By Cynthia Leung & Alison Lewis
Through the discussion of pop culture, we will be examining the prevalence of the patriarchy in certain aspects of our psyche.
Cynthia Leung: This piece of fabric is my pride and joy. A tag on the back of the neckline displays a generic logo. The shirt’s a little oversized, but it’s the perfect lazy-day throw-on. On it, a large image is stretched across from the middle. It’s Britney Spears. Ever since I was a young girl, I’d move my feet with every beat of her songs. The nasality of her timbre became a normality when processing sound in my head. Sadly, she truly wasn’t appreciated enough in the earlier years of her career. Alison, could you describe what ‘00s critics thought of her?
Alison Lewis: When I was in elementary school, it was very cool to hate Britney Spears. We were, I think, all wrapped up in the media narrative (also our parents’ narrative) that she was “inappropriate”—too sexy, scandalous, self-objectifying, and “crazy.” She “set a bad example” for girls and women. We were supposed to value ourselves for our brains, not our bodies. It was a strange mix of what felt like very conservative, Puritan values around how women should dress and behave, and some kind of Second Wave feminist anger at how women had been reduced to sex objects for so very long. I wonder how all of that thinking strikes you now, growing up in a very different era?
CL: From an etic perspective, it’s quite apparent that this notion that Ms. Spears is detrimentally sexualizing herself is an explicit example of internalized misogyny. The best example to describe this phenomenon would be to use Legally Blonde as a microcosm to reflect this idea. Despite being placed in a pedagogic environment, in which most women were most likely aware of the misogynistic nature of academia, many other female students at Harvard used attribution error to diminish any form of academic credibility that Elle Woods may have had, based solely on her flamboyant wardrobe and bubbly disposition. I feel that the ‘00s were probably the height of the prevalence of internalized misogyny, even though it’s still existent to this day. Many films and media ascribed certain characteristics to female figures to create a stereotype (don’t get me started on how film uses stereotypes of Black, Indigenous, and characters of color to invoke some humor) that certain women were non-complex. They were either dumb and ditzy or smart and “not like other girls.” Do you have any experiences in which you felt intimidated by the environment you were in based on your ascribed characteristics, Alison?
AL: Yes, definitely, although there are always so many layers! In middle school, I wanted to wear makeup and short skirts in order to be seen as “pretty” and “cool,” and was conscious (and constantly nervous) that I wasn’t playing the part quite right. At the same time, my friends and I (who were not especially cool) looked down on the popular girls who we thought dressed too provocatively, in their miniskirts and bandaid dresses. I am sure we were, in part, secretly jealous —and, at the same time, judging them by the misogynistic standards of the time—where women were supposed to be pretty, but not too sexy. Do you find yourself thinking about how you dress or present yourself in similarly complicated knots of internalized misogyny, Cynthia?
CL: I feel that the ways I perpetuate internalized misogyny are rooted in my own insecurities, for sure. My tendencies to be self-critical are very explicitly transferred onto my own desire to fit into a cookie-cutter image of “the perfect woman;” therefore, I would unknowingly criticize other women to convolute my own feelings of unhappiness. It’s a self-destructive and lethal process, but this mentality is so normalized, to the point at which even someone who doesn’t identify as being a man can employ the “male gaze” in their everyday lives.
AL: I agree. I’m so curious what “the perfect woman” looks like to you, or more broadly to your generation? And, on another track, I wonder what you think we can do to combat internalizing these kinds of misogynistic standards, towards ourselves and other women? Is the first step, maybe, as in therapy, just to recognize it and begin to talk about it with other women in our lives?
CL: Unlike finding superficial traits that dictate attractiveness (that are usually influenced by Eurocentric beauty standards that perpetuate anti-Blackness, colorism, contingent racism, ableism, transphobia, and other systems of oppression) beautiful, I find that the most attractive women are those who make other people feel beautiful, that can make others happy, and that give more than they receive. I still don’t definitely think that I’m beautiful, but I don’t necessarily think this is a destructive mindset to have because I always want to find ways to improve myself internally. To combat internalized misogyny, having an open dialogue, that is inclusive and invites all self-identifying women, could be a step towards progress. Obviously, we should argue that the only method to alleviate this issue is to completely dismantle all oppressive forms of social stratification, but in the meantime, we can prioritize a method of discussion to participate in inclusive feminism.
There was this whole situation with some boy I met. One day, I found out he had a girlfriend, despite snapping him back and forth, pursuing something that was non-platonic. As a society, we have a tendency, to blame situations on other women. Even though I was technically the other woman, I harbored internalized feelings of envy and disdain for the girlfriend. I only realized I had these feelings when deeply self-reflecting. This phenomenon of criticizing other women at the expense of the faults of men is reflective of internalized misogyny. After watching the Britney Spears documentary, I knew I had to center my submission on the concept of internalized misogyny.
Other than being a writer, Cynthia Leung is also heavily involved in climate organizing. Inspired by the organizers around her, at 15, she researched, drafted, and proposed a climate justice education bill to her state senator that was introduced into both New York State Legislatures. She's been mobilizing through coalition building to ensure that this bill is passed in the next few months. She's also the appointed Children's Focal Point for the UNEP's Youth Constituency. She was also a youth representative at the United Nations, where she delivered a speech at the 2019 High-Level Segment of ECOSOC.
Alison Lewis is a literary agent at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. She has worked in book publishing for seven years and, for five of those, also edited the literary magazine American Chordata. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, and Somesuch Stories. She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, went to college in Middlebury, VT, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.