U of C: A feminist and post-feminist utopia

By Phoebe Maltz

It’s hard to be a girl. Or at least it’s hard to be a girl at the U of C. No, strike that, it’s hard to be a U of C girl looking to snag frat guys predisposed to finding the school’s women “ugly.” Julie Fredrickson’s piece in the Chicago Weekly, “Squirrel Crazy: Being a girl at the U of C” (1/6/05), could not possibly ring true for more than five percent of women at this school, though she claims she is offering “a glimpse of the average woman’s dilemma.” How many women at Chicago “can barely make it to class most days” because we must “coordinate outfits, keep our body slim, moisturize our cuticles, and do makeup every morning”? How many of us own, let alone have heard of, “Sevens”? (They’re a brand of designer jeans.) Who, at age 18 to 22, can’t leave home without applying “tinted moisturizer, concealer, blush, powder, eyeliner, base eye shadow, bright eyeshadow, mascara, lip liner, lip gloss”? Fredrickson gives “working out at Ratner” as an example of something productive she could have done instead of spending an hour and a half primping. Oh dear.

Fredrickson is not only confused when it comes to Chicago’s women; she assumes that the typical sought-after guy at Chicago is a low-maintenance frat type. “All they need is a pair of jeans, an Abercrombie or even Gap shirt, and some decent loafers. Presto! Instant hot guy! Or at least that is what we tell ourselves when we compare them to the average, nerdy math concentrator.” Where I stand on the Abercrombie-wearing frat guy versus the nerdy math concentrator is obvious to anyone who knows me, but this is a matter of personal taste (or, Fredrickson would probably think, lack of taste) and is thus not important here. (And—now here’s a shocker—it’s possible that “the average, nerdy math concentrator” wouldn’t be remotely interested in a done-up sorority girl, either.)

At the other end of the spectrum from our own Julie Fredrickson is writer Laura Kipnis, who recently argued in Slate magazine (“Navel Gazing,” 1/5/05) that it is anti-feminist for women to care how we look. Kipnis equates tweezing, dieting, and all that with women making themselves weak in order to please men. She would like to see heterosexual feminists stop worrying about their own looks in order to match straight men’s lack of concern about themselves in that department. Fredrickson, too, believes that primping is largely to please men (though later says she actually enjoys the beauty rituals she bemoans throughout the article, and it’s unclear which reason she considers the important one), but writes, “I am not going to make some rallying cry of feminism and say the men are holding us back with their outdated expectations of femininity.” She doesn’t begrudge men their pretty women, but she’d like to see the men in her circles look a bit spiffier, too.

Kipnis and Fredrickson, feminist critic and Legally Blonde admirer, respectively, are both missing the obvious solution to both of their complaints: Rather than women spending an hour and a half a day getting ready and men spending virtually none, wouldn’t it be great, from a feminist as well as an aesthetic standpoint, if women and men alike spent, say, 45 minutes each day on their looks?

Such a Utopia exists: The U of C is teeming with guys more high-maintenance than the frat boys Fredrickson seeks, and some of these better-kept-up dudes are, rumor has it, into girls. Meanwhile, it’s hard to picture that many U of C women other than Fredrickson spend as much time in front of the mirror as she does. Stand in front of Cobb or sit in Classics one afternoon and have a look around—the level of attention to appearance seems about equal from the intentionally scruffy folk of both sexes.

We at Chicago are lucky. The dilemma Fredrickson describes is a real one, though not especially relevant to most at the U of C. A piece in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine on Northwestern’s newly-dry fraternities depicts one frat president wearing a T-shirt saying, “Freshmen girls: Get ’em while they’re skinny.” (Northwestern, incidentally, is where feminist writer Laura Kipnis teaches.) Who needs that? At Chicago, there are a seemingly infinite number of style sub-types, from the tweedy pre-professors to the suit-wearing pre-professionals to the sweatsuit-sporting pseudo-marrieds, none of which, except the one in which Fredrickson finds herself, require more primping on the part of women than men.