"I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret Model." Raise your hand if you’ve heard of this campaign. Yes, I know, you’re sitting alone on your couch with your computer in your lap, eating Cheetos, but I want those fake cheese covered hands in the air.
The Live 31 campaign, summarized by the above quote, was started by a young man who was sitting at home checking his facebook during the Victoria’s Secret Fall Fashion show, and noticed a lot of his female friends commenting that they felt like they needed to get to the gym after watching the models strut the runway. He thought to himself about how sad it was that so many of his sisters in Christ were valuing surface level beauty over virtue, and decided to do something about it. The campaign is really more of an exhortation to his sisters in Christ to strive to be a Proverbs 31 woman instead of a Victoria’s Secret model.
Your feminist spidey sense should be tingling. Put down the Coke and raise your other hand if it is. Good – you now look as silly as possible, with both hands in the air. But you’re going to have to scroll soon, so you can relax.
In all seriousness, though, there are major issues with such a campaign. Fellow blogger Preston Yancey has already pointed out the numerous scriptural issues with holding the woman from Proverbs 31 as the ideal. Preston points out that the Proverbs 31 passage is of qualities that are desirous, but do not apply to all women and should not be held up as ideal. His breakdown of the questions is good and solid, and I highly recommend reading it.
I, however, am going to take a different tack and offer a perspective Preston is incapable of offering because of the differences in our lived experienced – his as a man and mine as a woman.
There’s a concept in feminist theory called the “male gaze.” It’s the idea that the ways a woman is presented in the media have to do with her ability to please men – it all has to do with how a man reacts to her. Moving away from the male gaze can be very hard, but it can be done. We hear tinges of how we do this in how we talk to our daughters, telling them that it doesn’t matter what a man thinks of them, she’s fine on her own to pursue a career, to live her life. As women, however, we live in constant pressure of living up to that male gaze – I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been criticized and told to tone down my rhetoric as a feminist because it might scare men off (never mind that my first boyfriend started dating me because my feminism and independence was attractive to him). It’s a burden exclusive to women, so I understand why Preston would not see this angle.
I agree with a lot of what Preston has to say – about Proverbs 31 and how it encourages a sloganized faith and creates a bad witness toward traditionally beautiful women. And I think he begins to tend toward a discussion of male gaze when he points out that the facebook page has become a prototype dating service, with women sharing about their virtue and how they’ve stood up against the world’s standards of beauty, only to be liked by the male members of the group.
And there’s the rub. Whether a Proverbs 31 woman or a Victoria’s Secret Model, it still comes down to the male gaze. It’s even more problematic that the campaign is phrased in a way that interjects the male gaze back into the conversation –“I’d rather have…” rather than, “I’d rather be…”. This, of course, makes sense as the campaign was started by a man.
But what makes the campaign connect with people is also that which gives it the most problems. Regardless of which category you fall into – let’s lift the veil and call it what it is: The Virgin or the Whore – it is still something inspired by how one is perceived by the other gender. This is something I see reflected in the Christian singles culture over and over. The focus of the campaign especially is on Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful and beauty soon fades but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Praised by whom? Why, men, of course! And this is the fundamental problem: Regardless of whether or not you’re living as the virgin or the whore, if you’re doing it because you think it will be more attractive to the opposite sex, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Participating in the Live 31 campaign not only reinforces a false dichotomy because virgin and whore (as many, many women fall somewhere in the middle), but it puts women back into the patriarchal model of doing things because men find them attractive. It says, “I’m going to live virtuously because that’s what the type of men I want to be with want in a woman,” rather than, “I’m going to live virtuously because living virtuously is what I am called to do.”
When we allow our theology, as Christian singles, to be propelled by whether or not we’re loving Jesus enough to attract a mate, we’re doing it wrong. And that, fundamentally, is why I have a problem with the Proverbs 31 campaign – it reinforces faith and virtue for the wrong reasons.
It is also worth mentioning that any campaign that praises one type of woman at the expense of another should be suspect. As Preston points out, it wouldn’t be very comfortable if Victoria’s Secret models actually got wind of the campaign. The implication of holding virtue in higher esteem over beauty – especially when usually one specific type of beautiful woman to demonstrate – is that it demonizes beauty, it puts the two ideas in tension with each other when they are not meant to be. Beautiful women can certainly be virtuous, and to imply that, because they are working for Victoria’s Secret, the women modeling are somehow not virtuous is to make a judgment we are incapable of making. It says to the beautiful women of the world, “I’m better than you because I’m virtuous! Nyah nyah!”
Just because a woman models underwear for a living does not mean she is a whore undeserving of Christlike love, or that she is without virtue. But the campaign reinforces this perception, which encourages an unfair us vs. them perspective when it comes to women in the world. It allows Christian women to haughtily view themselves as better people because they don’t model underwear for a living. And that’s dangerous thinking.
So, as I suggested to a friend on Friday when we were having a discussion about this, how ‘bout we say, “I want a woman sure of herself, who doesn’t feel beholden to impress me in any way shape or form, and is concerned about how she lives her life in relationship to others and God.” If a man watches a VS runway show, and what he comes away with is an exhortation to women to be less “whorish” (again, simplification for effect), then I think he needs to take a step back and wonder why he feels the need to tell women how to act.
There are some things men just shouldn’t do, and telling me how to be as a woman is one of them.