by Sarah Ditum
Wednesday, 26
August 2020

Sorry AOC, there’s more to feminism than lipstick

Let's not overstretch the meaning of a skincare routine...
by Sarah Ditum
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a video for Vogue, describing her beauty routine

The most substantive decision I made this morning was whether to jam the rubbish down in the bin again, or admit defeat and take it out. But then I’m a pretty regular person. I’m not, for example, a high-profile Democrat congresswoman in the midst of the most critical election campaign in recent American history: if I were, I’d probably have some weightier issues to attend to.

Or maybe not, because here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a video for Vogue, describing her beauty routine: “I actually think these are some of the most substantive decisions that we make and we make them every morning,” she says, smoothing moisturiser across her taut cheeks. And why are they substantive? Because (she’s onto the eyeliner now) “every time we make a decision, when you make a decision for you… I think it’s really amazing.” A substantive decision where it doesn’t actually matter what you decide. OK then.

It’s not like AOC is alone in this silliness. For years now, people have been grandly declaring that makeup, skincare and fashion are not merely completely fine things to take an interest in and spend your cash on, but actually activism. “Self-care” made the jump from the writing of Audre Lorde to consumer copywriting.

Buy this lipstick! Apply this essence! You’re not just shopping — you’re engaging in a radical act of self-care. The fact that all this self-care requires money and time (oh, the time: AOC’s routine takes up an 18-minute film, and my own twice-daily bathroom binges are not much shorter) which might be spent on other things — which men, in fact, are spending on other things — doesn’t get a mention.

“Femininity has power,” says AOC, slipping seamlessly into the lineage of the women who claim that high heels and hundred-dollar tooth-floss underwear are “empowering”. Because what could be more powerful than worrying about falling off my own shoes and spilling a nipple. Of course AOC is right that women are picked apart for their appearance, and the decisions made under that scrutiny are strategically interesting. This doesn’t mean the decisions magically become feminist simply because women are making them. Just ask Emma Watson.

Lipstick is great. Moisturiser is lovely. I wear heels to parties and some of my bras are more frill than function. I choose these things, and they give me pleasure, or at least stave off a bit of anxiety about being looked at and found wanting. But anyone pretending that their perfectly painted cupid’s bow is actually an up-yours to the patriarchy is overcompensating — because AOC must know, deep down, even deeper than the most expensive serum can penetrate, that there’s more to politics than choice.

Join the discussion

  • This enjoyably frothy piece in fact reveals something very important, I believe, which is that, like many other socio-political terms, ‘feminism’ is what a philosopher might call “ill-defined”. That is to say, it does not have a fairly fixed meaning, like ‘nitrogen’ or ‘tiger’, but means radically different things depending on who is using the term, even by its self-described proponents.

    In particular, ‘feminism’ is used in two key ways that are not at all the same thing. On the one hand, the majority of women (and men) who happily call themselves feminist, who mean by it no more than that women and men should be treated fairly and equally. On the other, the activist core of the feminist movement, who mean a more tightly construed set of beliefs, centred on patriarchy but stretching out to rape culture, intersectionality, phallocentrism, etc.

    This causes great confusion and agitation when the two views collide. Ordinary women, who consider themselves feminist because they believe in basic equality between the sexes, are naturally put off when they hear the radical politics and post-modern ontology of the activist wing. Likewise, activists are frustrated when they hear ordinary women call themselves feminist but then act against the tightly construed doctrines that the actists understand by the term ‘feminism’.

    Really, we would be best served if we could come up with a different term for at least one of these two positions. Personally, respecting as I do the passion and sincerity of the activist core, I would prefer for them to keep ‘feminism’ and have the ordinary view referred to as ‘sexual equality’ or something like that. Unfortunately, not only is the ordinary view firmly entrenched under the name ‘feminism’, it suits some activists to play a cynical “motte-and-bailey” strategy, in which the ordinary meaning is deployed defensively against critics, while the activist meaning is deployed expansively when not under sustained criticism. As such, we are likely to be left with this continuing friction between the two incompatible meanings for many years to come.

  • Oh, well said!

    An American friend of mine, not particularly conservative, nails it about AOC and her ilk. He said that he and many of his friends cannot possibly vote Democrat while the Macbethian witches of Congress (AOC, Ilhan Omar and so forth) are so influential, and while the electorate votes for her kind. There are many like him ” people who secretly voted for Trump last time, and are likely to do so again.

  • Oh purleez! The woman is a complete airhead who is in it purely for herself. She even get told what to say by her controllers.

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