This blog post is a reaction to Zach’s post from earlier today, “Molloy’s (Sexist?) Style Guide.”

I was surprised by Zach’s post and have been thinking about it all morning. The reason I am surprised is that it is obvious to me that the author is a feminist and that she is indeed condemning the patriarchy in Molloy’s manual and also the silly moral of Working Girl, which trivializes the challenges that women in the workplace faced (and still do).

So then I began wondering, well, why isn’t it obvious to Zach? He obviously read the reading and with some care. He obviously picked up on its themes and read them the right way. So there is no question that he somehow missed the whole point of the article–he did not. So the mystery remains: how could someone read and understand this article but remain uncertain as to the author’s feminist commitments?

And then I think I figured it out.

I have spoken all semester about there being two different proposals for what the Overall Point of a critical analysis is: understanding versus evaluation.

  • Understanding, the position represented in the Barnard (shoe) book, seeks to offer critical interpretations that help us see how it is that a given cultural phenomenon “works,” that is, how it becomes meaningful, what its underlying machinations are that make such a meaning possible or even likely. The understanding approach is about exposing something that is otherwise hidden (e.g., the genealogy and/or mechanisms of a cultural phenomenon); such exposure opens up the possibility of intervention, but often (as in this case) the implications for intervention are not made explicit or pursued–they are left to subsequent work.
  • Evaluation, the position represented in the Carroll (Brillo box) book, seeks to offer critical interpretations that help us appreciate the value (personal, social, cultural, aesthetic, material, etc.) of an art work. Evaluation typically takes (or at least strongly implies) an advocacy position, for example, “this work should/should not be included in a canon (or taught to high school children, or be placed in a museum, or sold for a lot of money at auction, etc.).”

Note that more or less everyone agrees that we need both; the debate is simply over which of these two impulses is more fundamental.

What’s happening here is that Entwistle’s article is written in what we might call the “understanding” paradigm. The whole article seeks to investigate the coming together of several discourses all at once–right around 1980–and seek to understand why they all came together in this way at this time. She makes very few explicit value judgments, e.g., statements like “as a feminist, I argue that Molloy’s work is oppressive to women.” However, the themes that organize the essay, specifically, the general concepts of identity and discourse, the construction of the “female executive” as a discursive subject, distinct from existing working female subjectivities (“secretary,” “showroom girl,” “factory floor girl”) specifically as an outcome of social discourses about women and “appropriate” roles, behaviors, and appearances of women in society, signals this work as feminist. And as a feminist work, critical attitudes towards patriarchy, ideology, alienation, and so forth are implicitly assumed and do not need to be expressed explicitly.

Another aspect of the understanding versus evaluation divide is the nature of the work being critiqued. For Carroll, he is talking about art, and art is supposed to be valuable. And more specifically, he is talking about making aesthetic judgments about art, i.e., saying what is artistic about art. Given that sort of claim (“F is an artistic feature of Work W”), it is easy to see why evaluation is foregrounded: if a work has many good artistic features, then we should appreciate and treat it as such by putting it in museums, educational curricula, etc.

In contrast to this, Entwistle has no aesthetic agenda in this article. She is not saying that women’s power suits are more aesthetic or more artistic than other forms of work clothing. Rather, she is trying to understand why this form of clothing emerged when it did, why that clothing was called “power dressing,” and what sorts of social meanings and implications it had. This is understanding. That patriarchy and repressive ideologies are at play (both in dressing manuals and in movies like Working Woman which paint overoptimistic and hence trivializing pictures of this complex social problem) is, of course, blameworthy from the point of view of a feminist. But that sort of evaluative statement remains tacit, and more explicit understanding-oriented statements are very heavily emphasized and foregrounded.