There’s a particularly disruptive undercurrent of contemporary progressivism, a performative oneupmanship, in which any expression of powerlessness must instantly be counterweighted on the comparative grievance ledger. We saw this in the fallout of the cat-calling video from last week, with each interested demographic segmenting off increasingly smaller portions of the vexation allotment. Intersectionality tells us that the variety of flavors on the oppression menu can’t be broken down into their ingredients any easier than you can separate the contents of a simmering stew, and yet, again and again, we attempt just that.
The result, particularly when it comes to feminism, often has the opposite effect of the overall intent, further pitting women against one another. And yet, despite knowing better, I can’t help but fall for it myself while considering two widely shared stories from prominent women this week, both of whom enacted the most hallowed of performances from the male point of view: taking their tops off.
The first came when actress Keira Knightley posed topless for Interview magazine. The shoot, she explained in an interview with the British Times, was meant as a statement about the way women’s bodies, particularly of the oft-photographed persuasion like her own, are obsessively picked for unappealing, often invented, nits.
“I’ve had my body manipulated so many different times for so many different reasons, whether it’s paparazzi photographers or for film posters,” she said. For the Interview shoot, she stipulated, “OK, I’m fine doing the topless shot so long as you don’t make [my breasts] any bigger or retouch. Because it does feel important to say it really doesn’t matter what shape you are.”
Knightley is no stranger to having her appearance manipulated in promotional images for her films, most notably for the 2004 film King Arthur.
“I think women’s bodies are a battleground and photography is partly to blame,” she went on. “Our society is so photographic now, it becomes more difficult to see all of those different varieties of shape.”
Knightley’s choice was lauded around the internet for her insistence on taking back some control of the way her body is sold. Unsurprisingly, just as many seized upon the occasion to criticize, saying there’s nothing brave about a conventionally gorgeous woman daring to appear in her merely-spectacular form, albeit a degree or two off from typical digitally-manipulated standards of perfection. Earlier this year a similar round of applause and opprobrium followed Zooey Deschanel’s posting of a makeup free selfie, as happened before that with AnnaLynne McCord and many others.
I fell into the latter camp myself on each occasion, jumping at the easy joke. “I can’t believe gnarled garbage gnome Keira Knightley has the courage to reveal her gruesome visage without the aid of filters,” I tweeted. “Hero? Hero.”
A cottage industry of identity-reclaiming has sprung up around photos like these, with #nomakeupselfie in particular standing out as a tag with millions of photos on Instagram. It’s a positive outlet for young women to express their comfort in their own skin and a hugely worthwhile endeavor. But yet one can’t help but appreciate the reactionary side as well, and note that many of the women who avail themselves of the tag are still conventionally beautiful, makeup or no.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially as regards the likes of Knightley; the beautiful, young woman is always an easy target for petty sniping. How can someone like her possibly experience her own form of insecurity, when people like me, average slobs, have our own, certainly more authentic ones? We see a famous, rich, talented person telling us explicitly what bothers her, or even a nonfamous, beautiful one, and we say to her: fuck you. My experience tells me it must be otherwise for you.
Later this week came a seemingly ideal counterweight to the Knightley imbroglio, with the news of a performance by standup comedian Tig Notaro (who was hospitalized over the weekend for an undisclosed medial emergency) on Thursday as part of the New York Comedy Festival at Town Hall. Notaro, who came to fame after a universally lauded stand up story about her experience with breast cancer, doffed her shirt in the middle of her set, and performed the rest of the night topless, exposed.
“The patches of the audience that were stunned into silence alternated with the patches that were seized by deep, hoarse laughter, resulting in weird patterns of wave interference,” The New Yorker wrote. “Notaro is thin. She stood with her shoulders slightly hunched, her ribs visible, her lack of breasts visible, her surgery scars visible.”
Here then, at long last, is bravery, you might think. Notaro is 43 years old, a breast cancer survivor, a queer woman, famous for her wit, not her cheekbones. It would be hard to top that in terms of a feminism cause celebre. It’s tempting to consider Notaro literally baring her scars to the audience, and tell Keira Knightley to go shove her somewhat-smaller-than-she-might-like breasts up her perfect, small ass. Certainly from a reactionary social media stand point, and from a hacky joking stance, that’s what I’m inclined to do myself. At the moment, the balance seems to be tipping in just that direction on Twitter. Here’s what real bravery looks like. “Keira Knightley…Meet Tig Notaro. A real woman. A real woman,” read one.
Bravery, however, isn’t a binary, it’s a spectrum. In fact, in remembering the stories I heard in the days after the cat-calling video from every woman I talked to about it, it occurs to me, as an absurdly privileged white, straight man, that even walking out the door into the world every day is itself an act of bravery for any woman, model-thin or larger, “beautiful” or plain, old or young. To be a woman, famous or no, is to be made to constantly enact a sort of comparative attractiveness calculus, both from external institutional systems and individual social interactions, as well as from within ones own psychological reckoning of the two. Men – fine – sometimes experience this as well, but to a far lesser extent. If nothing else a man’s greatest privilege is in our ability to exist outside of the perpetual fuckability machinery. We’re gifted with proud ugliness as a birth right.
What is bravery? It’s something worth thinking about next time an actress, or a conventionally attractive woman talks about her experience of feeling judged. It may not be similar to the experience of the average person, but it’s of a piece of the same whole. On the chopping block, after all, all cuts of meat, no matter how expensively priced, are still subject to the pulverizing, brutal arc of the butcher’s swing.