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Why Women Like ‘Retro Sexism’


“Know what I’ve been pushed to? What I’m just about ready for? To be married. To be married and to get knocked up, and to say to the contractor, ‘Put the pool in over there.’”—Diana Rutherford, in Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson.”

You’ll see her perched at a banquette at the bar after work: the millennial college grad nursing that outdated American dream of marriage, kids, and the house with the lawn and the white picket fence… She’s nursing a stiff drink, too, because husband-hunting is hard work these days, not to mention frowned upon in college-educated career-girl circles. She toys with a stray curl and sucks listlessly at (how fitting) an Old Fashioned, or a gin martini (but only one) if she’s out with an older man and wants to seem sophisticated.

She may go full-blown retro and have her hair done in pin curls, or it may be modern, but her lips are likely stained a crimson shade—Bésame’s Red Velvet 1946 as seen in ABC’s “Agent Carter” is a good bet these days. She’s dressed in something fetching and feminine that she got from Etsy, eBay, or one of the dozens of “vintage inspired” or reproduction clothing companies that have gained popularity in the last decade (PinUp Girl, Tatyana Boutique, Stop Staring, Collectif, Trashy Diva, Bettie Page Clothing, Queen of Heartz, Heart of Haute, Voodoo Vixen, ReVamp Vintage…the list goes on.)

Of course she’s seen “Mad Men,” but she will tell you she’s been dressing this way since before January Jones ever graced our television screens in all her manicured and wave-set domestic beauty—that it comes naturally to her, along with her maternal instincts, her culinary prowess, and her 36”-25”-37” measurements (well, those may require a little assistance from an old-school waist cincher, corset, or longline bra.)

However she came by it, our girl’s mid-century aesthetic—not to mention her domestic aspirations—is giving Third-Wave feminists fits.

They call it “retro-sexism,” and they’ve added it to their catalogue of First World Feminist Woes, along with such horrors as the lack of “trigger warnings” before writer Christina Hoff Sommers delivered a speech titled “What’s Right (and Badly Wrong) With Feminism?” at Georgetown University in April; the character Natasha Romanoff in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” for wishing she could have children; the oppressive nature of George Lucas’s original “Star Wars” series for its exclusion of women and people of color; scientists who sport shirts with lingerie-clad babes and men who decorate their offices with “posters of greased-up women;” stay-at-home-moms who are “killing feminism” and enabling the war on women; the “tyranny” of home-cooked meals; Mark Zuckerberg, for wearing gray shirts; and other frivolous complaints of perceived sexism.

What Is Retro Sexism?

So what exactly is “retro-sexism,” aside from a hotword cooked up to give feminists more things to protest? In a 2010 video series for her website Feminist Frequency, media critic Anita Sarkeesian defined retro-sexism as “modern attitudes and behaviors that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way.”

Media critic Anita Sarkeesian defined retro-sexism as ‘modern attitudes and behaviors that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way.’

Professor of Cultural History Judith Williamson appears to have coined the term in 2003, in an Eye Magazine article exploring the phenomenon in the context of advertising. In the piece, titled “Sexism with an Alibi: Supposedly Ironic, Even Kitsch, Ads Still Keep Women in their Place,” Williamson wrote, “Retro-sexism as a social and stylistic phenomenon can be seen across all the media, from ads and fashion spreads to CD covers, where overtly sexist scenarios are couched in period setting and clothing, and/or presented with 60s/70s typography and graphics.”

What began as a critique of the revival of a 1960s-70s aesthetic in advertising has in more recent years evolved into a backlash against young women who sport vintage styles. The popular AMC 1960s period drama “Mad Men” has incited feminist wrath since it hit the airwaves in 2007. In a Ms. magazine piece from a few years ago, titled “Bringing Back Sexism with Style,” Anna Kelner lamented that “Mad Men itself might ascribe to the feminist agenda, but thanks to its pervasive impact on pop culture, the show is crafting a whole new generation of would-be Bettys (Draper’s stylish wife) not Peggys (the show’s ambitious ‘career girl’).” In Salon, Nelle Engoron piled on.

Not only did Kelner of Ms. fault glamorous Betty Draper for encouraging young women to entertain housewifery, but she also took offense at the inherent “oppressiveness” of 1960s chic, for its ability to signal the alleged “subservience” of the housewife: “The wives who tend to their Mad Men are allowed to grow up–but just barely. Stuck in the suburbs and squeezed into polyester garden party dresses, their emotions denied by their husbands and buried in their beehives, these women have to muffle their sovereignty. So when consumers reclaim the look of this past, they also emulate the ‘Classic’ woman-child it exulted–her signature style of repression and subservience.”

‘When consumers reclaim the look of this past, they also emulate the “Classic” woman-child it exulted–her signature style of repression and subservience.’

To wit: if you’re a young woman who raids the local Salvation Army or vintage boutique for the  polished, put-together looks you see on period dramas, or you dig the hippie vibes in your  parents’ college yearbooks and splurge on Megan Draper-y bohemian maxi dresses or 1970s suede hot pants in the designer vintage listings on Nasty Gal Vintage—which, “retro-sexist” or  not, happens to be one of the fastest-growing retailers in the country—well, prepare for some  searing feminist snark, because you’re committing the heretical crime of retro-sexism.

Perhaps more troubling, one sees the implication in such critiques that to opt out of the workforce to stay home and raise children, and particularly to do so while sporting stylish vintage threads and well-coifed hair, is an unthinkable fate for the modern college-educated American woman.

The Appeal of Pre-Feminist Apparel in the Postmodern Age

Interestingly, part of what feminists seem to find so objectionable about the pre-feminist look—and part of its allure for millennial women—is its inherent femininity. Clothing in the 1950s-60s era tended to be more fitted and tailored than contemporary clothing, more flattering to the female figure, accentuating women’s breasts, waistlines, and hips.

The quality and construction of garments from that period tend to be superior to those of modern day mass-produced clothing.

In the postmodern age of “everything is relative,” the argument that women in the postwar era had a superior fashion sensibility to their contemporary counterparts probably falls on deaf ears, but, matters of taste aside, it is a fact that the quality and construction of garments from that period tend to be superior to those of modern day mass-produced clothing. How many times have you bought a cheap T-shirt or pair of jeans manufactured in China that starts to fray within a matter of weeks?

Because most women were adept at sewing in the 1950s and 60s, they were able to tailor garments to better fit their individual body shapes, if not sew their own clothing entirely. Office- and evening-wear such as pencil skirts, sweaters, and “wiggle” dresses tended to be form-fitting, and even the iconic full-skirted day dresses that the word “housewife” conjures up were nipped in at the waist. Foundation garments such as girdles and waist-cinchers temporarily narrowed the waist, and brassieres emphasized women’s breasts, creating or amplifying an hourglass figure.

Perhaps not coincidentally, we associate this shape with fertility and childbearing. A study  psychologist Devendra Singh began more than 20 years ago determined that men find women most attractive when they have a waist size that is 60 to 70 percent of their hip size. Why? Women with an hourglass figure have more DHA (an omega-3 fat which makes up much of the human brain and is critical to the development of a baby’s growing brain) stored in their body fat. Women with this waist-hip ratio also tend to be smarter and to have smarter children. As mentioned in the study cited above, women with smaller waists also have greater childbearing potential, for a variety of reasons.

The studies’ findings may further explain part of the appeal of bygone fashions:

Even though [Playboy] Playmates are taller than average and have unusually small waists, their figures are not so different from those of young European women today—or young American women of 40 years ago. Back then, half of American women in their late teens had BMIs less than 20, and two in five had a waist-hip ratio of 70 percent or less. Unfortunately, today’s average American woman is 20 pounds heavier than in 1970. Only one young woman in six has a BMI less than 20, and only one in 20 has a waist-hip ratio less than 70 percent.

A greater number of American women in decades past had this “bombshell” figure (think Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell) with a teeny waist and curves—the type of figure most attractive to men, which nowadays we see mostly on Playboy Playmates. One wonders whether, although American women today are heavier on average, many of us respond to images of women with hourglass figures from the 1950-60s and associate the clothing of that era with those women’s waist-to-hip ratios—especially because the clothing accentuated women’s wasp waists and curves. Perhaps this accounts for an unconscious desire to emulate those women and their dress in a style reminiscent of that era—that is, among women today who wish to be attractive to men, and to marry and have families.

What if dressing like a pinup is less about looking ‘sexy’ than it is a subtle broadcast of a woman’s desire for procreation?

Philip Roth’s novel “The Anatomy Lesson” was published in 1983. Around that time, in 1986, the percentage of women aged 25 to 29 who had never been married was 26.9. Teenaged Diana’s dreams of marriage and pregnancy weren’t unattainable, statistically speaking. By contrast, in 2009, the percentage of unmarried women in the U.S. had climbed to 46.8 percent.

But the majority of millennial women want to be married one day, and to be mothers. Moreover, many women begin to experience biological urges to procreate in young adulthood. A 2011 study found that the “irrepressible, inexplicable urge to make a baby,” also known as “baby fever,” is “a bona fide physical and emotional phenomenon.” Although, according to the study, baby fever affects men as well as women, researchers also found that when asking 80 college students of varying ages “what they desired more — a baby or sex — women usually chose babies and men typically chose sex.” What if dressing like a pinup is less about looking “sexy” than it is a subtle broadcast of a woman’s desire for procreation?

If so, it likely proves doubly offensive to the man-hating, femininity-scorning, rabidly pro-choice contingent of feminism. Look no further than this Amanda Marcotte essay in which she delineates all the reasons she despises babies, or “time-sucking monsters,” as she calls them, and is repulsed by pregnancy. (She’s also likened pregnancy to a “broken leg,” with abortion being “the cast.”) It stands to reason that clothing which emphasizes and evokes femininity and fertility would disgust women with sentiments similar to Marcotte’s.

Fun-policing Feminists vs. Aspiring SAHMs

So if Joan Harris is your style icon, maybe it’s because you want to snag a husband and be a stay-at-home mom (SAHM). If so, have at it—you’ve got science on your side! Maybe, as our radical feminist friends would suggest, it’s because you didn’t take enough women’s studies courses in college to see that you’re propping up the patriarchy with your wardrobe. Or is it just convenient for third-wave feminists to pretend twenty-somethings are too dumb to know “classic woman-child repression” when they’re wearing it, rather than to confront the possibility that some young women consciously choose to adopt a pre-feminist look because they find it an aesthetically pleasing expression of their individuality?

What about the young woman who genuinely finds personal worth and fulfillment not in the cubicle or the corner office, but at home, keeping house and raising children?

Perhaps some of us even get a contrarian kick out of deliberately undermining the man-hating fun-policing that works itself into a tizzy over women who don’t toe the feminist line and screams “sexism” about everything.

Thanks to Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, the second-wave feminists who came after, and the contemporary cohort of shrilly protesting feminists, we all know that some women suffered great injustices and oppression back in the days of “Mad Men,” what with the stricter gender roles, socially acceptable sexism, constraints for women in the workplace, and the more limited opportunities available to women in general. But some women didn’t. Some women thrived in the role of homemaker.

Perhaps some young women today yearn for some of the elements of that era: for example, (especially for any girl who has had to navigate the aimless wasteland of college campus hookup culture), more structured courtship roles; higher marriage rates; the financial option to stay home with children when many households were able to rely on one spouse’s salary and benefits to support the entire family; the opportunity to pursue meaningful community and volunteer engagements rather than a career track; the prospect of having children at an earlier age without the pressures of simultaneously pursuing a career; and the freedom to pursue such domestic ambitions without fear of societal disapproval or stigmatization.

What about the young woman—like our languorous college grad-turned-career girl lolling around in bars, hoping to meet a man with whom she can build a life and a family—who genuinely finds personal worth and fulfillment not in the cubicle or the corner office, but at home, keeping house and raising children? The millennial counterpart to Philip Roth’s Diana, who at the age of 20 is chomping at the bit “to be married and get knocked up”? Do we imagine those are not the natural inclinations of many women? And why should it be wrong for a woman who fully embraces these inclinations to doll herself up in a fashion that evokes a time when the vocation of homemaking was common and widely accepted—merely because some women were historically unhappy in that role?

Perhaps some of us even get a contrarian kick out of deliberately undermining the man-hating fun-policing that screams ‘sexism’ about everything.

Of course, the idea that any young woman today might have traditional homemaking goals is anathema to the type of feminists who claim that “women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own” and that “real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.”

Even millennial feminists have trouble squaring the notion that women can enjoy being stay-at-home mothers: “Every time I hear someone say that feminism is about validating every choice a woman makes I have to fight back vomit,” writes Amy Glass at Thought Catalog, in a post titled “I Look Down on Young Women with Husbands and Kids and I’m Not Sorry.”

Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself? There’s no way those two things are the same…Having kids and getting married are considered life milestones. We have baby showers and wedding parties as if it’s a huge accomplishment and cause for celebration to be able to get knocked up or find someone to walk down the aisle with. These aren’t accomplishments, they are actually super easy tasks, literally anyone can do them. They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world. They are, by definition, average. And here’s the thing, why on earth are we settling for average? If women can do anything, why are we still content with applauding them for doing nothing?

In truth, plenty of single, childless women would like to be married and have children. A 2014 Huffington Post story, “The Truth About the Childless Life,” featured a series of women in their late thirties or early forties who were single and stricken about the possibility that they might never become mothers. For instance:

Joanna, a single 38-year-old attorney who left the partner track to move into the less demanding (and lower paying) role of legal marketing in order to attract men who did not find her profession competitive with theirs, is frustrated.

‘Here I am, almost 39, and I gave up so much potential in my career and frankly, in my income, just so that the men I dated no longer assumed that because I went to an Ivy League law school, I don’t want to be a mother. Now, not only am I heartbroken that I’m still single and not a mom, I regret taking a major step down in my career. People still call me a so-called ‘career woman’ as if I don’t have to work, and by taking myself off the partner track, I don’t even have a walk-in closet to show for it.’

The Huffington Post piece also noted “the CDC reports that of the 19% of women who remain childless between the ages of 40 and 44, half are childfree by choice. The remaining are unable to have children, by biology and by circumstance.”

Secondly, the popular conceit is that raising children is not “real work” because it doesn’t draw a paycheck, or that a woman who chooses to stay at home and take care of children is lazy or squandering her intellect. Yet what could be more essential, worthwhile, and fruitful than being responsible for your children’s moral, emotional, physical, and intellectual development? Further, the act of raising a child is crucial his or her emotional welfare, and also important for society at large. This is one of the reasons Jennifer Roback Morse, author of “Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work,” argues that relying completely on outside help (nannies, daycare) to raise one’s children is not in society’s best interest:

Parents spend a lot of time wiping noses and tying shoes. These things might seem to be menial chores that any idiot could do. But as a byproduct of doing these mundane things, the parents convey to the child that he matters to them. He comes to allow them to matter to him as well. The family is the natural and best institution for creating attachment and teaching cooperation.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with hiring some help. But you cannot completely delegate the innumerable tasks that go into raising any particular child…

Parents have a primary responsibility to take care of their children. Completely delegating the care of children to hired help is not exactly an act of force or fraud. It is, however, an extremely negligent act. A free society cannot long survive if large numbers of people choose to discharge their parental duties in this most perfunctory way.

Retro-Sexism as Protest

Our millennial retro-sexist on the hunt for a husband doesn’t let the Amy Glasses and the Ms. magazine feminists get her down. In fact, she’s seized with the troublemaking urge to flaunt her femininity just to wind them up, to gleefully truss herself up in as many trappings of the pre-feminist era as she can afford and loudly proclaim to anyone in earshot: forget the boardroom, she dreams of spending her time in the kitchen and on the playground. Her greatest ambition in life is to be somebody’s wife and a mother. She’s a contrarian, and she has weaponized her appearance to protest the barrage of anti-matrimony, anti-motherhood rhetoric that the grievance feminists churn out.

She has weaponized her appearance to protest the barrage of anti-matrimony, anti-motherhood rhetoric that the grievance feminists churn out.

Such “retro-sexism,” is not, as Engoron assumes, a superficial glorification of bygone sexism, nor as Saarkesian imagines, hipster irony. It’s ideological. It’s an aesthetic and elegant “fuck you” to the strictures of man-hating, housewife-scorning feminism. For the girl who has spent four years on a liberal arts campus suffering through women’s studies classes that stipulate what “feminism” looks like and tout the biological “slavery” of childbearing, à la Shulamith Firestone, our young student all the while knowing that she aspires to get married and be a mother, it’s both liberation and counter-revolution.

It’s also a healthy expression of individuality and sense of self. Not all women want the same things. Grievance feminists’ penchant for vilifying women who deviate from their orthodoxy seems ironically illiberal, particularly given their frequent calls for inclusivity, tolerance, and women’s autonomy. Rather than embrace a woman’s freedom to choose the lifestyle she personally finds most fulfilling, intersectional feminism is bent on curbing her individuality if it does not conform to the movement’s principles. No wonder young female celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lana Del Rey, among others, have all rejected the label of “feminist.”

The phenomenon brings to mind a passage from John Stuart Mill’s classic, “On Liberty”:

But the evil is, that individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking, as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account… The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they are now…cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgment, think would be best for mankind. (emphasis mine)

So while the radicals wring their hands over Betty Draper and Meghan Trainor, women wearing makeup, get married, and getting pregnant, the millennial retro-sexist dons her best 1960s raw silk cocktail dress, adjusts her garters, and mixes up another Manhattan for her man (she’s snagged a husband by now, natch), while he waits for her to finish cooking dinner.

She does this not because she’s a dull housewife consigned to a lifetime of drudgery, but because she enjoys keeping house, cooking, and taking care of their children. It doesn’t make her “lose her mind”—although her lipstick and old-school seamed stockings might make her husband lose his.