The Cult (and Myth) of True Womanhood

It’s been a few weeks since the controversy over Kim Kardashian-West’s latest Internet-breaking splash: nude selfies posted on Twitter. However, if the references to her act as a symbol of all that is wrong with modern, liberated womanhood that I still see in online discussions are any indication, the debate that it sparked over the virtue of a woman who chooses to bare it all is far from over. 

The controversy over Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies and her explanation thereof has led to a contingent of indignant responses that, up until now, I’ve mainly seen only directed towards black women. People wonder why she is being celebrated for her defense of body positivity and criticism of slut shaming, when there are so many other accomplished, intelligent women who are making strides and doing big things without taking their clothes off.

I’m used to this sort of outrage, because it is a classic trope of misogynoir–the hatred and denigration of black women. From Kerry Washington’s character Olivia Pope on “Scandal” to celebs like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, people love to wonder why society won’t uplift our presence as lawyers and athletes and engineers and intellectuals instead of shallow, “lewd”, sexualized representations. In the case of black women, this extends not just to our sexuality, but representation of us uneducated, angry, or as single mothers.

At first blush, this might sound like a feminist critique. Why are women celebrated for sexualized images, but ignored for our intellectual contributions? That’s a completely correct observation and this selective recognition is unfair. But I’m not naive. I can see the veiled distaste with which these critics view women who present themselves as body-positive, sexual beings. What they really do is stand up for “respectable” women, and throw those who do not fit this description to the wolves, just like always. It is no different from the Victorian cult of true womanhood, when women were praised for being virtuous, nurturing, pious, and steadfast.

It might seem like a good thing that all of these positive attributes were given to women, but those distinctions were very clearly restricted to a certain type of woman. Not the ones who had children outside of wedlock. Not the ones who used coarse language and spent too much time around men. Not the ones who did not abide by a Biblical standard of female morality. Though our society is much more secular now, our dominant, standard-bearing cultural authorities adhere to the same code, and many people who would consider themselves irreligious nonetheless hold women to the same standards of purity.

The message that you send when you scorn the popularity of the Kim Kardashians, Miley Cyruses, and Nicki Minajes of the world; the representations of single mothers, uneducated women, prostitutes, women who commit adultery (can’t believe that’s still in our lexicon), women who curse and argue, maids, educated women who choose to be housewives, etc. is that these women are not as worthy of respect and praise. That somehow, they are failing to meet the standards of respectable, commendable, true womanhood.

The only problem with any of these characterizations is that they are one dimensional, and as such become caricatures. It’s not okay when a woman’s humanity is reduced to just her body. It’s not okay when black women in particular are portrayed as nothing more than hypersexualized, subservient, ignorant breeders. But to try to suppress those women who embrace their bodies, embrace their sexuality, who choose to have children outside of the marriage contract, who forego dictums of feminine gracefulness and politesse, who aren’t highly educated (and if one has common sense, that last matters not in the slightest anyway, except to the classist society that demands we possess institutionalized knowledge in order to be respected) or choose not to let their learned knowledge define their life path–all because society exploits these women and holds them over our heads to keep rest of us women in line–is to abandon the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, committing another, equal form of oppression.

Rather than  wishing that these women would fade out of the limelight, I want us to be able to present ourselves however we like–without exploitation and denigration on one hand, and without erasure and dismissal on the other. I want all women to love what they are. I want Black women to love everything that we are. And I want us to be able to tell our stories honestly and truly, so that we can finally have the control over our narrative (and by extension, our lives) that we have been denied for thousands of years.

***As an addendum, if you would like to learn more about the topic of respectability politics, the writer Tamara Winfrey-Harris wrote an excellent piece about this specifically in relation to black women for Bitch Magazine that deeply influenced my understanding of the subject. You can read it here.

Photo Credit: Featured Image


One thought on “The Cult (and Myth) of True Womanhood

  1. Pingback: 7 Questions We Still Have After Watching ‘Stranger Things’ | Vocalady

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