An Old Twist on a Very, Very Old Theme by Michelle

There’s been some discussion about the Channel 4 makeover programme How to Look Good Naked (HTLGN) over at the F-Word and I’m going to add some of my thoughts here.

I’ve seen the show a couple of times and that’s all I’ve needed to see to know that this is the kind of telly produced to piss me off.

First things first, I don’t care how it’s ‘differenttoallthoseothermakeoverprogrammes’ because it doesn’t lead its female subjects to the cosmetic surgeon’s operating table or because it’s not got some ‘female fashion toff’ telling women how to dress, but a ‘gay male style guru’.

As far as I’m concerned, any programme that strives to make women look and feel good, whether it be via liposuction or lipstick, isn’t going to have my backing, because they are all about making a woman look/feel good via her appearance, nothing more (I mean, it’s not as if these programmes talk about their female subjects’ education, jobs, politics, hobbies or other interests which could perhaps also boost their self-esteem, is it?).

And what, gay men can’t also perpetuate the sexist beauty myth? That just because a man isn’t sexually attracted to women it means gender relations are transformed? Yeah, right.

Gok Wan may be gay, but the man dominant/woman subordinate dynamic is still maintained in HTLGN. This is made most obvious when Gok says things such as, ‘this is how to look good, ladies’ and ‘this is what you should wear, girls’ as if all us ‘girls’ were just gagging for his advice so we can all be in his special, ‘hey, don’t we look fucking-fantastically-feminine’ club. Man instructing woman on how to look good? That’s a step backwards for makeover tv, not a step forward.

What I really loathe about the show though, is its relentless emphasis on getting the female subject- and the female viewer- to look ‘feminine’ (which always equates to being a ‘real woman’ in makeover tv land). I can’t stand that homogenous dictate- that for a woman to look good, to feel good, to make the most of herself, she should subscribe to that arbitrary standard, ‘femininity’. Feminine beauty standards are constructs of hetero-patriarchy, (gasp!, did I just invoke an over-simplistic, totalising concept there? Oh, well…) produced so that women can a) keep quiet, occupied and contained and b) be attractive to men.

Now, hearing anyone brandishing the femininity dictate pisses me off. But when it’s a male style guru on a makeover programme doing it, there’s something else to question.

What we have with HTLGN is a male fashion/image ‘expert’; this very concept is a subversion of stereotypical masculinity which rejects associations with obsessing over appearance, fashion and shopping etc. The man running the show can get away with crossing the gender line, he can disavow the dictates of stereotypical masculine appearance/manner.

Not so for the women who appear on the show. They have to stay very much within the gender line, they have to work at becoming a traditional feminine stereotype. The female subject cannot disavow femininity.

So, HTLGN turns out to be just like allthoseothermakeoverprogrammes. A woman’s ‘failure’ to be feminine isn’t taken as an opportunity to say, ‘well, fuck all that anyway’, it means she must work at fitting into femininity, because otherwise she ain’t good enough, she’s unacceptable.

Also, this show is about making women look good naked. It’s not a celebration or affirmation of genuinely naked women. If it was, what’s with getting the face-paint and hair extensions out all of a sudden for the naked reveal? Neither is it a celebration or affirmation of women in all their genuine shapes and sizes. If it was, what’s with hiding all the ugly bits, but making the most of the flattering bits with the ‘right’ clothing? What’s with all the emphasis on doing this, buying that, putting that on there, wearing this like that, standing like this, doing your hair like that?

So, just like allthoseothermakeoverprogrammes, HTLGN tells its female subjects/viewers how to fit the same ol’ standard. It tells us we have to squeeze into the high heels, breathe in and belt up to accentuate our curves and clip in some hair extensions.

It tells us we have to fit femininity; femininity cannot be re-defined to fit us.

by Michelle


Dear Mr Postmodernist by Michelle

Dear Mr Postmodernist,

Stop telling me the body is nothing more than a ‘text’, merely ‘discursive’, nothing concrete, but fragmented, ‘engaged in performativity’.

What is that all about?
How is that helping?
What revolutionary purpose does it serve?

These insights of yours are purported to be groundbreaking, radical, cutting edge, liberating because they break down
all ‘essential’ and ‘universal’ notions.

Apparently I should be thankful to you for all this, kissing your arse, because these insights of yours claim to be able to free me from the shackles of the biological & embodied reality of being ‘woman’, I can now be liberated from that ‘essential’ identity category ‘woman’.

Thanks to the insights of you & your brothers, other male academic elites, fathers of the anti-radical feminist bodies of thought, postmodernism & poststructuralism, my sisters & I can now treat our identities as women as ‘discursive’, constructed of language nothing more, free-floating. So now we can play around with our sex/gender identity, because they are ‘texts’, constructed out of ‘discourse’, not blood, skin and bones.

But tell me Mr Postmodernist, up there in your ivory tower, away from reality, the reality of real women’s lives, how talking about bodies and identities as ‘texts’, is helping to liberate women?

Women’s bodies are ‘texts’? We should see ourselves as ‘texts’? We should celebrate our ‘textuality’ by playing around in ‘discursive spaces’, postmodern stylee?


No, women’s bodies are not fucking ‘texts’. ‘Woman’ is not a ‘text’.

Because women, women’s bodies, women’s fleshy bodies,
skin, blood, bones & brain, heart & mind are
bruised, battered, bloodied, bludgeoned & boxed in every day,
because they are ‘woman’.
Domestic violence, rape, FGM, cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, man-made images & lies
leaving their indelible, very real mark on women, women’s bodies, women’s fleshy bodies.

Women’s bodies aren’t fucking ‘texts’ THEN.

They aren’t ‘discursive constructions’ playing postmodern games with their gender and sexuality, ‘engaged in performativity’ THEN.

Mr Postmodernist, no matter what you say, no matter how hailed you are for revolutionising the academy with your revelations about how bodies and identities are ‘discursive’- you haven’t and can’t-revolutionise women’s lives for the better.

You cannot contribute to women’s liberation.

In fact your theories, coming at us in that precious, overly-academic, inaccessible language, (even though you claim to give a shit about the ‘real people’ aka the non-academics, the poor, the oppressed), are stalling women’s liberation.

Because if we can only talk about women as ‘texts’, that means we can’t talk about women as real human beings. And if we can’t talk about women as real human beings, that means we can’t deal with what happens to women as real human beings.

Because lest you forget Mr Postmodernist, women, women’s bodies, are only too real.

A woman has a body, a real fleshy body, which she inhabits, feels and experiences as real, all too often painfully, particularly when the patriarchy gets his hands on her.

Yes, that’s right, PATRIARCHY, that big, bad, naughty word we can’t say anymore thanks to you Mr Postmodernist, up there in your ivory tower, because to talk about patriarchy is too simplistic, too ‘totalising’, too ‘universal’.

Well, fuck that.

Patriarchy exists. ‘Woman’ exists.

Listen here. Woman exists, woman’s body exists,
– when she is penetrated against her will by ‘man’-
– when her breasts are cut open & inserted with a man made substance –
– when she’s aborted because she is the female sex-
– when she starves herself to conform to the media images you postmodernists love so much-
– when she’s wolf-whistled at by man on the street for possessing a female body.

Are you really telling me, Mr Postmodernist,
That women’s bodies are texts HERE?
That patriarchy doesn’t exist HERE?

Tell me, how do these realities fit into your world of postmodern, ‘textual play’?

I’ll answer for you. They don’t.

Don’t you see? Your emphasis & preoccupation with treating bodies & identities as ‘texts’ does harm to women.

To women’s liberation.

Only men, only male, middle-class academics like you Mr Postmodernist, could come up with such bull. Because you have the privilege to, because you aren’t woman, and therefore haven’t, nor will you ever, experience the above realities.

You think, Mr Postmodernist, that you can come along & proclaim the ‘death of the subject’, of the body, of patriarchy? Well of course you fucking can because you were the ‘subject’, never the object, never the body but the ‘rational mind’, never subject to the patriarchy but its perpetuator.

So now thanks to you, radical feminist theory is ridiculed & lambasted.

Andrea Dworkin? Catherine MacKinnon? Shulamith Firestone? Kate Millet?

‘Who were they?’ proclaims Mr Postmodernist, ‘but over-simplifiers, ‘totalising’ woman and man, pointing the finger at patriarchy all the time?’

‘No’, says Mr Postmodernist, ‘here I am with the new and improved theory (even though I also proclaim the ‘death of theory’) that will do away with all that radfem crap. Now it’s all about ‘discursive identities’, ‘multiple subject positions’, and power as ‘decentred and dispersed’.’

Mr Postmodernist, they weren’t perfect, those radfem theorists, I’ll admit it. But your ‘total’ lambasting of them is uncalled for.

Because truth is, they did way more for women, real women, the women beaten, abused, oppressed & exploited, than any male, supposedly cutting edge, elite, privileged postmodern theorist like yourself.

They wrote theory that spoke the truth, that tried to uncover the truth, of women’s reality. They were bold. They were righteous. They weren’t afraid to tell it like it is, to get their hands dirty in the task of explaining women’s exploitation.

More than you, Mr Postmodernist. But then you don’t like dirt & stark realities, do you? You prefer style over substance, flowery words over plain and clear ones, medium over matter, to immerse yourself in the play of performance than the poison of pain and oppression.

No, these women were not postmodernists. They were radical feminists.

A lot easier to say. A lot easier to spell. A lot easier to understand. And a hell of a lot more relevant & useful.

They recognised woman, her fleshy body; a body that bled every month and gave birth, a body that because it belonged to a woman, meant susceptibility to rape, abuse & all the other manifestations of man bullshit.

So no, Mr Postmodernist, they didn’t see the ‘body as a text engaged in performativity’.

Because they were too concerned with the minor, trivial, unimportant stuff.

Like treating women & their bodies as real, penetrated against her will, bloodied, bruised & bullshitted to at the hands of fucked-up men with too much fucked-up power thanks to the fucked-up man-made, man-owned, man-ruled, man-controlled society woman inhabits.

These radfems’ sins according to you? They called out the patriarchy. They defined women as a collective, a potentially revolutionary collective at that.

Oh, how convenient that you came along to denounce all that, Mr Postmodernist!!

‘There is no patriarchy’, you say, ‘power is more decentred and dispersed than that. Women, you can’t go calling out male-dominated institutions for their sexist bullshit, it’s not as simplistic as that!’

‘Woman’, you say, ‘cannot be generalised, in actual fact you don’t exist, there is no ‘woman’, there are too many differences between you, so there’s no way you can organise yourselves into a revolutionary collective.’

Oh, Mr Postmodernist, how can I ever thank you? Just want I wanted, another man to come along to sort me out, tell me what’s right and wrong, to shit on women.

Of course these insights of yours are very convenient for you; to follow them through means we ignore the oppression played out on women & their bodies & resign ourselves to the fact there is no patriarchy and give up forging links with other women. Oh, how very convenient. Suits your male privilege just fine!

And they call you the radical? YOU?

But your theories- which laud individualism, style, imagery, flashy fairy lights, pretty playful sparkle, masks & make-up- fit right into the Western conservative, capitalist consumer culture.

Did you not know? Politicians & big business love you, Mr Postmodernist.

They want us to see ourselves as individuals, without stable identities, so that we won’t organise as political entities bent on change.

They want us to see ourselves as ‘texts’, so that we’ll go shopping & spend our money on fashion & things in order for us to take part in postmodern play.

Seriously, having your theories gel with conservative politics & capitalist big business is in no way radical, Mr Postmodernist.

So, to end let me tell you this.

I am a radical feminist.
I believe there is a patriarchy.
I believe there is ‘woman’.
I see & experience women’s bodies as flesh, not ‘text’.

And I think I’m in a better position than you, Mr Postmodernist to say this.

Yours in ‘embodied womanhood’,