.”

This post leaves the most interesting part of the story concealed from view. Who are the people that treat this blogger better when her cheeks are rosier and label her as “unkempt” when they are less rosy? These must be people with a lot of free time on their hands to enable them to notice the degree of rosiness of everybody’s cheeks. So I’m genuinely curious who they are.

Another question that is even more important is how the feminist in question reacts to these observations. Let’s imagine she is at work and her boss comes up to her to say, “Look, your lips aren’t all that rosy today which makes you unfeminine, so that promotion we discussed? Forget about it!” I’m not saying this can’t happen. Idiots abound, so everything is possible. It would be great to hear what the insulted feminist does in response. Takes the jerk up on a sexual harassment charge, I hope. Now, this is a story I would like to read about instead of these vague complaints about some unspecified evildoers who treat one badly and label one all kinds of things.

I’d love to participate in this struggle myself. However, I haven’t encountered a single person in the course of my long and eventful life who would be willing to discuss the lack of rosiness of my body parts. I wouldn’t be averse to meeting such an individual, to be honest, because it would be so much fun to unload on them and then describe the process here on the blog.

Sometimes, I wear a lot of makeup. Sometimes, I wear none. And for the life of me, I can’t say that anybody even notices. My colleagues are very busy people who have more important things to do than notice whether I have lipstick on. My boss notices whether I have published anything recently but I can’t imagine him giving a rat’s ass about whether I use mascara. I’m certain that he’d prefer to see me with zero makeup but a stack of publications to seeing me with the best makeup in the world and no publications. My students obviously could care less about my makeup. My friends are supposed to love me no matter how I look and calling each other “unkempt” or “unprofessional” is simply not something that we do to each other.

Mind you, I’m not saying that women don’t get treated worse if they avoid makeup. I don’t know if they do or they don’t because every single article or blog post I have ever seen on the subject suffers from the same vagueness as the one quoted above. I suggest we start putting nouns into our sentences. That’s the only way to create actual change. Instead of saying, “I’m being treated badly and labeled XYZ”, let’s say “Today, Mr. Such-and-such came up to me at work and made an unacceptable comment about my appearance. I told him that he is a vile jerk and I will be reporting him to the Dean’s office. This is a procedure I followed and I hope it will be useful to other women who find themselves in the same situation.”

Wouldn’t you agree that the second course of action is a lot more likely to produce results?

36 thoughts on “Passive Voice Feminism”

  1. In large parts of the business world though, it’s what “looking professional” is code for. And at the end of my sister in law’s medical residency at UCSF they had classes on hair, skin, nails, and cosmetics so people would know how to look at fancier job interviews and while working fancy MD jobs. It’s part of dressing for work, essentially. And no, people don’t say these things directly – you just don’t get the job, or your point isn’t be heard, etc.

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    1. I’m not disagreeing with any of this. But such situations can also be described in concrete sentences using the active voice. For example: “I thought I was super qualified for this job but I didn’t get it. So I asked the recruiter to tell me why I didn’t get the job. And she said it was because I don’t wear makeup. Here is the name of this horrible company that discriminates against women on the basis of makeup.”

      What I’m saying is that “this kind of happens somewhere” isn’t a useful position. While “this is what happened and here is how I addressed it” is.

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      1. I really don’t think they’d say it in those terms, most likely because it would be one of several elements. We once interviewed someone who gave his job talk in shirtsleeves.
        This is not something I care about, especially given the
        time of year it was, the venue, and the whole atmosphere
        we had set up for the visit.

        However, you should have heard the complaints – calmed
        down only when someone revealed that he did have a
        jacket and tie with him, but had been assured they were
        not necessary. Discovering that he had these with him,
        and thus that he knew how one was normally supposed
        to dress for an interview, made a big difference to those
        who cared.

        There were other factors having to do with informality
        that this added to, but in the discussion I really thought,
        for several minutes, that we were about to not hire this
        person because of the jacket issue. Had we actually not
        made the offer, though, what would surely have been
        said was that we wanted someone with better English
        skills than this candidate turned out to have. But I’m
        tellin’ ya, the lack of jacket made a difference to some peoples’ perception of the English skills.

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        1. Right now, at this very moment, I’m at a store with N looking for clothes. It turned out that his clothes are too formal for his new company, so we are looking for something even more casual than what he normally wears. Different companies have different styles and you are just as likely to find one that leans one way as the other.

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  2. I interview people for a living and really disagree that lack of make up is of any relevance to a hiring manager. There are exceptions for certain positions maybe – PR, buyer for a luxury brand, etc. Otherwise no one really gives a crap. If you have a strong resume, everything else is secondary. I have assisted in hundreds of hiring decisions and trust me when I say that the only places that care about someone’s makeup are run by pigs and no normal person should work for them anyway.

    A doctor is a bit different though. I clearly don’t care if my MD wears make up but if she were to look unclean, have a mile long inch nails or dirty hair, I would stay away. Maybe hence the classes for graduating doctors.

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    1. But not wearing make-up would make most women look unclean. Yes, some are lucky enough to have a complexion that looks bright and clean naturally, but most of us look very tired, and yes, unkempt, without any make-up on. I bet a doctor

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    1. The suggestion this article gives is to start your own business. That’s great advice, of course. For those who are capable of starting their own businesses. The rest of the people have to do whatever they can to be employed and stay employed.

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  3. Passive voice: the preferred voice among people wishing to avoid responsibility.

    My broadband company told me that my rate “will be increased”. I wonder who will increase it?

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    1. That’s what I always tell my students. I also always mention that the moment when you start investigating who stands behind your passive constructions the most fascinating part of your research begins.

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  4. I’ve worked in retail positions before, and was criticized by my managers for my appearance a couple of times, mainly for wearing too much black clothing (It intimidates the customers), not wearing make-up (face looked too “ashen”) and for having unmanicured nails, even though my nails are not dirty or ragged, just short and unpainted. I grit my teeth and complied, but I really should have quit, because I was at those jobs to make money for school, not put it all towards make-up, a new wardrobe, and monthly trips to the nail salon. Lesson learned.

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  5. Aren’t there studies showing that conventionally attractive people tend to do better in their careers than not conventionally attractive ones? (That’s a real question, I don’t actually know if it’s been really studied or if it’s just one of those things people tend to assume)

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  6. Not directly related to makeup, but on the subject of looks and professional advancement… Here are some links I came across after someone left a link to
    this article in the comments of my post from way back when that explored how height affects one’s professional standing.

    From the article above, the following were linked to:

    Attractive people judged more positively in general — here

    Attractiveness and job prospects here

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  7. I think the reason for the passive voice is that nobody in a white collar industry would ever tell a woman that she doesn’t wear enough makeup. As you yourself mentioned, that would be grounds for an immediate harassment lawsuit. It sounds like the woman in the post you quoted is simply remarking on her own interpretation of the people around her, which is that they treat her worse if she’s not wearing makeup. Whether this is accurate or not, one can’t say, but discrimination can definitely occur in the absence of a concrete statement like “We didn’t hire you because you didn’t wear enough makeup.”

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  8. Off-topic but I wanted to mention this: on the cover of the December 12 issue of the New Yorker, an angel who looks a lot like you (or like your blog picture, anyway) is reading her Kindle on the subway.

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  9. Whenever I put on make-up, it’s the women that fawn over me:”You looks so pretty, you should wear make-up more often!” Backhanded compliments.

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  10. I think the active voice often works better for rhetorical purposes. I don’t think the use of the passive voice necessarily indicates that one is trying to hide something, however. Freud has been very instructive in this. Consider Dora, who was held to be projecting out her sexual fantasies into the world, no matter what she claimed about the disturbing events that were literally taking place around her. For Freud, she was masochistically fantasizing because she wanted to “get some”. For reasons such as this, I’m convinced that the active or passive construction of a sentence doesn’t make any difference, very often, in terms of convincing those who have set up barriers against understanding (of feminist issues, for instance).

    Our prime minister, Julia Gillard, is absolutely brilliant at framing things in a concrete way and going for the jugular, rather than casting vague aspersions. Instead of saying the leader of the opposition has a slimy, patriarchal attitude and is only motivated enough to take a negative stance to anything the government proposes, she refers to the leader as Mr No, or somebody who writes the book of No.

    This reference is much more memorable and gets the point across, without expecting the observers to understand the misogynistic dynamics at a deeper level. It also puts the opposition on the defence, which is always far better than trying to justify oneself to an incredulous audience.

    QUOTE:”Being tagged as Mr No in charge of the ”Noalition” has scratched Abbott, probably one reason his personal ratings are poor. Still, negativity has served him pretty well. As time goes on, however, the trick is to stay tough without sounding narky.”

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/mr-no-puts-a-positive-spin-on-a-year-of-negativity-20111210-1ooj4.html#ixzz1gB1VAeGn

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    1. I’ve been so stupidified by grading that when I read “Consider Dora” in this comment I immediately thought of Dora the Explorer, the reference to Freud notwithstanding.

      I will have to read at least a dozen good, intelligent books over the winter break to restore my intellect to its previous state.

      ‘I’m convinced that the active or passive construction of a sentence doesn’t make any difference, very often, in terms of convincing those who have set up barriers against understanding (of feminist issues, for instance)”

      -I don’t think that the point of feminism is to convince those who don’t want to be convinced. This is a political movement that needs a clear agenda for internal consumption. I go to a feminist meeting and we just sit there because nobody knows what the next step is. So we end up making origami and baking cookies. There is also a lot of exchanging stories about how bad things are done to me all over the place but I can’t say who does them.

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      1. “I go to a feminist meeting and we just sit there because nobody knows what the next step is. So we end up making origami and baking cookies. There is also a lot of exchanging stories about how bad things are done to me all over the place but I can’t say who does them.”

        What? Seriously?

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  11. Giving more attention or being more attracted to a woman who wears makeup? Hmmm, who the hell would do that? Come on, its not like they are trying to change their appearance or something like that. Like really, makeup making people more interested in how you look, never. Afterall, we all know the people who wear makeup only do it for themselves, right? 😉

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    1. As I already explained many times, people get attracted to a) sexual health and b) confidence. All of the talk about makeup, weight, clothes, etc. is a way to rationalize this. Women who use makeup do end up getting more attention from men. These are the same women who spend 10-30 minutes every day looking at themselves closely in a mirror and caressing their faces. This does wonders for self-esteem and sexual health, whether this is done with or without makeup.

      I highly recommend this practice to anybody who suffers from low self-esteem, irrespective of gender.

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    2. Also, I wanted to mention that you need pretty intense makeup to change your appearance. In my country, it’s pretty normal, but around here I wouldn’t be able to get away with it. In North America, makeup is used to enhance what one has, not to change it completely. Have you even met anybody who wears very bright, thick red lipstick? That’s the only kind that can change the shape of one’s mouth.

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      1. Im not sure if you are aware of this but several studies show that rouge or red lipstick do have the affect of portraying arousal in women. You know, the flushed cheek look. 😉
        It is not all just an emotional thing, some of it is directly related to physiological changes in the body.

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  12. bloggerclarissa :
    -I don’t think that the point of feminism is to convince those who don’t want to be convinced. This is a political movement that needs a clear agenda for internal consumption. I go to a feminist meeting and we just sit there because nobody knows what the next step is. So we end up making origami and baking cookies. There is also a lot of exchanging stories about how bad things are done to me all over the place but I can’t say who does them.

    I’m sure this is why I value non-verbal methods of teaching and relating over verbal means, especially these days. I suspect a lot of people don’t know what “the next step is” because of the ways in which they inhabit their bodies, which is in a mode of withdrawn paralysis. Martha McCaughey’s Physical Feminism seems to go part of the way to alleviate this mindset. It’s still not enough, because people turn the full contact self defence itself into a ritual and a fetish. This implies that they still expect their transformation to be done to them as relatively passive objects. The point is to break down this inner need for approval and carry the acquired momentum through into all aspects of one’s life.

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  13. Z :

    “I go to a feminist meeting and we just sit there because nobody knows what the next step is. So we end up making origami and baking cookies. There is also a lot of exchanging stories about how bad things are done to me all over the place but I can’t say who does them.”

    What? Seriously?

    The origami thing wasn’t that bad, actually. There were messages about accepting your body and feeling beautiful hidden in each origami flower. The bake sale was what broke me down. I suggested a discussion club but was voted down in favor of the bake sale.

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  14. “I know that everybody must be sick and tired of my rantings about the excessive use of the passive voice in feminist writing. This is an important topic, though. Just like #OWS protesters, many feminist writers suffer from addressing vague complaints to unidentified sources of aggravation and this undermines any hope for productive activism.”

    So true and let’s address the recent open letter by that arch feminist (first women on her island of Salamis to go to university, one of two women graduates from her poly tech etc.), Chancellor Katehi, whose most current missive is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Here’s an extract:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-katehi/uc-davis-pepper-spray-protests_b_1140203.html

    “Outrage over the use of pepper spray and other violent confrontations has generated the biggest headlines and sparked the most anger, with good reason. In the United States, people have a fundamental right to vent their frustration and voice their ideas peacefully without fear of reprisal. So, too, must the rights of the broader community be protected.

    We cannot let that keep us from addressing the root cause of so much campus upheaval. As I said during a speech on our campus at the start of the school year, when it comes to constant budget cuts and tuition increases, enough is enough.”

    Notice “outrage” by who? – students, hippies or media? which “generated… and sparked”. “People “– students, hippies or god fearing folks? “have a … right to vent… voice”. “Rights” – which rights?” of the broader community” – college, state or country?… “be protected” – from whom students, hippies etc.? and by whom – the administration or uniformed thugs? “We” – LK or the administration?…”addressing the root cause” – only one? There is an accent on the recipients of the pepper spray rather than the proximal agents who remain anonymous.

    Seems to me that this is an example of William Schneider`s `”past exonerative tense`” which is a rhetorical tactic of using the passive voice to separate oneself from blame.

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    1. Whenever anybody says things like “We cannot let that keep us from addressing the root cause of so much campus upheaval”, it should always be read as, “We will not address this issue at any point.” I mean, if she wanted to address the issue, what was stopping her? Just go and address it already. Right now will be a good moment. Why shower people with so much empty verbiage about some evil powers that might be conspiring to prevent her from addressing this issue.

      What an extremely manipulative speech.

      Like

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