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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Pretty women can wear whatever

    High school. Dress code. North Dakota. “Pretty Woman”?

    A male teacher at Devils Lake High School recently led a dress-code assembly in which he showed the student population two clips from the film “Pretty Woman.” For those unfamiliar with the film, it depicts Julia Roberts as a prostitute who goes through what is essentially a “Cinderella” story and, through the love and guidance of a dashing Richard Gere, ends up, well, not a prostitute. The clips that the dress-code leader showed feature Roberts in a high-end Beverly Hills, Calif., boutique at two points in the movie: one when she is still dressing “like a prostitute” with a crop top, knee-high boots and a mini skirt, and one where she has assimilated to Beverly Hills culture and become more “refined.” And rich. Don’t forget rich.

    The teacher’s purpose in showing the clips, purportedly, was to illustrate how people will react differently to people based on what they’re wearing.

    Indeed, Roberts’ character is disrespected by the women who own the shop when she is dressed like a “tramp.” However, when she comes back in a nice, long dress with buttons and a floppy hat thing — it was the ‘80s, I don’t know — they wait on her hand and foot.

    But here’s what the teacher missed: “Pretty Woman” condemns the way the uppity women in the shop treated the protagonist. The whole point of the second scene is that people will treat you differently based on how you dress, but that doesn’t mean that they should. When she reenters the boutique, Roberts’ character says, “I was in here yesterday, you wouldn’t wait on me. You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

    The person underneath the clothing is still the same — and worthy of dignity.

    But besides the fact that the clips chosen were actually counterproductive to what the teacher hoped to show, there is a bigger issue at stake here. Telling a room full of high-school girls that if they dress like a prostitute people won’t respect them is just another example of shaming women’s bodies and putting the culpability of sexual violence on the victim.

    It proposes that the way to solve the problem of disrespect is not by educating the judgmental onlookers about the importance of seeing past appearance, but instead by changing one’s appearance in order to avoid judgments. But this is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong to believe that the way a woman dresses is at all related to or can somehow reveal to us her character, her sexual preferences or her dignity.

    Even in Tucson, just two weeks ago, a student population at University High School practiced civil disobedience with a “Bra Strap Thursday” protest after one of their classmates was reprimanded for her bra strap showing earlier that week — a violation of dress code. Come on.

    The UA’s Feminists Organized to Resist, Create and Empower, through the Women’s Resource Center, has sponsored a SlutWalk event every year since 2011 in an effort to increase discussion on women’s rights over their own sexuality no matter what they wear. The open forum it creates seeks to identify and solve issues like this one. Of the “Pretty Woman” incident and others, FORCE student director Marisa Calegari stated, “It’s not good, but unfortunately, it’s not surprising. This is just another example of victim blaming and body shaming in the public school sexual education system.”

    And in this non-surprise lies the problem. This problematic teaching is happening in a high school, when students are particularly susceptible to long-lasting “lessons” on their bodies, their dress or their sexual behaviors. Telling girls not to dress like prostitutes starts slut shaming practices at a young age. The age-old adage of “it’s distracting” is about as victim blame-y as it gets. Women should be empowered to own their bodies and to subvert the male gaze — not to submit to it and its misguided opinions about what’s proper to wear. A proper education system is not one that shames, but one that equips its students with factual knowledge. It’s time for a change.


    Paul Thomson is a senior studying BFA acting and Africana Studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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