Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of Women, WAGs, and Wiles

I read an article a couple of weeks ago about, well, WAGs - the infamous wives and girlfriends who accompany football stars to training camps at Baden Baden; who shop incessantly and presumably without pause; who get drunk and dance on table-tops; who abandon careers such as hairstyling and nail painting in pursuit of all of the above.

Or so I thought till Kate Spicer, writing for the Times, attempted to make the case that WAGs are something of a media invention and are depicted and discussed in uni-dimensional and often unflattering terms. Spicer then went on to discuss how WAGs seem to have become the surface onto which we project our most deeply held prejudices about women, particularly beautiful women. She also discussed Catherine Hakim's theory of 'erotic capital,' which argues that charm, beauty and sensuality are assets that can be leveraged for financial gain (Umm, 'duh?'). Unlike other forms of capital, such as economic assets, knowledge and social connections, erotic capital seems to attract a disproportionate amount of hostility. Which is where WAGs and society's criticism of them come in.

It's an interesting train of thought that is worth pursuing because it raises a number of questions - most importantly, is erotic capital a valid construct? Doesn't it overlap to a considerable extent with knowledge and relationships, given that an awareness of one's attractiveness can help navigate social equations? Is erotic capital gender-specific, restricted to women? If yes, is it an adaptive mechanism?

Unfortunately, the article suffered from the inconsistencies and incoherence which seem symptomatic of any discussion about women, media and power. Spicer started out by asserting that the WAG stereotype was inherently abusive, a form of socio-cultural bullying. She stated that WAGs are selectively victimized for their erotic capital, which Hakim describes as "just another asset." So far, so good. However, in the next few paragraphs, Spicer then went to great lengths to establish that WAGs are, in fact, not just women thriving on their beauty but also students/ businesswomen/ home-makers, and therefore worthy of our respect.

Already, she's tied herself into a knot from which she cannot extricate herself – the ‘not only…but also…’ arguments that we hear so often with respect to other women, and also make on our own behalf. If erotic capital is, in fact, just another asset, then why become an apologist for the women who use it?

And that’s another problem that both Spicer and Hakim skirt around – why are we only talking about the Abigail Clancys and Coleen Rooneys of the world? What about all the men, young and old, leveraging their appearances to their advantage – the boy bands catering to pre-teen fantasies, the carefully disheveled Bollywood heroes closer to home?

Last, and most troubling, was the throwaway assertion that erotic capital is often the only asset women have at their disposal, across widely varying circumstances. To quote – “Hakim speaks of women using their erotic capital because it is often their greatest, most workable asset, particularly at a certain time in their life. Madonna, Victoria Beckham, J.Lo, she says, all started out trading purely on erotic capital, then evolved to have all four forms of capital in abundance. Similarly, but less delightful to consider, she says illegal immigrants often end up in the sex industry because it is the best paying and least problematic business for them to work in.” There is no explanation of how the leap from pop-stars to prostitutes is made, no exploration of the different complexities and pressures that these women must contend with and that surely impact how they navigate their worlds, with or without erotic capital.

I think the article is in some way reflective of how feminist thought must be many things at once - culturally sensitive, politically correct, respectful of individual choice, unabhasedly empowering, but also occasionally earnest. This piece, presumably well-meaning, is full of almost-arguments and mixed messages. It asks us, at different points, to -

1. Wield beauty unapologetically
2. Be more than just beautiful
3. Actually, wield beauty well. It may be all that women have got

All of which leaves WAGs exactly where they started - shopping, in Baden Baden.

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