United Airlines, Leggings, And Deciding What Matters

United Airlines caused an uproar when they barred two teen girls from getting on a United Airlines flight because they were wearing leggings. They were forced to change their clothes which caused them to have to take another flight. 

When the story broke, people were livid that United would sexualize and police the clothing of girls. It sparked a conversation about corporate over-reach, sexism, and misogyny. Rebekah Kuschimider wrote a great piece about it here

Then a funny — and by funny I mean really disturbing — thing started happening. People, including women who consider themselves feminists, started to push back using the argument that since the girls were flying on a friends and family (aka “buddy”) pass, and that comes with clothing restrictions, there was no problem here. United Airlines claims that those traveling on a buddy pass “are considered representatives of United” and thus it’s ok to subject them to a different dress code than other passengers. 

There are a lot of issues with this.

First, it’s ludicrous that an airline can control the dress of someone because they’ve got a gift certificate. Their reach in terms of telling people to wear something should be confined to employees who are on the clock. A friend of mine might work at Applebee’s and give me a friends and family gift certificate, but if the restaurant said that I had to wear a ball gown to eat while other patrons wore jeans, everyone would be clear that it was ridiculous. So is this.

These are teenage girls, so the idea that they should have to bear the responsibility for being representative of a major US airline is equally ridiculous. Especially since nobody knows who is traveling on a buddy pass and who isn’t — it’s not like these people are wearing a sign that says “Representative of United.”

That leads us to an even more serious issue: the frightening argument that many people are making by insisting that “it’s company policy” justifies anything that a company might want to do, so long as they call it “policy.” I would hope that people would realize that “It’s policy” has been used to enforce all manner of bigotry including racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and more. 

I think that matters. 

This is a terrible, pointless policy that made two teenage girls change their clothes and miss their flight, and that matters. I think the way the policy is being used to sexualize and police the clothing of girls for literally no discernible outcome (since they can’t be differentiated from other passengers) matters. I think that bowing to these kinds of ideas about authoritarianism got us a would-be despot for President and a Congress that is happy to kill people so that healthcare CEOs can make $100,001 a day instead of $100,000.

Not everyone agrees with me about this, and that’s ok. Where this goes wrong, though, is when women begin to police other women about their clothing choices. Let’s look at a comment from the Ravishly's Facebook thread on Rebekah's article:

This article gives feminism a bad name. This is common policy among airlines for employee/buddy air passes. Leggings not acceptable as pants, regardless of gender. Can we please concentrate on real issues and not give those who snub the feminist movement ammunition?

Here the commenter makes the argument that so long as a company creates a policy, it must be just. That’s crap, obviously. I don't care if the policy is published online, I don't care if the policy is delivered to each of our homes via carrier pigeon — it's a bullshit policy that polices the way people (and, in this enforcement, girls exclusively) dress. That is completely inappropriate and, to be quite frank, sexist in the way it polices a fabric worn primarily by women outside of sporting events.

Companies had policies that stated they could lock employees inside until people protested them. Schools create dress codes that make mistakes similar to United's friends and family policy, and they don’t change them until people speak up about it. Companies make unjust policies all the time, and they rarely change them — except by public pressure. 

Still, it’s ok if this commenter disagrees with me and doesn’t think that this is a problem. She is under no obligation to do any kind of activism whatsoever where this is concerned. What’s not ok is that she is trying to dictate to other women what we should care about — and it would be funny if it wasn’t so politically damaging that she's doing it in the name of feminism.

She’s jumped on the irony train and she’s riding it all the way to the station.

I don’t think activism against things that we find to be unjust gives feminism a bad name. Feminist women trying to dictate to other women what we should  and should not care about is infinitely more harmful. When feminists tell other feminists what is and is not sexist, what is and is not important, and what we should and should not care about, they become part of the problem — and I think that matters, too.

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